The Delian League of Ancient Greece: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the formation, history, and significance of the Delian League of ancient Greece and test your understanding about the wars, culture, and politics of the ancient Mediterranean world.

A League of Their Own

The Delian League was a coalition of Greek cities, led by the city of Athens, that united to fight against the Persian Empire in 478 BC. In this time, places like Athens were independent governments centered around an urban center, called city-states. All members of the Delian League were city-states; each was an independent government, but they worked together for strength and security in the League. The Delian League met on the island of Delos in the Aegean Sea off of Greece. The temple on Delos served as the treasury for the League, where they could pool their resources, and also served as a site to hold congresses for the League.

The Delian League (places in Purple)
Delian League

Forming the Delian League

Around 498 BC, the Greek city-states of Athens and Eretria helped cities in modern-day Turkey rebel against the Persian Empire. After defeating the rebellion, the Persian king Darius the Great decided to punish Athens and Eretria, and began a two-decade invasion of Greece. Eretria was destroyed, but Athens defeated the Persians in 490 BC. Darius' son, Xerxes, returned in 480 BC with large military success. In 479 BC, a large alliance of Greek city-states defeated the Persian invasion of Greece once and for all.

Greek temple of the island of Delos

The two main Greek powers, Athens and Sparta, began arguing about what to do next. Sparta saw the war as over, and decided not to continue military action. The city-states who left with Sparta became the Peloponnesian League. Athens decided to continue fighting against the Persian Empire in modern-day Turkey. The group of city-states who sided with Athens met at the sacred island of Delos to form a new alliance. This was the Delian League. The League had three goals: to prepare for the risk of future invasions, to get revenge on Persia, and to form a way to divide the spoils of war evenly amongst the members of the Delian League.

The Athenian Empire

Despite the language of democracy and equality, Athens was the essential leader of the Delian League. Its power in the League grew, especially after the famous statesman Pericles rose to power in Athens around 460 BC. Pericles began using the Delian League's resources, including its navy and taxes, for Athens. It was this money that let him build the massive temple in Athens called the Parthenon. City-states who tried to leave the League were often punished severely. Athens began acting more and more like an empire. It sent Athenian colonists to settle other city-states, collected taxes, and used the shared navy for itself. In 454 BC, Pericles moved the treasury from Delos to Athens, allegedly to protect it from Persia. Effectively, it turned the Delian League into the Athenian Empire.

The Peloponnesian War with Spartan areas in Green and Athenian in Orange
Peloponnesian War

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