Ancient History & Civilisation

APPENDIX B The Athenian Empire in Thucydides

©1. “Athenian Empire” is a phrase in conventional use, describing a system of tribute-paying states who answered in varying ways to the authority of Athens. Originally they were autonomous members of an alliance of Greek city-states and islands formed in 478 after the battles of Plataea and Mycale to defend Greeks against anticipated Persian invasions, and to avenge damage and injuries done by the Persians in the recent past. This alliance came under Athenian military leadership after the Spartan regent and general Pausanias disgraced himself and the Spartans withdrew from further participation in the struggle against Persia. States from the allied fleet asked Athens to lead them and Athens complied: she was in an advantageous position to command, employing as she did a large and active fleet and enjoying a new and singular reputation for heroism gained by her triumph at the battle of Marathon, her people’s heroic evacuation of their city, and her role in the recent naval victory of Salamis.

©2. The new alliance is known as the Delian League because its members at first conducted their deliberations and established their treasury on the small centrally located island of Delos, an ancient Ionian sanctuary sacred to Apollo. Most of the island cities in the Aegean Sea and many coastal cities of Thrace and Asia Minor became members, recognizing that they were vulnerable to Persian forces and exposed to an allied Greek fleet that could either support or harry them. When the Athenian Aristides, widely known as “the Just,” took command, he designed a League fund to which member states were to contribute money annually, with each paying an amount determined more or less by its size and resources. It was agreed that some nautical cities, and the major islands of Chios, Lesbos, and Samos, would contribute ships and manpower in lieu of money. All member states took an oath binding them permanently to the alliance. Although each member theoretically had an equal say in League matters, there was no major, counterbalancing force against that of Athens to attract clusters of votes in opposition. For this reason, when there was great diversity of opinion among members, any few who voted with Athens weighted the balloting enough for Athens to prevail; and there would always be some who would cooperate with her. In time the restless energy of the Athenians almost inevitably transformed their initial commanding position among equals into that of a ruling power.

Plataea: Appendix B Map, BX. Site of a great land victory of the Greeks over the Persians. See also Appendix E, ©4.

Mycale (near Mount Mycale): Appendix B Map, BY. Site of a Greek victory over the Persians mentioned in 1.89.2. See also Appendix E, ©4.

Thucydides describes the disgrace of Pausanias and the withdrawal of the Spartans in 1.95.

Marathon: Appendix B Map, BX. Site in Attica of a victory in 490 by the Athenians over a Persian expedition. See also Appendix E, ©4.

Salamis: Appendix B Map, BX. Site of the first great naval victory by the combined Greek fleet over a much larger Persian fleet in 480. See also Appendix E, ©4.

Delos: Appendix B Map, BY. For the religious significance of Delos, see Polycrates’ consecration of Rhenea to Delos (1.13.6) and Athenian purifications of Delos (3.104.1).

Melos: Appendix B Map, BX; Thera: Appendix B Map, BY. These islands in the southern Aegean, settled by Dorians, were however among the few Aegean islands that did not join the league (2.9.4).

Thucydides says in 1.96.2 that the first year’s tribute totaled 460 talents. The Athenian-Spartan peace treaty described by Thucydides in 5.18.5. refers to the tribute set by Aristides.



©3. The genesis and duration of the Athenian Empire can be sketched in its larger outlines from several ancient written sources. Thucydides’ description (1.89-118) of the years between the defeat of the Persians in 479 and the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431—known as the “Pentecontaetia” by scholars, although it does not exactly comprise fifty years—is our most substantial account of this period, despite some surprising omissions. Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus also provide important information, and other details can be drawn from various surviving state documents inscribed on stone. And yet despite this comparative abundance of evidence for a short period of time, many elements of chronology and sequence continue to resist satisfactory ordering. There can be no doubt, however, that Athens’ empire ceased to exist when her fleet was defeated and captured by the Peloponnesians at Aegospotami in 405.

©4. After Aristides came Cimon son of Miltiades, one of Athens’ greatest generals. He assumed command of the Greek forces and vigorously and successfully set about driving the Persians out of the Aegean. By the early 460s (467?), when Cimon won his most famous victory over the Persians in a combined land and sea battle at the Eurymedon River in Pamphylia, the Delian League comprised nearly two hundred member states and controlled not only the entire Aegean Sea but also a broad coastal strip of western Asia Minor. Many of these states benefited greatly from their membership in an alliance that suppressed piracy, encouraged trade and commerce, and provided employment for the poor as rowers in the fleet. Moreover, Athens generally favored democratic factions, and when oligarchs and democrats in a given state were almost equally matched in a struggle for dominance, Athenian support could prove decisive for the democrats. Democratic regimes that owed their establishment and continued existence to Athens tended to be reliable and loyal subject allies. They might have preferred autonomy, but, for many, answering to Athens was an acceptable alternative to the rule of local oligarchs. Accordingly, despite the assurances with which Corinth predicted uprisings,4b subject cities were slow to revolt against Athens after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War and only did so with any frequency in the presence of Peloponnesian troops under Brasidas in Chalcidice or after Athens’ apparently crippling defeat in Sicily. Some states, however, remained allies of Athens throughout the Peloponnesian War.

©5. In time, many members of the League found their contributions of military service and ships onerous, and elected to pay a cash equivalent instead. Athens used these funds to improve her own properly equipped and well-trained fleet. As a result, Athens found herself in an even better position to collect tribute from reluctant allies, and such allies found themselves less able to offer serious resistance to Athenian demands. By 431, only Lesbos and Chios continued to supply ships of their own and to enjoy the status of privileged allies rather than subjects.

Lesbos, Appendix B Map, AY; Chios and Samos: Appendix B Map, BY.

Aegospotami: Appendix B Map, AY.

Eurymedon river: Appendix B Map, locator. Thucydides mentions this victory in 1.100.1.

For Corinth’s predicted uprisings, see 1.122.1.

Chalcidice: Appendix B Map, AX.

©6. States who sought to leave the alliance found early on that Athens would not permit them to do so. Naxos (before 467) and Thasos (465-62) tried to break away but were besieged, defeated, and compelled to remain as members. When the large island of Samos defied Athens in 440, a major military campaign was mounted to subdue and punish her. The revolts of Lesbos in 428 and of Chios and other states in 411 were more threatening still, because they took place during the Peloponnesian War. Athens responded to these uprisings with increasingly firm and harsh measures designed to maintain and even to increase the nature and extent of her rule. Opponents were exiled or executed. Fines were levied, and in some cases land was confiscated and allocated to Athenian citizens (see ©10 below). Some states that refused to become members of the alliance were compelled to join it. This odious use of imperial power, perhaps based on the presumption that those who are not with us are against us, was first employed against Carystus in Euboea around 472; it culminated in the brutal conquest of Melos in 415, and collapsed in Athens’ total and calamitous failure to subjugate Syracuse two years later.

©7. Relations with Sparta began to deteriorate when Cimon, in 462, persuaded the Athenians to help the Spartans, who were besieging Messenians and Helots at Mount Ithome. When the Spartans rudely sent the Athenians home soon after they had arrived, many Athenians were offended and blamed Cimon personally. Not long afterward they ostracized him (1.102), but they recalled him before his ten-year banishment was complete so that he could again command their forces against the Persians. He died while leading a Greek fleet at Citium on the island of Cyprus around 450. Cimon’s death, together with the outbreak of open conflict with Sparta and the destruction by Persia of a large Greek fleet in Egypt in 454, may well have led Athens to increase her control over the League. In any case, she moved the League treasury from Delos to Athens in 454/3, and seems thereafter to have consulted less and less with the allies about questions of policy. In her official language, she began to refer to the allies as “all the cities that Athens rules.” Pericles had reason to warn his fellow citizens in 429 that their rule over the empire was a tyranny, one that it may have been wrong to take, but which by that time was very dangerous to let go.

©8. For some reason, Athenian military activity against Persia ceased shortly after Cimon’s death. There is a persistent tradition in the fourth century that the Athenian Callias, son of Hipponicus, secured a formal peace with Persia around this time—the mid-fifth century. By the terms of that peace, it is thought that Persia agreed that her ships would not sail west of Phaselis or out of the Black Sea, and that her satraps (governors of Persian provinces) would not attempt to force Athenian allies to return to Persian rule. Thucydides, however, does not mention any such peace treaty, nor do other fifth-century writers. As a result, there is wide disagreement whether such a “Peace of Callias,” which occupies a key place in modern (and authoritative) reconstruction of the course of the Athenian Empire, was actually made.

Lesbos: Appendix B Map, AY; Chios, Appendix B Map, BY. The Athenians were more acutely outraged by the revolt of Lesbos because of the island’s privileged status (3.36.2).

Naxos: Appendix B Map, BY; Thasos: Appendix B Map, AX.

Samos: Appendix B Map, BY.

For Thucydides’ “Melian Dialogue,” see 5.85-5.113. Carystus, Euboea, Melos: Appendix B Map, BX.

Sparta, Mount Ithome: Appendix B Map, BX.

Citium, Cyprus: Appendix B Map, locator.

For the story of the loss of this Athenian expedition to Egypt, as well as the fleet sent by the Athenians to relieve it, see 1.104, 1.109-10.

See Pericles’ speech at 2.63.2 and the speech of the Athenians at Sparta, 1.75.3.

©9. Athens also exerted control over her subjects through judicial agreements. Questions of justice required agreements between states—if only to determine where complaints would be heard. Often more complex questions needed to be addressed, such as the class of offense, the kind of court, and the citizenship of the perpetrator. It was normal for a state to enter into a formal agreement with another to regulate such matters, and the two would publish their own particular rules of administration. Athenians required that a larger number and variety of cases be tried at Athens than was usual in such agreements. They believed their courts were just and fair to their subjects, and indeed they complained that despite their superior power, they abided by such agreements to their own disadvantage. It is relevant to note that after 462, when Athenian popular courts entered a new era, one in which the people adjudicated a vastly wider array of suits and prosecutions, their facilities for judging, that is, courts and personnel, functioned at a level of volume and complexity higher than anything that could be found anywhere else in the Aegean basin.

©10. Whether the allocation of legal business was consistent with perfect equity or not is a moot point. Certainly, Athens wielded various instruments of power effectively, at least during the first sixty years of its empire. An important control was her ability to modulate a robust flow of commercial traffic by sea and to pay for an abundance of goods, from basic foodstuffs to luxuries, all of which meant profit for those who did business with her. This power was used against Megara when Athens by decree barred Megarians from conducting trade in any ports of the empire or the markets of Attica. This particular prohibition proved so harmful to Megara and was considered so outrageous that its repeal was among the key Peloponnesian demands that preceded the outbreak of war. In addition, the League treasurers (hellenotamiai), who were all Athenians, collected the tribute and acted as enforcers when states were slow to pay. In some locations—for example, on Lemnos, Imbros, the Chersonese, as well as at Histiaea, Aegina, Lesbos and Melos—Athens settled her own citizens as colonists or lot-holders (clerouchs) who turned their new land into virtual extensions of Athens, and served, if only by their presence, as Athenian garrisons overseeing the local citizens. In time, Athens also imposed on her tributary allies her own silver coinage and a system of standard weights and measures.

©11. When the Athenians moved the League treasury to Athens in 454/3, they consecrated a sum equal to one sixtieth of each year’s tribute to Athena, tutelary goddess of Athens, and used that money in various ways to enhance their city; they could now pay citizens to hold many civic offices, and they could honor Athena on the Acropolis with magnificent new buildings such as the Parthenon and the Propylaia. A fragmentary record of these appropriated sums, published as lists inscribed on marble slabs, begins in 454/3 and ends possibly in 410/409. A 5 percent harbor tax imposed on the allies in 413 may have turned out to be more practicable. A major reassessment in 425, which substantially increased the annual tribute of the allies, and which is preserved on its own stele, is not mentioned at all by Thucydides.

Phaselis and the Black Sea: Appendix B Map, locator.

The “Peace of Callias” is also discussed in Appendix E, ©5, and note E5c. See also note 8.56.4a.

See Thucydides, 1.77.

For the Megarian Decree, see note 1.42.2a; 1.139.1-2,4; 1.140.3; and 1.144.2.

Lemnos, Imbros, Chersonese, and Lesbos: Appendix B Map, AY; Histiaea, Appendix B Map, AX; Aegina and Melos: Appendix B Map, BX. For the establishment of clerouchs on Lesbos, see 3.50.2.

The taking of land by these clerouchies was deeply resented by the local citizens and was explicitly forbidden in the charter of a second Athenian confederacy formed briefly in the mid-fourth century.

©12. Plutarch wrote that Pericles had to respond to complaints that he should not use League contributions to beautify Athens. In reply, he said that the allies contributed nothing but money, and that as long as the Athenians did their job, which was to run the war against Persia, they did not need to present any accounting to those who gave the money. This cool assessment is in its tone quite in keeping with the chilling Athenian “realpolitik” of the Melian Dialogue: those who have power do what they like, those who do not, do what they must.

Alan L. Boegehold
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island

See Illustration 2.69, which shows a fragment of a tribute list.

For the Melian Dialogue, see Thucydides, 5.85-113.

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