Ancient Greece


The Athenian Empire

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The First Peloponnesian War

   In 461 BC, under the leadership of Pericles, Cimon was ousted from power. Athens overnight changed direction in domestic and foreign politics. In foreign affairs, Athens began to define its role in direct relationship with Sparta rather than in relationship with Persia. Immediately after the exile of Cimon, the Athenians formed an alliance with Argos, a long-standing rival of Sparta. They later formed an alliance with Megara, the city which lay directly in the path of the route from Athens to the Peloponnesus, the southern part of Greece. To get at Athens, then, the Spartans would first have to go through the Megarans. The Spartans, as you can imagine, grew suspicious of these moves, particularly the alliance with Megara, and began a campaign against the Athenians: the First Peloponnesian War.

   Athens dominated the war in its early years, but a disastrous campaign against the Persians in Egypt decimated the Athenian navy and inspired several members of the Delian League to revolt. For the Delian League had imperceptibly become the Athenian Empire; the alliance was less about the security of the League as equal states, and more about Athenian power politics in Greece. Reeling from the Egyptian defeat and the various rebellions, Athens made peace with the Spartans. In 449 BC, Athens stopped the war with Persia that it had been aggressively pursuing since 478 BC.

   The Athenian empire, though, which was maintained not so much through good will as through the threat of force, began to fray at the edges. When Megara and a neighboring state, Boeotia, revolted from the alliance, Athens no longer had a buffer zone between it and the Peloponnesian states allied with Sparta. In 445 BC, Pericles, however, diverted disaster by making a thirty year peace with Sparta. Both sides got they wanted. Athens gave up political power over the states on the Greek mainland; in return, Sparta recognized the Athenian Empire as a legitimate political institution. The Athenian Empire, which had been gradually forming, was now official.

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The Empire

   Before the peace with Sparta, Athens benefitted from the taxes paid into the League and began growing quite wealty; after the peace, the Athenians moved the treasury to Athens and began keeping one sixtieth of all the revenue. The Athenians began to grew especially wealthy. The League, after all, was no longer at war with Persia, but the tribute money kept rolling in. At this stage, when the League had lost its military justification and when the tribute money was no longer really going for defense, the League in reality had become an Athenian empire. Reaction among the tribute states was mixed; some city-states eagerly participated in the empire, but most fumed under the onerousness of Athenian control and taxation. As Athens grew more and more powerful and the city more opulent, discontent grew among the tribute states. However, the Spartans, in particular, grew increasingly distrustfull of Athenian power and wealth. They had agreed to recognize the Athenian Empire in exchange for Athens giving up claims to continental territories; however, it was becoming apparent that even without the continental territory, the Athenians were a major threat to Sparta and its influence.

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Democracy and the Age of Pericles

   The great Athenian leader of this age, Pericles, was swept into power in a popular democratic movement. A member of a noble and venerable family, Pericles led the Athenians against Cimon for harboring autocratic intentions. Pericles had been the leader of the democratic faction of Athenian politics since 462 BC. Ephialtes was the Athenian leader who had finally divested the Areopagus of all its power; Athens was now solely governed by the council and the democratic Assembly. Pericles quickly brought forward legislation that let anyone serve as the archon (one of the nine central leaders of the country) despite birth or wealth. The Assembly became the central power of the state. Consisting of all the free-born (no freed slaves) male citizens of Athens, the Assembly was given sole approval or veto power over every state decision. The Assembly was not a representative government, but instead consisted of every male citizen. In terms of numbers, this still was not a democratic state: women weren't included, nor were foreigners, slaves, or freed slaves. Pericles also changed the rules of citizenship: before the ascendancy of Pericles, anyone born of a single Athenian parent was an Athenian citizen; Pericles instituted laws which demanded that both parents be Athenian citizens. So, in reality, the great democracy of Periclean Athens was in reality only a very small minority of the people living in Athens. It was, however, the closest human culture has come to an unadulterated democracy.

   The Assembly was given unprecedented power over the selections of officials; elected officials, such as military generals, were not chosen by the Assembly, but the Assembly did hire and fire all other public officials. In addition, the Assembly served as a law court hearing major cases. Any decision made in a court of law could be appealed to the Assembly where a court of free citizens would hear the case. There was no standing army, either, as there was in Sparta; free citizens could choose to serve in the military.

   One figure towers over this new democratic state: Pericles. This Age of Athens, which begins either in 462 or 450 or 445 BC and lasts until 408 BC, when Athens is defeated by Sparta, is called the Athenian Age, the Classical Age, or, after its most important political figure, the Age of Pericles. Just about everything that you associate with Greek culture is squeezed into this half century of wealth, energy, creativity, and chauvinism in Athens. All the great works of Greek tragedy and comedy, the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, were written in this time in the city of Athens. Most of the monumental works of architecture, built off of the wealth that literally poured into Athens from her imperial possessions, were built at this time: the Acropolis, the rebuilding of the Agora. Flush with wealth and at peace with Persia and Sparta, the Athenians had nothing better to do with this wealth then invest it in a massive cultural flowering of art, poetry, philosophy, and architecture.

   And still there remains the figure of Pericles himself. There is no question that the democratic reforms of the Age of Pericles owe their existence to the energy of this political figure. He was a man of immense persuasiveness and an orator of great power. Although he was eventually ostracized by the Athenians (he later returned), he dominated the democratic government of Athens with his formidable capacity to speak and to persuade. He had two central policies: democratic reform and the maintenance of the empire.

   Sparta, however, growing increasinly wary of Athenian prosperity, would soon find itself entangled once again with its old rival. The thirty year peace managed to hang on for only fourteen years before hostilities broke out again. In 431, a second war broke out, called simply The Peloponnesian War; this war would see the death of Pericles in its second year, but eventually witness the foolish destruction of the Athenian navy, the defeat of Athens, and the end of Athenian democracy.

The Peloponnesian War

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-17-96