The Athenian Empire Retrospect


Rise and Fall

As we have seen in earlier chapters, the Delian League was founded in 478/7 to continue the war against the Persians, when the Spartan Pausanias had made himself unpopular with the allies. Athens had the executive power, providing the commanders and the treasurers; but Thucydides emphasises the League’s innocent beginning, and those who remembered the Ionian Revolt will have been more afraid that Athens would lose interest than that it would become domineering. However, the League was unlike any earlier alliance in Greece: Athens took a permanent alliance to mean permanent campaigning, and required contributions of ships or tribute in cash from the allies year after year. Even from the beginning, activity was not limited to campaigning against the Persians (Eion was justified on that basis but Scyros was not), and Athens found ways of furthering its own interests through the League’s activity (e.g. the colonies at Eion and Scyros). Within ten years Naxos had been forced to remain in the League against its will; within fifteen, Thasos had been coerced when it resisted Athens’ desire for its mainland possessions.

In the early years League campaigns were regularly led by the pro-Spartan Cimon, and Sparta acquiesced in the League’s development; but from 462/1, while Cimon was ostracised, Athens’ democratic leaders were prepared to challenge Sparta’s supremacy in mainland Greece, and while fighting against the Persians continued (now in Cyprus and Egypt), allied forces were used also in Greece as Athens built up its power there. However, c.454 that expansion ran out of steam, and the forces in Egypt suffered a major defeat, after which there was a serious possibility that the Persians might strike back. The moving of the treasury from Delos to Athens, which appears to us as a symbol of growing Athenian imperialism, may at the time have seemed a reasonable precaution. In 451 Athens made a five-year truce with the Peloponnesians. Shortly afterwards Cimon died in another campaign in Cyprus; and, after that, regular fighting against Persia came to an end, whether the formality of the Peace of Callias is authentic or is a fourth-century invention.

One result of the moving of the treasury was the inscription of the ‘Athenian tribute lists’, an annual series beginning in 453 recording the offering to Athena of -images of the tribute, calculated separately on each state’s payment. These tribute lists indicate that in the late 450’s and early 440’s there were some years in which Athens’ demands met with considerable resistance; and, if some decrees assigned to the middle of the century are rightly so assigned, there is evidence for Athens’ interfering in individual states (such as Erythrae, where there was a Persian-backed revolt, and Miletus, which had a democracy modelled on that of Athens by the 430’s). However, decrees on the collection of the tribute and the sending of offerings to festivals, and on the use of Athenian weights, measures and coinage, are more probably to be dated to the 420’s. Almost certainly, when the treasury was moved, councils in which the allies were represented were discontinued. Garrisons, and officials of various kinds, were sent to member states. The language of the League changed, with oaths sworn to the Athenians rather than to the Athenians and the allies, but again it was not until the 420’s that ‘the Athenian alliance’ became ‘the cities which Athens rules’. It is still reasonable from the late 450’s to speak of an Athenian empire.

By the 440’s all the allies except Samos, Chios and the cities of Lesbos were paying tribute rather than providing ships: this was probably cheaper as well as easier on their manpower, but lessened their ability to pursue an independent policy (cf. Thuc. I. 98. ii-iii). Work on the temple of Apollo at Delos was abandoned, and in 447 Athens embarked on an ambitious building programme on the acropolis, financed partly from surplus tribute. Even in the 470’s Athenian settlements had been planted abroad, and about the middle of the century several allied states received settlements which both provided land for the settlers and served as informal garrisons.

Revolts in mainland Greece were followed by the Thirty Years’ Peace of 446/5, by which Athens lost its mainland possessions but its control of the League was recognised; the Greek world was divided between a Spartan bloc based on the mainland and an Athenian bloc based on the Aegean. In 440–439 Athens’ intervention in a dispute between Samos and Miletus led to a major war against Samos, which had Persian support, after which Samos was deprived of its ships and had to refund Athens’ war expenses.

The Thirty Years’ Peace lasted only fifteen years before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431. Thucydides’ ‘truest reason’ for the war is Athens’ power and Sparta’s fear of it. I have argued that after the Thirty Years’ Peace, while Athens did not encroach on the part of the Greek world in which Sparta was interested, it continued to expand elsewhere, so that the balance of power could not be held; and that in the late 430’s Athens pursued a high-risk strategy, which suggests that it was prepared to accept the challenge and tried to ensure that the conflict would break out in circumstances favourable to itself.

According to Thucydides (who perhaps does not tell the whole truth: cf. pp. 102–3), Pericles had a defensive strategy for Athens in the war: to avoid a major battle on land, to rely on sea power for survival, to keep a firm hold on the empire but not to try to enlarge it. Mytilene, on Lesbos, revolted in 428–427 and was firmly dealt with; Chios, in 425/4, when ordered to demolish a new wall, obeyed. The level of tribute was increased, as Athens used up its reserves, but the Athenians also taxed themselves more heavily to pay for the war. It is probably to this period that we should date decrees improving the mechanisms for collecting the tribute (Cleonymus’ decree, M&L 68 = IG i3 68 ~ Fornara 133, is certainly of 426/5; Cleinias’ decree, M&L 46 = IG i3 34 ~ Fornara 98, is best dated c. 425/4), and requiring the allies to use Athenian weights and measures and Athenian silver coins (M&L 45 = IG i3 1453 ~ Fornara 97): these texts threaten heavy penalties for non-compliance (and seem to envisage opposition in Athens as well as among the allies: cf. p. 192), and assume that there will be Athenian officials present in most allied cities.

After Pericles’ death, not all Athenians shared his view that they should not try to enlarge the empire: in more than one part of the Greek world there was fear that Athenian support would lead to Athenian control, including Sicily, where a force which had become large and ambitious had to withdraw in 424. The part of the empire most vulnerable to Spartan intervention was the Thraceward region: the Spartan Brasidas was there from 424 to 422, insisting that he had come not to substitute Spartan rule for Athenian but to liberate the cities; he had considerable success, but there was an iron fist inside his velvet glove (cf. pp. 193–4). Another intervention in Sicily, in 415, in response to the opposition of Nicias made larger and more ambitious than it might otherwise have been, was to prove the turning-point in the war. In 413 the Athenians were totally defeated there, with great loss of men, ships and money, and damage to their morale. Before their defeat they replaced the tribute with a harbour tax, which they hoped would yield more money (but they probably reverted to tribute in 410); after it, various allied states made contact with Sparta, as for the first time it seemed possible that Athens would be defeated in Greece and the Aegean too.

In the last phase of the war Sparta, in order to obtain Persian help, promised to return the Greeks of mainland Asia Minor to Persia: there are some signs of discontent among the Asiatic Greeks, but certainly not overwhelming repugnance; it is possible that in 408/7 Sparta obtained the lesser commitment that the Asiatic Greeks were to pay tribute to Persia but be independent otherwise. Some allies, notably Samos, remained loyal to Athens or returned to loyally; others, notably Chios (torn between anti-Athenian and pro-Athenian factions), held out against Athens. There were times when it seemed that the Athenians might yet be victorious, but in 405/4 they were defeated, and their empire came to an end.

Burdens and Benefits

All states which join an alliance lose the total freedom to decide their own policies without any reference to others. How serious that loss is depends on how the policies of the alliance are decided. In the Delian League there were at first meetings in which Athens, though influential as holder of the executive power, probably had one vote like each other member; but the meetings were probably discontinued when the treasury was moved to Athens in 454/3, and states which contributed by paying tribute could not withdraw their forces from a campaign of which they disapproved.

There had not been any previous Greek alliance in which the leader (hegemon) had interfered in the internal affairs of the other members. When Thucydides writes that the Athenians ‘were leaders of allies who were at first autonomous’ (I. 97. i), this is probably a comment prompted by hindsight; no guarantees are likely to have been thought necessary at the League’s foundation. Internal interference need not lie behind his remark that Naxos ‘was the first allied state to be enslaved contrary to what was established’ (I. 98. iv), but it was occurring by the middle of the century (in general, Thuc. III. 82. i, [Xen.] Ath. Pol. i. 14, 16, iii. 10–11), with the imposition of democracies in Erythrae in the late 450’s (M&L 40 = IG i3 14 ~ Fornara 71), in Samos in 440/39 (Thuc. I. 115. iii) and in Miletus by the mid 430’s (Klio Hi 1970, 163–73 = Miletvi. iii 1218). In 411 Athens’ oligarchs similarly set up oligarchies in the allied states (Thuc. VIII. 64–65. i, and cf. [Xen.] Ath. Pol. i. 14). Other forms of political interference occurred too: major lawsuits were transferred from local courts to Athenian courts, which were likely to favour litigants with a pro-Athenian record, at first in individual cases (e.g. Chalcis in 446/5, M&L 52 = IG i3 40 ~ Fornara 103) and later generally (Antiph. V. Herodes 47, cf. Thuc. I. 77. i, [Xen.] Ath. Pol. i. 16–18), though much of the interference was not systematic but was in response to particular provocations. Offenders against imperial decrees would be tried in Athens (M&L 45 §12 = IG i3 1453 §10 ~ Fornara 97 §12, M&L 46 = IG i3 34 ~ Fornara 98. 31–43), and Athens claimed the right to exile offenders from the territory of all League members (M&L 40 = IG i3 14 ~ Fornara 71. 31). Supporters of Athens could be awarded the privileged status of Athenian proxenos (representative) and benefactor (e.g. IG i3 19; for collaboration with Athens notice Thuc. III. 2. iii).

Economically, the most obvious burden on the allies was (except in the cases where they provided ships) the payment of tribute, for which there were precedents not within the Greek world but in barbarian rule over Asia Minor (Hdt. I. 6. ii, 27. i, Lydia; III. 89–96, VI. 42. ii, Persia). As remarked above, it was probably less burdensome to pay tribute than to provide ships and man them every summer, but on account of the near-eastern precedents it could easily be seen as a sign of subjection. The general level of tribute seems to have remained constant until after the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, when increases were imposed not in a spirit of greater exploitation but to contribute to the cost of fighting the war. Tribute could be remitted when Athens wanted to retain the loyally of a strategically located member (M&L 65 = IG i3 61 ~ Fornara 128. 5–9, 29–32,IG i3 62. 16–17), and some of the money found its way back to the allies through wages for oarsmen and others employed by Athens. In Athens, the League provided employment for more officials and oarsmen than would otherwise have been needed; surplus tribute seems to have contributed directly to financing the acropolis building programme of the 440’s-430’s, and the fact that some items could be charged to the tribute will have helped the Athenians to pay for other things out of their own funds; but catalogues of Athenians maintained at the allies’ expense are caricatures (Ath. Pol. 24. iii, cf. Ar. Vesp. 707–11, [Xen.] Ath. Pol. i. 15–17, iii. 4).

The other main aspect of the economic burden for the allies and gain for the Athenians concerns Athenians’ acquisition of allies’ land. Athens had been interested in founding settlements in important locations from the beginning of the League and before; from about the middle of the century a number of allies whose conduct had provoked Athens had to give up some of their land for an Athenian cleruchy (klerouchoi, ‘allotment-holders’, were men who occupied land abroad but remained citizens of Athens; the previous owners may then have had to lease back the land or work as hired labourers on it) (e.g. Plut. Per. 11. v-vi, Diod. Sic. XL 88. iii). Those settlements will have benefited poorer citizens (cf. M&L 49 = IG i3 46 ~ Fornara 100. 43–6), but there were opportunities for the rich also: normally non-citizens of a state could not own land in that state unless given exemption from that rule as a privilege, but it seems to have become possible for Athenians to acquire land in allied states, to such an extent that Oeonias, one of the men involved in the religious scandals of 415, had land in three parts of Euboea which when confiscated was sold for as much as 81} talents (IG i3 422. 375–8).

Athens’ control of the Aegean and ability to prevent piracy will to some extent have benefited everybody (except would-be pirates), and insistence on the use of Athenian weights, measures and coinage (M&L 45 = IG i3 1453 ~ Fornara 97) will have been beneficial economically but may have been perceived by some of the allies as an affront to their pride (cf. contemporary debates about the European Union and its currency, the Euro). However, the chief beneficiary will have been Athens, which became the focal point of the Aegean’s trade: it could itself import whatever it wanted, and it could use its power to help friends and harm enemies (Thuc. I. 120. ii, II. 38. ii, III. 86. iv, [Xen.] Ath. Pol. ii. 6–7, 11–12): economic sanctions were imposed on Megara in the 430’s (cf. p. 91), while in the 420’s Methone on the coast of Macedon was given permission, which other states must have lacked, to import grain from the Black Sea, in a decree which reveals the existence of Athenian Hellespontophylakes, ‘guardians of the Hellespont’ (M&L 65 = IGi3 61 ~ Fornara 128. 34–41, cf. IG i3 62. 0–5 for Aphytis). Economic benefits of another kind for Athens are highlighted by [Xen.] Ath. Pol. i. 17: when traders came with their goods, when men came from the allied states to bring their tribute or to put a request to the assembly or to be tried in the lawcourts, the Athenian state profited from increased tax revenue and there were various opportunities for individual Athenians to make money from the visitors.

Some scholars have claimed that, whereas in the archaic period the Greek cities of Asia Minor and the offshore islands were prosperous and intellectually active, when they were incorporated in the Delian League it was Athens that was prosperous and intellectually active while the eastern Greeks were in decline. Literary evidence does not suggest impoverishment (e.g. Thuc. VIII. 24. iv, 40. ii, on Chios), and recent work has cast doubt on the extent of the material decline. For all the incompleteness of our archaeological knowledge, it appears to be true that the eastern Greeks did not build monumental temples in the fifth century as some of them had in the sixth, but that appears equally true of most other Greeks, both inside the Delian League and outside (but not of the western Greeks: cf. pp. 82–5, 219). In terms of building temples, in the fifth century the rest of the Greek world chose not to compete with Athens -but that is a sign of Athens’ cultural predominance in the Greek world rather than of its economic exploitation of the empire.


That leads us to the use of religion to reinforce Athens’ position in the League. When the League was founded, it suited Athens to represent it as an Ionian league (cf. pp. 20–1). For that purpose Delos, a small island but home of an Ionian sanctuary and cult of Apollo, was appropriate as the focal point of the League, and a new temple was begun and other buildings were erected while it served that function. In the middle of the century, when the treasury was moved to Athens, work on the temple was suspended; in the 420’s there was renewed Athenian interest in Delos, but now in a Delos wholly under Athenian control (cf. p. 115).

From the middle of the century the allies were involved in the cults and festivals of Athens. The tribute was brought to Athens before and displayed at the Great Dionysia, which thus became an imperial festival (schol. Ar. Ach. 504, Isoc. VIII. Peace 82; cf. M&L 46 = IG i3 34 ~ Fornara 98. 18–22, M&L 68 = IG i3 68 ~ Fornara 133. 10–15). At first only those who were Ionian in the narrow sense, who could be expected to regard Athens as their mother city, had to send offerings to the Panathenaea (e.g. Erythrae, M&L 40 =IG i3 14 ~ Fornara 71. 2–8), but in 425/4 offerings of a cow and a suit of armour were required from all the allies (instituted M&L 69 = IG i3 71 ~ Fornara 136. 55–8; cf. M&L 46 = IG i3 34 ~ Fornara 98. 41–3). Perhaps in the 430’s, the allies were required but the other Greeks were merely invited to send offerings to the Eleusinian Mysteries (M&L 73 =IG i3 78 ~ Fornara 140. 14–21; 24–6 with 30–6). In allied cities horoi (markers) invoking Athena, and Ion and his sons (e.g. IG i3 1481–99), may attest the imposition of Athenian cults or alternatively the confiscation of land which was then added to the possessions of Athenian deities.

The League did not only help to pay for the work on the acropolis, but there was League symbolism in the work. If the temple of Athena Nike was planned in the 440’s (cf. pp. 68–9), it was surely inspired by the consciousness of victory over the Persians (scenes on the frieze perhaps included the battle of Marathon), whether or not that victory had been sealed by a Peace of Callias. Among the statues set up on the acropolis was one of Athena Lemnia by Pheidias, celebrating the sending of cleruchs to Lemnos c.450 (Paus. I. 28. ii, Lucian Imagines 4, cf. 6).

In Samos a sculpture group showed the introduction of Heracles to Olympus, and featured not Samian Hera but Athena with Heracles and Zeus (Strabo 637. XIV. i. 14): this was perhaps set up by supporters of Athens in Samos after the war of 440–439. Ephesus, on the other hand, was prepared to rival Athens: a group of Amazons, carved by several leading sculptors including Pheidias (Plin. H.N. XXXIV. 53), advertised the Artemisium there as being no less venerable and distinguished than Athens’ sanctuaries.

These developments should not be seen as surprising or as a sinister manipulation of religion. Religion was ‘embedded’ in Greek society as Christianity used to be but no longer is embedded in the society of the European states and their overseas colonies, and as other religions are still embedded in some present-day societies; and it will have been thought natural that Athens’ dealings with the allies, like other aspects of Athenian life, should have a religious dimension.

Attitudes to the Empire

Thucydides’ speakers frequently claim that it was natural that the Athenians should exercise such power as they could, and that those who were subjected to Athenian power should dislike it. The Athenian envoys to Sparta in 432 are represented as saying that Athens’ empire is based on the three considerations of fear, honour and advantage; Athens acquired its leadership at the allies’ invitation, but as it became unpopular had to tighten its control; one cannot object when states protect their own interests; Athens had done nothing surprising or contrary to human nature, but deserved gratitude for behaving with more justice than its power would allow (I. 75–6; cf. Pericles in II. 64. v). However, it was first suggested by G. Grote in the nineteenth century, and argued strongly by G. E. M. de Ste. Croix in the middle of the twentieth, that the truth may be different, that, because democratic Athens supported democracies in the empire, the empire may have been disliked by upper-class oligarchs but liked by lower-class democrats.

De Ste. Croix, who held a minimal view of the authenticity of Thucydides’ speeches, believed that the speeches reflect Thucydides’ own view that the Athenians exercised their power unashamedly and the allies hated it, but that Thucydides’ narrative shows his view to be mistaken. I believe that, although there is an element of invention in the speeches, the arguments in them are those that the speakers actually did use or could genuinely have been expected to use. Thucydides does at any rate allow speakers to contradict one another, so that in the debate on Mytilene Cleon claims that everybody joined in opposition to Athens but Diodotus alleges that the upper-class leaders in the cities are anti-Athenian while the lower classes are pro-Athenian (III. 39. vi; 47. ii, iv): we can never be confident that a statement made by aThucydidean speaker is believed by Thucydides to be true.

There are certainly many passages where speakers express what de Ste. Croix regarded as Thucydides’ own view: the empire is described as a tyranny not only by the Corinthians (I. 122. iii, 124. iii) and by Cleon and Euphemus (III. 37. ii, VI. 85. i) but also by Pericles (II. 63. ii). Pericles proposed in 432/1 that Athens should leave the allies autonomous if they had been autonomous at the time of the Thirty Years’ Peace and if Sparta left its perioikoi autonomous (I. 144. ii), and his strategy for Athens in the Peloponnesian War included keeping a firm control of the empire: the honour could not be had without the effort, and even if it was unjust to acquire the empire it would be dangerous to let it go (II. 63). In the debate on Mytilene, Diodotus no less than Cleon talks the language of power politics and Athens’ advantage (III. 37–48), though Thucydides in his introduction remarks that after the original decision the Athenians ‘had a sudden change of mind and reckoned that it was a savage policy and a big decision to destroy a whole city rather than those who were guilty’ (III. 36. iv). In 415/4 Euphemus addresses Camarina in the same way: the Athenians have indeed gone to Sicily to protect their own interests, but it suits their interests that Syracuse should be weak and its enemies strong (VI. 82–7). The fullest exposition of this attitude is to be found in the Melian Dialogue (V 85–111), where the Athenians do not deign to justify their attack, but It is unlikely that Thucydides could have obtained a detailed account of what was said on that occasion, and he has certainly written up this episode for dramatic effect (cf. pp. 138–9), but the message is the same as in the speeches, and we cannot obtain a milder picture by jettisoning the dialogue but retaining the speeches.

we know and you know that considerations of justice weigh in men’s arguments when they are equal in coercive strength, while those who are superior do what they can and the weak acquiesce.… We are here for the advantage of our empire. (V. 89, 91)

This view of Athenian power is not a private fantasy of Thucydides. For Aristophanes also Athens is a tyrant (cf. below); for the Old Oligarch the Athenian demos treats the empire in ways conducive to its own interests ([Xen.] Ath. Pol. i. 14–18); and it is clear from fragments from the sophists and representation of their arguments by Aristophanes and Plato that the exercise of power, by states and by individuals, was indeed discussed in terms of that kind in the late fifth century. However, it may well be that Thucydides distorts by including so many and such emphatic expressions of this view. He represents his hero Pericles as claiming that Athens’ empire was something to be proud of (II. 36. ii-iii, 63. i, 64. iii); as an Athenian and an admirer of Pericles he surely shared in that pride; but also, although he was not a religious man, he believed in morality and lawful conduct (cf. II. 53 on the effects of the plague, III. 82–3 on stasis) - and what was Athens’ empire but the successful exercise of lawlessness on the largest scale? I suspect that he returns to the question so often because he could not satisfactorily resolve it.

Some modern liberals, disappointed in Thucydides, have hoped to find in Aristophanes a renunciation of cynical imperialism, but he probably offers little to comfort them. In his lost Babylonians of 426 the Babylonians seem to have been slaves, branded and working a treadmill, but the context is unclear, and it is by no means certain (as was once maintained) that this was a depiction of Athens’ cruelty towards the allies. The reason for Cleon’s attack on the play (cf. p. 124) was that in the presence of foreigners (i.e. at the Dionysia) Aristophanes slandered Athens; specifically, he slandered ‘allotted and elected officials, and Cleon’ (Ar. Ach. 501–2, 630–1, schol. 378); and behind that probably lies the claim made in Acharnians that Aristophanes benefits the Athenians ‘by preventing them from being deceived too much by the words of foreigners, from delighting in being nattered, from being gaping citizens; for previously envoys would come from the cities to cheat you’, and thus by showing up what democracy, in Athens and generally, is really like (Ach. 633–42). Similarly, in Knights, In Wasps Hate-Cleon tries to show his father Love-Cleon how he is imposed on by the demagogues, by reckoning up the income from the allies and showing how little of it is spent on jurors’ pay, i.e. how little benefit accrues to the ordinary citizens (Vesp. 655–85, 698–712): the only objection to the extraction of money from the allies is that those who grow rich on it are the politicians.

Demos, you have a fine empire, since all people fear you like a man who is a tyrant [that Athens is a tyrant is taken for granted]; but you are easily led astray, you delight in being flattered and cheated, you gape at whoever is currently speaking, you have a mind but it’s never at home. (Eq. 1110–20)

Beyond that there is Birds, where the new city in the clouds turns out to have all the familiar faults of Athens (cf. p. 168); among the uninvited guests who arrive are an episkopos, one of the ‘inspectors’ sent by Athens to the allied states, who begins by asking, ‘Where are the proxenoi?’, the ‘representatives’ who can be expected to be pro-Athenian (Av. 1021–53); and a decree-seller, whose three sample decrees are parodies of a judicial settlement between Athens and an ally, a requirement to use Athenian measures, weights and coins (cf. p. 184), and sanctions against allies who refuse to welcome Athenian officials (Av. 1035–57). There are perhaps a few crumbs of comfort for liberals here, but to my mind the emphasis is on Athenian busybodyness rather than oppressiveness.

Another comedian, Eupolis, seems to have focused on the allied cities in his Cities (Poleis: perhaps to be dated to the end of the 420’s): recent work suggests that they were depicted unsympathetically as women bringing tribute to Athens.

There are a few pointers in inscriptions to opposition - Cleinias’ tribute decree threatens penalties for any Athenian or ally who commits an offence in connection with the tribute (M&L 46 = IG i3 34 ~ Fornara 98. 31–41); an undertaking to enforce the decree on weights, measures and coinage is added to the councillors’ oath (M&L 45 §12 = IG i3 1453 §10 ~ Fornara 97 §12) -but opposition of what kind? Thucydides son of Melesias objected not to the League or to the collection of tribute but to the spending of the tribute on buildings in Athens rather than on war against Persia (Plut.Per. 12. i-iv, 14. i). Cleon in the 420’s seems to have been obsessed with his enemies (cf. pp. 126–7), and this could be reflected in decrees of that time. The oligarchs in 411 wanted not to abandon the empire but to replace democracy with oligarchy among the allies as well as in Athens (Thuc. VIII. 64–65. i, cf. 91. iii); but Thucydides says that Phrynichus, just as he believed that Alcibiades was committed neither to oligarchy nor to democracy but to the furtherance of his own career, believed that the allies wanted neither slavery combined with oligarchy nor slavery combined with democracy but freedom irrespective of constitution (VIII. 48. iv-v), and Thucydides himself endorses that belief (VIII. 64. v).

As for the Athenians’ treatment of opposition, as far as we know they had not gone to the extent of killing all the men in a city before Cleon proposed to do that in Mytilene in 427, and on that occasion a (slightly) less severe decision was taken ultimately; they did kill all the men in Scione in 421 and in Melos in 416/5; but this severity was not peculiar to Athens: the Peloponnesians killed all the men in Plataea in 427, and in Hysiae in 416. However, in Thucydides’ Mytilene debate Diodotus argues that rebels who expect the ultimate punishment have no reason not to resist to the end (Thuc. III. 46. i), and on occasions the Athenians realised that it was important to treat a state generously in order to retain its loyally. From the 420’s we have a series of decrees making special provisions for Methone, on the coast of volatile Macedon (M&L 65 = IG i3 61 ~ Fornara 128), and similar provisions were made for Aphytis, in Chalcidice near to the hostile Olynthus (IG i3 62). In 408 on recovering Calchedon and Byzantium they levied tribute at the previous rate but did not take reprisals (Xen. Hell. I. iii. 8–9, Diod. Sic. XIII. 66. iii, 67. v-vii); Alcibiades’ treaty with Selymbria included the return of hostages, freedom for Selymbria to choose its own constitution, possibly the cancellation of debts to Athens, and the renunciation of Athenian and allied claims to properly in the city (M&L 87 = IG i3 118 -Fornara 162. 8–26).

The Athenians normally encouraged, and when provoked sometimes installed, democracies in the allied states (cf. p. 186; [Xen.] Ath. Pol. iii. 11 notes that occasions when they supported oligarchies turned out badly). Meanwhile Sparta, though not itself a typical oligarchy, encouraged oligarchies among its allies (cf. Thuc. I. 19, V. 81. ii).Thus, as the Greek world became polarised between Athens and Sparta, there was a tendency for democrats to look to Athens for support and oligarchs to Sparta (Thuc. III. 82. i). It is this that led Grote and de Ste. Croix to believe that the Athenian empire was not universally hated by those subjected to it, as the Thucydidean analysis of power politics requires, but while hated by upper-class oligarchs was in fact popular with lower-class democrats: the burden of paying the tribute will have fallen largely on the rich upper class, while political support and opportunities for employment, for instance in the Athenian navy, will have benefited the poor lower class.

The facts suggest that both the Thucydidean view and the alternative are too one-sided. From Naxos in the League’s first ten years to Potidaea and Olynthus in 433/2 we can draw up a long list of revolts before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War; in most cases we do not know what led to the revolt or how widely it was supported. Mytilene, which revolted in 428, was one of the few ship-providing allies which had not been subjected to Athenian interference; it had considered revolting before the war but had not then been encouraged by Sparta (Thuc. III. 2. i). It was oligarchic, so its revolt was the work of the oligarchs. After the city had been under siege during the winter, supplies of food ran short and there was no sign of the promised help from Sparta; the ordinary people were given weapons for a final effort but refused to fight, accusing the men in power of hoarding food for themselves, and forcing them to come to terms with Athens (III. 27–28. i): the impression given by the narrative is that the people could endure no more, not that they were pro-Athenian.

When the Spartan Brasidas went to the Thraceward region in 424, he went first to Acanthus, which was divided between those who had encouraged his expedition and the demos; ‘nevertheless the mass (plethos) through fear for the [grape] harvest, which was still outside, was persuaded by Brasidas’ to give him a hearing (IV. 84. ii). Brasidas made a speech which he was to repeat in other cities, and which included a claim which Thucydides describes as enticing but untrue (IV. 108. v): he had indeed come as a liberator, not to substitute Spartan rule for Athenian or to support one party against another in the city, and had bound the Spartan authorities by an oath [which suggests that they might not have been so generous otherwise], but if Acanthus did not accept his liberation he would impose it by force (IV. 85–7). After debate, by a secret ballot, the Acanthians decided to go over to him, ‘because what Brasidas said was attractive and through fear for their harvest… and making him give pledges to keep the oaths sworn by the Spartan authorities’ (IV. 88). Athens had sent additional garrisons to the region (IV 82). Most cities, like Acanthus, hesitated but did in the end go over to Brasidas; Argilus and Scione (IV 103. iv, 120. i), and perhaps some others about which Thucydides says little, joined him spontaneously. Amphipolis, where the primary division was between Athenians and non-Athenians, was won over by generous terms (IV. 105–6); Torone was betrayed by a few men (IV. 110–113. i). In spite of his promises, Spartan governors were in due course sent to the cities (IV. 132. iii). In Mende a few men had outmanoeuvred the majority, and Athens treated it generously on recovering it (IV 123. ii, 130. iv-vii); but Scione, threatened with destruction, held out until 421, when it was captured and destroyed (IV 122. vi, V 32. i), and Amphipolis, which should have been returned to Athens under the Peace of Nicias, refused to comply (V. 18. v, 21. i-ii). Those who revolted ‘thought they were in no danger, being as greatly deceived about Athenian power as it was afterwards shown to be… and they became bold and thought that no retaliatory force would reach them’ (IV. 108. iv-v).

This does not point to a simple conclusion: where there was a division, the lower classes were more likely to support Athens than the upper; but Brasidas was popular because he offered freedom rather than pro-Spartan oligarchy, and he was feared because if his offer was not accepted he would enforce it, while the rebels thought they could safely go over to him because the Athenians would not be able to recover them.

There was large-scale allied involvement in Athens’ Sicilian expedition of 415–413. Thucydides gives a catalogue for the summer of 413, when all those who were going to take part had arrived, listing both tribute-paying (they provided soldiers: cf. VI. 25. ii) and ship-providing members of the League, as well as allies of other kinds and mercenaries (VII. 57). Most of these remained loyal to the end, not accepting the Syracusans’ invitation to desert when they were caught in their retreat (VII. 82. i), but Thucydides suggests that the chief concern of the League members during the campaign was ‘for their immediate safety, of which there was no hope unless they won, and as a bonus that if they helped to subdue someone else their subjection might become easier’ (VI. 69. iii).

After the failure of that attempt to enlarge the empire, it did begin to seem possible that Athens might be unable to hold on to the empire it had, and the last phase of the war began with approaches to Sparta by the cities of Euboea and Lesbos, and by Chios and Erythrae (VIII. 5. i-v). Others joined in the revolt, and Athens recovered some but not others. Chios resisted repeated Athenian attempts to regain it. In Samos, on the other hand, a democracy came to power and was staunchly loyal to Athens (VIII. 21, cf. IG i3 96); after Aegospotami the democrats killed some of their opponents and, alone of the allies, refused to submit to Lysander until he besieged the city (Xen. Hell. II. ii. 7, iii. 6–7, cf. Diod. Sic. XIV 3. iv-v, Plut. Lys. 14. ii); in 405/4 Athens showed its gratitude by conferring citizenship on all the Samians (IG ii2 1: M&L 94 = IG i3 94 ~ Fornara 138 + R&O 2 ~ Harding 5). The situation was complicated by Sparta’s promising in 412/1 that the Greeks of mainland Asia Minor would not be liberated but would be returned to the Persians. Persian rule was by now only a distant memory, and the prospect does not seem to have caused widespread alarm. However, in 411 Miletus captured a fort built by Tissaphernes, and was angry when told by the Spartan Lichas that it and the others in the King’s territory ‘must submit to moderate slavery and cultivate Tissaphernes until they got a good settlement of the war’ (VIII. 84. v); and later that year Persian garrisons were expelled by Antandrus and Cnidus (VIII. 108. iv-109. i).

Other considerations need to be borne in mind, as well as liking or loathing for Athens and the League. Athens and Sparta were both much larger and more powerful than most Greek cities, and, whatever a city’s sympathies, if a Spartan force arrived on its doorstep it might well seem prudent to join the Spartans, and later if an Athenian force arrived it might seem prudent to return to its old allegiance and plead that it had had no choice. Beyond any immediate threat to itself, a city might well judge that its interests would best be served by being on the winning side (cf. Paus. VI. 3. xv-xvi), and notice Thucydides’ remark, quoted above, that the Thraceward cities misjudged Athens’ strength. Other considerations likely to be important in some cases are a city’s proximity to the Persians and liking or disliking of them, and proximity to a more powerful Greek city against which Athens might be seen as a protector. Whatever the attitudes of the ordinary members of the lower classes, one group of men likely to have been enthusiastic for Athens will have been those democratic political leaders who were in a position of power in their cities with Athenian support, and who without it might well lose that position: all too often in Greece political leaders of various hues would rather be in power with external support than out of power in an independent city (seeThuc. III. 82. i, and cf., for instance, Megara in 424, IV. 66. iii).

Class loyalty did count for something in the Greek world, and there are passages where Thucydides notes that because of a city’s constitution it was perceived as a congenial or uncongenial ally by another city (V. 29. ii, 31. vi, 44. i). But polls loyally counted for something too, and Athens had infringed the independence of its allies as no Greek city had done before: Thucydides states that at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War people’s sympathies were with the Spartans because they proclaimed that they were going to free Greece (II. 8. iv-v); Brasidas insisted that he would be a liberator, and Phrynichus thought that what the allies wanted was freedom irrespective of constitution (cf. pp. 192, 193–4); Xenophon writes that the day when the demolition of Athens’ long walls was begun was hailed as the beginning of freedom for Greece (Xen. Hell. II. ii. 13). In more than one area in the Greek world Thucydides notes fears that Athenian support would turn into Athenian domination (northwest Greece, III. 114. ii-iv with 113. vi; Sicily, rV. 60–1 in Hermocrates’ speech at Gela; cf. Boeotia, IV 92. v-vi in Pagondas’ speech before Delium). Certainly the richer citizens in the allied states are more likely to have been opposed to Athens and the League, and the poorer more likely to have been in favour, and probably there were some places at some times when that was the more important consideration; many may have been comparatively happy to stay in the League while it seemed secure, but eager to abandon the ship when it began to sink; but the desire for local independence was genuine and important, and although Thucydides over-simplifies he may not have been fundamentally wrong.

After 404

At the end of the Peloponnesian War Athens lost all its overseas possessions, not only the League proper but also the islands in the northern Aegean which it had acquired early in the fifth century, Lemnos and Imbros. What Sparta was committed to in respect of the Asiatic Greeks depends on whether we accept a Treaty of Boeotius in 408/7 (cf. pp. 156, 226); as we shall see, what actually happened was that immediately Sparta took over the Athenian empire, including the cities on the Asiatic mainland; and when Tissaphernes claimed the Asiatic Greeks for Persia they appealed to Sparta for support and were granted it; then for some years Sparta vacillated between fighting in Asia Minor and trying to negotiate a compromise. Thucydides has the Athenians in 432 predicting that if Sparta were to rule in Athens’ place it would be even more unpopular than Athens (I. 77. vi, cf. 76. i), and this was borne out. In 395 Athens joined several of Sparta’s former allies in the Corinthian War against Sparta; and Xenophon gives the Thebans a speech appealing for Athenian support in which they take it for granted that Athens would like to recover its empire, and say, ‘When you ruled over the largest number, you had the largest number of enemies’ (Xen. Hell. III. v. 8–15). In 387/6 Sparta did by the Peace of Antalcidas finally surrender the Asiatic Greeks to Persia in return for Persia’s backing terms which Sparta wanted in Greece (and the fifth-century Peace of Callias between Athens and Persia was perhaps invented then to demonstrate how much more glorious the past had been: cf. pp. 53–4); elsewhere in the Greek world Sparta’s conduct was increasingly interfering, to such an extent that in 378 Athens founded a new league with the aim of resisting Spartan imperialism.

Orators and others in Athens could offer a conventional defence of or attack on the fifth-century empire to suit their current purposes. Lysias’ Funeral Speech of c.390, generalising from the Corinthian War to claim that Athens has always fought on the side of freedom and justice, insists that in the fifth century ‘the Athenians made Greece free and their own fatherland the greatest’; for seventy years they kept the allies free from stasis, obliging them to live in equality [i.e. democracy], and made them as well as Athens strong, keeping the Persians at bay (Lys. II. Epitaph. 54–7). In Plato’s Gorgias (c.390-385?) it is the creators of Athens’ power, Themistocles, Cimon and Pericles, who are responsible for Athens’ troubles rather than Alcibiades (Plat. Grg. 518 E-519 B). Isocrates in his Panegyric of c.380, arguing for a Greek war under Athenian leadership against Persia, claims in response to objections that Athens was milder than any other ruler, dealing with the cities not as a master but as an ally, supporting the people and opposing oligarchies (Isoc. rV. Paneg. 100–6, cf. 80–1). By contrast, in On the Peace, c.355 at the end of the Social War, he rejects imperialism as a failure, and writes of ‘the licentiousness of our fathers, who… made themselves hated amongst the Greeks and drove into exile the best men in the other cities’ (Isoc. VIII. Peace 79). Later still, in his Panathenaic of c.342-339, in the course of a contrast between Athens and Sparta, he sets the Peace of Callias against the Peace of Antalcidas (Isoc. XII. Panath. 106), and, while admitting the unpopularity of the transfer of lawsuits, the collection of tribute and the severe treatment of rebel cities, claims that Sparta’s behaviour has in every respect been worse (§§56-73). Demosthenes in his Third Philippic of 341 contrasts with the Greeks’ leaving Philip of Macedon free to do whatever he likes the assertion that, when Athens, Sparta or Thebes tried to be overbearing, the other Greeks did not let them get away with it but rallied in support of those who were wronged (Dem. IX. Phil. Hi. 22–5).

The clearest indication of what was remembered and resented is the series of promises made in the prospectus of the Second Athenian League (378/7) that Athens would not do various things which it had done in the Delian League: the allies are to be free and autonomous, living under whatever constitution they wish, not receiving a garrison or governor, not paying tribute; and no houses or land in allied territory are to be owned by Athenians, either publicly or individually (IG ii2 43 = R&O 22 ~ Harding 35. 19–46). As we shall see in chapter 20, at the beginning the Second League was popular (Sparta in the present was a greater cause of worry than an Athens which seemed to have learned from the past), and on the whole kept its promises; but, as Athens had not disbanded the Delian League when it ceased wanting to fight against Persia, it did not disband the Second League when, within ten years of its foundation, far from wanting to resist Sparta it made an ally of Sparta, and the League failed to find a new purpose and its promises were increasingly broken.

What are we to make of the Delian League? There had never before in the Greek world been an organisation which embraced so many Greek states and subjected them to such an extent to the will of the leader (cf. Thuc. II. 64. iii: various passages in Thucydides contrast the alternatives for Athens of ruling others and being ruled by others). This was, however, accomplished within what Greeks could regard as an acceptable framework: the members were not incorporated in the Athenian state, as Rome was to incorporate its subjects (to be made part of a greater Athens, even with citizenship, would have been far more shocking to Greeks than what was done in the Delian League), but remained technically independent poleis, with their own laws, their own political machinery, their own cults and festivals, and so on. Nevertheless, most of them not only did lose the freedom to decide their own foreign policy but also were subjected to various kinds of internal interference (the form of constitution, the transfer of lawsuits to Athens, the payment of tribute as well as the sending of offerings to Athenian festivals, the loss of land for settlements of Athenian citizens), though much of this interference was not systematic throughout the League but took the form of ad hoc reactions to particular provocations. On the other hand, there were economic benefits for everybody in belonging to an organisation which kept the Aegean free from pirates, whose use of common standards facilitated trade, and which provided employment for many men who were not self-sufficient landowners. Where Athens had encouraged or demanded democracy many individuals enjoyed political rights which they might otherwise not have enjoyed; and the polarisation of the Greek world between Athenian-backed democracies and Spartan-backed oligarchies made for stability, as we shall see when we look at the less stable world of the fourth century.

Whether a state would be better off inside the League or outside depends on what alternative is set up for comparison: a world in which the League existed but a particular state tried to go it alone, a world in which the League as we know it did not exist but some other kind of organisation did, or a world in which there was no significant entity larger than the individual poleis and each polls had to do the best that it could for itself. As the Athenians themselves were to find when facing Philip of Macedon (cf. chapter 24), local pride and material interest might point in different directions, and how that dilemma was to be resolved would depend on one’s own priorities; the same dilemma has faced the states of Europe confronted by the European Union.

For Athens itself there can be no doubt that its position at the head of the League made available to it resources which would have been beyond the reach even of this exceptionally large Greek polls on its own, and it is hard to believe that fifth-century Athens could have risen to such heights of achievement in drama and in the visual arts without these resources and without the confidence which came with the success of the League. It was the state which built up the empire which was ‘an education for Greece’ (Thuc. II. 41. i).


For general books on the Delian League see the note at the end of chapter 2.

On the extent to which the empire was exploited economically by Athens see Meiggs, The Athenian Empire, chs. 13–14; M. I. Finley, ‘The Fifth-Century Athenian Empire: A Balance Sheet’, in Garnsey and Whittaker (eds.), Imperialism in the Ancient World, 103–26. On the previous owners of land given to Athenian cleruchs see R. Zelnick-Abramovitz, ‘Settlers and Dispossessed in the Athenian Empire’, Mnem.4 lvii 2004, 325–45. That we should see the cultural predominance of Athens, not only in the empire but throughout the Greek world, rather than the impoverishment of the other members, is argued by R. Osborne, ‘Archaeology and the Athenian Empire’, TAPA cxxix 1999, 319–32. On the transfer of lawsuits from allied cities to Athens see G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, ‘Notes on Jurisdiction in the Athenian Empire’, CQ2 xi 1961, 94–112, 268–80; Meiggs, The Athenian Empire, ch. 12.

The suggestion of Grote, History of Greece, vi. 9–10, 182–4 (12-vol. edition) = v. 149–51, 319–21 (10-vol. edition) that, in contrast to the view ofThucydides, the empire was not unpopular with all its subjects but popular with lower-class democrats and unpopular only with upper-class oligarchs, was argued vigorously by G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, ‘The Character of the Athenian Empire’, Hist, iii 1954–5, 1–41. Among the responses which he elicited, see particularly D. W. Bradeen, ‘The Popularity of the Athenian Empire’,Hist, ix 1960, 257–69; J. de Romilly, ‘Thucydides and the Cities of the Athenian Empire’, BICS xiii 1966, 1–12. Fifth- and fourth-century judgments on the empire are reviewed by Meiggs, The Athenian Empire, chs. 21, 22.

The view of Aristophanes’ Babylonians as a sympathetic portrayal of Athens’ oppressed subjects can be found in Murray, Aristophanes, 25–1, but was criticised by G. Norwood, ‘The Babylonians of Aristophanes’, CP xxv 1930, 1–10, and by W. G. Forrest, Aristophanes and the Athenian Empire’, in The Ancient Historian and His Materials… C. E. Stevens, ch. 2. On Eupolis see Storey, Eupolis: Poet of Old Comedy, and on his Cities see I. Storey, ‘The Politics of Angry Eupolis’, AHB viii 1994, 107–20 at 109–11.

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