How and why did Athens become an Empire?



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How and why did Athens become an Empire?
During the Persian wars, Athens became the most dominant naval power in the world. The Ionians sought a powerful ally like Athens for protection from the Persians. At the beginning the Delian League was to be beneficial for both Athens and her allies, however because of radical democracy, the leadership of Aristides, Cimon and in particular Pericles and his aggressive imperial policy Athens had transformed the Delian League into the Athenian Empire. This essay will discuss how Athens became not only a member but leader of the Delian League; it will also examine Aristides, Cimon and Pericles fight for the right to set the direction of the League, Pericles’ foreign policy and finally Sparta’s response to Athens growing power.
Athens willingly and in fact, eagerly became the leader of the Delian League because of self interest and the opportunities that it would provide for her. After the Greeks final victory over the Persians in 479 BC, some of the Greek communities in the Aegean still sought liberation from Persian control. The Ionians first looked to Sparta to secure and maintain their independence. However Sparta was more concerned with problems that affected them and so were apprehensive about having to ensure the safety of the Ionians as well. Sparta was under constant threat from the Helots, they had an independent grain supply and they lacked a navy large enough ensure the Ionians safety. Sparta’s loss of supreme military command was not only because of traditional security and religious issues but also the Peloponnesian states began to question Sparta’s leadership of the Peloponnesian League and Pausanias’ “grasping and overbearing conduct” towards the Greeks at the end of the war. Pausanias’ actions in particular as well as Sparta’s attitude that the Ionians should return to the mainland for protection, this greatly angered the larger Ionian settlements being Chios, Lesbos and Samos. Plutarch states that the allies “approached Aristides and pressed him to accept the supreme command and rally around him the allies who had long wished to be quit of Sparta and to transfer their support to Athens.” Athens was the obvious alternative to Sparta. Athens had proven herself as a more than capable leader through the likes of Xanthippus and Aristides and Athens victory at Salamis and the removal of Persian control in Asia Minor.

Leadership of the League was in the best interests of Athens. Athens was heavily dependent on maritime trade, and so like the Allies, control of the shipping lanes would be essential for Athens growth. Athens moving away from a landed aristocracy meant that because Athens was a democracy, was forced to seek her wealth through trade and so taking leadership of the Delian League was a logical decision. Lastly, Athens had the same ancestry as the Ionians, unlike the Spartans.


When the Delian League was formed it was set out to be mutually beneficial for Athens and the Allies as it was an aggressive as well as a defensive alliance, they had “the same enemies and the same friends”. The structure and organisation of the League can be largely attributed to Aristides, whose reputation among the Athenians and the Allies was seen as the honourable politician and was given the nickname ‘the Just’. Meetings and the treasury were to be held at the island of Delos, which was located in the central Aegean. Each member was to be represented by a deputy, they were to be free and equal and each member had one vote and all votes were equal. At council meetings policy was discussed. Aristides devised a regular system of phoros (contributions) which, according to Plutarch, was done with “scrupulous integrity and justice, but also in such a way that all the states felt they had been appropriately and satisfactorily dealt with.” The contributions consisted of money payments and ships (which would be needed to support a constant state of war against the League’s enemies.)
Although Thucydides argues that Athens plan all along had been to “compensate themselves for their losses by ravaging the territory of the King of Persia”, their initial actions were structured, according to Bradley, “not only with fairness and integrity but also with kindness and good will.” Since the Allies were to be free and equal members they may not have realised that their membership would become permanent. However Aristotle points out the oath of allegiance that the Allies and Athenians had made, they threw lumps of iron into the sea to symbolise an alliance that would last until the metal floated. This suggests that both Athens and the Allies thought the oaths to be permanent and an attempt to leave the alliance would be viewed as an act of war. Due to the fairness of the phoros, the ability of the assembly to vote on either: contributing ships, men or money, and Athens agreement to collect the phoros (which was seen as a burden), meant there was little objection about the purpose of the League.
Athens’ radical democracy allowed greater participation by ordinary citizens. It’s considered radical because of the selection by lot, rotation of offices, collegiality and the payment for services. This radical democracy allowed people such as Aristides, Cimon, Pericles and others to compete for control over the direction of the League. Aristides management of the League was soon replaced by Cimon who took control as the oligarchic faction’s general. Cimon was renowned for his military prowess. He managed to take control of the Aegean in the battles of Byzantium, Eion, Caria, Eurymedon and also conquered Sycrus which was inhabited by non-Greek pirates. Cimon did not have complete power over the League’s actions. He followed a new policy of Panhellenic idealism, showing particular favour to the Spartans. When Themistocles’ fortified Athens’ city and harbour, Sparta was deeply angered because they feared Athens’ growing dominance and imperialism. Cimon’s pro-Spartan attitude during this time was not very popular among the Athenians “afterwards, when [Athens’] power had grown and they saw that Cimon was wholeheartedly attached to the Spartans, they resented this”. In 464 BC the Spartans sought help with the helot revolt; Cimon took 4000 hoplites with him in the name of Panhellenic friendship. However the Spartans singled the Athenians out from the other allies and sent them away because they feared they were “dangerous revolutionaries”. When Cimon returned to Athens he was blamed for Sparta’s insulting behaviour and as a result was ostracised in 461 BC.

Pericles represented the democratic faction and through his exceptional ability as a speaker and manipulation of the voting system was able to mould Athens domestic and foreign policy. In 461 BC Pericles continued with Themistocles and Ephialtes anti-Spartan policies and democratic reforms. Pericles’ popularity is largely due to him giving dignity to the poorer classes. Unlike Cimon who gave charity or hand outs to the poor, Pericles gave them employment, introducing payment for citizens for their services to the state. By doing this Pericles ensured their vote and loyalty. Pericles became such a powerful figure in Athens because he was the Strategoi, or general, this was the most important position in Athens because the Strategoi was elected annually and could be re-elected, their role was to conduct foreign policy and call meetings of the Assembly. The Strategoi, archons, Areopagus and boule were the ones who presented laws to be voted on in the ecclesia, every Athenian could stand up in the ecclesia and persuade others to vote in their favour. However Pericles recognised that because of his abilities as a speaker and politician and his understanding of the system he had more power than the archons, as they were elected annually and could not be re-elected. By being in power for 15 years (461-446 BC), Pericles was able to convince Athenians to accept his policies.


Pericles embarked on an aggressive imperial policy to maintain his position in Athens. He continued the ongoing existence and expansion of the League, which resulted in Athens becoming more ruthless toward the allies. Pericles directed the great wealth that came into the treasury and restored the temples destroyed by the Persians and built many new structures, the most impressive of which was the Parthenon on the Acropolis. This building programme provided employment for the poorer citizens. The fact that when Pericles did not deliver on some of his promises, and as a result was not re-elected for that year, only strengthens the idea that both Pericles and the voters were abusing the system. As well as his aggressive imperial policy, Pericles was able to control who voted by reforming Athens citizenship laws, allowing people with both parents of Athenian ancestry the right to be an Athenian citizen. "So in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen" (2.65). Pericles's policies were based on a simple idea: Athenian control over her empire must be maintained at all costs.
The aims of the offensive actions undertaken by Pericles were not only for imperialistic purposes, but also trade. As a result, revolts from members of the League such as Thasos in 465 BC, and Naxos and Samos in 440 BC needed to be efficiently subdued because Athens needed control of their grain and shipping lanes. Although Athens gained victory easily due to the allies being crippled by the phoros, the heavy handedness meant that many of the allies were deeply resentful and bitter and required constant surveillance. Thucydides states that Pericles recognised the "empire [was] now like a tyranny: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go."
Pericles formed various measures to keep the allies under Athenian control. He attempted to strip them of their independence by forcing them to use Athenian coinage, weights and measures, all law trials where held in Athens which gave Athenian citizens employment and income. The final transformation of the Delian League into the Athenian Empire was a result of the subject states swearing oaths of allegiance to Athens and the instalment of puppet governments, garrisons and cleruchies in these allied states, to ensure Athens’ best interests. This further suppression of the allies did succeed initially, however the allies began to move in closer allegiance with the Spartans who offered them independence.
The formation of the Athenian Empire caused great fear among the Spartans. Members of the Peloponnesian League were threatened but also jealous of Athens prosperity, Pericles was responsible for Athens’ golden age of philosophy, architecture, art and mathematics. As a result, tensions between Athens and Sparta spilled over. In 447BC at the battle of Korenea, Tolmides’ Athenian forces were defeated by Sparta, which led to revolts and other victories to Sparta. This victory had severely damaged Athens’ land empire. Consequently Pericles signed the Thirty Years Truce in 446 BC with Sparta in order to regain control of the maritime empire, reduce the number of fronts being fought on and to prepare for war with Sparta, but only when it was most advantageous for Athens. Pericles transformation of Athens into an empire had made war with Sparta all but inevitable.
In the initial stages, the League was structured to be beneficial for Athens and the allies. Radical democracy, the leadership of Aritides, Cimon and especially Pericles and his aggressive imperial policy transformed the allies from being independent states into a powerful empire in which all members became subject to Athens via methods of control.





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