Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 7

Boundless Ambition [462-446 B.C.]

I assert that the poor and the common people are right to prevail against the well-born and the rich, since it is the common people who propel the ships and empower the city.

—Xenophon the Orator

THE OAR AND ROWING PAD OF THE COMMON CITIZEN OF ATHENS might seem less poetical and glorious than the hoplite’s shield and spear, but all the world now knew that the city’s power rested on swift triremes and strong crews. Abroad, the Athenian commoner ruled the seas. At home, he was still a second-class citizen. The law allowed to him a vote in the Assembly, but he was barred from holding public office. The pressures of his daily work often kept him away from Assembly meetings. Athens was in fact less a democracy than a commonwealth governed by the richest citizens. All archons and generals came from the ranks of the wealthy, and the bar of property qualification was set so high that even the ten thousand hoplites were excluded. The common citizen could do no more than choose his leaders: leadership itself was denied him.

Ever since Salamis a council of aristocrats and wealthy citizens had been steadily encroaching on the power of the democratic Council and Assembly. It was called the council of the Areopagus or “Hill of Ares,” an exclusive body of men who had previously served as archons. As members-for-life in the Areopagus, about three hundred of these upper-class citizens exercised what influence they could on Athenian politics. They held their meetings on a spur of the Acropolis sacred to the war god, and from their high perch they looked down in every sense on the rest of Athens.

In the years after the victory at Eurymedon, while Cimon was engaged in a war over the markets and mines of Thasos, the radical democratic element in Athens at last found an effective champion. He was Ephialtes, a citizen who had already established his credentials as a political leader by undertaking a naval command. As a general he had led a fleet to the eastern Mediterranean; as a public figure he had acquired an unassailable reputation for being upright and incorruptible.

Ephialtes was among the few Athenians who could find their own names in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. These stories told how a giant named Ephialtes set out to scale Mount Olympus, piling Pelion atop Ossa in his ambition to dethrone the gods. The giant was a true son of the sea. His mother, a young maiden in love with Poseidon, had conceived twin sons by pouring sea water into her lap. Once they had grown to titanic size, Ephialtes and his brother started their revolt against the gods by capturing mighty Ares and binding him in chains. As had happened before with Cimon and Theseus, the ancient myths were again shedding a luster of divine prophecy on daily events in Athens. Once the contemporary Athenian Ephialtes began a political revolution, his challenge to the rulers who sat on the Hill of Ares must have seemed foreordained even to his opponents.

Ephialtes began by hauling individual Areopagites into court on accusations of official misconduct, using judicial procedures to achieve political ends. Having weakened the venerable council, he launched a broadside attack on its accumulated privileges and prerogatives. New laws reassigned them to the democratic Council of Five Hundred, the Assembly, or the jury courts. In the end the Areopagus was left with nothing but jurisdiction over two kinds of cases: homicides and injuries to the sacred olive trees. In a grand symbolic act, Ephialtes uprooted the tablets of the law from their traditional place of seclusion on the Acropolis and carried them down to a new site in the Agora, where they could be read and consulted by all.

Among the Greeks revolution usually meant stasis, violent civil strife between factions. But the radical changes precipitated by Ephialtes were carried through, not by armed mobs in the streets, but by an orderly show of hands in the Assembly. It was a bloodless revolution—until a lone assassin murdered Ephialtes himself. The killer was never caught, but it became known that he was a man from Tanagra in Boeotia, acting on behalf of parties unknown. In the ancient myth of the giants, the Olympian gods shot out Ephialtes’ eyes with arrows and roped him with vipers to a pillar in hell. The Areopagites and their aristocratic sympathizers must have wished even worse torments on the man who had robbed them of their powers. But to most Athenians, Ephialtes died a hero.

The torch of radical democracy was passed forward to Pericles, the son of Xanthippus, who pressed ahead with the reforms. A decade earlier, when he was still in his twenties, Pericles had launched his public career by sponsoring the first production of Aeschylus’ Persians. Like Phrynichus’Phoenician Women, Aeschylus’ tragedy presented the battle of Salamis from the Persian point of view and made the Athenian victory seem part of a divine punishment of the Great King. Aeschylus was not only Athens’ first playwright of genius but a veteran of Salamis, and he brought the battle to life with his vivid poetry. Two lines of the play hinted at Pericles’ democratic convictions. Concerning the Athenians, the Persian queen mother asked, “Who shepherds them and rules their host?” And the chorus of Persian elders replied: “They are not called slaves or subjects to any man.”

Now in his early thirties, Pericles had naval achievements of his own to celebrate. After the victory at the Eurymedon River he led a fleet of fifty Athenian triremes on an expedition to the eastern Mediterranean. As heir to Ephialtes’ revolution, Pericles took advantage of Athens’ brimming treasury to institute pay for jurors. Thanks to him, poor citizens were now able to leave their daily work to serve on immense juries of up to 501 that dealt out justice around the Agora. Thus the judiciary was democratized also. And six years after Ephialtes’ death, the office of archon was officially opened to the citizens of the hoplite class. Eventually the archonship was even held by thetes.

One prominent opponent tried in vain to stem the onrush of radical democracy. Cimon made every effort in the Assembly to restore the status of the Areopagus. With his naval campaigns he had done even more than Themistocles to empower the lower classes, but he had not foreseen the consequences. Nor had Cimon anticipated the change in Athenian feeling that suddenly made his admiration for Sparta appear treasonous. A catastrophic earthquake had devastated Spartan territory and touched off a rebellion of the Messenian helots, but the Spartans had brusquely dismissed Athenian efforts to aid them. Angered by Spartan mistrust and suspicion, the Assembly repudiated the alliance that Cimon held so dear. He had often told them that Athens and Sparta were in truth two horses yoked to the same chariot. Should either member of the team go lame, all Greece would suffer.

In opposing the city’s spirit of revolution, Cimon suddenly seemed irreconcilably at odds with his fellow citizens. In the spring after Ephialtes carried his democratic reforms, a vote of ostracism sent Cimon into exile. Only six years had passed since the victory at the Eurymedon River had seemingly put Cimon at the summit of Athens’ pantheon of heroes. His father, Miltiades, had suffered a similar fate within a year of his victory at Marathon. There was no question that the Athenians often dealt more harshly with their leaders than they did with their enemies.

The Assembly, now in an expansive mood, was willing to reconsider an alliance that had been offered some years earlier, an alliance that would embroil them in a war more distant than any Athens had yet undertaken. Shortly after the death of Xerxes a rebellion broke out in Egypt. Led by a Libyan king named Inarus, a descendant of the last native Egyptian pharaohs, the population of the Nile delta had driven out their Persian governors and tax collectors. Inarus sent envoys to beg the Athenians for aid. If they would send a fleet to support his war of liberation, he offered to give them a share in running the country and monetary rewards far greater than the cost of the expedition.

The possibility of an alliance with Egypt intrigued Aeschylus, who loved to make references to remote parts of the world in his plays. While the Assembly was debating Inarus’ invitation, Aeschylus presented a tragedy called The Suppliants that intertwined a mythical plot with a specific political agenda and a general plea for helping foreigners in distress. Just as he had done in Persians ten years earlier, Aeschylus gave the Athenian audience a geography lesson. He reminded them of the Egyptian cities of Memphis and Canopus, the remote land of the Ethiopians, and the fabulous wheat harvests of North Africa.

From its opening lines, The Suppliants conjured up images of the Nile delta with its many streams, papyrus plants, buzzing insects, and sand dunes. The play even included a reference to nomadic women riding camels. The chorus sang of the sea voyage from Greece to Egypt, a simple matter of crossing the Aegean, passing Asia Minor, continuing onward to Cyprus, and then turning south. Aeschylus’ plot hinged on the ancestral ties that linked Egyptians and Greeks as descendants of the mythical brothers Aegyptus and Danaus. On the surface the play seemed timeless, and it would in fact endure for ages to come. But like most Athenian art, The Suppliants also reflected the current topics of debate in the Assembly and Agora at the moment of its creation.

For two years after the democratic revolution the Assembly was engaged in creating new alliances with Argos, Thessaly, and Megara in case of Spartan aggression. Once these friendships were formalized, the people felt ready to undertake more distant ventures. With Egypt still on their minds, the Athenians fitted out a large number of ships, called for contingents from the maritime allies, and dispatched a fleet of two hundred triremes to Cyprus under a general named Charitimides. The island was still bitterly divided between Phoenician cities that paid tribute to the Persians, and Greek cities struggling to maintain their independence.

Soon after the Athenians arrived in Cyprus, messengers from King Inarus brought an appeal for immediate help against the Persian satrap and his army of occupation. The entire western delta was now in rebel hands, and a crisis seemed imminent. The Athenians broke off their campaign on Cyprus and headed south. The Nile River made its presence felt a full day out from their landfall. As the Greek lookouts cast sounding leads into the water, they brought up thick mud from a depth of about sixty-five feet. This silt had been pushed far out to sea by the river’s annual floods. Soon they caught their first glimpse of the long sand dunes broken by gaps where the river channels flowed out to the sea. From here the two hundred triremes began to traverse the immense wedge of land on which Greeks had bestowed a name borrowed from the triangular fourth letter of their alphabet: delta.

To the Athenians, used to rocky hills and dry summers, this flat green world was intoxicatingly strange. Water mingled with black mud, teeming with life. The air was humid and fresh; the earth smelled like a garden. From the decks of their triremes the Greeks looked out over a boundless expanse of papyrus, hemp, sedge, and lotus: heavy vegetation never touched by snow or frost. Above the rippling water plants rose slender palms, their crests nodding in the steady northerly breezes. Flocks of wild ducks, geese, and ibises burst into view, startled by the passing of the ships. Squealing hippopotami (“river horses” to the Greeks), challenged their passage. Nile perch and other monstrous fish swam alongside the triremes in the froth stirred up by the oars. Mosquitoes tortured everyone who could not get a sleeping net.

The long line of triremes shared the narrow channels with local craft from a tradition immeasurably older than anything the Athenians knew. They saw cargo boats built of short planks laid together like bricks in a wall, rafts made of bundled papyrus, and flat-bottomed punts propelled through shallows with long poles. Strange, strange: a man leaned from a papyrus skiff to harpoon a crocodile; a calm bare-breasted woman squatted at the steering oar of a passing barge; funeral barques bore wailing mourners and mummified corpses. On shore the people drank mugs of frothy beer instead of wine. Strange.

In the delta the allies from Samos, Lesbos, and Chios came into their own. Many steersmen from those islands knew Egypt well. Their forefathers had been among the Greek “bronze men” who had served the pharaohs for more than two centuries as mercenary troops and later as traders. Like the Aeginetans, the Ionians had been granted an emporium on the Canopic branch of the Nile. The Greek merchants named their city Naukratis (“Ship Power”), and the Egyptians allowed the little expatriate community to build temples to their gods.

The Athenians and their allies were cheered by news from the rebel king Inarus, whose army had just won a great victory near Naukratis. Following the battle the Persian survivors had fled upriver toward the ancient city of Memphis. Soon afterward Charitimides arrived with his fleet; Inarus and the Egyptian troops boarded the Greek triremes and set off in pursuit. Up to now the Persians had cruised about at will with their own trireme fleet. The Nile was the highway of Egypt. Whoever controlled the river controlled the entire country.

The Canopic branch was too narrow for fleet actions. Above the delta, however, where all the branches were united in one stream, the great river broadened dramatically. Here the Greeks caught their first view of the Great Pyramid, rearing up amid attendant tombs and temples on the western bank. Though two thousand years old, it was still the largest and tallest structure on the face of the earth. From Giza southward the river matched the monuments in majesty, spreading more than a mile from bank to bank. In some places and seasons the Nile was in fact wider than either the Hellespont or the Salamis strait. Much of it was shallow, but the triremes with their shallow drafts could navigate the river easily.

In one of the broad reaches upriver from the delta, Persian triremes at last came into view. Though only eighty in number, they had an initial advantage as they swept down on the Greeks with the force of the current behind them. But at Salamis the Athenians had been more than a match for the Egyptians in Persian service, and they faced them now with two additional decades of training behind them. In the final tally twenty Persian ships were sunk, thirty were captured, and the remaining thirty managed to escape, either passing through the delta to the sea or fleeing southward to Upper Egypt, where some Persian garrisons still held their ground.

Nearby lay the greatest prize of all: Memphis. There the Persians had maintained a royal navy yard called the House of Boats, staffed with thousands of workers. The harbor was crowded with ferryboats, fishing craft, cargo vessels, and transports, and the city walls rose almost from the water’s edge. Memphis had fallen at least once before to an army in ships: an invading Nubian king had brought his tall-masted warships right up to the walls. Some of his men swarmed across to the battlements on the yardarms, while others reached shore on pontoons made of local boats.

Inarus and his Greek allies enjoyed the great advantage of having friends within the walls—most Egyptians resented the Persians just as they had resented other foreign rulers. In short order the rebel army liberated two-thirds of the city. The remaining Persians and their Egyptian collaborators retreated through the streets to a stronghold that the Greeks called the White Fortress. Except for this fortified place, all of Lower Egypt from Memphis to the sea was now in the hands of Inarus and his Greek allies. Not only was this the richest and most populous part of the country, but the Greek fleet at Memphis could act like a stopper in a bottle, taxing or impounding cargoes from higher up the Nile as they made their way to the sea.

The Athenians proudly considered themselves to be champions of freedom, but they had not undertaken the expedition solely for the cause of Egyptian liberty. In terms of wealth, Egypt stood third among the twenty satrapies of the Persian Empire. Only Babylonia and India surpassed Egypt’s annual tribute of seven hundred silver talents, a greater amount than the Athenians collected each year from their entire maritime alliance. Egypt also provided 120,000 bushels of grain annually to feed the Persian army. And it was through Egypt that the Ethiopians had been accustomed to send their own tribute of ebony logs, elephant tusks, and unrefined gold. By wresting Egypt from the Persians, Inarus and his Greek allies had deprived the Great King of a fortune in annual income, some of which would now find its way to Athens.

But Egypt meant more to the Athenians than treasure. A century before the Persian Wars, the famous Athenian lawgiver Solon had voyaged in his own trading ship from Athens to Egypt and had brought back history and wisdom gleaned from priests in the cities of Saïs and Thebes. Generations later, when the Athenian philosopher Plato wrote his famous myth of Atlantis (in truth an allegory on the evils of maritime empire), he claimed that Egyptian priests were the keepers of the most ancient historical traditions. Egypt offered Athens wheat, papyrus, mathematics, medicine, and the world’s richest tradition of stone sculpture and architecture.

Most of the Greek fleet returned to the Aegean at the end of its successful first year of campaigning, along with the first loads of booty that Inarus had promised. Charitimides stayed behind to command the Greek allied forces. The army of several thousand hoplites would besiege the White Fortress in Memphis, while the fleet of forty triremes controlled shipping and transported troops up and down the Nile.

In order to support its mission in Egypt, the Athenians needed a naval base on the coast of Lebanon or Palestine. They could avail themselves of well-known landing places as far as Cyprus, but as yet they had no secure way station where the crews could rest on the long haul from Cyprus to the delta. The success of any maritime empire built on oared ships depended on its control not of large tracts of territory but of strategically situated coastal sites that offered fresh water, provisions, and protection from bad weather and enemy attacks. The Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre held much of the mainland coast, and they were still loyal to Persia. Fifty miles south of these urban centers, however, the Athenians found an isolated and tempting target.

The ancient town of Dor stood atop a rocky promontory, protected on its landward side by a marshy swale that formed a natural moat. Beyond the coastal lowlands rose the majestic ridge of Mount Carmel. To the south of Dor a chain of islets enclosed a lagoon and a sandy beach. An unfailing freshwater spring welled up at the sea’s edge. Taking advantage of Dor’s distance from its rightful master, the King of Sidon, the Athenians came ashore and seized the place. As they settled into the little hilltop town of straight streets, with its Persian-built fortifications and Phoenician dye pits for the purpling of cloth, these adventurers were establishing on the Great King’s doorstep the most remote outpost of the seemingly invincible Athenian navy.

After several years of Athenian engagement in Egypt, Aeschylus took notice of the great venture once again, this time in his famous trilogy the Oresteia. When his hero Orestes cried out to Athena for help, the goddess was imagined a long way off, fighting alongside her friends in North Africa. Aeschylus also meditated on justice and civil strife, on wars and wealth. His verses warned the Athenian audience to revere justice, comparing a prosperous but unjust man to a ship carrying a rich cargo through a stormy sea. Athena herself issued a commandment against civil strife at home: “Let our wars rage on abroad, with all their force, to satisfy our powerful lust for fame.”

When news of the Egyptian rebellion reached Susa, King Artaxerxes considered how best to deal with the Athenians. It would be years before he could assemble a force big enough to drive them out of Egypt. In the meantime striking a blow closer to Athens itself seemed worth trying. Fitting out a royal embassy with chests of gold from his treasury, Artaxerxes sent an envoy from his court all the way to Sparta, with orders to bribe the Spartans into launching a war against the Athenians. An attack from the Peloponnese would surely force the Athenians to withdraw from Egypt. It seemed inconceivable to the Great King that Athens could wage war on two fronts at once.

The Spartans showed no interest in the Persian gold. Their naval allies, however, were ready to attack Athens with or without bribes. The Corinthians were angry that the Athenians had sided against them in a border war with Megara, while the islanders of Aegina bitterly resented the eclipse that their own navy and shipping had suffered. The Athenians aimed a preemptive strike at a Peloponnesian port called Halieis, but Corinthian hoplites drove them back to their ships. Then Sparta’s maritime allies assembled a fleet and engaged the Athenians in battle near the rocky islet of Cecryphaleia in the Saronic Gulf. Fighting on their own element this time, the Athenians were victorious. After the battle they vengefully followed the Aeginetans back to their island stronghold. There the Athenian navy won an even greater victory, capturing seventy enemy triremes and setting up a blockade of Aegina Harbor. Crossing back to the Piraeus, the Athenian general Leocrates mounted siege machinery on the decks of his triremes and then returned to assault the Aeginetans’ city walls.

The siege lasted for months, but neither Sparta nor the Peloponnesian allies could do anything to raise it. King Artaxerxes summoned his envoy back to Persia, his mission a complete failure. Nothing could check the Athenians. They were still entrenched in Egypt, and they now had a pretext for conquering their old rivals on Aegina. Never had Athens known such a year of fighting. Never before had there been such a heavy toll of dead and so many heroes to bury along the Sacred Way.

That year the monument over the common tomb was a long wall of names inscribed on stone slabs. Generals and even a prophet were listed democratically alongside the rank and file. Above the names, in a mixture of grief and pride, the people had set inscriptions to tell of the campaigns that had claimed the men’s lives. “These died fighting in Cyprus, in Egypt, in Phoenicia, in Halieis, in Aegina, at Megara, in the same year.” A few months earlier the men on those lists had crowded into the Assembly to hear the debates on the far-flung campaigns and to raise their hands in the voting. Their boundless ambition was equaled only by their readiness to pay the price.

Back in Athens, the hostilities with Corinth and Aegina made the completion of the Long Walls to the Piraeus seem an urgent matter. Before Cimon’s ostracism, he had stabilized the wet ground west of Athens, preparing a solid base for the wall that would run to the Piraeus. A second wall would connect the city to the old port of Phaleron. With the wealth of Egypt and the Thracian mines filling the treasury, the Assembly was now in a position to vote the necessary funds for a building project greater than any other in Athenian history. The scale was heroic. Eight miles of walls were to be constructed, sixteen feet thick at the base and soaring to a formidable height. The vertiginous walkway along the top of the wall would be twelve feet broad. Stone blocks would form the lower courses, bricks the upper, and the plan also called for projecting towers. Once completed, the walls would make Athenian access to the sea as secure as if the city had been an island: the realization of Themistocles’ dream.

The resumption of work on the Long Walls jolted Athens’ oligarchs into action. A small group of upper-class citizens still hoped to destroy the radical democracy. These men feared that once Athens was permanently and inseparably linked to its navy by the Long Walls, the common people would never be unseated from their rule. Before the walls had been completed, the oligarchs sent secret messages to a Spartan army that was at that moment encamped not far from the frontiers of Attica. The oligarchs invited the Spartans to attack Athens, promising to assist in the overthrow of the current regime. In their own minds these men were patriots, pledged to restore the ancestral constitution.

Somehow the plot was betrayed, and the entire Assembly was warned of the danger. The hoplites were as eager to defend their democracy and the Long Walls as were the rowers in the fleet. The full army of Athens marched out and confronted the Spartans on a field near Tanagra in Boeotia. The Spartans won a narrow victory, but the Athenian citizens had not fought in vain. Discouraged by the unexpected resistance, the Spartans gave up any further idea of interfering with the Long Walls and marched home.

The Athenians wanted revenge. Their hotheaded general Tolmides (his name meant “Son of the Bold”) proposed that an Athenian fleet should carry out a novel expedition around the Peloponnese to punish the Spartans and force them for once onto the defensive. Coasting along from one target to the next, the Athenians would destroy fortifications, collect booty, and spread terror. Before local defenders could reach the scene, the raiders would have boarded their ships and moved on. In short, Tolmides proposed that the Athenians act exactly like pirates. The Assembly voted Tolmides a fleet and a military complement of one thousand hoplites, but his scheme was so popular that many young citizens joined as volunteers. The trireme design that Cimon had introduced before the Eurymedon campaign allowed extra hoplites to be accommodated on the wide decks.

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With fifty triremes Tolmides cruised south to Cape Malea. After rounding this dangerous promontory, the fleet descended without warning on the Spartan port of Gythium and set fire to the docks. The marauders then continued their hit-and-run tactics all the way around the Peloponnese. Before returning to Athens that autumn, Tolmides landed at the seaside town of Naupactus in the Corinthian Gulf and turned it over to a band of Messenian rebels. These men had been recently expelled from their homeland by the Spartans. From Naupactus the refugees would be a thorn in Sparta’s side for years to come. Tolmides’ expedition proved so profitable on so many levels that during each of the next two summers the Assembly sent Pericles west with a fleet to keep up the tradition.

Of all Tolmides’ successes, none gave more happiness to Athenian shipwrights than the alliance he concluded with the islanders of Zacynthus, a little paradise of white cliffs and sandy coves. At the bottom of one of its lakes the island had a black treasure: tar. In the continual battle against rot, decay, and the teredo, a coating of tar could protect a trireme’s planking even more effectively than pitch from pine trees. At Zacynthus the tar was dredged up from a depth of twelve feet in the lake using leafy myrtle branches tied to the ends of poles. After being collected in pots, it could be carried to the beach and swabbed directly onto the hulls, or shipped home for storage in the Navy Yard at the Piraeus.

Bad news from Egypt put a temporary check on Athens’ campaigns in Greece. For six years the Athenians had shared the rule of the country with the rebel king Inarus. But Artaxerxes, though slow to act, felt that he could not afford to let Egypt go. A massive Persian counterattack overcame both the Egyptians and their Greek allies. The victorious Persians besieged the Athenian and Ionian troops on the island of Prosopitis in the Nile delta and, after Persian engineers drained the channels surrounding the island, captured or killed them all. Meanwhile the Great King’s force of Phoenician triremes ambushed and annihilated a relief fleet from Athens as it was entering the easternmost mouth of the Nile.

After the unexpected failure of the Egyptian venture, Pericles and the other generals attempted for the time being no more expeditions overseas. When Cimon returned from ostracism, he led an allied fleet of two hundred ships once again into the east, undaunted by the recent events on the Nile. One hundred forty triremes stayed with Cimon in Cyprus, while the remaining sixty went south to aid the continuing resistance to the Persians in the Nile delta. One Athenian trireme coasted westward from the delta on a sacred mission. Sent by Cimon himself, a deputation went ashore to consult the oracle of Zeus Ammon at the oasis of Siwa, eight or nine days from the sea. After their long journey, Ammon’s prophetic voice ordered them to go back to Cyprus. Cimon, said the god, was already with him.

Rejoining the main fleet, the Athenians discovered that Cimon was indeed with the gods. He had fallen sick and died while they were away. Fired by the spirit of their dead commander, the allied fleet fought a battle against another large Persian fleet and succeeded in capturing one hundred Phoenician triremes. Coming quickly to shore after the victory at sea, the Greek hoplites disembarked and defeated the Persian army on land. It was a victory that echoed Cimon’s own great double victory at the Eurymedon River, sixteen years before.

When the bitter news reached Susa, King Artaxerxes made a momentous decision. He could see no end to the vengeful attacks of the Athenians on his empire. Only four years earlier they had suffered heavy losses of men and ships in Egypt, yet now they were back, threatening to take Egypt from him once again. It was time to end the war that his forefathers had started. Artaxerxes sent riders along the Royal Road to the coast with a message for the Athenians. The Great King invited an embassy from their city to Susa, where his ministers would negotiate an end to hostilities.

When Artaxerxes’ invitation was delivered to the Assembly, the people voted to send Cimon’s brother-in-law Callias to Susa. As hereditary herald of Athens, he was given full powers to negotiate with the Great King. Months later Callias returned with a number of valuable items: golden bowls, a pair of peacocks, and a peace treaty. The Persians agreed to keep their naval forces east of the Chelidonian Islands in the Mediterranean and east of the Cyanean Rocks in the Black Sea. The Great King thus tacitly recognized the Aegean Sea, the Hellespont, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus as Athenian waters. The Persian Wars were over.

While Callias negotiated peace with Persia, the most remarkable generation in Athenian history was passing into retirement. These citizens were members of the annual cohort who had now reached the age of sixty. The turning points of their lives had been turning points in Athens’ fight against Persia as well. They had been the first crop of Athenian babies born into a free city in the year after the last tyrant was thrown out. At twenty they had fought the Persians at Marathon, the youngest Athenians on the field. At thirty they had boarded the triremes with Themistocles at Artemisium and Salamis. Before reaching the end of their active service at forty-five, they had followed Cimon to the Eurymedon River.

Now they would turn over to their sons the headship of their families and the governance of Athens. They themselves were embarking on the sheltered lagoon of old age, a placid round of family rites and jury duty. In the shade of Cimon’s plane trees, their spears and oars exchanged for walking sticks, they would recount their own deeds and remember fallen comrades. As youths many had taken the traditional oath: “I shall hand on my fatherland not less, but greater.” More than any other generation, these men had fulfilled that promise.

The hostilities with the Spartans and their allies still remained to be resolved. For years the Athenians had been aiding democratic factions in the cities of central Greece. As oligarchic rulers were expelled, these cities joined the Athenian alliance and received Athenian garrisons to ensure democratic rule and loyalty to Athens. By the time of the Peace of Callias an Athenian sphere of influence stretched from the northern Peloponnese almost to Thermopylae. When the forces of the exiled oligarchs finally struck back, the general Tolmides impetuously demanded that the Assembly give him an army to protect the land empire. Pericles opposed the expedition, but the Assembly voted in favor. The army lost a great battle at Coronea in Boeotia, Tolmides was killed, and many of the troops were taken prisoner. To ransom these hostages, the Athenians gave up their newly won territories and concluded a Thirty Years’ Peace with the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies. In the future the Athenians recognized the wisdom of Pericles and accepted rule of the sea as their destiny.

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