How did Athens become the leading Greek city-state?

The ruins of the Parthenon today.

The rise of Athens in the late 6th century and early 5th century BCE not only ushered in the Classical Age, but it went on to influence European and Western culture for for thousands of years. This rise occurred in large part due to its prominent location and control of key trading routes and leadership in the wars against Persia. While other Greek cities held more powerful armies, such as Sparta, it was Athens' leadership that proved attractive and helped pave the way for its influence.

Rise to Prominence

At around 508 BCE, Cleisthenes rose to power as a leader of Athens. He is typically credited with being the father of Athenian democracy. While Athenian democracy looks very different from our own democratic systems, his reforms gave more power to the common gentry.[1] Both the nobility and common free citizens of Athens were able to participate in the city's government assembly. Common citizens were also able to be appointed to key government posts. While one might assume these democratic style reforms led to the rise of power, the reality is Athens was already beginning to benefit from its control of key trade along the Mediterranean.[2] The region of Attica is not highly fertile, leading to Athens becoming a city highly dependent on its external links to colonies and trade.

Greek hoplite and Persian warrior fighting

The bases of city wealth helped Athens to use that wealth in subsequent events that were to shape all of the Greek world. Athens was involved in the rebellion in Ionia, along the coast of Asia Minor, that saw the Greek cities revolt against their Persian overlords. These revolts were put down; however, Persia was agitated by Athens' support for the rebels. This led to Darius, the Achaemenid Persian king, to invade the Peloponnese peninsula to take revenge against Athens. In particular, the burning of Sardis by the Ionian rebels greatly upset the Persians, given that city's great wealth and importance to the Persians.[3]

The invasion then sparked what ultimately developed to be the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century BCE, where Athens played a leading role among the Greek city-states involved. The initial beginning of this war in 492-490 went well for the Persians, as they destroyed the Greek city of Eretria and captured territory in the Cyclades and Thrace. However, at the Battle of Marathon a force of about 10,000 Athenians and Plataeans were able to defeat the Persians, perhaps the first significant victory of the Greeks against the Persians. This created a setback for the Persians as they could not invade Greece for another 10 years. The second invasion of Greece by the Persian army and fleet was much larger, forcing Athens to create alliances, in particular with Sparta.

Initially the Persian force was successful at the battle of Thermopylae against the Greek allies, although possibly at great loss. After the battle of Plataea, the Persians were defeated and were forced to retreat once again. From this point Athens and the Greek allies were on the offensive and this begins Athens' leadership in an alliance that eventually formed the Delian league, which continued the wars against the Persians, mostly now in Egypt and Cyprus.[4]

Leader of the Delian League

Figure 1. Cities (in blue) that fought against the Persians and formed members of the Delian League.

The excuse that the threat of Persia gave and Athens' wealth proved to be key in Athens consolidating power within the Delian league (Figure 1). This led to strife within the league, as the Greek cities began to revolt against Athens increased consolidation of power. Under the Athenian Pericles, the Athenians moved the treasury of the league to Athens. The city also continued to consolidate and take monetary resources, increasing its wealth and power. The cities and regions that followed Athens essentially formed an empire under Athens' leadership by the 450s. In fact, in 460 BCE, tensions were high and the Peloponnesian Wars began as rebellions of Greek cities against Athenian hegemony. The Athenians were initially successful in taking control much of the Peloponnese peninsula. However, costly wars against the Persians eventually led Athens to make peace with Persia, although they had lost many men and spent much of their wealth in being defeated in Egypt.

Athenian brutality against not only those cities that revolted but also regions that were neutral, such as Melos, created further animosity with now Sparta beginning to take control of an alliance of cities against Athens. While the Athenians continued to gain power by expanding and creating colonies that were dependent on them, the Spartans began to consolidate power and even allied with the Persians as a way to counteract Athenian control. Sparta then formed its own league, called the Peloponnesian League, that included Corinth and other prominent cities. Nevertheless, Athens maintained its naval and trade supremacy, enabling it to not only win key battles but also its wealth that fueled its ability to keep its allies and armies able to control large areas in Greece and beyond, including on the Western coast of Anatolia.[5]


Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to Pericles and friends, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1868

A significant blow to Athens was a plague that broke out in 430 BCE that ultimately not only killed many of its soldiers and naval personnel but its key leaders such as Pericles.[6] However, Athens was soon re-energized with new leadership in the form of Cleon, who now took the war to the Spartan-led alliance. He was successful in defeating Sparta at the battle of Sphacteria, but once again this victory proved to be short-lived. Cleon was soon killed in battle and a peace was then signed between the warring sides. Eventually a new war broke out and this time the war was fought in Sicily, as Athens tried to expand its influence there. While once again initially finding some success by having some cities join them, Syracuse led the effort against Athens and allied itself with Sparta. The Spartans reacted by sending a force to Sicily, where after a series of battles resoundingly defeated Athens.[7]

Although severely weakened, the Athenians held a large reserve of naval forces it could still use. By 406 BCE, a series of naval and land victories once again led to a reinvigorated Athenian Empire. At another naval engagement in 406, the Athenians won a major victory; however, a severe storm led to them loosing some of their fleet. For this loss, some of their naval leaders were executed, resulting in a further depletion of their strength. Lysander, a new Spartan general, arose and he took advantage of this loss in leadership by forcing battle in the Hellespont, where the Athenians were defeated and much of their army destroyed. Athens was now trapped, as it did not have a significant army and the city now was directly attacked by Sparta. With the city under siege, it was forced to surrender, leading to the total loss of power for Athens and the fall of its great empire.[8]

Conclusion and Impact

While Athens did recover in the decades to come, Athens and the Greek city-states were never able to recover their full power and continued their internal wars in the Corinthian conflict in the early 4th century BCE. This paved the rise of the Macedonians under Philip II and eventually Alexander the Great, who ultimately united the Greeks under their leadership. While the rise of the Macedonians meant that the Athenians never regained centralized power once again as they had in the 5th century BCE, they were now part of much larger political entities, first under the leadership of the Macedonians and later under Rome.

Athens became renown not just for its democratic system, which lasted for over 100 years, but also as a place for scholars and philosophers. From the time of Pericles, philosophers and scholars alike traveled to Athens from throughout the Greek world to study under Athens patronage. The famous Platonic school and the Lyceum were two institutions of learning that became famous within Athens and helped to shape Western though. Famous philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates were all associated with Athens at some point in their lives. The Parthenon (Figure 2) and Acropolis became inspirations for architecture in the Classical Age and Western Enlightenment in the late 17th and 18th centuries, when Greek thought became influential once more. Among relatively few cities, Athens was given the status of a free city, where its schools and institutions continued to thrive in the Roman period. This insured that Athens continued to be influential despite its lost political and economic power.[9]


  1. For more on this period of Cleisthenes' rise to power, see: Fine, John Van Antwerp. 1983. The Ancient Greeks: A Critical History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Pr, pg. 122.
  2. For more on Athens' maritime power, see: Nijf, Onno van, and Fik Meijer. 2014. Trade, Transport and Society in the Ancient World a Sourcebook, pg. 33.
  3. For more on the Ionian revolt, see: Mac Sweeney, Naoíse. 2013. Foundation Myths and Politics in Ancient Ionia. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, pg. 175.
  4. For more on the Greco-Persian wars, see: Green, Peter, and Peter Green. 1996. The Greco-Persian Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. For more on the Delian League, see: Fine, John Van Antwerp. 1983. The Ancient Greeks: A Critical History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Pr.
  6. For more on this plague, see: Kagan, Donald. 1998. Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. New York: Free Press, pg. 249.
  7. For more on the battles of Cleon and Athens against Sparta, see: Pritchard, David, ed. 2010. War, Democracy and Culture in Classical Athens. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, pg. 83.
  8. For more on the last phases of the war against Sparta, see: Powell, Anton. 2016. Athens and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC. Third edition. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
  9. For more on Athens' impact, see: Waterfield, Robin. 2004. Athens: A History, from Ancient Ideal to Modern City. New York, NY: Basic Books.


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