From The Delian League To The Athenian Empire
Thomas Ash


When Athens began to emerge as a Greek city state in the ninth century, it was a poor city, built on and surrounded by undesirable land, which could support only a few poor crops and olive trees. As it grew it was forced to import much of its food, and while it was near the centre of the Greek world, it was far from being a vital trading juncture like Corinth. Its army was, by the standards of cities such as Sparta, weak. Yet somehow it became the most prominent of the Greek city states, the one remembered while contemporaries such as Sparta are often forgotten. It was the world's first democracy of a substantial size (and, in some ways, though certainly not others, one of the few true democracies the world has ever seen), producing art and fine architecture in unprecedented amounts. It became a centre of thinking and literature, producing philosophers and playwrights like Socrates and Aristophanes. But most strikingly of all, it was the one Greek city that managed to control an empire spanning the Aegean sea. During the course of this essay I will attempt to explain how tiny Athens managed to acquire this formidable empire, and why she became Greece's most prominent city state, rather than cities which seemed to have more going for them like Sparta or Corinth.

An Athenian coin showing a trireme, the type of ship
Athens used to build a formidable empire

The Persian Invasions and Birth of the Delian League

While we tend to think of Greece as the most important nation of the ancient world before Rome, it was in fact a haphazard collection of autonomous city states, which, even when their forces were combined, were on paper no match for mighty empires like that of Persia. So, when the Persian King Darius I invaded, the Greeks must have been more than a little alarmed. Infuriated by an Athenian-backed revolt in Ionia (the stretch of Turkey's west coast colonised by Ionian Greeks, a historic group which included the Athenians), Darius had demanded tokens of submission from the Greek states. While most of the smaller cities gave in, Athens and Sparta refused to do so, killing the foreign King's heralds as a gesture of defiance. Athens' actions showed a great deal of pluck, given it's relative military weakness, and enraged Darius. He put together a mighty expeditionary force and set sail in 490 B.C.

The Spartan army proceeded to the plain of Marathon near Athens. The Spartans could not help as news of the Athenians' plight reached them on a religious holiday. However, the Athenians managed to win a convincing victory, faced with an army three times the size of theirs. When Darius' son, Xerxes, amassed one of the greatest armies of antiquity to exact revenge for his father's humiliation, fewer than 400 Greek vessels defeated the 1,200 strong Persian fleet thanks to the clever command of the Athenian statesman Themistocles. This caused Xerxes to flee to Asia, and in 479 B.C. his army followed him, pulling out of Greece.

By this time Athens had won the friendship of many Greek states, both because of their defeat of the Persians and because of the unpopularity of the Spartan regent, Pausanias, who, according to Thucydides[1], had "begun to reveal the true arrogance of his nature... [and] appeared to be trying to set himself up as dictator." Thucydides tells us that for these reasons the city states "had gone over to the side of the Athenians", which proceeded to take over leadership of the Delian League, a confederacy of cities determined to protect themselves from Persian attack and "compensate themselves for their losses by ravaging the territory of the king of Persia." Sparta was happy to cede leadership of the league as (according to Thucydides) "they were afraid any other commanders they sent abroad would be corrupted, as Pausanias had been, and they were glad to be relieved of the burden of fighting the Persians.... Besides, at the time they still thought of the Athenians as friendly allies." Also, Sparta wished to keep its army at home to deal with helot revolts (and also to prevent its soldiers from becoming corrupted).

Initially the Delian League was a fairly loose coalition of states, each one independent and sharing a common interest with the others. Members of the league were numerous: Thucydides[2] tells us that they included "Chios, Lesbos, Plataea ... most of Acarnania ... Ionia, the Hellespont, Thrace and the islands between the Peloponnese and Crete towards the East, and all the Cyclades except for Melos and There" as well as Aegina and most of the Euboean cities. Together, these states constituted a formidable force capable of achieving it's objectives.

A map showing the Athenian empire and the extent of discontent
(Courtesy 'The Ancient Source' - address given)

While Athens was the leader of the league, all its member states had an equal vote in the ruling council. Initially the league's actions were only for the wellbeing of its members. Under the command of the Athenian Cimon, the Persian fortress of Eion on the Thracian coast was captured in 476 B.C. After this, Persian power in the North began to diminish. In 473 B.C Cimon crushed a group of Dolopian pirates who had been terrorising the central Aegean from the island of Scyros. An allied colony was established in their place. In 468 B.C. the Persian fleet was annihilated on the river Eurymedon in southern Turkey, again by Cimon, while at some point in the 460s, Cimon liberated the Southern Aegean and Caria from Persian control.

Meanwhile, Sparta was in trouble. Two of the states in the Peloponnesian League, a Spartan-led collection of states far looser than the Delian league, became democratic, while Argos revolted against her leadership. After a devastating earthquake and helot revolt, the stricken Spartans appealed to Athens for help. This was only given with reluctance after Cimon begged the Athenians "not to allow Greece to go lame, or their own city to be deprived of its yoke-fellow". However, Sparta grew alarmed by growing Athenian imperialism and asked that the Athenian presence in their city be withdrawn.

From a league to an empire

While freeing the southern Aegean from Persian control, Cimon succeeded in convincing more states to join the league. According to Diodorus[3], having persuaded "the cities of the sea coast [and] the cities of Lycia" to revolt, he "took them over in the same way". This, along with further evidence, suggests that these cities were forced to join whether or not they wanted to. Plutarch tells us "Phaselis ... refused to admit [Cimon's] fleet or to fight against the King, and so he devastated their land." In 480 B.C. the Athenians attempted to force impoverished Andros to pay a sum to the league:

"the Greeks ... surrounded Andros with a view to capturing it. Andros was the first island to reject Themistokles' requests for money."
(Herodotus VIII.111)

Further evidence of expansionistic Athenian policy can be seen in the case of Carystus, the one city in Euboea which declined membership of the Delian League. After refusing to join a second time in 472 B.C., they were paid a visit by the league's fleet and promptly conquered. In both these cases the Athenian's actions were at least partially justifiable. The Athenians had secured Greek control of the Aegean and Carian. At the time of the Carystian incident the Persians still controlled these regions, and thus Carystus could become a stepping stone to mainland Greece and encourage other Euboean cities to leave the league.

A less justifiable incident was the way the Athenians dealt with Naxos' attempted secession from the league. The Naxians had seen the Persian threat in the North decline as a result of the league's actions, and saw no reason to continue contributing money to the league. The Athenians and the other allies, however, did not see it that way. The Naxians' resources were needed in the South and the Naxians had, after all, sworn to remain in the league forever, as symbolised by the sinking of lumps of metal in the sea: a permanent, irreversible action. Athens also had reasons of its own, which I gesture at in my conclusion. Naxos was subjugated and the allies decided to take its fleet and change the naval contributions it made into a regularly-given tribute. A garrison was left behind: Naxos effectively became an imperial subject. Similarly, Erythrai, which rebelled in the 450's B.C. was the subject of a harsh and authoratitive decree.

By now the Persian threat had more or less dissolved and so the league had achieved its purpose. However the Athenians chose to enforce the league's oath and force all members to remain in it. One member to revolt was Thasos, a rich and navally powerful island which controlled parts of nearby Thrace. The Athenians clearly had their eyes set on natural resources in Thrace, and when they started to dispute the Thasian possession of a gold mine, the Thasians grew worried, and threatened to withdraw from the league.

Because of this the league overcame the Thasian fleet in 465 B.C. capturing 33 ships and laid seige to Thasos. The Spartans were sufficiently concerned with Athenian expansionism (and while the Delian League acted as one unit, it was clear that the Athenians were behind this action) to sign a secret pact with the Thasians under which they would invade Attica. As it happened Sparta could not do this due to internal strife, but the pact shows how transparent the Athenian imperialism was.

At the same time as besieging Thasos the Athenians established an allied colony in Thrace, where they were clearly anxious to establish a foothold. In 462 B.C. Thasos had to capitulate, and lost her fleet, gold mint and city walls. Like Naxos, it was forced to pay tribute rather than making contributions to the navy. The disputed gold mine and some other valuable settlements in Thrace were annexed by the Athenians (it is notable that the Athenians took these over without even a pretence to them being under control of all the league).

Athens embarked on an aggressive new foreign policy, aimed against Sparta, Athens' major rival in Greece. Athens allied with Argos, Sparta's traditional antagonist in the Peloponnese, and proceeded to attack Corinth, Sparta's most important ally. Vast operations were launched on both land and sea, and the result was that by 457 B.C. Athens had control of the whole of central Greece (although this control had collapsed by the time of the Thirty Year Truce's signing in 445 B.C.). Athens' eagerness to build an empire (and the fact that the sometimes-foolish boldness with which it acted was partly caused by its being a democracy) was evident in its decision to send a vast fleet of 200 triremes to aid an Egyptian revolt against the Persian empire. This served little practical purpose, and more sober minds would doubtless have kept to their own affairs. Athenian cleruchies (colonies) were set up at strategic points throughout Greece, the Mediterranean and even the Black sea, where Athens maintained a good relationship with Cimmerians as it grew more and more dependent on the import of grain from this tribe. Amphipolis was built at a strategic junction on the northern Aegean coast road; Thourioi was founded as an Athenian stronghold in Magna Graecia; and a fleet was sent to the Back Sea simply as a demonstration of Athenian power and to keep the vital trade routes open. An Athenian empire was now well and truly established.

The Resultant Empire

The Athenian Empire at its height (450 B.C.)

Athens had by now obtained a mighty empire. Of the more than 200 members (membership of the league had increased because Athens' friendship was an important asset for many Greek cities), only a few allies remained largely autonomous. According to Aristotle:

"After the Athenians had gained their empire, they treated their allies rather dictatorially, except for Chios, Lesbos and Samos. These they regarded as guardians of the empire, allowing them to keep their own constitution and rule over any subjects they happened to have."
(Consitution of Athens XXIV)

However, the majority had ceased to contribute ships and instead gave Athens tribute. The change can be seen in the transmutation of the word phoros' meaning. Originally it meant 'contribution', but as the Delian League changed into the Athenian Empire, it came to mean 'tribute.' In around 448 B.C. Athens issued a controversial decree:

"If anyone in the cities strikes silver coins and does not use the currency, weights and measures of the Athenians, but foreign currency, weights and measures ... exact penal retribution"
(Klearkhos Decree)

As well as using the tribute it received to build ships, Athens embarked on an ambitious building program under Pericles. The Acropolis was rebuilt, with magnificent buildings such as the Parthenon (shown below) and Erechtheum contributing to the beautification of the city. Some warned that by doing this, the Athenians gave up any pretence of working for the good of the League. The allies were indeed furious at the way their money was spent, but Pericles replied that so long as Athens protected her allies from the Persians it was not their concern how their money was spent.

The Parthenon (Courtesy Department of Archaeology, Boston University)

After the incidents at Carystus, Naxos and Thasos, a new type of member emerged: a subject state. These states would at the very least be dominated by an Athenian garrison, and served as Athenian puppets in the league's assembly. When these votes were counted together with those of the small states which were clearly intimidated by Athens, the assembly became irrelevant: whatever Athens wanted would always be done. It fell into disuse an was abolished between 440 and 432. After this, Athens ruled over the league by decree. Earlier, in 454 B.C., the treasury of the league had been moved from the small, neutral island of Delos to Athens. So great was Athenian control of the League that allied troops were used in conflicts where only Athens' interests were involved.

Athens maintained it's leadership by a number of means. It possessed a magnificent navy, as the League's ships became part of the Athenian navy. This consisted of 300 triremes, and was by far the largest in the Greek world. At least 60 triremes were kept in the Aegean at any one time. The trireme was the predominant warship of the time, a narrow vessel built for speed. Each one required 180 oarsmen in three tiers, and fought by ramming enemy ships or boarding them with marines. As Pericles said to the Athenians:

"The whole world is divided into two parts, the sea and the land... Of the whole of one part you are in control"
(Thucydides II.62)

Thucydides also tells us of the extent of the Atenians' power over their discontented but impotent allies:

"The subject states of Athens were especially eager to revolt, even though it was beyond their capability."
(Thucydides VIII.2)

"They learned nothing from the fate of those of their neighbours who had already revolted and been subdued."
(Thucydides III.39)

"The Athenian fleet grew strong with the money which the allies had themselves contributed, whilst whenever they revolted they were ill-prepared and inexperienced."
(Thucydides I.99)

Athens maintained a tight grip over all their allies, never letting a hint of dissent go unpunished. For example, the Chalkians had to swear not to "follow anyone who revolts, and if any person causes a revolt, [to] denounce him to the Athenians." Often, constitutions that were models of Athens' were imposed on allies, and serious cases were placed under the jurisdiction of Athens. Law courts often prosecuted anti-Athenian elements. Control became so absolute that eventually no ally could sentence someone to death without first obtaining Athenian permission. We are told that:

"...the Athenians sail out and bring false charges against the respectable elements among [their allies] and hate them, because they realize that the ruler is always hated by the subject"
(Old Oligarch I.14)

It is worth noting that many Athenians viewed this as an altruistic arrangement, and could not understand the anger at lost independence it caused. As Athenian delegates to Sparta complained:

"In law suits with our allies arising out of contracts, we have put ourselves at a disadvantage, and when we arrange to have such cases tried by imperial courts at Athens, people accuse us of being over-fond of going to law."
(Thucydides I.77)

Colonies established on confiscated land were useful in the control of troublesome allies:

"Pericles sent out one thousand settlers to the Khersonese, five hundred to Naxos, 250 to Andros, one thousand to Thrace to make their homes with the Bisaltai ... and, by setting up garrisons among the allies, to implant a fear of rebellion."
(Plutarch, Pericles XI)

Athens opportunistically exploited religion and idealism. Land was claimed because it had belonging to Athena, the patron of Athens, or, in the case of Scyros, because Theseus' bones were claimed to have been found there. Athens encouraged the belief that she was the mother of all Ionian cities, and propagated the myth that the Athenian Demeter had granted corn to mankind. While Athens usually supported democrats against oligarchs, she would occasionally support oligarchs when the situation demanded it. In short, she was willing to do practically anything to maintain her empire, and went to extreme lengths. The Delian League had been intended to keep Greece from becoming a part of the Persian empire. Instead, it was the means by which Athens established an empire in Greece.


When she assumed leadership of the Delian League, Athens' intentions were for the most part honourable. In the first few years of her hegemony she accomplished extraordinary feats, forcing the Persians from Greece. However, she also experienced a huge influx of money from the league's members intended to pay for its naval forces. The Athenians grew used to a higher standard of living, due to the money and food now flowing into the city. The prestige and power of their city was advantageous to them all. Athens was reliant on imported corn to support her growing population: the money now flowing into her coffers enabled her to obtain it. Income from tributes and pillaging from the empire came to more than a thousand talents a year, while confiscated land and colonies provided livelihoods for many Athenians. The money from the empire was used to support the navy, construct magnificent public buildings, and support the city's poor. Jobs were created by the empire as well: almost everyone served in the navy at one point or another.

Everyone in the city benefited, so it is not surprising that democratic Athens elected to keep the money flowing in when the league succeeded in eliminating the Persian threat. While justifying their actions to the Peloponnesians, Athenian representatives said:

"We have done nothing surprising, nothing contrary to human nature, if we accepted leadership when it was offered and are now unwilling to give it up."
(Thucydides I.76)

"So far as the favour of the gods is concerned, we think we have as much right to that as you ... it is a general and necessary law of nature to govern wherever one can ... we know that you or anybody else with the same power as ours would be acting in precisely the same way."
(Thucydides V.105)

It is also worth noting that while the tributes became more oppressive after the Peace of Callias, they were never seen as being far too high. In fact the only dramatic rise in their level took place in 425 B.C., and this was both because of the political tension that year and to correct for recent inflation. Athens' preference for monetary rather than naval contributions was also at least partially justified by the fact that it was beyond the capabilities of many of the states in the Delian League to build triremes and train crews in the complicated art of manoeuvring a triple-banked rowing boat in battle. Athens had plenty of men eager to earn money as oarsmen, and also the shipyards and skilled craftsmen required to build triremes. Indeed, many in the league were happy to let Athens take care of building ships.

However, by doing this they were signing away their independence. The fleet which was meant to be the league's became Athens', and with it she could overcome any ally who complained about the tribute it had to pay. It could be argued that Athens' rashness, its self-confidence and the notorious "busy-bodyness" of which the Spartans complained were partly due to its democratic status. While oligarchs might not have taken such risks, the assembly was pushed into adventurism time and again by the potential rewards it held for the city's people. They knew their empire for what it was, but were naturally loath to give up the prosperity, wealth, prestige and security that came with it. The latter concern in particular provided a self-perpetuating rationale, as each exercise in imperialism infuriated the city's traditional enemies, and its erstwhile allies, further. As Pericles said to his countrymen:

"Your empire is now a tyranny: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go."
(Thucydides II.63)


1. Thucydides I.95

2. Thucydides II.9

3. Diodorus XI.60


Athens Ascendant, George Dent Wilcoxon (Iowa State Press/1979)
History of the Peloponessian War, Thucydides (Primary source)
A History of Greece, Bury & Meiggs (MacMillan, 1975)
The Athenian Empire, Meiggs (OUP, 1972)
The Athenians And Their Empire, McGregor (University of British Columbia Press, 1987)
These Were the Greeks, Amos & Lang (Stanley Thornes, 1979)

© 2000

About the author...
Tom Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. He currently does non-profit work and freelance web development. See more information about Tom Ash.

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