Ancient Greece—Athenian Empire

478 to 404 B.C.
Formation of Delian League to Fall of Athens

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Athenian Empire

In the years following the Persian War, Athens was rebuilt and the Greek navy expanded its domination of the Aegean Sea. Further naval victories over Persia resulted in the freeing of several Ionian Greek colonies from the Persian yoke and the increased prestige of Greece as a sea power. Athenian control of the Greek navy was made possible the by creation of the Delian league, a group of Greek colonies located in the Aegean Sea united for defense. Although this league was nominally a confederation, it was dominated by Athens, and eventually became the foundation of the Athenian Empire. Athens became very wealthy due both to its domination of trade in the region and also to the inflow of tribute that had to be paid to Athens in return for protection from Persia.

Statue of Athena
The most important statesmen in Athens in the years immediately after the Persian War, were Cimon, son of Miltiades, and Aristides. Both were involved in the organization of the Delian league and the rebuilding of Athens, including the construction of a fortified wall around the city to protect it from future invasions. Sparta opposed the building of walled cities, lest they fall into enemy hands, but the Athenians insisted and eventually a great wall was built from Athens to the sea, wide enough to drive two Chariots abreast. During the same period, great temples and state houses were built, funded mostly from the Delian league tributes, on a scale never before seen on the continent of Europe.

In 461 BC one of the greatest statesmen in Greek history came into power in Athens. Pericles, more than any other person, determined the character of classical Athens. He was a patron of the arts and architecture, and he extended the democratic franchise to virtually all Athenian citizens. Greek theatre thrived under his leadership, and all four of the great Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, lived during his thirty year reign. He made Athens the cultural center of the Mediterranean and paid pensions to philosophers, artists, sculptures, and poets, to encourage their contributions. The Parthenon and many other great public buildings were built under his leadership, and the famous Greek Historians, Herodotus, and Thucydides were both contemporaries.

Sparta, although shunning luxury and empire, looked upon Athens with distrust and jealousy. As Athens became more arrogant and contemptuous of the rights of its colonies, the dispute between the cities grew, and eventually Sparta and its allies declared war on Athens, and thus began the Peloponnesian War. It was a futile and drawn out affair, lasting almost 30 years, with many horrendous atrocities, and its only long term effect was to critically weaken and depopulate all of mainland Greece. Athens for the most part, avoided meeting Sparta in battle on land and instead trusted to its fortified walls and control of the seas to provide for its people during the long years of siege. The first ten years of warfare resulted in almost no change in the state of affairs and eventually a ceasefire was arranged.

The Peace of Nicias lasted several years, until Athens, under the influence of Alcibiades, undertook an ill-fated expedition to conquer the island of Sicily. This disastrous campaign was the turning point of the war. It destroyed Athens naval supremacy and greatly weakened it in its continuing struggle against Sparta. For ten more years the conflict raged on, until Sparta defeated the last remnant of the Athenian navy at the battle of Agos Potami, and starved the walled city into submission.

Even during the Peloponnesian war, Athens produces some of its greatest geniuses. Socrates, Aristophanes, Euripides and Thucydides all lived during this period, and their writings are among the most cherished in Western Civilization. Undeniably, however, the Peloponnesian war was a disaster from which Greece and Athens never fully recovered. Athens eventually regained its reputation as a center of culture and education, but was never again dominant over the other unruly city states.

Characters—Athenian Empire

Character/Date Short Biography

Arts and Literature

525–456 BC
First of the three great Greek Tragedians. Wrote plays including the tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone.
496–406 BC
Wrote Greek Tragedies, including the tragedies of Agamemnon, Electra, and Orestes.
480–406 BC
Third of the great Greek Tragedians. Wrote Alcestis, Medea, Orestes, Electra and many others.
448–388 BC
Greatest of Greek Comedian playwrights. Wrote Frogs, Clouds, Peace, Birds, and many others.
518–438 BC
Most famous of Greek Lyric Poets.
500–432 BC
Built statues of Athene in the Parthenon and Jupiter at Olympia. Friend of Pericles.
484–425 BC
Wrote Histories of the Persian War and empires of the east.
460–400 BC
Historian of Peloponnesian War. An Athenian general sent into exile after he failed a mission.

Science and Philosophy

500–428 BC
First Great Philosopher of Athens, thought to be a teacher of Socrates.
469–399 BC
First moral philosopher, immortalized by Plato.
460–377 BC
Father of modern medicine. Set up medical school to train doctors by scientific methods.


499–429 BC
Athenian statesman during Golden Age of Athens. Made Athens cultural center of Greece.
~ 450 BC
Foreign born courtesan, and wife of Pericles. Highly educated for a woman of her age.
476–427 BC
Spartan King during the early years of Peloponnesian War. Sought peace with Athens, but was forced into the war.
Artaxerxes I
d. 424 BC
King of Persia during early part of Peloponnesian War, allied with Sparta


d. 449 BC
Athenian statesman and general. Fought Persians in Ionia after the war. Friend of Sparta.
d. 422 BC
War mongering politician, opposed Sparta's peace proposals.
d. 422 BC
Eloquent Spartan general, turned tide of Peloponnesian War in Sparta's favor. Died at Amphipolis.
d. 395 BC
Spartan naval Commander who defeated Athens in Peloponnesian War.
~ 413 BC
Lead the resistance in Syracuse that defeated Athenian forces during Peloponnesian War.
450–404 BC
Controversial statesman and general of Athens, who betrayed the city, then returned as hero.
d. 413 BC
After death of Pericles, emerged as leader of peace party. Led disastrous Sicilian Expedition.
d. 413 BC
Important Athenian general in the Peloponnesian War. Perished at Syracuse.
d. 415 BC
Admiral who with Nicias and Alcibiades led the Sicilian Expedition. Died in early combat.

Timeline—Athenian Empire

BC YearEvent
477 The Delian League of sea-faring Greek city-states is organized under the leadership of Athens.
475 Cimon conquers the pirates of Scyros and brings the bones Theseus back to Athens.
472 Themistocles, the hero of Salamis, is exiled from Athens.
467 Tragic playwright Aeschylus presents "Seven Against Thebes".
466 Delian Navy, under Cimon, destroys the Persian fleet at Eurymedon River
462 A widespread helot Rebellion, following a severe earthquake in Sparta, is put down.
456 The "long walls" from Athens to the port at Piraeus are completed.
453 Treasure of the Delian League is moved to Athens.
447 Construction begins on the Parthenon.
445-431 Pericles leads Athens during the "Golden Age" of the Athenian Empire.
445 "Peace of Pericles" leads to 14 years of peace between Spartan allies and Athens.
430 Phidias begins work on the Statue of Zeus at Olympia.
420 Herodotus completes work on "The Histories". .
431-404> Peloponnesian War, fought between Athenian Empire and cities allied with Sparta.
430 The plague at Athens kills thousands of besieged citizens, including Pericles.
428 A Revolt at Mytilene is crushed when the city attempts to rebel from the Athenian league.
427 Destruction of Plataea by Sparta.
425 Cleon leads Athens to victory over Sparta at the Battle of Sphacteria.
422 Warhawks Brasidas of Sparta and Cleon of Athens are killed at the Battle of Amphipolis
421 "Peace of Nicias" provides 6 year break in hostilities
415 Sicilian Expedition led by Nicias and Alcibiades ends in disaster for Athens.
406 Athenian generals are executed for dereliction of duty after their Victory at Arginusae.
405 Spartan hero Lysander destroys the Athenian fleet at the Battle of Aegos Potami.
404 Athens surrenders after city is besieged and port is blockaded by a Spartan fleet.
406 Death of Euripides great tragic playwright of the classical period.

Recommended Reading—Athenian Empire

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Guerber - The Story of the Greeks   Cimon Improves Athens to Death of Alcibiades (12)
Macgregor - The Story of Greece   Delian League to Walls of Athens Destroyed (26)

Supplemental Recommendations

Harding - Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men   Aristides the Just to Socrates, the Philosopher (4)
Tappan - The Story of the Greek People   After the Persian War to Fall of Athens (5)
Morris - Historical Tales: Greek   Four Famous Men of Athens to Socrates and Alcibiades (7)
Church - Pictures from Greek Life and Story   In the Theatre at Athens to The Lion's Cub (11)
Church - Stories from the Greek Comedians    entire book
Church - Stories from the Greek Tragedians    entire book
Church - Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition    entire book

Easy Reading Selections

Haaren - Famous Men of Greece   Cimon to Socrates (5)
Shaw - Stories of the Ancient Greeks   Glorious Days to A Wasted Life (3)
Cowles - Our Little Athenian Cousin of Long Ago    entire book
Church - Three Greek Children    entire book
Gould - Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch   The Admiral of the Fleet to Three Powers (5)