Athens and Its Allies

The Parthenon

Athens and its Allies

By Daniel Stein


In March of 2021, Discentes published an article by Andrew Liu entitled “Athens: Cruel Imperial Power or Falsely Maligned?” It argued that the fifth century Athenian Empire was “a cruel imperial power” that maintained a “regime of control . . . based on fear and intimidation, not willing compliance” over subject peoples, concluding, “it is hard to argue that the Athenians were not a cruel and hated empire.”[1] This essay will take the opposing position. I argue that the Empire was not universally hated.

Between 478 and 404 BC, Athens acquired and ruled an Empire including large parts of mainland Greece, the Aegean, Thrace, Ionia, and the Hellespont. Pericles told the Athenians that “what you possess, to speak plainly, is a tyranny.”[2] In a famous episode from Thucydides, Athenian envoys inform the island of Melos that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”[3] Aristophanes acknowledged that an Athenian trade embargo had left the Megarians “all half-starved.”[4] Yet, according to Plato, Athens was able to keep its Empire for seventy years “because they had friends in each of the cities.”[5] Plato may have had a point. Claims that Athens was always and everywhere hated by its subjects may be overstated.

During this time, many Greek city-states were controlled or influenced by outside powers—whether Athens, Sparta, Persia, or others. Few cities were fully autonomous regardless of Athens. The Athenians did not spread freedom, but they did spread a democratic form of government which gave many people more rights than they formerly had. They attempted to establish friendly relations with subject states through colonial status and religious honors. If the Empire, which relied on a constant rotation of offices and included many cities without garrisons or Athenian colonists, was universally hated, it would have ceased to function.

The choice for many Greeks was not between slavery and freedom but between control by different regional powers. In the Histories, Herodotus describes how the Ionians were “reduced to servitude” under “new lords” by Cyrus.[6] City-states like Corinth and Thebes also exerted regional influence. According to Diodorus, the Thebans requested Sparta’s help “to gain the entire hegemony of Boeotia.”[7] As Donald Kagan observes, “Each extension of the Spartan alliance meant that one more state had agreed to a treaty that turned control of its foreign policy over to Sparta.”[8] The Athenians justified their Empire because “all who left us would fall to [Sparta].”[9] Interventions were constant. According to Plutarch, the Spartans replaced tyrants with oligarchies in Corinth, Ambracia, Naxos, Athens, Sicyon, Thasos, Miletus, Phocis, and Thessaly.[10] He wrote, “We know of no city of that time [the sixth century] so zealous in the pursuit of honor and so hostile to tyrants as the city of the Lacedaemonians.”[11]

G. E. M. de Ste. Croix observed, “In those cases where an allied city could be reasonably sure of securing its independence outside the Athenian Empire . . . I can see no reason why the lower classes should have any desire to remain within the Empire. But with the exception of Amphipolis and perhaps Olynthus and a few other cities (especially islands in the western Aegean), how many of the allies were in this category?” Both mainland and island cities “were in serious danger of falling under Persian or native control as soon as the Athenian alliance collapsed.”[12] While Donald Bradeen claims Athens was unpopular because for “most . . . Greeks freedom was the most important of blessings,”[13] P. J. Rhodes explains, “we have evidence from many places at many times in Greek history that . . . politicians frequently preferred being on the winning side in their city thanks to outside intervention, despite the loss of autonomy which that involved, to being on the losing side in a city which was free from outside intervention and retained its autonomy.”[14] Faced with a choice between subjugation to different regional powers, some Greek city-states would have preferred Athenian control to the alternative. While autonomy was certainly an important Greek value, Greek politicians were willing to tolerate outside intervention when it served their own ends.

What distinguished Athens from states like Sparta and Persia was not its Empire or interventions but simply that it established democracies in subject cities. In 458, the Athenians defeated the Boeotians at Oenophyta. Democracies were established throughout Boeotia and perhaps in Thebes itself.[15] In 452, Athens established a democracy in Erythrae.[16] The city of Miletus received the same treatment (446/5). As Kagan describes it, “The revolt was crushed, the tribute collected, the oligarchs outlawed, and a democracy on the Athenian model established. As an act of conciliation and encouragement to the new democracy, the tribute was cut in half.”[17] Samos was also given a democratic constitution (439),[18] as were Kolophon (447/6), Chalkis (446/5), and Lesbos (427/26).[19]

While Sparta and Persia set up oligarchies or tyrannies, Athens established “democracy on the Athenian model.” What did this mean? Athenian democracy was based on a specific set of values. These included isonomia (equality before the law), euthyna (accountability), the people’s participation in the courts as jurors, and increased citizen rights.[20]

Subject peoples might not always be self-governing. As Bradeen points out, Athenian officials probably manipulated office-holding[21] and, “Even in cities where there were nominal democracies, it is unlikely that real control was in the hands of the poor, since this presupposes the ability of the state to pay salaries on a large scale.”[22] But under a democracy, the poor would enjoy greater rights and liberties than before. “We may assume,” says Rhodes, “that most poorer men are likely to have preferred democratic regimes, under which they had rights, to oligarchic, under which they did not.”[23]

Did Athens then alienate its subjects by behaving as “a cruel imperial power”? Under Pericles, Athenian foreign policy was characterized by moderation. After the Samian revolt, Athens imposed a war indemnity but did not require tribute or establish a garrison or cleruchies.[24] Similarly, when Byzantium came to terms after a failed revolt, it was placed “under the same conditions as before” and paid about the same amount of tribute (“a very modest rise for so prosperous a city”).[25] Kagan has spoken of the “moderation, peacefulness, and success of Pericles’ foreign policy.”[26] In the decree for Erythrae (453 BC), one scholar notes “the friendliness of the relations between Athens and Erythrae implied by this decree.”[27]

Liu claims that the Athenian practice of requiring offerings from its allies for the Panathenaic festival was a symbol of humiliation and is part of the “case for Athenian unpopularity.” The delivery of a sacrifice and a suit of armor at the Panathenaia does seem like an irritating act of submission. However, it need not have this interpretation. As B. D. Meritt and H. T. Wade-Gery explain, many and “perhaps a majority” of the allies were or considered themselves to be Athenian colonies. Participation in the Panathenaia actually eased the Delian League’s transition into an Empire, which was really “a system of colonies, with the four-yearly Great Panathenaia as their common feast.”[28] According to Kagan,

It seems clear that the Athenians placed some stress on the status of their allies as colonies, for colonial status among the Greeks implied not inferiority and shame but equality and pride. Ties between colony and mother city were normally warm and solemnized by common religious observances. Within a few years of the transfer of the treasury, the allies were asked to send a cow and a full suit of armor to the Great Panathenaic Festival, ‘symbolizing food and military assistance to the mother-city.’ The burden was not heavy, and the honor of participating in the grand procession to the image of Athena was not insignificant, so ‘we may suppose it was thought less a burden than a privilege, and so was not a unilateral Athenian fiat but a resolution of the League.’[29]

That Athens claimed certain rights over its colonies was not unprecedented. These rights were recognized by all Greeks, including Athens’ rival, Corinth. As the Corinthian ambassadors explained regarding their colony at Corcyra, “We did not send them [the Corcyreans] forth to be scorned by them, but to have the leading of them, and to be regarded by them, as is fit.”[30]  Thucydides notes that Athens’ defense of the Corcyreans against Corinthian intervention was one of the causes of the Peloponnesian War. The Corinthian ambassadors thought that “everyone should have liberty to proceed against their own revolting confederates,”[31] as Athens did.

Of course, like most ancient peoples, the Athenians were capable of brutality. When the Melians refused to submit (416), Athens defeated them in battle, put the men to death, sold the women and children as slaves, and sent five hundred colonists to occupy the land.[32] But as de Ste. Croix points out, this was “sanctioned by the Greek laws of war.”[33] According to Xenophon, “it is a law established for all time among all men that when a city is taken in war, the persons and the property of the inhabitants thereof belong to the captors.”[34] In 465, Argos enslaved the population of Mycenae. Sparta massacred the Plataeans and enslaved their women.[35] In 417, they killed all the citizens of the town of Hysiae.[36] During the Peloponnesian War, they “slew and cast into pits all the Athenian and allied traders whom they caught,” and “at the outset of the war . . . butchered as enemies all whom they took on the sea, whether allies of Athens or neutrals.”[37] The idea that Athens was unusually cruel or “vindictive” is a “quite misleading impression,”[38]since other Greek cities routinely operated at the same level of violence.

The frequency of revolts is often taken as proof that Athens was a cruel imperial power. However, this may not reflect the Empire’s cruelty but simply that the Athenians were trying to control Greek states which valued autonomy. The Greek cities of Ionia were in constant revolt against the Persians. Non-Greek regions of the Persian Empire caused less trouble despite serving the same government. On the other hand, some Athenian subject cities gave visible proof of their loyalty to the Athenians. In one case, the island of Chios sent ships to help Athens suppress the Samian revolt. As Dominique Lenfant notes, “Chios long remained faithful to the hegemonic power.”[39]

Will Durant once wrote, “the resistance to Athenian policy came from nearly every state in Greece.”[40]This is not exactly true. Major revolts broke out in Naxos (470-469), Thasos (465-463), Aegina (457), Miletos (454), Erythrai (453), Euboea (446), Samos (440), Mytilene (428-427), Melos (416-415), and Chios (412-411), mostly islands in the central or eastern Aegean. Between 454 and 450, there is evidence that the “important island members of the league were refusing to pay tribute.”[41] Other parts of the Empire resisted Athens less frequently. Even in 450/49, as revenues dropped by 13% and “a good deal of resistance to Athenian control” developed, 163 cities continued to pay over 430 talents into the Athenian treasury.[42]

Attitudes cannot be generalized over such a large Empire. Revolts generally centered on the relatively independent and powerful Aegean islands. Yet Chios and Mytilene remained loyal for a long period of time and enjoyed a “privileged position.”[43] Support or indifference to Athenian rule can be found among the lower classes, city-states without a history of autonomy, and democratic leaders who “did have strong reason to be pro-Athenian.”[44] Each year, over seven hundred new officials were sent out to govern the Athenian Empire.[45] Offices rotated yearly and most subject cities did not contain Athenian garrisons or cleruchies.[46] This system would not have worked if subject cities were uniformly anti-Athenian.

Not all Athenians agreed with Pericles or Cleon that “your empire is a despotism exercised over unwilling subjects who are always conspiring against you … they have no love for you, but they are held down by force.”[47] Instead, they emphasized that the Empire rested on a common legal system rather than arbitrary force. All empires exacted tribute, suppressed revolts, and imposed common weights and measures, but in Athens, “our subjects are . . . habituated to associate with us as equals,” making them more sensitive to wrongs. “And none care to inquire why this reproach is not brought against other imperial powers, who treat their subjects with less moderation than we do, the secret being that where force can be used, law is not needed.”[48]

Athens made treaties with its subjects; Persia did not. In their treaty with the Chalkidians, the Athenians swore not to expel them from their land, destroy their city, deprive them of civic rights, exile them, confiscate their money, or propose hostile laws.[49] Jeremy McInerney describes this as “a series of guarantees of fair practice,” which “suggests the importance to the Athenians of at least the appearance of legality in their dealings with subject states.”[50] This meant that the Athenians could be accused of tyranny for common practices of empires.

“The ancient Greek world,” writes Daniel Robinson, “offers the earliest evidence of a people subjecting its deepest thoughts and sentiments to critical evaluation,”[51] as well as “rigorous and self-critical inquiry.”[52]Speeches describing the Athenian Empire as a tyranny may reflect this tendency and not the fact that the Athenians were unusually oppressive towards their subjects. The development of self-criticism may explain why the Athenians emphasized the wrongs they committed (as in Thucydides’ Melian dialogue), a trait not found in other empires. It’s worth noting that all of our sources for Athenian tyranny come from the Athenians themselves.

In contrast with Athens, Plato explained that Dionysius of Syracuse, “though he united all Sicily into a single city . . . was scarcely able to survive, for he was poor in friends and loyal followers.”[53] The Athenians predicted that if Sparta replaced Athens, it would become more unpopular than Athens ever was,[54] and this is exactly what happened. In 378, Athens founded a new Delian League to resist Spartan tyranny by recruiting its old subjects,[55] suggesting that the allies’ memory of the Athenian Empire could not have been entirely negative. After all, Athens performed important services for them, such as protecting the Aegean trade from pirates.

De Ste. Croix’s famous claim that “the mass of citizens in the allied or subject states were loyal to Athens”[56] is probably not true. But the Empire could not have been maintained without some loyalty from its subjects. As an imperial power, Athens often behaved with moderation. Athenian-backed constitutions gave the Empire’s poorer subjects more rights than they would have enjoyed under their original governments, and Athenian behavior toward its allies was designed to treat them as a confederation of colonies sharing a common descent. Without defending the Empire, it is reasonable to assume that Athens was not always and everywhere regarded as “a cruel imperial power.”

Daniel Stein (College ‘25) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Neuroscience and Classical Studies. He is the Lead Research Editor for Discentes.


Works Cited 

Bradeen, Donald W. “The Popularity of the Athenian Empire.” Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte. Bd. 9 H. 3 (July 1960).

Dillon, Matthew and Lynda Garland (eds.). Ancient Greece: Social and Historical Documents from Archaic times to the Death of Socrates. London: Routledge, 2000.

Diodorus Siculus. The Library of History: Books IX to XII.40. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946.

Durant, Will. The Life of Greece. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939.

Galpin, Timothy J. “The Democratic Roots of Athenian Imperialism in the Fifth Century B.C.” The Classical Journal. Vol. 79 no. 2 (Dec. 1983-Jan. 1984)

Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by George Rawlinson. Moscow, ID: Roman Roads Media, 2013.

Kagan, Donald. The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969.

Meritt, B. D. and H. T. Wade-Gery. “The Dating of Documents to the Mid-Fifth Century—I.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies. Vol. 82 (1962).

Morrow, Glenn R. (trans.). Plato’s Epistles. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1962.

Powell, Anton and Katerina Meidani (eds.). ‘The Eyesore of Aegina:’ Anti-Athenian Attitudes across the Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman Worlds. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2016.

Robinson, Daniel N. “Great Ideas of Psychology.” Lecture notes from The Teaching Company,1997.

Robinson, Daniel N. An Intellectual History of Psychology, 3rd Ed. Madison, WI: University ofWisconsin Press, 1995.

Samons, Loren J. (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Pericles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

de Ste. Croix, G. E. M. “The Character of the Athenian Empire.” Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte. Bd. 3, H. 1 (1954).

de Ste. Croix, G. E. M. The Origins of the Peloponnesian War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Translated by Richard Crawley. New York: Random House, 1982.

Wright, F. A. (ed.). Greek Social Life. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1925.

Xenophon. Cyropaedia (2 vols.). Translated by Walter Miller. New York: Macmillan, 1914.



[1] Andrew Liu, “Athens: Cruel Imperial Power or Falsely Maligned?” Discentes, March 20, 2021,

[2] Thucydides, 2.63.

[3] Thucydides, 5.89.

[4] Aristophanes, Acharnians, 548, translated by F.A. Wright in Greek Social Life (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1925), 44.

[5] Glenn R. Morrow, trans., Plato’s Epistles (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1962), 226 (VII.332c).

[6] Herodotus, 1.169, translated by George Rawlinson.

[7] Diodorus, Historical Library, 11.81, translated by Donald Kagan.

[8] Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969), 11.

[9] Thucydides, 1.75.

[10] Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, 12 (from Plutarch’s Moralia, 859 D).

[11] Ibid., 12 (from Plutarch’s Moralia, 859 C).

[12] G. E. M de Ste. Croix, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), 37.

[13] Donald W. Bradeen, “The Popularity of the Athenian Empire,” Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte, Bd. 9 H. 3 (July 1960), 269.

[14] P .J. Rhodes, “Democracy and Empire,” in Loren J. Samons (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Pericles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 37.

[15] Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, 95.

[16] See “Regulations for Erythrae” in Dillon and Garland (eds.), Ancient Greece (London: Routledge, 2000), 277 (doc. 8.26).

[17] Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, 101.

[18] Ibid., 176.

[19] B. D. Meritt, H. T. Wade-Gerry, and Malcolm Francis McGregor, The Athenian Tribute Lists (Princeton, NJ: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1950), vol. III, 150.

[20] Timothy J. Galpin, “The Democratic Roots of Athenian Imperialism in the Fifth Century B.C.,” The Classical Journal, vol. 79 no. 2 (Dec. 1983-Jan.1984), 100.

[21] Donald W. Bradeen, “The Popularity of the Athenian Empire,” 262.

[22] Ibid., 263.

[23] P. J. Rhodes, “Democracy and Empire,” 37.

[24] Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, 176.

[25] Ibid., 177.

[26] Ibid., 193.

[27] Ibid., 100n1.

[28] B. D. Meritt and H. T. Wade-Gery, “The Dating of Documents to the Mid-Fifth Century—I,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. 82 (1962), 71.

[29] Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, 102.

[30] Thucydides, 1.38, translated by Thomas Hobbes.

[31] Thucydides, 1.39, translated by Thomas Hobbes.

[32] Thucydides, 5.116.

[33] G. E. M de Ste. Croix, “The Character of the Athenian Empire,” Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte, Bd. 3, H. 1 (1954), 14.

[34] Xenophon, Cyropaedia (vol. 2), translated by Walter Miller (New York: Macmillan, 1914), 293 (VII.5.73).

[35] Thucydides, 3.68.

[36] Thucydides, 5.83.

[37] Thucydides, 2.67.

[38] G. E. M de Ste. Croix, “The Character of the Athenian Empire,” 15.

[39] Dominique Lenfant, “The Allies View on the Athenian Empire: The Evidence of Plutarch’s Lives,” in Anton Powell and Katerina Meidani (eds.), ‘The Eyesore of Aegina:’ Anti-Athenian Attitudes across the Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman Worlds (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2016), 8.

[40] Will Durant, The Life of Greece (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939), 440.

[41] Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, 102.

[42] Ibid., 110.

[43] Dominique Lenfant, “The Allies View on the Athenian Empire: The Evidence of Plutarch’s Lives,” 8.

[44] P. J. Rhodes, “Democracy and Empire,” 37.

[45] Jeremy McInerney, Ancient Greece: A New History (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018), 206.

[46] Especially cities in Ionia and Thrace. Garrisons were usually established in response to a revolt, although Samos is an exception.

[47] As Cleon informed the Athenians in 427. Will Durant, The Life of Greece, 440.

[48] Thucydides, 1.77, translated by Richard Crawley.

[49] Jeremy McInerney, Ancient Greece, 210 (IG I3 40 4-10, trans. Lambert and Osborne).

[50] Ibid.

[51] Daniel Robinson, “Great Ideas of Psychology,” lecture notes from the Teaching Company (1997), 5.

[52] Daniel Robinson, An Intellectual History of Psychology, 3rd ed. (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), back cover.

[53] Glenn R. Morrow (trans.), Plato’s Epistles, 226 (VII.332c).

[54] Thucydides, 1.77.

[55] With qualifications such as no tribute, no cleruchies, no imposition of constitutions, etc.

[56] G. E. M de Ste. Croix, “The Character of the Athenian Empire,” 16.