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Pericles, the Delian League, and the Athenian Golden Age

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  1. 0:06 Origins of the Delian League
  2. 0:47 Conquests of the Delian League
  3. 2:40 Pericles' Greece
  4. 4:11 Pericles' Raid on the Delian Treasury
  5. 5:02 Pericles' Democracy
  6. 6:29 The End of the Golden Age
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Taught by

Max Pfingsten

This lecture covers the formation of the Delian League, its development into the Athenian Empire and the peculiar place of Pericles in the midst of it all, turning the city of Athens into the seat of an empire.

Origins of the Delian League

After the second defeat of the Persians, all of Greece rejoiced. Together, they had overcome the mightiest empire the world had ever seen.

Fired up with Panhellenic pride, the Athenians spearheaded an alliance to take vengeance on the Persians. This alliance was called the Delian League. Islands and city-states across the Aegean built ships, armed crews and sent lavish donations to the League's treasury on the island of Delos. Always afraid of a slave revolt at home, Sparta declined to participate. Driving the Persians off was one thing, but picking a fight with them was quite another.

Conquests of the Delian League

Yet the Spartans need not have feared. The superior triremes of the Greeks allowed them to attack with impunity. They sunk Persian ships and raided Persian towns. Worse yet, at least in the eyes of the Persians, the Greeks staged revolutions in the cities they conquered, killing off rich aristocrats and establishing democracies. Persian soldiers would arrive to reinforce a town only to find the gates barred to them while the Greeks had sailed on to attack somewhere else.

The trireme gave the Greeks a huge advantage in battles with the Persians.
Greek Trireme

The Delian League grew rich off this plunder. Working together, they would teach the Persians never to mess with Greece again. Yet this giddy Panhellenism did not last forever. As the years stretched on, the members of the Delian League began to wonder if Persia had not been punished enough. The constant warfare was exhausting. People wanted to return to their normal lives.

But Athens would have none of it. As the head of the Delian League, Athens had become incredibly rich and powerful, establishing colonies and garrisons across the Aegean and Asia Minor. Moreover, the war was just the thing the young democracy needed to cement itself. As we've seen, political power usually came with military usefulness. With the offensive in Persia, suddenly all those poor citizens could make an important contribution to the war effort. They could row triremes, and in a month of rowing they could earn more than in a year of farming.

The other members of the League were less gung-ho about the whole arrangement. Yet they also did not want the angry Persians to be able to come back and take revenge. So, instead of providing ships and crews, they started just providing gold, food or raw materials and letting the Athenians take care of building and running the navy. And just like that, the states who had just fought for their freedom from Persia were now paying tribute to the Athenian empire.

Pericles' Greece

This fact was not lost on the Athenians, least of all on a leading statesman of the time, named Pericles. Pericles looked this bustle of activity, at all this wealth and all this power, and then he looked at the city of Athens. Athens had never been properly rebuilt after the last Persian invasion. The Athenians were too busy running their empire to bother with imperial trappings. Their grand temples were burned ruins, high atop the Acropolis for all to see. Their Great Assembly took place on a hill. This was no way for the seat of an empire to look; this was no way for things to be run. Someone needed to show the democratic Athenians how to be imperialists, and Pericles was the man for the job.

For starters, Pericles decided to hold the dissolving Delian League together by force. Though the Persians posed no further threat, League members were still expected to pay their dues. The logic went something like this: 'If you thought the Persian Navy was scary, you know very well how scary the Athenian Navy is... after all, you pay for it.'

Pericles wanted Athens to be built back to her previous glory.
Pericles Statue

The League members were still paying for protection. Only now, it was not the protection of a united League against a common enemy but rather the sort of protection one pays the Mafia for - just on a grander scale. 'That's a nice city you got there ... be a shame if someone were to kill everyone and burn it to the ground.'

Pericles' Raid on the Delian Treasury

With the fiction of the Delian League out of the way, Pericles raided the treasury at Delos and brought it home to Athens. Now he had something to work with. Flush with cash from the treasury, Pericles rebuilt all the temples of Athens. To return beauty and grandeur to the Acropolis, he commissioned the Parthenon, with its huge golden statue of Athena. He also built a new meeting hall for the General Assembly as well as several other public buildings.

Pericles' enrichment of the Athenian state was not limited to building. He invited sculptors from around the empire to beautify the city. Meanwhile, he patronized a growing circle of philosophers, poets, playwrights and artists, giving rise to the glorious culture that came to be identified with all of Greece. For the next 2,000 years, Athens would remain a center of learning and art for the whole world.

Pericles' Democracy

Yet when Pericles called Athens the 'School of Hellas,' he was not talking about its art, its philosophy or its architecture. He was talking about the Athenian system of government. Pericles believed democracy was Athens' greatest achievement and the source of its power. This can be clearly seen in his funeral oration:

'Our city-state does not copy the laws of our neighbors, we are not followers, but rather the pattern to follow. We call our state a Democracy, because it serves all the people, and not just the few. All are equal under the law, whatever their individual differences, and we select our public officials not based on their class but upon their merits. Poverty will not keep an able man from serving the state, nor will the obscurity of his position.'

With such high sentiments, Pericles sought to further the democratic spirit. He built a new, larger public theatre and had the state cover the admission of poor people to the Panathenaic festivals. He also established the practice of paying people for serving on juries, encouraging even the poorest to participate. In his 30 years of leadership, the last vestiges of power were stripped from the old oligarchic Areopagus, and Athens entered a period of radical democracy in which the people controlled every aspect of the society.

The End of the Golden Age

Yet this glorious democracy was paid for by the servitude of Athens' allies, and they would not tolerate it forever. One by one, members of the Delian League began to rebel. Terrified of Athens, they appealed to Athens' ancient rival, Sparta, for help. The result was the Peloponnesian War, which would strip Athens of its empire and power and bring its glorious experiment with radical democracy to an abrupt end.

Yet in the high-rolling years, before everything fell apart, Athens shone like a beacon of civilization - an ideal that would persist through the ages, inspiring us to this day. This was Athens' Golden Age, and at its heart sat Pericles, the wise ruler. Cleisthenes might have invented democracy, but Pericles not only perfected it; he spread it and he glorified it. Pericles turned democracy from a system of government into a way of life - one that was free, prosperous and unbelievably powerful.

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