Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Athenian Polis – Golden Age Decay

As I mentioned in the last post, the Athenian Polis reached its zenith during the Age of Pericles and also started its decline. Can Pericles be blamed for this? Not entirely, because he was merely a product of his time. Much of the decay of the Athenian Polis came from its own success as we shall see in a moment.

After the Persians were beaten in 479 B.C, the Athenians felt the need to protect themselves from another invasion. They also wanted to protect their economic interests in the region. Moreover, victory had made the them confident (arrogant?). The hubris they labeled as a crime against society was now their public identity.

Athens kept control over the Delian League even after the threat from Persia had abated. Members saw less need for a league with Persia out of the way, but Athens wanted to use it as a powerful coalition to exert suzerainty over the region. Some cities began to rebel, but they were kept in the league by force. Naxos, for example, rebelled in 471 B.C, and according to Thucydides, “was enslaved contrary to law”. In 454 B.C, the league’s treasury was moved from Delos to Athens and the members charged a “storage fee.”

The Athenian relationship with Sparta was ruined when the Spartans asked Athens not to re-build its walls and they were ignored. Sparta reasoned that Athens would be less willing to fight if it felt protected. Then, the Spartan earthquake of 464 B.C. led to the Messenian revolt which threatened the entire Spartan culture. Athens sent an army under Cimon, but the Spartans became suspicious of Athenian motives and sent the hoplites home. Next, Athens attempted to expand its empire by land, but failed when the territory became greater than the Athenian army could manage. When Athens was defeated in a land battle with Boetia in 447 B.C, it gave up imperialism by land and signed a thirty year treaty with Sparta.

New pressure was put on the members of the Delian League. Member fees were raised and members forced to use Athenian coinage. Athens further ignored the autonomy of the members by influencing their political systems. When the opportunity arose, democracies were pushed. Pericles took 5,000 talents from the Delian League treasury and earmarked it for the beautification of Athens. Another 200 talents per year were allocated to Athens for its management of the treasury and league members were forced to subsidize payment for the 10,000 Athenian rowers who were part of their navy.

On the whole, the lower classes supported this imperialistic philosophy. Many of the members of the 500 were merchants and saw their own interests advanced with the expanding Athenian influence. But there were protests also. In 443 B.C, Pericles almost lost his power when a vote was taken to ostracize him. He survived the vote and continued to advance his own program. Protests against government policies eventually died out but there remained an undercurrent of complaints against the immoral imperialism.

By the time of the Peloponnesian War, Athens had ceded the moral high ground to Sparta. She had violated the notion of the Polis as a self-contained unit when she adopted an imperialist philosophy. Her hands were full keeping the empire in order when she needed to spend all her energy fighting the Spartans.

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