An interesting note in the history of ancient Greece, with all its philosophy and democracy, is the formation of the Delian League in the 5th Century BC…4th Century BC?….I honestly cannot think as to how to classify events throughout the 400’s BC, sometimes its hard enough with figuring out 1600’s is the 17th Century (it is one of those things that I can never get my head around, like computer programming or how to strum a guitar [seriously, how?], but maybe that’s just me). Regardless, throughout the 500-400 BC, ancient Greece had been in and out of various wars with the Persians – and remember that Greece was at this time comprised of separate city-states, such as Athens, Sparta, Naxos, etc. – so someone came up with a plan to form a huge alliance of these disparate groups to better fend off those pesky Persians, and what is now known as the Delian League was born! Named for the island Delos on which the League meetings would take place, initially the plan was that members would contribute ships to battle the Persian navy, a real menace, however sometimes money would also be paid, so Delos also contained the League treasury.
Several decades after the League’s formation, the war with the Persians had cooled quite a bit so there was not much fighting actually occurring, and yet Athens was, oddly, still insisting, or maybe more like enforcing, all Delian League members pay their dues. You might think: hey, we are cool with the Persians now, do we even need this silly “League” thingy anymore? Maybe I’ll just quietly leave (Naxos, that’s you). WRONG, you can’t leave the League so shut up and keep paying your dues, which we Athenians prefer to be paid in cash money now, no more ships. Athens definitely acted as the big man in the League, so when in 454 BC Athens insisted that the treasury be moved from the frankly unsafe island of Delos, to the much safer, hardly ever sacked city of Athens, who could refuse?
Picture yourself now as one of the non-Athenian members of the Delian League. You somewhat happily pay your cash tribute for the League to Athens, I mean those Persians could be back any day now, and you decide to take a trip to Athens to see just what military wonders your money is funding. You are approaching Athens via a boat and you can in fact see new naval vessels in the Aegean Sea, you feel happy, this is a good investment. Something bright and glittering then catches your eye from the acropolis, the highest part of the city visible from its surrounding hinterland. As you approach, with an uneasy, dropping stomach, you see the compete redevelopment of the previously destroyed acropolis – surely not with your money?!
The Athenian acropolis had been previously destroyed when the Persians sacked Athens in 480 BC, and it was decided that the ruins of the destroyed acropolis would remain, lest we forget, as a reminder of Persian barbarity. Several decades later though, when they were raking in that sweet Delian League cashola, and sure, they spent some of it on a navy, but there hadn’t been any proper war for a while and Athens was in a surplus, so suddenly that acropolis started to look mighty shabby. What else could they do but build the freaking Parthenon with all their allies’ money? I mean, everyone would obviously love a huge temple celebrating Athens and the Athenian superiority, duh. Now it can’t be confirmed that the Athenians built a bright and shiny new Parthenon (it was originally brightly painted, expensey!) with League money, they probably didn’t completely rip all their friends off, however the restoration of the entire acropolis did occur from 440’s through to 430’s, a short time after the treasury moved to Athens. Plus, in 411 BC they finally merged the Delian League’s treasury with their own, so come on.
War with the Persians did eventually escalate in 431 BC (see Zack Snyder’s 300 for a historically accurate retelling of the Peloponnesian War, mutant goat-men and all), so the Delian League was more than simply an Athenian money-maker scheme. Although, I understand, it’s like when you lend people money and then they start spending big on irrelevant crap and you can just feel your insides start to tense up, so I sympathise with those poor Delian League members (especially sweet, beautiful Naxos, you only wanted out, but they kept pulling you back).
Fun historical fact: the Parthenon is one of my favourite buildings!
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian war, (1903) Richard Crawley (trans.), J.M. Dent & Co..
Rhodes, P.J. (2007), ‘Democracy and empire’, from The Cambridge companion to the age of Pericles, L.J. Samons (ed.), Cambridge, p24-45.
Woodford, S. (1986), An introduction to Greek art, Bloomsbury Academic, London.
Sennett, R. (1994), Flesh and stone: the body and the city in Western civilization, W.W. Norton & Co., London.