Greek History

Athens vs Sparta

The Delian League
First Peloponessian War
The Walls of Piraeus
Balance of Power

Now it was in the hands of Athens to protect and rebuild Hellas, and to make this all happen it formed an alliance in 478 which we now know as the Delian League. The alliance consisted of the Aeolian and Ionic colonies in Asia Minor, most of the islands in the Aegean, and the Greek cities in Chalcidice and the Thracian coast. The membership was for indeterminate time, and everybody had to support eachother when attacked. Combined actions had to be approved by a council in which every member had one seat, but in reality was this council completely dominated by Athens and did it not play any significant role.

This period was followed by several years of peace, but when Egypt revolted against the Persians Athens decided to sent 200 ships to help in the revolt. Unfortunately the Persians suppressed the revolt, and a large part of the Athenian expedition force was destroyed during this. Athens lost a lot of credibility because this, but a few years later Cymon convinced Athens again that attacks on Persia were necessary to prevent them from attacking Hellas. A fleet sailed of to Cyprus and won an important battle. This resulted in formal agreement that Persia would not attack Hellas and the colonies in Asia Minor as long as the Greeks did not attack Persia.

A new era in Greek history starter after the Greek colonies in the west had diminished several other threats, and Greek culture flourished as never before. The age of Pericles had started for Athens.
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The first Peloponessian war.
Sparta and Athens, the two most powerful cities of Hellas, did not have much in common. The Athenians attempted to develop their artistic and intellectual capabilities, while Sparta remained isolated from the rest of Hellas, without art or literature, without beautiful buildings, without any development of their social and political traditions. Sparta lived on as a fossilized military city, though its military capabilities and more or less stable form of government still were admired by many other Greeks.
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The walls of Piraeus.
The development of Athens as an aggressive leader of its own Delian League was closely followed by Sparta. Still, Sparta had cleared the road for an Athenian hegemony by retreating in a conservative isolationism in 478. The first signs of serious rivalry showed when Themistocles persuaded the Athenians to turn their city into an enormous stronghold to prevent another sacking like the one in 480 by the Persians. Another reason was that they would no longer have to be dependent of the much stronger Peloponessian land armies to protect their city. The fortification was a logical next step in the policy of Athens to become primarily a seapower. The most important constructions were two parallel walls from Athens to Piraeus which turned harbour and city into one huge fortress.

Sparta did envy the Athenian harbours Piraeus and Munichia, but they were no threat to Sparta itself as they were mainly used for the trade. The walls around Athens and towards the Piraeus were a completely different story. The only logical reason for their construction was that Athens had aggressive plans reasoned Sparta. Would Athens attempt to attack Persia? Then the Persian empire might see this as an attack from Hellas on Persia, and attack a city without these enormous walls, Sparta for example, as a revenge. But what if Athens did not have any plans to attack Persia, then it would surely try to attack Sparta.

Sparta send a delegation to Athens to prevent the construction of these walls. Themistocles promised that he would visit Sparta with a delegation to explain everything. However, he went alone to Sparta and ordered his colleagues to stay in Athens until the walls were finished. Once he arrived in Sparta he claimed that he could not do anything as he did not have the power of attorney. A while later his delegation arrived and they returned to Athens again with a group of high Spartans, so that they could convince themselves that the walls would not form a threat. When they were left Themistocles told the Spartans the truth: if Sparta would let him go unharmed, then the high Spartans who were now in Athens would return unharmed too. Sparta did not have much of a choice as it needed its full Spartans too much. Themistocles returned to Athens unharmed, and as a victor.
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A desire for a balance of power.
Athens' aggressive policy towards Sparta changed when Cimon, the son of Miltiades, became an important politician in Athens. He had played an important role in the expansion of the Delian League, and had the same ideas about this as Themistocles. However, unlike Themistocles he was in favour of a balanced relationship between Sparta and Athens, and he did not feel anything for further democratisation like Themistocles did. The political and personal fight between the two men was decided in favour of Cimon when Themistocles was banished in 471 by ostracism.

Themistocles fled to Argos, which had become the centre of a movement in the Peloponesse that demanded more democracy. After a while the Athenians came to a paradoxical conclusion, which was inspired by Sparta: Themistocles, the man who had humiliated the mighty Persian empire, was accused of committing treachery with Persia. When the anti-democrats recovered their power in Argos he fled to Persia, where he was welcomed by the Persian king. He became governor of the Persian city Magnesia where he died in 462.

In 462 the Peloponesse was struck by a major earthquake, the result, a revolt of the helots which is known as the third Messenian war (464-459), was an even bigger disaster. Sparta was too weak and was forced to ask Athens for help. The democrats in Athens were against: no help for a possible enemy in the near future. The conservatives were in favour: keep Hellas strong to oppose the Persian threat. Cimon personally left with 4000 hoplites to convince Sparta of the good intentions of Athens. Pericles warned that Sparta was now forced to accept the Athenian help, but that it would only hate Athens even more for it.

When the Athenian army arrived it was sent back by Sparta. Maybe Sparta was strong enough again to end the revolt, maybe it did not trust Athens indeed. There were reasons enough for Sparta not to trust Athens as Thasos had ended its membership of the Delian League in 465, and was punished severely for it as a result. Sparta had promised Thasos help, but could not give it because of the earthquake. It is not surprising that Sparta rather did not accept Athenian help in this akward position. Nevertheless was this seen as an insult in Athens, and Cimon got banished by ostracism in 461.
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An escalating conflict.
The banishment of Cimon was a return to the more aggressive policy against Sparta of Themistocles. In 459 Megara had a conflict about its borders with Corinth, and voluntarily joined the Delian League to get some protection. For Athens was this very important as Megara had two harbours, Nisaea at the Sardonic gulf, and Pagae at the Corinthian gulf. This gave Athens better access to the west, which was a threat to Corinth that still had the best contacts in the west. Athens gained an even better position in the west by founding Naupactus with a few Messian helots after the collapse of their revolt. In the first phases Corinth was more obviously to the front in fighting than Sparta, because of the adhesion to Athens from Megara, and as the new Athenian expansion to the west formed a threat to their trade.

In 457 the old conflict with Aegina ended, as Athens forced this island to become a member of the Delian League. In Boeotia Athens was not so victorious. It had vainly attempted to gain control over this area together with the local democrats. Rebelliousness among several cities (Megara and Euboea), and a threatening Spartan advance towards Attica resulted in the peace of 446. This peace recognized the existence of the Athenian naval empire, and thus was a victory for Athens. Still, she had to let go the territories in the mainland of Hellas that she had acquired in fighting.
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Athenian imperialism.
By the middle of the fifth century many Greeks realised that they had a lot in common. 'Shared blood, shared language, shared religion, and shared customs' like Herodotus wrote. The common feeling had become even stronger by the defeat of a common enemy, Persia. Still, the Greeks never managed to translate this emotional bond into a physical one. The history of the classical Poleis is a history of failure to achieve unity: Sparta would not, and Athens could not realise it. The cities valued their individual independency too high to be prepared to subordinate themselves to a system in which their vote would be one among many.

Sparta was the most obvious leader of Hellas after the defeat of the Persian empire, as it had lead the coalition against it. However, it was very reluctant to accept this position because of its domestic problems. The Messenian helots formed a constant threat to their Spartan masters, whose own numbers were constantly on the decline. Furthermore formed the allies of Sparta a problem. The main goal of the Peloponessian League had been to form an unity against Argos, but now this city formed no threat any longer might the Arcadian members of the League have felt that it lacked any justification.

Another reason was the effect of the Athenian democracy which had proven to be military capable and politically attractive at the same time. Besides the traditional oligarchy and tyranny was there now a new form of government. The presence of Themistocles, who was banished from Athens, in the Peloponesse only increased the sympathy for democracy in several Peloponessian cities. These problems, and the fact that Sparta had very little experience with naval warfare, ruled her out as a permanent leader of Hellas. Sparta voluntarily returned to its state of isolationism.

Corinth on the other hand did have experience with naval warfare and an overseas empire, but it was located so close to Sparta that this city would not allow it to become the leader of the nation. It also lacked an army like Sparta and Athens had: one which is famed all throughout the known world. Thebes, Argos and Thessaly disqualified themselves as serious candidates as they either remained neutral, or had chosen the side of the enemy during the Persian wars.

The only serious candidate left was Athens. She had no domestic problems like Sparta, and had positive things to offer in her culture and politics unlike Corinth. Thanks to Pisistratus Athens had become the cultural centre of Hellas, and during the Persian wars it had been a magnet to intellectuals from the colonies in Asia Minor. Athens also had the history worthy a leader, and had performed noble service to Hellas by sacrificing her physical city to the Persians. Above all did it have a magnificent fleet and much experience with an overseas empire.
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New goals for the Delian League.
The Delian League was formed in 478 to offer protection to the more uncomfortably placed cities against the Persians and pirates, but with the end of the Persian wars after the peace of Callias in 449 it seemed to have lost any justification. Despite that, it continued to offer protection, but the character of the League changed together with the relationship between Hellas and Persia. Athens started to use, 'dominate' might have been a better word, the League more and more for its own purposes. The Athenian leader Cimon for example justified the conquest of the island Scyros by discovering there the bones of Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens. In the eyes of the Athenians they had all the right to dominate the League as it was largely Ionic, and Athens had been the mothercity of all Ionic colonies in Asia Minor during the colonisation in the dark ages of Hellas according the Athenian citizens.

The end of the first Peloponessian war gave Athens space for new expansion, but the general attitude was more one of consolidation after the enormous exertions because of the war at two fronts (Hellas and the Egyptian revolt) during the fifties. This policy was mostly the work of Pericles. The only exception was the founding of Amphipolis in 437, which was of strategic and economic importance as it was situated at the border of Thrace and Macedon, and formed a port of export for the Macedonian wood that was needed to maintain the Athenian fleet. Soon the pressure on the partners of Athens increased. A result of this was that one of the mightiest allies, the island of Samos, attempted to leave the alliance in 440. To set an example for the rest of the League attacked Athens this island and destroyed it completely. The tone for the rest of the history of the Delian League was set: total domination by Athens.

The Delian League was formed to oppose the Persian threat, but became more and more used for Athenian imperialism.
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Reign of terror in the Delian League.
Athens had many ways to oppress, control, or interfere. The first one was an economic one. The height of the tribute was determined by the council of 500 and the ten strategos of Athens. These tributes were reviewed every 4 year, and if a member of the alliance felt that the tribute was too high then he could complain at the Athenian court. Although the tributes got more imperialistic after the peace of Callias, they were generally not seen as absurdly high, the only drastic raise of the taxes took place in 425 to correct the inflation, and because of the atmosphere of war in that year. Still, since Athens started to dominate the alliance the tributes were more or less seen by the other members as taxes, and this feeling of unrest only increased after the treasury of the League moved from the central island Delos to Athens.

Another tactic was a military one. Athens maintained a good grip on its allies by starting settlements, the so-called cleruchies, at strategic points. The cleruchies could not only be found in Hellas, but in the whole of the Mediterranean, and even in the Black sea where they maintained a good relationship with Cimmerians as Athens got more and more dependent on their import of grain from this tribe. These administrative and military garrisons were by no means all of them present by invitation. And the greatest weapon of all was of course the Athenian fleet, which had non-stop 60 ships in the Aegean.

The third form was a judicial one. Serious cases in allied cities could be moved to the Athenian people's court when Athens interests were involved. Literary sources say that the popular lawcourts were used for the prosecution of anti-Athenian elements. The cases were so concentrated in Athens that after a while no allied city had the permission to sentence somebody to death without the approval of Athens. Another shortcoming was that Athenian law never developed a separate category of offences to protect oppressed provinces from their governors.

The next form was a religious one. We already saw that Cimon claimed that he had found Theseus' bones on Scyros, in an attempt to justify its coercion. Furthermore the image of Athens as universal benefactor of mankind was propagated by means of the myth of Demeter and her gift of corn to man. This cult was focused on the village Eleusis, which was in the territory of Athens. Finally did the Athenians claim land of their allies as it had once belonged to the goddess Athena herself, who was the patroness of Athens. This brings us to the next form of oppression...

Fifth, territorial. Athenian landowners (or cleruchs) could be settled on expropriated allied land. The settlement of these cleruchies was normally to prevent a revolt, or to punish the people who had revolted. It were mostly people from the lower classes (thetes) who volunteered for these cleruchies, which are different from colonies as the inhabitants remained a citizen of Athens. This way they did not only profit from more work and new opportunities, but hopefully they would gain enough wealth to become a member of the class of hoplites. These settlements did not only bring benefits to the lower classes. Wealthy Athenian aristocrats owned holdings of land in allied territory, in defiance of the local rules about land-tenure.

The sixth form was one of social oppression. In 451 a new law was installed which restricted the citizenship to persons of descent on both sides. The citizenship, and its profits, were increasingly worth having as the century went on. Grants of privilege were later made to isolated communities but they were too few and too late to close the psychological cap between rulers and ruled.

The last form is one of a political nature. Athens generally supported democrats against oligarchs, but every now and then she also supported oligarchs, as long as the money continued to flow into the Athenian treasury and the other government was in favour of Athens. For the rest Athens installed a proxenus in every allied Polis. A proxenos was a person who was a host in his own Polis, and served the interests of citizens in another Polis. For Athens such a proxenos was a very valuable source of information.
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Growing aversion against Athens.
In these days Athens was in the hands of Pericles, who got his power thanks to several reorganisations in the political structure which were carried out in the middle of that century. He wanted to transform Athens into a worthy capitol of the alliance, and started the construction of a lot of buildings in the city, but most of all on the Acropolis. All these buildings were financed with cash from the treasury of the Delian League. His reasoning was that the city and the Acropolis had been destroyed by the Persians, so it was no more than fair that they were rebuilt with money that was reserved for anti-Persian goals. On top of that, he said, it was Athens who prevented the Greek world from any other invasions. Still, the allies did not approve with this of course, and once again grew the opposition. Thucydides became the leader of this opposition, but when he was banned in 443 from Athens by ostracism became Pericles the absolute leader of Athens. 'In name Athens is a democracy, but in fact it is ruled by its most important citizen' was Thucydides' response.

Athens was less hated as we might expect after reading the several ways which it used to oppress its allies. The response of the allies was normally socially determined. The upper classes often felt more damaged in their desire for independency than the lower classes, as the last ones often profited in judicial, social and economical ways from the Athenian interference. Athens on its turn did not attempt to install democracy in the allied Poleis. Its policy was one to let the ruling upper classes pay for the continuation of their preferred position, while it made sure that they would not oppress the lower classes. The local oligarchs were nevertheless always a source of unrest, but as long as the Athenian navy ruled they waves they could only count on empty promises from Sparta and Persia.

We see that the goodwill of the rest of Hellas inclined to the Spartan side, when it agreed to liberate Hellas of the Athenian domination. The tight methods for control enumerated above show that there were indeed grounds for resentment of Athenian power.
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