The Persian Empire was exercising power over Greeks living along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor (today Turkey). Persia's ruler offered these Greeks peace, a stable coinage, and freedom to worship their gods. But in 499 BCE a desire for self-rule among the Greeks led to their rebellion. It took the Persians five years to crush it, which included sacking and burning towns and taking select Greek boys and girls back to Persia. Persia's King of Kings, Darius the Great, believed he had the god-given right to rule those who had rebelled, and he set out to punish the city-states of Athens and Eritrea (about thirty miles north of Athens) for having supported the uprising.
Spartans feared that the Persians coming as far as the Greek mainland would reduce them as a military power. Other Greeks feared the Persians would favor their business rivals: the Phoenicians. A variety of Greek cities were ready to join an effort to stop the Persians when they landed on the coast of Greece in the year 490. On the coast, twenty-six miles by road north of Athens, was Marathon. In Athens, a runner from Marathon announced the arrival of the Persians. A highly motivated force of about 10,000 Greeks in phalanx formations went forward, met and defeated a larger number of Persian cavalry and archers. More than 6,000 Persians died and around 200 Greeks. Darius's vengeance had not paid off. The Spartans arrived after the battle had ended, and they returned home praising the Athenians. A religious festival at Delphi celebrated the victory and thanked the gods.
Darius died at the age of 64 in the year 486, and his son and successor, Xerxes, wanted to try again to punish what for him must have seemed the arrogance of the Greeks, believing as he did in the power of his Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord). First Xerxes crushed rebellions in Egypt and Babylon. Then in 480 he assembled a great military force and marched it along the Aegean coast and down into Greece while supplying it with his navy. That same year the Persian force fought the Greeks — including the Spartans — at Thermopylae. And they went on to Athens where they burned the Acropolis. But Xerxes's navy was defeated nearby, at the Battle of Salamis, and the Persians were forced to withdraw, Xerxes learning about the unreliability of his gods and experiencing the limitation that existed for even the greatest of empires (to be experienced again in 1944-45 by the Japanese Empire trying to expand to India).
A spirit of unity and brotherhood among the Greeks during the war was served by their common language, customs, and religious beliefs. But it declined as the war continued and wound down. Sparta felt its security threatened by Athens rebuilding fortifications that had been destroyed by the Persians, and Sparta was afraid of Athenian naval domination of the waterway that led to the Black Sea, over which Sparta's grain was transported. Sparta and Greek city-states allied with it withdrew from the war, the Spartans worried about their military losses and vulnerability to a revolt by their slaves, the Helots.
With this withdrawal, Athens created a new league of city-states — the Delian League — to meet the challenges of the war with Persia. Member states agreed to donate money, ships and crewmen to the continuing war effort and to police the Aegean Sea, and they sent representatives to assemblies where league policies were to be decided.
As the league's leading military power, Athens soon arrogated to itself an authority that contradicted what had begun as a voluntary association. Against Xerxes's son and successor, Artaxerxes, Athens pressured some league members to a greater commitment and toil. Athens forced back into its alliance a city that had broken its oath to remain in the league, and Athens acted as policeman in suppressing petty conflicts within the league. Chauvinistic Athenians believed they were supporting the best interests of their city. They did so with favor toward those league cities that supported democracy. And cities with aristocratic rule began looking to Sparta for leadership.
Empire creation attracted some in Athens. There was the argument that empire was the natural order of things. Athenians, who believed in democracy for themselves, claimed that if their city did not have the strength to dominate others someone would soon dominate them. For them, strength through alliance was not enough.
Empire was seen by some Athenians as a solution to their city's over-population. Some of them looked forward to more sources of grain to feed the city's population. The landless saw empire as an opportunity to acquire land for themselves. Tradesmen believed that empire would benefit them commercially, and some looked forward to jobs created by a greater economic success. Many saw benefit in their city receiving tribute from those city-states that Athens dominated, taxes that they otherwise might have to pay. And the leading Athenian politician, Pericles, looked forward to spreading democracy.
Power concerns and commercial rivalries among other Greek city-states were riding the wave of suspicion and disunity. The sense of togetherness while fighting Persia was gone. The city of Megara felt threatened by the city of Corinth. Corinth and Athens were commercial competitors. Megara joined the Athenian alliance. Athens gained a naval base in the Gulf of Corinth, and the Corinthians disliked what they saw as an intrusion into the waters near their city.
Corinth was allied with Sparta, its navy a leader in Sparta's alliance — the Peloponnesian League. Corinth invaded Megara, believing that Athens was too involved in a military operation against Persia's rule in Egypt (where Athens hoped to gain access to grain). The Peloponnesian League's navy came to blows with the Athenian navy in the Gulf of Saronicus, but a small force of Athenian infantry drove the Corinthians back.
In 451-450, Athens suffered one of the famines that occasionally appeared in the Mediterranean area. Wearied by continuous war and believing that it could not wage war against both Persia and Sparta's league, Athens tried to improve its relations with Sparta and its allies. And in 449 it made a treaty with Persia: the Peace of Callias.
On again, off again small wars among the Greeks continued. The city of Phocis, an ally of Athens, sought control of the holy city of Delphi, a city of oracles and the god Apollo. Sparta expelled Phocis from Delphi. Athens restored Phocis rule at Delphi. There were more revolts against Athenian domination. Cities were lining up against Athens, joining the Corinthians and the Peloponnesian League.
The city of Thebes wanted a solid front against Athens. Violence erupted between Thebes and a neighboring city: Plataea. Many Plataeans fled to Athens for safety, and Athens sent troops to Plataea. For many enemies of Athens the events at Plataea were a signal for war. Sparta, meanwhile, was encouraged by the Oracle at Delphi. He stated that Apollo was on Sparta's side, that if Sparta made war with all its might it would win. The year was 431 BCE, described by some as the end of Greece's Golden Age. Sparta and its allies invaded Attica, announcing that they were fighting against Athenian imperialism for their independence and for the liberty of Greeks. The Great Peloponnesian war was on, to last 27 years.
CONTINUE READING: Stupid Stuff: The Great Peloponnesian War
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