Part II

Athens to Alexander: The Rise and Fall of Empires

In this part . . .

The chapters in Part I look at who the Greeks were and how they forged an identity as a people by coming together to fight the wars against the Persian Empire.

Well, some people did rather better out of that experience than others and in this part I look at the rise and fall of the Athenian empire and that of its ultimate successor, Alexander the Great of Macedon, who took the war to Persia. Hold on - it’s a bumpy ride!

Chapter 7

Athens and Empire Building

In This Chapter

● Forming and manipulating the Delian League

● Creating a new Athenian empire

● Appreciating Athenian democracy

● Doling out Athenian justice

After years of warring with the Persians, the Greeks emerged victorious (see Chapter 6) - and Athens played a massive part in the success. In the years following the end of fighting with Persia, Athens built on its successes to become the dominant Greek state in the Mediterranean with a domain comprising other cities, towns, and islands. In this chapter, I explain how the Athenians created one of history’s greatest empires.

Establishing the Delian League:

Athens Comes Out on Top

Although the Greeks defeated the Persians in 480-479 BC, the threat of the Persians returning to fight again was never likely to go away. All the Greek cities realised this danger, and after the celebrations of their great victories were over the big question facing the victorious Greeks was ‘What do we do now?’

The Greek naval fleet continued to range around the eastern Mediterranean. In 478 BC Pausanias, the Spartan commander from Plataea, took the war to Persian-held Greek territories. First he sailed to Cyprus and managed to take control of the island. He then sailed up the Bosphorus to Byzantium (close to the site of modern-day Istanbul in Turkey) and managed to drive out the Persian garrison. Sadly, at this point Pausanius seemed to have lost the plot and was recalled to Sparta for attempting to install himself as a tyrant in Byzantium. If you want to know what happened to the power-hungry Pausanius, look at Chapter 26.

Let's stick together

Pausanius’s naughty behaviour had a big effect. Despite the Spartan’s military greatness (see Chapter 5), the rest of Greece began to suspect that they were not the best candidates to lead the long-term resistance against Persia. The Athenians, with their large fleet that had done so well in the recent war with Persia, seemed a much better alternative.

In the winter of 478-77 BC, ambassadors from many Greek towns and islands held a big meeting on the island of Delos. An Athenian general called Aristeides came up with the idea of a league of Greek states that worked together to protect the Greek world from the Persians - and also to financially compensate the states for damages that the Persian king had inflicted.

To prove their allegiance to this new enterprise, Aristeides proposed all the league members be required to pay an annual tribute of either money or ships to the Delian League treasury. (Aristeides himself decided how much members had to give.) Of course, the general also proposed that the Athenians supervise the entire endeavour and take on the job of treasurer, collecting and holding the cash for this new enterprise.

Essentially all the states (including Athens) were contributing for the common good because the collected resources were to be used to defend any of the member states against attack. Athens, however, was in a very strong position - having control of the entire operation made the city very powerful.

Adding another brick in the Wall: Themistocles's return

Themistocles, the man who played a massive part in the battle of Salamis and persuaded the Athenians to abandon the city (refer to Chapter 6), made an even bigger contribution to Greek politics following the Persian Wars.

While the Delian League was being set up, Themistocles prompted the Athenians to begin rebuilding the walls of their city. In order to imagine the size of this undertaking, take a look at the plan in Figure 7-1. We don’t know how high or thick these walls were but they were about four miles in length. Some parts are still preserved and if you go to the Naval Museum in Athens you can see a section of them.

Figure 7-1 shows Athens around 450 BC. By this point the walls of Themistocles had been joined to the ‘Long Walls’ that connected Athens with its port Piraeus. This meant that the city was completely encircled by defensive walls.

Figure 7-1: Athens circa 450 BC.

Athens’s protective walls had been destroyed during two Persian sackings (being vandalised and looted by invaders) carried out over the preceding 25 years. The move to rebuild the walls was very controversial at the time. The Spartans (who else?) protested against Themistocles’s plan, claiming that it went against the spirit of the accord that brought many Greek states together to defeat Persia. Surely, the Spartans suggested, destroying the Athenian walls was a more appropriate symbol now that all Greek states trusted each other.

More likely, the Spartans were concerned about Athens’s growing power and knew that large walls would make the city more difficult to defeat in open warfare because it would be more able to withstand a siege. In any case, the Athenians ignored the Spartan’s protests and carried on with the building project!

Getting together the necessary amount of stone and materials was a huge task. The historian Thucydides describes the extent that some Greeks had to go to:

Meanwhile the entire population of the city should build the wall, sparing neither private nor public buildings which might be of some use in the work, but demolishing everything. . .

The project took 20 years to complete. By 450 BC, walls encircled the whole city of Athens as well as the large port of Piraeus. The Athenians then went on to build ‘the Long Walls’, that linked the port and the city. No other Greek state boasted defences like this.

Thanks a lot, now push off!

You may think that a hero like Themistocles was guaranteed a life of fame in Athens after initiating the city's massive wall rebuilding project. No chance. Like many others, he fell foul of the chaotic political scene in Athens. Not long after the walls were finished, Themistocles's political opponents ostracised him from the city. He ended up in the town of Argos but was driven out of there when the Spartans accused him of intrigue. Themistocles finished up living at the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes, an odd place for a Greek hero to end up! He had dreamed of Athens gaining a whole Mediterranean empire - ironically that was exactly what they did after his death in 459 BC.

Athenian construction went even further, spending money on the buildings within the city. During this period the Athenians constructed the Parthenon on the Acropolis and many other buildings (see Chapter 18 for more on ancient Greek building techniques), which attracted huge numbers of artists and poets (see Chapter 17).

Expanding its Influence: The Delian League Goes into Action

Of course the Delian League wasn’t just a defensive measure. Despite the fact that the league had been created to help the Greeks defend themselves against foreign threats, fairly soon after it was founded, the Greeks started to aggressively attack the Persians. The league seemed to follow the idea that attack is the best form of defence. From around 477 BC onwards the states involved in the Delian League began to launch attacks on Persian-held territories.

Representing the Delian League - or the Athenian empire?

Kimon was the man who led the new attack on Persia. He was the son of the famous general Miltiades, who had been one of the heroes of Marathon (see Chapter 5). Kimon had two significant early successes:

● In 476 BC, he captured the port of Eion, which was the last surviving Persian port on the borders of Thrace.

● In 475 BC he took control of the island of Skyros.

Holding out for a hero: Enter Pericles

By 470 BC, Athens was experiencing its 'Golden Age'. A combination of military success, financial security, and immense creativity in the arts turned this small market town in Attica into the absolute centre of the ancient world. (You can read a lot more about the achievements of Athens as well as the everyday lives of its people in Parts III and IV of this book.)

Central to a great deal of what was happening in Athens was a dominant new player on the political scene. His name was Pericles, and he made huge changes to the way that Athens looked and acted.

In many ways Pericles was a traditional aristocrat. His family was descended from the Alkmaionids, who were among the oldest and most influential aristocrats in the city (see Chapter 4). Despite this upper class background, Pericles was always very closely associated with democratic reform in Athens. (I mention several of these reforms in the later sections 'Navigating Athenian Democracy' and 'Examining the Athenian Legal System'.) And as a patron of the arts, Pericles was dedicated to turning Athens into the greatest of all Greek cities and (at the time) he arguably succeeded in doing so. It didn't last, however.

Although Kimon’s victories were all well and good, other members of the Delian League began to question whether he had won the new territories in the name of the Delian League or the city of Athens. The answer soon became clear.

The island of Skyros wasn’t even a Persian territory, but the Athenians claimed to have captured it for strategic reasons. Just to back their argument up even more, the Athenians enacted an impressive piece of spin-doctoring. Soon after Skyros was captured the Athenians discovered the skeleton of a very large man, and claimed they’d discovered the tomb of the hero Theseus (refer to Chapters 2 and 3). And because Theseus was an Athenian, Skyros must therefore be Athenian territory. Hmmm. This only served to increase the cynicism of the other members of the league.

Extracting protection money

The Athenians asserted their interests within the Delian League to an even greater extent over the next few years. In 470 BC Kimon used the fleet (technically the Delian League fleet) to force the Euboian city of Karystos to join the league. The city was no threat to Greece, but after the Athenians forced Karystos into the league, it had to pay dues (see the preceding section, ‘Let’s stick together’).

Pestering the Persians

Kimon went even further in the following decade. He took the fight to Asia Minor and beyond. In 459 BC, the Egyptians revolted against Persian rule, and Kimon took 200 ships from the Delian League to the Nile Delta. The Delian League stayed in the region for five years, supporting the Egyptians’ attempt to revolt.

What had started as a means of protecting mainland Greece from Persia had turned into something quite different. The military and naval strength that had been assembled to protect Greece from external attack was now acting as a kind of international policeman in foreign wars and engaging in unprovoked attacks on Persian territory. None of this was defensive and the greatest beneficiaries were the Athenians. The arrival of a new leader in Athens took things further still.

Transforming the league into an empire

Around the time that Pericles rose to prominence in Athens, the nature of the Delian League changed forever. The key event happened on the small island of Naxos in 470 BC.

Despite the continuing threat of Persian attacks, Naxos decided that it wanted to withdraw from the league. The Athenians responded by sending the fleet to attack the island and then destroy the walls of its main city. The Athenians also forced Naxos to continue paying its taxes - only this time Naxos had to pay directly to support the upkeep of the Athenian fleet.

The league was increasingly functioning more like an empire (with Athens as enforcer) rather than a mutually supportive organisation. Compared to the Athenians, the Persians weren’t really that much of a threat to the people of Naxos! (A similar bit of political and military intimidation happened to the island of Thasos in 463 BC.)

Taking all: Athens in control

The Athenians effectively put the seal on the deal in 454 BC, establishing themselves as the leaders of an empire. During that year the Athenians moved the league’s treasury from the island of Delos to the Acropolis of Athens. Not only did the leadership in Athens hold on to the money, but they also insisted on taking a percentage each year as a tribute to the goddess Athene (the patron deity of Athens) under whose care the money now rested.

This shift was a clear sign that Athens now considered itself the head of an empire rather than the chair of a league. The following section looks at how Athens managed to ascend to its dominant position.

Navigating Athenian Democracy

Many ancient Athenians probably considered the city’s well-developed system of government to be the main reason it had become so dominant in the Greek world and Delian League by 470 BC. In Chapter 3, I examine how Athens’s aristocratic system and tyrannies finally gave way to democracy. This section covers how the system actually worked.

Democracies exist throughout the world today, but they’re very different from democracy in ancient Athens. Most countries today rely on some form of representative democracy, in which people vote for somebody (usually from a political party) to represent them in a parliament (or other governing body) and hopefully to vote in accordance with how people feel on issues. By contrast, ancient Athenian democracy was a participative democracy. Although the system included elected officials, government was carried out directly by the people, who voted on all major issues such as whether to go to war, build walls around the city, or start new religious festivals.

Getting organised

Athenian democracy ran via two main bodies:

● The ekklesia, or general assembly, which was the main body open to all male citizens over the age of 18.

● The boule, or Council of 500, which had a subcommittee known as the prutaneis to deal with emergency situations.

In addition to these two, the highest body in ancient Athens was the Aereopagus Council. This was a throwback to the old days of aristocratic rule in Athens (refer to Chapter 4), but as I explain in the later section ‘Meeting the VIPs: Very important politicians’, this group was due for a shake-up!

The following sections examine these bodies in much closer detail.

The Acropolis and its temples are very famous, and many think of the site as a symbol of Greek democracy. But the Acropolis wasn’t actually the home of Athenian politics - this was based in various sites around the agora. Figure 7-2 shows the actual political areas in the Athenian public square, or agora.

Figure 7-2: Athenian political sites around the agora.

Participating in the ekklesia

The ekklesia, or general assembly, was the main democratic body in Athens. Its job was to make major decisions and pass laws. If a male citizen registered in his deme (local area), he was entitled to attend the meetings of the ekklesia. It might seem as if this would make the meetings unmanageable but the Athenian population in 450 BC was around 250,000. Of this only around 30,000 were eligible male citizens (the rest were women, children, slaves, and resident foreigners called 'metics'). Of these 30,000 probably an average of around 5,000 would attend ekklesia meetings. That's a lot but still only about two per cent of the population!

Meeting and Voting

The ekklesia met regularly, four times a month on the big hill called the Pynx, which was located to the south-west of the city (see Figure 7-2).

Meetings were usually held early in the morning because agendas were lengthy and could take most of the day. Standing items on the agenda were defence, the election of officials, and the grain supply.

After this business was out of the way, the floor was opened by the chairman of the ekklesia, who was also the chairman of the prutaneis (see the sidebar ‘Acting presidential: The prutaneis’). Theoretically, anybody could speak at the ekklesia, but matters to be voted on had to be cleared by the elected boule first (see the later section ‘Joining the boule'').

Votes were usually taken by a show of hands unless it was particularly close, in which case a secret ballot took place. It was a lengthy process where people dropped a stone of a different colour into a jar depending on whether they were for or against. The jars were emptied and the votes counted. The pebble and jar method was also sometimes used to decide sensitive issues such military policy and commands.

Speaking up, speaking out

Of course, some people in the ekklesia spoke more than others. Those people who responded most often became known as rhetores, which is where the words orator and rhetoric come from. Wordy modern politicians owe their name to this group of old windbags. Quite appropriate really!

The rhetores were regularly in attendance and became very good at speaking and quite influential. Although the rhetores didn’t hold an official position, other attendees at the ekklesia looked to them to speak. Often a rhetor would represent a group of like-minded people, thus forming the closest thing that ancient Athens had to a political party.

Packing ‘em in

So, if every male citizen over the age of 18 was eligible to attend the ekklesia surely every meeting was packed? Well, probably not, actually.

At the time of Pericles (circa 450 BC), estimates suggest that the citizen population in Athens was probably about 30,000. Clearly not everyone could attend the same meeting and have his say! Historians estimate that only about 6,000 people could attend a meeting of the ekklesia at any one time.

Citizens were unable to attend for many reasons:

● Citizens (who were mostly self-employed) lost a day’s work by coming to meetings. By 400 BC, when the city was suffering after the Peloponnesian War (see Chapter 8), the Athenians instituted a system of attendance pay - citizens received 1 obol to compensate for lost earnings. For many citizens this was a mere gratuity.

● Many citizens lived all over Attica; the trip into Athens was timeconsuming for these individuals.

In the middle of the fifth century, the Athenians introduced a new attendance system in which the Scythian police force (described in Chapter 15) dragged a long, red rope across the agora (public square) on the mornings when the ekklesia was meeting. People touched by the rope would already be late for the meeting on the Pnyx and that would show when they arrived with a big red stain on their clothes. They would then be fined for late attendance!

In his play Acharnians the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes (see Chapter 16) gives an interesting description of a day at the ekklesia.

At dawn, and the Pynx here is deserted - people are sitting in the agora and here and there avoiding the vermilion rope. Even the prutaneis haven ' come, but they ’ll arrive late and then jostle as you might expect to try and get on the front bench.

Despite Aristophanes’s sarcasm, the Athenians loved democracy and shouted it from the rooftops. Although not every meeting of the ekklesia had maximum attendance, politics and the daily life of the city was on people’s lips all the time in a way that may feel quite unusual to people today.

Joining the boule

The boule, or Council of 500, complemented the ekklesia as the other major element of Athenian democracy. Basically the boule was an administrative group that set the agenda for the ekklesia, where the main business was done. Subsequently, it was the responsibility of the boule to carry out the laws and administration that the ekklesia had decided on. The boule met in the large building to the west of the agora called the bouleuterion.

Like the ekklesia, the boule was an amateur group made up of citizens who gave their time for no financial reward. The 500 individuals who made up the boule had to be Athenian citizens over the age of 30. They served on the boule for a year at a time and couldn’t serve more than twice in their lifetime.

Additionally, the 500 citizens were selected in a very specific way: Every year 50 men were elected from each of the ten tribes of Athens. This system meant that all areas of Attica were equally represented in the process.

Acting presidential: The prutaneis

The boule contained a special group known as the prutaneis, or presidents. This was an emergency committee that dealt with crises as and when they emerged. Serving as a president was a full-time job; citizens lived at state expense on 24-hour call in a building called the tholos (see Figure 7-2). The first duty for the prutaneis if a crisis happened was to summon a meeting of the boule. The prutaneiswas a coveted position and usually only held once in a lifetime. A candidate would have to be wealthy because he needed to ensure others carried out his business or worked his farm while he served. Like other aspects of Athenian democracy, the prutaneis appeared to be open to all but time and money pressures meant that only the wealthy could really afford to do it.

In a sense, members of the boule were like a kind of civil service that administered all areas of the state. Huge numbers of people were voted in as officials on an annual basis to enforce the policies of the ekklesia. At points during the fifth century BC around 700 people served as registered officials although the vast majority of these posts weren’t full-time and could be worked alongside the post-holder’s own business.

The following are some of the more important positions:

● The Nine: These nine individuals (surprise) were the most senior officials. The most prominent of the Nine gave his name to the calendar year. The rest of the group dealt with public festivals, religious matters, and justice.

● The Eleven: Below the Nine in prominence, these eleven officials were responsible for the jury-courts and maintaining punishments and the prison (see the section ‘Examining the Athenian Legal System’ for more on Athenian legal matters).

Many other officials tackled other areas of civilian life. For example, some officials were elected to engage in foreign policy and foreign relations, including envoys (presbeis) and heralds (kerux), who were state-appointed.

Meeting the VIPs: Very important politicians

Despite the full democracy at work in Athens some citizens were more important than others. In many ways, the true leaders of the Athenian people were the Aereopagus Council, nine arkhons who were elected on an annual basis. The council was so called because it met in the space known as ‘the crag of Ares’ between the hill of the Acropolis and the Pynx. Although they met on their own these arkhons also attended all meetings of the boule and ekklesia.

Solon (described in Chapter 4) decided in 594 BC that only two people from the top two property classes were eligible to ever become arkhons. Dating back to the early days of Athens, any former arkhons had automatically become part of the Aereopagus Council. Originally, the council had administered most of the business of the city, but gradually the ekklesia and the boule took on most of these responsibilities. The Aereopagus became a court to deal with serious criminal offences.

The arkhons and strategoi (elected generals) were the most dominant people in Athens. They were very influential in the ekklesia, but their influence wasn’t because people feared their power. Rather, the prominence of these people came from their being excellent speakers who knew how to work an audience and convince people to vote for their ideas.

One of the most notable VIPs was Pericles (see the earlier sidebar ‘Holding out for a hero: Enter Pericles’). He was involved in changes that reduced the powers of the Aereopagus Council, but he also made significant changes to the other great boast of ancient Athens - the jury system.

Examining the Athenian Legal System

The legal system in ancient Athens was very complicated. I could write entire chapters - indeed books - about Athenian justice. In this section, I just give a brief guide and overview of what took place in the court of law.

The main principle of the Athenian legal system was trial by jury. The Athenians believed that, like politics, every citizen should contribute to the system of justice - and jury trials were the easiest way of doing this. Other Greek cities either decided on issues by the power of the monarch or ruling council or allowed individuals the opportunity to enact vengeance themselves. Athens was doing something really quite different.

Meeting the legal players

The thesmothetai - six arkhons who were part of the Eleven (see the section ‘Identifying special roles and posts’) - were responsible for administering justice, which meant staffing and running the jury-courts and ensuring that justice took place.

The jury-courts were known as the eliaia and were staffed by between 201 and 2,501 jurors, which the thesmothetai would decide upon depending on the case’s significance. Immense care was taken over the selection of the jury to try and ensure that people with close relationships to those involved were not selected, but this was always difficult in such a small community.

The Athenians held a register of 6,000 citizens who were eligible for jury service. Pericles eventually introduced the system of payment for jurors, arguing that jury duty was as important as attending the ekklesia and so participants should be paid. The going rate was two obols a day (twice the rate of a day at the ekklesia). The number of cases going on meant that a juror was likely to be busy for many days of the year.

Prosecuting cases

Athens’s legal system was different from modern, Western systems in that all prosecutions were brought by private citizens. The state didn’t prosecute anybody. So, for example, if somebody broke into your house and stole your property, even if they were caught in the act, you would be responsible for taking them to court. Even crimes against the state, such as treason, were prosecuted by private individuals. When Socrates was put on trial in 399 BC for ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’ (Chapter 9 has the details) the charge was made by several private citizens, not the state.

Similarly, the Athenian system didn’t have any lawyers, as you know them nowadays. Citizens represented themselves in court, although they sometimes got more eloquent speakers to write speeches for them - for a fee, of course!

Everything took place in front of the jury of citizens (no private discussions with a judge or meetings between lawyers). Also, trials had to be over in one day. In a sense this time limit made for a much less complicated process - although you can argue that the jury was merely swayed by clever speaking.

Determining the fitness of a witness

Given the short duration of all Athenian court cases, good witnesses were vital. In the Athenian court, witnesses merely gave their evidence; no crossexamination was allowed. The selection and use of witnesses in court was the main legal strategy employed by prosecuting citizens.

Only citizens were allowed to give evidence. This regulation meant that women and metoikoi (resident foreigners) weren’t allowed to serve as witnesses. However, they could make a statement to a representative of the eliaia that a male citizen then read aloud.

Trial evidence provided by slaves was particularly controversial in the Athenian courts and was admissible only if the slave had been tortured first. This grizzly task was carried out by the Scythian archers who served as the Athenian police force and supervised by an e/iaia official. (Indeed, the lives of these unfortunate people were in stark contrast to the experiences of citizens in highly democratic Athens; for more on slavery see Chapter 14.)

Doggone good justice

In Aristophanes's play Wasps, he pokes fun at the Athenian legal system and the tendency of some people to be over-litigious on trivial issues if there was any chance of gaining compensation. He stages a fake trial at which a dog called Labes is prosecuted for stealing and eating a piece of Italian cheese! The prosecuting citizen

Bdelykleon sums up the charge and suggests punishment:

Now hear the indictment. Prosecution by the Dog of Kydathenaion against Labes of Aixone that he wronged one Sicilian cheese by eating it all by himself. Punishment one figwood dog-collar!

Trying a case

At a preliminary hearing in the Athenian courts both parties stated their case. An attempt would be made to settle the issue at this point as the appointed arkhon would encourage both sides to negotiate. If that failed then any physical evidence was boxed up and handed to the arkhon, and he would set a date for the trial which could be several weeks or even months in the future.

At the trial a water-clock timed the proceedings so that neither side was allowed to dominate and both had sufficient time to make their case. Both sides presented their evidence and then the jury voted. If the jury decided on a guilty verdict then they took another vote about the form of punishment. Very often the prosecution suggested its own punishment during a case.

More often than not, the jury’s punishment was a fine. The three heaviest penalties were death, exile (being expelled from the city either indefinitely or for a set period of time during which citizen rights would be lost), or atimia. Atimia involved stripping away the rights of Athenian citizenship. Although people could continue to live in Athens, they could no longer participate in any official functions. The Athenians often referred to atimia as a state of ‘living death’. The presiding arkhon was responsible for ensuring that the punishments were carried out and would attend and supervise executions.

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