(The GREEKS at WAR (494 to 371 BCE – continued)

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The GREEKS at WAR, 494 to 371 BCE (3 of 8)

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Competing Empires

During their war against Persia, a spirit of unity and brotherhood had arisen among those Greek cities opposed to the Persians, a unity served by their common language, common customs and common religious beliefs. But the spirit of unity didn't last.

A difference arose between Sparta and Athens over the question of continuing their war against Persia. The Athenians were interested in trade with the Greek cities still ruled by Persia, and they wanted to liberate their fellow Greeks from Persian rule. The Spartans were concerned about the many men they had already lost in battle, and they feared that their Helot slaves might take advantage of military losses and rise against them. Sparta and its allies on the Peloponnese peninsula withdrew from the war, leaving Athens as the most influential among those cities continuing the war. Athens created a new league of states – a voluntary association called the Delian League. (Its representatives met on the Island of Delos.) Member states agreed to donate money, ships and crewmen to the war effort and to police the Aegean Sea, and they sent representatives to assemblies where league policies and goals were to be decided.

Athens arrogated to itself the role of policeman within its alliance. According to the Athenian journalist Thucydides, the Athenians were heavy handed in pressuring allies who were "neither accustomed nor willing to undertake protracted toil." Athens forced back into its alliance a city that had broken its oath to remain in the league. It suppressed petty wars within the league and intervened in disputes within member cities, favoring those who supported democracy.

The Athenians were creating an empire. Some Athenians argued that empire was the natural order of things, that if they didn't have the strength to dominate others they would soon be dominated. Some saw empire as a remedy to over-population. Some landless Athenians favored the confiscation of lands abroad as an opportunity to become landowners. Some wealthy Athenians saw in imperialism an opportunity to gain more land. Those Athenians making money from trade supported empire believing that it would benefit them commercially. Some believed that imperialism would provide them jobs, jobs on ships that policed the seas and jobs on the docks that serviced those ships. Some supported empire also because it appeared to guarantee supplies of grain. Many Athenians saw benefit in their city receiving tribute from those city-states that Athens dominated, taxes they would otherwise have to pay.

Athens forced its rule on the island of Scyros (southeast of Attica), the Athenians claiming authority there on the grounds of a discovery in Scyros of the purported bones of a mythical king of Athens, who was said to have migrated there during the Dorian invasions. And claiming that during the Dorian invasions Athenians populated the western coast of Asia Minor, Athenian propaganda portrayed Athens as the mother of cities the Greek cities of Asia Minor. These cities, according to the Athenian imperialists, owed Athens religious homage as was customary between a mother city and its offspring. The Athenians claimed that their goddess Demeter, a goddess of harvest and fertility, had given grain to humanity and that Athens therefore was a benefactor of humanity and was justified in ruling others.

Rather than any kind of a unity or sense of equality among the Greek city-states, a great war was in the making that would destroy many and damage them all. This was the Great Peloponnesian War, from 431 to 404 BCE.


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