The Allied Perspective on Athenian Imperialism

An inscription in Athens showing tribute received from other states in the Delian League.

The Allied Perspective on Athenian Imperialism

By Alex Larrow


The Delian League was a prominent institution during the fifth century BCE, as it encompassed most of the Aegean from 478 to 404. The dynamic between Athenian imperialism in the league and democracy at home is frequently discussed. Something less talked about though just as important, is the perspective of the other cities in the league. One difficulty surrounding this question is the absence of primary sources from the allied states; as historian Dominique Lenfant notes, all sources from the time of the league are Athenian (Lenfant 1). A few works by authors in the allied cities have been preserved by the Roman-period historian Plutarch. However, these are fragmentary and insufficient for making broad conclusions (Lenfant 2, 8-10). The main historian from the time of the league is Thucydides, who explains the rise of Athenian power as a background to the Peloponnesian War (Rhodes 25). However, Thucydides brings a biased perspective and at times contradicts himself (Ste. Croix 3). Despite these limitations, it is still possible to piece together an idea of the allied perspective. Athens was not always regarded as a cruel imperial power, and this is evident in the initial support for the growth of Athenian power in the league: pro-Athenian factions in allied cities, continued loyalty to Athens during the Peloponnesian War, and the formation of the Second Athenian League.

During the first decades of the Delian League, Athens enjoyed support from the allied cities. Initially, Pausanias, king of Sparta, led the Hellenic League on an offensive against Persia following the victories at Mycale and Plataea in 479. But, Pausanias became unpopular, and several cities, including Samos, called for his removal (Kallet 44; Legon 145; Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 1.96). With the Spartans no longer involved, the Allies, wanting to continue the war, chose Athens as their leader in 478 due to its large navy and status as the mother city of Ionian Greeks, while Delos became the headquarters and treasury of the new Delian League. (Rhodes 25; Constantakopoulou 127). Athens used its newfound power, largely given by the allied cities, to advance its economic interests (Rhodes 25). Importantly, this was not the first display of Athenian ambition in the Aegean. In the sixth century, Athens gained control of Sigeion, Lemnos, Imbros, and parts of the Thracian Chersonese, making the Thucydidean notion that Athenian intentions appeared innocent but quickly turned imperialist dubious (Kallet 43, 52).

The head of the league, Athens, with an army led by the Athenian general Kimon, first targeted the Persian garrison at Eion (Kallet 44; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.98). However, when the Persians were expelled, the Athenians did not return Eion to Thasos, but chose to retain direct control (Kallet 45). The second expedition was to Skyros, which was not occupied by the Persians but rather a key location on the grain route to Athens. Kimon’s retrieval of the bones of Theseus from Skyros symbolized the direct annexation of the island (Kallet 51). After this, Karystos, a town on the island of Euboea, was forced into the league, completing the grain route. Despite these self-serving actions by the Athenians, the Allies continued to help Athenian economic interests by sending ships and money (Kallet 54). Following a failed expedition to Egypt in 454, Samos, a member of the league, proposed that the treasury be moved from Delos to Athens due to security concerns (Rhodes 26); this resulted in more direct Athenian control (Legon 146). Samos likely supported the move because none of its own money was in the treasury as it, along with Chios and Lesbos, preferred to contribute ships (Legon 145).

These examples of allied support for the growth of Athenian power raise an obvious question: what were the benefits of the league for the Allies? After all, there were many infringements upon their sovereignty, including the establishment of garrisons and the appointment of governors (Rhodes 27). The Decree of Clearchus mandated the use of Athenian coins, weights, and measures, ending economic autonomy in the allied states (Galpin 104-105; Kallet 43). The Phaselis Decree and similar documents for other cities transferred many legal cases to Athenian courts (Galpin 104). The Erythrai Decree, issued by Athens, imposed a democratic constitution on the allied state of Erythrai in modern western Turkey, a blatant violation of its independence (Galpin 104). Additionally, land was confiscated in Athenian colonies and cleruchies, showing the material exploitation of the Allies by Athenian citizens (Rhodes 27-28). Despite their continued nominal independence, persistent Athenian interventions offended or humiliated these cities, stirring up resentment and at times leading to open rebellions by groups seeking autonomy (Bradeen 269; Fliess 85).

However, many cities remained loyal to Athens and the league. The advantages of an alliance with Athens included freedom from external tyranny under Persia as well as freedom from internal tyranny through the Athenian imposition of democracy (Galpin 103). League membership could also bring economic gains. The maintenance of a navy could be quite expensive, and paying to support the Athenian navy was likely more cost-effective (Galpin 103; Rhodes 36). Additionally, the league created employment opportunities for citizens of the allied cities who worked in the Athenian navy or Athenian building projects (Rhodes 36). Though these projects, partly funded by the treasury of the league, largely served to beautify Athens at the expense of the Allies, some of the money went back to other cities (Rhodes 36). Therefore, perhaps due to these political and economic benefits, the allied cities supported the rise of Athenian imperial power on numerous occasions.

As Athens continued to infringe upon the sovereignty of other cities and revolts became more common, several allied cities had internal divisions, with some groups loyal to Athens. Democratic politicians generally had strong reasons to support Athens (Rhodes 37). A continued Athenian presence in their cities kept such politicians in power, and the transfer of legal cases to Athens essentially guaranteed immunity for these politicians (Rhodes 37). The common people of allied cities also had motivations to support Athens, as Athenian-installed democracies gave them more political power (Bradeen 257; Ste. Croix 3).

One specific example of a pro-Athenian figure can be found on Chios. Plutarch mentions Ion of Chios, a tragic poet (Lenfant 4). Ion, though he disliked the prominent Athenian politician Perikles, was a personal friend of Kimon. Ion lived on Chios and wrote a history of the island, showing his continued allegiance to his homeland (Lenfant 4). He was also a “happy sympathizer of Athens,” competing in the city as a playwright and attending symposiums with Athenian elites (Lenfant 4–5). Even during the Samian revolt of 441–440, the elites of Chios and Athens maintained good relations, and Chios helped Athens put down the rebellion (Lenfant 4).

Moreover, the Samian revolt provided insight into the internal divisions of allied cities. In 441, Samos and Miletus, both members of the Delian League, had an armed conflict over the disputed town of Priene (Legon 148). Athens intervened on the side of Miletus, which lacked a navy and had an Athenian-installed democracy (Legon 148). The democratic government and the inability of Miletus to defend itself attracted the Athenians’ sympathy. To make Athenian support of Miletus even more assured, a group of Samian citizens requested Athenian intervention on the side of Miletus and a change of government on Samos (Legon 148–149; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.115). Then, an Athenian force led by Perikles swiftly overthrew the Samian oligarchy, taking hostages from the prominent families and installing a democracy with little resistance (Legon 149). The Athenians placed a garrison on Samos and imposed an indemnity to pay for the war, but the Samians were allowed to keep their fleet (Legon 150). Soon, however, the Samian oligarchs rebelled against Athens with the help of mercenaries and the Persian satrap (Legon 151). With democratic elements on Samos subdued, the oligarchs and their mercenaries launched an offensive against Miletus, only to be forced back to Samos by the arrival of Athenian ships, aided by forces from Chios and Lesbos (Legon 152; Lenfant 4). After nine months of fighting, Samos surrendered, disbanded its fleet, tore down its walls, paid a much larger indemnity than before, and returned to a democratic government (Legon 153). From the example of Samos, the presence of internal divisions between pro- and anti-Athenian political groups is clear.

During the Peloponnesian War, though many people in the allied states desired autonomy and rebelled against Athens, others, particularly those favoring democracy, continued to support Athens. One key aspect of the war was Athenian tyranny against Spartan-promised autonomy. Before the outbreak of the war, the final Spartan demand to Athens was to return independence to other cities (Rhodes 34). According to Thucydides, sympathy for Sparta was prevalent throughout Greece, as the Spartans claimed to be liberators, while Athens was viewed as infringing upon other cities’ freedom (Rhodes 34; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 2.8). This view of a tyrannical Athens was not baseless; for example, Athens interfered with the cult and sanctuary of Apollo on Delos, even expelling the population from the island in 422 and not letting them return until the following year (Constantakopoulou 127). Another key aspect of the war was the clash between democracy and oligarchy, with democrats tending to favor Athens and oligarchs Sparta. Politicians on either side could gain powerful positions in their cities with Athenian or Spartan aid (Rhodes 37). A city’s desire to have a certain form of government at times conflicted with its desire to choose its form of government, and the allegiance of the common people wavered between groups (Rhodes 37).

Plato claimed that Athens retained its power for so long because it had friends in every city, and the following examples support his statement (Ste. Croix 11). According to Thucydides, the people of Thessaly were friendly to the Athenians (Ste. Croix 4; Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, 4.78). Oligarchs in Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos, assisted by Spartan troops, rebelled against Athens in 428, but the citizens refused orders for a final attack to break the Athenian siege and demanded fair food distribution. This action ultimately forced the city’s surrender to the Athenians, implying some citizens of Mytilene may have preferred the return of Athenian influence to oligarchic rule (Rhodes 36; Ste. Croix 4). Furthermore, Mytilene, along with other cities such as Carian Iasus, strongly resisted the Spartans in the later phases of the war (Ste. Croix 7-8). Chios remained loyal to Athens until 412 when a Spartan force executed pro-Athenian citizens (Lenfant 4). At Rhodes, anti-Athenian oligarchs were only willing to take action when Spartan forces arrived, suggesting their anti-Athenian positions may have been unpopular (Ste. Croix 6-7). The existence of pro-Athenian groups in the allied cities during the Peloponnesian War and their actions against the supposed Spartan liberators demonstrates that Athens was not hated by everyone.

In addition, Samos was once again racked by internal turmoil during the Peloponnesian War, and a civil war between democrats and oligarchs broke out in 412. The democrats emerged victorious and in 411 thwarted another oligarchic coup attempt modeled after a similar instance in Athens (Legon 155-156). The democratic politicians appear to have been explicitly pro-Athenian, while the oligarchs were not necessarily anti-Athenian (Legon 157). Following these events, Samos remained a close ally of Athens, even after the disastrous Sicilian expedition. With an Athenian defeat looming, Samos and Athens agreed to set up reciprocal citizenship as a final act of friendship between the two cities (Legon 156; Ste. Croix 6). With the Spartan victory in 404, the Athenian and Samian democracies were overthrown, and pro-Spartan oligarchies took over (Legon 157; Rhodes 37).

Though the end of the Peloponnesian War brought the complete collapse of the Delian League, more can be learned from the formation of the Second Athenian League. If Athens was truly viewed as a tyrant by its Allies in the Delian League, the creation of this second league only a few decades later is paradoxical. In 378, Athens founded the second league to resist Spartan imperialism after declaring the Spartans had broken the peace (Cawkwell, 1973, 47; Rhodes 38). The Athenians sent ambassadors to cities under Spartan influence, calling for action in support of freedom, and Thebes, Chios, Byzantion, Rhodes, and Mytilene joined immediately (Cawkwell, 1973, 48; Diodorus, Library, 15.28; Kallet-Marx, 133). Ultimately, seventy cities joined the new league voluntarily (Cawkwell, 1981, 41; Diodorus, Library, 15.30). The terms of the new league prohibited garrisons and cleruchies, which likely indicated the Athenians’ rejection of their fifth-century imperialist ambitions and recovered the goodwill of other cities (Lenfant 1-2; Rhodes, 38). The league was based on the principles of freedom and autonomy; each city had one vote in a common council, though Athens was again the hegemon (Kallet-Marx, 134). This demonstrates the allied cities, despite some resentment surrounding its earlier practices, were willing to ally with Athens, contradicting the idea that Athens was always viewed as cruel.

Soon, however, Athenian imperial ambitions resurfaced. Athens began collecting tribute, sending governors and garrisons, and interfering in the internal affairs of the Allies in the 360s (Rhodes, 39). With the Spartan threat destroyed by the Theban victory at Leuctra in 371, Athens turned toward anti-piracy operations, which at first appeared to have satisfied the Allies (Cawkwell, 1981, 47-48). When Athens established a cleruchy on Samos and attempted to recover Amphipolis, concerns grew in the allied cities. In 357, Byzantion, Chios, Rhodes, and other cities rebelled against Athens, starting the Social War (Cawkwell, 1981, 53-55). Following the Athenian defeat, the confederacy lost most of its significance, and Athens shifted to a less ambitious foreign policy (Cawkwell, 1981, 55; Rhodes, 39). Yet, despite this mass uprising, in another example of loyalty to Athens, a few cities chose to remain in the second league until 338, when the Macedonian-led League of Corinth replaced it (Cawkwell, 1981, 40; Rhodes, 39).

In conclusion, although rebellions certainly demonstrate the presence of significant hostility toward Athenian imperialism, the claim that Athens was always despised in the allied states is demonstrably false. At first, the Allies supported the growth of Athenian power within the league and assisted Athens in its imperial expeditions around the Aegean. As the Allies’ independence was violated more frequently, economic and political benefits secured the retention of some support for Athens. Some cities, such as Chios, remained loyal due to the presence of pro-Athenian leaders, while other cities, such as Samos, revolted but still contained pro-Athenian groups. During the Peloponnesian War, although the Spartans presented themselves as liberators fighting a tyrannical Athens, several groups within allied cities continued to support Athens. A few decades later, many of the cities that joined Athens in the Delian League again backed Athens, which promised to preserve freedom and autonomy, in the Second Athenian League, showing that hatred for Athens itself was not prevalent. Lastly, even when most of the Allies turned against Athens in the Social War, a few states chose to stay with Athens until 338, again demonstrating that Athens was not always despised.


Alex Larrow (’26) is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies and Economics. 



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