Athens after the Persians

The type of bow most people are familiar with is the “post Corinthian” bow. Previously, triremes had a ‘hollow’ bow. See Connolly’s reconstruction of this type, p.265 “Greece and Rome at War”, and the coin reverses on p.264 giving a good ‘before and after’ idea of the old and modified bows.

What Thucydides says can be translated thus: “They shortened the bows of their ships and strengthened them; they laid out stout ‘epotides’, and fixed stays from the ‘epotides’ to the ships sides both inside and out” (the ‘epotides’ lit: “ears” were the transverse beams across the hull supporting the ‘paraxereisia’ = outrigger that supported the upper bank of oars, sometimes in English called ‘catsheads’).

The Greek word for ‘fixed’ is the same derivative as the English term ‘hypotenuse’. The stays thus formed a “Y” support to each of the “T” shapes formed by the ‘epotides’ running at 90 degrees to the ship’s sides. This strengthened ‘epotides’ meant that the opponent’s epotides and paraxereisia would be smashed in a near head-on collision, allowing the scraping off of the opponent’s oar-banks…….

Pausanias’ misadventures and Spartan reluctance to become involved in overseas military operations handed to the Athenians leadership of the Greeks in the fight against the Persians. Spartan leadership, seen by many Greeks as corrupt and arrogant, gave way to the Athenians, who, on account of their democracy, may have been perceived as more open and friendly. Shortly after Pausanias’ recall home, the Athenians took the initiative and established a new military alliance, the Delian League, to continue the war against the Persians (478/7). Established on Delos, Apollo’ s sacred island, the Athenians organized the Greeks for what some imagined would be a permanent war. Rich and populous communities, especially those on the prosperous islands of Chios, Lesbos, and Samos, provided ships and crews in the military expeditions that the Athenians led and became more powerful themselves. Communities too small or disinclined to serve in person were assessed financial contributions. The Persian War veteran and hero Aristides established these initially, his nickname ‘ the Just ’ persuading the Greeks that their monies would be handled judiciously.  Later known as phoros , or tribute, these monies were paid into a war treasury kept at Delos and were administered by a board of Athenian officials called the hellenotamiai , or ‘ treasurers of the Greeks ’ .  The first assessment totaled some 460 talents, a vast sum. The Athenians regulated the tribute and kept lists (which were published) of the assessments and how these changed in the years that followed.  So armed and funded, the Athenians acquired incredible military power enabling them to lead expeditions throughout the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean world.

Just as the Spartans faced the challenges posed by a successful wartime leader, so too did the Athenians. In the first years after the Persian defeat, Themistocles, the architect of victory at Salamis, dominated the city and engineered its recovery. He foiled a Spartan attempt to dissuade the Athenians from rebuilding their city walls, which would have left the city vulnerable to future attack. But the fickleness of the Athenian democracy, the jealousies a successful figure like Themistocles faced from enemies eager to see him fall, led to his political eclipse. In about 474/3 the Athenians ostracized him and the vote may have been rigged.  In 1937 a hoard of ostraca, or voting tokens, was found in an old well on the acropolis of Athens. Of some 191 pieces, all but one bore his name. Upon study only fourteen different hands could be read, evidence that a group of his enemies had surely gathered, written out the ostraca and then handed them out on voting day.  There is no way of knowing if these ostraca date from 474/3 or not, but they clearly indicate that Themistocles had enemies and that they were organized. Bound by the law, Themistocles left Athens and for a time resided in nearby Euboea. But then he too was caught up in the Pausanias scandal and fled to Asia where the new Great King, Artaxerxes I, son of his late rival Xerxes, gave him shelter. His former enemies welcomed him warmly and years later Themistocles died an honored exile.

Themistocles, however, had his defenders in Athens and not long after his ostracism, one of them, the Marathon veteran and playwright Aeschylus, reminded the Athenians of Themistocles’ service to the state. His drama Persians, staged in 472/1, not only commemorated the victory over the enemy, but indirectly praised the now dishonored Themistocles. Interesting too is the identity of the choregos , the individual responsible for providing the chorus with costumes and training. Pericles, son of Xanthippus and a wartime ally of Themistocles and scion of Athens’ grandest family, made his public debut as Aeschylus’ benefactor, subtly showing too where his political sympathies lay.

By 467/6, some members of the Delian League began tiring of wartime life as the Persian threat receded: there seemed little reason for a military alliance, forged in the euphoria of victory, to continue. Such was the case with Naxos, an island state, which now withdrew from the alliance. The Athenians, however, did not see things this way. When making their agreement, members of the new league had ceremoniously dumped into the sea lumps of iron and pledged that until the iron floated, they would remain loyal to their oaths of membership. The Athenians saw the Naxians as oath – breakers and so responded with great force. Attacked and subdued by veteran Athenian forces, the Naxians were compelled to dismantle their city – wall and pay penalties as they were forced back into the League. The allies, quickly becoming subjects now, could see that Athens would not negotiate or arbitrate any differences: there was little choice for them other than acquiescence to Athens’ greater power.

Naxos, however, was not the only state unhappy with the growing arrogance of power displayed by the Athenians. In 465 another island state, Thasos, broke its association with the League, as the Athenians encroached on its mainland holdings – rich in gold and silver. For some three years the Athenians assailed the island, finally subduing it and forcing it back into the League. Like Naxos, Thasos suffered severe punishment. But there were other casualties as well. Enemies of Cimon, who had commanded the Athenian forces in the campaign, prosecuted but failed to convict him of corruption.  Less fortunate were the Athenian settlers later introduced as colonists into the disputed region. Occupying a township known as Ennea Hodoi, the ‘Nine Ways’, the colonists were attacked by the local Thracian population and virtually annihilated, frustrating Athenian hopes of expansion (Thuc. 4.102.2).

Sometime around 466 the Athenian – led campaign against the Persian menace finally struck a decisive blow. At the Eurymedon River in Asia Minor, the Athenians and their allies led by Cimon destroyed a combined Persian fleet and army, thereby ending any chance of the Persians returning to Aegean waters. Cimon may have reached a settlement with the Persians, but by 460 he was in exile, ostracized, after an abortive expedition to Sparta. The Athenians now began flexing their military muscle throughout the eastern Mediterranean world. An expeditionary force to Cyprus was diverted to Egypt to support the rebellion of the Libyan prince Inarus. Fighting here lasted through several campaigning seasons and the Athenians invested a great deal of money and resources. In the end the Persians scored a major success, diverting the waters of the Nile and marooning the Athenian ships, then destroying them (c. 454).

As these dramatic events unfolded, the Athenian political scene heralded a new arrival – Pericles. Known by name and reputation, his political sympathies were revealed c. 462/1 when he supported the efforts of the reformer Ephialtes to strip the old aristocratic council, the Areopagus, of its authoritative judicial powers.  In attacking the Areopagus Council, Ephialtes transferred its power and prestige to other and more popular bodies, the assembly, law courts, and Council of 500. Responses to the reforms were impassioned and cost Ephialtes his life, though the details are far from clear (Plut. Per . 10.7 – 8). These events, however, found their way into the popular imagination through the dramatic medium of Attic drama. In 458 Aeschylus staged the only surviving trilogy in Greek tragedy, the Oresteia . In its final play, Eumenides, Aeschylus warns of the dangers of civil war and how this worst of political evils must be avoided.

Did Aeschylus make a political statement, and if so who heard his message? While the political nature of the dramatic venue can be overstated, so much so that the rich matrix of intellectual and spiritual ideas and beliefs is overshadowed, it remains that the theater experience was a diverse one with real and contemporary issues sometimes at play.  Here the Athenians heard the views and opinions of their best minds, who asked them to think about the world around them and to act as informed citizens. It must also be seen that those who heard these words were almost certainly the minority. The Theater of Dionysus, where Aeschylus ’ Oresteia was performed, as later the plays of Sophocles and Euripides, was apparently not large and may have accommodated no more than the local theater in Thorikos. In many ways, then, the theater experience was an elite experience. It did voice political concerns about the community and its political figures, but those who heard it represented a relatively small portion of the population.

In the turmoil of Ephialtes ’ reforms and death, and fighting raging in many corners, the Athenians, apparently with Pericles ’ backing, recalled Cimon from exile (c. 452?). A new Persian fleet threatened Greek communities and Athenian influence in the eastern Mediterranean, and Cimon led an expeditionary force to Cyprus but died not long after arriving (c. 451/0). His death, preceded by the setback in Egypt, led to a settlement between Greeks and Persians. Brokered by Callias, Cimon ’ s brother – in – law, these decade – old enemies signed the so – called Peace of Callias probably in summer 450/449. Three decades of hostilities with the Persians now ended.  

As Athens acquired great power so too did it acquire great wealth. Possibly in 454 and because of the failure of the Egyptian expedition, the treasury of the Delian League was moved to Athens. Within a short time, c. 449, the Athenians were rebuilding their city, something they had deliberately delayed since the end of the Persian Wars. In the ‘Oath of Plataea’ the Greeks had agreed not to rebuild their ruined sanctuaries and now with peace came a great building boom in Athens.  

In the decade that followed, the Athenians would have seen their city transfigured from a war – ruined wreck to an architectural showcase reflecting the power of imperial Athens. Pericles, dubbed ‘Olympian’ by his critics (Plut. Per . 8.4), took a keen interest in the designing of buildings and shaping of sculpture, and perhaps sat on a commission that supervised the whole program.  His ‘Olympian’ size ego no doubt prompted many artistic suggestions too. But it appears that his friend, the great sculptor Phidias, acted as the overall director of the rebuilding of the acropolis. Already he had crafted the great statue of Athena Promachos that greeted visitors to the acropolis (c. late 450s). Later he designed the gold and ivory cult statue of Athena Parthenos herself that would be placed in her rebuilt temple, the Parthenon, designed by Callicrates and Ictinus (built 447 – 432).  Later Phidias got into trouble. Charged with embezzling funds, and despite help from Pericles, he fled into exile (Plut. Per . 31.1 – 5).

Elsewhere Mnesicles built a new gateway to the acropolis, the Propylaea, while below it stood the Odeon, a circular music hall that took its inspiration from the pavilion of the Persian king seized at Plataea some thirty years before. Similar rebuilding took place at the sacred precinct at Eleusis where the important Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone were celebrated.  

Not all saw these expenditures as just, since much of the money funding this program came from the allied contributions, now deposited in Athens. Pericles’ influence over the city came to be seen by other Athenians as a threat. Chief among these critics was Thucydides, the son of Melesias, a relative of Cimon, who now mounted a challenge to Pericles’ leadership. Perhaps for the first time, organized ‘party ’ politics were practiced in the assembly. Thucydides grouped his followers together so that they could present a single voice, literally, in assembly debate. Both men were talented speakers and effective politicians, and their rivalry attracted even the attention of Archidamus, the Spartan king. Once asking Thucydides who the better wrestler was, Thucydides replied that ‘ whenever I throw him at wrestling, he beats me by arguing that he was never down, and he can even make the spectators believe it ’ ! (Plut. Per . 8).

In the end Pericles prevailed. He counterattacked forcefully, arguing that the allies did not contribute men or material to the defense of Greece from renewed Persian attack. Additionally, Athenians from all walks of life were profiting not only from military service but from the many jobs and work springing up from the vast program of public works. The wealth and power that Athens accrued also empowered the democracy, as payments were handed out for jury service as well as attendance at public festivals, making possible the participation of many more citizens in the political process. Against the growing prosperity of Athens, Thucydides could not compete. Pericles secured his ostracism (c. 443/3) and though he later returned, his political influence seems spent.  

Thucydides’ departure may not have bothered many Athenians who could look around their city and see everywhere the fruits of their labors and their sacrifices made good. Complacent and satisfied, however, the Athenians were not and those like Pericles knew that such hard won gains could be lost just as quickly.

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