The Sicilian Greeks, led by Gelo of Syracuse, successfully resisted and overthrew the aggression of Carthage, the issue being decided at the battle of Himera. The part played by Athens under the guidance of Themistocles in the repulse of Persia gave her a new position among the Greek states and an indisputable naval leadership. As the maritime head of Hellas she was chief of the naval Delian League, now formed ostensibly to carry on the war against Persia. But the leaguers, who first contributed a quota of ships, soon began to substitute money to provide ships, which in effect swelled the Athenian navy and turned the contributors into tributaries. Thus, almost automatically, the Delian League converted itself into an Athenian empire.
In Athens itself an unparalleled personal ascendancy was acquired by Pericles, who made the form of government and administration more democratic than before. But this growing supremacy of Athens aroused the jealous alarm of other Greek states. Sparta saw her own titular hegemony threatened; the subject cities grew restive under the Athenian yoke. Sparta came forward professedly as champion of the liberties of Hellas; Athens refused to submit to Spartan dictation and accepted the challenge which plunged Greece into the Peloponnesian war.
The Athenians concentrated on the expansion of their naval armament, left the open country undefended and gathered within the city walls, and landed forces at will on the Peloponnese. Plataea, almost their sole ally on land, held out valiantly for some time, but was forced to surrender; and Athens herself suffered fright-fully from a visitation of the plague.
AFTER the death of Pericles, Cleon became the most prominent leader of the aggressive and democratic party, Nicias, of the antidemocratic peace party. Over most of Greece in each state the oligarchic faction favoured the Peloponnesian league, the democratic, Athens. The general Demosthenes at Pylos effected the surrender of a Lacedaemonian force, which temporarily shattered Sparta's military prestige, a blow in some degree counteracted by the brilliant operations of Brasidas in the north, where, however, both he and Cleon were killed.
Meanwhile, Athens was awakening to the possibilities of a great sea-empire, in consequence of her intervention having been invited in disputes among the Sicilian states. As the outcome, incited by the brilliant young Alcibiades, she resolved on the fatal Sicilian expedition. The expedition, planned on an unprecedented scale, and placed under the command of Alcibiades and Nicias, was dispatched in spite of the startling multilation of the Hermae, a sacriligious performance attributed to Alcibiades. It had hardly reached Sicily when he was recalled, but made his escape and spent some years in intriguing against Athens.
The siege of Syracuse was progressing favourably, when the Spartan Gylippus was allowed to enter, and put new life into the defence. Disaster followed on disaster both by sea and land; finally, the whole Athenian force was either cut to pieces or surrendered at discretion, to become the slaves of the Syracusans, both Nicias and Demosthenes being put to death.
Meanwhile, the truce between Athens and Sparta had been ended and war again declared. Sparta occupied permanently a post on Attic territory, Deceleia, with merciless effect. The Sicilian disaster moved the islanders, notably Chios, to revolt, with Spartan help, against Athens. She, however, renovated her navy with unexpected vigour. But, with her fleets away, Alcibiades inspired oligarchical intrigues in the city; a coup d'etat gave the government to the leaders of a group of 400. The navy stood by the democratic constitution, the 400 were overthrown, and an assembly, nominally of 5,000, assumed the government. A great Athenian triumph at Arginusae was followed later by a still more overwhelming disaster at Aegos Potami.
The Spartan commander Lysander blockaded Athens; starvation forced her to surrender. Lysander established the government known as that of the Thirty Tyrants, who were headed by Kritias. Lysander's ascendancy created in Sparta a party in opposition to him; in the outcome, the Spartan king Pausanias helped in the overthrow of the Thirty at Athens by Thrasybulus, and the restoration of the Athenian democracy. Throughout, the conduct of the democratic party contrasted favourably with that of the oligarchical faction.
These eighty years were the great period of Athenian literature and art: of the Parthenon and Pheidias; of Aeschylus, the soldier of Marathon; then of Sophocles and Euripides and Aristophanes; finally, of Socrates, the inspirer of Plato and the founder of ethical science.
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