Athens: Cruel Imperial Power or Falsely Maligned?

Photo: Acropolis of Athens, a painting by Leo von Klenze

Athens: Cruel Imperial Power or Falsely Maligned?

An Analysis of Greek Perceptions of Athenian Hegemonic Behavior

By Andrew Liu


I. Introduction

The Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Plataea is read by many as a clear repudiation of tyranny and empire—the victory of free peoples against a foreign behemoth intent on the subjugation of all as vassals of the Great King in Persia. The Athenians played a leading role in this defeat of the Persians, and the unpopularity of the Spartan leader Pausanias helped position Athens as the leading city-state taking the war to Persia (Rhodes 24). In the traditional narrative of Thucydides, the Delian League, led by Athens, was formed in 478 BC as an alliance of Greek states to end the Persian threat, yet eventually became increasingly dominated by Athenian hegemony. As Athenian power grew, so did their abuses, and in one of the great ironies of history, an organization started for the expressed purpose of defense against an empire, itself became an empire. Yet some question this traditional narrative in two primary ways: first, some argue that the Delian League, from the very beginning, was a tool to serve Athens’ imperial interests, while others argue that the League in fact never became wholly despotic and was popular with its allies. In this paper, I will focus on the second point—disregarding the timeline debate, I examine the question of whether Athens was truly regarded as a cruel imperial power. I argue that this portrayal is in fact accurate, and that popular objections to it fail to pass muster. However, in spite of this, I argue that many allies accepted Athenian despotism in light of limited available options, even as they resented its abuses.


II. The Case for Athenian Unpopularity

In building the case for Athenian unpopularity, it should first be established that the Athenians clearly used the Delian League to further their own interests, and in doing so, disregarded the sovereignty and independence of others. In the middle of the fifth century BC, there is clear evidence of Athenian political intervention in the structure of allied states—sending officials and garrisons, transferring lawsuits to Athenian courts, and requiring offerings for the annual festival of Panathenaea (Rhodes 27). In disregarding the sovereignty of others, the Athenians went as far as to change the language used in Athenian decrees from “the allies” to “the cities” or “the cities which Athens controls” (Rhodes 27). Beyond the mere imposition of Athenian power, Athens also harshly cracked down on states that attempted to exit the Delian League, despite it being initially formed of independent states. Disloyal allies were subjected to land confiscation, which were given to cleruchies of Athenian men (Rhodes 27). The first revolt for independence from the Delian League involved the island of Naxos, which was resultantly subdued and forced to remain a League member, becoming, according to Thucydides, “a precedent which was followed by that of the rest in the order which circumstances prescribed” (Thucydides I.98.4). Another notable revolt was that of the island of Thasos deriving from disputes over its trading posts on the Thracian coast. In Lisa Kallet’s analysis, this revolt was the result of years of the Athenians pursuing a “ruthless agenda” to dominate the entire Thasian commercial sphere, taking over its control of natural resources and threatening its prosperity (Kallet 50). Following the quelling of the rebellion, the Thasians were completely disarmed as the Athenians imposed a severe settlement in which the Thasians surrendered their ships and walls while paying tribute (Rhodes 26).

Perhaps the most prominent example of Athenian cruelty is the episode involving Melos. The island, which argued for staying neutral during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta[1], was invaded by Athens in 416 BC (Thucydides 5.82). In Thucydides’ account of the negotiations, the Melians appeal to their neutrality, but the Athenians make no effort to justify their actions based on morality. Rather, they assert that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” (Thucydides 5.89). This is a clear appeal to the political realism of rational self-interest, arguing that the Melians should simply submit because to not do so would end badly. For the Athenians, their self-interest is to display strength, which would discourage their “subjects smarting under the yoke” from daring to revolt (Thucydides 5.99). In the aftermath of the Melian revolt, the Athenians massacred the adult men and enslaved the women and children. They also settled 500 Athenians on the island (Thucydides 5.116). This episode highlights some notable things pertaining to the character of the empire. Firstly, the Athenians openly showed complete disregard for morality, justifying their actions on pure power relations and thus demonstrating their realpolitik approach to diplomacy. Secondly, if Thucydides is to be taken seriously, the Athenians openly declare their motivations for subjugating Melos—in order to maintain their grip on their other cities. This suggests that the regime of control was based on fear and intimidation, not willing compliance. Third, Athenians committed brutal acts of slaughter following the siege. If Melos is to be taken as emblematic of Athenian behavior, it is hard to argue that the Athenians were not a cruel and hated empire.

One interesting factor to consider is Athens’ democratic ideology. In contemporary political discourse, democracy is often associated with concepts such as human rights and the sovereignty of nations. However, it is important to understand Athenian democracy separate from modern notions, and rather than being anti-imperialistic, democratic ideology in Athens fully supported empire and the domination of others. First, it is clear that the Athenian demos, or citizenry, widely supported both democracy and empire, and Athens’ foreign policy actions should not be attributed to Pericles or any other small group of individuals alone (Thuc. 8.54.3). This is because the Athenian political system was designed to check the power of the elite, making it easy for Pericles to be removed if his influence were to be distasteful to the demos. Timothy Galpin argues that the demos, therefore, must be accountable for the actions of the Athenian empire (Galpin 102). Many Athenians themselves recognized that their empire enslaved other Greeks. Pericles is quoted as saying, “it means enslavement just the same when either the greatest or the least claim is imposed by equals upon their neighbors, not by an appeal to justice but by dictation” (Thucydides 1.141). Pericles tells Athenians that they faced danger from those who hated them due to their empire, and whether or not it was morally wrong to be created, the empire could not be undone (Thucydides 2.63.1-2). The fact that Pericles openly acknowledged this, combined with the democratic nature of Athens, shows that a significant portion of the Athenians very much recognized and arguably sanctioned the tyrannical aspects of their own behavior. Furthermore, Athens was depicted as tyrannical in speeches of the Corinthians, and the Athenian politicians Cleon and Euphemus (Rhodes 35).

The inconsistency between democracy and empire is better explained when one realizes the basis was not the universal rights of man, but the rights of citizens—specifically, Athenian citizens. As the Athenian system did not treat slaves and citizens in the same manner, we might consider that there similarly was no commitment to treat other states as equals, and that the concern of the state was its own demos (Rhodes 33). Another way of justifying imperialism was to claim that the Athenian empire was more just than other empires (Thucydides 1.76.3). Athenians have argued that their empire relies on law, not force. One who has studied the empire may question the veracity of this claim, but in the same way as Manifest Destiny to expand democracy westward served as a justification for many atrocities towards outsiders in the United States, an analogous ideology may have served to advance a “collective tyranny” for the Athenians (Galpin 11).


III. Questioning Athenian Cruelty and the Pro-Athenian Case

Many scholars have argued that portrayals of Athenian imperialism have overstated its cruelty, and some have even claimed that the empire was broadly popular amongst allied Greeks. In this section, I examine two major categories of arguments for such claims. The first category involves the idea that Athenian democracy was popular amongst broad swaths of poorer Greeks, and that primary opposition to it came from oligarchic factions. Much of the evidence supporting this claim comes from the questioning of Thucydides’ portrayal of events. The second is the idea that there were geopolitical benefits to continued membership in the Delian League, despite Athenian imperial abuses. I reject the first defense but recognize the second defense.


i. The Democratic Pro-Athenian Case

The first claim is primarily advanced by G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, who argues that Thucydides was biased in his portrayal of the Athenian Empire and that the bulk of the citizens of aligned states were loyal to Athens. Opposition to Athens came primarily from the oligarchic factions which opposed Athenian democratic ideals. Of Thucydides, Ste. Croix claims he is “scrupulously accurate” in describing details but misrepresents editorially the public opinion (Ste. Croix 16). He thus examines the factual narrative for the real story. In one example, Ste. Croix highlights an exchange in the Athenian debate regarding the fate of the rebellious League member Mytilene in which the Athenian demagogue Cleon says, “Do not pin the blame on the oligarchs and acquit the people, for all alike attacked us” (Thucydides 3.39.6, 47.2). The more level-headed Diodotus argues to have more mercy on the people, saying, “At present the people of all the cities are well disposed to you, and either refuse to join the oligarchs in rebellion or, if compelled to join them, promptly become enemies of the rebels” (Thucydides 3.39.6, 47.2). Ste. Croix claims this as evidence that the people of Mytilene were friendly to the Athenians. Furthermore, when the Spartan leader Salaethus distributed arms to the citizens of Mytilene for an attack against the Athenians, there was a mutiny and they did not follow orders (Thucydides 3.27). Another example of Ste. Croix’ argument is his take on the subjugation of Melos. While he concedes that the “cruel treatment of the conquered island was certainly indefensible,” he argues that Thucydides distorted the context and that the Melians were not truly neutral (Ste Croix 12). He cites evidence which suggests the Melians had donated to Spartan war-funds, which would not be unreasonable for Athens to construe as hostility (Ste. Croix 13). Of Athenian brutality in general, Ste. Croix argues that “very few acts of brutality are recorded against the Athenians during the war” and that all that were committed were generally part of Greek practice, proceeding to cite a long range of Spartan atrocities (Ste. Croix 14).

There are some problems with Ste. Croix’s argument. As Donald Bradeen points out, Ste. Croix’s approach in distinguishing between Thucydides’ own opinions and contrasting them with the factual narrative is too simple, and “we can never interpret a speech simply as a vehicle for his own opinions” (Bradeen 259). Regarding the case of Mytilene—whereas Ste. Croix points to the mutiny as evidence of pro-Athenian sentiment, Bradeen focuses on the men’s demand for food, portraying it as an “act of men driven by hunger and despair,” refusing to fight because they were demoralized by a lack of basic provisions (Bradeen 264). This does indeed seem like a plausible explanation. Even beyond desperation and hunger, refusal to take arms does not necessarily mean pro-Athenian sentiment. Perhaps it is the case that the ordinary man had not much stake in either side, and were sick of acting as the pawns of the oligarchs or any foreign state, be it Sparta or Athens.

Furthermore, the settlement of the Mytilenean debate itself is no evidence of Athenian virtue. Although Diodotus prevailed in his argument in favor of sparing the Mytilenean people after their leaders’ rebellion, the content of the debate itself is revealing of Athenian imperial attitudes that disregarded others. For example, Diodotus framed the argument in large part as a question of self-interest—would massacring everyone really be a means of deterring future rebellion, or could it in fact backfire? (Thucydides, 3.42.1) Such framing reveals that even Diodotus appealed to the realpolitik present in the Melian Dialogue mentioned in the prior section, which was less interested in justice than in the preservation of power. Furthermore, the narrowness of the vote showed that even if Ste. Croix is correct that the case of the Melians is an outlier in terms of its exhibition of extreme brutality and not an exemplar of regular brutality, such brutality was at least strongly considered at another time. In regards to the argument that most atrocities committed by the Athenians represented the Greek norm—this does not expunge the Athenians from cruelty or unpopularity, for it is possible that most Greek states did indeed behave in brutal fashions, and would have been as unpopular or more so than the Athenians had they reached the same extent of power.

The question then becomes about democratic ideology. It is true that poorer men have more rights under democratic governments, and thus are likely to prefer them. It is also true that oligarchic and democratic factions both looked to outside intervention, causing “leading democrats looking to Athens for support and leading oligarchs’ looking to Sparta” (Rhodes 37). However, as many scholars argue, in assessing Athenian popularity, any preference for democratic rule amongst the Greek masses must be balanced with the desire to be an independent state (Rhodes 37). In building this argument, Ste. Croix uses the example of the “demos” at Samos putting down an aristocratic oligarchy. In this case, the demos of about 300 men defeated a much larger group of oligarchs. He takes this to mean that the demos had the support of the citizenry (Ste. Croix 25). However, as Bradeen notes, this narrative is questionable due to the large presence of Athenian forces, and the Athenians’ use of influence to “encourage pro-Athenian democratic elements, whether these had the support of the majority of citizens or not” (Bradeen 262). Furthermore, Bradeen notes that many of the subject states were agricultural towns with mostly rural populations, which would not be conducive to Athenian type rule by an urban demos. Furthermore, while the Peloponnesian War increased antagonisms between the oligarchic and democratic classes, Aristotle states the poor were willing to go along quietly with oligarchic regimes so long as the government did not do them violence (Aristotle 1318).

The events at Mytilene also question the notion of a democratic class clamoring for Athenian intervention. The Mytileneans, while allies of the Athenians, maintained autonomy by having their own ships and did not have to pay tribute. They were also under an oligarchic government (Bradeen 264). If there was significant democratic sentiment, such sentiment would likely have been common amongst the lower-class rowers of the Mytilenean fleet. However, this was not the case—the crews of ten Mytilenean ships were imprisoned by the Athenians for suspected revolt (Bradeen 264). Furthermore, Bradeen argues that the Athenians would have intervened to install a democracy had there been any significant movement for democratic control. Therefore, it seems that the Mytilenean people, despite being under oligarchy, supported their own government, seeming to indicate the greater favor for autonomy over democratic intervention. For these reasons, it seems unlikely that pro-democratic sentiment contributed significantly to the popularity of the Athenian Empire.


ii. The Geopolitical Pro-Athenian Case

If Athenian cruelty was not greatly exaggerated by Thucydides and democratic sentiment did not prevail over the desire for independence, why then, were many allies apparently loyal to Athens, and did not rebel when they had the chance? Was this all merely due to the fear of Athenian punishment? To answer this question, one must consider the other advantages to being in the Delian League that would cause membership to be preferable to other options. From an economic standpoint, the Athenian Empire dominated the Aegean, and because of this, there were advantages to belonging to the bloc rather than being excluded. Athenian naval primacy meant that it also could help allies import their goods of preference and defend against enemies (Thuc. 2.38.2). As Kallet’s account of the revolt of Thasos shows, the economic constraint posed by Athenian hegemony on one particular state served as a reason for rebellion. However, this same logic flipped allows for the possibility that other states may have decided that the Athenian trade network would be beneficial for them economically, and would decide to enter the alliance as a result. Further evidence to support this view is the fact that so many states willingly paid tribute to Athens rather than maintain a navy (Rhodes 27). This did not occur because they preferred to lose their autonomy to Athens, but simply because they found it to be more cost-effective than to actively participate in their defense.

One must consider the major alternative power to Athens at the time—Sparta. While much has been made of Athenian despotism, Ste. Croix rightly points out the extent of Spartan imperialism and despotism, at least at certain points in time. In the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans killed all Athenian and allied merchants at sea, and even neutrals in the early portion of the war. The Spartans, within the same year, committed large-scale massacres of Greek Ionian prisoners and Plataeans (Ste Croix 16). The threat of Spartan imperialism was real, as evidenced by the events following the Peloponnesian War. Following the war, Sparta engaged in their own imperial interference in other Greek cities to the extent that Athens founded a new league to oppose them, the Second Athenian League (Rhodes 38). In this League, the Athenians promised to not engage in the various abuses they engaged in with the Delian League. However, the occurrence of these events alone is sufficient to demonstrate that for many cities, the alternative to Athenian imperialism was not freedom, but merely subjection to the imperialism of Sparta.

One could respond to this argument by claiming: if these reasons were good enough reasons to be part of the Delian League, then surely the extent of Athenian despotism and abuse could not be so bad as to cause it to be widely hated. This line of reasoning, however, is questionable. It is possible for a people to prefer domination by one foreign state to another, yet despise it for its treatment. Indeed, this is the case in the 20th century, in which many states were forced to choose between the American sphere of influence and the Soviet. Such choice does not indicate a widespread affinity for either power, although there would be factions within countries that favored one over another. However, for the bulk of the population in many countries, the reality is simple and miserable—true independence was not possible to achieve, and under extremely nonideal conditions, their government ought to play their cards in a manner which renders them the least amount of suffering. For many Greek states, this indeed could have been to remain a subject state of the Athenian Empire. However, it is important to note that this is only a pro-Athenian case insofar as it establishes reasons why it would make sense to remain in the Delian League, and does not reject the narrative that Athens was regarded as a cruel imperial power. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to argue that members of the Delian League did not desire an alternative in which they were given greater autonomy while retaining some benefits.


IV. Conclusion

In this paper, several narratives have been evaluated. First, there is significant evidence which stands to prove that the Athenian Empire often acted in despotic ways toward its subject states. This evidence strongly suggests that Athens was widely unpopular and viewed as a cruel imperial power. The argument against this narrative, based on the idea of popular support for Athens due to its democratic ideology, is rejected. An alternative argument based on geopolitical and economic benefits is accepted, but is not sufficient to question the portrayal of Athens as cruel and unpopular. Therefore, the conclusion is reached that indeed, the portrayal of Athens as an unpopular and cruel power is accurate, with the caveat that many subject states despite this had few alternatives and thus accepted their lesser of evils. The academic debate over Athenian justness and popularity often took place in the context of a world caught in tension between the United States and Soviet Union. It is worth exploring the parallels, and whether the behavior of Athens is simply an inevitable consequence of human nature that comes when any great power reaches the status of hegemon.


Andrew Liu (College ’22) is student at the University of Pennsylvania studying in Philosophy Politics and Economics (PPE).


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[1] The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) was fought between the Delian League led by Athens against the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. The war arose from growing Athenian hegemony and resistance by Sparta and its allies, which was now aided in this war by the Persians.



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