The Growth of the Athenian Empire

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The Growth of the Athenian Empire  479-462 BC

A Greek BoatThe history of this time with its rush of events and its startling changes exhibits on the Athenian side a picture of astonishing and almost preternatural energy.  The transition from the Athenian hegemony to the Athenian empire was doubtless gradual, so that no one could determine precisely where the former ends and the latter begins: but it had been consummated before the thirty years’ truce, which was concluded fourteen years before the Peloponnesian War, and it was in fact the substantial cause of that war.  Empire then came to be held by Athens, partly as a fact established, resting on acquiescence rather than attachment or consent in the minds of the subjects, partly as a corollary from necessity of union combined with her superior force: while this latter point, superiority of force as a legitimate title, stood more and more forward, both in the language of her speakers and in the conceptions of her citizens.  Nay, the Athenian orators of the middle of the Peloponnesian War venture to affirm that their empire had been of this same character ever since the repulse of the Persians: an inaccuracy so manifest, that if we could suppose the speech made by the Athenian Euphemus at Camarina in 415 B.C., to have been heard by Themistocles or Aristides fifty years before, it would have been alike offensive to the prudence of the one and to the justice of the other.

The imperial state of Athens, that which she held at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, when her allies, except Chios and Lesbos, were tributary subjects, and when the AEgean Sea was an Athenian lake, was of course the period of her greatest splendour and greatest action upon the Grecian world.  It was also the period most impressive to historians, orators, and philosophers, suggesting the idea of some one state exercising dominion over the AEgean, as the natural condition of Greece, so that if Athens lost such dominion, it would be transferred to Sparta, holding out the dispersed maritime Greeks as a tempting prize for the aggressive schemes of some new conqueror, and even bringing up by association into men’s fancies the mythical Minos of Crete, and others, as having been rulers of the AEgean in times anterior to Athens.

Even those who lived under the full-grown Athenian empire had before them no good accounts of the incidents between 479-450 B.C.; for we may gather from the intimation of Thucydides, as well as from his barrenness of facts, that while there were chroniclers both for the Persian invasion and for the times before, no one cared for the times immediately succeeding.  Hence, the little light which has fallen upon this blank has all been borrowed – if we except the careful Thucydides – from a subsequent age; and the Athenian hegemony has been treated as a mere commencement of the Athenian empire: credit has been given to Athens for a long-sighted ambition, aiming from the Persian War downwards at results which perhaps Themistocles may have partially divined, but which only time and successive accidents opened even to distant view.

Excerpt from The Historians’ History of the World by Henry Smith Williams – 1907


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