Nature of Athenian Imperialism

About this essay

After the conclusion of the Persian Wars (492-479BC) with Athens being the true victor, and before the Peloponnesian War, a period of prosperity covered Athens, and they needed to devise new ways to protect themselves and expand their wealth, and how this would affect their relations with allies.

‘The Athenians and their Allies’ was an organisation led by the Athenians in the 5th century, but is now referred to as the ‘Delian League’ or the ‘Confederacy of Athens.’

The official aim of the League was, according to Thucydides, “to compensate themselves for their losses [of the Persian War] by ravaging the territory of the King of Persia.

” The long term aim of the League was to ensure the freedom of the Greeks and prepare them for any future wars to come. This makes the League both a defensive and offensive organisation.

Athens was to become the leader of the League, for various reasons, including their large navy and success at Salamis, but an underlying cause was that the Spartan King, Pausanias who “treated his own allies harshly and arrogantly and scattered insults far and wide with his officiousness and absurd pretensions” as written by Plutarch.

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Gaining leadership to the League could be considered a catalyst for Athens’ imperialistic ways in years to follow.

Thucydides believes that it was the Ionian Greeks who instigated the transferal of leadership from Sparta to Athens, and Athens then said something which would have been a large cause for the Peloponnesian War which was to follow in 432BC; “We did not gain this empire by force.

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It came to us at a time when you [Sparta] were unwilling to fight on to the end against the Persians.” This would obviously insult the Spartans greatly, as Sparta was a war-loving city-state which prided itself in bravery and fighting to the death.

Athenian leadership of the League soon became near inevitable, as Sparta was hardly experienced or capable of maintaining a large fleet, and still had many of their own problems to deal with.

Athens needed a large source of income if it was to carry out its aims mentioned above, and it would also require a large fleet. Some city-states would be responsible for providing money, others for ships.

A system of contributions had been devised, and was carried out by Aristides, “[he was] appointed to survey the various territories and their revenues, and then to fix their contributions according to each member’s worth and ability to pay” as Plutarch recalls.

The League’s actual extent isn’t known, but according to the book _Ancient Greece Using Evidence_, in the first year of the League its power extended to ‘Byzantium in the Propontis, the Aineum promontory in the north-west, Rhodes in the south-west and Siphnos in the south-west.’

During 478-461BC, the League was under a large influence of Cimon. Cimon entered politics at the right time as Plutarch writes “[the people] had had enough of Themistocles and they proceeded to promote Cimon to the highest honours and office in State.”

Cimon, who was excellent at handling the public, was also pro-Spartan, and this would later cause trouble for him as Athens and Sparta would end up at war with each other.

During Cimon’s reign over the League, three main operations took place. They included ‘against the Persians, some against their own allies when they revolted, some against the Peloponnesian powers with whom on various occasions they became involved.’ – Thucydides.

Over the next decade or so, various campaigns were conducted under the will of the Delian League. They include the capture of Byzantium, the capture of Eion, conquest of Scyrus, coercion of Carystus, revolt and subjugation of Naxos, the Battle of Eurymedon and the revolt of Thasos.

During the Revolt of Thasos, the Thasians called to various allies for help, the Spartans included. The Spartans answered the call and prepared to attack Attica, of which the Athenians were unaware of until later, but an earthquake and the concurrent revolt of the Helots provided enough distraction to postpone the attack on Attica.

The besiegement of Thasos revealed Athens’ true motivations behind the League and the future plans for her allies. According to _Ancient Greece Using Sources_ Thasos was one of the largest and richest members of the Delian League, and a conflict broke out between Athens and Thasos over the gold mining on the island. Thasos then attempted to withdraw from the League, as the Persians were no longer a threat in the Aegean, and Athens was demanding too much for too little in return.

The League, under the control of Cimon, then besieged Thasos for two years, and ‘destroyed their city walls, confiscated their navy, closed their mint and annexed their possessions on the mainland.’

According to Thucydides, the period from the revolt of Thasos to the ostracism of Cimon (465-461BC) was the time when the main friction between Sparta and Athens occurred and eventually led to their war.

If Sparta really was willing to attack Athens, an ‘apparent’ ally, then their relationship must have been weak and forced. Was Sparta jealous of Athens’ wealth and power? Did they feel threatened by the Athenians sudden harshness against their own ‘allies’? Or it could have been a combination of reasons. Thucydides didn’t help either when his pro-Athenian feelings got the better of him, ‘this was a time when Sparta was particularly friendly to Athens because of the courage displayed by Athens against the Persians.’

Another case of conflict between Athens and Sparta was when Athens was rebuilding their fortifications around their city. The Spartans and other allies were frightened by this, and tried to prevent Athens from doing so by telling them to “pull down all fortifications which still existed in cities outside Peloponnese” so that next time the Persians came they wouldn’t have a fortified base. Themistocles then went to Sparta, denied the walls were being built and suggested that envoys be sent to investigate for themselves. The envoys were then held hostage until the walls were high enough. After they were completed Themistocles announced that Athens ‘was capable of making up its own mind.’ Though Sparta wasn’t planning to stop the reconstruction, according to Thucydides they did dislike it.

(Left) An overview of the great walls that protected Athens. From the image it is easy to conclude that it was well built, as it not only protected the city, but also the docks and the 10km trip between the two. This allowed continuation of trade and communication in the event of a siege. Apart from the wall, you can also see the steep and high mountains around Athens, providing an added obstacle for attackers. It is understandable why Sparta wished that the Athenians wouldn’t rebuild their wall, because it interferes with their future plans to

A proposal was made at the Amphictyonic Council (religious council which dominated Delphi) that any Greeks who remained neutral or had helped Persia should be removed from the Council. This proposal was strongly backed by Sparta but Themistocles refuted this idea because then the Argives, Thebans and Thessalians would be expelled and the Council would be dominated by members of the Peloponnesian League.

This resentment to expel ‘traitors’ by Themistocles ‘gave particular offence to the Spartans, and made them try to strengthen Cimon’s position by showing him favours and thus establish him as a political rival to Themistocles,’ Plutarch notes.

Soon after (472BC) Themistocles was ostracized, Sparta treated Athens with more kindness than before, largely due to Cimon’s strong political position there and his pro-Spartan policies and feelings. Though he may have been capable of postponing a war between to two Greek superpowers, Cimon’s conservative actions would quickly lose him influence in a radical democratic state.

If anything was to make the alliance between Sparta and Athens obsolete, it was the humiliation Athens suffered by the direct hands of the Spartans. After an earthquake near Sparta, the helots of Laconia, along with the help of a few supporters, revolted against Sparta. Sparta then appealed to the allies of the Hellenic alliance created during the Persian War for assistance, Athens being among them.

Predictably, Cimon was all for it, but he faced opposition from Ephialtes, who was opposed to the Spartans. Cimon however eventually managed to convince the Assembly to help the Spartans out with a large army of hoplites. This can be interpreted to the conclusion that a majority of Athens still saw strong links of allegiance between the two states.

It was at this point that the Spartans greatly insulted and humiliated the Athenians. Out of all the allies who came for help, ‘only the Athenians were told by Sparta that their help was no longer needed and that they must return home.’ Thucydides recalls that the returned Athenians ‘were offended considering this was not the sort of treatment they deserved from Sparta.’

After this rejection, Cimon was ostracized (461BC) which also brought an end to his career and his joint-leadership policy of Greece. Athens then broke all alliances with Sparta, and formed new relationships with Argos and Thessaly, Sparta’s enemies.

(Left) Ostrakon with Cimon’s (Kimon) name on it.

Now with Cimon gone, and an incentive to fight against Sparta, the radical democrats of Athens reformed ‘their’ Delian League into a more imperial policy. There were 3 major goals with this new ’empire’ Athens was planning to build.

A continuation of the League, with the exception of Athens becoming more ruthless and satisfying her own interests rather than those of the League in general.

Building an empire in central Greece to take advantage of Sparta’s weaknesses.

Sustained aggressiveness to Persia.


A map of the Aegean Sea and the Greek city-states and other countries around it. It additionally displays the allegiances of each Greek state and the landmass they occupied at the time of the Peloponnesian War. The Athenian-coloured landmass is also considered the Athenian Empire.

Though it is hard to pinpoint the change from League to Empire for Athens, it is widely believed that the change occurred in 479-470BC. This was a radical change from Athens, and ironically changed them into the cause they were fighting against, that being, the Persian Empire and Athens being the democratic freedom-loving state. This could have resulted from Athenian control of the League, and realizing the splendors of power, Athens was diverted from her true path of Greek freedom, to controlling the world like so many other empires, as Thucydides said, ‘it was the actual course of events which first compelled us to increase our power to its present extent: fear of Persia was our chief motive…’

This change of structure also affected the relations Athens had with many other states. The obvious of course being Sparta and her allies, there were also quarrels between Athens and other states/countries during the League period such as Naxos and Thasos that greatly hinted towards the Athenians’ imperialistic future. To tighten their control over ‘their’ new empire, Athens even placed garrisons in rebellious cities, ‘… the Council installed by the [Athenian] inspectors and garrison commander, and in future by the [outgoing] council and the garrison commander.’

What started as a survival and revenge coalition of Greek states known as the Delian League, transformed into the very enemy they were fighting, an empire. As much as Athens was pro-democratic, power and wealth still corrupted them, and it would lead to their eventual downfall in years to come.



Patterson, B. (ed.) (1989) _Ancient Greece Using Evidence_.

Edward Arnold Pty Ltd, Victoria.

A very useful and elaborate book which covers basically every question of my topic in great detail. Includes a plethora of sources, mainly written, but also archaeological of the time period of Athenian imperialism. Seems quite reliable as it often bases its judgments and statements on the quotes used, and most information displayed is similar to other secondary sources. Overall incredibly useful for my assignment.

World Wide Web

_Athenian Imperialism_


Available from accessed 1/12/06

Very basic in layout and information included, but its point-form arrangement makes digestion of information easy. This website had some useful information regarding my topic, but was mainly used as a cross reference to confirm reliability of Ancient Greece Using Evidence. It did however include
many years, and as it is in such a simple layout, placing things in chronological order was simplified.

_Ancient Greece Pictures_


Available from accessed 4/12/06

This site was solely used for the two maps I included in my presentation. Maps seem accurate in comparison with other diagrams, and it proved reliable for my topic as it gives the responder an overview of the land and water surrounding Greece, which states inhabited those parts, and who they fought for. The other map was a detailed overview of the Athenian city, its geographical surroundings and its wall. Proved to be a useful site in terms of secondary sources. It is also an ‘edu’ site, decreasing the chance of contamination.

(2006). _Cimon – Wikipedia_


Available from accessed 4/12/06

Though I am aware that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia of user-based input, thus decreasing its chance of reliability, I have found it quite useful, but of course I’m skeptical about everything I read there. It provides dates and quotes which appear to be accurate, and checked out with other sources I compared it to. Provided me with little information that the book couldn’t give, but did have a nice primary source of an Ostrakon, which was actually also present in the book.

Cite this page

Nature of Athenian Imperialism. (2016, Jul 07). Retrieved from

Nature of Athenian Imperialism
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