The Athenian Empire, is a topic which has been widely discussed among ancient historians, not in any small part about whether or not the Delian League, as it was originally known as by historians, can actually be described as an empire true and proper. However, this essay is not the place to discuss such technicalities therefore, for ease, this conglomeration of city states will be referred to as the Athenian Empire. The Athenian Empire that will be analysed shall be the one which began with the formation of the Delian League in 478 BCE and ended with the loss of Athens’ power with her defeat at the hands of the Spartans at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War. The opinion which has long pervaded the history books is that the Empire was solely for the benefit of the Athenians and Athens and that it ruled over the empire with ruthless force and unbending cruelty. However, this may not completely be the case. In order to evaluate whether this opinion has any force, it is necessary to look at three different aspects of the Empire: economic benefits, military security and political and judicial benefits. Through these three features of the Athenian Empire it is possible to get a more complete picture as to whether or not the Athenians were the only beneficiaries of their fifth-century empire.
The main reason for the expansion and takeover of territories is for an increase in available resources and for economic prosperity. The motivation for an empire has not changed in the hundreds that have risen and fallen throughout history, therefore there is no reason to think that the Athenians were not driven by a similar to desire. Their empire had a system of tributes, one of which was a monetary one, the other was for ships. Ostensibly, it would appear that only the Athenians could benefit from such a system because the money was flowing out of the allies and into the hands of the Athenians, indirectly until the Athenians transferred the League treasury from Delos onto the Acropolis in 454BCE, which can be seen as passive aggressive attempt to fund their own building programmes. However, it is necessary to look deeper into the tribute system to understand whether or not the Athenians were the only economic beneficiaries of their empire. One point that is often overlooked is the nature of how the tribute was collected among the allies. An aspect of the tribute system is the fact that each ally was assessed before having to pay any tribute whatsoever. This means that it would only pay proportionally to its means, making it a much fairer system, demonstrating that while the Athenians were beneficiaries of their fifth-century empire, they were not the only ones. This is because while each ally had to pay a different amount of money, the access and trade that they benefitted from was also very extensive. While they had to pay in addition to the tribute, a certain sum for access to the sea, the revenue that was recouped from this access was more than cost efficient. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that the tribute system was based on the traditionally Greek taxation system, which as Croix highlights, that the in most cases “the tribute fell on the propertied classes”. This would mean that the majority of citizens would not have been as greatly affected as one might assume in the first place. Another possibility is that the poor may have actually been better off in the empire because in oligarchies they would have not been treated in such a proportional way. Nevertheless, it is overwhelmingly clear that the Athenians benefitted grossly more than their allies with regards to the economy. Davies accentuates this because he mentions how “Chersonose- Lemnos- Inbro- Sagros” which were taken over by Athens during the formation of the Empire, created a perfect “corn route” from the Black Sea to Athens. This cannot be seen as anything other as a direct benefit to Athens. This is because, while it had naval power, it lacked, much like Rome, the capacities to grow enough corn for the whole population. Davies adds to this by mentioning the “takeover of fertile lands” in allied territory. This seems quite a despotic and tyrannical way to rule a confederacy, but quite expected from an empire. This sort of behaviour from Athens is repeated through various edicts such as a “restriction on leasing land” which is mentioned by Figueira, who gives it the name the Salamis Decree. The restriction was put on allied territories so that Athens could send out its own citizens there and then they could farm the land, which Finely estimated to have benefitted “8-10% of poor Athenian citizens”. Such behaviour has been described as a “remedy to poverty” because by reducing the population of Athens, therefore reducing the expenditure of the city itself, a clear indication that the Athenians were the only beneficiaries of their fifth-century empire. Another aspect of economics which has been previously alluded to is a tax on access to the sea, which has been quantified as “5% on imports and exports”, however, the same historian who mentions this, Figueira, claims that Athens had “no revenue from tax” from its allies. While this may seem a direct contradiction to the statement made, it is possible that it means that there was no direction taxation or tithe from its allies. This would explain this dichotomy. Finally, the Athenians benefitted greatly from their empire because they removed the right to mint coins from the allies and transferred that power directly into the hands of Athens. This is of huge positive effect for Athens because by controlling the flow of precious metals through its empire, it can control prices and inflation so that it is of greater profit to them. Therefore, it is clear that with regards to the economy and money, the Athenians did benefit a great deal more than its allies from the fifth century empire.
Another aspect of the empire which is important to consider and potentially one which supersedes the economic factors, and that is the military benefits of the empire. The two reasons for the creation of the Delian league in the first place were: first to repel any current or future Persian threats to Greece and the second was to rid the Aegean of piracy once and for all. Finley dates the eradication of piracy in the Aegean to no later than 466 BCE and Davies similarly states that the year 451 BCE was the year that “the hostilities between the League and the Persians ceased definitively”. This would suggest that the Delian League could have been dissolved after this, however, some historians would claim that this was the actual moment when the League became the Athenian Empire because Athens was in charge of the fleet, was receiving tributes and there was no longer a need to have such an alliance. This would suggest that at least in military respect, the empire was solely beneficial to the Athenians. The suggestion is supported by the fact that in the end, only two cities, Chios and Lesbos, remained as cities who gave the Athenians ships instead of a tribute. This would demonstrate how the Athenians had such military and naval superiority that there was no longer such an urgent need to increase the size of the fleet. Croix suggests that these naval tributary allies were “autonomous” however, this claim is easily dismissed because they were subject to exactly the same regulations as the others, for there is no evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, according to Finley, one hundred ships, which was the number that was actively sent out, required about twenty thousand people. The population of Athens, of around thirty thousand could not have supported such a large number of ships alone, and therefore it “drew on metics” to complete the number of oarsmen that were needed. However, these did not come only from Athens, but from its allies as well. In order to maintain its naval superiority, Athens had to ensure that there were enough men to man the triremes, thus it had to use citizens from its allies which would show how the empire was solely beneficial to the Athenians. This is compounded by the fact that in times of war, it would be these people who were affected the most through casualties. By employing its allies, Athens ensured that the effect on its own citizenry was nowhere near as drastic as it could have been. Meyer also states that with regards to the military, the empire was an “Athenian instrument of compulsion”. In order to support his idea, one must simply look at the treatment of rebellious city-states by the Athenians such as the brutally crushed revolts in Naxos and Thasos, which once again goes to demonstrate that Athenians were the only beneficiaries of their fifth-century empire. While the naval power was the greater military aspect of the Athenian Empire, garrisons and the land army cannot be overlooked. Figueira straight away claims that the empire guaranteed “military safety for Athens” and that the “garrisons were a trip wire” which cannot be denied. By setting up garrisons at the edges of the territory that someone controls allows for a fast method of response to incoming danger. This is because it allows preparations to be made in the centre of the empire to repel attackers or deal with the threat. This can be seen as solely beneficial to the Athenians because it secures their borders and allows for a swift counterattack, however, by placing garrisons around the empire, each ally is assured that Athens will come to their help if necessary. It also means that each ally has at least a contingent of professional soldiers in case of an attack, a benefit for both Athens and themselves. Yet, as Neuse mentions the allies “had to pay for the Athenian garrisons” which could be taken as a sign that the allies were not getting as good of a deal from the Empire as the Athenians themselves. However, it makes perfect sense, because the garrisons, while hoplites, were essentially mercenaries, people not from the same polis, brought in to fight for them. Therefore, there is not much of a case against the allies not benefitting from the empire: the Athenians ensured that any local disturbances were dealt with swiftly and the allies had protection from internal and external trouble. All of this, once again leads one to believe that it is impossible to consider that Athenians were the only beneficiaries of their fifth-century empire, because it is quite clear that there were advantages on both sides.
Finally, political and judicial benefits were gained by the Athenians from their empire. The Old Oligarch mentions how by having certain cases tried in Athens itself, the Athenians made money on “court fees” and “preserved partisans of democracy”. The former of these claims is undeniable however, the second while quite a neat and probable claim, is more uncertain. This is because the courts were made up of ordinary citizens, chosen at random by ballot, this would make it a lot harder to preserve the supporters of democracy and destroy the supporters of oligarchies. The interpretation that he has is one which would require greater power in one individual to convince all the jurors to act a certain way. It also assumes that ordinary citizens would have the acute awareness and conviction of the superiority of democracy. This is extremely unlikely due to the lack of education of the average citizen. The Old Oligarch also claims that the trials in Athens as well as the presence of Athenian rulers in the allied states, allowed for the allies to be “powerless to harbour treacherous designs”. This can directly be refuted by the fact that there were various revolts against Athens both before and during the Peloponnesian War, which strengthens the argument that Athenians were the only beneficiaries of their fifth-century empire. This is supported by the fact that Wing claims that trials at Athens were not beneficial to the allies because “they were clumsily carried out” This claim could be used to support the view of the Old Oligarch to an extent, because the bumbling of the courts may have lead to the accidental support of pro-Athenian parties. While all the evidence so far points to unilateral benefits to Athenians, Robertson points out that the allied states took up Athenian legal terms and procedures. This is possibly the greatest judicial benefit to the allies because it gifted them with one of the most sophisticated and fair, although admittedly slow, systems that were available at the time. This is of huge benefit because it meant that the people had less reasons to be displeased as the courts and laws were probably much fairer than they had been previously. However, as Bradeen claims, all these measures, combined with presence of phrouarchoi and archontes in the allied city-states were just another measure for Athens to establish full control over its allies.
Overall, it is clear that the Athenian Empire brought huge benefits to the Athenians because, after all, they were the greatest power in the Aegean and it was under their responsibility to command the fleet and ultimately lead the other city-states. No other polis was able to take on such a huge burden and therefore it is quite logical that Athens would reap the greatest benefits from the Empire. However, in an empire, it is impossible to rule without benefits to ruler and ruled alike. The allies, or subjects, depending on the source, benefitted from exclusive trading routes and privileges which were not available to others, security from external threats by land and sea, as well as possibly the most advanced and fair judicial system that was present at the time. As a result, it is not correct to say that Athenians were the only beneficiaries of their fifth-century empire, because it is clear that there were others who were receivers of such bounties. However, it is very fair to say that in each of the three aspects of the empire- economics; military; political and judicial- the Athenians were the greatest by far of the beneficiaries, not necessarily by direct intervention but as Robertson puts it, Athens “gained her ends by indirect means” which also explains the very few examples of uprising in the empire.