Student Research: Did Rowing Help Power Up Democracy?

Story posted November 29, 2011

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Elliott Munn '12 (far right) rows bow seat for Bowdoin Men's Rowing Club.


It didn’t take much to get Elliott Munn ’12 to dip his oar into research. He feels the pull of history every time he gets into a Bowdoin rowing shell.

The classics major and longtime Bowdoin crew member is working on an independent study project that links the act of rowing with the rise of democracy in ancient Athens.

“The Athenians were the best navy in the Aegean for two centuries,” says Munn, who won a Surdna Foundation Fellowship to begin his research last summer. “There has to be a reason why they were dominant for so long and from what I can tell from modern reconstruction of classical archaeology … it’s because they had the best, most skilled rowers.”

Forget Charlton Heston chained to his seat. Athenian war ships, called triremes, were powered by an astonishingly fine-tuned team of 170 citizen-oarsmen.

“There were three banks of oars on the side of the ship and only a foot between where each blade sat in the water,” says Munn. “And we’re thinking that only the top bank could see their own oar.”

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Elliott Munn '12

Many of the rowers were at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, recruited into service to fit out Athens’s sizeable naval fleet. Their participation in the ship’s teamwork was an embodiment of the new democratic ideal, says Munn.

“These people had no influence and all of the sudden the city adopts a new naval strategy and they’re at the heart of it,” he observes. “Think about what you need to function effectively in a democracy; you need to be able to work as a team. I believe it gave them the confidence to take the rights of the democracy and use them as a political force.”

“There were many people, including Plato, who weren’t happy about the growing influence of the lower-class people,” he adds. “They’re often referred to as “the naval mob.”

Munn says he knows from experience how empowering and bonding crew can be.

“Rowing isn’t something you do,” he says, “it’s a lifestyle. If there’s one thing that has contributed to my happiness at Bowdoin, it’s being on the rowing team -- everything from going on the water to the relationships with the guys and girls on the team.

“To have a chance to merge my academic interest with a sport that I’m so passionate about has been a real pleasure.”

For the last phase of his research, Munn will delve into the political ramifications of rowing. “My thesis is that it was an a-political activity that informed their political consciousness,” he says.

Munn’s faculty mentor in the project is Assistant Professor of Classics Robert Sobak.

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