Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Athens: From League to Empire

The cities of the Delian League
The historian, Herodotus, defined to hellenikon,  'Greekness' as 'shared blood, shared language, shared religion, and shared customs'. This common feeling was strengthened by the menace of the common enemy (Persia) in the wars of 499-479.  Yet the Greeks of the classical period never managed to translate their awareness of 'Greekness' into political unity. Unity came later, imposed by the conquering empires of Macedon and Rome. However in 478-477 the Delian League was founded. lt was this confederacy that carried the burden of the Greeks' war against the Persians, and it was the first instance of an organised offensive union of Greek states.


The League was necessary because the Persian threat did not go away after the victories of 480-79. In the aftermath of Salamis, Plataia and Mykale, Greece needed a leader - a role Sparta was unwilling to assume. She had many domestic difficulties that distracted her from a wider role - size of her helot population, fear of helot uprising. She also lacked the experience of naval warfare. For the next fifty years, the period of relative peace (known as the pentekontaetia of 479-431) she seemed content to let the power of Athens grow. Corinth too stood back from leadership. Like Athens she had a naval tradition, but she lacked Athens' ideological magnetism. It was natural therefore that the leadership role should be assumed by Athens. She had many positive attributes.  

  1. The democracy provided a cultural tradition that attracted the intellectuals who settled in Athens.
  2. Athenian religion was used to justify Athenian hegemony. The guardianship of the shrine of Eleusis enabled Athens to put herself forward as a universal benefactor. If the 192 figures in the cavalcade on the Parthenon frieze are meant to represent the heroes of Marathon, then this provides powerful evidence for the religious glorification of Athens. The oracle at Delphi, which later sided with Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, called Athens 'an eagle in the clouds for all time'.
  3. Above all, Athens had a formidable fleet. The Athenian navy was an early development, made necessary by the needs of the grain supply. Athens also needed silver to supplement the Laurion output and timber for her ships.

The central Aegean island of Delos was the headquarters of the Athenian Empire. Here in the winter of 478/7, representatives of some Greek states (it is not known exactly how many) met to swear oaths of allegiance; they dropped lumps of iron into the sea and swore not to desert the alliance before they rose again to the surface. Formally, all the allies were equal but the predominance of Athens was clear from the start. The allies did not all swear oaths of allegiance to each other but each ally swore individually to have the same friends and enemies as Athens.  Aristides reciprocated the oaths on Athens's behalf and Athens was recognised as the hegemon (leader).

The aims of the alliance were

  1. to liberate the Aegean from the remains of Persian  control 
  2. to ravage the lands of the Great King in reprisal for the damage caused by Xerxes'  invasion 
  3. to guarantee permanent security for the Greeks against any renewed attempt by the Persians to restore their control.
Given the geography of the alliance, it was inevitable that it would be naval-based. Naval warfare was far more expensive than hoplite war, involving the building of triremes, mostly built by Athens. The allies would have to pay for this, either by contributing ships or by making a cash payment.  

While the large islands, such as Chios, Lesbos, Samos, Naxos and Thasos provided ships, which Athens regarded as a valuable addition to its own navy, the smaller cities were hardly in a position to do this, and perhaps were not even willing to do so. Instead the latter were assessed a tribute that went into the League’s treasury. The total sum was fixed by the strategos Aristides at 460 talents and the burden was distributed among the member cities in accordance with their importance and economic capability.  In addition every polis that owed tribute had to provide victims for sacrifice (usually heifers) in which the cuts of meat were cooked and distributed to the people of Athens.

This initial organisation was adhered to for more than fifty years. Athens provided the commanders-in-chief of the alliance from among the ten generals (strategoi), and also its treasurers. These treasurers were to be answerable to the Athenian people, not the allies as a whole.

The Temple of Apollo on Delos,
the Treasury of the League
(though it was never finished)
Delos acted as the imperial bank, where monetary tribute from the allies was stored (in the Temple of Apollo) until 454. 

Initial successes 

From the beginning the League revealed a skilful, purposeful leadership. Some territories were wrested from Persian control.  At some stage before 470, the island of Scyros was captured, and when giant bones were found there, Cimon, the son of Miltiades, the victor of Plataea, claimed they were those of Theseus. The bones were then taken 'back' to Athens.  In 470/469 Cimon inflicted further defeats on the Persians, most notably the decisive battle of Eurymdon in Pamphilia, and pushed the Persian sphere of influence back from the coast of Asia Minor. The Aegean had become a Greek sea. 

One of the many ostraka bearing
the name of Themistocles
One prominent victim of Athenian power politics was Themistocles, who was ostracised in 472 or 471 BC because he opposed Cimon’s pro-Spartan policy, and the number of surviving ostraka bearing his name indicate a well-organised coup. He was received by Ataxerxes I, the Great King since 465/4 with all honour and died as his vassal.  The subsequent era of Cimon, which lasted until his banishment in 461, was a vindication of the pro-Spartan policy. 

The League under strain

But by this time, the League had faced several crises. In c. 470 the island of Naxos broke her oath of allegiance and tried to withdraw at a time when the threat from Persia was still alive. lt was forced back into the League. lt lost its fleet and walls and was told to contribute money, which went to the building of more ships for the Athenian navy.

In 465 the rich island of Thasos attempted to defect from the League. Cimon launched a long siege and the island capitulated in 463/2. Its inhabitants were forced to tear down their walls, surrender their fleet, defray the expenses of the war, and pay an indemnity of thirty talents (the equivalent of £6 m.) However, while Cimon was absent on the siege, his enemies in Athens plotted his downfall.

In 460-54 Athens launched an expedition to Egypt, which since 525 had been a part of the Persian Empire.  In 460 Egypt rebelled against Persian rule, defeated a Persian army sent to put down the invasion, and turned to Athens for help. The Athenians sent a fleet to Egypt and took part in the siege of Memphis. However, in 456 a Persian relief army broke the siege and massacred or captured large numbers of Athenians, while in 454 a Persian navy destroyed the Athenian fleet. This demonstrated very clearly that the Persian threat was by no means over.


The dominant Athenian politician of this period is Pericles (c. 495-429 BC).  Though he had no official position as head of state he was described by the contemporary historian, Thucydides as ‘the first citizen of Athens’. He was elected as strategos for one season after another, and it is not surprising that the period in which he led the city, from 461 till his death in 429 is sometimes known as  ‘the age of Pericles’. 

‘Pericles was a strategist in both the ancient and the modern sense; he was a Greek strategos…and he was a man with muscular visions of what could be…a reformer who shaped democratic Athens strategically, architecturally and intellectually.’  Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Jonathan Cape, 2010)

Ostrakon bearing the name of Cimon
On his mother’s side he was a member of the powerful and wealthy Alcmaeonid family; the reformer Cleisthenes was his great uncle. In the spring of 472 he chose as his liturgy to present Aeschylus’ The Persians at the Greater Dionysa. In 461/2 he co-operated with the political leader Ephialtes in his attack on the powers of the Areopagus Council. With Pericles backing, Ephialtes introduced the series of reforms that brought in the radical democracy. In the same period Pericles achieved the political elimination of his rival, the great general, Cimon, by securing his ostracism as a punishment for his pro-Spartan policies. In the late 450s he introduced payment for juries. In 451 he introduced a restrictive citizenship law confining citizenship to the sons of two citizen-parents. For fifteen consecutive years from 443 BC he was re-elected as Athens’ premier democrat.

A defining moment in the history of the League and in the physical appearance of Athens occurred in 454  when Pericles moved the Delian League Treasury from the unfinished Temple of Apollo to the Acropolis and used the money to being the vast building project under Pheidias. The excuse was fear that the Persians might send a fleet into the Aegean and it is likely that the Egyptian disaster was at least in part behind the decision. This same year also marks the beginning of the tribute lists of the League. These were a quota of one sixtieth of the tribute paid by the allies, and the money was dedicated to Athene Polias. The records, which extend almost to the end of the Peloponnesian war, and are a valuable source of information for the League.

From League to Empire

Was this the moment when the League became the Athenian Empire?  Or had it always been imperialist? The League now included most of the Aegean islands and the cities of the northern coast of the Aegean and the coast of Asia Minor. Athens began to refer to her allies as 'the cities which the Athenians rule'. Athenian settlements acted as garrison towns.

Athens used its hegemony in seven ways:

  1. Economic. Athens used imperial institutions to make sure of her own corn­ supply. Her ships mounted guard over the Hellespont to determine how much grain was permitted to consumers other than Athens. 10% taxes were levied on Athenian shipping there. Above all, there was tribute in ships or money levied on all subject poleis of the Empire.
  2. Administrative and military garrisons were housed in subject states that had rebelled against Athens (Naxos and Thasos).
  3. Judicial. Inscriptions show that serious cases were concentrated in Athens. Anti­ Athenian elements in the subject states were brought to Athens for trial.
  4. Religious. The cult of Athena was spread and boundary stones were removed to extend 'her' territory. Such land might be leased out to individual Athenians.
  5. Territorial. Settlements on allied and conquered territory brought obvious and immediate benefits to the lower classes.     However, the upper classes also benefited. Inscribed lists of property show wealthy Athenians owned holdings of land, many of them large, in allied territory. Upper -class Athenians were engaged inland-grabbing on a large scale. In addition, the tribute meant that the rich did not have to contribute to the fleet from their own taxes).
  6. Social. It is probably not a coincidence that the citizenship law of 451 coincides with the planting of the first fifth-century settlements in allied territory. The exclusivity of Athenian citizenship created a great psychological gulf between the rulers and the ruled.
  7. Political interference in the subject territories. Athens generally supported democrats against oligarchs, but she was not doctrinaire and tended to support factions that were friendly to her.

Athenian dominance reflected the harsh realities of power, but it over-rode the fundamental Greek belief in the supremacy of the individual polis and in the values of freedom (eleutheria) and independence (autonomia). The historian Thucydides records this complaint from the Corinthians:
'Keep it in mind that a tyrant city has been set up in Greece, and it has been set up against all of us alike; some of is it rules already, the rest it plans to add to its empire.'

When the Peloponnesian War began in 431 it was seen by most Greeks as a war of liberation against the arrogance of Athens.