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A Politically Incorrect Defense of the Athenian Empire
Symposium: Great Books Student Scholarly Journal
Issue One
A Politically Incorrect Defense of the
Athenian Empire

William Wojtas

Webster's Dictionary defines imperialism as “the policy and practice of forming and maintaining an empire: ...the subjugation and control of territories, the establishment of colonies” (913). Today, of course, imperialism is almost universally considered an obscenity and is employed to morally anathematize another.

Nevertheless, this paper will argue that the Athenian empire of 450 B.C. was an acceptable and necessary form of government in the context of that era. Conquest was a dominant feature of the first millennia B.C and it was a common practice that was accepted by the people of that epoch.

Moreover, the Athenian empire was necessary at that time to provide security against the possibility of a future Persian attack and to protect against the possibility of war against Sparta. Had the Athenians, in fact, taken our modern view and refrained from imperialism on the grounds that it was immoral, it would almost certainly have resulted in their town being sacked and they themselves enslaved by the Persians. And had Athens fallen it is conceivable that the rest of Greece would have too.

Although the vassal states were exploited to a degree by the Athenians, it was generally not a complete catastrophe. The empire arguably opened up new economic possibilities for trade that increased the standard of living for many. Finally, it was considered human nature at the time for the stronger to dominate the weak. The Athenians, like all the other people of the ancient world, and for that matter, people throughout most of history, accepted imperialism as inevitable and in the nature of the “community” nations.

Since the arguments below will be drawn from the analysis of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, some background concerning the Athenian Empire and Thucydides should be mentioned.

Thucydides was an Athenian general and historian who lived in Greece from 460 B. C. to 400 B.C. After a military failure at Amphipolis during the Peloponnesian War, he was stripped of his command and exiled from Athens. During his exile, he visited the city-states in the Peloponnese, including Athens’ archenemy, Sparta. He used these travels to gather material for his History, a work that details events during the Peloponnesian War. (Crawley 345). The Athenians did not originally seek to build an empire. Donald Kagan indicates that it only came into being because Sparta defaulted in heading the Delian League, a confederation of states created to protect against the possibility of a Persian attack (Pericles 92). Later the allies would take their instructions from Athens, gradually moving from independent allies to subject states with Athens fearing to relinquish their empire due to fear and pride (Meiggs 376, 379).

Contrary to the modern article of faith that all imperialists are by definition conniving, avaricious and evilly unscrupulous, Donald Kagan shows how the Athenians came to be the imperialist leader. Thucydides tells us plainly Athens assumed the leadership by the will of the allies(Outbreak 37). The Greek behavior of that era was shaped by the desire for glory and honor which came from their success (Bowra 132). This gave the Athenian leader Pericles a notion that the Athenian Empire would have renown comparable to that of the great heroes of the past (Bowra 132). That desire for honor and glory was one of the factors that led to the creation of the Athenian Empire.

Conquest was a dominant feature during the first millennia B.C. The destruction of cities and their populations was so common as to be almost the rule. Empires rose and fell with considerable expense of life and property (Bowra 106). The Encyclopaedia Britannica indicates "Imperialism in ancient times is clear in the history of China and in the history of western Asia and the Mediterranean--an unending succession of empires" (272). For example, the Assyrian empire of the 6th century B.C. was replaced by the Persian Empire of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. which was eventually defeated by the imperialism of the Greeks during the 4th century B.C. (272). Historically, this region was unstable and conquest was a common practice.

Importantly, Donald Kagan points out that the Greeks, along with most people of the ancient world, viewed the world as a place of intense competition where victory and domination, which brought fame and glory, were the highest goals. (Pericles 96). It was necessary to create a strong empire to protect against conquest by other nations. Some may argue that the creation of an empire would not always ensure victory over a foreign conqueror. However, if properly ruled and maintained, it could increase the odds of victory. In the case of the Athenian empire, Athens not only should have won the Peloponnesian War, but until the very end, they could have won. "It was only after the cumulative and joint effect of a large number of repeated mistakes that her power was destroyed" (DeRomilly 317).

As Donald Kagan observes, the Spartans went on after they won the Peloponnesian War to create an empire of their own which is exactly what they told everyone in the Greek world they were fighting against during the Peloponnesian War. The Spartan Empire soon found itself fighting a combination of former allies and enemies and within thirty years, they were defeated by the Thebans and were destroyed forever (Fall 414). These points show that conquest was a practice that was common in the region during the era of the Peloponnesian War. The practice may not have been agreeable to those being conquered, but it was a necessary practice that created strength and power.

Critics agree that the empire was the key to the defense of Athens and its allies. Donald Kagan points out that it provided security against another Persian invasion and it warded off the possibility of a conflict with Sparta (Pericles 91). Athens had saved the Greeks from Oriental conquest and they urged other states to join their defensive alliance against the possibility of another Persian invasion. Every state paid its share for the common defense and in time allowed Athens to assume command (Robinson 18-19). The allies needed a strong leader and accepted Athens as their leader. The empire was necessary to protect the allies since they could not do it on their own and they accepted the Athenian role as their protector. Donald Kagan goes on the show that the Persians had attacked them three times in twenty years and they aspired to do it again. Greece was still vulnerable because they were weakened by the previous Persian attack and were still in the process of rebuilding (Pericles 92).

True, "Empire was tyranny ... at no point is it suggested that the Athenian empire is maintained for any other purpose than the interests of Athens" (Meiggs 384). However, although Athens pursued its empire for its own interests and glory, the subject states did benefit from the security that the empire provided. As Euphemus, an Athenian, said at an assembly in Sicily "...it is fear that brings us to Sicily to build up our security with the help of our friends; not to reduce them to subjection, but to save them from subjection" (Meiggs 380).

It is also true that Athenians forced some states to be loyal to Athens, but this was because of a belief that if they were not subjects of Athens, they would either be subjects of the enemy, Sparta, or conquered by forces from outside Greece. The Spartan general, Brasidas, told the Acanthians, for example, that the goal of his army was to force them to become allies of Sparta to keep them from subjugation by Athens (Woodruff 98). This points out that weaker states were going to be forced to take one side or the other. These points show that the Athenian Empire was necessary primarily for the security of Athens, but also provided security for its subject states.

An empire was necessary to Athenian citizens since it opened up new economic possibilities for Athens, giving them access to new markets for trade. However, this strong economy also increased the standard of living of the empire's citizens. This arose because the Athenians had domination of the seas due to their powerful navy. "With command of the sea the Athenians could send their goods to distant markets and pay for food imported from abroad. Athenian commerce flourished, and her fine wares ... found a market in many distant places" (Bowra 137). Donald Kagan indicates that Athens had access to the markets of Sicily, Italy, Cyprus, Egypt, Lydia, Pontus, the Peloponnese and any of the other ports that Athens could travel to because of their control of the seas. The Athenians also had access to the goods of those nations as well and this brought the wares of other lands into Athens (Pericles 98-99). Empires were a means for wealth and higher standards of living for the citizens. A flourishing economy was necessary to the survival of Athens and its citizens as a strong economy was necessary to maintain the strength of Athens. The strength of the empire gave Athens the ability to keep its naval superiority. The mastery of the seas allowed Athenians to travel abroad and this ability created the strong economy which was desired by the citizens of Athens. Since the empire was responsible for this strong economy, it was widely accepted by those that inhabited it.

True, the subject states' economies may not have flourished as greatly as the Athenians since these states were required to pay tribute and their resources were exploited by the empire. They did however benefit much more with the security provided by the empire that without it. Loyal allies were allowed to travel the seas to conduct trade on their own. The Athenians also worked to keep piracy under control as well. This opened up the same markets to Athens' allies as well as the mother city.

The empire was also accepted by the Athenians since it provided tribute money and natural resources needed to maintain their own survival against violent enemies. One example of this is the city of Amphipolis, necessary to the Athenian Empire because it was a major source of timber. This timber was a vital resource necessary to build and maintain Athens' navy, the key element in Athenian survival for they were the dominant sea power at that time (Strassler 282). Many of the vassal states were necessary for reasons such as tribute, resources or strategic importance. A few years after the creation of the Athenian empire, it became clear to everyone including the states of the former Delian League that there was no longer any threat of another Persian invasion. These vassals therefore no longer saw any reason to continue tribute payments to a common treasury (Robinson 31). Beyond sheer greed, however, the continuation of tribute was a practical necessity to Athens, as Kagan notes, for the maintenance of the naval fleet and to insure that the old ships would be kept in good repair and ten new ships would be added annually (Pericles 106).

During this era it was also considered human nature for the stronger to dominate the weak. Jacqueline DeRomilly points out that "Athens behave[d] exactly as everyone else [did], by acting in accordance with her strength; ...this ambition [to build an empire was] part of human nature”(339-340). As de. St Croix points out, nations can only achieve what their strength allows. It is human nature to continue to expand as long as they are capable of expanding and maintaining their holdings. "That empire is a fact of nature, impervious to moral considerations: not that might is right, but that might is an inescapable fact however little we like it or approve of it" (15).

Strength is a fact of nature that cannot be changed because some do not like it or approve of it. The world is incredibly fortunate that the United States is the most militarily and economically powerful country in the world. For it cannot be doubted that without its deterrent, were certain other nations to have the opportunity to overwhelm other nations, they would not hesitate to do so.

Tellingly, Hermocrates, a bitter enemy of Athens, said that Athens had every excuse for its behavior and he blamed not those who wanted to rule, but those who were too ready to become subjects. It is just as much a part of the nature of man to rule those who submit as to resist those who attack (de Ste. Croix 16). As shown by these two critics, the subject states felt that it was necessary to give Athens greater power and subsequently submit to their rule. Athenian envoys addressing the Spartan assembly in 432 said, "it is a law of nature that the weaker should be controlled by the stronger" (Meiggs 378). Russell Meiggs goes on to point out in his book, The Athenian Empire, that the weak will always be subject to the stronger. He indicates that sophists of that era wrote that it was a law of nature that the strong should rule the weak (379, 390).

These points show that the empire was acceptable to the Athenian citizens because they believed themselves the strongest of the Greeks and they felt compelled by human nature to exercise the use of their strength to create and control an empire. A good example of this school of thought is presented by Herodotus in his Histories when he provided a proposal to the Persians by Artembares:

O Cyrus! come now, let us quit this land wherein we dwell - for it is a scant land and a rugged - and let us choose ourselves some other better country. Many such lie around us, some nearer, some further off: if we take one of these, men will admire us far more than they do now. Who that had the power would not so act? And when shall we have a fairer time than now, when we are lords of so many nations, and rule all Asia? (Rawlinson 314).

In the twentieth century, the ambition to create an empire is viewed as economically unnecessary and morally unacceptable, although as Germany, Japan and Italy demonstrated in the 1940’s and as the Syrian presence in Lebanon and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait shows, it is a policy of state that has not become extinct.

It is true that Thucydides pointed out the subject states of Athens were not free (Meiggs 384). The Athenians also committed atrocities such as their extirpation of the people of Melos. Generally, however, the subject states, unlike those who came under imperial rule in the modern instances cited above, were encouraged to pursue democracy, development, harmony, tranquility and political change (Bowra 109). On the whole, Athens did a lot of good even though it was done largely by force (Bowra 132). Moreover, as the perennial source of inspiration and fascination Athens has been for thousands of years now, Pericles has a point when he says in his Funeral Oration, of imperialistic Athens, "Such is the city for which these men fought and valiantly died, in the firm belief that it should never be destroyed.”

Works Cited

  • Bowra, C. M. Periclean Athens. New York: Dial , 1971.
  • Crawley, Richard. trans. The History of the Peloponnesian War. Great Books of the Western World 5. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 1991.
  • DeRomilly, Jacqueline. Thucydides and Athenian Imperialism. Trans. Philip Trody. New York Arno Press, 1979.
  • de Ste. Croix, G.E.M. The Origins of the Peloponnesian War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press,1972.
  • "Imperialism." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1992 ed.
  • "Imperialism." Webster's New 20th Century Dictionary. 1963.
  • Kagan, Donald. The Fall of the Athenian Empire. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.
  • ---. The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.
  • ---. Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. New York: Free Press, 1991.
  • Meiggs, Russell. The Athenian Empire. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.
  • Rawlinson, George. Trans. The Histories of Herodotus. Great Books of the Western World 5. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1991.
  • Robinson Jr., Charles Alexander. Athens in the Age of Pericles. University of Oklahoma Press,1959.
  • Strassler, Robert B. The Landmark Thucydides. New York: The Free Press, 1996.
  • Woodruff, Paul. Thucydides on Justice Power and Human Nature. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.

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