The Decline Of The Greeks
Ten years later, after the Persian fleet had been routed and destroyed, some city-states felt the Delian League was redundant, and advocated disbanding this loose confederacy.
However, Athens was ruthless in suppressing all attempts to secede, out of the desire to protect the hard-won safety of Greece’s borders. Of particular worth was the free-trade area established that was vital for Athenian commerce and industry. This led Athens to clamp down harshly on rebellious elements among its subject states, creating an empire and emerging as the de facto leader of the confederacy. When the island of Samos tried to leave the League, Athens invaded and completely annihilated the city-state, as an example in case other members were tempted to secede.
Economic strength was employed as a means to keep the other city-states in line, and the establishment of military outposts and garrisons was done with the intent to keep the local population in line. Strategic settlements, “importing” Athenian-friendly citizens is a familiar tactic as used in the West Bank and in Northern Ireland today, trying to establish a sizeable presence in the community.
This naturally did not sit well with the other Greeks, particularly those of the oligarchic Spartan League, to whom Athenian imperialism was an exploitation of the “free” Confederation in order to force an imperial system on reluctant partners. Hence, one could argue that it was pure self-interest which motivated the Athenians, instead of any ideal of “democracy”. However, it could have been justified on the basis that this Confederacy did lead to relative stability in Greece, and prevented any further Persian invasions.
Athens did not hold onto its position unchallenged, for in 431 B.C., the Peloponnesian War broke out, as the Spartan League felt threatened by the Athenian Empire. Ostensibly, the war was due to rivalry – purely commercial – between Athens and Sparta’s ally, Corinth, but the tension at the increasing power amassed by Sparta was the underlying reason, as the philosopher-historian Thucydides theorised.
Both parties were evenly matched – Sparta’s well-trained and legendary infantry set against the 200-ship strong fleet of Athens. Pericles, the Athenian leader, was a military genius, and could have considerably tipped the scales in Athens favour; however, he died in the second year of the war due to the plague which also decimated a third of the population. Rulership then was transferred to less capable leaders, and resulted in eight years of stalemate, with a truce called in 421 B.C.
Athens, despite this setback, did not abandon its dreams of empire, sending an expedition five years later to Melos, to convince it to abandon neutrality and join the Athenian empire.
However, they relied more on intimidation than on persuasion, as Thucydides, reports their almost Machiavellian speech–
Against such open aggression and crude coercion, the Melians refused, choosing to take arms against the Athenians, and though they fought courageously, were inevitably crushed by overwhelming force. The young men were executed, and the women and children were enslaved.
This success emboldened the Athenians, and they tried to conquer Syracuse, in Sicily, hoping to eventually "rule the whole of the Greek world." [Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 6.90.]
Their ambitions were thwarted by the combined force of Sparta and Syracuse, and another long, inconclusive war followed. In 404 B.C., Athens surrendered, when its navy was completely routed and destroyed. It was perhaps ironical that their defeat was due to Persian funding, as Sparta agreed to leave the Ionian states in Persian hands once Athens had been defeated.