Following its disastrous defeat in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), the pólis of Athens was deprived of its navy, its “Long Walls” to the sea, and its prized empire. Further catastrophes were still to come as an oppressive pro-Spartan oligarchy seized power in the city, and the Lakedaimonians expanded their rule into the former Athenian Arkhē (Empire). However, following the Athenian general Thrasybulus’ restoration of democracy in 403 BC, the pólis was able to not only survive into the fourth century, but actually restore much of its fifth-century power and authority. Key to this Athenian resurgence was the creation of the Second Athenian League in 378 BC. This alliance, which was to last until it was superseded by the 338/337 BC Hellenic League, made concrete attempts to correct the abuses of its predecessor organization, the First Athenian League. Unlike the First League, the Second Athenian League functioned for several years as a true devolved confederacy, with considerable power and leadership reserved to member states. A number of guarantees inscribed on the Second League’s founding document, the Decree of Aristoteles, enforced this decentralized structure by prohibiting the methods Athens had used to accumulate power in the First League. However, the practical limitations of a devolved alliance were revealed when Athens reclaimed its hegemonic status in the 350s BC, and the League was discarded soon after.
The Athenians used astute diplomacy and voluntary incentives rather than coercion to form the Second Athenian League. During the Peloponnesian War, the oppressiveness of Athenian rule under the First Athenian League led to a series of revolts by allied states that destabilized the Arkhē and allowed the Lakedaimonians (inhabitants of Spartan-ruled territories) to assert themselves as the sole hegemonic power in Greece.1 Following the peace settlement of 404 BC, the Lakedaimonians proceeded to commit many of the same mistakes as the Athenians by occupying recently “liberated” cities and imposing puppet regimes called “Committees of Ten” instead of allowing them to create autonomous governments. Xenophon records the outrage this provoked, with one particularly rueful Theban ambassador saying, “The Spartans, now that things have gone well for them, think it perfectly proper to set up their own helots [serfs] as governors, and meanwhile treat their free allies as though they were slaves.”2 These ill-advised actions created the impetus for an alliance of states opposed to further Lakedaimonian expansion.
In the First Athenian League, Periklês had pursued a program of Athenian naval dominance as the key to the pólis’ security and the maintenance of its maritime empire. Even with the steep population decline associated with the Peloponnesian War, the farmlands of Attika were incapable of feeding the city of Athens on their own, which depended on imported grain from the Black Sea region.3 The city’s grand natural harbor at Piraeus and large pool of citizens with maritime experience meant the Athenians had the infrastructure and skills to maintain this naval advantage as they had done in the period of the First League (Xenophon, VII.1.3–6). However, after 404 BC, Athens did not have the military might to reconquer its former Arkhē by force alone. To do so would have paradoxically required the resources and financial support of the Arkhē.
THE ATHENIANS USED ASTUTE DIPLOMACY AND VOLUNTARY INCENTIVES RATHER THAN COERCION TO FORM THE SECOND...
The Athenian solution to this quandary was the truly innovative creation of what may be called a devolved multilateral alliance that would unify the former Arkhē under Athenian leadership without threatening members’ autonomy. In 394 BC, an Athenian fleet under Thrasybulus visited many former Athenian subject póleis as an extension of Athenian naval efforts against the Lakedaimonians. In several of the póleis, including the important cities of Byzantium and Rhodes, Thrasybulus assisted popular pro-Athenian revolutions but made no further attempt to interfere in their internal affairs.4 This was a farsighted move, as it drove out the Lakedaimonians in areas important to Athenian interest while establishing friendly governments that did not require garrisons to maintain (Xenophon, IV.8.27). Thrasybulus’ light hand seems to have made him genuinely popular. Xenophon states that “the common people of Byzantium were glad to see as many Athenians as possible present in the city” following the democratic revolution (IV.8.27). Elsewhere, he notes that Thrasybulus tried to “win over” Aegean cities and “make them friends of Athens” rather than conquer them outright (Xenophon, IV.8.28). It appears that the democratic factions in these cities now increasingly saw the Athenians as liberators from unpopular Lakedaimonian governments. In 384 BC, the Athenians began experimenting with a more decentralized method of exerting influence in the Aegean Sea when they signed a bilateral, mutual defense alliance with the island of Khios.5 The Khians had revolted against the First Athenian League in 412 BC, and it was perhaps to assuage fears of recreating the First League’s abuses that both sides pledged the alliance on “the basis of freedom and autonomy” (Cargill, 9). Certainly a maritime power like Khios had more closely aligned objectives with Athens than with Sparta, while Lakedaimonian overreach had spoiled any goodwill most island póleis had towards the Peloponnesians. In 378 BC, the Athenians took the next logical step in these efforts by inviting friendly governments to join with them in a Second Athenian League. Several island póleis accepted Athens’ invitation, including the major cities of Mytilene, Methymna, Rhodes, and Byzantium (Cargill, 52).
...CREATED A GOVERNING STRUCTURE THAT BALANCED THE NEEDS OF THE ATHENIANS WITH THOSE OF THEIR ALLIES...
Because it was designed to protect member states’ autonomy, the Second Athenian League created a governing structure that balanced the needs of the Athenians with those of their allies. It should be noted that the Second Athenian League was a form of hegemonic alliance with some important caveats (Sealey, 404). Rather than vest all power over League policy in the governing Athenian Assembly, as would have been typical, the Second League conferred decision-making power in both the Assembly and an independent synedrion of the allies (Sealey, 410). The synedrion was composed of synedroi (representatives) from all League member states, each of whom received one vote (Diodorus of Sicily, XV.28.4).
Diodorus of Sicily records a requirement of the League that “every city great or small should be on an equal basis…and that all should continue to be independent, accepting the Athenians as leaders” (XV.28.4–5). Interestingly, the Athenians themselves did not have even one vote in the synedrion. Other hegemonic leagues created the veneer of representation by vesting power in a leadership council with representatives from the alliances’ member states but then granting the hegemon unilateral power on the council. By keeping the Athenians out of the synedrion completely, it would appear that the founders of the Second League were attempting to preserve freedom of action for the non-hegemonic states. Furthermore, the synedrion selected its own presiding officers from among the sitting synedroi, chose when to convene, and set its own agenda (Cargill, 115).
The decentralized nature of the Second Athenian League could also be seen in the interactions of the Assembly and synedrion (Xenophon, VI.5.49). Decisions that affected the entire League required the approval of both the Assembly and the synedrion. The process could begin in either body, and both the Assembly and synedrion could pass either decrees or resolutions (Cargill, 117). Resolutions passed by either body were simple statements of fact and had no legally-binding power. Decrees did have legally-binding force and could also be passed by either body as well, but decrees passed by the synedrion did not have legal force until also approved by the Assembly (Cargill, 117–118). Decrees passed by the Assembly that dealt with the entire League also had no legal force until approved by the synedrion; although, sometimes the Assembly would pass a decree that would only be binding in Athens until such a time as the synedrion approved it. However, if the synedrion did approve such a decree, it would become legally binding for the entire League (Cargill, 120). This creative balancing act succeeded for several years in maintaining Athenian freedom of action while allowing them to exercise effective but limited leadership within the framework of an alliance. Likewise, the allies were able to benefit from the stability and protection offered to members of a hegemonic alliance while also maintaining some independence from Athens’ foreign policy and goals.
The Second Athenian League also attempted to prevent the concentration of power in Athens through a series of prohibitions and guarantees. Publically displayed on the Stele of the Decree of Aristoteles in Athens, these guarantees stated that each member would be “free and autonomous,” that each member could “govern [himself according to the] constitution which he prefers,” and that a member would not be obliged to “receive a garrison nor accept a governor, nor pay tribute.”6 These were almost certainly directed against the abuses of the First Athenian League (Sealey, 412). By this constitution, the League syntaxeis (budget) could only be spent for military expenses of the alliance and only after approval from both the Assembly and synedrion (Sealey, 124–125). Athenian citizens were also prohibited from owning property in the territory of a League member (“The Stele of the Decree of Aristoteles”, lines 35–46). Enforcement of these provisions was to be carried out by the synedrion of the allies and not Athenian law courts, mitigating against a possible corruption of justice by sympathetic juries (“The Stele of the Decree of Aristoteles”, lines 35–46, 51–63).
The Second Athenian League was an important milestone in the conceptual evolution of multilateral alliances, but its devolved structure was also a weakness. By delegating considerable freedom and independence to the League’s member states, Athens had been able to secure the cooperation of most of the powerful maritime póleis in the Aegean and Ionian Seas. After Lakedaimonian power was decisively defeated at the Battle of Leuctra (371 BC) and broken completely at the Battle of Mantinea (362 BC), the League lost its raison d’être, and the priorities of most League members and Athens itself began to diverge (Xenophon, VI.4.19, VII.5.26–27). It seems the island allies of Athens refused to become involved in Athenian foreign policy ventures that did not affect them. There is no mention in Diodorus or Xenophon of member states sending support to the Athenian land forces fighting the Peloponnese during the 360s. In 366 BC, the Thebans seized the important border town of Oropus in Attika. Desperate to retake it, the Athenians invoked the mutual defense clause of the Decree of Aristoteles but became “discontented with their allies because while they themselves were going to much trouble on their behalf, not a single one of the allies had given them any help in return” (Xenophon, VII.4.1). The refusal of “a single one” of the allies to come to Athens’ aid in this incident was a flagrant violation of the League’s founding charter. However, the Athenians had so thoroughly limited their ability to coerce member states that there was nothing they could do without fundamentally changing the structure of the League. A similar (but more nuanced) shift in Athenian foreign policy took place in the late 360s. Jack Cargill proposes that the last new member of the League, the Zakynthian democratic faction, was added in 374 BC and that the Athenians stopped recruiting other states into the alliance after that date (66). Athenian power continued to expand well into the 350s, but now the Athenians began again concluding bilateral treaties of alliance with friendly states and outright annexing hostile states (Cargill, 83). Bilateral treaties between Athens and an independent state were less binding than admission into the League but also more flexible and situational. Certainly this type of alliance did not constrain Athens to follow the limits placed on its power by the rules governing the League. Athens’ decision to simply reconquer former members of its Arkhē during the 350s is indicative of resurgent Athenian military power.
THE SECOND LEAGUE WAS A NECESSITY OF 378 BC WHEN ATHENS WAS STILL VERY WEAK...
The Second League was a necessity of 378 BC when Athens was still very weak and preparing to go to war with Sparta. Athens’ unique dilemma of having the expertise to lead a successful hegemonic alliance but not the resources to create it led directly to the innovative structure of this alliance. Neither completely unilateral nor completely equal, the alliance allowed Athens to call on the resources and voluntary support of its former Arkhē, which in turn received the protective benefits of a hegemonic league even while maintaining their autonomy. Strict limitations on Athenian power and the structure of decision making in the League made the alliance successful for several decades. However, Athenian victories and a sustained military buildup in the 370s and 360s restored the polis’ coercive power (Sealey, 430–431). No longer forced to rely on voluntary cooperation, the Athenians began to exercise more direct rule in the Aegean, and in the 350s, the Second League evolved into a Second Athenian Empire.
This paper is deeply indebted to Dr. Christoph Konrad who encouraged and guided my research on the Second Athenian League as part of an independent Honors Contract in his HIST 426 class. Primary sources for the period discussed (c.404 BC–350 BC) are unfortunately scarce. The most reliable account comes from the fourth-century Lakedaimonian author Xenophon, who recorded political affairs in Greece between the final stage of the Peloponnesian War (411 BC) and the Battle of Mantinea (362 BC). Diodorus of Sicily, writing in the first century BC, had access to now lost contemporary sources and is a useful supplement to Xenophon. I used the fifth-century Athenian historian Thucydides for information on the structure and failures of the First Athenian League. The 377 BC Stele of the Decree of Aristoteles, which partially survives, recorded the original membership and constitution of the Second Athenian League. I have relied on Dr. Jack Cargill’s translation of the stele throughout my work. It should be noted, however, that much of his translation relies on conjecture to make sense of parts of the stele that have been damaged. With regard to secondary sources, I relied on relevant chapters from Dr. Raphael Sealey’s A History of the Greek City States ca. 700–338 for an overview of Greek history during the early fourth century BC. Cargill’s The Second Athenian League was my main source of information for the organization of the Second League.
Patrick Grigsby '18
Patrick Grigsby is a graduating senior history major with a minor in philosophy from Houston,Texas. Patrick completed his research out of a desire to share his research with the Texas A&M community at large and under the guidance of Dr. Joseph Conrad. After graduating, Patrick will be working full time as a legal assistant in the Bryan-College Station area. From there, Patrick plans to attend law school with a focus on international law.
1. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (New York: Viking Penguin Incorporated, 1954), II.8. Further citations included in the text.
2. Xenophon, A History of My Times, trans. Rex Warner (New York: Viking Penguin Incorporated, 1966), III.5.12. Further citations included in the text.
3. Raphael Sealey, A History of the Greek City States ca. 700-338 BC (Berkley: University of California Press, 1976), 483. Further citations included in the text.
4. Diodorus of Sicily, trans. C.H. Oldfather, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954), XIV.99. 4-5. Further citations included in the text.
5. Jack Cargill, The Second Athenian League (Berkley: University of California Press, 1981), 9. Further citations included in the text.
6. Jack Cargill, “The Stele of the Decree of Aristoteles,” In The Second Athenian League (Berkley: University of California Press, 1981), lines 20-22. Further citations included in the text.