The Great Wars & Athenian Ascendancy

The Great Wars and Athenian Ascendancy
The Formation of an Athenian Empire

c. Mary Kathryn Gough (Katie Gough), Ancient Western Civ.,  7/22/02 Essay 2

The 5th century B.C. and its whirlwind of changes marked the beginning of a new way of life for the ancient Greeks. Ever since the Dark Ages, ‘Greece’ had been a collection of independent, self-governing city-states with very similar value systems. But there was never any sense of national identity. The had no sense of the rest of the world, and therefore the things which knit them together culturally as the people group we now call Greece were invisible to them. However, because of a flood of objective and subjective changes— both within the culture and without— they would become officially merged as never before into one people.

One of the most objective events which pushed Greece toward unification was war with Persia. The Persian Wars lasted from 499-449, and the Persians had been enlarging their territory for more than one hundred years, but the Greeks were protected by their specific, isolated geographical location. Persia realized that it would have been difficult to keep its army fed and supplied so far from home, so for a time Greece was ignored as Persia went after more attainable goals. By 500 B.C., Darius I ruled the largest empire the world had ever seen. Finally, in 499 B.C. Athens and Calquese joined in the Ionian rebellion and earned the wrath of Persia’s king. Darius I swore revenge on the small city-states who had so arrogantly stood in his way, and in 490, he launched an attack on Greece in order to avenge his pride, but he never saw his plans carried out. He was defeated at Marathon, and then died four years later.

Athens had been a Democracy for almost twenty years when it defeated Darius at Marathon and the victory, as well as those victories which came later, were very symbolic for them, validating their new system of government. They found that men fought more valiantly when fighting to protect their own belongings as free people; they had more invested in what they owned than they had in the previous years of simple survival. So Clisthenes’ legacy

After his father’s death in 486 B.C. Darius’ son Xerxes led a mobile army larger than most cities, with servants and many luxuries, into Greece in order to avenge him. Over the ensuing years, Xerxes had the upper hand. In 480, he won the battle at the pass at Thermopylae, and moved on the Athens, where he burned the city and destroyed the Acropolis. He then decided to retreat when faced with the potential starvation of his mobile city, but he left troops behind, which the Greeks promptly decimated.

At this point (479 B.C.) Greece began a counter-offensive, moving into Asia as a bold defensive strategy. This set in motion a series of victories which would eventually drive Persia back to its own. But the power of the Persian Empire was huge, and the threat it posed to all the Greeks may have prepared the way somewhat for the entrance of the Delian League. In 477, Sparta went home to deal with their Helots (and to get away from the liberal Athens). Athens invited any and all Greek city-states to come to Delos in order to discuss the future of Greece as a whole. There they formed an alliance under Athenian hegemony and named it the Delian League, swearing oaths (or the equivalent thereof) that it would never break up. They formed an Assembly for the League and decided to tax their respective city-states in proportion to their comparative wealth. Larger states would pay in crews and ships and smaller ones in money. A yearly-elected Athenian general assumed leadership of the League, and was authorized to use the funds paid by these small states to buy more ships and crew. This made an unfortunate kind of pecking order, as the small states were now dependent on the larger states for protection. What eventually ended up happening was that, due to the politics involved in getting elected, the generals would spend much of the money on Athens in order to gain popularity and get re-elected. Soon Athens was threatening that the states who didn’t pay wouldn’t be protected by the army. The meeting at Delos and the formation of the Delian league mark the beginning of the ascension of Athens, and the resulting developments changed the polis forever by taking away its autonomy and making it dependant. When Persia recognized the independence of the Greek city-states in the Peace of Callias and left, the Persian Wars ended in 449 B.C. But the Delian league did not break up (as they had promised). Down the line, Athens moved the league’s treasury from Delos to Athens, disbanded the league Assembly and replaced it with the Athenian Assembly so there were no longer any representatives from the Allied states involved in the decisions of the League.

The biggest subjective change which took place during this time affected (for the most part) the social and intellectual realms: the rise of Sophism. A new way of looking at the world was beginning to develop, spreading like wildfire. Always before, one’s status in life was defined by the community. Now Protagoras, one of the most widely known Sophists, described the purpose of human life in terms of the individual as opposed to the group. On this ground he claimed that there really was no ‘Truth’, or that everything was true; truth depends on the individual who is seeing it. He laid the foundation for a gradually accepted absolute relativism. Gorgias was a young Sophist who came to Athens briefly and taught while he was there. He put on a demonstration to attract students in which on the first day he proved that ‘A’ was true. On the second day he proved that ‘A’ was false. The audience was completely convinced each time. This was a time in which Greek society was becoming increasingly a society of persuasion. Proper education included Sophistic training because one couldn’t get along in the Greek world without the ability to persuade. In a Democratic setting public speaking ability was much more necessary to life, and people flocked to anyone who could teach them how. Sophists were the teachers of the time, traveling and educating anyone who could pay for their time— even politicians like Pericles. This also allowed commoners to be equipped, say, to defend themselves in court.

Cause and effect was an idea that was taking over medicine at the time as well, pushing out the superstition and religion which had previously ruled its practice and study. Hippocrates approached medicine with a particularly secular, almost scientific Herodotus, called the ‘father of history,’ was one of the first historians to approach the subject from a non-religious point of view. Thucydides was trained by Sophists, but apprehended early on the drawbacks of the discipline. He introduced the idea that there are underlying causes of war. He saw it clearly in the Pelopponesian war: the underlying cause was Sparta’s fear of Athens.

Less than twenty years after the Persian Wars came the Pelopponesian war (431 B.C.) which lasted for approximately twenty-seven years. Sparta and Athens were, and always had been, polar opposites in the Greek world. Sparta was ultra-conservative in many ways, a polis which held itself rigid and highly structured because of its almost constant war to keep the Helots under control. Athens was the ultimate liberal polis, free and open, hiding nothing.

The Pelopponesian war occurred within the developed structure of the Delian Alliance, and Athens and Sparta were pitted against each other– not only because of their opposing value systems but because of the tangling up of their respective alliances. If one city pulls the string it’s going to affect more than just those nearest. As it turned out, there were four situations in which the involved cities pulled convenient strings, running to one super-power or the other for support. In this way, Athens and Sparta were pulled out of their “cold war” and faced off in a real war which, though not in conflict with their general feelings towards each other, had not much to do with their personal interests.

The first ten years of the war were inconclusive, but in 421 a truce was arranged because of substantial losses on both sides. The truce lasted only six years; the two cities went at it again in 415. Sparta threatened and burned Athenian crops, laying siege to the city, but Athens used the Delian League’s tribute money to import food. They had long ago ceased to be dependent on their own land for food. Their strategy was to wait it out and send ships secretly to destroy Spartan land. But the food shipments brought Plague, and many Athenians died, including Pericles, its ‘first citizen’. Also, the aristocrats were more than a little upset as they watched their properties being plundered and burned from the walls of the city, and this caused the people to split. Athens eventually imploded because it couldn’t keep a united front against Sparta.

The many changes resulting from these sizable events worked through the whole of Greek culture. Socially, intellectually, economically, and politically, the impact was tangible. Democracy was proven valid in the wars with Persia and new thought took place under the wing of its new credibility. The Greek value system changed dramatically. Sophism arose, characterized by Protagoras and Gorgias, and Greece became a society of persuasion. The individual began to look inside himself for his identity or importance, rather than to the community or the group. Politics were completely restructured under Athens, the leader of the Delian League. Much of the economic benefits of Greece were poured into the Delian League’s treasury, now situated in Athens. These social, political, intellectual, and economic changes which occurred in and around these wars paved the way for an ambitious Athens to be able to manipulate its fellow city-states into a submissive empire.


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