Athens – The Truth About Democracy

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We choose to forget that in the name of democracy, Athens followed a policy of aggressive overseas expansion and persecuted some of its leading intellectuals. Despite its recent popularity in the West, democracy in ancient Athens did not flourish but quickly died.

As the preeminent Athenian historian, Thucydides, wrote in his influential History of the Peloponnesian War, “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.” The city proceeded to conquer all of Greece save for Sparta and its allies, and became known as the Athenian Empire. The tribute from its subject allies was used to support a powerful fleet and, after the middle of the century, to fund massive public works programs in Athens, ensuring resentment.

The Spartans were not content with simply sending aid to cities under siege; they also resolved to take the war to the Athenians. They fortified Decelea, near Athens, and prevented the Athenians from making use of their own land. This forced all supplies to be brought inside the walls by sea at increased expense.

Perhaps worst of all, the nearby silver mines were totally disrupted, with as many as 20,000 Athenian slaves freed by the Spartan hoplites at Decelea. With the treasury and emergency reserve fund dwindling away, the Athenians were forced to demand even more tribute from her subject allies, further increasing tensions and the threat of rebellion within the Empire.

Following the destruction of the Sicilian Expedition, Sparta encouraged the revolt of Athens’s tributary allies, and indeed, much of Ionia rose in revolt against Athens. Through cunning strategy, Lysander totally defeated the Athenian fleet at the battle of Aegospotami, destroying 168 ships and capturing some three or four thousand Athenian sailors.

Facing starvation and disease from the prolonged siege, Athens surrendered, and its remaining allies soon surrendered as well. The surrender stripped Athens of its walls, its fleet, and all of its overseas possessions. Corinth and Thebes demanded that Athens should be destroyed and all its citizens should be enslaved. However, the Spartans announced their refusal to destroy the city and took Athens into their own system. Athens was to have the same friends and enemies as Sparta.

For a short period of time, Athens was ruled by an aristocratic regime set up by Sparta. It was overthrown and a democracy was restored. However, the power of Athens was forever broken.

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