BMCR 2018.09.43

The Lame Hegemony: Cimon of Athens and the Failure of Panhellenism, ca. 478-450 BC. Storia antica, 5

, The Lame Hegemony: Cimon of Athens and the Failure of Panhellenism, ca. 478-450 BC. Storia antica, 5. Bologna: Bononia University Press, 2017. 400. ISBN 9788869232411. €35,00 (pb).

The present monograph, which sprang from the author’s doctoral dissertation, constitutes an interesting and well-written study that offers a revised reconstruction of Athenian history spanning from 478 to 450 BC, also known as the Cimonian period. This critical period in Greek history was marked by the emergence of Athenian imperialism and by the political dominance of Cimon son of Miltiades, one of Athens’ most accomplished generals.

This is a challenging period for historical research, primarily due to the paucity of contemporary or even near-contemporary sources. In essence, the fifth-century accounts for the first three decades following the aftermath of Xerxes’ invasion consist of Thucydides’ aguishly terse Pentecontaetia, a few passages in Herodotus, and a handful of variably fragmented Attic inscriptions. These traditions are supplemented by the accounts of fourth-century historians and orators and the detailed accounts of Diodorus and Plutarch, who derived their information from fourth-century historians such as Ephorus and Callisthenes, whose works are now lost.

Consequently, modern scholarship must confront a fundamental question: to what extent can we rely on non-contemporary sources when seeking to reconstruct the early history of the Delian League? Zaccarini justly applies a critical approach when dealing with the later sources, and he successfully demonstrates that the meagerness of fifth-century sources allowed the historians of the fourth century and their successors, both ancient and modern, to reshape and modify fifth-century traditions in the process of appropriating the past into their own historical and cultural context.

Zaccarini begins by providing two preliminary chapters that provide a succinct survey of the literary traditions concerned with Cimon’s genealogy, his cultural background, and major traits ascribed to the Athenian general in the ancient sources. The reminder of the monograph is divided into two parts entitled (I) ‘Chronology and events’ and (II) ‘A historical interpretation’.

Part I deals with Athenian military operations occurring between 478 and 450 BC. While still under Spartan leadership, the Greek allies turned their attention to the Hellespont region and Cyprus. Zaccarini argues, rightly in my view, that these attacks, which occurred in the very same campaign season, albeit seemingly aggressive, were in fact defensive in nature since their objective was in all likelihood to hinder another crossing of Persian land forces from Asia to Europe and to prevent the Persian navy from Cyprus as a staging point for future operations in the Aegean.

Only after the Persian threat had been contained, and the Athenians snatched the leadership from the Spartans, were the Greek allies able to storm and retake the last Persian strongholds in the northern Aegean. These operations are divided by Zaccarini into two phases: ‘The campaign for the northern Aegean Sea’ (470s BC) and ‘The Thracian campaign’ (mid-460s BC). The capture of Eion (476 BC), the earliest attestation of a military operation commanded by Cimon, prefigured the ongoing Athenian involvement in the northern Aegean theatre in the decades to come. However, as Zaccarini points out, while Aeschines credits the fall of Eion to the collective effort of the citizen-soldiers of the Athenian democracy, Plutarch’s account centers on Cimon’s role in the operation. The discrepancies between the accounts of Plutarch and Aeschines provide a case-study that demonstrates the impact of the historical context of later tradition on the manner in which these authors commemorated the events of the mid-470s BC.

Furthermore, Zaccarini highlights the centrality of Athenian strategic and commercial interests in the northern Aegean, interests which according to Zaccarini were the main the impetus for the Athenian subjugation of the islands of Scyros and Thasos as well as the Boeotian city of Carystus. One should add that the traditions which brand the peoples of Scyros and Carystus as medizers, whose purpose seems to be to legitimize Athens’ war against Greek communities while the war against Persia was far from over, shed light on Athenian conduct in the aftermath of the Persian Wars. We have reports regarding numerous Greek cities and communities that sided with the Persian enemy, but only a handful of them were targeted by the Athenians. Such a policy suggests that the accusation of Medism was a mere pretext that the Athenians exploited to further their position in the Aegean. All in all, Athens’ involvement in the northern Aegean allowed the Athenians to establish themselves as the undisputed leaders of the war against the Persian Empire and to safeguard their own interests in the region. Once Attica was secured, the Athenians were able to launch ‘The Asian Campaign’, in which both Greek and non-Greek cities and communities were attacked by Athens and its allies. Zaccarini seeks to redeem the Athenian war against Naxos by arguing that the Athenians were not exclusively motivated by their desire to protect their hegemony but also by the strategic importance of the island to the war against the Persians, which was located on the route to and from the western coastline of Asia Minor. But the major operation in this phase was Cimon’s campaign in Caria and Lycia, which climaxed in the decisive victory over Persian land and sea forces at the Eurymedon River. It is difficult to accept Zaccarini’s assertion that “the battle of the Eurymedon commanded a longstanding prominence and celebration in the tradition thanks to it undisputed importance, its sensational outcome, and its distance from the Greek motherland” (p. 140). Athenian presence in the region was ephemeral, while the absence of any attempt to retake Cyprus seems rather odd. The contrast between the succinct account of Thucydides and the wealth of details provided by Plutarch and Diodorus undercuts the notion that the victory at the Eurymedon was as decisive as later traditions claim it to be. Therefore, we cannot rule out the possibility that the memory of this battle, just like many other fifth-century events Zaccarini discusses, was embellished and enhanced over the centuries.

Regardless of the actual historical importance of the Eurymedon campaign, a useful observation made by Zaccarini refers to two opposing perspectives concerned with the manner in which the Greco-Persian war is envisioned in the sources. According to Thucydides’ viewpoint, the war against Persia came to an end following the Persian defeats at Plataea and Mycale. But other sources, mainly Diodorus, cast the peace of Callias as the true end of the conflict. These two historiographical frameworks promote two different narratives of the war between Persia and Greece: the one centers on the collective effort of the Greek allies to ward off a Persian invasion, while the other centers on Athens and its leading role in the continuous struggle against the Persian menace.

Next, Zaccarini connects the political downfall of Cimon to the souring relations between Athens and Sparta, which occurred in the context of ‘The Peloponnesian Campaign’. The infamous incident at Ithome (464 BC), in which the Spartans dismissed the Athenian contingent sent to assist them in suppressing a helot revolt, constituted the first formal disagreement between Sparta and Athens since Xerxes’ retreat. Zaccarini argues, convincingly in my view, that the account of Thucydides is suspect since it depicts the Spartans as unjustly hostile toward the Athenians. Such a portrayal must have been dominant in the context of the Peloponnesian War since it validates Athens’ response to the Spartan insult while it enforces Thucydides’ claim that the clash between Sparta and Athens was inevitable.

The following phase, entitled ‘the one war and the last years of Cimon’, centers on Cimon’s return from exile and his death. Zaccarini maintains that aggressive Corinthian expansionism was key in the eruption of hostilities between Athens and the Peloponnesians. As for Cimon, Zaccarini notes that Plutarch’s account of the battle of Tanagra and Cimon’s final days, which may reflect a fourth-century perspective, highlights Cimon’s heroic features, which in turn justifies his early recall from exile and debunks the accusation of his pro-Spartan tendencies.

The second part of the monograph is thematic in nature. In it Zaccarini seeks to evaluate the consistency of Athens’ grand strategy during Cimon’s period of prominence. He argues that, since the safety of Attica was paramount, the Athenians sought to acquire strategic depth by subjugating locations of military and economic importance in the Aegean. Such an interpretation does well to connect the Athenian operations in the northern Aegean, Asia Minor, and mainland Greece, but fails to explain the Athenian intervention in Egypt in the 460s. Operations in Asia Minor, Cyprus, and even Phoenicia can be viewed as efforts to keep the Persians at bay, as Zaccarini deems Athenian operations in the eastern Mediterranean to have been preemptive wars conducted on an irregular basis. However, the considerable investment of resources and manpower in the expedition to Egypt serves as an indication that the Athenians aspired to something more. Several scholars have argued that economic and commercial considerations drove the Athenians to assist the Egyptian rebels against the Persians,1 which corresponds with Zaccarini’s interpretation of Athens’ involvement in the northern Aegean. Regardless, although we cannot determine with certainty the nature and character of the Persian policy in the west, there is no substantial evidence for a Persian intention to reassert the Great King’s authority in the Aegean. We may assume that economic considerations were cardinal in Athens’ strategy, but we should not forget that the official goal of the Delian League was to wage war against the Persians. Persian passivity posed a real and immediate threat to the legitimacy of the Delian League, and by extension to Athens’s lofty position within this political framework. Therefore, furthering the war against Persia, regardless of actual Persian intent or action, must have been a crucial component in Athenian strategy and foreign policy.

In the next section, ‘The New tyrants’, Zaccarini underscores the limitations of the bipolar division between pro-democratic and pro- oligarchic factions in Athenian politics. He demonstrates that such a partition did not exist in the fifth century BC, and suggests that Athenian politicians should be assessed by the manner in which they used wealth, either public or private, to garner political support. It is followed by a section entitled ‘Contemporary Intellectuals’, which constitutes an essentially negative exercise aimed at refuting the hypothesis that Cimon’s policies and public image benefited from the support of several prominent intellectuals. Zaccarini maintains that, while a close relationship between Cimon and these intellectuals remains plausible, the assumption that they were active participants in his effort to maintain his political prominence is an overstatement. Lastly, Zaccarini argues against the notion that Cimon was the driving force behind various contemporary public works in Athens, which is followed by a summary of the themes pertaining to Cimon’s literary portrait and how it developed throughout the centuries.

To summarize, this monograph is an excellent addition to the study of the history of Cimonian Athens. Zaccarini’s study is very thorough and coherent, and provides ample documentation of the ancient sources and the modern treatments. Although the Athenian campaigns in the eastern Mediterranean may receive less attention, this study supplements and completes Biondi’s recent monograph on the Athenian Empire.2 To some extent, this study constitutes a biography of Cimon, a most welcome contribution since, as far as I know, the only modern biography of Cimon was published by Lombardo in 1934.3 However, since this book also seeks to reassess Athenian policies between 478 and 450, when Cimon’s role in certain episodes is not well documented, the tendency to follow his career disrupts the flow of the discussion. Nevertheless, despite the scarcity of evidence, which adds a tinge of speculation to any debate regarding the first decades of the Delian League, Zaccarini’s contribution provides a valuable reconstruction of Athenian policies and strategy in this pivotal period in Greek history.


1. Cf. R. Meiggs. The Athenian Empire (Oxford 1972), 95; M. Dandamaev. A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire (Leiden 1989), 239; S. Ruzicka. Trouble in the West: Egypt and the Persian Empire, 525-332 BC (Oxford 2012), 34.

2. E. Biondi. La politica imperialistica ateniese a metà del V secolo a.C.: il contesto egizio-cipriota (Milano 2016).

3. G. Lombardo. Cimone: ricostruzione della biografia e discussioni storiografiche (Rome 1934).