The Delian League: Revenge and Hellenic Liberation

Ruins of ancient Delos / Photo by Graham McLellan, Wikimedia Commons

The alliance’s name derives from the island of Delos, where the League originally housed its treasury.

By Christopher Planeaux
Lecturer in Classical Studies
Indiana University

Origins Down to the Battle of Eurymedon


The modern term Delian League refers to the primarily maritime συμμᾰχία or symmachy (offensive-defensive alliance) among various Greek poleis, which emerged after the second Mede invasion of the Hellenes (480-479 BCE), and dissolved when the Athenians surrendered to the Spartans at the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE) – also called The Confederacy of Delos.

The alliance’s name derives from the island of Delos, where the League originally housed its treasury. Member poleis would periodically meet in common synods to decide policy. The League possessed three explicit objectives: obtain both revenge against and reparations from the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, liberate all Hellenes from Mede domination, and guarantee the continued freedoms of Hellenic poleis.

A map illustrating the members of the Delian League, led by Athens c. 431 BCE / Marsyas, Wikimedia Commons

The Delian League experienced exceptional achievements and expansion under Athenian leadership, but this also led ultimately to Athens’ widespread interference, restrictions, and subordination of individual Greek poleis throughout the Aegean Sea and Greek mainland. Such actions would eventually drive the Delian League into a massive conflict against the other great symmachy of Ancient Greece, the Peloponnesian League of Sparta and its allies.

In many ways, scholars ultimately define the Delian League by the devastating Greek civil war it produced; the war that eventually destroyed it, the great “Peloponnesian War.” This war, however, did not unfold only against the Peloponnesians but would bring the entire alliance into motion and involve everyone in the Hellenes as well as the peoples of Sicily, Italy, Thrace, Phoenicia, Egypt, Macedon, and Persia.

The Delian League’s almost unprecedented success ultimately led to its undoing.

Ancient Greek Confederacies

Ancient Greeks had rather confined experiences with co-operative multi-polis confederations. Each polis inherently sought and adamantly protected both their ἐλευθερία (liberty or ‘external freedom’) and αὐτονομία (autonomy or ‘internal freedom’). They also vigorously pursued and maintained αὐτάρκεια (independence or ‘self-sufficiency’). Consequently, coalitions of multiple poleis often ran afoul of these civic corporate passions, which defined the nature of the self-contained polis itself.

Hellenic alliances varied according to the individual circumstances that created them. The ancient Greek term συμμᾰχία also emits the same inherent ambiguity as its English translation. The specific oaths exchanged determined above all other considerations the nature and extent of each individual alliance, and no two appear to have operated exactly the same in either scope or practice.

Ancient Greeks also crafted a narrower ἐπιμαχία or epimachy (defensive pact), where each polis would simply come to the aid of another in the case of some external threat. Broadly speaking, however, the wider symmachy would typically take one of two forms: an explicit hegemony or a broader ‘mutually binding’ agreement.

In a hegemony, the weaker, smaller, or poorer poleis swore oaths “to have the same friends and enemies” of a stronger ἡγεμών or hegemon (lit. leader). These poleis also pledged to follow the hegemon, “whithersoever that polis might lead.” The hegemon, on the other hand, might or might not have had the reverse obligation. The Boeotian Confederation of Thebes and its neighbors and the Peloponnesian League of Sparta and its allies took this form (Thuc. 2.2.1, 4.91, 5.37.4-38.4; Hell. Oxy. 16.11).

In the mutual binding agreement, on the other hand, all poleis pledged fully reciprocal oaths, where each agreed to take counsel and provide support for one another equally. These alliances, however, did not in many cases carefully delineate between strictly offensive and defensive obligations for each member polis. The Anti-Persian Hellenic League assembled in 481 BCE took this form, though this league did not possess an official name (Hdt. 7.145.1, 148.1, 235.4).

In sum, those individual poleis that entered into a symmachy necessarily accepted a diminution of total, unrestricted liberty (ἐλευθερία) to realize certain benefits that official and specific cooperation with other poleis brought. In many ways, the Delian League superseded and ultimately replaced the Anti-Persian Hellenic League, although the latter never formally disbanded with the foundation of this new league.

Cooperative League or Athenian Empire?

Scholars generally agree that Athens would come to use the appurtenances of the Delian League for self-serving ends. Many argue further that the Athenians engaged in oppressive imperialism from the earliest years, while still others hold the Delian League morphed into an ‘Athenian Empire’ by ca. 450 BCE, or even as early as 460 BCE, and certainly by the start of the Peloponnesian War (432 BCE). Not all students of Greek history, however, accept Athens created or led an actual empire in either the technical or truest senses.

Ancient Greek does not have words for ’empire’ or ‘imperialism,’ which derived from the Latin imperium (power to command). Imperium denoted for the Romans the strongest and least restricted authority over citizens and foreigners. Ancient Greeks, however, did not separate the idea of power to rule in itself from the office that wielded it. Disagreements evolve, for example, from how one might apply the Roman concept of imperium to Athens’ rule of the Delian League. Did it operate in any way analogous to the Persian or Roman Empires?  

The ancient Greeks nonetheless came to hold that what began as an offensive-defensive synod of equal and independent Greek poleis created specifically to resist Persian encroachments into the Aegean, as well as take the offensive against the Persian Empire itself, soon evolved into a simple ‘Athenian Hegemony’ and eventually into an arbitrary ‘Athenian Rule.’

Evidence shows that within 30 years of inception the League’s resources had shifted from primarily stopping (or checking) the might of Persia to advancing Athenian desires at home and abroad. Pinpointing and/or charting the actual substance of concrete changes in how the Delian League operated, which pushed this co-operative coalition into some form of imperial instrument, however, remains a difficult task at best.

The Persian Wars

Pausanias, nephew of the Spartan King Leonidas, commanded the combined Hellenic forces at Plataea (479 BCE). He also led the Greeks against Cyprus and Byzantium (478 BCE). The Samians and Chians, however, drove Pausanias away after he suffered a mutiny for exceedingly arrogant behavior and possibly treasonous negotiations with the Persians. The Spartans subsequently recalled him.

A portrait bust of Pausanias, the 5th century BCE Spartan general and regent who successfully commanded the Greek forces at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE. (Capitoline Museums, Rome) / Photo by Mary Harrsch, Flickr, Creative Commons

The Chians, Samians, and Lesbians then argued for Ionian Athens to replace Dorian Sparta as leader of the combined Greeks. The Athenian Xanthippus had supported the Spartan King Leotychides at Mycale, and the Athenians Aristides, son of Lysimachus, and Cimon, son of Miltiades, had already become leading voices during councils. Sparta’s king, moreover, had already returned to the Peloponnese by this time. The Spartans, who historically resisted protracted foreign obligations, thus offered no objection. Sparta showed little interest (or unwillingness) to assume responsibility for the Aegean or extend its influence east of the Peloponnese. 

The Athenians accepted the responsibility through a combination of pride and fear. Their pride stemmed from Athens’ prominent roles at both Salamis and Marathon, and their fear resulted from Athens’ growing dependence on unfettered maritime trade (especially the import of grain into Attica). The Athenians understood from the outset that they simply had the most to lose in any war against Persia.

Details of the subsequent negotiations, which took place off the coast of Byzantium, remain frustratingly obscure, but the sources show these Greeks decided to form a new, separate coalition in lieu of maintaining or expanding the original Anti-Persian Hellenic League.  Representatives from throughout the Aegean islands and coastland poleis began to gather by early summer 477 BCE.

Founding of the Delian League

The Ancient Greeks headquartered their new alliance on the island of Delos, a historically sacred festival center for both the Ionian and Dorian Greeks. Approximately 36 Ionian poleis from Asia’s west coast and the Propontis, 35 poleis from the Hellespont, and 57 poleis from Caria and Thrace (or the Chalcidice), as well as 20 or so poleis from the Aeolian Aegean islands comprised the nucleus of the Delian League – i.e., approximately 150 or so poleis initially formed the new alliance. No Peloponnesian poleis joined.

An Athenian would command the combined military forces. The Athenians also determined those poleis, which would provide ships and manpower and those, which would simply offer monetary contributions. The Athenians also appointed ten Athenian ἑλληνοταμίαι or Hellentamiai (Treasurers of the Hellenes) to oversee collections as well as the dispensing of funds from the temple as required. Presumably, League members would deliver the monies to the island by a designated date, but the exact procedures they used for collection unfortunately remain guess-work.

An artist’s impression of what a fleet of Greek warships may have looked like / Total War

By mid-summer 477 BCE, the Athenian Aristides calculated the first φόρος or phoros (assessment). Aristides examined the land and revenue of each member polis and determined individual amounts “according to their ability to pay so that the grand total should be 460 [or 560] τάλαντα” or talenta or talents (Thuc. 1.96; Plut. Vit. Ar. 24.1; Diod. 11.47.1) (one talent = the value of 25.992 kg of pure silver). The process Aristides employed remains unknown, but scholars generally agree he first assessed all members of the League by financial obligation, then converted the amounts for the larger and wealthier poleis into equivalent naval contributions. The Athenian Tribute Lists, however, show the League collected (on balance) less than 400 talents annum until 454 BCE, a time when more tributaries existed. Scholars debate whether the naval commitments comprised the difference from the initial balances reported by Thucydides and Diodorus or if they should lower the reported first assessment (as textual corruptions) to match the Tribute Lists.

The League does not appear to have envisioned any contributions of heavy or light-armed land troops, but sources attest to their presence by 450 BCE. Athens, Chios, Samos, Lesbos, and other larger poleis provided the bulk of the League fleet, while the remaining poleis would deposit the required monies annually into the treasury on Delos. Subsequent assessments (i.e. adjustments to the annual tribute) would then take place in four year intervals.

Scholars speculate and debate the exact wording and nature of the initial oaths taken by the representatives of each member polis. Broadly speaking, however, each member agreed “to have the same enemies and friends” as well as “remain loyal and not desert” (Hdt. 9.106.4; Thuc. 1.44.1; Arist. Ath. Pol. 23.5; Plut. Vit. Arist. 25.1). Each representative sunk lumps of metal in the sea to symbolize the League’s permanence (i.e. the alliance would endure until the iron swam).

Structure of the Delian League

The arrangement and operation of the new alliance proved straightforward; the member poleis retained their independence, and the League would not interfere in their domestic affairs. The members would collectively determine the policy and actions of the League during meetings (synods) held on Delos. Each polis possessed one vote. How often or what time of the year the meetings on Delos convened remains unknown. Presumably an Athenian presided over these meetings, but exactly how Athens assumed a preeminent position in the League’s congresses divides scholars.

A panorama of the archaeological site of Delos, one of the most important religious sanctuaries in the Greek world and a major trading centre in the 1st and 2nd century CE Roman world. / Photo by Mark Cartwright, Creative Commons

In one view, Athens sat as a single voice in a unicameral congress of partners (ἰσόψηφος or isopsephos, equal vote, lit. equal pebble). In practice, however, numerous smaller poleis often sided with Athenian proposals. Athens thus emerged the dominating influence from the outset during the League’s meetings by corralling other members and outvoting those poleis that disagreed with Athenian proposals (πολύψηφοι or polypsephoi, many votes, lit. many pebbles). This simple interpretation, however, presents some difficulties. Athenians commanded League campaigns, and they oversaw the treasury. Would Athens lead a campaign or enforce a policy against which they voted? Would the allies craft a policy or devise a strategy without knowing beforehand to what Athens might commit? Could the allies force upon Athens a course of action she did not wish to take?

In the alternative view, Athens sat as hegemon at one end of a bicameral congress while the autonomous allies comprised the other end. The Delian League existed as essentially a compact between two parties, Athens and then the rest of the allies collectively. Each of the two parties thus swore to have the same friends and enemies, but the allies did not swear to follow Athens whithersoever they might lead. In short, neither party could force decisions on the other.

Regardless which form the Delian League’s synods ultimately took, the actual practice became the same; the preponderance of Athens existed from the outset, and its commanding influence would grow over the years while allied contributions dwindled, until the allied synods disappeared without any official record of their cessation.

On the other hand, the Delian League did not suffer defections on the brink of campaigns, and it forbade private wars amongst its members. Since its operations also required a constant and continuous active naval fleet for an indefinite period, the alliance demanded a well-organized bureaucracy to collect and dispense regular payments. Athens soon wielded the mechanisms needed to guarantee all League decisions to fruition. The Delian League thus possessed one enormous advantage over the Boeotian Confederation or the Peloponnesian League; it could act swiftly and decisively with considerable resources.

Initial Operations of the League

The first phase of the Delian League’s undertakings begins with its opening operations against the Persian Empire and ends with the decisive Greek victory over Persian forces at Erymedon (roughly 479/8-465/4 BCE). The League pursued vigorous objectives against Persian encroachments about the Aegean: united – or cooperative – Greek military campaigns, led primarily by the Athenian Cimon, son of Miltiades, both recovered Persian dominated poleis as well as freed areas of Northern Greece and Asia Minor.

Nevertheless, the League’s first ominous signs of internal disagreements and fractures as well as the willingness of Athens to champion and then use compulsion against other members also appeared during this very early time. The League elected first to capture both Eion, a strategically located polis along Xerxes’ invasion route, and the island of Skyros. By ejecting the Dolopian pirates based on Skyros, moreover, the League also “liberated the Aegean” (Thuc. 1.98.1; Diod. 11.60.2; Plut. Vit. Cim. 8.3-6). Subsequent League campaigns successfully drove Persian garrisons from Thrace and Chersonesus and expanded Hellenic holdings along the western and southern coasts of Asia Minor (Ionia and Caria areas).

Consequently, the opening years of the League’s existence reaped enormous benefits for the smaller poleis about the Aegean, especially the islands. Maritime trade increased substantially, and the constant naval operations provided well-paid service for Greeks from the poorer poleis. Membership in the League soon increased to almost 200 poleis, but the alliance also openly coerced Carystus (on the southern tip of Euboea) to join c. 472 BCE. Carystus possessed a tarnished reputation as a Mede sympathizer during the Persian Wars and had desired to remain neutral and not pay tribute. The Athenians argued that no polis should benefit from the League without sharing in the cost. The bulk of the League agreed.

The Reduction of Naxos

The island of Naxos, for reasons unknown, attempted to secede from the alliance c. 467 BCE. Its subjugation produced a change in membership not anticipated during the formation of the alliance. The Athenians “besieged and reduced them.  Naxos … [thus became] the first allied polis enslaved contrary to the original structure of the League” (Thuc. 1.98.4). The majority of League members nonetheless appear to have understood that they could not tolerate unilateral defections or rebellions, otherwise the League itself would soon disintegrate and destroy any benefits won.

The oaths of allegiance would now include a new word, obedience. The subjugation of Naxos, in other words, established a precedent, which the Athenians would use for the rest of the League’s existence; the use of force to insure compliance.

Battle of Eurymedon

Cimon continued to lead a Delian League force of 300 triremes in the east: 200 Athenian with 100 allied contingents. He sailed along the Caria and Lycian coasts, sacking and reducing some poleis, driving Persian garrisons out of others, and brought many of these poleis into the League. He relentlessly pursued the Mede.

The Persians assembled a large Phoenician fleet near Cyprus. Cimon collected his forces at the Triopian promontory. After taking Phaselis, he sailed directly for the Eurymedon river in Pamphylia then immediately attacked and defeated the Phoenician fleet as well the reinforcements sent from Cyprus – destroying or capturing almost 200 ships. This victory proved definitive.

From Eurymedon to the Thirty Years’ Peace


The second phase of the Delian League’s operations begins with the Hellenic victory over Mede forces at Eurymedon and ends with the Thirty Years Peace between Athens and Sparta (roughly 465/4 – 445/4 BCE).The Greek triumph at Eurymedon resulted in a cessation of hostilities against the Persians, which lasted almost six years. Whether or not this peace or truce followed from some formal treaty negotiated by Cimon, son of Miltiades, remains unknown.

A map indicating the alliances and major battles of the Peloponnesian War in the Hellenic world (431-404 BCE) / Marsyas, Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, the Greek success at Eurymedon proved so decisive, the damage inflicted on Persia so great, and the wealth confiscated so considerable that an increasing number of League members soon began to wonder if the alliance still remained necessary. The Persians, however, had not altogether withdrawn from the Aegean. They still had, for example, a sizeable presence in both Cyprus and Doriscus. They also set about to build a great number of new triremes.

Reduction of Thasos and the Battle of Drabescus

A quarrel soon erupted between the Athenians and Thasians over several trading ports and a wealth-producing mine (465 BCE). Competing economic interests compelled the rich and powerful Thasos to revolt from the Delian League. The Thasians resisted for almost three years. When the polis finally capitulated, the Athenians forced Thasos to surrender its naval fleet and the mine, dismantle defensive walls, pay retributions, and converted the future League contributions to monetary payments: 30 talents annum. Some League members became disaffected with the Athenian reduction of Thasos. Several poleis observed the Athenians had now developed a penchant for using “compulsion.” They started to see Athens acting with both “arrogance and violence.” On expeditions, furthermore, the other members felt they “no longer served as equals” (Thuc. 1.99.2).

The Athenians, meanwhile, attempted to establish a colony on the Strymon river to secure timber from Macedon, which shared its borders with the west bank. The location also proved a critical strategic point from which to protect the Hellespont. The Thracians, however, repelled the League forces at Drabescus. The Athenians soon realized the threats from both Thrace and Macedon made permanent settlements in the region difficult as they were essentially continental powers, and the League fleet could not reach them easily. Designs for the region, however, would not change, and the Athenians would return there again.

The Delian League had by this time demonstrated an inherent conflict from its beginnings: on the one hand, it engaged in heroic struggles against the Mede and extended its influence, reaping enormous benefits (especially for its poorer members). On the other hand, it also suppressed its members and soon demanded obedience from them.

The League engaged from the outset in a form of soft imperialism, collecting and commanding voluntary naval contributions and tribute while Athens used those resources and led all expeditions, enforcing continued membership but also showing little or no interest to interfere with the internal mechanisms of any member polis (unless it openly rebelled).

Conversions to Tribute

More ominously, the larger poleis also began to grow weary fulfilling the prolonged obligations supplying the manpower and resources constant League operations required. A growing number of poleis elected instead to make simple monetary payments. Although Thucydides openly blames the allies for this change, commuting from contributions to tribute proves uncomplicated: cost (1 trireme = 200 rowers = ½ talent per month). A flotilla of 10 triremes required an outlay of 30 talents for a typical 6-month sailing season. Only the largest and wealthiest poleis paid anywhere near these sums.

Converting from resources to monies, however, had the two-pronged effect of both weakening individual League members while also greatly increasing the size of the Athenian fleet and thus Athens’ overall might and influence. Athens, on the other hand, embraced these obligations and even commissioned 20 new triremes each year and would continue this undertaking until 449 BCE. By 447 BCE, in fact, only Chios, Samos, and Lesbos in addition to Athens still possessed substantial navies in the Aegean.

The Helot Revolt and Dissolution of the Anti-Persian Hellenic League

The Spartans, whose policies suffered not infrequent and often violent fluctuations with the constant power struggles between its Kings and Ephors, had, until the time of Thasos’ revolt, appeared quite content to allow Athens unfettered leadership of the Aegean. Sparta nonetheless promised to help the besieged Thasians with an invasion of Attica, apparently motivated by growing trepidation over Athens’ recent interference in internal Greek affairs. Before the Spartans could act on their pledge, however, a great earthquake struck the Peloponnesus (464 BCE), and the devastation resulted in the largest Helot revolt in living memory.

Helots (roughly akin to ‘serf’) originally descended from the Messenians, and Sparta remained the one Greek polis which held in total subjection large numbers of fellow Greeks.The Spartans thus possessed an inherently volatile and uniquely dangerous relationship with their enslaved Helots. Helots precariously outnumbered their Spartan masters, and they both equally feared and loathed each other. Sparta, now faced with an armed insurrection, appealed for assistance from the member poleis of the original anti-Persian Hellenic League. Aegina, Mantinea, and Plataea answered. 5.2.3).

Although the Athenian Ekklesia (Assembly) quarreled over an appropriate response, Cimon prevailed during the debate and persuaded the majority to remain on good terms with the Spartans. Athens dispatched a large force of 4,000 hoplites to aid Sparta against the rebelling Helots now holding Mt. Ithome. The boldness and revolutionary spirit of the Athenians shocked the Spartans. They unceremoniously refused Athens’ assistance and dismissed the force. This unprecedented act of disrespect embarrassed Cimon and at first bewildered then angered the Athenians. The Athenian Ekklesia ostracized Cimon, renounced their membership in the original Hellenic League, and formed independent alliances with both Argos and Thessaly – two traditional Spartan antagonists. This strategic shift immediately brought Athens into conflict with Epidaurus and Corinth (460 BCE).

The platform on the Pnyx hill where speakers stood to address the Athenian democratic assembly in the 5th century BCE. The space dedicated for the assembly could hold 6000 people. / Photo by Mark Cartwright, Creative Commons

Shortly thereafter, Megara, because of Corinthian aggression, withdrew from the Peloponnesian League and allied with Athens. This further angered the Corinthians. In addition, Athens besieged Aegina. This Dorian polis, located in the Sardonic Gulf, the “eyesore of the Peiraieus,” had always threatened the waterway to Athens’ main port (Arist. Rhet. 1411a15; Plut. Vit. Per. 8.5). Aegina resisted Athenian attempts to secure a foothold on the western shore but lost a large naval engagement against a Delian League fleet. When the Aeginetans surrendered, Athens forced them into the confederacy and to pay the very high amount of 30 talents annum (458 BCE).

The Egyptian Expedition

Elsewhere in the Aegean, hostilities between the Hellenes and Medes resumed.  Xerxes, the Persian King, had died in 465 BCE. After a year of internal political intrigue and infighting, Artaxerxes finally assumed the throne.  The support he possessed from the various satraps, however, emerged unclear and in any case unsteady. The League chose to recapture the island of Cyprus with a force of 200 triremes, presumably to protect grain imports from the east (461/0 BCE).

When the Libyan prince Inarus appealed to the League in his own revolt against Persia, however, the synod, seeing this larger prize to the south, voted to divert the Cypriot Campaign to Egypt. The entire fleet sailed up the Nile to assist. Some of these ships would proceed to raid Phoenicia as well. The League’s task force eventually began a siege of the Persian garrison at Memphis. Fragmentary evidence suggests further that the League also made attempts to extend its membership to Dorus, Phaselis, and perhaps other eastern Aegean poleis about the Caria District.

The First Pelopponnesian War

With the surrender of Aegina, Corinth, a Spartan ally, invaded the Megarid, now an Athenian ally, and the First Peloponnesian War became inevitable. The Athenians soon fought the Corinthians, Epidaurians, and allies of the Aeginetans as well as other Peloponnesians. The Spartans had seemed content to allow their allies to field the brunt of any conflicts they may have suffered against the Athenians. They held to this view even after Persia, prompted by the Delian League’s actions in Egypt, attempted to entice the Peloponnesians to invade Attica with a large sum of money.

Spartan attitudes, however, changed when the Thebans also offered to war with Athens. Thebes recognized an opportunity had emerged with the sizeable Delian League fleet engaged in distant Egypt. The Thebans pledged that Sparta would no longer need to bring an army outside the Peloponnesus if the Spartans helped the Thebans re-establish their own Confederacy to check the growing power of Athens and the Delian League. The Spartans agreed. They had successfully quelled the Helot revolt, and the Peloponnesian League dispatched a force of 1,500 Spartans and 10,000 allies. Athens responded with a force of 14,000 Athenians and allies, including 1,000 Argives and a Thessalian cavalry, and the two Leagues clashed at Tanagra (457 BCE).

The Spartans, though victorious, no longer possessed the resources to continue operations in the region. They hastily negotiated a truce with the Athenians and withdrew from Attica. The Athenian-led force then defeated a Boeotian army at Oenophyta and overran Locris. The Delian League also dispatched a naval contingent to Sicyon and Oenidae under Pericles, son of Xanthippus. When Athens captured the Corinthian colony of Chalcis and forced both Orchomenus and Acraephnium into the League, the symmachy no longer existed as a purely maritime alliance; it had effectively established a continental presence in Boeotia.

Aftermath of the Egyptian Expedition

The Persians, meanwhile, counter-attacked in Egypt. They assembled a fleet of 300 triremes from the Cilicians, Phoenicians, and Cypriots, and drove the League forces from Memphis, trapping them on the island of Prosopitis. The resulting counter-siege would last 18 months. The Egyptian Expedition ended in total disaster (454 BCE); the bulk of the entire Delian League fleet, including 50 reinforcements caught at Mendesium, and approximately 40,000 men apparently lost. Only a handful of ships managed to escape. The catastrophe seriously weakened Athens’ preeminent position in the League and threatened control of the Aegean. Soon thereafter, the poleis Erythae and Miletus revolted (c. 452 BCE). The Athenians soon recovered them, however, restoring tribute, and installed Athenian officials and garrisons. They further required Erythae to provide sacrificial animals for the Panathenaic Games.

The Five Years’ Truce and Relocation of the Delian Treasury

The Athenians, after recalling Cimon from his ostracism, negotiated a more permanent Five Years Truce with Sparta (451 BCE) and turned their attention to securing the League. They quickly set about to rebuild the fleet, and the Athenians elected to continue installing local Athenian magistrates and plant garrisons after suppressing rebellions of member poleis, as they had done with Erythae. Sometime during these events (the precise date remains uncertain), the League, on a proposal made by the Samians, relocated its treasury from Delos to Athens. The disaster in Egypt most likely served as the impetus for this change, though this remains an educated guess.

By 454 BCE, the League treasury had accumulated a large surplus; sources attest anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 talents. The Athenians elected to dedicate one-sixtieth of the tribute to Athena Polias, and then use any surplus to erect temples, support the Athenian fleet, provide work for its citizens, all while retaining anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 talents on hand.

Siege of Citium and Battle of Salamis-in-the-Cyprus

The Delian League recovered from its maritime losses with a decisive naval victory at Cyprus. The Athenians assembled a new fleet of 200 triremes under the command of Cimon to break Phoenician power in the southeast. The League laid siege to Kition after taking Marium. The League again diverted 60 of these triremes to Egypt, this time to assist Amyrtaeus in his rebellion against the Persian King. Cimon would die during the Cypriot Campaign.

An artist’s impression of what a Greek trireme warship may have looked like / Total War

The Delian League navy defeated a combined fleet of Cilicians, Phoenicians, and Cypriots off Salamis-in-the-Cyprus (presumably the same force that destroyed the League’s fleet at Prosopitis), while also proving victorious in a pitched land battle. Even though Persia retained possession of the island, the League demonstrated a continued willingness and, more importantly, the capacity and ability to resist further Persian encroachments into the Aegean. The fleet then rejoined its Egyptian detachment and returned to Peiraieus. The Delian League would show little interest in Cyprus after these events.

The Peace of Callias

By the spring of 449 BCE, the Delian League apparently concluded some type of peace with the Persian King.  This Peace of Callias still remains one of the most debated questions in Greek history, and the evidence does not admit certainty for or against its authenticity or provide the specific terms it dictated. Although Thucydides nowhere mentions it, 4th-century rhetoricians make clear that the Athenians had come to believe some formal peace ensued between Persia and the Hellenes following the Greek victories at Cyprus. Generally speaking, it appears the Athenians required the Persians to surrender control of the Aegean as well as the poleis on the western coast and in the Hellespont. In return, the League would abandon all aggressions against the Persian Empire.

After Eurymedon and Salamis-in-the-Cyprus, it had become nearly impossible for the League to undertake further profitable aggression against Persia. The Greeks could gain little by making deeper incursions into Asia Minor, and they also found it impossible to hold Cyprus given its distance from Greece and proximity to the Phoenician navy. Whether or not an official peace treaty ever existed, the Cyprus Campaign remains the final attested Hellenic operations against the Mede recorded. No Persian ship sailed west of Pamphylia, and no Greek trireme sailed east. Meetings of the Delian League synod, moreover, began to lapse, and this compelled Athens to make some decisions regarding its future.

The cessation of hostilities removed the immediate purpose for which the League designed tribute. Although the Greeks gathered at Byzantium intended for the League itself to exist in perpetuity, tribute existed originally to conduct a war against the Mede. The Tribute Lists for 454/3 show 208 poleis paying a combined total of 498 talents. By 450/449, the League dropped to 163 poleis paying 432 talents, and no quota list, in fact, exists for 449/8 BCE. The reasoning behind suspending tribute remains unknown.

The Congress and Papyrus Decrees

Sometime about that same spring (449 BCE), the exact date remains debated, the Athenians, on a proposal put forth by Pericles, son of Xanthippus, dispatched 20 heralds: five to Ionia and the Aegean islands, five to Thrace and the Hellespont, five to Boeotia and the Peloponnese, and five to Euboea and Thessaly. The Athenians invited all Greeks for a congress at Athens “to share in the plans for the peace and common interests for the Hellenes” (Plut. Vit. Per. 17).

Pericles sought to change the nature and focus of the Delian League from primarily conducting a war against Persia to promoting a Panhellenic alliance that would ensure a continued peace. In other words, war had brought the League together, let the maintenance of peace and security henceforth cement it. The Spartans declined to participate. Scholars debate the historicity as well as the intent (whether genuine or disingenuous) of this Congress Decree; not a hint of its existence exists outside Plutarch.

A 1st century CE bust of the Athenian statesman Pericles probably from a 5th century BCE original bronze. Provenance: Rome. (Vatican Museums, Rome) / Photo by Mark Cartwright, Creative Commons

Shortly thereafter – though, again, the exact date remains debated – Pericles also proposed the Athenians secure the tribute reserve of 5,000 talents on the Acropolis and establish a commission to oversee the building of the Parthenon. The Athenians would further secure an additional 3,000 talents in reserve (in 200 talent contributions) while maintaining the fleet – but reduce the new annual commissions to ten new ships annum. The decree may also have established the 1,000 talent emergency iron reserve, which the Athenians could not use unless the Peiraieus came under direct attack.

Scholars refer to this as the Papyrus Decree, because the testimony survives on a mutilated papyrus from a commentary on a speech of Demosthenes. The decree stipulated that erecting temples with actual League funds had begun (after securing a surplus) but would not interfere with the maintenance of the Delian League fleet.The Athenians, therefore, showed no interest in relaxing League obligations. The tribute had become a necessity because the security of the Aegean depended on a navy; and navies, unlike armies, were enormously expensive. In addition, navies, again unlike armies, could not be brought into existence quickly to confront a threat. The only way the Delian League could possibly preserve any peace meant maintaining a visibly sufficient force solely for the purpose of preserving peace. Athens in fact annually dispatched a police force of triremes each year.

By this time, nearly all Hellenic poleis required imports of essential material and needed exports for their own surpluses. Athens, for example, needed timber and wheat, and this required unfettered shipping from the Euxine Sea and Macedon. The fleet also served as the League’s foundation of power. Knowing that Athenian triremes might appear in harbor at any time became the first deterrent against anti-Athenian sentiment. Although some protest began to spread among those poleis some distance from the Persian sphere, Athens offered no compromises; the League would not dissolve, and yearly tributes resumed in 448/7 BCE and would continue.

Interlude – The Athenian Building Program

From roughly 450 BCE down to the late 420’s BCE, the Athenians brought forth a series of new buildings and temples and enlarged key religious festivals. In many ways, these undertakings emerged simply as a continuance of Athens’ desire, which had existed since at least the time of Peisistratos and his sons, to become the cultural center of the Hellenic world. Delian League resources now permitted them to continue this endeavor.

The Athenians sought to employ Ionian culture as a form of propaganda; opulent displays that appealed to broad Hellenic pride to counter some discontent the Delian League encountered amongst various allies. The Temple of Athene Nike (450-445 BCE), the Parthenon (447-432 BCE) and Pheidias’ chryselephantine Athene (447-438 BCE), the Propylaea (437– 433 BCE), as well as the Erechtheion (421-405 BCE), coincided with the broadening of the Panathenaia and Dionysia festivals, and the Eleusinian Mysteries. These festivals would no longer serve as simply Panathenaic festivities but become Panhellenic celebrations. Allies would now participate in the sacred processions and sacrifices as well as in the dramatic and athletic contests.

The Propylaea, the monumental gate to the acropolis of Athens. Interior (west) view. Architect: Mnesicles, c. 437–431 BCE / Photo by Mark Cartwright, Creative Commons

Commissioners would report the finances of these celebrations in parallel with the assessment of Delian League tribute. Athens required further for allied poleis to bring a heifer and panoply to the Panathenaia as well as present a model phallus and their tribute during the Dionysia. The Athenians sought to display the three largest and most splendid Panhellenic religious festivals in the Greek world and sent forth heralds declaring that the allies would be directly and intimately involved.

The Athenians, in sum, attempted to present themselves as a majestic μητρόπολις or metropolis (lit. mother-polis) for all their allies. Athens would become the home or capital of a grand multiregional polis as opposed to leading a disparate collection of many independent and autonomous ισόπολεις or isopoleis (level or equal poleis). Without question, the high level of employment the building program created, coupled with the increased trade, brought with it a considerable population increase for Attica. Because Athens controlled the sea, “the good things of Sicily, Italy, Egypt, Lydia, the Peloponnese, and everywhere else [were] all brought to Athens” ([Xen.] Ath Pol. 2.7; Athen. 1.27e-28a).

The Second Sacred War

During the same year the Peace of Callias concluded, Sparta launched the Second Sacred War. The Phocians had seized control of Delphi, ejecting the ἀμφικτυονία or amphictyony (League of Neighbors; lit. dwellers around) – a loose religious coopt that surrounded the Oracle of Apollo (sometimes referred to as the Amphictyonic League).  Sparta restored the archaic Delphic authority and promptly withdrew. The Athenians promptly restored the Phocians.

Both Chaeronea and Orchomenus used this conflict to rebel from the Delian League, but Athens, after dismissing the objections of Pericles, dispatched a force of 1,000 Athenian hoplite volunteers and allied contingents under the command of Tolmides. He successfully captured Chaeronea but suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of a combined force of Boeotians, Locrians, Euboeans, and others at the Battle of Coronea (447 BCE).

Boeotia poleis revolted from the Delian League followed by Euboea and then Megara. Athens evacuated Boeotia, and a Spartan army again entered Attica. The Peloponnesians advanced as far as Eleusis. When Pericles led an additional hoplite force to meet the Spartans, they elected instead simply to return to the Peloponnese.  The reasoning for this sudden reversal remains unclear, though later sources assert Pericles bribed the Spartan Pleistonax. Pericles sailed for Euboea with 50 triremes and recovered the island after the siege and destruction of Hestiaia (446 BCE). The League, however, permanently lost Megara, who had grown disillusioned with Athens and put to death the Athenian garrison settled in their territory.

The Financial Decree of Cleinias and Coinage Decree of Clearchus

The League Tribute Lists show 171 member poleis in 447 BCE, but only 156 in 446 BCE. Several poleis also made late or split payments during this time; others still made double payments. The Athenians needed to address irritating but nonetheless widespread and growing discontent throughout the Aegean that had resulted from both its conflicts with Sparta as well as some logistical problems that collecting tribute presented. The Financial Decree of Cleinias (447 BCE) sought to improve the discipline of tribute collection.

The Athenians attempted further to impose a common use of weights, measures, and coins throughout the League. It banned independent silver coinage, but only silver coin, not silver bullion. It also closed local mints. The effort met with limited success as larger poleis like Samos, Chios, Lesbos, and others about Thrace seemed to have continued minting freely (c. 449 – 446 BCE). This Coinage Decree of Clearchus makes no reference to the alliance and further presupposes the existence of Athenian magistrates in most allied poleis.


About this time, Athens began to establish a κληρουχία or cleruchy (lit. apportionment of foreign land) after a polis revolted (e.g., Naxos, Andros, and Lemnos). The Athenian Pericles, for example, led an expedition to the Chersonese to protect it from Thracian invaders and settled it with Athenian citizens. A cleruchy, unlike an independent colony, was a group of Athenians settled on land seized from a rebelling polis, who retained their status as Athenian citizens. Cleruchies both reduced the growing idle and more impoverished population of Athens. They also established permanent local settlements of Athenians to insure against future rebellions from the League.

Cleruchies, however, also changed the nature and extent of the Athenian polis. The Athenians were no longer just the citizens residing in Athens but also those citizens who resided abroad. Since they remained subject to Athenian law, their presence extended Athenian jurisdiction. The Athenians, in other words, had come to interfere with the internal freedoms of other poleis, even fostering or supporting democracies when needed. Athens would go on to establish cleruchies in Imbros, Chalcis, and Eretia. Between 450 and 440 BCE, scholars estimate Athens sent forth at least 4,000 citizens. By 430 BCE, if we include the colonies established since 477 BCE, that number doubles.

The triumphs of the Delian League demonstrated larger inherent conflicts: on the one hand, it still required reasonable tribute, attempting now to advance a Panhellenic cause, while still ensuring the independence of Hellenes from the Mede. On the other hand, it more openly repressed dissenting members, forcefully acquired additional tributaries, while also extending Athenian festivals and law, founding democratic colonies, and imposing cleruchies on or near allied territory.

The Delian League had come to engage in a harder form of imperialism, expanding its reach while exacting tribute, and now requiring religious deference while interfering with the internal mechanisms of member poleis. The only poleis which still possessed significant fleets and remained independent were Lesbos, Chios, and Samos. Most notably, the language of decrees and treaties altered from ‘the alliance’ to ‘the poleis which the Athenians control.’

From the Thirty Years’ Peace to the Ten Years’ War


The third phase of the Delian League begins with the Thirty Years Peace between Athens and Sparta and ends with the start of the Ten Years War (445/4 – 431/0 BCE). The First Peloponnesian War, which effectively ended after the Battle of Coronea, and the Second Sacred War forced both the Spartans and Athenians to realize a new dualism existed in Hellenic affairs; the Hellenes now had one hegemon on the mainland under Sparta and one in the Aegean under Athens.

By the early 450’s BCE, the Delian League had secured for Athens an almost inexhaustible grain supply, enormous wealth, unprecedented control of the Aegean as well as dominance in central Greece, and thus the Athenians possessed almost absolute security from invasion. By 445/4 BCE, however, the Delian League suffered a devastating defeat in Egypt, the loss of Megara to the Peloponnesian League, and several Boeotian poleis had successfully rebelled.

Athenian Silver Tetradrachm, 479-454 BCE. O: Athena. R: Owl and olive branch. (Alpha Bank Numismatics Collection, Kerkyra, Corfu) / Photo by Mark Cartwright, Creative Commons

The Delian League agreed to surrender Nisaea, Pagae, Troezen, and Achaea (but retained Naupactus), and both sides drew up a final list of allies (who could not then change allegiances). The remaining independent poleis, which included Argos, could then ally with whomever they wished. Scholars debate whether or not the treaty also stipulated free trade amongst the Greeks. Athens now retarded any grand expansionist schemes it may have had for the Delian League and focused instead on securing it within terms of this Peace.

Reorganization of the Delian League

The Athenians spent the next few years reorganizing and consolidating control of the Delian League. They made an extraordinary assessment in 443/2 BCE and divided the poleis into five administrative districts: Ionia, Hellespont, Thrace (or Chalcidice), Caria, and the Islands. Athens also continued to establish important colonies (e.g., Colophon, Erythae, Hestiaia, and, most notably, the Panhellenic Thurii in Italy).

By 440 BCE, membership increased (or was restored) to 172 poleis. The growing number of Athenian garrisons and cleruchies throughout the Aegean, alongside the diminished role of League synods, further drove Athens to institute varying changes in relation to its allies of the League. The original founders of the Delian League did not contemplate the possibility their chosen hegemon would ever interfere in local judicial proceedings of the member poleis. They all took their individual autonomies for granted.

A map illustrating the members of the Delian League, led by Athens c. 431 BCE / Marsyas, Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, when the Athenians passed decrees, which necessarily affected allied poleis, they made provisions for settling offenses by Athenian jurists in Athenian law-courts. Athens also instructed allies to permit various appeals to those same courts and to impose penalties as Athenians imposed such penalties. Moreover, as stated, Athenian citizens abroad remained protected by Athenian laws.

The Athenians seemed intent on settling disputes within the League quickly and fairly by relying on the “rule of law” rather than naked force. The effect of these alterations, however, appeared far different to members of the League. The changes meant the removal of important litigation from local courts and magistrates, it diminished their independent authority, and it had Athens settle these matters ([Xen.] Ath. Pol. 1.16-18). Several allies thought they had now become subject to the tyranny of Athenian jurists.

The Samian War

War erupted between Samos and Miletus over the polis Priene (440 BCE) – the Samian War – and the clash presented a unique problem for the Delian League. Samos had remained independent, paid no tribute, and stood as one of the very few poleis which still had a formidable navy. Miletus, on the other hand, had revolted not once but twice from the League, and the Athenians had subsequently deprived it of a navy.

The Athenians understood they might act wrongly if they acquired Samos but decided it far more dangerous to let the polis remain free. Athens reacted swiftly and decisively. They dispatched 40 triremes, seized 100 Samian hostages, and promptly replaced the polis’ oligarchy with a democracy. Athens fined Samos 8 talents, installed a garrison, but then the Athenians departed as quickly as they had arrived. The League’s action, however, did not cow the Samians; it infuriated them.

The Samian oligarchic leaders immediately requested assistance from Lydia, and, with the help of Persian mercenaries, overran the Athenian garrison, and declared themselves “enemies of the Athenians.”  The Samians also made an appeal to Sparta. They now intended to contest “supremacy of the sea” and seize it from Athens (Thuc. 8.76.4; Plur. Vit. Per. 25.3, 28.3).

The near simultaneous rebellions of Byzantium as well as numerous poleis in the Carian, Thraceward, and Chalcidice Districts revealed the seriousness of the unrest – even Mytilene intended to join the revolts and awaited word from Sparta. Some of these poleis received support from Macedon. Sparta summoned the Peloponnesian League and a divisive debate ensued. The Corinthians argued strongly against intervention, advocating that each alliance should remain “free to punish its own allies” (Thuc. 1.40.4-6, 41.1-3). The Spartans remained silent.

The Athenian response again proved decisive and swift. With reinforcements from Lesbos and Chios, the Athenians besieged Samos. After nine months, they crushed the revolt. Samos would pull down its walls and pay reparations of 1,300 talents (in 26 installments). On the other hand, Samians did not surrender their navy or pay tribute, nor did the Athenians compel the island to accept a colony or cleruchies. Byzantium, who had, in any case, showed only moderate resistance, surrendered shortly thereafter, and the Athenians permitted them to rejoin the League with minimal punishment.

Epiphora and Loss of the Caria District

The Tribute Lists for 440/39 BCE show another change in procedure. For the first time, the treasury purposely lists some poleis twice: first with their normal assessments and then a second entry with an ἐπιφορά or epiphora (lit. a ‘bringing upon’ or ‘repetition’): a small additional charge the nature of which is not yet clear.

Athenian Tribute List Annus 15, 440 BCE / UBC Library, Flickr, Creative Commons

The term had many uses, but for the League, it appears the Hellentamiai imposed penalties or recorded additional deposits. The treasurers, for instance, seem to have charged interest due on late payments (3 minai per talent per month) or imposed a simple fine. The entry may also indicate, however, a voluntary additional payment for some specific service rendered. Most of these second payments occurred in the Ionia and Hellespont Districts.

The suppression of Samos did not prove a total success; by 438 BCE, about 40 of the more remote and inland poleis from the Caria District permanently disappear from the Tribute Lists. Caria had always proven difficult to control and tribute rolls often fluctuated. The combined assessment amounted to not more than 15 talents. Any force sent to collect arrears would have cost more than the lost tribute. Like Cyprus, Caria possessed little strategic value. The Athenians subsequently merged the remaining poleis into the Ionia District.

Even though the League relaxed its hold on its southeast periphery, the unrest at Byzantium exposed deeper problems in the Hellespont region. The Mediterranean possessed four great granaries, and the littoral of the Euxine Sea (i.e., imports from the Ukraine region) had become the most critical to Athens and its large population. Unfettered shipping remained paramount.

Pericles and the Black Sea

The following summer, to counter the unrest, Pericles, son of Xanthippus, launched his now famous Expedition to the Black Sea (437 BCE). The Athenian goal was simple: impress upon the more remote League members, as well as nearby barbarians, the value and importance of Athenian friendship. Athens put to sea an audaciously large and well-equipped fleet. Pericles “displayed the greatness of Athenian power, their confidence and boldness in sailing where they wished, having made themselves complete masters of the sea” (Plut. Vit. Per. 20.1-2). 

During this time, Athens also established sizeable colonies at Amisus, Nymphaeum, Brea, and finally, and most importantly, Amphipolis (on the Strymon river near Macedon). Amphipolis would serve as an impregnable fortress to prevent rebellion and guard the Hellespont while also securing timber and precious metals from the area.

The Epidamnian Incident (Corcyran Conflict)

A relatively minor event, which began in Epidamnus, would soon engulf Corcyra and Corinth (and several of its colonies) and eventually lead the two hegemons Sparta and Athens into open conflict and ultimately result in the great Peloponnesian War (435 – 432 BCE). 

Epidamnus, a colony of Corcyra (itself a colony of Corinth), became embroiled in a civil war, which involved some local barbarians. They asked their mother polis to assist. Epidamnus rested on the eastern coast of the Adriatic, more than a hundred miles to the north of Corcyra and thus existed far beyond either the Peloponnesian or Delian Leagues’ interests. Corcyra refused to assist. Epidamnus, after consulting Delphi, subsequently appealed to the Corinthians. They responded vigorously with assistance from Ambracia and Leucas (Thuc. 1.26.2-3), but Corcyra, who had a long-standing quarrel with Corinth, would not tolerate such interference. The Corcyrans moved to intervene but soon realized that they had underestimated Corinthian resolve.

Corinth received additional assistance from Megara, Cephallenia, Epidaurus, Hermione, Troezen, Thebes, Phlius, and Elis. Many of these poleis were also members of the Peloponnesian League, and thus this Epidamnian Incident had captured the attention of Sparta. Corcyrans historically avoided alliances and saw Corinth commanded considerably more resources. To avoid war or the loss of Epidamnus, they asked for arbitration from the Peloponnese or Delphi, or failing that, threatened to seek assistance elsewhere. The Corinthians ignored the veiled threat and refused, but they too underestimated Corcyra’s own resolve.

A modest Corinthian force of 75 ships sailed to Actium but confronted 80 defending vessels. Corcyra proved victorious, destroying 15 Corinthian triremes. The defeat only hardened Corinthian determination, however, who set about immediately to construct a larger fleet. Corcyra had no choice and sought assistance from mighty Athens.

The Battle of Sybota

The Athenians agreed to an ἐπιμαχία (defensive alliance) and dispatched ten triremes in support of Corcyra.  This time, Corinth approached Corcyra leading 155 ships. They brought contingents from their colonies Leacus, Ambracia, and Anactorium, as well as their allies Megara and Elis. On the other hand, Epidaurus, Hermione, Troezen, Cephallenia, Thebes, and Phlius saw the conflict now involved the Athenians and elected to remain neutral. The Corcyrans possessed 110 ships to defend (plus ten Athenian vessels acting as a type of reserve). 

The Corinthians gathered at Cheimerium, while the Corcyrans established a base on the island of Sybota. The resulting battle proved clumsy, but the Corinthians eventually routed the Corcyran fleet when 20 additional Athenian triremes suddenly appeared on the horizon. The Corinthians, fearing an even larger Delian League force would arrive, withdrew and viewed the interference as an open breach of their own treaty with Athens. The Athenians retorted that they had only supported their new ally and wished no war with Corinth (433 BCE).

Both sides declared victory, but the Corinthians then proceeded to seize Anactorium. Their quarrel with Corcyra had not ended, and they now had cause and made preparations for war against the Athenians. At the same time, representatives from Leontini and Rhegion arrived in Athens from Italy, and the Athenians accepted them into the alliance. The Ionian poleis of Sicily became fearful that Dorian Syracuse (also originally a colony of Corinth) might use Athenian preoccupation in any upcoming war to swallow them and thus joined the Delian League.

The Financial Decree of Callias

The Assessment of 434/3 BCE displays two new conditions: poleis that initiated tribute themselves, and poleis that accepted assessment by special arrangement. The volatile and constantly changing conditions in Thrace and Macedon make definitive conclusions difficult, but, in general, it seems some poleis in the region recognized the benefits of Athenian protection and voluntarily requested to pay a tribute to the Delian League.

The Athenians also passed two decrees on the proposals of Callias, son of Calliades. The measures concentrated various treasuries in the Opisthodomos. Once the League paid its debts, the treasurers would use surpluses on the dockyards and walls, but all sums exceeding 10,000 drachma needed a special vote of the Ekklesia. The Financial Decrees of Callias have provoked continuous controversy amongst scholars, but they appear to show Athenians had grown convinced another major war had become unavoidable and imminent. Whether or not such a conflict would stay focused against Corinth or come to involve Sparta, the Athenians readied the resources of the entire League for that war.

The Revolt of Poteidaia and the Megara Decree

While assisting Corcyra at Sybota, the Athenians also decided to become involved in Macedon, ostensibly to protect League interests in the area, but more likely to remove the fickle and untrustworthy King Perdiccas II and thus the constant threat of unrest from Thracian tribes in the region. Assessments in this area of the League (Pallene and Bottice) had risen since 438/7 BCE (presumably because of Thracian and Macedonian encroachments). Perdiccas then sent embassies to Sparta.

Perdiccas had long demonstrated a willingness to side against Athens when an opportunity presented itself. Athens dispatched 30 triremes with 1,000 hoplites to support both Perdiccas’ brother and nephew in a civil war that had developed there. About the same time, the Athenians issued what has become known as the Megara Decree (more than one decree actually existed, and the precise dates of their passages remain unknown).  Athens essentially forbade the Megarans access to the Athenian agora and all harbors under Athenian rule.

The Decrees’ exact meanings remain debated, but, by suddenly closing the harbors of the entire Delian League, Athens demonstrated its power to disrupt the flow of trade when provoked. The Athenian Ekklesia further issued an ultimatum to Poteidaia, a tribute paying Delian League member in the Chalcidice District since 445/4 BCE but also a Corinthian colony: the Poteidaians must dismiss their Corinthian magistrates. The Poteidaians flatly refused and appealed to Sparta for assistance (433/2 BCE). The Ephors promptly promised to invade Attica.

Poteidaia’s overt resistance resulted in several rebellions in the Chalcidice area. Corinth, moreover, dispatched a force of 2,000 volunteers to aid their colony. The Corinthian action compelled Athens to dispatch an additional 40 triremes and 2,000 hoplites to suppress the now serious rebellions from the Delian League occurring about Thrace. Unlike the revolts in Caria, Athens could not simply ignore this unrest. The insurrections here represented a more significant loss of about 40 talents out of a total collection of 350.

The Peloponnesian League Congress

The developments in Sybota and Poteidaia prompted Corinth to gather allies and go to Sparta. The Athenians sent ambassadors to appeal. Historically, the Spartans proved not swift “to enter upon wars unless compelled to do so” (Thuc. 1.118.2). By 432 BCE, however, Corinth and Megara, as well as Aegina and Macedon, all desired war against Athens. The Corinthians and Athenians made their cases. King Archidamus of Sparta cautiously argued against: “Complaints on the part of poleis or individuals can be resolved, but when a whole alliance begins a war whose outcome no one can foresee, for the sake of individual interests, it is most difficult to emerge with honor” (Thuc. 1.82.6). The Ephors called for a vote: the Athenians had violated the Thirty Year’s Peace. 

King Archidamus’ warning proved prophetic. The war would not exist simply between Athens and Sparta but between the Peloponnesian and Delian Leagues. It would prove a war for all of the Hellenes like no other, not between individual poleis for small and precise reasons but rather between two great alliances over a multitude of competing and disparate interests.

Map of the Alliances of the Peloponnesian War, as well as the respective strategies of the opposing factions of Sparta and Athens, and their allies. / U.S. Military Academy

The Spartan Assembly nonetheless declared the Treaty broken. This required King Archidamus to summon the Peloponnesian League to hear the growing list of complaints against Athens, and Sparta’s allies quickly voted for war. The majority of them simply had faith in the supremacy of the Peloponnesian army and predicted quick victory. King Archidamus further advised that they should first prepare for the next couple of years, and he convinced the allies to send three separate embassies to the Athenians. Although the Peloponnesian League did not make an appeal to arbitration (as required by the Thirty Years Peace), negotiations between King Archidamus and the Athenian Ekklesia continued for months.

Thebes ultimately forced Sparta’s hand. Expecting Athens to invade Megara and secure the Attic southern border, the Thebans attacked Plataea to hold the northern border – an open violation of the Thirty Years Peace and the first clear act of war. Although the attack ultimately failed, King Archidamus gathered the Peloponnesian forces in the Isthmus of Corinth. He made one final bid for concessions. When the Athenians refused, he finally (and reluctantly), led the Peloponnesian army into Attica launching a war, he predicted, that they would leave to their sons. History proved Archidamus correct.

The Two Great Leagues on the Eve of War

The two great alliances of Ancient Greece finally stumbled into a massive clash of arms, which resulted from a cascading chain of events. A relatively insignificant civil war that had begun in the remote and strategically unimportant Corcyran colony of Epidamnus became the catalyst. That civil war soon brought a series of competing alliances amongst various poleis into open conflict.

Corinth feared any resulting Athenian-Corcyran alliance overwhelmed the still formidable Corinthian navy, while the trade embargo of Megara, the critical polis between Corinth and Athens that resided in the middle of the main route between Attica and the Peloponnese, markedly discouraged pro-Spartan allegiances. The Spartans thus came to fear what the Confederacy of Delos represented: the unprecedented success of Ionian culture, symbolized by a radical democracy, an immense fleet, majestic buildings, grand festivals, flowering populations, spreading colonies, and a still growing alliance that might take hold within and eventually overwhelm the Peloponnese.   

By the start of the Peloponnesian War, the Delian League had come to operate with naked aggression and repression. On the one hand, Persia had all but disappeared as a threat. On the other hand, many poleis protested that Athenian rule had severely restricted the liberty of the Delian League’s members. Athens had also engaged in administrative and judicial interference, repeatedly demanded compulsory military service, exacted monetary payments, openly confiscated land, and attempted to impose uniform standards.

The Delian League now engaged in a form of open, hard imperialism. It not only unilaterally entered into alliances which affected all member poleis, not only interfered with the internal mechanisms of member poleis but had also transferred jurisdiction of the allied poleis to Athens and thus treated them all as honorary colonists.

The Ten Years’ War, 431-421 BCE


The fourth phase of the Delian League encompasses the first part of the Great Peloponnesian War, also referred to as the Ten Years War, sometimes called quite incorrectly The Archidamian War, and it ends with the Peace of Nicias (431/30 – 421/20 BCE). Though the Ten Years War had several surprising events, the two alliances fought essentially within broad frameworks established by those who launched it. This Hellenic Civil War pitted a maritime power against a continental one; it resulted in a clash between democracies and oligarchies; it sought to dismantle competing alliances while consolidating their own; all while the Peloponnesian League presented an offensive strategy and the Delian League engaged in a defensive one.

A lion sculpture in marble from the island of Delos in the Greek Cyclades, 7th century BCE (this is a replica as the originals are now in the museum of Delos). Orignally nine or even as many as 16 lions lined an avenue in the sanctuary complex dedicated to Apollo. / SquinchPix, Creative Commons

“So roused were the majority against the Athenians, some wanting release from the rule, others fearing that they would be dragged into it” that most Greeks initially favored Sparta when King Archidamus finally led his army into Attica. Pericles, son of Xanthippus, in fact recognized the Athenians had indeed come to rule the Delian League “like a tyranny” (Thuc. 2.63.2).

The Spartans declared their goals nothing less than the “liberation of the Hellenes” and “to restore the independence of those poleis subject to Athens” (Thuc.1.139.3; 2.8.4). The Spartans finally agreed to launch the war, however, only because they feared Athens’ overwhelming dominance in the Delian League and the spread of Ionian culture it represented, and they sought to destroy it.

Peloponnesian League versus Delian League Resources

The Peloponnesian League included all of the Peloponnese except Argos and a handful of poleis in Achaea. Outside the Peloponnese, it counted allies like the Megarians, Boeotians, northern Locrians, and Phocians. The Spartans also received assistance from Ambracia, Leucas, and Anactium, as well as Syracuse, and all the Dorian poleis of Sicily (except Camarina) and then Locri and Taras in Italy. The alliance could deploy about 100 Corinthian triremes.

The Delian League possessed all tribute-paying members on the coasts of Caria, Ionia, the Hellespont, and Thrace, as well as all the islands, “which lie between the Peloponnesus and Crete toward the east, except Melos and Thera” (Thuc. 2.9.4-5). Thera, however, would begin to pay tribute in 430/29 BCE. The Confederacy of Delos also had independent allies like Chios, Lesbos, and Corcyra, as well as Plataea, Naupactus, the Zakynthians, the bulk of the Acarnanians, Thessalians, and then Rhegium and Leontini in the west.

The Athenians possessed a ready fleet of 300 triremes, to which they could add if required a not insignificant number of aging vessels in varying need of repairs. The League could also acquire about 100 more ships from Chios, Lesbos, and Corcyra. Additionally, the Delian League possessed approximately 6,000 talents of coined silver on the Acropolis with 500 additional talents of uncoined gold and silver – and an ’emergency reserve’ of 40 talents from the gold plates that covered the great statue of Athena. The League also realized an annual income of about 600 talents in taxes, duties, and fees, and approximately 400 talents in annual tribute.

The Peloponnesian League, on the other hand, possessed quite limited financial resources. The Corinthians argued they could rely on funds from the Delphic and Olympian treasuries and from specific allied contributions. Most Peloponnesian poleis, however, did not have significant resources, and the prospect the Spartans could use the two sacred treasuries seemed chimerical – in fact, they never did. The Spartans, however, promptly demanded ships from their allies in Sicily, though the magnitude of vessels requested (200-500 ships) would seem absurd. Regardless, they never received them.

King Archidamus further realized Athens stood like no other Hellenic polis: stout walls around both the city proper and its main port Piraeus defended the city – with the two areas connected by double long walls and a third connecting wall to its secondary port Phalerum. Even if the Peloponnesian League could deprive Athens of Attic land, the Athenians could still import supplies from abroad. Athens essentially had become an island to itself with the entire Delian League to defend it.

First Year of War, 431/30 BCE

Perdiccas of Macedon initially met widespread positive response from disaffected allies in the Chalcidice District following the revolt of Poteidaia. While the total number of poleis paying tribute in the area had dropped precipitously since the 440’s BCE, the bureaucratic mechanisms Athens put in place to control the Delian League, especially Brea and Amphipolis, prevented any further seriously threatening large-scale rebellions to erupt. Sparta, moreover, found itself ill-equipped to aid these more distant disgruntled Athenian allies and limited its actions to invasions of Attica. The Athenians, on the other hand, elected to follow a strategy proposed by Pericles, son of Xanthippus: essentially fight a war of attrition.

The Peloponnesian army moved into Attica slowly and besieged Oenoe. The delay gave the Athenians time to evacuate their cattle and property to Euboea and retreat behind their great walls. 80 days after the Theban attack on Plataea, King Archidamus’ army finally broke the siege and ravaged the Attic countryside. The Athenians did not engage, and the Peloponnesians withdrew when provisions became scarce. Athens would hold to this strategy each year, Pericles professed, until the Lacedaemonians recognized destroying the Attic countryside failed to yield desired results. At the same time, the Delian League navy would harass the Peloponnesians with seaborne raids.

The Athenians successfully razed the Peloponnesian coastline with a fleet of over 150 triremes: 50 from Corcyra and a handful from other League members. The Athenians also added Sollium, Astacus, and Cephallenia to the Delian League after advancing to Arcarnania (431 BCE). The Athenians, however, failed to take Methone, halted by the quick thinking of the Spartan Brasidas. The Corinthians, furthermore, would retake Astacus the following winter. Still, Delian League forces captured Thronium and took Aegina, where Athens placed settlers “to occupy and cultivate” the land (Thuc. 2.27).  Ejecting the native population resulted in a loss of about 30 talents tribute, but it secured Piraeus. Athens further negotiated an alliance with King Sitalces of Thrace, who convinced Perdiccas of Macedon to side once again with the Athenians. Shortly thereafter, the Athenians fielded their largest army ever assembled: 13,000 hoplites and a large number of light troops. They invaded the Megarid. Though they did not conquer it, they vowed to invade twice each upcoming year. 

Despite the apparent widespread dissatisfactions initially expressed against Athens during the Peloponnesian Congress, no seriously concerted rush to break away from Athens took place after Poteidaia, and when the Athenians called upon allied poleis to send contingents, they sent them.  

For the first time in the Delian League’s history, Athens dispatched squadrons of “money-collecting ships” (430 BCE). The Athenians resorted to this measure because they now fathomed facing a long and expensive war. Athenian control of the Delian League became threatened only in the east: Ionia-Caria and Lycia. Peloponnesian pirates interfered “with the merchantmen from Phaselis, Phoenicia, and those parts.” Those six triremes sent to collect tribute also attempted to recover Caria and Lycia but failed (Thuc. 2.69).

Second Year of War, 430/29 BCE

Neither the Peloponnesian nor the Delian League scored a decisive victory or suffered a catastrophic defeat during the first year of open war. Both sides seemed content to maintain this status quo. The Delian League assessment of 430 BCE, in fact, shows no radical departure or even a sign of anxiety from the years before the conflict began. Athens, furthermore, successfully added a handful of poleis to the League while containing (but not breaking) the rebellions that occurred. Such containment, however, would quickly grow rather expensive.

The Great Athenian Plague

Athenian dispositions would begin to change after the second Peloponnesian invasion of Attica and the advent of the Great Plague (430-429, 427 BCE), which eventually claimed one-third of the Athenian population and, with it, their morale. Athenian demands on the League would begin to increase, and their reactions to revolts would become harsher as the war dragged on. In spite of the deaths occurring in Attica, Athens deployed 4,000 additional hoplites to crush the revolt of Poteidaia. They withdrew them when the plague swept the encamped army, killing 1,050 men.

The prolonged siege of Poteidaia would eventually cost 2,400 talents. When the polis finally surrendered the following year, the Athenian military commanders somewhat surprisingly permitted the Poteidaians to depart with a minimum of clothing and money (they then scattered to neighboring poleis), though this angered the Athenian Ekkelsia. The Athenians sent forth settlers. This moderation for Delian League members Athens displayed, however, would not last.

The Peloponnesian League attacked Zakynthos with ten triremes and 1,000 hoplites (430 BCE). They failed to take the polis but wrecked the countryside and withdrew. They then sent an embassy of Spartans, Corinthians, a Tegean, and an Argive to Persia seeking money and an alliance, but Athenians in Thrace intercepted and executed them.

Third Year of War, 429/28 BCE

The Spartans and Thebans began a siege of Plataea. The Athenians, after suffering a defeat at the Thracian poleis of Spartolos and Poteidaia, changed tactics and elected to concentrate primarily on protecting those poleis that remained loyal (429 BCE).

The Delian League defeated a Peloponnesian naval force near Patrae and successfully defended the port of Naupactus. The Peloponnesians, however, soon advanced a fleet as far as Salamis before withdrawing, which shocked the Athenians. A brief war between Thrace and Macedon also alarmed many of the Delian League’s members in that region.

Over the course of two years of war, the Delian League had apparently spent in the neighborhood of 4,000 talents. By the winter of the third year (428 BCE), they had only 945 talents in the reserve.

Fourth Year of War, 428/27 BCE

Any optimism the Athenians had at the start of the war had evaporated by this time. Plague losses proved nothing short of catastrophic (including the death of Pericles, son of Xanthippus), and, although the situation began slowly to grow more stable, word arrived that Mytilene had made preparations to revolt from the Delian League. Despite the failure of the revolts about Poteidaia, Mytilene consolidated the smaller poleis of the island, sent envoys to Sparta, and made preparations for the inevitable siege.

League forces, however, crushed the rebellion led by Mytilene on Lesbos – as well as the revolts of Antissa, Pyrrha, and Eresos – while easily repelling Spartan attempts to intervene and acquire their fleet. A Spartan force of 40 triremes under the command of Alcidas arrived too late and then made the situation worse by attacking and executing Athenian allies in the open sea. The Samians sharply chastised Alcidas that his actions proved a poor way “to liberate the Hellenes” (Thuc. 3.2-6, 8-18, 3.32, 35; Arist. Pol. 1304a9).

On the urgings of Cleon, son of Cleaenetus, who emerged as a prominent voice in the Ekklesia after the death of Pericles, the Athenians initially ordered the execution of all adult Mytilenian males and the enslavement of all women and children. They later reconsidered and decided to execute only those most responsible for the revolt (approx. 1,000 men). Athens then established cleruchies on the island.

Financial burdens coupled with the revolt of Mytilene compelled the Athenians both to impose a capital levy on themselves as well as demand an extraordinary assessment from the Delian League (428 BCE). The tax yielded 200 talents. They dispatched 12 triremes to collect tribute. In addition, Athenians made another attempt to retake the Caria District but failed once again.

The Spartans took Plataea, and a full-scale civil war erupted in Corcyra (428 BCE). Once again, this distant polis came to involve both Leagues. Although the Peloponnesians proved victorious in the opening naval battle, they withdrew upon the arrival of 60 Delian League triremes.

The First Expedition to Sicily

The Athenians dispatched 20 triremes to Sicily (427 BCE). Athens had a long-standing symmachy with Leontini, an Ionian polis, and it now faced war with Dorian Syracuse. Athens sought to deny Sicilian supplies to the Peloponnese and ultimately bring Sicily into the Delian League. The efforts met with mixed results: they won then lost Messana followed by several indecisive engagements. The Athenians would send 40 additional ships to assist, but, after the Congress at Gela succeeded in securing peace, they accomplish little more.

The Delian League now had 250 triremes deployed throughout the Aegean and in the west engaged in various operations. Cleon, son of Cleaenetus, and his companions represented a clear shift in Athenian disposition toward the allies of the Delian League. The chief aims became firmly maintained control, ensured tribute and contributions, and the belief that peace could ensue only after Sparta suffered humiliation and defeat.

Tightening of Tribute Collection

The Athenians finally stopped bleeding the Delian League treasury, caused by prolonged sieges, spending 100 talents of the reserve in 428/7 BCE and 261 talents in 427/6 BCE. Moreover, the Athenians had raised the assessment “little by little” over time (Plut. Vit. Ar. 24.3). By 426 BCE, the Delian League had 835 talents on hand.

Sieges had represented the greatest drain on the treasury, which occurred above and beyond normal wartime expenditures like ship and arsenal maintenance, crew training and exercises, and the building of new and replacement triremes.

Athenian Tribute List Annus 25, 430-429 BCE / UBC Library, Creative Commons

In 426 BCE, the Athenians reorganized tribute collection for the Delian League. They appointed individual Tribute Collectors in each polis, who the Athenian Ekklesia would hold personally responsible, and then five men would take charge to exact payments from all defaulters.

Fifth Year of War, 426/25 BCE

In addition to the annual invasion of Attica, Sparta founded a colony at Heraclea near Euboea. Meanwhile, Athens tried to force the Spartan colony of Melos into the League (apparently prompted by a recent monetary contribution to Sparta) with a sizeable force of 60 ships and 2,000 hoplites. When the Melians neither surrendered nor offered battle, the Athenians, not wishing to risk another long and expensive siege, departed. They nevertheless attacked Tanagra and assaulted Locrian territory before returning to Athens.

The Athenians again dispatched a fleet of 30 triremes around the Peloponnese to harass the area, joined by 15 Corcyran ships as well as forces from the Acarnanians, Zakynthians, and Cephallenians (426 BCE). The fleet took Leucus but was driven out of Aetolia, although it successfully halted Spartan and Corinthian encroachments near Ambracia.

Purification of Delos

The Athenian Ekklesia, celebrating the cessation of the great plague, voted to “purify Delos” (Thuc. 3.104.1; Diod. 12.58). Athens reorganized and made “more splendid” the island’s quadrennial festival with musical, gymnastic, and equestrian contests (Plut. Vit. Nic. 3.5-7). These celebrations had steadily declined since their heydays of the 6th century. The Athenians sought to re-establish their prominence.

The festival once attracted Ionian Greeks from both the Greek mainland as well as the islands. The Athenians attempted to increase their “popularity” (Thuc. 3.104.3). They wished to build on their other endeavors to create Panhellenic celebrations since the Peloponnesians controlled three of their own. The Athenians appealed specifically to Ionian solidarity.

Sixth Year of War, 425/24 BCE

The next year, the Peloponnesian army again entered Attica, and Corcyra once again came under threat, besieged by 500 exiles and a Peloponnesian fleet of 60 triremes. The Athenians responded with a force of 40 ships, but they stopped to fortify Pylos, leaving a garrison and five triremes behind. The remainder then continued to Corcyra. The Spartans, though slow to react at first, soon understood the danger this fort represented. They withdrew the army from Attica and converged to destroy it. The Athenians held them off for two days.

Pylos and Sphacteria

The Delian League’s Corcyran force plus ten Chian and Naupactan ships returned and defeated the Peloponnesian fleet in the bay. The Athenians besieged 420 men at Sphacteria (where they had fled), which included 180 Spartans: one-tenth of the Spartan army. This sudden turn of events greatly alarmed the Spartans, and they immediately sued for peace. The Athenians responded with conditions unacceptable to the Peloponnesian League. When Athens sent reinforcements under Cleon, the surviving 292 Peloponnesians and 120 Spartans on Sphacteria shocked the entire Hellenic world by surrendering. 

The events at Pylos changed the entire outlook of the Ten Year’s War: with 120 Spartan prisoners, the annual invasions would end, and the Delian League fleet could sail throughout the Aegean unmolested.

Expansion of the Delian League

The Athenians elected to make an extraordinary assessment in 425 BCE. The Delian League had but 674 talents in the reserve. The Athenians more than trebled the amount of tribute collected from the 450’s to nearly 1,500 talents. They also added the new District of Euxine (the Black Sea). They dispatched the largest fleet recorded to collect tribute and declared further their intention to make more consistent assessments during the years of the Great Panathenaia (i.e., 420, 416, 412 BCE, etc.).

The Decree of Cleonymus, moreover, required the Hellenotamiai to report to the Ekklesia a full accounting within ten days of the Dionysia of tribute paid or not paid, as well as all partial payments. Additionally, the Decree of Thudippus appointed ten assessors to fix a provisional amount for each member, and, in no case, could they lower a figure (unless a polis proved unable to pay). Heralds would announce the new amounts, and allies could come to Athens to plead their case before a specially constituted court should an amount prove too much. Final decisions would rest with the Athenian Boule (Council or Senate).

Tribute for the Island District increased from a pre-war amount of 63 talents to 150 talents; Thrace increased from 120 talents to approximately 325 talents; the Hellespont from 85 talents to approximately 375 talents; and Ionia-Caria from 110 talents to 500 talents. These increases show no pattern or scale and seem to reflect simply a determination of resources available.

The Athenians also made additional demands for allied contingents and further included poleis that had not paid tribute for years as well as added others who had never appeared on the Tribute Lists. In no year before the start of the Ten Years War do the Delian League Tribute Lists record more than 180 poleis. The assessment of 425 BCE name no less than 380 and possibly more than 400 poleis now comprising the Delian League. Perhaps most ominously, however, the decrees threaten penalties at every turn. As Cleon had observed, the Athenians now ruled the Delian League as a tyranny.

Seventh Year of War, 424/23 BCE

The following year, Athenians embarked on a more aggressive campaign. A Delian League force of Milesians, Andrians, and Carystians invaded Corinth, which marks the first explicit recorded use of League land troops. 60 triremes, 2,000 hoplites with cavalry, as well as 2,000 Milesian hoplites and other allies also attacked and captured Cythera. Cythera was an island in a strategic location off the Peloponnese. Athens forced Cythera to join the Delian League, and this further alarmed the Spartans. 

The Spartan Brasidas, however, led 700 helots with 1,000 Peloponnesian mercenaries and repelled an Athenian attack on Megara. The Athenians managed to hold Nisea, but without Megara the Athenians could not stop an invasion from the Peloponnese. Athens further suffered a decisive loss at the Battle of Delium, and Athenian attempts once again to secure Boeotia and check the power of Thebes failed.

The Thracian Campaign

The Spartan Brasidas, an atypical Spartan who displayed imagination with his courage, who could talk as well as fight, then led his force north through Thessaly (using skillful diplomacy) and into Thrace. The situation in Thrace had changed little since 429 BCE. Upon arrival in the north, Brasidas secured the (limited) aid of Perdiccas. He took Acanthus, Stagirus, Argilus, and then Amphipolis – strategically and economically the most important polis and the base of Athenian influence in the region.

Thucydides, son of Olorus, the historian, sailed from Thasos with his fleet of seven triremes but arrived too late to save Amphipolis. He successfully repulsed Brasidas’ subsequent attempt, however, to take Eion. Myrcinus, Gelepsus, and Oesyne immediately rebelled from the Delian League, followed shortly thereafter by the whole of the Acte peninsula except Sane and Dium. Brasidas besieged Torone. After taking the polis, he requested reinforcements from the Peloponnesians while constructing triremes at Strymon. 

At the end of the seventh year, the Delian League treasury had shrunk to 596 talents.

Eighth Year of War, 423/22 BCE

By 423 BCE, news of Brasidas’ actions in Thrace and the growing number of revolts they produced compelled Athens to act. The Athenians feared Brasidas might gain control of the Hellespont. They prepared forces to recapture and crush the rebellions near the Strymon river. Fortunately for Athens, the Spartans refused Brasidas’ request for reinforcements because they “preferred to recover [the Spartans, who surrendered at Sphracteria] and put an end to the war” (Thuc. 4.108.7). They concluded a one-year truce with the Athenians to negotiate a more lasting peace.

An artist’s rendition of how Greek hoplites may have appeared / Total War

Although Scione and soon Mende revolted from the Delian League, Brasidas’ campaign near Macedon nonetheless revealed that support for ‘liberation’ in Chalcidice proved neither resolute nor unambiguous by this time. The Greeks of Chalcidice remembered Sparta’s failures from 446 and 427 BCE, the Thirty Years Peace, and at the revolt of Mytilene. The arrival of a Delian League force at Mende (40 Athenian and 10 Chian triremes with 1,000 Athenian hoplites, 600 archers, 1,000 Thracian mercenaries, as well as some light armed troops from various members of the League) immediately resulted in civil war, and the populace turned on the Peloponnesians. The Athenians then began a siege of Scione and further rebellions failed to spread.

After eight years of war, some Greeks felt freedom from Athens simply meant subservience to Sparta. The Delian League now had 444 talents in the reserve

Ninth Year of War, 422/21 BCE

The Athenians, after hearing the Delians sought an alliance with Sparta, ejected them from their island. They also elected to send 30 triremes, 1,200 hoplites, 300 cavalry, as well as a larger force of Lemnians and Imbrians, under the command of Cleon to recover the rebelling poleis about Thrace and including Amphipolis. Cleon recaptured Torone and established a base at Eion before Brasidas could return. The Stagirians repelled the Athenians, but Cleon successfully captured Gelepsus while Brasidas went to Amphipolis. Cleon would go on to recover several other rebellious poleis in the region.

Soon thereafter, Cleon and Brasidas, the two primary obstacles to a cessation of hostilities between Athens and Sparta, died at the Battle of Amphipolis (422 BCE). Their deaths opened a door for peace negotiations between Athens and Sparta. While direct talks commenced, the Athenians had already retaken Mende with little loss of life. They permitted the polis to re-enter the League with little difficulty. Scione, on the other hand, the last polis to capitulate the following year (420 BCE), suffered the original fate declared for Mytilene: mass executions and enslavement, and the Athenians then settled Plataeans there. The Greeks would remember the Athenian butchery of the Scionaeans well into the 4th century.

The Peace of Nicias, Quadruple Alliance


The fifth phase of the Delian League begins with the Peace of Nicias – a settlement that settled nothing – and ends with the start of the Decelean War (also referred to as the Ionian War). This conflict’s beginning overlaps the League’s disaster in Sicily, which occurred shortly thereafter (421/0 – 413/2 BCE). Although the resources still available to the Delian League at the end of the Ten Years War show the Athenians could have continued fighting, the recurring rebellions among allies coupled with the failures in Megara and Boeotia dimmed any promise that had followed the Athenian victory at Pylos.

Artist’s impression of how a harbour scene in ancient Greece may have looked / Total War

The siege of Poteidaia and the defeat at Delium alone illustrated the high cost the Delian League suffered waging an aggressive war. The annual destruction of Athenian crops, the plague, and ten years of fighting had strained temperaments within the Delian League and wasted a treasury long in accumulation.

The Peace of Nicias

The Peace of Nicias promised peace between the two Leagues for 50 years but delivered only eight. Though it provided free access to common shrines, Delphic independence, and rules for arbitration, the Delian League still lost Amphipolis through Sparta’s failure to enforce the agreement. The Athenians also refused to surrender Pylos and Nisaea, the latter of which threatened Megara. The Peloponnesian League nevertheless abandoned Torone, Scione, and various other poleis, while the Delian League retained Poteidaia, Corcyra, Sollim, Argilus, Stagirus, Acanthus, Stolus, Olynthus, Spartolus, and Anactorium. This result angered both the Corinthians and Megarans.

Bust of Nicias, Athenian politician (c. 470-413 BCE). Illustration from World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 1. by William Jennings Bryan, Francis Whiting Halsey / Wikimedia Commons

Athens thus realized revenue of about 1,200 talents from the assessment of 420 BCE. Their grip on the Confederacy of Delos remained intact. Corinth, Megara, Elis, and Boeotia, in fact, voted against the final terms of the negotiated settlement. Argos also indicated it would not renew its own treaty with Sparta. The Spartans elected not to press these issues and instead chose to establish an independent 50-year epimachia with Athens, which the Athenians accepted, and this permitted the two sides to work around the deficiencies of the actual Peace Treaty. As a gesture of goodwill, the Athenians returned the men captured at Sphracteria.

Although many of the allies in both Leagues remained dissatisfied, the two hegemons imposed the terms on each. This only exasperated the underlying discontent among their various members, especially in the Delian League – shown, for example, by reliefs, which now depicted tribute as seized money bags.

Shifting Alliances and New Leagues

The unsatisfied Corinthians immediately sought to establish a fourth league in the Hellenes. They secretly approached Argos. The Argives had a long-standing quarrel with Sparta, and they readily agreed with almost no alterations to Corinth’s proposal. Mantinea soon joined this new alliance followed shortly thereafter by Elis (420 BCE). When Sparta learned of these maneuvers, they complained bitterly to Corinth and then intervened directly, which delayed further negotiations. Although Corinth made subsequent appeals to Megara, Tegea, and Boeotia, those attempts failed, and Corinth’s resolve to form this new League faltered.

Sparta, however, felt threatened by the resulting Triple Alliance between Argos, Elis, and Mantinea. They openly attacked Mantinea, which brought Argos to their defense. The Argives proved no match for the Spartan Army.  The Spartans then turned against Elis. After a series of engagements, the Spartans assembled an effective northern defense boundary. Meanwhile, further negotiations commenced between Athens and Sparta, and Athens agreed to surrender Pylos and move the population to Cephallenia but only if Boeotia surrendered Panactum. The Athenians further permitted the Delians to return to their island at the behest of the Delphic oracle.

The newly elected Ephors in Sparta, however, once again shifted Spartan policy, and they desired instead to renew the war with Athens. The Spartans approached Boeotia and Corinth to coax Argos into yet another separate alliance. Argos, however, turned to Boeotia with its own designs: Argos, Boeotia, Corinth, Megara, and Thrace would form an alliance of their own, but Boeotia did not trust Corinth. The scheme failed, and Boeotia instead approached Sparta with a separate alliance, who accepted.

The Boeotians dismantled Panactum, which angered the Athenians, and thus they refused to surrender Pylos.  Nevertheless, fearing the possibility of alliances between Boeotia, Sparta, and Athens, the Argives sought an independent alliance with Sparta. All of these rapidly evolving and shifting allegiances in the Peloponnese and Boeotia caught the attention of the young, flamboyant, and highly ambitious Athenian Alcibiades, son of Cleinias.

The Quadruple Alliance

Alcibiades recognized that the Triple Alliance of Elis, Mantinea, and Argos had in short order seriously threatened the relative stability of the Peloponnese. Entering into it, furthermore, offered minimal risk to Athens directly. He argued further that, if the Spartans addressed their problems with Argos, then they would simply renew their aggressions against an isolated Athens. Alcibiades sent word to the Argives privately urging them to come with representatives from Elis and Mantinea. The invitation arrived before Argos had negotiated with Sparta, and the Argives received it enthusiastically. Although Sparta attempted to quash the negotiations, the Athenians entered into a hundred-year alliance with Argos, Elis, and Mantinea, and, with it, the Athenians had successfully divided the Peloponnese (420 BCE).

An idealised bust attributed to Athenian statesman and general Alcibiades (c. 451-403 BCE). Roman copy of a 4th century BCE original (Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome) / Photo by Bija, Flickr, Creative Commons

Corinth, faced with the Delian League to the north, and this new Quadruple Alliance to the south, subsequently abandoned any ties with Elis and Mantinea and aligned with Sparta. The Eleans, in turn, banned Sparta from the temples, sacrifices, and competitions of the Olympic Games. The Spartan colony of Heraclea came under attack, and they asked for assistance from the Thebans, who took control of the polis – fearing the Spartans could no longer defend it (419 BCE). The Athenians, moreover, marched a small armed force through the Peloponnese and negotiated an alliance with Patrae, but the Corinthians and Sicyonians prevented the Athenians from building a fort at Rhium (across from Naupactus). Argos then attacked Epidaurus. The Athenians asked for a conference at Mantinea to discuss peace, but the Corinthians refused. When a Spartan army approached the Epidaurian border, the Argives and Athenians withdrew.

The Battle of Mantinea

The following summer (418 BCE), the Spartans finally responded against the new alliances with vigor. King Agis led 8,000 Spartan, Tegean, and other Arcadian hoplites against Argos, and they ordered the Peloponnesian League to assemble forces at Phlius: 12,000 hoplites as well as 5,000 Boeotian light-armed troops with 1,000 cavalry. The Argives fielded 7,000 hoplites, the Eleans 3,000, and the Mantineans 2,000. The Athenians, whose enthusiasm had waned, sent only 1,000 hoplites and 300 cavalry, but they would arrive too late.

When King Agis reached Phlius, the Peloponnesian army numbered 20,000 men, “the finest Greek army assembled up to that time” (Thuc. 5.60.3). The two sides negotiated a four-month truce and withdrew. The Mantineans used the respite to besiege and take Orchomenus. Shortly thereafter, factions arose in Tegea, and they entertained joining the Quadruple Alliance. The Spartans responded swiftly. Alcibiades’ expansionistic plan and the short-lived Quadruple Alliance ended with the decisive Spartan victory at the Battle of Mantinea (418 BCE).

Argos and Thrace

The Athenians withdrew from Epidaurus while the Argives withdrew from the Quadruple Alliance and allied with Sparta. Soon, however, civil war broke out in Argos (417 BCE), and the new regime once again sought an alliance with Athens, who remained ambivalent. For the next three years, Argos and Sparta would engage in a series of raids and counter-raids.

While the Athenians had become involved in the Peloponnese, some of the Chalcidean poleis had rebelled from the Delian League again, and the Athenians planned an expedition to recover them, but, when Perdiccas refused to help, the Athenians simply ordered a blockade of the Macedonian coast.

Destruction of Melos

Athenian temperament and attentions changed with the sudden decision to coerce Melos into the Delian League (416 BCE). Though listed in the assessment of 425 BCE, Athens had failed to exact tribute. The precise circumstances of this move remain unclear, and the sources do not indicate any immediate grievance, but the Athenians apparently decided the Melians had benefited from the Delian League while bearing none of the burdens long enough. 

Athens abruptly sent 30 triremes with 1,200 hoplites and called for an additional eight allied triremes with 1,500 hoplites. The Delian League force converged on the island. They made camp, laid waste to the fields, and sent ambassadors to persuade surrender without battle or siege, but the Melian magistrates refused to permit the embassy to address the populace.

Thucydides’ account of the ensuing discussion, presented as a unique dramatic dialogue, has prompted repeated scholarly debate. The Athenians presented a “cruelly blunt” argument: the reality of the disparity between Athens and Melos rendered all discussion of justice and injustice moot, only equality ever prevented one side from imposing its will on the other (Thuc. 5.89). The Melians, however, remained convinced their cause proved just, the gods would protect them, and the Spartans would come to their aid. Fortune, the Melians held, would bring them victory. The Athenians countered that the Spartans acted only when confident of their superiority. They would therefore not cross the Aegean as long as Athens controlled the sea.

When Melos finally surrendered after a long siege, the Athenians executed the men and enslaved the women and children. Athens offered the same justification for their actions that they had presented to Sparta at the start of the Ten Years War: 

We have done nothing amazing or contrary to human nature if we accepted a rule given to us and then did not surrender it, since the strongest motives conquered us – honor, fear, and self-interest. We are not the first to have acted this way, for it has always been ordained that the weaker are kept down by the stronger. (Thuc. 1.76.2)

During this time, Nicias personally led a grand procession and dedication of Apollo’s Temple on Delos. The destruction of Melos and the opulent display on Delos showed the Hellenes that the Delian League had not withered under war.

Segesta and Leontini

That winter, Athens received an unexpected appeal from Segesta and Leontini in Sicily to aid them in their war against Selinus and Syracuse (416/5 BCE). Athenian envoys returned that spring with 60 talents and the promise of more money (415 BCE). The Segestan invitation emphasized traditional ties, allied obligation, and defense. Athenian attention, again led by the wildly expansionist and ambitious Alcibiades, turned solidly west.  He argued that the Athenians could conquer not only Sicily but also Carthage. The Athenians soon “longed for the rule of the whole island” (Thuc. 6.6.1), an undertaking demanded by a populace hungry for power and greedy for grain but, according to Nicias, totally ignorant of the scope.

The Athenians initially considered to send a relatively modest force of 60 triremes without hoplites under the command of single general but instead chose three. The goals nonetheless remained limited: aid Segesta, resettle Leontini, and “settle affairs in Sicily in whatever way they judged best” (Thuc. 6.8.2). Four days later, however, the Ekklesia met to consider equipping the fleet. When Nicias attempted to cow the crowd with the magnitude and folly of the endeavor against Syracuse, his effort backfired spectacularly.

The Doric temple of Segesta, north-west Sicily. The temple was built c. 417 BCE in dedication to an unknown deity. / Photo by Mark Cartwright, Creative Commons

Alcibiades countered matter-of-factly: the Athenians must aid their allies. “That is how we acquired our rule and that is how others who have ruled acquired theirs—by always coming eagerly to the aid of those who called upon us, whether Hellene or barbarian” (Thuc. 6.18.2). Athenians allies were, in fact, the first line of defense for the Delian League. Alcibiades’ Sicilian strategy, like that he pursued with the Quadruple Alliance in the Peloponnese, relied on surprise, psychological impact, and diplomacy. Nicias argued that the forces allocated could not accomplish the goal. In response, the Ekklesia, convinced Sicily could greatly increase their wealth, voted overwhelmingly to equip the fleet with everything necessary to bring those poleis into the Confederacy.

The Great Sicilian Expedition

The Sicilian Expedition proved the most ambitious attempt to expand the Delian League to date. It consisted of 134 ships (60 Athenian, 30 Chian, and 10 Methymna triremes; 2 Rhodian penteconters; 40 Athenian troop carriers and various vessels from Chios and other League members); 5,100 hoplites (1,500 Athenian, 500 Argive, and 2,150 drawn from Euboea, Andros, Naxos, Samos, and Miletus with 250 Mantinean mercenaries); along with 900 light-armed troops and 30 cavalry; together with stone masons and carpenters drawn from all over the Aegean – “the most expensive and glorious armament coming from a single polis with a purely Hellenic force that had put to sea up to that time” (Thuc. 6.31.1).

An artist’s rendition of a Greek trireme in battle / Total War

Almost immediately, setbacks and disappointments plagued the endeavor. The early removal of Alcibiades from command soon led to serious indecision by the remaining military commanders Nicias and Lamachus (415 BCE). Alcibiades fled to Sparta, and the Sicilian Expedition began to falter, eventually preparing for a siege of the polis Syracuse. Athens dispatched 300 Segestan and 100 various allied cavalry reinforcements (414 BCE), quickly followed by ten more ships to assist against Syracuse. By this time, however, the Spartans and Corinthians too had already become involved in Sicily. What began as a grand scheme to absorb Sicily, then Carthage, and from there the whole of the Peloponnese itself, soon deteriorated into a prolonged siege of a single polis.


Athens also elected to enter Argos’ war against Sparta after an Argive victory at Thyrea. The Athenians sent 30 triremes, which ravaged the Laconian coast. This act openly violated the Peace of Nicias. Sparta thus made renewed preparations to invade Attica.

The contrast between the mature piety of Nicias and the youthful dash of Alcibiades perhaps offers the best illustration of the misfortune, which came to dominate Athenian policies and, with it, their rule of the Delian League. The death of Pericles brought forth successors like Cleon, Nicias, and Alcibiades, who would act out of personal ambition, but “being more or less equal to one another in political power, and yet each man striving to become first, they turned to pleasing the masses and even handed over management of public affairs to them” (Thuc. 2.65.10). 

Neither Nicias nor Alcibiades enjoyed the advantages that had produced Cimon or Pericles. Each succeeded only to interfere with the plans of the other. What happened with the decisions to attack Sicily and aid Argos brought this failing out into the open and would thus threaten the survival of the Delian League.

The Decelean War and the Fall of Athens


The sixth and last phase of the Delian League begins with the Decelean War, also referred to as the Ionian War, and ends with the surrender of Athens (413/2 – 404/3 BCE). The final nine years of the Delian League became the most chaotic for the alliance as a whole. It suffered repeating reversals in fortune, while actual control of the Delian League at times shifted between the polis of Athens and the Athenian fleet operating in the Aegean. Although the two hegemons made peace in the spring of 421 BCE, that peace had effectively ended in late summer of 418 BCE, when an Athenian contingent fought alongside Argos and Mantinea against Sparta during the summer of 418 BCE. We possess limited evidence, but the assessment of 421/0 BCE also shows the Athenians dispositions changed little since the assessment of 425 BCE.

This is a 3D rendition of how an ancient ship ramming an enemy vessel may have looked / Total War

Under the advice of Alcibiades, who had defected to Sparta after fleeing from Sicily, King Agis seized Decelea (413 BCE). Decelea rested 14 miles (c. 22 km) north-northeast of Athens. A permanent Peloponnesian garrison deprived Athens of all territory outside the walls as well as access to Euboea. 20,000 slaves, many of whom worked the nearby silver mines, deserted the polis. Thebes promptly confiscated most of the abandoned material and supplies in the Attic countryside. The Athenians again responded with 30 triremes and a force of Argive hoplites to raid the Laconian coast. Moreover, the Delian League had small forces operating in the Thermaic Gulf and in Ionia. Even with the bulk of the Athenian fleet engaged in Sicily, the evidence shows Athens suffered no widespread discontent with its allies in the Aegean at this time.

The Disaster in Sicily

As King Agis prepared his fort, the Peloponnesians readied additional reinforcements for Syracuse: 25 Corinthian triremes with numerous troop carriers; 600 Helots; 500 Corinthian, 300 Boeotian, and 200 Sicyonian hoplites, as well as a number of Arcadian mercenaries. They slipped past the 20 Athenian triremes at Naupactus. When word of Nicias’ troubles in Sicily reached Athens, the Athenians readied even further League reinforcements of their own: 60 triremes, 5 Chian ships, 1,200 Athenian hoplites with additional allied soldiers. This force, however, paused to assist on the Laconian raids then seize and fortify the isthmus of Cythera. The reasoning remains unclear, and they realized little in return. The fleet then stopped to collect addition allied forces from Zakynthos, Cephallenia, Messenians, as well as Arcarnanians.

After leaving ten vessels to assist Corcyra, the fleet finally proceeded to Sicily.  By the time they arrived, however, the allied situation had thoroughly deteriorated. The Syracusans, aided by Peloponnesian arrivals, drove the Delian League forces to the defensive. Although the sources attest to certain defections amongst some allied soldiers, the allied contingents as a whole remained loyal. Even during the final retreat, the majority of them refused to surrender or defect. Nevertheless, the Syracusans and Peloponnesians routed and destroyed the entire Delian League force at the Assinarus river.

Aftermath of the Sicilian Expedition

When word of the catastrophe first reached Attica, no one, in fact, believed the initial reports. Nevertheless, the disaster in Sicily utterly decimated Delian League resources and thus crippled the power of Athens. Disbelief soon morphed into anger, which then turned into terror. The Syracusans and Peloponnesians had destroyed or captured at least 216 triremes – 160 of them Athenian. Athens also lost 3,000 Hoplites, 9,000 thetes, and thousands of metics. The city now possessed no more than 100 triremes in the Piraeus docks, all suffering from differing stages of disrepair, and almost no treasury to complete the needed repairs or hire more crews.

3D reconstruction of the shipsheds for the Athenian navy at Zea Harbour. / Zea Harbour Project

The Tribute Lists, in fact, show the Delian League had but 444 talents on hand, though it still collected approximately 900 talents annum by this time. Now, however, it had no fleet to enforce those collections. Moreover, the Spartan army at Decelea penned the Athenians in the polis and deprived the Athenians of their mines and farming land. Several allies soon competed fiercely to revolt first: Euboea, Chios, Lesbos, Rhodes, Miletus, and Ephesus. The Spartans calculated they could now depose Athens and “safely hold hegemony of the Hellenes” (Thuc. 8.2.2-4). The Delian League, it seemed, threatened collapse. 

The Athenians, however, became determined to do what they could. They first elected a board of ten elders to advise and temper passions of the Ekklesia. They took all required steps to secure timber, prepare a new fleet, see to the alliance, and would consider tapping the League ‘iron’ reserve of 1,000 talents while reducing public expenditures. They abandoned the fort in Laconia and constructed one at Sunium to protect imported grain shipments from the Spartan garrison at Decelea.

Reorganization of the Delian League (Again)

Additionally, the Athenians instituted the most sweeping logistical change attempted to finance the Delian League: they canceled tribute assessments, which had taken on a considerably negative connotation by this time, and instead imposed a 5% levy on all import-export goods transported by sea (413 BCE). This new system of financing the alliance would result in greater revenue but required more detailed control of collection. Confident of a bureaucracy in place for over 60 years, the Athenians thought themselves up to the task. Evidence shows, however, they met with varying and limited success. Although they never officially rescinded the tax, they reinstated tribute for at least some members of the League by 407 BCE. 

Despite this resurgent Athenian determination, Sparta seemed poised for victory (412 BCE). King Agis had reestablished the colony at Heraclea and forced the Achaeans as well as other allies of the Thessalians to surrender hostages. Euboea, Lesbos, Chios, and Erythrae all offered assistance in return for Spartan support. The Decelean War, unfortunately for the Peloponnesian League, would now shift to the east Aegean.

The Peloponnesian League and Persia

The Spartan alliance still proved poorly adapted to sustain overseas operations. Sparta lacked ships, experienced naval commanders, and, most importantly, financing. The Peloponnesian League had no consistent income and no reserves. A large, ready fleet required crews, who needed to be paid regularly. Regular pay required regular subsidies. The Spartans, in fact, managed to launch only 39 triremes. 

To meet the financial limitations, the Peloponnesian League turned to Persian money. Although the overtures met with hesitation, opportunism, and even suspicion, the Spartans would eventually negotiate three treaties with the Persian King. Persia’s attention, however, remained divided between two rival satraps: Tissaphernes at Sardis wanted to concentrate the war in Ionia, while Pharnabazus at Dascylium wanted to concentrate efforts in Caria – and both wanted the credit for recovering those Greek poleis the Persian Empire lost to the Delian League following its second failed invasion.

What immediate tactical advantages Sparta enjoyed also revealed an inherent underlying strategic weakness.  Euboea and Lesbos had appealed to King Agis at Decelea, while Persia, Chios, and Erythrae sent to Sparta directly and made their cases to the Ephors. Because these two centers of power had long-standing rivalries and often suffered disagreements, it took months for Sparta to formulate any consistent policy. The Peloponnesian League, again under the advice of Alcibiades, eventually voted to sail for Chios to establish an eastern base of operations, and, from there, incite rebellions in the region, but they delayed the departure.

The Aegean and Ionian War (412 BCE)

The Athenians, with Macedonian timber, began hobbling together a new navy, and, after intercepting the first Spartan fleet to sail for Chios, chased the Peloponnesians to the deserted fort of Spiraeum, just north of Epidaurus. They destroyed the Peloponnesian ships. The Athenians then blockaded the passage, cutting off Corinthian ships from the Aegean. A small Spartan fleet of 5 triremes, again on the advice of Alcibiades, slipped passed the blockade and arrived in Chios, which resulted in an open rebellion.  Erythrae joined in revolt and soon discontent spread to Clazomenae, Lebedos, Haere, Anea, and Ephesus. Miletus, the jewel of the Aegean, followed. The Spartans now commanded 23 triremes in the area.

Athens soon responded. The two already deployed Athenian fleets chose to anchor at Samos. The force numbered 28 triremes. 19 ships departed to intercept the Peloponnesian fleet at Miletus but arrived too late; they turned to Lade, where they blockaded the Milesians, while a Peloponnesian force of 13 triremes brought Methymna and Mytilene into rebellion. 

The Athenians elected to tap the “emergency [iron] reserve” and build even more ships (Thuc. 8.19.3-4). Meanwhile, a reinforcement fleet of 16 Delian League triremes arrived at Samos, followed shortly thereafter by a force of ten triremes. This now sizeable Athenian fleet prompted Samos to erupt in a ruthless revolution. The new faction established a strong democracy. The Athenians, in turn, granted them independence. With Samos now a secure base of operations for the deployed Delian League fleet, the Athenians set out to reverse the losses suffered.

The Peloponnesians, meanwhile, broke through the blockade at Spiraeum. Four ships made it to Chios. They landed at Lesbos during the same day the Athenians had arrived with 25 triremes. Though the Spartans convinced Phocaea and Cyme to revolt, the Athenians defeated the Chian fleet in harbor, won a pitched land battle, and captured the main polis of Lesbos in short order. The Athenians then retook Clazomenae and sailed toward Chios. They landed at the Oenessae islands, where they initiated a blockade and conducted raids. The Athenians had now successfully blockaded the two major poleis in the region: Chios and Miletus. Later in the year, further Athenian reinforcements of 48 ships (triremes and troop carriers) arrived at Samos bringing with them 3,500 hoplites: 1,000 Athenian; 1,000 Aegean; and 1,500 Argives. This force soon laid siege to Miletus (412 BCE).

Peloponnesian reinforcements, in turn, landed on Leros: 33 ships supplemented by 20 Syracusan and 2 Selenian triremes. The Athenians abandoned the siege, which angered the Argives, who returned home, while the Peloponnesians surrendered Iasus to the Persian Satrap Tissaphernes. 12 additional triremes from Thurii, Laconia, and Syracuse would arrive later at Knidos, which Tissaphernes had already incited to rebel from the Delian League. While Sparta recognized Persian claims to the Greek poleis of Asia, the Spartans had not consulted those Greeks. Sparta’s agreements with Persia made a mockery of the liberation Sparta once promised. Athens, meanwhile, allied with the poleis resisting Persia against Tissapehernes.

Alcibiades in Persia and the Siege of Chios

Athens’ recovery but one year after their disaster in Sicily proved nothing short of extraordinary. At the same time, the Spartans grew suspicious of Alcibiades. He seemed too clever for them; they resented his vanity, came to mistrust him, and ordered him killed. Alcibiades, realizing he had lost Spartan confidence, fled to Sardis and began advising Tissaphernes. Alcibiades, who now actually desired to return to Athens, convinced Tissaphernes to become dilatory and evasive to the point of frustration with the Spartan leaders. Tissaphernes cut their pay and then paid irregularly. The Satrap also withdrew all direct military support to encourage the Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues to fight each other and thus deplete their resources.

That winter, the Peloponnesian fleet, now numbering 80 ships, lay idle at Miletus, while further Athenian reinforcements of 35 triremes arrived at Samos. The Delian League now had 104 ships in the Aegean. The remainder of the Peloponnesian fleet, anchored at Chios (16 triremes), attempted various raids on the neighboring coastline but accomplished little. The Athenians, on the other hand, elected to deploy their fleet: 30 triremes to Chios and 74 to Miletus.

An idealised bust attributed to Athenian statesman and general Alcibiades (c. 451-403 BCE). Roman copy of a 4th century BCE original (Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome) / Photo by Bija, Flickr, Creative Commons

The Spartans remained divided. The Spartan governor of Chios and their naval commander disagreed on whether or not to assist Lesbos in its rebellion from the Delian League. The Peloponnesian force at Knidos separated into two contingents: one to protect the polis and another to conduct raids on shipments from Egypt. The Athenians, meanwhile, built a fort on Chios. The Spartan fleet at Miletus refused to intervene. Meanwhile, an additional Spartan fleet of 27 triremes arrived at Caunus. After a brief skirmish between a Peloponnesian fleet of 64 ships sent from Miletus and an Athenian fleet of 20 ships sent from Samos, the Spartans brought their now combined fleets of 94 ships to Syme and later proceeded to Calirus on Rhodes. The Athenians, meanwhile, completed their fortifications on Chios, and the island began to suffer a famine (411 BCE). The Spartans would have attempted to relieve the blockade but still feared an open naval battle against an Athenian fleet and thus retired back to Miletus.

Sparta’s new treaty with Persia abandoned Ionia, and the Spartans turned to Abydos in the Hellespont. It soon rebelled from the Delian League followed shortly thereafter by Lampsascus, but the Athenians soon recovered it. At the same time, a Peloponnesian fleet of 35 triremes, including 5 from Thurii, 4 from Syracuse, and 1 Anaean, fought an Athenian fleet of 32 vessels, which included troop ships, to a draw.

The Four Hundred and the Five Thousand (411 BCE)

By 411 BCE, the blunders of the Athenian democracy had fostered growing discontent among the oligarchic-minded Athenians. Athens’ policies appeared foolish, their executions incompetent. The League fleet, operating out of Samos, furthermore, failed to recover Miletus and rebellions had now spread to the Hellespont again. These results threatened the Athenian lifeline from Euxine.

Athens suffered two brief oligarchic revolutions: The Four Hundred followed shortly thereafter by the Rule of the Five Thousand. The Four Hundred immediately entered into negotiations with the Persian satrap Tissaphernes as well as the Spartan King Agis. The new regime further pledged to secure the League with similar oligarchies, but the Athenians of the League fleet stationed at Samos refused to recognize the revolution.

Silver coin issued by Tissaphernes (c. 420-395 BCE) in Persia. The obverse depicts a satrap while the reverse shows a lyre with seven strings. / British Museum

Those Athenians called an assembly on Samos to debate the situation. They listened to the recently recalled Alcibiades. The fleet had become enraged and desired to sail immediately to Piraeus and attack Athens, but Alcibiades encouraged them to hold fast with hopes of securing the aid of Tissaphernes. The Argives, furthermore, dispatched representatives to Samos, proclaiming that Argos recognized the Athenians on the island as the true polis. The navy, in effect, had created a second Athens. These Athenians consolidated their forces and, under the leadership of Alcibiades, ended their internal divisions. 

The Four Hundred, meanwhile, suffered an uprising in Piraeus when word spread that they would rather betray the polis to Sparta than surrender to the Athenians on Samos. The Spartans readied a fleet of 42 triremes, reportedly to help Euboea revolt against the Delian League, but whose true motive appeared rather to sail to Eetionia and, from there, attack Piraeus. The Piraeus uprising, however, coalesced into the rule of the Five Thousand and successfully mounted a defense of Piraeus. The Five Thousand then dispatched a fleet of 36 triremes to attack the Spartan fleet, which had sailed on to Euboea. The Athenians lost 22 ships, and the island revolted. The Spartans, however, failed to pursue the advantage and did not move to attack Piraeus.

The War in the Aegean Continues

The Spartan forces stationed on Miletus, moreover, while growing in number and resources, still suffered from discord, division, and indecision and accomplished little. Athens “could not have had a more convenient enemy” (Thuc. 8.96.5). The Delian League dispatched a number of triremes to collect tribute and recapture the Hellespont. They recovered Lesbos and Mytilene while further fostering a civil war in Thasos (411 BCE). Athenian commanders secured additional victories in the area, suppressed the possibility of any further wide-ranging revolts, and by the end of the year had over 100 triremes at sea.

In addition, Knidos, who voluntarily seceded to Persia, now drove out its Persian garrison in a sudden reversal of disposition. Moreover, the Milesians drove out its own Persian garrison. Persia, in the meantime, commissioned a fleet of 147 ships to aid the Peloponnesian League, which arrived at Aspendus, but it never entered the Aegean. Whether or not the Persians followed the advice of Alcibiades, who still advocated letting the two Leagues drain their resources against each other, or the Persian King became more concerned with unrest in other parts of the empire, remains debated amongst scholars.

Additionally, Corinth offered Sparta little direct aid while Megara appeared interested only in helping its own colonies Byzantium and Selymbria break away from the Athenian alliance. Boeotia, whose attention remained primarily on the Greek mainland, also contributed little to the east Aegean. The mixed crews that the Spartans now commanded, furthermore, proved far more difficult to control than Spartan hoplites. These commanders also encountered a tough streak of independence from their Syracusan and Thurian allies.

Divided Loyalties

More importantly, however, the sheer size and age of the Delian League exposed competing underlying loyalties among its many members. In addition to the broad affinities Ionian Greeks naturally held with Ionian Athens and Dorian Greeks possessed with Dorian Sparta, the Athenians had also spent 60 years fostering and establishing democracies throughout the Aegean. Sparta, on the other hand, favored oligarchies.

Oligarchs of each polis saw in Sparta the hope of gaining power, while the masses naturally looked to Athens. Most of the poleis, which broke away from the Delian League, did so because oligarchs seized power. The democrats, however, often remained loyal to Athens. While these democrats would have certainly preferred a free democracy to a subject democracy, a subject democracy proved far superior to an uncontrolled oligarchy, and thus they resisted Spartan ‘liberation.’ The Athenians discovered they faced weaker enemies and still possessed more friends than they had first realized after the disaster in Sicily.

The Battle of Cyzicus

The embarrassing lack of consistent aid from Tissaphernes eventually drove the Spartans to abandon the satrap and ally with Pharnabazus, whose aid proved resolute and consistent. After the revolt of Chios, the Spartans now commanded a fleet of 112 ships. They sent 26 triremes to Byzantium and 13 to Rhodes. The Peloponnesian League successfully incited rebellions in the areas. Consequently, the Athenians on Samos dispatched several triremes to meet the threats. Athenian commanders sought to recover poleis and collect levies where they could. Then, under the leadership of Alcibiades, the League eventually reassembled the entire fleet in the Hellespont. The Peloponnesian and Delian League navies finally clashed in the Propontis at Cyzicus, where the Spartans lost anywhere from 135 to 155 ships (410 BCE).

Model of a Greek Trireme. / Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany, Wikimedia Commons

In spite of unprecedented Spartan efforts at sea, and belated but ultimately reliable and consistent support from Persia, as well as two back to back revolutions in Athens in addition to the Athenians lacking immediate funds, the Peloponnesian League experienced nothing but a string of losses and setbacks in the Aegean. Moreover, even though the Spartans still controlled Decelea on the Greek mainland, and Rhodes, Miletus, Ephesus, Chios, Thasos, and Euboea, as well as a handful of poleis on the Thracian coast and in the Hellespont, the Athenians again controlled the Aegean Sea and, with it, the bulk of the Delian League. The Peloponnesian League, furthermore, suffered the loss of important support when Carthage invaded Sicily, and the Syracusans withdrew. Sparta thus made overtures to secure a peace and stabilize the positions reached. Athens’ now restored democracy, however, refused.

Delian League Losses, Athens Recovers the Aegean

The Delian League soon lost its important ally Corcyra after a civil war erupted in 410 BCE. They then lost Pylos in 409 BCE, an important base for operations against the Peloponnese. The League also lost Nisaea in Megara to a rebellion. In addition, a small Spartan fleet of 25 ships captured Chios. Although these represented irritations, the Athenians still maintained overall control of the sea. More ominously, however, Pharnabazus provided Sparta with the money to build a fleet as great as the one destroyed at Cyzicus. The Athenians, in the meantime, dispatched reinforcements to Samos, and, from there, they sought to recapture Pygela but failed. The League fleet then ravaged the countryside for some time, but the Persians eventually drove the Athenians back to the coast.

The Delian League began to gain the advantage, however, when Alcibiades recaptured Selymbria in 408 BCE.  The Athenians installed a garrison and extracted tribute. Thrasybulus then recovered Thasos in 407 BCE. Despite the initial setbacks, the Delian League soon recovered the Hellespont, and the Athenian fleet could sail and raid at will by 407 BCE. Alcibiades thus sailed about the Ceramic Gulf and collected 100 talents throughout Caria. This good fortune Athens experienced, however, would not last.

Demise of the Delian League

The Athenians welcomed Alcibiades home and elected him to full command by land and sea. At the same time, the Spartans had embraced their ablest leaders to date: Lysander and Callicrates. Even though these two Spartans had become rivals, they both proved to possess what previous Spartans commanders since Brasidas had lacked: initiative, daring, shrewdness, and inventive thinking.

After an embarrassing minor loss at Notium against Lysander (406 BCE), and even though the League suffered few casualties and still commanded an impressive fleet of 108 triremes, Alcibiades’ rival demagogues in Athens discredited him, and he fled Athens for the last time. It appears Lysander made use of the opportunity Notium presented to offer more pay and a not insignificant number of League rowers deserted the fleet at Samos. The new Athenian leader, Conon, arrived to find he had crews to fill only 70 ships.

Batle of Arginusae and Execution of the Generals

While Conon continued to sail, collect tribute, and suppress rebellions where he could, Callicrates launched a campaign with 140 triremes, which soon grew to a force of 170. He attacked those poleis under Athenian control and put an end to Conon’s “adulterous affair with the sea.”  He then successfully blockaded the League fleet at Mytilene. The Athenians managed to equip 110 additional triremes: 60 Athenian and 50 from the islands (Xen. Hell.1.6.24; cf. Diod. 13.97.1). Then, after collecting 10 warships from Samos and 35 more from additional League members, this relief fleet sailed for Mytilene. When Callicrates received word of the reinforcements, now numbering 145 triremes, he dispatched 110 of his triremes to intercept.

The Battle of Arginusae proved the largest battle ever fought between Greek navies, and the Peloponnesian fleet once again suffered a decisive defeat, losing just under 80 ships. The Athenians, however, fatally squandered the victory by collectively executing their ablest commanders for failing to recover bodies from 12 wrecked triremes of the 25 they lost during the battle. Never before in Athens’ history had the Athenians executed a military leader, let alone six in a single act. The trial and deaths divided the Athenians, and the death sentences made finding good leadership extremely difficult at a time when such leadership became paramount for the survival of the Delian League.

Battle of Aegspotami and the Siege of Athens

Even though the Peloponnesian League still deployed over 90 ships, they again sued for peace, but the Athenians again rejected the offer. They commanded a force of up to 180 triremes in the Aegean, and it stood free to raid and plunder island and mainland poleis friendly to Sparta. Sparta thus dispatched Lysander with 35 triremes. He promptly assembled the entire Peloponnesian fleet at Ephesus and, from there, sailed to Miletus and on to Caria, leveling and subjugating poleis as he went (406/5 BCE). He eventually made his way back to the Hellespont. Lysander’s arrival again threatened the Euxine lifeline, compelling the Delian League fleet to follow.  The Athenians and their allies lost 168 of their 180 triremes in the decisive and final engagement at Aegospotami.

With the Delian League fleet destroyed, Athens became utterly defenseless and prepared for the inevitable siege to follow. The Peloponnesians surrounded the polis, and the Delian League had no more money. Refugees jammed inside polis, soon began to starve, and Athens neared revolution again. Finally, the Athenians surrendered. The remaining poleis resisting the Peloponnesian League opened their gates, and the Spartans purged Delos of all Athenian influence. Sparta demanded Athens pull down its long walls, which for half a century had provided the polis protection against the Peloponnese and Boeotia. The Spartans also forced the Athenians to surrender the remainder of their fleet, except for 12 ships to serve as a police force, and to relinquish all overseas possessions – including the cleruchies. The Delian League ceased to exist.

Judgments and Conclusions

The Delian League represents the largest and most successful Ancient Greek Confederation devised. It survived often surprising and numerous setbacks and calamities. The Confederacy of Delos also followed what became a predictable pattern with multi-poleis alliances: contributions from members first came freely but later needed to be collected by the hegemon under coercion, and, when decent spread, it resorted to interference, suppression, and repression. Calls for early Athenian hegemony resulted from the discrediting and indifference of the Spartans, but Greek moods often changed suddenly and quickly. Athenian leadership alone could not end rivalries or factions. Athens soon found it necessary to install garrisons and magistrates and eventually to impose Athenian laws upon its allies. At the Delian League’s height, the Athenians deployed 700 overseas officials.

The Delian League indeed morphed from τὸ ξυμμαχικόν (a body of allies) to an Athenian ἀρχή (command or rule). All the independent member poleis first joined in common council (συνέδριον) but later simply took instructions from the Athenians. The allies thus went from αὐτόνομοι (independents) to ὑπήκοοι (subjects).  A new word would enter the oaths of allegiance: πείσομαι (obedience). Despite the inherent differences between each of the poleis, all Ancient Greeks worshiped the same gods and spoke the same language. They farmed and fought in the same manner, and, while individual poleis adamantly protected their independence, they still thought of themselves as a single people. 

Ancient Greek may not have a word for ’empire,’ but the Greeks could express the idea of imperialism using paraphrases like ἀρχή + πολυπραγμοσύνη + πλεονεξία (a rule + much meddlesomeness and officious interference + an insatiable desire to have what rightfully belonged to others). The Athenians engaged all three practices. There perhaps exists no better commentary on the Athenian’s rule of the Delian League and the imperialism it produced than Aristophanes’ Birds, where a series of Athenians appear to protect then guide and finally to suppress the constitution-makers of Cloudcuckoobury.

The history of the Delian League shows the Athenian practiced their form of imperialism gradually. Athenian imperialism emerged from the League’s successes, as a kind of economic and political subjection, a necessary coercive power over the other poleis of the alliance to ensure continuance. Athens’ exploitation of the League’s members, however, did not entail direct control of either the means or labor of production within those poleis. Whether or not this constituted an actual ’empire’ lies beyond the scope of this article. While the allies could rightfully assert the Athenian democracy first looked to its own interests, they also could not deny it remained loyal to its friends. Samos, for example, had become independent during the Decelean War, and, when Alcibiades took Byzantium, he also found help from within the polis. When Lysander subsequently took Byzantium after Aegospotami, those men fled to Euxine but later went to Athens and became Athenian citizens.

By the start of the Ten Years War, nevertheless, Athens had indeed become a tyrant. Its rule of the Delian League had continued neither from the official acceptance of other members nor from any type of formal agreement. Nevertheless, most of the allies remained loyal until the end. Thucydides certainly never suggests that Athenian rule of the Confederacy rested on the allies’ free consent, but the 4th-century orators never suggest that it did not. Regardless, the Athenians argued their rule existed as more moderate than others had in the past or would in the future: an interesting claim, since the 27-year strife that led to Athens’ eventual surrender, and, with it, the Confederacy of Delos’ demise, represents perhaps one of the most horrific civil wars in early recorded history.

The second and final nine-year clash between the Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues boasted, like the Ten Years War that preceded it, not only conventional land and naval battles but also terrorism, revolutions, assassinations, mass evacuations, and mass murders. Thousands died from combat, sieges, ethnic cleansing, droughts, famine, and plague. All of this calamity, moreover, unfolded alongside a baffling array of shifting alliances on the Greek mainland.

The professed aim of the Delian League began as a fight for freedom from the Mede, but that goal would change to advancing Athenian desires and fostering Ionian culture. Athens attempted to rule by Athenian Law, by promoting Panhellenism, and ultimately the Athenians sought to craft a monumental metropolis, which often meant cramming democracy down the throats of resistant poleis. The resulting civil war encompassed everyone in the Greek-speaking world. By the time it ended, 80,000 Athenians and countless other Hellenes had died and 500 ships had sunk throughout the Aegean and suffered destruction in Sicily.

The three greatest motive forces behind Athens’ failure to lessen Delian League obligations became fear, pride, and profit. Fear caused the Athenians to rule the Aegean and fear further drove them to seek out Sicily and expand the League even further – not to reduce or subjugate those Greeks, they argued, but rather to save them from subjugation. Athens professed to fight for the ‘Greek cause.’ Without Athens, the Athenians held, the Aegean would fall to the Mede and Sicily to the Carthaginians.

A map illustrating the members of the Delian League, led by Athens c. 431 BCE / Marsyas, Wikimedia Commons

Athens exploited the allies to achieve these goals to some extent, but it did not do so in any systematic or extensive way. The total tribute collected became quite large, but few individual poleis paid significant sums. Before the great wartime reassessment of 425 BCE, only 14 poleis paid more than 10 talents, and only 5 of those paid more than 15 talents. Fully understanding the actual burden these allies experienced goes beyond the extant evidence on their resources, but scholars doubt Athens required them to pay more than they could comfortably afford (at least until well into the Peloponnesian War). Some of them certainly came to see tribute as a symbol of subjection, but that remains another matter.

All Athenians profited in some way from ruling the Delian League. The poor gained land through the growth of colonies and cleruchies, while also receiving pay for naval and jury service. The rich gained land and achieved prominence through various public offices, which governing not only Athens but also the League required. All Greeks, but especially the Athenians, benefited as well from the increased maritime trade, and, while Athens increased its share of this trade, the volume of trade had also become considerably larger – but such advantages came at the loss of polis autonomy and at the cost of land confiscation as well as the general infringement of liberties.

The Delian League’s achievements against the Persian Empire remained uncontested throughout Greece, but Athens also used Delian League resources to suppress and repress. These meddlesome acts directly assaulted the Hellenic sense of independent civic corporatism, which the very nature of the polis demanded. The Athenians came to overthrew oligarchies everywhere; the Spartans overthrew democracies.

An opportunity to revive another Athenian-led league would soon emerge when the Aegean grew disillusioned with Spartan hegemony. Sparta’s championing the eastern Greeks against Athens and the Mede would prove desultory. The Spartans held that all Hellenic poleis, great and small, would remain autonomous but only if ruled by pro-Spartan oligarchies – and the Spartans spectacularly failed. Spartan leaders soon found they too needed to impose governors and boards to rule and, to finance expeditions, exact tribute as harshly as the Athenians.  “The Lacedaemonians put more men to death arbitrarily in three months than [the Athenians] brought to trial in the whole course of [their] rule” (Isoc. 4.113). The Peloponnesians also left many poleis unaligned, confused, and ambivalent. Many suffered invasions, sacks, or fell impoverished.

The fall of Athens and the dissolution of the Delian League did not lead, as hoped, to a general liberation of the Hellenes but simply left many Greeks abandoned. Other Greeks came to believe they had simply replaced one Greek tyrant with another, one that seemed far more incompetent and indifferent to the ‘Greek cause.’ The masses of more and more poleis began to call for a new Athenian Hegemony. Within ten years of Athens’ surrender, Boeotia and Corinth prepared to ally with Athens and Argos against Sparta. Whether or not Athens learned from the mistakes it committed ruling the Delian League would become evident with the founding of the Second Athenian League.


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Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 09.14.2016, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.