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In Herodotus' prime, Athens was the dominant naval and imperial power with colonies all over the map. It offered military protection to members of the Athenian (Delian) league in exchange for tributes, euphemistically called contributions* - other euphemisms include protection for military occupation, prison was dwelling, an Athenian military defeat was to have a misfortune. Athenians were granted homesteads in the colonies, cementing further their hold on them and squelching any moral objection from the participants. Many of the colonized though, even when they resented the politics of Athens, found its popular culture irresistible. But unlike the Roman empire, the benefits of citizenship were restricted to the progeny of Athenian citizens, exacerbating further the psychological gap between the rulers and the ruled. The professed objective of Athenian foreign policy was to aggressively promote democracies abroad in direct opposition to the more muted Spartan confederacy's preference for oligarchies. Exceptions to high principle were frequently made for illiberal ends. At times, foreign territory was grabbed in the name of goddess Athena herself.
In reality, wars were used to acquire wealth, to keep the economy humming, to flex their muscle of growing power, and to distract citizens from internal quibbles. Classical Athens became a wartime economy. Special interest groups in popular assemblies cloaked their impassioned speeches in the rhetoric of national interest and glory - deemed acceptable grounds for hostile military action even when others' legitimate rights were mauled. Athens began asserting itself in all manner of allied causes and interfered in other nations' internal matters. It had shrewd orators - demagogues, idealists, pragmatists, with the ability to manipulate public opinion to catastrophic ends - illustrated by the Mitylean debate when the popular assembly, following the frenzied instigation of the demagogue Cleon, voted to condemn all men in the rebellious colony to death to set an example ...
In greater Hellas, Athens repeatedly invoked its role in the Persian wars as moral justification for present domination, backing it up with militant aggression, much to the exasperation of the second-rank powers and other 'inward-looking' city-states. A generation after Herodotus, the great historian Thucydides thought the Peloponnesian war inevitable: Athens had become an unprincipled bully; they had to be checked. Their cultural effulgence had a dark side; they were victims of their own cupidity and recklessness. Their conduct towards other city-states, with its own self-serving logic and momentum, had set them on a road to disaster. -- From The Greeks.
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