The Rise of the Athenian Empire: Power, Survival, and the Spartan Contribution


Was Sparta responsible for the rise of the Athenian Empire? Not to a great degree. Indeed, Sparta did not even provide a crucial push in the direction of Athenian Empire. It is fair to say, however, that Sparta facilitated the process by which Athens began to play the imperial role. Despite Spartan efforts to limit Athenian power, and despite the fact that such power would prompt the Peloponnesian War, Sparta unintentionally helped (in a small but significant way) Athens to establish empire. This paper examines two transitions that constitute the most crucial junctures in the development of Athenian imperialism: first, from Spartan to Athenian leadership of the Hellenic League,[1] and second, from Delian League to Athenian Empire. While doing so, it shows that, during these transitions, certain Spartan actions, which have been considered vital to the rise of the Athenian Empire, were not.

My argument has significance for international relations theory. Traditionally, neorealist literature in international relations has stressed that states expand their power primarily in order to ensure their survival.[2] Though Thucydides famously argued that Athens was propelled towards empire as a result of this neorealist concern, an implication of this essay is that the survival impulse was not as vital in this area as Thucydides thought. If one accepts the main thrust of this paper (that Sparta did not midwife the Athenian Empire), then it follows that Athens grew its power through empire for reasons outside the drive to survive: if Sparta (despite the threat of its considerable land power) did not compel Athens toward hegemony, the survival assumption has less sway than has been previously thought. My own proposed causal logic behind Athenian Imperial expansion relies primarily upon Moses Finley, and is explicated at the close of this essay. This logic advances an alternative to the neorealist explanation for power-maximization.

I focus first on the foundation of the Delian League because this was the collection of poleis that would evolve into the Athenian Empire. To ancient sources, the foundation of the League is inextricably “bound up with the fall of Pausanias.”[3] It seems that his fall brought Athens to the leadership of the Hellenic League, the position from which it would establish the Delian League. If this is the case, then it could be argued that Pausanias, a Spartan regent, singlehandedly placed Athens in a place of hegemonic potential, and that therefore, Sparta is responsible for the empire’s rise. Indeed, Roisman says that, in the eyes of Athenian sources, “Sparta and…Pausanias, the victor of Plataea, were instrumental in Athens’ becoming a hegemonic power.”[4] I aim to demolish this view.

Pausanias allegedly planned on collaborating with Xerxes, “with the aim of seizing Greece.”[5] According to Thucydides, Pausanias and Xerxes were supposed to have corresponded via letters.[6] And these letters were supposed to have incited the Spartan to act abusively as if he were a medic prince, and “wearing Persian clothes.”[7] The result was that Pausanias’s overbearing, medic ways angered those below him in the Hellenic League, and “led to the dissolution of his hold over the allies.”[8] Indeed, “the allies so intensely disliked their leader’s medizing[9] and bullying behavior that they appealed to the Athenians to replace him.”[10] And thus “this was how the Athenians gained their leadership, supported by the allies because of their hatred of Pausanias.”[11]

Thucydides cannot be trusted when it comes to Pausanias. The aforementioned letters were his crucial pieces of evidence for Pausanias–Xerxes collaboration, and they seem to be inauthentic. One is forced to wonder incredulously how Thucydides was able to get his hands on them in the first place.[12] And indeed, for chronological reasons, “we must…delete the letters from Thukydides’ account.”[13] Westlake concurs, noting that recent research has made the case against the letters’ authenticity go from convincing to more convincing.[14] In fact, he notes that “Thucydides was capable of composing, if he so wished, letters which created a specious impression of authenticity.”[15] Fornara goes even further, acknowledging the possibility that the entirety of the Pausanias–Xerxes collusion could be “an utter fabrication.”[16] Thus Thucydides’s story of Pausanias’s repugnant medic tendencies—and their influence on the allies and the leadership of the Hellenic League—is very dubious.

To establish the invalidity of Thucydides’s Pausanias story, I offer an explanation for why the historian wrote it, despite the fact that it is probably fictitious. Thucydides was a political Realist. He (usually) saw money and power governing Greek politics, as Kallet-Marx shows.[17] As a result, he was puzzled by the fact that Athens should be given the leadership of the Hellenic League despite its lack of “real power at this juncture.”[18] To explain this puzzle away, Thucydides emphasizes, probably in error, the role of Pausanias.[19] Considering Kallet-Marx’s point of view, the possibility posited above by Westlake, that Thucydides wrote the controversial letters, becomes more plausible.

I offer one more explanation for why Pausanias may have been called a medizer despite his probable innocence. Noel Robertson posits that the Delian League’s “‘professed intention’ was a threat to punish medizers.”[20] “Medizers” here refers to those on “‘the King’s land’…the territory of medizing Greeks [emphasis mine].”[21] A desire to punish those practicing medism may well have been behind not only the foundation of the Delian League, but also the allies’ revolt against Pausanias—who was hesitant to indulge vengeful urges so extensively.[22] Robertson concludes that Pausanias may very well have been called a medizer if he had opposed “the practice of hounding Greek cities which had medized during Xerxes’ invasion.”[23] One source that surely slandered Pausanias was Athens, for “Athenians had no cause to love him.”[24] And no matter whether we believe the full extent of Thucydides’s Pausanias story, “it is certain that Athenian interests were served by the magnification of his [Pausanias’s] aberrancies.”[25]

This brings us to Herodotus. Thus far we have focused on Thucydides’s claim that, at the allies’ behest, Athens took the leadership of the Hellenic League away from the bullying Pausanias. But Herodotus sees things differently: he claims that the Athenians “made Pausanias’ overweening behavior an excuse and took the leadership away from the Spartans.”[26] Indeed, in the view of Herodotus, “the Athenians were responsible for the transfer; they had aimed all along at assuming the leadership, and Pausanias’ behavior provided them with a convenient excuse or opportunity.”[27] Thus the two historians apparently contradict one another. But Larson reconciles them: “Undoubtedly the Athenians desired the hegemonia, and undoubtedly the Ionians, even if the formal initiative [to make Athens leader of the Hellenic League] came from them, did not act without knowledge that their proposal was acceptable to the Athenians.”[28] I am compelled to conclude, therefore, that Athenian ambition to head an empire was the sine qua non of their leadership of the Hellenic and later Delian League. Pausanias could have acted-out extensively and not brought Athens to empire: Athenians alone are responsible, for they seized the moment provided by Pausanias, and “put their minds to ensuring that they did not miss any opportunity to arrange matters in their own best interest.”[29] However, considering both the testimony of Herodotus and Thucydides, it is fair to say that, at the very least, Pausanias, regent of Sparta, inadvertently and indirectly helped Athenians to gain leadership of the Hellenic League, through which they would lead the Delian League, by providing them and their Ionian allies with a grievance, which could be put to use to demote Sparta from the leadership.

Additionally, even though Thucydides places the onus for Athens’s ascension to a hegemonic position on Pausanias and the allies, it is clear that Thucydides felt compelled to at least acknowledge Herodotus’s point of view, that the Athenians wanted and took the leadership themselves. This is made plain by his including the testimony of what Osborne calls an “outside observer” in his History: the Athenians angled to lead the alliance against the Great King because they “wanted the Greeks enslaved to themselves rather than to the Persians.”[30]

The second important transition this paper examines is the transition from league to empire, happening after Athens had used its position as leader of the Hellenic League to establish a dominant position in the new Delian League. How and when the transition occurred is disputed. Roisman sees the imperialistic adventures of Cimon, especially at Carystus and Naxos, as the crucial signs that the transformation had happened.[31] Sparta’s role in prompting such arguably imperial Athenian enterprises was small. Indeed, these two disputes were over membership in the Delian League: “Carystus did not wish to become a member; Naxos did not wish to remain one.”[32] Nonetheless, even though Sparta did not play a large part in propelling Athens towards these imperialistic acts, it could be argued that Sparta, through inaction, facilitated the process by which Athens moved towards empire, especially if we side with Roisman, and emphasize the role of Cimon in Athenian imperial ambitions. For it is plausible that Cimon’s strong personal relationship with Sparta (as reflected by his son’s name, Lacedaemonius) gave Athens, in this period, greater leeway to act as overlord, since the Spartans did not hamper its efforts.[33] Thus, in a way, Sparta once again inadvertently provided a small boost to Athenian imperialism.

Robertson and Meiggs offer a more refined view of the signs indicating the transition to empire, focusing on the subjugation of Thasos. Though coercing Carystus and Naxos smacks of empire, Athens’s reduction of Thasos “was the first unambiguous sign of tyranny.”[34] Robertson concurs, calling Thasos the real “turning point.”[35] But no matter what signaled the transition, these three early, critical Athenian actions (Carystus, Naxos and Thasos) were motivated very little by Sparta: the first two involved questions of membership in the League, the last economic interests.[36]

The subjugation of Thasos, however, did have implications on Spartan behavior, even if Spartan behavior did not have implications on the subjugation of Thasos. Indeed, Thucydides reports that Sparta threatened to help the island by invading Attica.[37] Robertson sees things similarly, saying that Thasos worried Sparta and compelled it to “perhaps even threaten war.”[38] Though they did not invade, the Spartans’ threats resulted in Athens’s sequestering the League treasury, according to Ephorus.[39] Now, even if the transference of the treasury was mostly symbolic,[40] we can hypothesize that it facilitated, to some degree, imperial Athenian centralization, and strengthened Athens’s financial hold over its new subjects. Thus once again Sparta seems to have inadvertently given Athens a push in the direction of empire.

Having seen that it was not Sparta that prompted the Athenian Empire, the following question is raised: What did make Athens start acting as imperial ruler? I rely on Finley to answer. Finding itself possessed of some power, Athens naturally dominated, exploiting what could be exploited, as a sort of inevitable consequence of her position in the structure of Greek power politics.[41] And once Athens started acting imperially, it did not need Sparta to help its imperialism survive or thrive: no, “Athens used power primarily to acquire more power…imperialism, once launched on its way, is a self-sustaining process [emphasis mine].[42] In other words, no foreign threat produced power-maximizing behavior to ensure survival on Athens’s part, though it was a structural reason that propelled the city-state to seek power as an end in itself. This explanation does not fit well with the traditional neorealist picture.

This paper set out to determine the extent to which Sparta contributed to the rise of the Athenian Empire. It focused on two leadership transitions, as the two most crucial junctures in the development of Athenian imperialism. It has shown that, though Sparta inadvertently helped facilitate Athens’s imperialism during these transitions, Sparta was not a driving force behind the Empire’s birth.

[1] From here on out, when I refer to the “Hellenic League,” I mean the organization of poleis that was first led by Sparta, and then by Athens from 478 BCE (Thucydides 1.96). This particular Hellenic League ends with the creation of the Delian League.

[2] See, for example, Mearsheimer 2001

[3] Robertson 1980, p. 78

[4] Roisman 2011, p. 250

[5] Thucydides 128.3 (1996)

[6] Thucydides 128.7 (1996)

[7] Thucydides 1.130.1 (1996)

[8] Fornara 1966, p. 263

[9] To medize is to Orientalize, or to make something more Eastern or autocratic/authoritarian.

[10] Kallet-Marx 1993, p. 40

[11] Thucydides 1.96.1 (1996)

[12] Roisman 2011, 18.4

[13] Fornara 1966, p. 265

[14] Westlake 1977, p. 102

[15] Westlake 1977, p. 102

[16] Fornara 1966, p. 267

[17] Kallet-Marx 1993

[18] Kallet-Marx 1993, p. 42

[19] Kallet-Marx 1993, p 42

[20] Robertson 1980, p. 74

[21] Robertson 1980, p. 74

[22] Robertson 1980, p. 79

[23] Robertson 1980, p. 79

[24] Fornara 1966, p. 266

[25] Fornara 1966, p. 266

[26] cited in Osborne 2000: Herodotos 8.3.2

[27] Kallet-Marx 1993, p. 41

[28] cited in Kallet-Marx 1993, p. 41

[29] Thucydides 1.95.2 (1996)

[30] cited in Osborne 2000: Thucydides 6.76.4

[31] Roisman 2011, p. 254

[32] Meiggs 1972, p. 70

[33] Meiggs 1972, p. 87

[34] Meiggs 1972, p. 86

[35] Robertson 1980, p. 111

[36] Thucydides 1.100.2 (1996)

[37] Meiggs 1972, p. 87

[38] Robertson 1980, p. 119

[39] Robertson, 1980, p. 119

[40] Finley 1953 , p. 42

[41] Finley 1953

[42] French 1979, p. 138

Works Cited

Finley, Moses. 1968. Economy and Society in Ancient Greece. London: Penguin.

Fornara, C.W. 1966. “Some Aspects of the Career of Pausanias of Sparta.” Historia 15:257–271.

French, A. 1979. “Athenian Ambitions and the Delian Alliance.” Phoenix 33: 134–141.

Kallet-Marx, Lisa. 1993. Money, Expense, and Naval Power in Thucydides’ History 1–5.24. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Meiggs, Russell. 1972. The Athenian Empire. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Osborne, Robin, ed. 2000. The Athenian Empire. UK: Kingston upon Thames.

Robertson, Noel. 1980. “The True Nature of the Delian League.” The American Journal of Ancient History 4–5: 64­–96, 110–133.

Roisman, Joseph. 2011. Ancient Greece from Homer to Alexander: The Evidence. UK: Blackwell.

Thucydides. 1996. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Ed. Robert Strassler. New York: Free Press.

Westlake, H.D. 1977. “Thucydides on Pausanias and Themistocles: A Written Source.” Classical Quarterly. 27: 95110.

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