Athens, the Democratic Empire

29. The nature and objectives of Athenian imperialism

In 478, the Spartans recalled the unpopular Pausanias home and the Athenians took over the command of the campaign against the Persians. Some time later, a new alliance was formed. This was a symmachia (syn–: ‘together’; mache: ‘fight’), i.e. a full defensive and offensive military alliance, established with the official purpose of carrying on the war against the Persians. The meetings of the allies were held at the sanctuary of Apollo in the island of Delos, which was also the seat of the league’s treasury. As the leaders of the new organization, the Athenians decided which members were to contribute to the alliance by providing ships and which by paying an annual tribute in money. The magistrates responsible for the collection of the tribute were called Hellenotamoi, or ‘treasures of the Greeks’, and were of course from Athens.

According to Thucydides, the Athenians originally respected the autonomy of the allies, but soon began to abuse their leadership, especially when some allied states were unable to pay the tribute [a, b]. As we have seen in the previous section, the Athenians were quite aware that any power which exercises hegemony inevitably attracts the hostility of its subjects, and that hegemony cannot be exercised without a degree of coercion. In 429, in the wake of the second Peloponnesian invasion of Attica, Pericles addressed the Athenians and urged them not to close their eyes to the tyrannical nature of their rule over the allies: the Athenians ought to defend their city against their Peloponnesian enemy as well as against the hatred of their own allies [c].

Exercising a form of despotic rule over unwilling subjects, any hegemonic power was engaged in a continuing struggle to impose and demonstrate its military superiority. For any step back could be interpreted as a sign of weakness, and an encouragement for the allies to revolt. A significant episode took place in the summer of 416, when the Athenians landed on Melos, an island of the Aegean which had so far remained neutral. The mightiest naval power of Greece was challenging the independence of a very small polis of limited political and strategic relevance. The contrast inspired Thucidides to stage a dialogue between the Athenian commanders Cleomedes and Teisias and a group of Melian envoys. The latter ask the Athenians what advantage they hope to obtain from the submission of a small neutral city, which may decide to take sides with the Spartans as a result of this act of aggression. The Athenians reply that their only concern is the defence of their city and empire: justice cannot be a primary concern for any hegemonic power [d].

In the course of the fifth century, as the original military objectives of the alliance grew less urgent, it became increasingly clear that the Delian League was in fact an Athenian empire. In 454, the treasury of the alliance was transferred from Delos to Athens, and the allies were required to pay the tenth part of their tribute directly to the Athenians. Also, the allies had to refer to the Athenian tribunal for resolution of disputes, and this generated considerable income for the city [e]. Athenian influence on the internal affairs of the allied cities also increased. The so-called cleruchies became a symbol of Athenian imperialism: these were groups of Athenian settlers, usually drafted from the poorer sections of society, who received an allotment of land in the territory of some allied city. This procedure served the double purpose of maintaining a degree of social peace in Athens and preventing rebellions from the allies [f, g]. The Athenians also wanted to have a voice on the constitutional organization of the allied city. A decree of the ekklesia dated to the middle 460s or 453/2 required the citizens of Erythraea to bring gifts to Athens on the occasion of the Great Panathneanea and, most importantly, to set up a new 120-member assembly in imitation of the Athenian boule [h]. Some years later, in 440/439, the people of Samos were also forced to adopt an Athenian-style constitution [i]. Some time between 450 and 446 the assembly passed another decree requiring all the members of the League to adopt the currency, weights and measures in use in Athens [j]. Again, Athenian envoys were to visit the allied towns to make sure that the new norms were enforced, and all contraveners were to stand trial in Athens.

[a] Thuc. 1.97.1: Athenian hegemony between the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars

The Athenians at first were the leaders of autonomous allies, who all contributed to the deliberations of the common assembly. Then, in the interval between this war and the one against the Persians, they undertook the enterprises which I am about to relate, both in war and in the running of public affairs. These were directed against the barbarians as well as their own allies, when they tried to revolt, and against those Peloponnesian states against which from time to time they came into conflict in each of their attempts.

[b] Thuc. 1.99: Athenian despotism towards the allies

Now, there were various reasons which caused the allies to revolt, but the principal ones were failure to pay the tribute or to provide their quota of ships, and, in some cases, desertion. For the Athenians were extremely exacting in the collection of the tribute, and resorted to the utmost severity against those who were not accustomed or willing to endure the hardships of service. In other respects too the Athenians were no longer the popular rulers they originally were. For now they refused to serve on an equal footing with the other allies, and found it easy to subdue those who wanted to leave the confederacy. And the allies had nobody but themselves to blame for this, for most of them, willing as they were to avoid service, opted to pay their share of the tribute in money instead of sending ships. As a result of this, the Athenians could increase their fleet with the funds provided by the allies, and whenever the allies revolted, they would find themselves without the necessary preparation and experience to face a war.

[c] Thuc. 2.63.1–2: Athens as a tyrant?

Athenians, it is your duty to defend the honour which your city has gained through empire, for you all take pride in it, and you cannot refuse to sustain the burden of empire and still expect to have a share of its profits. You should bear in mind that this war is not merely about freedom or slavery, no: you are also fighting to defend your empire against the hatred incurred in the exercise of power. Some of you, in the fear of the moment, might think that withdrawing from empire would be just and prudent. But now it is too late for that. For the power you exercise, to speak frankly, is in fact a tyranny. It might have been wrong to acquire it first, but letting it go would be a risk.

[d] Thuc. 5.91–101: The dialogue of the Melians

ATHENIANS: The risk of losing our empire does not frighten us, if we are ever to lose it. For those who rule over others, like the Spartans do (even if the Spartans were our real enemies), are less of a threat for a defeated power than its subjects, if these were to assault and overpower their rulers. But this is a risk which we are prepared to face. Now, what we want to do is to show you that we are here to defend the interests of our empire. What we are about to say is exclusively concerned with the safety of our city. For our desire is to rule over you without trouble, and see you safe in the interest of both of us.

MELIANS: And how could it be convenient for us to serve, while you rule?

A.: Because you would not suffer terrible pain before being subdued and it would be convenient for us not to annihilate you.

M.: So you will not let us remain neutral and quiet, friends rather than enemies, but allies of neither side?

A.: No. Because your hostility would not hurt us as much as your friendship would be a sign of our weakness, and your hostility one of our power.

M.: Is this your subjects’ idea of justice? To consider those who do not belong to you exactly like those who have been subdued by you, most of whom were your own colonists, and others rebellious subjects?

A.: As far as justice is concerned, they think that one side has as much of it as the other. But then, ruling or being ruled, is not about justice, but power, and if we do not attack them, they think that it is because we are afraid of them. Therefore, if we subjugate you, on top of extending our empire, we will also gain in security. And since you are islanders and weaker than others, it is of the utmost importance that you should not baffle the rulers of sea.

M.: But can’t you see the risks implied in all this? For if you prevent us from talking about justice and invite us to yield to your interests, we should also have the chance to explain what would be convenient for us and try to persuade you, if your interest and ours happen to coincide. How can you avoid making enemies of those who are neither your allies nor Sparta’s, if, looking at what is happening to us, they conclude that one day you will attack them as well? Don’t you think that what you are doing is nothing but giving strength to your current enemies and compelling others to become your enemies, people who would have never though of it?

A.: We do not think that the people of the mainland can cause any serious harm to us: the freedom which they enjoy will dissuade them from taking precautions against us. In fact, it is the islanders who are not under our rule, like you, and the more intractable among our allies that are most likely to make a thoughtless move and drive themselves and us into easily foreseeable danger.

M.: But if you are willing to risk so much to defend your empire, and your subjects to set themselves free from it, there would certainly be cowardice and baseness in us if, while we are still free, we do not everything to avoid being enslaved.

A.: No, if you consider the matter wisely. For the contest is not an even one, with honour for the winner and shame for the loser. Your very safety is at stake, and not succumbing to a far stronger power than you are.

[e] [Ps. Xen.] Ath. Const. 1.16–18: How the Athenians benefit from the empire

The people seem to be ill advised on this point: they compel the allies to sail to Athens for legal proceedings. Their answer is that the Athenian people benefit from this. Firstly, because throughout the year their deposits at law are used to pay for the service of the jurors. Secondly, because this system enables them to sit at home and govern the affairs of the allied cities without sailing off in the ships, and in the courts they protect the democrats and ruin and damage their opponents. If all the allies were to hold their trials at home, owing to their hatred of the Athenians, they would damage those who are on the friendliest terms with them. Furthermore, the Athenian people benefit for the following reasons from holding the trials involving the allies in Athens: first, the one per cent tax at the Piraeus brings in more money for the city; second, if anyone has a property to rent, he is better off, and so are those who have animals or slaves to hire. Also, the heralds of the assembly are better off when the allies are in town. If the allies were not compelled to sail away for their trials, they would show respect only for those Athenians who sail out from their city, such as generals, trierarchs, and ambassadors. Under the current system, the allies need to flatter the Athenian people, for they know that when you sail to Athens for a trial you are putting yourself in the hands of none other but the Athenian people: this is what the Athenian laws prescribe. And once in the courts they have to flatter whomever comes in, and grasp him by the hand. This is how the allies have become slaves to the Athenian people.

[f] Plut. Per. 11.5: Pericles’ cleruchies

Pericles dispatched 1,000 settlers to the Chersonese, 500 to Naxos, and 250 to Andros, 1,000 to Thrace to settle with the Bisaltae, and others to Italy, when Sybaris was settled, which they named Thurii. He did this to relieve the city from the burden of a mob of lazy and idle busybodies. Also this policy allowed him to rectify the embarrassments of the poorer people, and gave the allies for neighbours an imposing garrison which should prevent rebellion.

[g] Thuc. 3.50: The submission of Mytilene

The other party whom Paches had dispatched as the initiators of the upheaval were put to death by the Athenians upon the motion of Cleon. The number of these men was well above a thousand. The Athenians also demolished the walls of Mitylene, and took possession of the city’s fleet. Afterwards tribute was not imposed upon the Lesbians; but all their land, except that of the Methymnians, was divided into three thousand allotments, three hundred of which were consecrated to the gods, and the rest assigned by lot to Athenian shareholders, who were sent out to the island. With these the Lesbians agreed to pay a rent of two minae a year for each allotment, and cultivated the land themselves. The Athenians also took possession of the towns on the mainland which belonged to the Mitylenians These cities therefore became for the future subject to Athens.

These were the events that took place at Lesbos.

[h] IG I3 14 = Fornara 71 = M&L 40 = SEG XXVI.3, XXXI.5, XXIX.820, XXX.1866, XXXI.811, XXXII.867, XXXIII.731: Measures concerning Eretryae

It was decided by the council and the people, in the pritany of [missing words] presided, in the archonship of Lysicrates. The Erythraeans shall bring wheat for the Great Panathenaia worth not less than three minae. The Hieropoioi will distribute the wheat to the Erythraeans who are present, half a chous each. If they bring less than three minae, the Hieropoioi shall buy wealth, in accordance with this decree, and the Erythraeans will owe them ten minae. It shall be lawful for any Erythraean who so wishes to furnish the wheat. One hundred and twenty men will be appointed to the council by lot; the men who are allotted for office will undergo examination in the council, and it shall be unlawful for any foreigner to be a member of the council or for anyone under thirty years of age, and those found guilty will be prosecuted, and no one shall be a member of the council twice within four years. The Athenian envoys and the commander of the garrison will carry out the lot and the establishment of the present council, in the future the council and the commander of the garrison, no less than thirty days before the term of office of the council expires. The councilmen shall take the oath by Zeus, Apollo and Demeter, invoking destruction upon themselves and destruction upon their sons if they swear falsely. The oath will be ratified by the burning of sacrifices. The council shall make the sacrifice by burning at least a cow as victim, otherwise it shall pay a fine of 1,000 drachmas, and when the people swear, it will burn nothing less.

This shall be the oath of the council:

‘I shall deliberate as best and as justly as I can for the Erythraean people and the Athenian people and the allies and I shall not revolt from the Athenian people and from the allies of the Athenians, nor shall I be persuaded by someone else, nor shall I desert or be persuaded to do so by someone else, nor shall I welcome the exiles nor shall I be persuaded to do so by someone else, namely those who went over to the Persians without the permission of the council and the people of the Athenians. Nor shall I expel any Erythraean citizen without the consent of the council and the people of the Athenians. If any Erythraean citizen assassinates another Erythraean, he shall be put to death, if judged guilty. If he is sentenced to exile, he shall be banned from all the allies of Athens and his property shall become the public property of the Erythraeans. If someone betrays the city to the tyrants, he shall be put to death with impunity and his children. If it is clear that his children are friends of the people of the Erythraeans and to the people of the Athenians, they will be spared and his entire property shall be declared by the children and they shall take half of it and half will be confiscated. The commander of the garrison will establish the necessary garrison anywhere in Erythrae […].’

[i] Thuc. 1.115.3: The submission of Samos

The Athenians sailed to Samos with forty ships and established a democracy, took as hostages fifty boys and as many men, put them down in Lemnos. Hence they left a garrison in the island and returned home.

[g] IG I3 1453 = ATL II D14 = Fornara 97 = M&L 45 = SEG XXVI.6, XXVIII.2, XXIX.7, XXXI.7: Athenian decree enforcing the use of Athenian coins (c. 450–449)

The governors in the cities […] the treasurers of the Greeks […] to inscribe […] of any of the cities […]

Who wishes shall immediately bring before the law-courts of the lawgivers those who have acted against the law. The lawgivers shall institute procedures for the denouncers of each malefactor within five days. If someone, either citizen or foreigner, other than the governors in the cities, does not act in compliance with the decrees, he shall be declared dishonoured, his possessions shall be confiscated and made public and the tenth part will be dedicated to the goddess. If there are no Athenian governors, the magistrates of each city will do what is prescribed in the decree. If they do not act in compliance with the decree, they shall be directed to Athens to face a procedure of dishonouring.

In the mint, after receiving the money, they shall mint no less than half and […] the cities. The fee taken by the superintendents will always be three drachmas for each mina. They shall convert the money […] or be liable […] Whatever will remain of the money shall be minted and handed over either to the generals or to the […] When it is handed over […] and to Hephaestus […] If anyone proposes or puts to a vote a proposal regarding these things that it be legal to borrow or lend foreign currencies, an accusation shall be immediately lodged before the Eleven, and the Eleven shall sentence him to death. If he appeals against the charge, they shall bring him to the law court. The people shall elect the heralds, one to the Islands, one to the Hellespont, one to the Thraceward region. They shall dispatch […] They shall pay a fine of ten thousand drachmas. This decree shall be inscribed on a marble stele and set up by the governors in the cities, in the agora of each city and by the superintendents in front of the mint. All this will be enforced by the Athenians if the peoples of the cities are not willing. The herald making the travel to the cities shall require of the peoples that they shall comply to what the Athenians prescribe. The following addition shall be made to the oath of the council by the secretary of the council for the future: if someone in the cities coins money and does not use the Athenian currency or weights or measures, I shall punish and fine him in compliance with the decree of Clearchus. Anyone shall be allowed to hand in the foreign currency which he possesses and convert it in the same manner as he wishes. The city will give in place of it our own currency. Each citizen will bring his money to Athens and deposit it at the mint. The superintendents shall make a record of everything yielded up by each citizen and set up a stele in front of the mint to be read by anyone who wishes. They shall make a record of all the foreign currency, keeping the gold separate from the coins, and the total of our money […].

30. Athens’ imperial democracy and the other Greek powers

The great war between Athens and Sparta of 431–404 is one of the most traumatic and defining events in the history of classical antiquity. Our knowledge and understanding of that epochal event largely depends on the work of one historian, Thucydides of Athens. The events of his life brought him to gain a very direct insight of the event of the conflict and its actors [a]. In 424–423, he was serving as strategos in the Thracian region, where his family held some mining estates, when the important town of Amphipolis fell to the Spartans. Although Thucydides claimed no responsibility for the debacle, he was banished from Athens for twenty years, during which time he had opportunity to visit the various cities involved in the conflict, including the allies of Sparta.

In the famous proemium of his work, Thucydides claims to have begun to write the history of the war as soon as it broke out, as a series of military and geo-political considerations induced him to think that Greece was about to witness the greatest upheaval of its history: the two main contestants had reached the peak of their military preparedness and international influence; the growing rivalry between Athens and Sparta had polarized the whole of Greece, and its effects were felt outside Greece as well [b]. In the first section of the first book, the historian gives an account of the grounds of complaint between Sparta and Athens which brought about the termination of the peace treaty signed in 460. Thucydides however thinks that the imperial rise of Athens since the end of the Persian Wars, and the Spartans’ growing concern for it, had made war inevitable [c]. The Spartans were understandably concerned lest the spectacular growth of Athens could destabilize their traditional hegemony within Peloponnese. Furthermore, democratic Athens was an innovative and dynamic kind of power, which was calling into question the traditional values embodied by the Spartans. The development of a large naval empire was a completely new experience in the history of Greece, which the Spartans seemed to be struggling to decipher. The wake-up call for the Spartans came from their allies Corinth, who, like the Athenians, were an important naval power. In the summer of 432, after the Athenians laid siege to Potidaea, an ally of Corinth, an assembly of the Peloponnesian League was held in Sparta to address their remonstrances against the Athenians. Thucydides reports the speeches delivered on this occasion by the Corinthian and Athenian representatives, by the Spartan king Archidamus, and Sthenelaidas, one of the ephors in charge. More than addressing the actual grounds of complaint of the Peloponnesians, these speeches serve the purpose of introducing the readers to the different national characteristics of the main powers of Greece.

The meeting had been called by the Corinthians, whose representatives accuse the Spartans of having contributed to the growth of Athens by failing to take resolute action against them. What is worse, the Spartans have failed to understand that the Athenians are no ordinary foe: they are swift, innovative, dynamic and adventurous. The challenge they pose to the Spartans is military, political and cultural: will the Spartans be able to move out of their Peloponnesian comfort-zone and face this new kind of enemy [d]?

Two Athenian envoys happened to be in Sparta at the time of this meeting, and made a request to the Spartans to address the assembly and reply to the accusations of their allies, lest their anger might drive them to take hasty resolutions and step into a potentially destructive war. The speech of the Athenian envoys addresses two topics: the circumstances that led Athens to become the dominant naval power of the Aegean, and therefore a challenge to Spartan hegemony, and what they have been compelled to do to maintain their leadership. The ambassadors remember the Athenians’ vital contribution to the defeat of the Persians, both at Marathon, and at the naval battle at Salamis [e]. In the latter battle in particular, the Athenians gave proof of their courage, patriotism and loyalty to the Greek cause [f]. After the battle of Micale, they took over the command of the war by common consent of the allies when the Spartans decided to return to Peloponnese and withdraw from the conflict. At this point, the envoys say that their rise to hegemony was less the result of a precise design than the product of a concatenation of circumstances, in which the Athenians found themselves under the compulsion of two mighty forces: fear, at the time of the struggle against the Persians, and honour, when the allies urged them to take over the leadership of the Greek coalition. Thereupon, once the Athenians had taken over the burden and responsibility of hegemony, their actions were to be determined by another: self-interest. For every power exercising hegemony over others has to defend itself from the envy and resentment that its position of supremacy engenders in those who are subject to it. The exercise of hegemonic authority therefore requires a degree of coercion: this is an all-important rule of relations between different powers, which applies to Athens’ dominance of the Aegean Sea as well as to Spartan hegemony over Peloponnese [g]. The speech of the Athenian envoys is a masterpiece of elaborate rhetorical art and political cynicism. Nothing could be more remote from the Laconic frankness of the Spartans. The Spartan king Archidamus is left astonished by the Athenians’ words, and wonders why they did not even try to deny the accusations brought against their city. Far from indulging in the Machiavellian disquisitions of the two Athenians, his understanding of international relations revolves around two basic categories: what is good and what is bad [h].

[a] Thuc. 5.26.5: Thucydides and the events of the Peloponnesian War

I lived through the whole of the war, and was of an age to understand events. So I gave my attention to them, to know the exact truth about this conflict. Also, it befell me to be banished from my fatherland for twenty years following my strategy at Amphipolis, and so, being acquainted with both sides, and in particular with the Peloponnesians owing to my exile, I had the leisure to acquire a deeper understanding of these events.

[b] Thuc. 1.1.1–2: The incipit of Thucydides’ Histories

The Athenian Thucydides wrote an account of the war fought by the Peloponnesians and the Athenians against each other. He began his task as soon as the war broke out, for he believed that it would be a great conflict, and more worthy of narration than the previous ones. The proof of this was that both powers were in every respect at the peak of their preparedness and he could see that the other Greek nations were taking sides in the dispute, some immediately, others intending to do so. In fact, this war was the greatest upheaval ever experienced by the Greek world as well for some of the barbarians, that is to say for most of mankind.

[c] Thuc. 1.23.6: The real cause of the Peloponnesian War

The truest cause of the conflict, and the least spoken of, I believe to have been the growth to power of the Athenians, which brought fear to the Spartans and made war inevitable.

[d] Thuc. 1.68.3–69.4: The opposing characters of Spartans and Athenians

‘Spartans: the confidence you have reposed in your constitution and commonwealth makes you more suspicious towards us if we make any comments on other powers. Hence comes your moderation, but also your ignorance of foreign affairs. For although we have often warned you of the damage which the Athenians were going to inflict on us, you have never taken steps to ascertain the veracity of our warnings. Instead, you have raided suspicions on those who were warning you, as though they had been moved to talk by their private interests. And so you have summoned the present meeting of allies not before the blow was struck, but only when we are already in the midst of a crisis. Of your allies, we are certainly not the least entitled to speak, for we have been the most vocal in protesting about the arrogance of the Athenians, and your own neglect.

‘Now, if the Athenians had been perpetrating their abuses in secret, and you were unaware of what was happening, you would have needed someone to give you a clear exposition of the facts. But now there is no need for long speeches, for you see with your own eyes that they have enslaved some of us and are plotting against others, particularly our allies, and have been long making preparations for war. Otherwise they would not have seized Corcyra, which they still hold against our will, and would not be besieging Potidaea, the latter being conveniently located for launching attacks against Thrace, while the former would have contributed a very large fleet to the Peloponnesians.

‘You, and not others, are responsible for this: for you permitted them, in the first instance, to fortify their city after the Persian Wars, and then to build the Long Walls, while up to this moment you have always deprived of their freedom not only those who had been enslaved by them, but now even your allies. For who are the truer subjugators? Those who have enslaved a city, or those who failed to do what was in their power to prevent it, and still claim the honour of having been the liberators of Greece? Now at last we have assembled, albeit not without difficulty, and without a clear purpose. Now we should no longer discuss whether we have been injured, but look at how we should defend ourselves. For men of action make their plans and put them into practice with no hesitations, while their opponents are pondering their options. We are well aware of how the Athenians advance against their neighbours: a little here and a little there. As long as they think that they can carry out their plans unnoticed owing to your lack of attention, their actions are less bold, but once you make them understand that you know what they are doing, but don’t care to interfere, they will press on more aggressively. Spartans: of all the Greeks, you alone remain inactive and defend yourselves not by using your power but by showing the intention to use it; you alone intend to dissolve the power of your enemies not as its outset, but when it is doubling itself. People used to say that you were a reliable nation, but now your reputation goes beyond the truth. The Persians, as we know, managed to reach Peloponnese from the ends of earth without you sending out any force worthy of this name to meet them. But now you disregard the Athenians, who are not a distant enemy, as the Persians were, but your neighbours. You prefer to act on the defensive against them, and not on the offensive, and leave this matter to chance by engaging in a struggle with an enemy which is twice as powerful as it originally was. And yet you are aware that the barbarian failed mostly by his own fault, and in our engagements with the Athenians we owed our successes more to their mistakes than the aid we may have received from you. Many a state has been ruined by the expectations that they placed on you, for, trusting on your help, they neglected military training. And let none of you think that these words are spoken out of hostility, and not as a remonstrance. For one remonstrates with a friend who is in error, while accusations are made against enemies by whom we have been injured.

‘We believe that we are as entitled as anybody else to highlight the faults of our neighbours, particularly if we consider the great contrast between your national character and theirs. A contrast which you do not seem to perceive, for you have not considered what kind of men the Athenians are, whom you are going to fight, and how utterly different from you.

‘The Athenians are men devoted to innovation: they are quick to put their plans into execution, while you tend to defend what you have, while you never devise anything new, and when action is required, you never go as far as is needed. Furthermore, they are daring beyond their strength, and adventurous beyond their judgment, and high-spirited in front of perilous situations, while you always do something less than would be in your power. You put no trust even in what your judgement considers safe, and believe that there is no release from danger.

‘Also, they are resolute in action, while you are procrastinators; they are not afraid of venturing abroad, while you are tied to your homes, because they hope to gain something from their absence, while you are afraid that you may put at risk what you have by going abroad. When they overcome their enemies, they strive to pursue their advantage as far as possible; when they are defeated, they fall back as little as possible.

‘In the service of their city, they use their bodies as though they were the bodies of other men, and their minds as though they were wholly their own. When they conceive a plan but fail to accomplish it, they think to have been deprived of some of their possessions, but when they go after something and attain it, they consider it very little compared to what the future has in store for them. When they fail in some undertaking, they set their minds on a new goal, and so they make up for the loss. Only the Athenians are so swift in putting their plans into practice that they can consider what they hope for as already obtained. And so they spend every day of their lives amid dangers and toils. They have less opportunity to enjoy what they have, because they are always engaged in the pursuit of something else. Doing their duty is their holiday, and unproductive idleness they regard as more calamitous than toilsome activity.

‘In sum, if someone said that the Athenians were born never to have rest, nor to let others have it, he would say nothing but the truth’.

[e] Thuc. 1.73.4–74.2: Athenian heroism at Marathon and Salamis

We affirm we have single-handedly braved the barbarians at Marathon, and when they later returned, since we could not defend ourselves on land, we resolved to embark en masse and confront them in the sea-fight at Salamis. This prevented them from sailing against you, city by city, and ravaging Peloponnese, for you would not have been able to succour one another against such a large fleet. The best proof of this was provided by the enemy: for, having been defeated, they immediately withdrew with most of the army, as though their fleet was no longer the power that it used to be.

This is was the outcome of the battle; this clearly proved that the fate of the Greeks depended on their fleet. To that effort we contributed three very important elements: the largest number of ships, a most intelligent admiral and our untiring dedication. For almost two-thirds of the whole four hundred ships came from Athens; Themistocles was the commander and the man chiefly responsible for the decision of fighting the battle in the straits, a decision which ultimately saved Greece. For this reason you welcomed him with more honour than any other foreigner who ever visited your city. At Salamis we gave proof of our zeal and unremitting bravery, for when no one could come to our aid by land, since all the states up to our borders had already been enslaved, we resolved to leave our city and surrender our households. Even in those extreme circumstances, we did not desert our surviving allies nor did we make ourselves useless to them by dispersing our forces. Instead, we embarked on our galleys and braved the enemy, and we were not angry at you because you had not come to our rescue. Therefore, we claim to have given you more than we have happened to receive.

[f] Thuc. 1.75: How the Athenians obtained their empire

‘Spartans: considering the dedication and vision which we displayed in those circumstances, do you really think that we deserve to be regarded with such extreme jealousy by the other Geeks on account of the empire which we possess? For we did not obtain it by means of coercion, but it so happened that you were no longer willing to carry on the struggle against what remained of the barbarian army, and so the allies came to us of their own accord, and begged us to take over the leadership. Hence circumstances have brought us to advance our empire to its present state being driven first by fear, then by sense of honour and finally by interest. But once we became the object of hatred for many of our allies, and some of them had revolted and then been subdued, and you were no longer as friendly as you used to be, but had become suspicious and turned against us, it no longer seemed safe to us to risk loosening our grip, for all the rebel allies would have turned over to you. And no one should be blamed for looking after his own interest when facing the most serious dangers.’

[g] Thuc. 1.76.1–77.6: How an imperial power has to defend itself

‘Spartans, you rule over the cities of Peloponnese by settling their affairs according to your advantage. And if in the days of the war against the Persians you had persevered to the end, and grown unpopular owing to the exercise of leadership, we know for sure that you would have been no less obnoxious to the allies, and would have been forced to choose between iron-fisted government and danger to yourselves. Therefore, our conduct was not extraordinary or alien to human nature: we were offered an empire, and accepted it, and then, driven by the three strongest forces, honour, fear and self-interest, we refused to give it up. And we are not the first to have followed this course, for it has always been a law that the weaker must succumb to the more powerful. Also, we consider ourselves worthy of our standing, and so you used to consider us, until you began to calculate what was your interest and to use the argument of justice, which so far nobody has ever put before force when the opportunity arose to gain anything by force. Praise is certainly due to those who follow human nature and rule over others, and at the same time respect justice more than their strength would compel them to do. Therefore, we believe that if others were to take over our empire, the way in which they would exercise power would be the clearest proof of our moderation, but strangely enough in our case our moderation has won us more contempt than admiration.

For although we are at a disadvantage with our allies in lawsuits arising from commercial agreements, and we are subject to the same laws as them in the tribunals which we have established, still we are considered to be fond of litigation. As for our allies, they fail to consider that those who hold the leadership elsewhere and are less moderate towards their subjects are not reproached on this account, because those who have strength on their side don’t need to appeal to right. Yet our allies have grown so accustomed to being treated as our equals that whenever they suffer even the most insignificant loss in what they consider right, be it in a trial or in reason of the power we exercise upon them, they forget to be grateful for not having been deprived of most of the advantages which our empire brings them, and feel more bitterly about that small mark of inferiority than if we had from the start deliberately put aside any legal principle and unashamedly enriched ourselves to their detriment, in which case they would not say that the inferior should not yield to the superior. Men, as it seems, are more angered by legal wrongs than physical oppression, for the former gives the impression of an act of arrogance from a peer, while the latter is a form of constraint exercised by someone superior. At any rate, our allies had to endure much harder sufferings when they were under the Persians, but now our rule seems to be much harder to bear. This however is not surprising, because the present always weighs heavy on the subjects.’

[h] Thuc. 1.86.1: Archidamus on the Athenians

‘I cannot understand the long speeches of the Athenians, for although they have spoken at great length in praise of themselves, nowhere have they tried to deny that they are injuring our allies and Peloponnese. If they acted valiantly against the Persians in the past, but are wronging us now, they deserve a double punishment, because they used to be good and now have become bad.’

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