Essay on Explain the Arguments for and Against the Athenian Empire

Published: 2021/11/11
Number of words: 3770

‘In the winter 478/7BC representatives of Greek states met on the sacred isle of Delos in the centre of the Aegan to swear oaths of alliance. They swore to have the same friends and enemies, that is, they concluded an offensive and defensive alliance…Formally all allies were of equal status, but in fact the predominance of Athens was clear-cut from the start…Athens was to be recognised as hegemon (leader)’.[1]

Only a generation before the Persian Wars of 480-79BC Athens had not been a force in the land of ancient Greece. The Spartans had intervened in the affairs of the Athenians four times in the previous decade, and in 499BC the Athenians could only send a small fleet of twenty ships to aid their Ionian brothers in the revolt against a strong and established Persian Empire. However, there was a turning point in the fortune of the Athenian military when they accomplished successful naval victories at Salamis and Mykale. After this Sparta had lost some credibility as undisputed leader of the Hellas, and led to divided opinions there over whether or not to persist with the war against the Persians. This in turn prompted the remainder of the more powerful Greek islands and cities on the west coast of Asia Minor to call Athens for assistance and to assume the leadership, which Athens did so readily. Instead of adapting to the existing alliance (the Hellenic League) and taking over its direction, Athens invented an entirely new pact of alliances, what has now been recognised by scholars as the Delian League.

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It was these sequence of events which essentially saw the sun rise on Athens and the dawn of the Athenian Empire. Athens went forth to exercise her power as an Empire not only in its establishment of the Delian League, but carried on to expand and ask her neighbours to also join the league. How Athens went about doing this and the means used to establish herself amongst her friends (philoi) and enemies (ekhthroi) will be discussed in this essay, as well as how Athens maintained her empire and how Athenian society was during these times of conquest. There will be close attention paid towards the society of Athens and its democracy, as well as its citizenship, drawing an overall conclusion of the arguments for and against the Athenian Empire.

Athenian imperialism

With regards to the Delian League, it was comprised almost entirely by islands, and so it required a strong and powerful navy to control it i.e. the Athenian navy. Let us now take a look at the nature of Athenian expansion and how the Athenian expanded after assuming leadership (hegemon) of the Delian League.

‘In the late summer of 478 Athens accepted the leadership of an offensive and defensive alliance of Greek states against Persia. Thirty years later this alliance of independent states, the Delian League, had become an empire whose resources were no longer directed against Persia but to the furtherance of Athenian policies at home and abroad’.[2]

According to Thucydides, what started as an ‘offensive and defensive’ alliance against the threat of Persia, transformed into a system that was to serve the Athenians in some way. The Delian League, according to Thucydides, had become an empire, an empire not directed at standing against Persia, but to the expansion and self-interests of the dominant party in this alliance, the city-state of Athens.

Thucydides in his account of the Peloponnesian wars gives arguments for and against empire on behalf of the Athenians and Melians respectively. ‘It is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one can. This is not a law that we made ourselves, nor were we the first to act upon it when it was made’.[3] The Athenians in their dialogue with the Melians stake the claim that it is a law of nature that one takes what one has the power to take, and this was not a rule they invented as those before them have adhered to it and those after them will adhere to it also. They claim they cannot keep their hands to themselves, and that indeed it is a force of nature which marches their feet towards expansion, and clenches their fists for war. Just like the bees produce honey and an apple tree has apples growing out of it, men is naturally inclined to expand what he already has. Hence, Thucydides by noting this as what he feels the Athenians may have portrayed themselves to the Melians and other city-states they wished to expand towards, he therefore gives an argument for the Athenian Empire. He almost excuses them, giving such a profound and strong argument for their expansion, which even though the Melians and other city-states might retort with their sophistry and humble approaches of speech, the very fact that Thucydides relates the physical and forceful expansion of a state as a law of nature. It has happened before, and will continue to happen in the years to come after Athens enjoys their spell of imperialism. Hence, the Athenians (according to Thucydides) see their actions as justified, taking the realist approach of security being imperative to the salvation and sustaining of any clan, peoples, or empire. The Athenians see themselves as tyrants in their own right.‘…the Melians surrendered unconditionally to the Athenians, who put to death all the men of military age whom they took, and sold the women and children as slaves’.[4]

After the events with the Melians and the threat of Persia passed, Meiggs writes that ‘When the danger from Persia seemed to have dissolved with the decisive victory of the Eurymedon, the Delian League would have disintegrated unless Athens had held it together…This she was clearly entitled to do so long as hostilities continued against Persia, and during the fifties in particular she took active steps to maintain control’.[5] As previously mentioned, the Athenians out of the alliance formed themselves an empire within it, and took active steps to maintain control, whether it is through coercion or force as seen with the Melians.

‘It was because her improvisations had proved so well suited to her purpose that she was able to hold her empire together even until the last stages of the Peloponnesian War’.[6] Meiggs somewhat praises Athens for keeping the empire together as without Athens the empire as well as the Delian League would have fallen apart and been left vulnerable.

(Meiggs on Thucydides), ‘Through minor variations a consistent picture emerges. The empire is a tyranny. If the allies were free they would claim their independence but they are not free.’[7] Meiggs accounts for the arguments of Thucydides to some level, as he accommodates the view that Athens was exerting her tyranny on her allies, and accepts that the allies within the Delian League were not free from Athens, but were rather under Athens’s control.

According to Thucydides the three greatest motive forces of the Athenian Empire were fear, pride and profit. Fear of Persia and the threat they have always posed on the Greek islands was always at the forefront of the minds of the Athenians. By this time Persia and the Greeks had shared many battles and wars, and so security was essential to the Athenians to secure what they had gained already, and this came in the form of fear (according to Thucydides), acting as one of and arguably the main impetus for their expansion and reasons to maintain control of the Delian League. ‘At no point is it suggested that the Athenian Empire exists for any other purpose than to serve the interest of Athens.’[8] One perhaps can argue that the security of Athens in turn is the security of her allies, and in Athens maintaining control of the member of the Delian somewhat strengthens their security, however, this obviously came at a great cost to those allies concerned, especially the Melians.

Athenian citizenship

Citizenship laws in Athens were remarkably strict. Anybody non-Athenian, whether Greek or barbarian was legally an alien and could only live in Athens under special conditions. The two terms used by the Athenians for these foreigners to distinguish them from ‘genuine’ Athenians were metoikoi and xenoi. After a foreigner had been residing in Athens for a month, they were compelled to register as a metoikos and pay the tax of one drachma a month (Metoikion). There was no escaping this law or this tax, and the foreigner in question had to have an Athenian patron (prostates). Though metoikoi essentially had the freedom to access the court, attend festivals and theatres and even earn a respectable and handsome living, the truth of the matter was also that there was no ridding themselves of the inferiority that came with their alien status. A modern day comparison of this can come from be drawn from the United Kingdom (U.K.). The U.K. over the past few decades has accepted foreigners to enter the British Isles, and they are able to apply for citizenship and also have to pay a tax whilst they are there. Though there are no special conditions as such for anybody entering the U.K. and applying for citizenship, there still is no escaping the somewhat ‘alien’ they adopt when entering a foreign land to make it their place of work and living.

However, as we find sometimes there is always an exception or two with regards to rules and laws, and this was no different in ancient Athenian society. Unlike Rome, if an Athenian slave was freed, he did not become a citizen but a metoikos. One in particular stands out called Pasion, who died around 370BC, started off his career in Athens as a slave banker. When Pasion’s master passed away, his will granted Pasion emancipation as a slave as well as granting Pasion his master’s bank and widow. Thereafter Pasion grew inordinately wealthy as a metoikos owning now a shield factory as well as a bank. Pasion distributed large amounts of his wealth to the people of Athens, so much so that in return he was granted Athenian citizenship. ‘He thus appears to come closest to the ‘American dream’ notion of the entrepreneur who rises from rags to riches and public esteem, and his career would seem to contradict traditional Athenian conceptions of rigid status boundaries…Pasion was indeed virtually unique. Most slaves and most metoikoi had no prospect of such elevation’.[9]

Though an exception and a serious rarity with the status quo of ancient Athenian society, the occurrence of such an exception cannot be denied and its implications show that traditions in Athenian society were not rigid enough to prevent such an occurrence. A man came from nothing to something big, and for that many others benefitted (especially those who receieved a portion of Pasion’s wealth).

What this shows us is how tolerant and relatively open society was in Athens. People outside of Athens, be it natives in the Delian League or simply ex-slaves, they were able to express themselves to some degree and were granted religious autonomy as such. We see in the U.K. how it has now become a state of which many of its citizenship are those who were part of the British Empire. We find many have migrated from their homes where there was once strong British influence and presence, and after these colonies retained their autonomy or independence there was a gradual increase in the number of natives immigrating to the U.K., residing and starting their lives over in a land which is essentially foreign to them. With ancient Athens it was no different. Expansion lead to more people from other city-states which Athens had expanded to or conquered, coming to Athens to start a life there, and though they had to inherit certain implications as metoikoi, they did so without much fuss and persisted with the status quo. This is important as it gives a hidden argument against not only the Athenian Empire, but empire as a whole. It shows that once these people are invaded or ruled over by an external force i.e. by another state, they are then immediately thrown into a category of inferiority. Their future prospects are assumed and dictated beyond their control, and they lose their rights to live as they used to, as totally free beings in their environment. With Pasion serving as the only exception from his circle, the remainder lose their rights as human beings, as they are not treated the same as the people of Athens, they are not given the same citizen rights or status, and are in fact charged or taxed for their inferiority. It is therefore with a slight irony how Herodotus hails the freedom of the Athenian yet their freedom is conditional, and is freedom still freedom once it is conditioned, or even in the case of Pasion, commissioned?

Athenian democracy

Below are a list of terms and their definitions which might be useful to read this section:

Kratos:- ‘sovereign power’

Ekklesia:- the principal assembly of ancient Athens during its Golden Age.

Boule:- people’s council

Demos:- the people of Ancient Greece

Though only open to Athenian citizens (those whose parentage is exclusively Athenian), the Athenians had somewhat a system of democracy in the sense of it was for the people and by the people. The Athenian democracy represents one of the longest periods of popular self-government in human history. What we find in Athens which differs from present day democracy is that in Athens it is a ‘direct’ democracy as opposed to a ‘representative’ democracy that we see in democratic states today.

Also, this democracy in Athens was not actually called a democracy; the word ‘democracy’ was not invented for some time. Rather it was known as kratos, sovereign power of the demos. Furthermore, there were no governmental departments or civil service, only a limited archive system. Instead, decisions were taken and executed by the demos. There were assemblies called ekklesia where people went to address issues such as state emergencies, or if there was a need to introduced a legislation for tax (as Athens needed to fund her empire and security). Theoretically all citizens could attend the ekklesia and address it, and in fact only 5,000 out of the 50,000 populus attended at the best of times, no matter how grave the business at hand was. Furthermore, people were charged to attend, a price on democracy as opposed to a free vote. All of this is what some scholars over the years have known it as a ‘pragmatic innovation’, trying to utilise as much out of the people (or rather the right people with wealth, knowledge and links to aristocracy) to their full usage.

The ekklesia’s principle business was foreign policy mostly, as the patterns which society took often followed foreign policy i.e. the tax rate, raw materials and resources. The boule was the steering committee of the ekklesia, it could not initiate any policy, and in effect was there to keep amateur figures in politics away from policy-making.

Though a direct democracy somewhat ill-practised, this very shell of democracy has spread out of Athens and to the world in general over thousands of years, and was a corner-stone in the governing of mass amounts of people, whether it be community or state.


‘Thus did the Athenians increase in strength. And it is plain enough, not from this instance only, but from many everywhere, that freedom is an excellent thing since even the Athenians, who, while they continued under the rule of tyrants, were not a whit more valiant than any of their neighbours, no sooner shook off the yoke than they became decidedly the first of all. These things show that, while undergoing oppression, they let themselves be beaten, since then they worked for a master; but so soon as they got their freedom, each man was eager to do the best he could for himself. So fared it now with the Athenians.’[10]

What should be understood above all other things, after considering the arguments for and against the Athenian Empire, is that on the foreigner empire was not a positive thing i.e. the non-Athenian who was being invaded and whose land was taken over in the administrative sense. For example, in times of war, and when a fleet was required, it was Athens who decided which allied states contributed ships and money. This was imposing on the allies not only of their resources, but their capital as a whole.

The realists may argue for the years to come of the improvisation of the city-state of Athens to lead the Delian League and form out of it a secure and strong alliance to illustrate to its aggressors that there is an Empire they may not wish to reckon with. However, this comes at the cost of freedom, not in the sense that Herodotus discusses, but to the general populous of the Delian League bar those who are Athenian. One may wish to spare a passing thought for the Melian men who were slaughtered, and the women and children who were sold on as slaves. What argument can be put forth that excuses a child from being sold into slavery, that perhaps on the off chance he may live a life like Pasion? Highly unlikely as Pasion is a unique case, Pasion is his own case, and the child sold to slavery is part of a larger case of slaves who work for their master with little in terms of legal and political rights as a citizen. The best they can hope for in fact is metoikoi.

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Though some may argue that what is the lives of a few compared to the security of the masses? The seeming nobility of this statement must not be taken as an act of selflessness or as being noble. Even if an empire comes alive for the sake of security, for the sake of preserving the lives and rights of people, it is only to preserve and secure the rights of the aggressor, the invader, the imperialist, and Athens was no different. Thucydides gives us accounts of this in his account of the Peloponnesian Wars, that Athens was acting for her own benefit and not for the benefit of the Delian League, which she had formed and assumed hegemon leadership. Furthermore, allies in this league were not simply invited, they were asked, or even ordered to join, or face the wrath of Greece with only the hope that Sparta might intervene and stop was Thucydides describes as a tyranny.

It is, in my opinion, a rather naive notion of freedom which Herodotus discusses in his Histories regarding the Athenians battles against the Spartans. Is it simply because the Athenians did not necessarily possess the gift of being chivalrous on the battlefield, but possessed a notion of freedom which in the end gave them victory? Was this freedom then abused by the Athenians, and imposed on the eventual members of the Delian League? What Herodotus highlights therefore is that the Athenians were not necessarily good warriors but rather good opportunists at the time, to take control after the restlessness of Sparta, and go on to assume herself as hegemon, distributing justice and tyranny as she saw fit with nature, or rather as she saw fit for herself.

‘Justice among nations is the grace of the strong towards the weak, rooted in the grace of nature towards man.’[11]



  1. B. Bury, A History of Greece, (London, Macmillan, 1951)
  2. Breasted, Ancient Times: A History of the Early World, (New York, Ginn and Co. 1935)
  3. Jones, The World of Athens, (Cambridge University Press: 1984)
  4. Meiggs, The Athenian Empire, (Oxford University Press, 1972)

C.W. Oman, A History of Greece, (New York, Longmans, 1918)

Thucydides, History of the Pelopennesian War, (London:Penguin, 1954)


Herodotus, ‘Histories’, The Internet Classics Archive (March 1994) [date accessed 12th February 2009]

Web-based journals:

Melissa Schwartzberg, ‘Athenian Democracy and Legal Change’, The American Political Science Review No.2 Vol. 98 (May 2004)

Christopher Bruell, ‘Thucydides View of Athenian Imperialism’, The American Political Science Review No.1 Vol. 68 (March 1974)

Clifford Orwin, ‘Justifying Empire: The Speech of the Athenians at Sparta and the problem of Justice in Thucydides’, The Journal of Politics No.1 Vol. 48 (February 1986)

[1] P. Jones, The World of Athens, (Cambridge University Press: 1984) p.223

[2] R. Meiggs, The Athenian Empire, (Oxford University Press, 1972) p.1

[3] Thucydides, History of the Pelopennesian War, (London:Penguin, 1954) p. 404

[4] Ibid p.408

[5] R. Meiggs, The Athenian Empire, (Oxford University Press, 1972) p.205

[6] Ibid p.205

[7] Ibid p.384

[8] Ibid p.384

[9] P. Jones, The World of Athens, (Cambridge University Press: 1984) p.189

[10] Herodotus, Histories Book V, The Internet Classics Archive (March 1994) [date accessed 12th February 2009] (paragraph 78 of 80)

[11] Clifford Orwin, ‘Justifying Empire: The Speech of the Athenians at Sparta and the problem of Justice in Thucydides’, The Journal of Politics No.1 Vol. 48 (February 1986) p.84

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