Monthly Archives: November 2013

Theories of Generation

by Tim Harding

Does Darwin successfully combine the two explanatory paradigms of inheritance, and growth and development?  If he does, is this a problem for Kuhn’s view of scientific change?

In this essay, I intend to show how Darwin’s hypothesis of pangenesis created a synthesis between the then competing paradigms relating to inheritance and development.  I think that this synthesis does present a problem for Kuhn’s view of scientific change, and that Popper’s account may actually be more relevant than Kuhn’s to certain aspects of this particular case study.

Before discussing Darwin’s theories, it is necessary to briefly describe the two paradigms that attempted to explain inheritance (how characteristics are transferred to offspring from parents), and growth and development (how the growth of offspring is organised).  These two paradigms were characterised by competing Hippocratic theories and preformationist theories (Verdnik, 1998:126, 157).

Before the advent of genetics, Hippocratic theories attempted to explain inheritance in terms of a blending of fluids extracted from all parts of both male and female bodies during intercourse.  It was thought that the characteristics of the offspring are determined by the relative amounts and strength of fluids from each part of the body of each parent (Verdnik, 1998:126).

On the other hand, preformationist theories held that the new mammalian offspring is already preformed in miniature, either within the egg of its mother (ovist preformationism) or in the semen of its father (animalculist preformationism).  Both of these types of theories incorporated emboîtment (encasement), which was the thesis that God created all future organisms in miniature, and that reproduction was just the growth and development of these miniatures (Verdnik, 1998:128).

Hippocratic theories were very good at explaining inheritance but very bad at explaining growth and development; whilst preformationist theories were the opposite – very good at explaining growth and development but very bad at explaining inheritance (Verdnik, 1998:126).  To give some examples, Hippocratic theories were unable to adequately explain phenomena such as the regeneration of freshwater polyps as observed by Trembley (Trembley 1744: 148); while preformationist theories were unable to adequately explain how the mating of a mare with a donkey produces a mule (Maupertuis 1745: 172).

Darwin came to his hypothesis of pangenesis, from a different direction – to fill a gap left in his theory of evolution, as published in his 1859 book The Origin of Species (Darwin, 1859).  Natural selection provided a mechanism for variation and eventual speciation, but it did not explain the inheritance of variation.  Without some way to explain the inheritance of characteristics acted on by natural selection, his theory would be incomplete.  Darwin’s breeding experiments on domestic animals (mainly pigeons) in the 1850s and 60s[1] were part of his attempts to complete his evolution theory (Bartley, 1992: 308).  He was attempting in these experiments to show just how quickly varying characteristics can be amplified by domestic breeding, and therefore how natural selection can operate (Verdnik, 1998:156).


The Laws Of Inheritance & Pangenesis

Darwin called his explanation of inheritance ‘the hypothesis of Pangenesis’, which he published in Part II of Chapter XXVII of Variation Under Domestication (Darwin, 1875: 374-404).  However, he provides a more succinct description of this hypothesis in an earlier unpublished manuscript on pangenesis sent to Huxley in 1865:

‘Furthermore, I am led to believe from analogies immediately to be given that protoplasm or formative matter which is throughout the whole organisation, is generated by each different tissue and cell or aggregate of similar cells; – that as each tissue or cell becomes developed, a superabundant atom or gemmule as may be called of the formative matter is thrown off; – that these almost infinitely numerous and infinitely minute gemmules unite together in due proportion to form the true germ; – that they have the power of self-increase or propagation; and that they here run through the same course of development, as that which the true germ, of which they are to constitute elements, has to run through, before they can be developed into their parent tissues or cells. This may be called the hypothesis of Pangenesis’ (Olby 1963: 259).

Darwin further proposed that his hypothesis would not only account for inheritance, but also for development:

‘The development of each being, including all the forms of metamorphosis and metagenesis, as well as the so-called growth of the higher animals, in which structure changes, though not in a striking manner, depends on the presence of gemmules thrown off at each period of life, and on their development, at a corresponding period, in union with the preceding cells ‘ (Darwin, 1875: 403-404).

Through these mechanisms, Darwin proposed that inheritance and development were tied together – not only in the generation of offspring and early stages of embryonic life, but throughout the life of the organism (Bartley, 1992: 310).  By giving ‘gemmules’ the power to be modified throughout the life of an organism and then be transferred to the next generation, he argued that inheritance should be viewed as a form of growth (Bartley, 1992: 331).

By means of this single hypothesis, Darwin not only filled a gap in his theory of evolution, but whether he meant to or not, he created a synthesis between the then competing paradigms relating to inheritance and development.

The preceding discussion raises some significant philosophical issues.  How does it compare with Kuhn’s view of scientific change; and in particular, is Darwin’s paradigm synthesis a problem for the Kuhnian account?

According to Kuhn, ‘normal science’ operates within scientific paradigms[2] that not only determine which scientific theories are acceptable, but define scientific communities and even the areas of research undertaken (Kuhn, 1962: 10-11).

Kuhn says that in so far as he is engaged in normal science, the researcher is a solver of puzzles, not a tester of paradigms.

Paradigm-testing occurs only after persistent failure to solve a noteworthy puzzle has given rise to crisis.  And even then it occurs only after the sense of crisis has evoked an alternative candidate for a paradigm.  In the sciences, the testing situation never consists, as puzzle-solving does, simply in the comparison of a single paradigm with nature.  Instead, testing occurs as part of the competition between two rival paradigms for the allegiance of the scientific community (Kuhn, 1962: 144-145).

Kuhn notes that the schools guided by different paradigms are ‘always slightly at cross-purposes’ and that they ‘fail to make complete contact with each other’s viewpoints’, a phenomenon which describes as ‘incommensurability’ (Kuhn, 1962: 112, 148-150).  The failure of the adherents of Hippocratic and preformationist theories to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of both paradigms, and to engage in the testing of both paradigms, tends to support Kuhn’s notion of incommensurability.  No crisis occurred within each paradigm, because their adherents failed to focus on how well each paradigm explained both inheritance and development.

The formulation of Darwin’s hypothesis does not accord with the Kuhnian account.  He did not conduct his breeding experiments on domestic animals to test either the Hippocratic or the preformationist paradigms, but to fill a gap in his quite separate theory of evolution.  Similarly, his synthesis between the then competing paradigms relating to inheritance and development, was not done to resolve any crisis in these paradigms, but for a separate purpose.  A further problem for the Kuhnian account is that the scientific method Darwin used to formulate his hypothesis was essentially inductive, although this may also be a problem for the Popperian account.

Another aspect of the Kuhnian account is that the failure of experimental results to conform to the prevailing paradigm is seen as an ‘anomaly’, rather than as an instance of Popperian falsification.[3]  If scientists are confronted by anomalies, they will often devise ad hoc modifications in order to eliminate any apparent conflict.  Anomalies do not cause the abandonment of paradigm or theory unless and until the level of anomalies builds to a crisis where the prevailing paradigm or theory is replaced by a new one (Kuhn, 1962: 77-78).

After reading Variation Under Domestication, Francis Galton (a cousin of Darwin’s) arranged for a series of experiments to be conducted on rabbits initially housed in the Zoological Gardens of London and later at his Kensington home.  His intention was to demonstrate the transmission of ‘gemmules’ to succeeding generations via blood injected from one rabbit to another, using coat colour as a marker.  Galton ultimately found that not a single instance of induced variation of coat colour occurred in a total of 88 offspring from blood transfused parents, and in 1871 published his results in Nature (Brown, 2002: 290-291).  Although intended to verify Darwin’s hypothesis, it seems that Galton’s experiments provided a Popperian falsification instance.  Whether the purpose was verification or falsification, Galton’s experiments do not accord with Kuhn’s account of paradigm-testing discussed above.

In later editions of Variation Under Domestication, Darwin admitted in a footnote that he would have expected to find ‘gemmules’ in the blood, although their presence was not absolutely necessary to his hypothesis (Brown, 2002: 292).  I find Darwin’s response unconvincing, as he provides no alternative explanation as to how the ‘gemmules’ are transmitted from the parents’ somatic cells to the germ cells.  He made no real attempt to modify his hypothesis in response to Galton’s falsification of it.

I therefore conclude that whilst the Hippocratic and preformationist paradigms accord with Kuhn’s notion of incommensurability, Darwin’s synthesis of these two paradigms does not accord with the Kuhnian account of science.  Furthermore, Darwin’s failure to make an ad hoc modification to his hypothesis after the discovery by Galton of an anomaly, as would be expected under the Kuhnian account, supports a Popperian rather than a Kuhnian account of the scientific process in this case.


Bartley, M.M. (1992) Darwin and Domestication: Studies on Inheritance. Journal of the History of Biology, Vol 25, No. 2 pp.307-333.

Browne, J. (2002) Charles Darwin – The Power of Place, Volume II of a Biography. London: Pimlico.

Darwin, C. (1859) The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection, Or The Preservation Of Favoured Races In The Struggle For Life. 6th ed. 1873. London: John Murray.

Darwin, C. (1875) The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Vol II London: John Murray.

Kuhn, T.S. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maupertuis, P. (1745) The Earthly Venus in Verdnik, D. (ed.) (1998) Thinking about Science. Study Guide and Readings. Churchill: Monash Distance Education Centre.

Olby, R.C. (1963) Charles Darwin’s Manuscript of Pangenesis, British Journal for Philosophy of Science 1: 251-263.

Popper, K. (1959) The Logic of Scientific Discovery. rev. ed. 1968, in Verdnik, D. (ed.) (1998) Thinking about Science. Study Guide and Readings. Churchill: Monash Distance Education Centre.

Trembley, A. (1744) Memoires pour server a l’histoire d’un genre de polypes d’eau douce in Verdnik, D. (ed.) (1998) Thinking about Science. Study Guide and Readings. Churchill: Monash Distance Education Centre.

Verdnik, D. (ed.) (1998) Thinking about Science. Study Guide and Readings. Churchill: Monash Distance Education Centre.


[1] Darwin reported the results of these experiments in both The Origin Of Species and The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication.

[2] Kuhn does not provide a concise definition of a scientific paradigm, but the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary defines it as ‘a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated; broadly: a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind.’

[3] Popper proposes falsifiability as the criterion of demarcation between scientific and non-scientific statements.  In other words, a theory is scientific if it is falsifiable (Verdnik, 1998:76).

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Egyptian Kingship in the Middle Kingdom

by Tim Harding

Divine kingship was the most striking feature of both the Middle and the Old Kingdoms (Trigger et al 1983, 71).  The king was thought to have a dual nature, both human and divine and was “a human in the role of a god” (Schneider 1984, 165).

The Egyptians also believed that the world was torn between potential chaos and order.  They thought that disorder is contained by the rule of kings.  In this way, their view of the nature of the world aligned with the structure of political power (Scarre 2008, 118).  In particular, the Middle Kingdom emphasised the indispensability of kingship for the well-being of the state and society (Schneider 1984, 170).

The Middle Kingdom lasted from 2040 to 1650 BCE and has been described as the classic period of Egyptian civilisation, marking a high point in the development of poetry and literature (Scarre 2008, 131-132, 145).  This literature provides information about both the religious and political dimensions of Egyptian kingship; and the relationship between these dimensions.

The king had obligations not only to humans but to the gods as well, including appeasing the gods with divine offerings and acting as a mediator between the gods (Schneider 1984, 169).  Indeed, there was a belief that religious piety and successful rule go together (Trigger et al 1983, 75).  For example, in the ‘Building Inscription of Sesostris I’ the King says:

He (Harakhty)[1] begat me to do what should be done for him,
to accomplish what he commands to do.
He appointed me shepherd of this land,
knowing him who would herd it for him…
He destined me to rule the people,
made me to be before mankind…
I excel by acting for my maker,
pleasing the god with what he gave (Lichtheim 1975, 116-117).

This text also illustrates the importance of the king’s role building enduring monuments, including temples and palaces as well as his own burial site (Schneider 1984, 170; Montet 1964, 46).

‘The Prophecies of Neferti’ (Lichtheim 1975, 139-145) describe the necessity of having a strong king to ensure Maat.[2]  This is done through a literary device[3] in which a picture of anarchy and chaos is depicted, together with calamities of nature including crop failures (Trigger et al 1983, 75).  Then along comes a king (probably Amenemhat I) who reunites the country, drive out foreigners, defend the borders and restores order (Lichtheim 1975, 143-144).

The importance of the king to the protection and unity of the Egyptian nation is also shown in the text entitled ‘A Cycle Of Hymns to King Sesostris III’:

Hail to you, Khakaure, our Horus, Divine of Form!
Land’s protector who widens its borders,
Who smites foreign countries with his crown.
Who holds the Two Lands in his arms’ embrace,
[Who subdues foreign] lands by a motion of his hands (Lichtheim 1975, 198).

The King claims to be the conqueror and owner of the land of all Egypt:

[Mine is the land], its length and breadth,
I was nursed to be a conqueror.
Mine is the land, I am its lord,
my power reaches heaven’s height (Lichtheim 1975, 117).

In other words, the king was the sole owner of the land and all that it produces.  These royal privileges not only gave him an economic monopoly within Egypt, but also the right to do as he pleases with the spoils of military campaigns including the mineral resources of foreign dominions such as the Sinai and Nubia (Schneider 1984, 168).

Notwithstanding the absolute power of the king, one king named Merikare was advised by his father to display justice and mercy in the exercise of his power:

Do not be evil, for patience is good; …Do justice, that you may live long upon the earth. Calm the weeper, do not oppress the widow, do not oust a man from his father’s property, do not degrade magnates from their seats. Beware of punishing wrongly;…(Simpson 1973).[4]

‘The Story of Sinuhe’ (Lichtheim 1975, 223-235) also tells how the kings of Egypt could combine simplicity with grandeur, and sternness with clemency (Montet 1964, 61).  While he was serving with prince Senwosret I in Libya, Sinuhe deserted and fled to Canaan because he overheard a secret about the death of the Egyptian king Amenemhet I.  He remained in exile until he was an old man, when he received an invitation from King Senwosret I to return to Egypt where he was graciously pardoned and provided with the honour of a house and burial tomb.

Merikare was advised to cultivate a powerful elite or entourage to assist in him in the application of his laws (Montet 1964, 35).  The development of a closely regimented and centralised society was later needed for the expansion of agricultural production into new areas such as the Fayyum Oasis near Memphis.  Papyri found during Petrie’s excavations of this area reveal the existence of a mayor, legal offices and a prison (Scarre 2008, 131-132).

However, not all of our knowledge about Egyptian kingship is derived from literary texts.  For example, the frequently depicted images of the king ‘smiting the foes’ and hunting wild animals are key components of the royal propaganda portraying the king as the defender and extender of the nation’s borders against the chaotic external world (Schneider 1984, 168).  These images complement texts such as where King Amenemhet I boasts of subduing lions and capturing crocodiles, together with defeating and humiliating foreigners (Lichtheim 1975, 137).  Other sources of information about the kingship in the Middle Kingdom include the various monuments the kings constructed (Schneider 1984, 170); and objects bearing their inscriptions in foreign places of trading importance such as the Sinai, the Levant, Syria and the Aegean (Scarre 2008, 131).

In conclusion, the literature of the Middle Kingdom provides fragmented glimpses of the behaviours of certain kings – it does not provide a complete overview of kingship as might be expected in a historical narrative like that of Plutarch or Quintus-Curtuis (Montet 1964, 62; Trigger et al 1983, 73).  Furthermore, these glimpses are presented in the form of concisely worded and sometimes cryptic assertions requiring interpretation, rather than as cogently argued treatises (Trigger et al 1983, 71).  Nevertheless, the literature provides us with some important pieces of the ‘jigsaw’ of archaeological evidence; and when read in the context of the other sources of evidence, a coherent picture of Egyptian kingship is emerging.


Ancient Sources

‘A Cycle Of Hymns to King Sesostris’ in Lichtheim, M., 1975 Ancient Egyptian Literature; a book of readings, Vol 1: the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Berkeley.

‘Building Inscription of Sesostris I’ in Lichtheim, M., 1975 Ancient Egyptian Literature; a book of readings, Vol 1: the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Berkeley.

‘Instruction Addressed to King Merikare’ in Simpson, W.K (ed.), 1973, The Literature of Ancient Egypt, New Haven and London, pp. 180-192.

‘Instruction of King Amenemhet I for his Son Sesostris I’ in Lichtheim, M., 1975 Ancient Egyptian Literature; a book of readings, Vol 1: the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Berkeley.

‘The Story of Sinuhe’ in Lichtheim, M., 1975 Ancient Egyptian Literature; a book of readings, Vol 1: the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Berkeley.

Modern Sources

Anon. (2010)  AAH1010 Ancient Civilisations 1: The Bronze Age. Unit Guide, Semester 1, 2010. Monash University School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Clayton.

Montet, P. (1964 )  Eternal Egypt Phoenix Press, London.

Scarre, C and Fagan, B.M. (2008)  Ancient Civilisations, (third edition). Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River

Schneider, T. (1984)  Sacred Kingship in Anon. (2010) AAH1010 Ancient Civilisations 1: The Bronze Age. Unit Guide, Semester 1, 2010. Monash University School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Clayton, 165-171.

Trigger, B.G., Kemp, B.J, O’Connor, D and Lloyd, A.B. (1983 ) Ancient Egypt- A Social History Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[1] As Harakhty (Horakhty), or ‘Horus of the two horizons’, Horus was the god of the rising and setting sun.

[2] Maat was the fundamental concept of the Egyptian world view, signifying the correct structure of life and the world (Schneider 1984, 166).

[3] The ‘prophesies’ were actually written during the king’s reign to glorify the king (Lichtheim 1975, 139).

[4] Translated from the Leningrad Papyrus, written by a scribe called Khamwese during the Middle Kingdom (Simpson 1973)

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The Gambler’s Fallacy

by Tim Harding

The nature of the fallacy

The Gambler’s Fallacy, also known as the Monte Carlo Fallacy or the Fallacy of the Maturity of Chances, is the mistaken belief that if something happens more frequently than normal during some period, then it will happen less frequently in the future (presumably as a means of balancing nature).  This belief is also sometimes referred to as the so-called ‘Law of Averages’.

Although appealing to the human mind, this belief is false.  The fallacy can arise in many practical situations although it is most strongly associated with gambling where such errors of reasoning are common amongst players, and even more common amongst ‘problem gamblers’ (see below).

The use of the term Monte Carlo Fallacy originates from the most notorious example of this phenomenon, which occurred in a Monte Carlo Casino in on August 18, 1913.[1]  On this occasion, black came up a record twenty-six times in succession on a roulette wheel.  There was a frenzied rush to bet on red, beginning about the time black had come up a phenomenal fifteen times.  In an application of the Gambler’s Fallacy, players doubled and tripled their stakes, the fallacy leading them to believe after black came up the twentieth time that there was not a chance in a million of another repeat.  In the end, the unusual run enriched the Casino by some millions of francs.[2]


The reality is that if the roulette wheel at the Casino was fair, then the probability of the ball landing on black was a little less than one-half on any given turn of the wheel.  Also, the colours that come up are statistically independent of one another, thus no matter how many times the ball has fallen on black, the probability is still the same at every turn of the wheel.  (Remember that neither a roulette wheel nor the ball has a memory).

Almost every so-called gambling ‘system’ is based on this fallacy, or a similar error of reasoning. Any gambler who thinks that he can record the results of a roulette wheel, or lotto numbers or a gaming machine, and use this information to predict future outcomes is probably committing some form of the gambler’s fallacy. An exception is counting the cards in successive deals from an unshuffled card deck. Many casinos now counteract card counting by reshuffling the cards before each deal. Part of the reason for the prevalence of this fallacy could be derived from this former system of card counting.

Problem gambling

Many psychologists treating problem gamblers have identified false perceptions and beliefs as major contributors to problem gambling.  Erroneous beliefs also lead to uninformed decision-making by a significant number of other players.[3]  A survey of gambling attitudes among 1017 Australian young people in 1998 found that such erroneous beliefs include:

  •  the chances of winning are significantly higher than they actually are;
  •  a player’s skill or adopting ‘the right system’ can influence the outcome of a game that is purely a game of chance;
  •  a player will eventually ‘strike it lucky’;
  •  a player is more likely to win with ‘lucky numbers’, by ‘thinking positively’ or by ‘concentrating hard enough’.[4]

According to the Productivity Commission Inquiry Report, one of the most widespread misconceptions is that gaming machine payouts are dependent upon previous outcomes from the same machine (as evidenced by the frequent ‘chasing of losses’).  To counter this common misconception, the Commission quotes the following facts about gaming machines:

  •  The payout tables on gaming machines indicate the winnings that are associated with certain combinations.  They do not tell the player the probability of the combination occurring.
  •  In most jurisdictions, operators must return at least 85 per cent of turnover to players as winnings. It will usually take hundreds of thousands of games for a machine to come close to this average ‘set’ return.
  •  Each game played on a machine is independent of results from past games —machines which have not paid out for some time have no higher chance of paying out now or in the near future (and vice versa).
  •  Actual outcomes on machines are extremely volatile, with player returns and the amount of time that it takes to lose a set amount of money varying between sessions.
  •  If a gambler ‘reinvests’ the winnings, he or she will eventually lose the lot.[5]

In this way, problem gambling is a severe manifestation of preference failure, with potentially dire consequences.  Harm to problem gamblers and their families can range from excessive time-wasting and financial losses, to loss of employment and family breakdown, to bankruptcy or criminal behaviour, clinical depression and even suicide.[6]


[1] Lehrer, Jonah (2009).How We Decide. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p.66.

[2] Darrell Huff & Irving Geis (1959) How to Take a Chance, pp. 28-29.

[3] Productivity Commission (1999) Australia’s Gambling Industries Report No. 10, AusInfo, Canberra, p.41.

[4] Moore, S.M. and Ohtsuka, K. (1999) ‘Beliefs About Control Over Gambling Among Young People, and Their Relation to Problem Gambling’. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, December 1999, Volume 113, Number 4 APA Journals, Washington. D.C.

[5] Productivity Commission (1999) Australia’s Gambling Industries Report No. 10, AusInfo, Canberra, p.42.

[6] Tim Harding & Associates (2005)  Gambling Regulation Regulations 2005 – Regulatory Impact Statement. Department of Justice, Melbourne.

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Ancient Athens, the Delian League and Corruption

by Tim Harding

After the final defeat of the Persians in the mid-fifth century BCE, the Delian League was gradually transformed into an Athenian empire.  The transformation was accompanied by an accumulation of power over other city states by Athens; associated with certain claims of political corruption.  This essay describes the transformation process, how Athenians justified it, and how they responded to the claims of corruption.  It also examines the claims in terms of the different ancient and modern perspectives of corruption.

Formation of the Delian League

A coalition of Greek city states defeated the Persians at Salamis in 480BCE and at Plataea in 479 BCE, led by Athens and Sparta respectively (Martin 2000, 104).  Following these victories, there was a brief attempt to continue a broad coalition, including both Athens and Sparta, as a naval operation to drive out Persian outposts in far northern Greece and Ionia.  However, there was strong criticism of the arrogant behaviour of the Spartan commander, Pausanias, and in 477 BCE he was replaced by an Athenian commander, Aristides (Martin 2000, 106; Roberts 2005, 207; Hornblower 2002, 10).  According to Thucydides, the Spartans wanted to be rid of the war against the Persians, and they were satisfied of the competency and friendship of the Athenians (Thucydides 1.96).

Thucydides then describes how Athens formed a new anti-Persian alliance (known as the ‘Delian League’ in modern descriptions):

“The Athenians having thus succeeded to the supremacy by the voluntary act of the allies through their hatred of Pausanias, determined which cities were to contribute money against the barbarian, and which ships;…Now was the time that the office of ‘Treasurers for Hellas’ was first instituted by the Athenians. These officers received the tribute, as the money contributed was called. The tribute was first fixed at four hundred and sixty talents. The common treasury was at Delos, and the congresses were held in the temple.”

The Aegean island of Delos was chosen because it was an ancient religious meeting place, it was centrally located, easy to defend and too small to pose a threat in itself (Bowra 1971, 26).  The member states of the Delian League were predominately those most exposed to Persian attack, located in northern Greece, Ionia and the islands of the Aegean Sea (Martin 2000, 106; Hammond 1967, 256; Bury 1963, 328; Waterfield 2004, 89).  They swore a solemn oath never to desert the alliance (Martin 2000, 106); and to have the same friends and enemies (Aristotle 23, 4-5).  However, League policy was executed by an Athenian high command that also controlled the Treasury, thus concentrating power in Athenian hands from the outset (Pomeroy et al 1999, 205).

View of Delos today

View of Delos today

Transformation to Athenian Empire

There was a gradual process of transformation from a voluntary mutual defence pact into an Athenian empire.  Although each member state in theory had only one vote, in practice Athens exerted the major influence in the League (Roberts 2005, 207-208; Hammond 1967, 257).  An Athenian general commanded every military expedition (Roberts 1998, 88).  Over time, more and more member states contributed money rather than warships.  Athens had superior shipyards and skilled workers to build triremes in large numbers, as well as a large population of thetes willing to serve as rowers.  However, this also meant that rebellious member states such as Thasos, Naxos and Mytilene were unable to defend themselves against naval attack by Athens (Martin 2000, 107).  There is no evidence that Athens consulted other members of the League in suppressing rebellions (Waterfield 2004; 90).

The Battle of Eurymedon in either 469 or 466 BCE was an important final victory for the Delian League over the Persians; and which left Athens free to build its empire (Bury 1963, 338; Bury and Meiggs 1975, 210; Finley 1981, 43).  To keep Athens’ other enemies out of the field during the dangerous process of establishing the empire, cleruchies (external Athenian colonies) were established (Hammond 1967, 306; Lendering undated).

In 454 BCE the League’s treasury was relocated from Delos to Athens.  Ostensibly, this was for security from Persians and pirates; but Delos was probably at no more at risk than previously. This event marks a turning point at which many historians stop referring to the Delian League (Pomeroy et al 1999, 214).  Athenians themselves began using the phrase ‘the cities which the Athenians rule’ in their inscriptions (Hornblower 2002, 17).  After the Kallias Peace Treaty with Persia in 450 BCE, the removal of the original justification for the League completed this transformation process (Roberts 2005, 208).  Yet the allied tributes continued to be ruthlessly extorted by Athenian warships (Wartenberg 1995, 19; de Bois and van der Spek 2008, 93).  Athens was also motivated by the necessity of securing a reliable source of grain from the Black Sea area (Waterfield 2004, 92).  The Athenian Empire at this stage included most of the islands of the Aegean (except for Crete, Melos and Thera), plus of the cities on or near the coast of mainland Greece (Bury and Meiggs 1975, 211).  The League’s territory had become Athenian territory.  Athenian colonies had become military bases (de Blois and van der Spek 2008, 93).


Between 450 and 447, Athens made the use of Athenian silver coins and weights mandatory (Meiggs and Lewis 1969, 45; Bury 1963, 366) which further infringed the autonomy of the allies (Hammond 1967, 306).  The single currency made commercial transaction easier, especially for Athens, and reinforced perceptions of Athenian dominance over a uniform culture (Wartenberg 1995, 27; Waterfield 2004, 93).  Athenians may also have hoped make money from fees charged for reminting non-Athenian coins (Wartenberg 1995, 27).  Athens also controlled shipments of corn, ostensibly to prevent it from being supplied to the Peloponnese (Finley 1981, 57; Hornblower 2002, 16).  Trials involving an Athenian had to be held in Athens (Lendering undated); and foreign defendants in law cases were obliged to come to Athens (Hornblower 2002, 16).  These assertions of Athenian power over her allies, coupled with her interference in their affairs, constitute clear evidence of her imperialism (French 1971, 99); although imperialism does not in itself constitute corruption, as will be discussed later.   

In the winter of 446-445, the Athenian leader Perikles engineered the ‘Thirty Years Peace’ treaty with Sparta, which although it lasted only until 432, did bring peace between Athens and Sparta, and preserved Athenian dominance of its empire (Martin 2000, 115).  Meetings of the Delian League ceased around 435, by which time they had become nonsensical (Waterfield 2004, 92).

Athenian justification for empire

The whole idea of domination and empire ran counter to the ingrained Greek ideals of autonomy and self-sufficiency; and also to the Olympic ideal of the equality of city states (Waterfield 2004, 90).  Athenian domination aroused great resentment in other Greek city states, including Sparta (Lendering undated).

On the other hand, the Athenian Empire did bring benefits to some of the poorer states.  There was security from further Persian attack; and piracy was suppressed to the great advantage of trade (Hornblower 2002, 17). The Ionians recognised Athens as their metropolis or colonial mother-city (Hornblower 2002, 13).  The Athenian navy provided well-paid employment opportunities to the islander population (Roberts 2005, 208).  The cessation of war against Persia would otherwise have confronted Athens with a considerable problem of unemployment (Burn 1948, 98).

Expenditure was incurred by Athens as head of the empire in building and maintaining ships and fortifications, paying military wages and supporting war-orphans.  During peacetime, there was a large excess of imperial income over expenditure, but in wartime the balance was reversed (Hammond 1967, 326).  There were also efficiency gains from economies of scale: the maintenance of a permanent navy would have been too costly for Athens alone (Roberts 1998, 95); and Athens demanded less money that the city states would have spent on their own defence (Lendering undated).

The presence in Athens of large numbers of slaves was a constant reminder that only Athenian naval and military power stood between its citizens and a similar fate.  The chasm between slave-owners and slaves was so wide as to explain the attitudes of Athenians towards their subject allies (Roberts 1998, 39).  Athenians maximised their own freedom by restricting the freedom of other Greeks (Roberts 1998, 85).

In his Last Speech (Thucydides 2.63.1), Perikles warned Athenians against giving up its empire:

“Again, your country has a right to your services in sustaining the glories of her position. These are a common source of pride to you all, and you cannot decline the burdens of empire and still expect to share its honours. You should remember that what you are fighting against is not mere slavery as an exchange for independence, but also the loss of empire and danger from the animosities incurred in its exercise.”

In Greek thought, power was one of the prime sources of glory (Roberts 1998, 85).  According to Thucydides, (Thucydides 2.64.3) Perikles said:

“…even if now, in obedience to the general law of decay, we should ever be forced to yield, still it will be remembered that we held rule over more Hellenes than any other Hellenic state, that we sustained the greatest wars against their united or separate powers, and inhabited a city unrivalled by any other in resources or magnitude.”


Lord Acton’s famous quotation ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ (Dalberg-Acton 1907) is obviously referring to political corruption.  Most modern definitions of political corruption tend to emphasise the subversion of the public good by private interest (Bratsis 2003, 8-9).  Imperialism in itself is generally seen as an act of state rather than as political corruption.  We also need to consider the temporal context: that which may be considered corruption today may not have been regarded as corruption in ancient times.

The initial financial arrangements of the Delian League were equitably worked out by Aristedes and incorporated in a formal agreement to avoid disputes later (French 1971, 79).  There was also a general move towards financial accountability in Athenian affairs by better record keeping (Thomas 1994, 48-49).

During wartime, allied tributes were primarily spent on shipbuilding and other military purposes (Hammond 1967, 326).  However, during the peacetime surpluses of League revenue over expenditure, Athens tended to use allied tributes for its own purposes.  Perikles built popular support for this by practical measures such the rebuilding of the Akropolis, the improvement of state festivals, the payment of trireme crews for eight months of the year, the establishment of cleruchies and colonies (Hammond 1967, 312) and the payment of jurors (Aristotle, 27).

From a reading of the literature related to the fifth century Athenian empire, there appear to be two main claims of possible corruption:

  1. the use of League tributes funds for solely Athenian purposes, for example the rebuilding of the Akropolis; and
  2. the acquisition of confiscated land and property by private Athenian citizens.

Neither of these activities would be possible without the power accumulated by Athens in converting the Delian League into its own empire.  So there is an implied connection here between power and corruption.  I will now examine these two claims of corruption in more detail.

Firstly, the conservative aristocratic politician Thucydides, son of Melesias (not Thucydides the historian) censured the transfer of the allied treasury to Athens and the use of the money to extravagantly adorn the city of Athens (Hammond 1967, 312).  According to Plutarch, the people in the assemblies cried out:

“The people has lost its fair fame and is in ill repute because it has removed the public moneys of the Hellenes from Delos into its own keeping, and that seemliest of all excuses which it had to urge against its accusers, to wit, that out of fear of the Barbarians it took the public funds from that sacred isle and was now guarding them in a stronghold, of this Pericles has robbed it. And surely Hellas is insulted with a dire insult and manifestly subjected to tyranny when she sees that, with her own enforced contributions the war, we are gilding and bedizening our city, which, for all the world like a wanton woman, adds to her wardrobe precious stones and costly statues and temples worth their millions.”

Although the tribute money was used for public rather than private purposes, such trenchant criticism can be interpreted as implying a form of corruption, in the sense of misuse of the money for purposes other than originally intended.

According to Plutarch, Perikles responded to this criticism by proposing to reimburse the city for all the expenses from his private property, under the term that he would make the inscriptions of dedication in his own name (Plutarch 14).  Perikles also defended the use of the tribute money by Athens (Plutarch 12.3) as a ‘fee for service’:

“For his part, Pericles would instruct the people that it owed no account of their moneys to the allies provided it carried on the war for them and kept off the Barbarians; ‘not a horse do they furnish,’ said he, ‘not a ship, not a hoplite, but money simply; and this belongs, not to those who give it, but to those who take it, if only they furnish that for which they take it in pay. And it is but meet that the city, when once she is sufficiently equipped with all that is necessary for prosecuting the war, should apply her abundance to such works as, by their completion, will bring her everlasting glory…”

So according to the standards of the time, it was debateable whether Athenian use of allied tribute funds constituted corruption.  There were arguments for and against, as illustrated by those of Thucydides, son of Melesias, and Perikles.  But in modern times, if for example Belgium started using NATO contributions for public buildings in Brussels, that would almost certainly be viewed as corruption.

Secondly, land and property confiscated after the defeat of rebel states were often allocated to landless Athenian citizens as colonists in the defeated territory.  Finley estimates that around 10,000 Athenian citizens may have benefited from this practice (Finley 1981, 51).  Finley appears to regard these private allocations of property as a form of corruption (Finley 1981, 53).  Whilst this would probably be regarded as corruption in modern times, it is doubtful whether it would have been regarded as corruption in ancient times, given the common practice after a battle victory against a city of killing the men, consigning the women and children to slavery and confiscating land and property.  These would have been viewed as legitimate acts of the victor rather than as corruption.

In conclusion, although the use of allied funds and confiscated property for Athenian purposes may be viewed as corruption by modern day standards, it was not necessarily seen as corruption by the standards of the time.


Ancient Sources

Aristotle, Constitution of Athens, trans. F.G. Kenyon. R.W.J. Clayton (ed.) Athenian Politics, 1973 London Association of Classical Teachers: The Classical Association, London. Available-: Accessed 24 May 2012

Plutarch, The Life of Pericles in The Parallel Lives by Plutarch published in Vol. III of the Loeb Classical Library edition,1916. Available-:*.html Accessed 24 May 2012

Thucydides, A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, R.B. Strassler (ed), The Landmark Thucydides, Free Press, New York, 1996.

Modern Sources

Bowra, C.M., 1971    Periclean Athens, The Dial Press, New York.

Bratsis, P., 2003    Corrupt Compared to What? Greece, Capitalist Interests, and the Specular Purity of the State Discussion Paper No. 8, The Hellenic Observatory/The European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science

Burn, A.R., 1948    Pericles and Athens The English Universities Press Ltd, London.

Bury, J.B., 1963    A History of Greece, Macmillan, London and New York.

Bury, J.B., and Meiggs, R., 1975    A History of Greece 4thedition, Macmillan, London and New York.

Dalberg-Acton, J.E.E. (Lord Acton)., 1907    Appendix, in J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence eds, Historical Essays and Studies, Macmillan, London. Available-: accessed 23 May 2012.

de Blois, L. and van der Spek, R.J., 2008    An Introduction to the Ancient World (2nd edition) Routledge, London and New York.

French, A., 1971    The Athenian Half-Century 478-431 BC Thucydides i 89-118 Translation and Commentary, Sydney University Press, Sydney.

Finley, M.I., 1953    Economy and Society in Ancient Greece, Chatto & Windus, London.

Hammond, N.G.L., 1967    A History of Greece (2nd edition), Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hornblower, S., 2002    Chapter 2, The beginnings of the Delian League , in The Greek World 479-323, 9-17.

Lendering, J., Undated          Delian League. Ancient Warfare Magazine. Available-:  Accessed 24 May 2012.

Martin, T. R., 2000    Ancient Greece – From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Meiggs, R. and Lewis, D. eds, 1969    A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century BC: To the End of the Fifth Century B.C. Vol 1 Oxford University Press, New York.

Pomeroy, S.B., Donlan, W., Burstein, S.M., and Roberts, J.T., 1990    Ancient Greece – A Political, Social and Cultural History Oxford University Press, New York.

Roberts, J., (ed) 2005    Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Roberts, J.W., 1998    City of Sokrates: An Introduction to Classical Athens (2nd edition), Routledge, London.

Thomas, R. 1994    Literacy and the city-state in archaic and classical Greece, in A.K. Bowman and G. Woolf (eds), Literacy and Power in the Ancient World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Thorley, J., 1996    Athenian Democracy, Routledge, Hoboken.

Wartenberg, U. 1995    Chapter 3, After Marathon: war, society and money in fifth-century Athens, British Museum Press, London.

Waterfield, R., 2004    Athens – A History, Macmillan, London, Basingstoke and Oxford.

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