|Any description of the Athenian Empire is meaningless without a map, so here is one to help explain it.|
A little background is necessary here. The Greeks of the day were by no means confined to Greece proper, but had spread out and formed colonies throughout Asia Minor. These colonies were all made up of Ionian Greeks. The Athenians were also Ionians and therefore considered the colonies as kin, perhaps even as offspring of an Athenian mother country. The colonies in Asia Minor fell under the domination of the Persian Empire. When they began to revolt, Athens gave them assistance. It was this assistance that led the Persians to set their sights on Greece proper in the first place. Once the Persians were defeated and driven out of Greece proper, it was the Athenians who took the lead in liberating the Ionian colonies -- and why not? The Spartans were not a naval power, which made them a poor choice to lead what would, after all, be a naval war, and besides, they were Dorians and therefore lacked the ties of common blood.
Athens' liberation of the Ionians was successful, but what was to stop the Persians from coming back? To prevent that from happening, the Greek city-states around the Aegean formed the Delian League, an alliance against Persia to which all members contributed ships, sailors, or money. Ships and sailors were too great a burden for the smaller and weaker powers, so they just contributed money. More and more of them were happy to shirk in contributing ships and sailors and preferred just to contribute money instead. Only over time did they start to notice that this meant that an all-Athenian navy was knocking at their doors, asking them to pay up. More and more, any Ionian state that did not pay was apt to find the Athenian navy at their doors, asking them to reconsider.
Some qualification is in order here. So far as I can tell, no Greek city-state, not Athens, not Sparta, not Thebes, nor any other, ever became a true imperial power in the sense that Persia was, or that Macedonia would become under Alexander the Great. None showed any real interest on conquering or subjugating non-Greeks. And with regard to Greeks, all presupposed a system of independent, self-governing city-states. But not equal city-states. The most powerful would become the dominant hegemon. Sparta had for some time been dominant hegemon in the Peloponnese (the peninsula off the Greek mainland) and formed the Peloponnesian League. These states coordinated foreign policy and joined together in wars. But it was understood on all hands that Sparta would lead, that a vote of the League could bind any outvoted member except for Sparta, and the withdrawing was not an option. Sparta did not collect tribute and does not appear to have meddled in members' domestic politics, although it somehow seems to have assured that most were oligarchies.
|Map showing Delos|
Athenians engaged in other imperialistic (or at least hegemonic) acts as well. They sought to establish democracy in the allies. What this usually meant was either imposing it by force if an ally revolted, or intervening on behalf of the democratic party in cases of internal strife. Then as now, attempts to impose democracy by force ran into trouble. Nonetheless, the result tended to be that city-states within the Athenian Empire/Hegemony were divided between a pro-Athenian democratic faction and a pro-Spartan oligarchic faction. But assuming that then, as now, democracy tends to be associated with belligerent nationalism (and it certainly was in Athens), many high-handed Athenian policies must have offended even their friends in the democratic parties. Democracies, when imposed, were based on the Athenian model, without much regard to local custom and tradition. Athens also began to insist that its coinage be used throughout the empire. To understand the problems that currency union without political union can cause, ask anyone in modern Athens.**
Probably the most blatant form of imperial kicking down was the cleruchy or colony the Athenians established in strategic places, another system of fighting unemployment at home by squeezing allies. The cleruchs would establish a garrison, ostensibly to guard against the Persians, more realistically to maintain the empire. Cleruchs would receive a land grant in the community -- not enough to become large landlords, just enough to be small holders, but certainly enough to incur the resentment of the former owners. Poor Athenians flocked to such colonies eager to become small holders. Cleruchs established their own state-within-a-state, loyal to Athens and not to the locality. Cleruchs had extra-territorial rights, i.e., they were not tried in local courts, which would be biased against them, but in Athenian courts, which were naturally biased in their favor. A growing of other cases were also tried in Athens, to the great resentment of litigants who were forced to travel all the way to Athens and pay for food and lodging while there. (Note here that there is a strong correlation between places where revolts broke out and cleruchies. However, the causation appears to have gone the other way. In other words, allies were not rebelling because they resented the presence of Athenian garrisons. Rather, the Athenians were installing garrisons to control places where there had been trouble).
It seems a safe assumption that the oligarchic faction of all members thoroughly hated that Athenians and wanted full independence. For the democratic faction, it must have been a more difficult tradeoff to decide which was the lesser evil, Athenian domination, or the risk of oligarchy. No doubt the choice depended on many factors.
Thucydides and Plutarch recite the grim parade of rebellion and repression.
468 BC, Naxos revolts, is besieged, and forced back into the League.
465 BC, Thasos revolts, is besieged for three years. Upon surrender, Athenians demolish its walls, destroy its fleet, assess a fine, and deprive it of its claims to the mainland and mines.
446 BC, Euobea (a peninsula with several cities) revolts and is besieged and defeated. Pericles drives the oligarchs from the city of Chalcis and drives out the entire population from the city of Hestiaea, replacing them with an Athenian colony. Pericles justified this extreme measure because the Histeans had captures an Athenian ship and killed everyone on board.
440 BC, Samos revolts. Athenians take 50 of the leading citizens hostage, establish a democracy, and leave behind a garrison. Oligarchs rescue the hostages, seize power again, and revolt. Athenians blockade the island and, when it surrenders after a nine month siege, tear down the walls, destroy the fleet, assess a fine, and take hostages again. Plutarch reports that the later historian Duris of Samos as charging numerous acts of cruelty and slaughter not mentioned by any other historian, and pronounces the allegations implausible. Speaking as a non-Classical scholar, I am inclined to agree, mostly because from then on, Samos remained Athens' strongest ally.
432 BC, Athens seeks preempt a possible alliance between Corinth and Potidea by demanding that Potidea demolish one side of its walls, send hostages to Athens, and banish Corinthians from the city. Potidea revolts and the Athenians blockade it. This was one of the incidents that precipitated the Peloponnesian War. Potidea ultimately surrendered nearly two years later, when they were starving to the point of resorting to cannibalism. The terms negotiated with the generals required the entire population to leave, with no more than a single garment for men and two for women, plus a fixed some of money. The people of Athens were angry that the generals for not holding out for unconditional surrender.
And as the war continued and the parties became brutalized, things would only get worse.
Athenian domination would become so resented that the other states would turn to Sparta for deliverance. That raises the subject of Sparta, which has already played a significant role and will play a bigger one soon. And, because there was a large pro-Spartan faction within Athens, Sparta really needs to be addressed further. That will be addressed in my next post(s).
*But without loss of life. Athens had been evacuated by then.
**OK, I'm being a bit snide. That was before the invention of fiat money, so a country could not expand or contract its money supply at will. Rather, it depended on how much silver was coming out of the mines.