How exactly was Athens able to take over the Delian League without anyone contesting it until it was too late to not incite violence?
A bald eagle implies the existence of a hairy eagle asks:
Why did Athens take over the Delian League?
So… “why” I think is actually pretty simple: because it made them richer and more powerful. I mean… obviously it’s more complicated than that, and publicly they professed altruistic motives and said the word “freedom” a lot (…remind you of anyone?), but honestly… when you get right down to it, I think it was because wealth and power are useful to have. Classical Athens was a democracy and we remember it for its literature and art and philosophy, but that doesn’t mean they were “the good guys” in any meaningful sense. Thucydides, who wrote the main contemporary history of the Peloponnesian War, seems to think that they trapped themselves into it: the more power you gain, the more you have to be afraid of what happens if you lose it, and the more desperately you have to fight to hold onto it, potentially to the exclusion of all ethical concerns.
As for how… well, that’s not really how it happened. Naxos tried to leave the Delian League very early, in 471 BC, only a few years after it was formed and decades before the treasury was moved to Athens or most of the League’s strongest members started making their contributions in coin rather than ships. That defection was suppressed violently, just as all the subsequent ones were. It’s not that it was “too late” to avoid inciting violence; it’s that the League was, from day 1, a military alliance that was supposed to be a permanent arrangement. The Persian invasions were still fresh in everyone’s memory; if that happened again and the Greeks were divided, they might not get lucky a third time. Zero tolerance for defection made sense at the time… from a certain point of view. Violence was never the last resort for these people. And Athens was always the leader, albeit in a first-among-equals way in the beginning. Athens had always been one of Greece’s largest and richest cities, and since the 480s they’d had the largest fleet (no one else is even close except maybe Corinth). During the Persian Wars, Sparta’s military power and old alliances in the Peloponnese were a counterbalance to Athens, but Sparta and its allies didn’t join the new league. It’s not like Athens concealed the fact that it was always the most powerful state; it just wasn’t immediately obvious to everyone else that that might be a bad thing. From there, the consolidation of their power came mainly in the form of more and more states choosing to make their contributions to the League’s military in the form of money (which went towards the expansion of the Athenian fleet) rather than providing their own ships and soldiers. And that… again, didn’t necessarily sound like a bad thing at the time. Triremes are expensive, and small island states don’t want to risk their own people in battle. Much easier just to pay the Athenians to do it. Sure, it means they’re gaining steadily more direct control over the combined military of the Delian League, but… that’s fine, isn’t it? After all, they are here to protect us from the Persians.
And you wouldn’t want the Persians to come back… would you?