Athenian Empire Is Created Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Athenian Empire was created, transforming a defensive alliance against Persia into a political empire that prevented the peaceful unification of Greece and led to the Peloponnesian War.

Summary of Event

After the Persian invasion of Greece had been repulsed in the spring of 479 b.c.e., delegates from the liberated Greek cities of Ionia and Athens assembled and agreed to combine forces in a league whose stated aims were to protect the Aegean area from fresh Persian offensives and to ravage Xerxes I’s territory. Pausanias of Sparta (c. late sixth century-c. 470 b.c.e.) had been the commander in chief of the allied Greeks. His behavior was so arrogant and brutal, however, that the allies rejected all Spartan leadership. Aristides of Athens became the allied leader, accompanied by his younger colleague Cimon. Aristides of Athens Cimon Ephialtes of Athens Pericles

The marketplace at Athens.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The headquarters of this confederacy was located on the sacred island of Delos, and it came to be called the Delian League. In the beginning an assembly of representatives determined policy, with each state, large or small, exercising one vote. Each member contributed either ships or money; the respective assessments of ships and money were the work of Aristides, whose determinations were so fair that he was called “The Just.” The money was kept on Delos under the supervision of a board of Athenians called Hellenic Treasurers. Fleet and army were both commanded by Athenians because Athens was the largest and most powerful of the allied states, and Athenians had won great prestige in both war and peace.

At first, all went well. The league fleet maintained the security of the Aegean and even successfully attacked the Persian-held island of Cyprus. Such victories led some members of the confederacy to regard the Persian menace as broken, and about 470 b.c.e., Naxos, tired of onerous naval service, seceded. The Athenians, supported by a majority of the allies, felt that the withdrawal of Naxos might portend the dissolution of the league to Persia’s advantage. Naxos was therefore besieged and reduced to obedience. This act set an important precedent. Moreover, the league’s assessment of the situation was confirmed the next year, when the reconstituted Persian navy sailed toward the Aegean but was defeated in the Battle of Eurymedon (c. 467 b.c.e.) by the league fleet ably commanded by Athens’ Cimon.





Because providing ships year after year was a hardship for some members, Athens, on the suggestion of Cimon, introduced the policy of allowing any state to convert its obligation to one of paying money. The exact date of this change is unknown; it probably occurred in the mid-460’s b.c.e., at the height of Cimon’s power and prestige. Gradually most confederates made payments until, by 445, only seven states of a regular membership of some 150 still contributed triremes. At the time the change must have seemed statesmanlike, but it actually cloaked a great danger to the league. As time went on, only the Athenians and the few other states with fleets were capable of serious naval action; the ships of the money-paying cities decayed, and their crews lacked practice. The Athenians, meanwhile, not only increased the size of their navy but also introduced improved models of triremes and new naval tactics, so that their navy was a virtually invincible force by the 440’s.

In another unintended way, Cimon furthered Athenian imperialism. League member Thasos seceded in 465 b.c.e. It was defeated at sea and then besieged by the Athenians, and it finally appealed to Sparta for help. Athens and Sparta remained formally allied, but Sparta, fearing Athens’ growing power, agreed to aid Thasos. Before they could act, a severe earthquake struck Sparta, causing much destruction and many deaths. Seizing this opportunity, Sparta’s subject-peoples revolted and eventually were besieged at Ithome. Meanwhile, the Thasians, lacking Spartan aid, surrendered.

Sparta, recognizing Athenian prowess in siege operations, appealed to Athens for help. Cimon, relatively conservative and pro-Spartan, argued in favor; his more democratic, anti-Spartan opponent Ephialtes of Athens, against. Cimon prevailed and was chosen to lead the assisting army. Yet the Spartans, probably fearing both the presence of an Athenian army in their territory and the effects of Athenian liberalism on current and would-be rebels, changed their minds. Delivering a “slap in the face,” they asked the Athenians to leave but retained their other allies. As a result, Cimon’s pro-Spartan policy was repudiated, and he was ostracized in 461 b.c.e. His conservative institutional ally, the council of the Areopagus, was stripped of most of its powers by Ephialtes. Athens became more democratic, more anti-Spartan, and almost immediately, more imperial.

In 460 b.c.e., the Delian confederates attacked the Persians in Egypt, but the offensive ended with the annihilation of a league fleet in 454 b.c.e. For a time, it seemed that Persian naval forces might again invade the Aegean. To meet the immediate danger posed to the league’s treasure on the unfortified island of Delos, it was agreed to move the fund to the heavily guarded Acropolis at Athens. When peace was made with Persia in 448 b.c.e., however, the money was not moved back. The leaders of Athens assumed sole control of this enormous sum of five thousand talents and insisted that the annual sums thereafter be paid to Athens. During the following decades, this money was used to maintain the Athenian navy, to erect the remarkable series of buildings on the Acropolis, and to finance future wars. Meetings of the league’s assembly stopped; the league had become the Athenian Empire.

Some members of the league strongly objected to this new regime and rebelled against it, but their naval weakness made them easy to suppress. Rebellious states were compelled to accept democratic, pro-Athenian governments; other states had their legal and commercial relations with Athens subjected to regulation. A few were forced to accept Athenian garrisons or to cede territory for Athenian settlers. Pericles was mainly responsible for this program. He envisioned an idealized Athens, both as a supreme military power and as a model of political organization and advanced culture. “Our state,” he said, “is the education of Hellas.”

Pericles’ more extreme acts of imperialism were condemned by conservatives such as the statesman and historian Thucydides (c. 459-c. 402 b.c.e.), but by the 440’s some thousands of Athenians received wages for various services from the annual payments of the allies. As a result the majority backed Pericles, and Thucydides was ostracized. “It may have been wrong to acquire the empire,” said Pericles, “but it would certainly be dangerous to let it go.” Therefore, while defense had dictated the punishment of Naxos, imperial power compelled the Athenians to keep their grip on their former allies. Athens, in its own eyes “the educator of Hellas,” was the tyrant-city to other Greeks. When the Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 b.c.e., most Greeks supported Sparta in the hope of seeing Athenian power destroyed.


Athenian imperialism was regrettable because it was, in most respects, the most advanced state in Greece. Athens was democratic. It tolerated free speech to a remarkable degree. Athens provided work for its poor and treated its slaves with relative humanity. Artists, poets, and scholars came to Athens from all parts of the Hellenic world so that the city became the cultural and philosophical center of Greece, a first “world city.” Yet the Athenians’ passion for empire turned much of the world against them and perhaps prevented the Delian League from becoming a vehicle for the gradual and voluntary unification of the numerous small, quarrelsome Greek states.

The possibility of this transformation highlights the relationship between internal politics and foreign policy. The early Delian League was nonimperial largely because Athens was balanced internally—in leadership, between Ephialtes and Cimon; institutionally, between the council of Areopagus and a popular assembly. The events about 462 b.c.e. permanently upset these balances, opening the way for imperial policies. In time, Pericles became as dominant internally as Athens did externally. Each had ceased to be a first among equals, the condition necessary for a peaceful transformation.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fornara, Charles W., and Loren J. Samons II. Athens from Cleisthenes to Pericles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Comprehensive in historical scope and interestingly detailed, this work emphasizes the interplay of Athenian democracy and the acquisition of empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hornblower, Simon. The Greek World, 479-323 b.c. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Covers the Athenian Empire from its start to finish, including Athenian supremacy, the Peloponnesian War, and the Macedonian expansion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kagan, Donald. Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. New York: Free Press, 1991. Part history, part biography, this semipopular work presents Pericles as a commanding Athenian figure and model for contemporary democratic leadership.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meier, Christian. Athens: A Portrait of the City in Its Golden Age. New York: Metropolitan Books/H. Holt, 1998. A study that examines Athens at the peak of its power. Discusses the influence of the Battle of Salamis and the Greco-Persian Wars. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Podlecki, Anthony J. Perikles and His Circle. New York: Routledge, 1998. A close look at Pericles and other important Athenians. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wartenberg, Ute. After Marathon: War, Society, and Money in Fifth-Century Greece. London: British Museum Press, 1995. A museum catalog featuring Greek coins that examines the period in which Athens was supreme. Bibliography and index.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Cimon; Pausanias of Sparta; Pericles; Thucydides. Athenian Empire

Categories: History