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Pentecontaetia (Greek: πεντηκονταετία, "the period of fifty years") is the term used to refer to the period in Ancient Greek history between the defeat of the second Persian invasion of Greece at Plataea in 479 BC and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War in 433 BC. The term originated with Thucydides, who used it in his description of the period. The Pentecontaetia was marked by the rise of Athens as the dominant state in the Greek world and by the rise of Athenian democracy. Since Thucydides focused his account on these developments, the term is generally used when discussing developments in and involving Athens.
Shortly after the Greek victory of 479 BC, Athens assumed the leadership of the Delian League, a coalition of states that wished to continue the war against Persia. This league experienced a number of successes and was soon established as the dominant military force of the Aegean. Athenian control over the league grew as some "allies" were reduced to the status of tribute-paying subjects and by the middle of the 5th century BC (the league treasury was moved from Delos to Athens in 454 BC) the league had been transformed into an Athenian empire. Athens benefited greatly from this tribute, undergoing a cultural renaissance and undertaking massive public building projects, including the Parthenon; Athenian democracy, meanwhile, developed into what is today called radical or Periclean democracy, in which the popular assembly of the citizens and the large, citizen juries exercised near-complete control over the state.
The later years of the Pentecontaetia were marked by increasing conflict between Athens and the traditional land powers of Greece, led by Sparta. Between 460 BC and 445 BC, Athens fought a shifting coalition of mainland powers in what is now known as the First Peloponnesian War. During the course of this conflict, Athens gained and then lost control of large areas of central Greece. The conflict was concluded by the Thirty Years' Peace, which lasted until the end of the Pentecontaetia and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War.
The eventual breakdown of the peace was triggered by increasing conflict between Athens and several of Sparta's allies. Athens' alliance with Corcyra and attack on Potidaea enraged Corinth, and the Megarian decree imposed strict economic sanctions on Megara, another Spartan ally. These disputes, along with a general perception that Athenian power had grown too powerful, led to the breakdown of the Thirty Years Peace; the Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 BC.
Timeline of the Pentecontaetia (480—431)
479—Rebuilding of Athens: Although the Greeks were victorious in the Persian War, many Greeks believed that the Persians would retaliate. This led Athens to rebuild its long walls that were razed by the Persian Army during the occupation of Attica in 480.
478—Formation of the Delian League: Athens and other city states form a coalition against Persia.
477—The Conquest of Eion: Cimon, the son of Mitiades of Marathon fame, led Athens to numerous victorious campaigns and war profits. In 477, he led an army against Persian-occupied Eion in northern Greece. Athens was able to benefit from this invasion since the region was rich in timber, which was critical to building Athens' burgeoning naval fleet.
476—The Conquest of Scyros: The invasions continued with success on a par with Cimon's prior campaigns. In 476, Athens fought against the pirates of Scyros, as the Delian League wanted to reduce piracy around the region and capture the important materials for itself.
469—Operation in Asia Minor and the Battle of Eurymedon: From the beginning of 469 to 466, the Delian league led an army to Asia Minor against Persia. Cimon persuaded Greek settlements on the Carian and Lycian coast to rebel against Persia. This led the Persian army to mobilize a force to fight Cimon in the Battle of Eurymedon in Pamphylsia. Cimon was able to swiftly defeat the Persian army and the war profits were used to finance Athens' city walls.
465—Operations in Northern Greece: Athens' powers and desire for expansion grow. In 465, after cleruchizing the Chersonese, they tried to gain control of Thasos. Thucydides wrote that Sparta contemplated an invasion of Attica in order to help free Thasos. However, in the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake and subsequent helot uprising in Sparta, no attack—if indeed such was projected—was launched.
461—The Debate in Athens over Helping Sparta: With a legion of Helots rebelling against Sparta, Athens offered Sparta their help by sending a force of 4,000 Hoplites to suppress the rebels. According to Thucydides, Sparta decided to dismiss Cimon's Athenian Army, because they felt that Athens would convince the Helots on Ithome to form a coalition and besiege Sparta. Spartans did not feel comfortable with such a large Athenian force inside their city. If the Athenians were to turn their backs on Sparta, the city would not be able to protect itself. At this point, Sparta acknowledged that Athens might be getting too powerful.
460—Athens' Clash with Corinth over Megara: Megarians joined the Delian League under Athens'influence, which angered the Corinthians. Even using Athens' weakest soldiers, they were able to win the war against Corinth with ease.
460—The Athenian Expedition to Egypt: Athens led a coalition with the Egyptians to rebel against Persia. However, their expedition did not lead to much success against Persia, as 100 Athenian ships were destroyed in the Delta region.
458—The Long Walls: The construction of the long walls gave Athens a major military advantage by forming a barrier around the city-state and its harbors, which allowed their ships to access waterways without threat from outside forces. Two walls were constructed from the city to the sea, one to Phaleron and the other to Piraeus. Athens relied on these long walls to protect itself from invasion, while sending off its superior vessels to bombard opponents' cities.
458—The Battle of Tanagra: According to Thucydides, Spartans aided the Dorians by invading Greece, because they were motivated by ethnic solidarity. Sparta sent out 1500 Hoplites and an additional 10,000 from their allies' forces to suppress the Phocians' Army invading Doris.
450—The Peace of Callias—Although this peace treaty is subject to scholarly debate, allegedly Athens and Persia agreed to a ceasefire.
447—Athens' forces were defeated at Coronea, causing the Athenian army to flee Boeotia.
446—The Peloponnesian Invasion of Attica: Athens continued their indirect war with Sparta by attempting to gain control of Delphi. City-states such as Megara and Euboea began to rebel against Athens and the Delian League when the Spartan Army invaded Athenian territory.
445—The Thirty-Year Peace Between Athens and Sparta: After losing Attica, Boeotia and Megara, Athens agreed to a thirty-year peace in return for all the conquered areas in the Peloponnesian region. From this point on, all future conflicts between Athens and Sparta were resolved under arbitration.
447—Athenian Colonization and the Colony of Brea: With the 30-year peace treaty, Athens was able to concentrate attention towards growth rather than war. From 445-447, the Delian League was able to influence city-states near the Mediterranean to join and pay tribute (phoro). This helped the region because the tributes paid by each and every city-state were reduced with the increasing number of members joining the league.
441—The Samian Revolt—Athens decided to besiege Samos after their revolt in 441. However, Persia decided to take the opportunity to support Samos even though they have signed the Peace of Callias with Athens. Athens would eventually spend 1200 talents to fund the war through the Delian League's treasury. Some scholars believed that Sparta might have aided Samos as well, but decided to pull out, having they signed the Thirty-year peace treaty.
437—The Foundation of Amphipolis: With vast resources, especially timber for ship building, Athens founded the city of Amphipolis on the Strymon River. Amphipolis was immensely important to Athens since it controlled many trading routes.
432—The Potidaean Affair: Athens was threatened by the possibility of a revolt, plotted by Corinth. Athens demanded that Potidaea tear down their long walls and banish Corinth ambassadors. However, by the time Athens reached Potidaea, they were prepared to fight Athens with support from the Corinthian army. The Corinthians was also able to influence the Spartans to join the cause, since Sparta didn't want to lose such an affluent ally.
432—The Megarian Decree: With Sparta's aid, Megara urged Athens to drop their decree against them since it was hurting their economy; they were forbidden to use Athen's markets and harbors. Athens claims that Megarians insulted them by trespassing on land sacred to Demeter and murdering an Athenian ambassador. However, most scholars believe it was an act of vengeance when Megara revolted during the early parts of the Pentecontaetia.
432—Peloponnesian War—This marked the end of the Pentecontaetia, as Athens and Sparta engaged in all-out war, which eventually led to the demise of the Athenian Empire.
Democracy in Athens during the Pentecontaetia
After the exile of Cimon in Athens, his rivals Ephialtes and Pericles implemented democratic social reforms. In 462, Ephialtes challenged the Areopagus, claiming that they were abusing their powers. Part of the reform was to introduce "graphe paranomon" or public protest against illegal decrees. Any citizen would have the right to challenge a previous degree instilled by the Areopagus and claim it as invalid. The assembly would have to conduct a "dokimasia" or examination of state officials before they enter office. Opportunities for citizens to join the office were increased tremendously when 500 members were added. Transferring the powers of the Areopagus to all Athenian citizens enabled a more democratic society.
After Ephialtes death, his younger partner Pericles continued with reforms, transforming Athens into the most democratic city-state of Ancient Greece. During 450, he implemented a state salary of two obols per day for jurors to increase public participation from citizens. However, this system caused an outrage from the elites, claiming that the poor were uneducated and incapable of governing.
- Hornblower, Simon, and Anthony Spawforth ed., The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2003) ISBN 0-19-866172-X
- Roisman, Joseph, and translated by J.C Yardley, Ancient Greece from Homer to Alexander (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2011) ISBN 1-4051-2776-7
- Victor Ehrenberg and P.J. Rhodes, "Pentecontaetia," from The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, ed.