Ancient Greece


The Delian League

   When the Persians retreated from Greece, the Greek League began show tensions. Although Sparta had contributed the most to the war and had fought the deciding battle at Plataea, the victory over the Persians would not have been possible without the Athenian navy, which remained powerful after the war. All the Greek cities in Asia Minor lived under the direct threat of Persian invasion and revenge; Sparta, being a land-based military, was in no position to defend these city-states. So these city-states, and the city-states of the islands in the Aegean, turned to Athens and her powerful navy for protection and alliance. The city-states in the south of Greece, and some in the north, turned to Sparta, which had led the Greek League in the war against the Persians. Thus was set up the great rivalry between these two diametrically opposed Greek states and cultures, a rivalry that would lift Athens to the height of empire only to be finally defeated by an increasingly distrustful Spartan alliance.

   The Persians had become a permanent fixture in Greek life; Greek experience throughout the fifth century BC was lived under the shadow of a possible Persian return. For Persia remained powerful and revenge was always on the horizon. In 478 BC, one year after the final defeat of the Persians, representatives from the Greek city-states of Asia Minor and the islands scattered throughout the Aegean Sea, met on the island of Delos—a sacred island associated with the cult of Apollo—to discuss an alliance with the Athenians. They swore oaths of alliance to each other and to Athens; thus was born the Delian League. This new league had several purposes besides defense; one of these was to wage a military campaign against the Persians to free those Greek cities that were still under the control of the Persians. Alhtough Athens was the leader of the League, each city-state had one vote—the League was essentially a democratic alliance between equals.

   The League busily set about fighting the Persians, freeing city after city until they achieved a decisive victory against the Persians in 467 BC. This battle freed several Greek cities, all of which joined the league. Many cities joined unwillingly; they were coerced by the League members sometimes under threat of destruction. Although the League was essentially democratic, they believed that the safety of the League and its objectives would be seriously compromised by states independent of the League.

   Athens during all this time was led by a powerfully brilliant political leader named Cimon, who was the son of Miltiades, the great hero of the battle of Marathon. Under his leadership, Athens and the League constantly and aggressively attacked the Persians; as the League grew, the power of Athens, as leader of the League, grew proportionately.

   Athens itself grew tremendously wealthy during this time; part of the agreement of the League involved tax payments by other members of the League to Athens for maintaining the fleet. With all that wealth, Athens began to invest in large building projects (such as the Acropolis), in drama, in art, and in crafts. The great flowering of Athenian culture begins in the heyday years of the Delian League, as wealth and power seemed to flow to Athens as if it were the center of the world.

   The turning point in the Delian League came with the revolt of a small island city, Thasos. Unhappy with the League and payments to Athens, Thasos rebelled against the League. Cimon promptly squashed this revolt; however, the reaction to the Thasos rebellion was the first time in the League history where a decision was made only in regard to the interests of Athens rather than the interests of the League as a whole. At home, Cimon became unpopular, and a radical democratic movement, under the leadership of Pericles, challenged his authority. As Athens stood on the brink of becoming a democratic state, Pericles stood ready to move the Delian League into an Athenian Empire.

The Athenian Empire

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-17-96