Athenian Imperialism

The victory over Persia had been made possible by a partial unity of Hellenic arms; but that unity quickly dissolved when Sparta, fearful of helot rebellion at home, recalled its troops and resumed its policy of isolation.

Because the Persians still ruled the Ionian cities and another invasion of Greece seemed probable, Athens in 478 B.C. invited the city-states bordering on the Aegean to form a defensive alliance called the Delian League.

To maintain a 200 ship navy that would police the seas, each state was assessed ships or money in proportion to its wealth. From the beginning, Athens dominated the league.

Since almost all of the 173 member states paid their assessments in money, which Athens was empowered to collect, the Athenians furnished the necessary ships.

By 468 B.C., after the Ionian cities had been liberated and the Persian fleet destroyed, various league members thought it unnecessary to continue the confederacy.

In suppressing all attempts to secede, the Athenians were motivated by the fear that the Persian danger still existed and by the need to maintain and protect the large free-trade area so necessary for Greek - and especially Athenian - commerce and industry.

The Athenians created an empire because they dared not unmake a confederation.

By aiding in the suppression of local aristocratic factions within its subject states, Athens both eased the task of controlling its empire and emerged as the leader of a union of democratic states.

To many Greeks - above all to the members of the oligarchic Spartan League and the suppressed aristocratic factions within the Athenian empire Athens was a "tyrant city" and an "enslaver of Greek liberties."

Pericles, on the other hand, justified Athenian imperialism on the ground that it brought "freedom" from fear and want to the Greek world:

The Peloponnesian War

In 431 B.C. the Peloponnesian War broke out between the Spartan League and the Athenian empire.


While commercial rivalry between Athens and Sparta's major ally Corinth was an important factor, the conflict is a classic example of how fear can generate a war unwanted by either side. The contemporary

historian Thucydides wrote:

  • The real but unavowed cause I consider to have been the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which it inspired in Lacedaemon [Sparta]; this made war inevitable. ^12
  • [Footnote 12: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 1.23.]

    Several incidents served to ignite the underlying tension, and Sparta

    declared war on the "aggressors."

    Sparta's hope for victory lay in its army's ability to besiege Athens and lay waste its fields.

    Pericles, on the other hand, relied on Athens' unrivaled navy to import foodstuffs and to harass its enemies' coasts.

  • Fate took a hand in this game, however. In the second year of the war a plague carried off a third of the Athenian population, including Pericles.

    His death was a great blow to Athens, for leadership of the government passed to demagogues.

  • Eight more years of indecisive warfare ended in 421 B.C. with a compromise peace.


    During the succeeding period Athenian imperialism manifested itself in its worst form through the actions of Pericles' less able successors.


    In 416 B.C. an expedition embarked for Melos, a neutral Aegean island, to force it to join the Athenian empire.


    Thucydides reports the Athenian argument used to justify their naked imperialism; not until Machiavelli's Prince (1513 A.D.) would power politics again be so

    ruthlessly and candidly presented:

  • We believe that Heaven, and we know that men, by a natural law, always rule where they are stronger. We
  • did not make that law nor were we the first to act on it; we found it existing, and it will exist forever, after we are gone; and we know that you and anyone else as strong as we are would do as we do. ^14

    [Footnote 14: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 5.105.]

    The Athenians executed Melians of military age and sold the women and children into slavery.

    The war was resumed in 415 B.C. with an Athenian expedition against Syracuse, the major Greek state in Sicily, that ended in disaster.

    Acting on the invitation of states that feared Syracusan expansion, the Athenians hoped to add Sicily to their empire and so become powerful enough "to rule the whole of the Greek world." ^15

    But ill luck and incompetent leadership resulted in two Athenian fleets and a large army being destroyed by the Syracusans, supported by Sparta.

    The war dragged on until 404 B.C., when Athens capitulated after its last fleet was destroyed by a Spartan fleet built with money received from Persia in exchange for possession of the Greek cities in Ionia.

    At home, Athens had been weakened by the plots of oligarchic elements to whom Sparta now turned over the government. The once great city-state was also stripped of its empire and demilitarized.

    [Footnote 15: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 6.90.]

    Aftermath Of The War

    Anarchy and depression were the political and economic legacies of the Peloponnesian War. Having ended the "tyranny" of Athens over Greece, the Spartans substituted their own form of rule which made the Athenian empire seem mild in comparison.

    Everywhere democracies were replaced by oligarchies supported by Spartan troops.

    The bloody excesses of these oligarchs soon led to democratic revolutions at Athens and elsewhere.

    As one of their generals admitted, the Spartans did not know how to govern free people. Incessant warfare between a bewildering series of shifting alliances filled the fourth century B.C.

    The alliances were usually financed by Persia, which wanted to keep Greece disunited and weak.

    Political instability in turn contributed to the economic and social ills that plagued Greece during this period.

    Commerce and industry languished, and the unemployed who did not go abroad as soldiers of fortune supported demagogues and their radical schemes for the redivision of wealth.

    The wealthy, for their part, became increasingly reactionary and uncompromising.

    Even most intellectuals - including Plato and Aristotle - lost faith in democracy and joined with the wealthy in looking for "a champion powerful in action" who would bring order and security to Greece.

    They found him, finally, in the person of the king of Macedonia.

    The Macedonian Unification Of Greece

    To the north of Greece lay Macedonia, inhabited by hardy peasants and nobles who were related to the Greeks but were culturally inferior to them.

    Macedonia became a centralized, powerful state under the able and crafty Philip II (359-336 B.C.), who created the most formidable army yet known by joining the crack Macedonian cavalry of nobles with the infantry phalanx used by the Greeks.

    In his youth, Philip had been a hostage at Thebes, where he acquired an appreciation of Greek culture, an understanding of Greek political weakness, and a desire to win for Macedonia a place in the Hellenic world.

    After unifying Macedonia - including a string of Greek colonies that had been established along its coast during the earlier centuries of Macedonia's weakness - Philip turned to the Greek city-states, whose wars afforded him the opportunity first to intervene, then to dominate.

    Demosthenes, the great Athenian orator and democratic leader, warned in vain that "democracies and dictators cannot exist together" and urged the Athenians and other Greeks to stop Philip before it was too late. Belatedly, Athens and Thebes acted, but their combined forces were shattered at Chaeronea in 338 B.C.

    Philip then forced the Greeks into a league in which each state, while retaining self-government, swore to "make war upon him who violates the general peace" and to furnish Philip with men and supplies for a campaign against Persia. Two years later, before setting out for Asia Minor, Philip was assassinated by a noble with a personal grudge, leaving the war against Persia as a legacy for his gifted son Alexander.

    Incapable of finding a solution to the anarchy that tore their world to shreds, the Greeks ended as political failures and at the mercy of a great outside power, first Macedonia and then Rome.

    They retained their cultural leadership, however, and the culture of the new Hellenistic Age and its successor, the world of Rome, was to be largely Greek.