THE RISE OF THE ATHENIAN EMPIRE
When I was a senior in college, I took a seminar in tragedy. We
read a lot of the same plays you have just finished reading and quite a
few plays from later writers attempting to equal the Greek tragic
For the most part, most post-Greek playwrights failed, even though they
often came up with some splendid plays. Partly, this was because
of the confusion between tragic events and tragedy. Any
playwright can show you tragic scenes: death, destruction, poverty,
sickness, etc.). But to turn these events into tragedy requires
First of all, tragedy requires a protagonist of sufficient nobility and
stature, a character that commands, not just our sympathy, but our
respect and even admiration.
Next, a good tragedy centers around a conflict of great magnitude,
perhaps a conflict between right vs. right, the conflicting claims of
important responsibilities, e.g., responsibilities to family, state,
and to the gods.
Finally, good tragedy should have a catharsis, a resolution that
doesn’t just bring to an end the stage action, but also affects the
audience in an important way. There should be something in the
tragic events that increases the stature of the protagonist, making him
somehow nobler. Note the dilemma for Hamlet in his “To be, or not
to be speech” and that odd line about “whether it is nobler in the mind
to suffer the slings and arrows….”
The story we address next in this class, the story of Athens in the 5th
century BC (more specifically, from the end of the Persian war in 479
BC until the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC) has both tragic
elements and the elements of a real tragedy, elements that show forth
particularly clearly in the pages of Thucydides.
We will look at four phases of the Athenian story—perhaps equivalent to
three tragedies and a satyr play.
1. The rebirth of Athens (479-460). This period begins with
Athenian expansion and success but ends with some setbacks and a
stalemate but with Athens well off.
2. The Wars of Pericles (460-445). This follows a similar pattern,
Athenian expansion and success, followed by setbacks and a stalemate,
and Athens still doing fine.)
3. The Archidamian War (431). This is the first phase of
the Peloponnesian War proper. It begins with Athenian aggression
and success, but ends with setback and a stalemate, with Athens still
4. The Decelean War (420-404). This is the 2nd phase
of the Peloponnesian War and, here too, it starts with Athenian
aggression and success, but this time it ends up—well, we will see.
After the defeat of Mardonius at Plataea (479) and the destruction of
the Persian navy at Mycale (also 479), it might have seemed that Gree
freedom was assured. In defending their freedom, the Greeks had
again and again defeated the armies of the most powerful empire of the
time. What force on earth could possibly threat Greek freedom?
Well, there were still threats to Greek freedom. The Persians
might regroup once again. They had the resources to launch
another formidable attack on Greece, and they could influence Greek
affairs in subtler ways. But the great threat to Greek freedom
came from a surprising source. Not the despots of Persia, but
they democrats of Athens proved a threat to Greek freedom.
Athens did not set out to stamp out Greek freedom: quite the
reverse. But, like Oedipus who finds out he is the man bringing
divine wrath on Thebes, so the Athenians found themselves doing what
they would have thought abominable.
The Athenians do start out this period as liberators, rather than
oppressors, and Athenians were in general popular among the other
Greeks—certainly more popular than the Spartans.
Right after the Persian War, the Spartans seemed the logical leaders of
Greek attempts to ward off any further attack from the Persians.
They had their own elite troops plus the forces of the Peloponnesian
League. Corinth, Megara and the Spartan “perioikoi” were all
solidly behind Sparta.
But the Spartans had a knack for making themselves unpopular.
Overseas influence was a corrupting influence on the Spartans.
Pausanias, the great hero of the battle of Plataea, is a good
example. Once out of Sparta, he was high-handed and
corrupt—behaving like a Persian overlord in regions the Spartans had
“liberated’! He begins an intrigue with the Persians which might
end up with him working for the Persians and marrying one of the
Persian king’s daughters! He’s recalled to Sparta to face trial,
but there’s insufficient evidence. He continues his intrigues,
until one of the messengers read the message he was supposed to deliver
and saw in it orders for his own death. He returns to Sparta and gives
the information to the ephors, who want somewhat better evidence.
The messenger meets with Pausanias and reproaches him—and Pausanias
admits his treachery, but promises the messenger rewards if he’ll not
expose the story. But the ephors were listening. Pausanias
figures out he is in trouble, flees to a temple, where the Spartans
seal him in, letting him out only just before he dies of starvation.
Spartan difficulties here meant that overseas leadership ends up ceded
to Athens. But a strong Athens was a potential problem to Sparta,
and so, in the period following the Persian War, the Spartans wanted to
stop Athens from building new walls and fortifying the city (remember
that the Persians had destroyed the city of Athens in 480 BC).
Athens gets its walls rebuilt anyway, thanks in large part to
Themistocles, the man who had masterminded Greek victory at
Salamis. Themistocles tells the Athenians to get to building
while he goes to Sparta to negotiate. Themistocles then delays
the discussion, claiming to be waiting for the other Athenian
ambassadors. The rumor spreads in Sparta that the walls are being
built. Themistocles tells the Spartans not to listen to rumors
but to send men to go see for themselves. Meanwhile, he’s told
the Athenians to delay the ambassadors when they reach Athens: not
really a hard thing to do when one considers all the good things one
might enjoy in Athens that were unavailable in Sparta.
Themistocles gets the message that the Athenian walls were sufficiently
strong to defend the city—and then goes home. No point in
With Athens itself fortified, Athens can now lead a coalition of Greeks
to deal with potential Persian problems. In 477, Themistocles
(behind the scene) and Aristides (more openly) help create the Delian
Themistocles and Aristides are themselves the kind of men who might be
viewed as tragic heroes…but who also symbolize some of the tragic
conflict of Athens itself.
Both were champions of Greek freedom. Both were fine generals, and both
played key roles in defending Greek freedom against the Persians. Both
loved Athens, and wanted what was best for her, but they were two very
different kinds of men with two different ideas of what was best.
Themistocles and Aristides were political rivals, and their rivalry is
well reflected in the pages of Plutrach’s lives.
During the Persian War, Aristides earned a reputation as a particularly
admirable man. Though capable himself, he knew when others might
be better than he. He was one of the strategoi at the battle of
Marathon, and it normally would have been his turn for supreme command
as the strategoi rotated through their duties. But Aristides
differed to Miltiades, recognizing him as as the better man to command
at the time. At Marathan, Aristides himself fought hard himself
at the center of the Athenian line, and, when the fighting was over, he
was chosen to guard the spoils: here was a man one could trust.
After Marathon, Aristides became so famous for his trustworthiness that
he won the nickname Aristides the Just. This was sure to arouse
jealousy, of course, and Aristides was ostracized in 482
BC. He had been handed a pre-marked ostracon with his name
inscribed on it by a man who didn’t even know who he was.
Aristides asked the man what he had againt “Aristides.”
“Nothing,” said the man. “I don’t even know him. But it
bugs me to hear him called “the Just.
As he left the city, Aristides prayed that Athens would never be in bad
enough shape that they would have to call him back. But, of
course, Athens soon was in bad shape. When the Persians came back in
480 BC, Aristides was recalled to Athens where he was needed. He
worked with Themistocles at Salamis, but after the victory, he and
Themistocles disagreed on strategy. The latter wanted the Persian
bridges across the Bosporus destroyed. Aristides said no: we want
them gone, don’t cut off the retreat. Themistocles sent message
to Persians claiming credit for unburned bridges!
At Plataea, too, Aristides played an important role, convincing the
Athens to not argue about place of honor in battle but to fight well
wherever they were.
As I note above, Aristides (the public face) and Themistocles (behind
the scenes) guide the formation of the Delian League in 477. This
league was formed with three main purposes:
1. To protect Greece against future Persian attacks.
2. To liberate the Ionian Greeks
3. To get reparations for the damages caused by Persia in the
Aristides was in charge of figuring out appropriate payments by each
Greek city-state. He gave each city state a choice: they could
contribute men and ships, or they could just pay a money equivalent at
let Athens supply extra men and ships.
This ended up working out well for Athens. Lots of good jobs for
poorer Athenians, lots of opportunities for Athenian businessmen.
The Athenian economy grows, and, with the strong economy, Athenian
culture takes off as well. We’ll soon have the “Golden Age” of
Athens. Themistocles didn’t stay to see it though: like
Pausanias, he gets involved in Persian intrigues, but, more skillful
than Pausanias in such dealings he makes it pay off. A sort-of
tragedy, I suppose, that Themistocles and Pausanias, two key figures in
the victory of the Greeks over the Persians, end up betraying Greece to
But while Themistocles deserted the cause of Greek freedom, Athens as a
whole was doing a solid job: the Delian League worked well. In
468 BC, troops led by Kimon [Cimon] won a huge victory over the
Persians at Eurymedon. The Persian threat seemed considerably
less. Many Ionian Greeks were now free. And the Greeks had
all sorts of Persian treasure, enough to rebuild what Persia had
Mission accomplished: time to disband the league? Not so fast,
says Athens. The Athenians, partly from self-interest and partly
because the Persians really were still a potential danger, wanted the
keep the league together.
For a few years, there weren’t any real problems. Kimon was the
dominant figure in Athenian political life, and his
aristocratic/pro-Spartan sentiments allowed Athens to avoid conflicts
with the other major Greek power. But Kimon lost his influence as
a result of an earthquake in Sparta in 464 BC. Kimon induced the
Athenian assembly to vote to send immediate aid to Sparta. But
when Athenian troops arrived in Laconia, the hyper-xenophobic Spartans
said thanks, but no thanks: please go home. This was a slap in
the fact to Athens, and Kimon payed the price: he was ostracized.
This makes way for Ephialtes and Pericles, more democratically-minded
leaders, to take over Athens. Ephialtes in soon assassinated, but
Pericles continues the work of completing Athenian democracy. The
Council of the Areopagus loses most of its power, becoming primarily a
manslaughter court (cf. Aeschylus’ Eumenides, presented in 458
BC). Also, under Pericles people are now paid for serving in
public office, making it both more attractive and easier for the poorer
folk of Athens to participate.
Pericles is the chief protagonist of this period of Athenian
history. He is certainly a man of sufficient stature for a tragic
hero. Son of Xantippus, the victor at Mycale, Pericles had much
of his father’s ability as a stragegos. A student of the
philosopher Anaxagoras, he had wide-ranging interests beyond the
military. And behind every great man there stands a woman: in
Pericles’ case, his mistress Aspasia. Aspasia was one of the
hetaerae, a well-educated foreign woman. Even Socrates claimed to
have learned much from Aspasia, and some historians speculate the she
was Pericles’ speech writer and that the great funeral oration
Thucydides features early in his Peloponnesian War was really written
There is a famous bust of Pericles that shows two sides of his
character. From one perspective, he appears noble: the great
statesman. From another perspective, Pericles looks
ruthless. A potentially tragic duality here? Maybe.
Pericles was a champion of cultural activities, sponsoring theatrical
productions and encouraging the arts. But he also encouraged an
expansionist foreign policy.
• 459—Expeditions against Corinth , Cyprus, and to
aid Inaros’ revolt against Persian rule in Egypt
• 457—An attack on Aegina
• 447—At attack on Euboea
• 432—An attack on Potidea
The general pattern is that Athenian allies, wanting out of the Delian
League, aren’t allowed to go peacefully. Instead, they are
attacked, defeated, and forced to pay tribute. Athenian military
colonies (cleruchies) help Athens maintain its dominance.
Sometimes, the Athenians intervene as liberators: they tend to champion
the democratic element in various city-states, putting that element in
power. But the Athenians also are imperialists. Friends and
enemies of freedom at the same time! Certainly a potentially