Pericles, Thucydides, and the Defense of Empire
BY THE MIDDLE OF THE FIFTH CENTURY, when Pericles became the leading figure in Athens, defense of its empire was of the highest importance, because the empire was the key to the defense of Athens itself. It represented security against a renewal of the Persian threat, and it provided the means for warding off any future challenge from Sparta. Beyond that, its revenues were essential to Pericles' plans for making Athens the most prosperous, beautiful, and civilized city the Greeks had ever known. The glory it reflected was an essential part of his vision for Athens.
Pericles and his Athenians regarded their empire as necessary, but it also raised serious questions. Could an empire limit its growth and ambition and maintain itself in safety? Or did rule over others inevitably lead the imperial power to overreach and bring about its own ruin? Was empire, especially by Greek over Greek, morally legitimate? Or was it evidence of hubris, the violent arrogance that was sure to bring on the justified destruction of those who dared to rule over others as though they were gods?
It fell to Pericles, as leader of the Athenian people, to guide their policy into safe channels and to justify the empire in the eyes of the other Greeks as well as their own. In both tasks Pericles broke a sharply new path. He put an end to imperial expansion and moderated Athenian ambitions. He also put forward powerful arguments, by word as well as deed, to show that the empire was both legitimate and in the common interest of all the Greeks.
It is important to recall that the Athenians did not set out to acquire an empire and that the Delian League that was its forerunner came