Fifth-Century Athens: Despotic, Democratic, or Both?

A map of Greece and the Aegean Sea circa 448 BC. The Delian League is shown in yellow.

Fifth-Century Athens: Despotic, Democratic, or Both?       

By Arthur Li


In the Greek tragedian Aeschylus’ 472 BC play The Persians, the Persian queen Atossa asks, “Who is set over [the Athenians] as shepherd and is master of their host?” The chorus resonates, “Of no man are they called the slaves or vassals” (Aeschylus, Persians, 241-42).1 Indeed, the Greeks’—and in particular, Athens’—victories over Persia at the battles of Plataea and Mykale seven years earlier had marked a paradigm shift in their conceptions of eleutheria—freedom.2 Prior to the Persian Wars, freedom referred merely to the status of people not enslaved; afterwards, to the status of entire city-states devoid of foreign influence and domination.3 Thus, it is somewhat ironic that during the Pentecontaetia, the fifty year period following the Persian wars, the Delian League, established in 478 BC with the express purpose of defending against the Persian empire, transformed into its own empire under the increasingly hegemonic leadership of Athens. Delian League members revolted as early as 470 BC—the island of Naxos first, followed by Thasos in 465; then, by Miletos and Erythrai in 454 and 453; and, even after the purported 449 Peace of Callias, by Mytilene, Melos, and Chios in 428, 416, and 412, respectively. All failed. The persistence of revolts—and their quellings—within the Delian League leaves no doubt that after the Persian Wars Athens largely transformed from the equitable leader of a military alliance into an imperialistic power. However, Athens provided the Delian League with enough benefits, such as naval protection, a robust commercial network, and freedom from harsher, undemocratic rulers—namely, Persia and Sparta—that it was not ubiquitously regarded as cruel and unjust.

A characteristic feature of the Athenian state was its maritime supremacy, from which the Delian League would later benefit militarily and economically. Beginning in 483 BC, Themistocles directed the surplus revenue from Athens’ silver mines toward ship-building (Herodotus 7.144.1).4 Consequently, Athens was able to contribute more than half of the total number of ships to the Greek fleet that defeated Persia in the 480 BC Battle of Salamis.5 Athens continued to dominate the Aegean over the next century, garnering a reputation for naval superiority. As recorded by Xenophon, Procles the Phliasian proclaimed in 369 BC:

In the first place, you [Athenians] have a position most excellently adapted by nature for supremacy by sea. For most of the states which are dependent upon the sea are situated round about your state, and they are all weaker than yours… Furthermore, you already possess many triremes, and it is a traditional policy of yours to keep adding ships… It has also been granted you by the gods to be successful in this pursuit. For while you have engaged in very many and very great combats by sea, you have met with an exceedingly small number of misfortunes and have achieved an exceedingly large number of successes (Xenophon, Hellenica, 7.1.3-5).6

The unparalleled strength, coordination, and centralization of Athens’ navy created various immediate consequences for members of the Delian League. First, should any one of them attempt to secede as Naxos and Thasos did, there was no question that Athens could besiege their walls, stamp out the fires of revolution, and impose crippling settlements, whether the revocation of their political rights, the forcible surrender of all their ships, or the annual collection of additional indemnities and tributes.

On the other hand, compliant member states could enjoy Athens’ naval protection at a cost modest compared to the expenditures necessary to build and maintain small fleets of their own. The historian PJ Rhodes echoes: “While having a few ships of its own would bring a city a sense of security as well as pride, it might cost less in terms both of cash and of demands on manpower to pay tribute than to maintain those ships and send them to serve in the League’s navy.”7 The savings would have been particularly appreciable during periods of relative peace. Rather than a polis harboring the majority of its fleet when only a few mobile ships for trade and travel were necessary, Athens could simply withdraw the triremes it had delegated there. Hence, “by the 440s, nearly all the members of the Delian League were paying tribute in cash rather than contributing ships to the League’s forces.”8 The vast majority of the Delian League, it seems, preferred to let Athens assume complete responsibility for the League’s navy rather than prodigally spending precious resources on ships of their own.

The sheer vastness of the Athenian navy also created thousands of employment opportunities for other members of the Delian League. By Plutarch’s account, Athens, with an estimated population of 140,000 and only 40,000 of them citizens, “kept a fleet of sixty ships on the sea for eight months of every year. To man such a squadron 10,200 rowers, 480 officers, and 600 marines would be required.”9 Aristotle, on the other hand, testifies that Athens’ peacetime fleet comprised as few as twenty guard-ships,10 such that “one twelfth and not one quarter of all the Athenians were on active naval duty during the sailing season of almost every year.”11 Both estimations, however, pale in comparison to the number of ships that Athens would launch during times of war. William Ferguson explains:

In the Athenian dockyards lay ready for action four hundred battleships, from which the requisite number was selected for each particular expedition. If two hundred and fifty vessels were mobilized, as occasionally happened, nearly fifty thousand additional sailors were required. With the use of every possible citizen Athens could not produce such a number. She commonly did her utmost and called upon the allies for the rest.12

At a standard rate of one drachma per day, these mercenary sailors enjoyed a fairly lucrative pay (Thucydides 3.17).13 It is true that Athens’ menacing navy may have discouraged unsatisfied members of the Delian League from revolt—just as nuclear threats have unquantifiably deterred the escalation of modern-day armed conflicts. The Athenian navy, however, simultaneously provided two significant incentives to the Delian League—unrivaled maritime protection and frequent employment opportunities—compelling them to favor Athens.

Inherent to Athens’ naval domination was also an expansive commercial network, providing the League’s members with goods from every corner of the Aegean, opportunities for employment and participation in Athenian society, and, for those who could afford it, unimpeded trade and travel between the various allied states. Rhodes summarizes, “Control of the sea meant not only that [Athens] could import whatever it wanted to import from wherever it wanted, but also that it could help its friends to import what they wanted and hinder its enemies.”14 Moreover, the imports—and, by extension, exports—comprised an impressive variety of textiles, materials, and food supplies such as grain and wine. An anonymous Athenian aristocrat preserved in the works of Xenophon notes:

The Athenians are the only people in the Hellenic and barbarian world who are able to control an abundant supply of raw materials. For if a state is rich in timber for shipbuilding, where will it find a market for it if not with the masters of the sea? If another abounds in iron or bronze or linen yarn, where will it find a market except with the sea-lord?…One city yields timber to her, another iron, a third bronze, a fourth linen yarn, a fifth wax, and so on.15

In the Funeral Oration, Pericles corroborates, “The fruits of the whole earth flow in upon us; so that we enjoy the goods of other countries as freely as of our own” (Thucydides 2.38).16 Thus, even if it is pedantically assumed that the Delian League’s members did not import anything from Athens, they must have been compensated well for the sheer volumes of goods they exported, as discussed by Xenophon and Thucydides, and thus profited handsomely from the Athenian central economy’s rapid growth nonetheless.

The geographical, commercial, and industrial flourishing of the Athenian empire also introduced an insatiable demand for construction and manual labor. Ferguson concludes, “thousands from the allied cities migrated to Athens, and, while not escaping military or financial service, or obtaining Athenian citizenship, they were cordially welcomed, and enjoyed to the full the commercial and industrial advantages of the metropolis.” As in many modern Western countries, immigrants to Athens were privileged with natural rights protections, access to the free market, and myriad job opportunities in return for their contributions to the economy.17 While full citizenship was only attainable by birth, Athens provided lucrative financial and civil opportunities to Greeks who wished to immigrate.

Athens also facilitated oligarchs’ and elites’ travel within the Delian League. As Dominique Lenfant explains, Ion of Chios visited Athens to compete in the Dionysia several times and may even have been a personal friend of the politician Cimon.18 Moreover, the famed poet Sophocles, then an Athenian statesman, once stopped to meet Ion in Chios before proceeding on his journey to Lesbos.19 These episodes affirm that the League’s elites could, in fact, “be far from any hostility to the Athenian empire and even be important actors within it,” disqualifying popular portrayals of the League’s oligarchs and upper classes as categorically antagonistic towards imperial Athens.20

Overall, the thriving commercial network that came with Athens’ unilateral grip over the Aegean’s waters was a boon to Delian League poleis’ own economies and qualities of life. As such, it typically would have been fiscally nonsensical for a city-state to desire complete independence from Athens’ economic spheres.

Finally, the Delian League’s range of dispositions in favor of or in opposition to Athens’ imperial rule must be contextualized within the broader scopes of 4th-century BC Europe, Southwest Asia, and the Mediterranean Sea lest Athens be vilified as uniquely cruel. In reality, the city-states that revolted would have been unlikely to win eleutheriaeven after a miraculous victory against Athens. Rather, they would have fallen under the domination of the Persian or Spartan empires, which were far harsher.21 Timothy Galpin summarizes Jacqueline de Romilly’s views: “The Athenian arche [empire] actually preserved the subjects’ freedom by preventing their subjugation to Persian rule. De Romilly has outlined the advantages of Athenian rule for the subjects: first, internal peace and unity; second, freedom from tyrannis;third, democratic government; and fourth, independence from the Persians.”22 Interestingly, whether or not Persia actually was crueler than Athens would have been of relatively little consequence for members of the Delian League, even after the alleged 449 BC Peace of Callias that may have ended the Greco-Persian Wars. As long as Athens was perceived to be a more benevolent power, which was no difficult task given the Greeks’ cultural memories of the Wars, the collective bastardization of the Persian people themselves,23 and the spread of Athenian propaganda, such as Thucydides’ claim that Athens was more just because it ruled not by violence, but law (Thucydides 1.77),24 the League’s members would be grateful for Athenian rule.

Sparta presented a larger threat to the Delian League even still, even at the zenith of the Athenian empire. During the early years of the Peloponnesian War, Spartans slaughtered all of the merchants they captured at sea, whether Athenians, Athenian allies, or even neutral parties.25 On land, they massacred multitudes of Ionians, Plataeans, Helots, Argives, and Athenians, often in cold blood.26 However, even as Sparta continued to storm, rape, and plunder Athens’ standing allies towards the end of the 5th century BC, Athens continued to support the League’s member nations, and many key cities such as Methymna, Mytilene, Cedreae, Lampsacus, and Iasos remained loyal.27 Athenians saw Spartan rule as the epitome of class-based discrimination, social immobility, subjugation, and oppression; and thus, as Galpin continues, Athenian rule as its antithesis: “the perfect expression of both internal equality and external freedom and, in fact, a superior freedom.”28

As a final vignette, the discrepant attitudes Greeks maintained for the Athenian government were hardly unique to the ancient world. The United States consistently ranks low among the world’s developed countries for its living standards,29 democratic index,30 and crime prevention,31 among other indices. Yet, hundreds of thousands of people continue to immigrate to the country each year, pursuing employment, upward social mobility, better education, and even asylum. In parallel, Marloes Deene writes that despite Athens’ tyranny, “naturalization [in Athens] was both an honor and a gift of practical importance and value”32 for its metics, xenoi, and residential freedmen. But the allure of the American—or rather, Athenian—dream is perhaps captured best by the Athenian general Nicias, in this 413 BC speech to his regiment:

Some among you have long been deemed Athenians, though they are not; and to them I say, consider how precious is that privilege, and how worthy to be defended… You shared equally with ourselves in the substantial advantages of our empire, while you gained even more than we by the dread which you inspired in subject-states and in your security against wrong (Thucydides 7.63).33

It is difficult, even impossible, to deny the validity of Thucydides’ impression of Athens as a “tyrant city” (Thucydides 1.124).34 But to claim that his impression was perpetually shared by all of the Delian League’s peoples and cities during Athens’ leadership and eventual rule ignores Athens’ provision of maritime security, prosperous commerce, and freedom from Persian and Spartan cruelty to its allies. In fact, it is to ignore Thucydides’ own admission that “the popular party are everywhere [Athens’] friends; either they do not join with the oligarchs, or, if compelled to do so, they are always ready to turn against the authors of the revolt” (Thucydides 3.47).35 Athens may have become an imperial state during the times of the Delian League, but not a totalitarian one.


Arthur Li (’26) is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. 



  1. Aeschylus, Persians, trans. Herbert Weir Smyth, Ph.D., vol. 1, Aeschylus (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926), 21.
  2. Jeremy McInerney, Ancient Greece: A New History (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2018), 191.
  3. Ibid., 191.
  4. Herodotus, Herodotus, trans. A. D. Godley (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920).
  5. P. J. Rhodes, “Democracy and Empire,” The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Pericles, January 15, 2007, 10,
  6. Xenophon, Xenophon in Seven Volumes, trans. Carleton L. Brownson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921), 2.
  7. Rhodes, “Democracy and Empire,” 36.
  8. Ibid., 29.
  9. William Scott Ferguson, Greek Imperialism (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1913), 69.
  10. Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952), 20.
  11. Ferguson, Greek Imperialism, 69.
  12. Ibid., 69-70.
  13. Thucydides, Thucydides translated into English; with introduction, marginal analysis, notes, and indices., trans. Benjamin Jowett (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1881), 1.
  14. Rhodes, “Democracy and Empire,” 35.
  15. Ferguson, Greek Imperialism, 62.
  16. Thucydides, Thucydides translated, 1.
  17. Ibid., 62.
  18. Dominique Lenfant, “THE ALLIES’ VIEWPOINT on THE ATHENIAN EMPIRE,” The Eyesore of Aigina, 4,
  19. Ibid., 5.
  20. Ibid., 6.
  21. Timothy J. Galpin, “The Democratic Roots of Athenian Imperialism in the Fifth Century B.C.,” The Classical Journal 79, no. 2 (1983): 109,
  22. Ibid., 103.
  23. McInerney, Ancient Greece, 191.
  24. Thucydides, Thucydides translated, 1.
  25. G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, “The Character of the Athenian Empire,” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 3, no. 1 (1954): 14,
  26. Ibid., 14-15.
  27. Ibid., 8-9.
  28. Galpin, “The Democratic,” 109.
  29. Devon Haynie, “Report: American Quality of Life Declines Over Past Decade,” S. News & World Report, last modified September 11, 2020, accessed November 14, 2022,
  30. Celine Castronuovo, “US score falls in Economist’s annual Democracy Index,” The Hill, last modified February 3, 2021, accessed November 14, 2022,
  31. Carol B. Kalish, “International Crime Rates,” Office of Justice Programs, last modified May 1988, accessed November 14, 2022,
  32. Marloes Deene, “NATURALIZED CITIZENS AND SOCIAL MOBILITY in CLASSICAL ATHENS: THE CASE of APOLLODORUS,” Greece and Rome 58, no. 2 (2011): 163,
  33. Thucydides, Thucydides translated, 1.



Aeschylus. Persians. Translated by Herbert Weir Smyth, Ph.D. Vol. 1 of Aeschylus. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926.

Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes. Translated by H. Rackham. Vol. 20. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952.

Castronuovo, Celine. “US score falls in Economist’s annual Democracy Index.” The Hill. Last modified February 3, 2021. Accessed November 14, 2022.

Deene, Marloes. “NATURALIZED CITIZENS AND SOCIAL MOBILITY in CLASSICAL ATHENS: THE CASE of APOLLODORUS.” Greece and Rome 58, no. 2 (2011): 159-75.

Edmonds, J. M., trans. Elegy and Iambus. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931.

Ferguson, William Scott. Greek Imperialism. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1913.

Galpin, Timothy J. “The Democratic Roots of Athenian Imperialism in the Fifth Century B.C.” The Classical Journal 79, no. 2 (1983): 100-09.

G. E. M. de Ste. Croix. “The Character of the Athenian Empire.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 3, no. 1 (1954): 1-41.

Haynie, Devon. “Report: American Quality of Life Declines Over Past Decade.” U.S. News & World Report. Last modified September 11, 2020. Accessed November 14, 2022.

Herodotus. Herodotus. Translated by A.D. Godley. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920.

Kalish, Carol B. “International Crime Rates.” Office of Justice Programs. Last modified May 1988. Accessed November 14, 2022.

Lenfant, Dominique. “THE ALLIES’ VIEWPOINT on THE ATHENIAN EMPIRE.” The Eyesore of Aigina, 1-18.

McInerney, Jeremy. Ancient Greece: A New History. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2018.

Rhodes, P. J. “Democracy and Empire.” The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Pericles, January 15, 2007, 24-45.

Thucydides. Thucydides translated into English; with introduction, marginal analysis, notes, and indices. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1881.

Xenophon. Xenophon in Seven Volumes. Translated by Carleton L. Brownson. Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921.