Athens became a major cultural center. Tourists came from all over Greece to watch the tragedies performed in honor of the god Dionysus. Athenian-style democracies developed in places like Syracuse.
Dissatisfaction with the commander of the Hellenic League led 150 poleis to create a new maritime League. In exchange for annual contributions in ships or money, Athens agreed to lead the Delian League in military operations against Persia. Aristides was charged with assessing each state's appropriate contribution to the League treasury.
The League, led by Cimon, expelled the Persians from Europe. The League then tried to compel some poleis to join and forcibly prevented others from withdrawing. The Athenians then converted their tribute payments from ships to money. It became clear that Athens ruled the sea and was converting the naval alliance into an empire.
In Athens there were other conflicts. Themistocles encouraged competition with Sparta and the development of democracy, and Cimon favored Sparta and opposed any further democratization. Themistocles was ostracized; then the Athenians and the Spartans united against him, claiming that he and Pausanias were engaged in treasonable correspondence with the Persian king. Themistocles fled to Persia, and Pausanias was starved to death by the Spartans.
In 464 BC, an earthquake hit Sparta and the helots revolted. The Spartans appealed to the cities of the Hellenic League for aid. Cimon marched off with four thousand hoplites. Somehow, the Athenians frightened the Spartans and were sent home. Athens made an alliance with Sparta's enemy Argos and Cimon was ostracized.
Ephialtes, who had been against aiding the Spartans, then passed numerous democratic reforms. He diminished the power and prestige of the Council of the Areopagus. Many of its functions were transferred to the boulē and the ekklēsia. Shortly after, Ephialtes was assassinated and the leadership of the loosely organized political group devolved upon his associate Pericles.
Around 460 BC, Megara decided to leave the Peloponnesian League and ally itself with Athens to obtain protection from Corinth. Corinth became hostile toward Athens, which was increasing the territory accessible to its shipping. In 459 BC, the Athenians repelled a Corinthian invasion of Megara.
In 457 BC, Sparta entered the war against Athens. This drew the Athenians into Boeotian affairs, and by 456 BC they controlled the whole region and made democratic governments the norm.
Determined to continue operations against Persia, Pericles persuaded the Athenians to send ships to Egypt, which had rebelled from King Artaxerxes, but the campaign ended in disaster. In 454 BC, the Athenians proclaimed their supremacy by transferring the League treasury from Delos to Athens.
Returning from exile in 451 BC, Cimon negotiated a truce of five years between Athens and Sparta. But in 445 BC, the Athenian land empire collapsed virtually overnight as a revolt in Euboea was followed by the defection of Megara. King Pleistoanax of Sparta invaded, but Pericles persuaded him to agree to the Thirty Years' Peace. Some of its provisions were that neither state was to interfere with the allies of the other and that neutrals were free to join either side.
In 451 BC, Pericles passed a citizenship law which established that only boys whose parents were both Athenians would be enrolled as citizens. This limited men's choice of marriage partners to Athenians if they wanted their descendants to be citizens.
Those who attended the assembly might be advocates of certain policies and could be followers of a popular politician; there were no political parties in Athens. The generals exercised power in politics by virtue of the esteem in which they were held. After Pericles' death, politics and the military began to diverge as careers.
By the time of Pericles, the Athenians called their form of government democracy. The large size of Athenian juries facilitated the legal fiction that a decision of a jury was a decision of the dēmos. To ensure that the privilege of serving on juries would be spread widely, Pericles introduced a measure providing pay for jury service.
Popular participation in civic life did not eliminate the prestige enjoyed by rich Athenians. Some democratic politicians harnessed the wealth of the elite into the service of the state by establishing a network of liturgies. One liturgy was training choruses for performances at Attic festivals in honor of Athena or Dionysus.
During the earlier fifth century, talented poets, painters, architects, and sculptors carried the traditions of the sixth century throughout the wider Greek world. Simonides (c. 556-468 BC) is remembered as the unofficial poet laureate of the Persian wars. Pindar also wrote epinician odes and took it as axiomatic that merit was inherited. His odes portray a belief in an old-fashioned heroism.
Greek painters and sculptors shared a fascination with both the human and the divine. Throughout the decades of change and growth of the fifth century, the plastic arts reveal a drive to organize the world in accord with harmony, balance, and proportion. A spare austerity comes to distinguish Classical styles from those that had gone before, and action becomes important.
The relief sculpture with which Greeks adorned their temples offered great opportunities for storytelling. One key example is the temple of Zeus at Olympia, completed between 470 and 456 BC. Grave stelai also provided an important venue for relief sculpture.
Thousands of vases focused on the human figure survive. The figures are portrayed in action, and the subject matter often came from mythology. Vases provide a wealth of information about how people spent their time at work and at play, showing women and men in a variety of activities. Some vases have images of domestic space and depict women from all social groups.
The average age at death in Classical Athens for adult females was about 36 years and for adult males 45 years. The average woman probably bore about 4.3 children, perhaps 2.7 of whom survived infancy. Athenian men married at approximately the age of thirty and women around the age of fifteen. Men lost young wives in childbirth. Marriages could also be ended by divorce.
When a baby was born in Attica the father decided whether to raise or expose it. Most sons were raised, because male heirs were the normal means of perpetuating the lineage. Perhaps 20 percent of newborn girls were exposed, and most died. After a baby boy was accepted as a member of his father's family, he needed to be approved by his father's phratry and deme.
Children of both sexes participated in the religious activities of the family. Some children had pet birds, dogs, rabbits, and goats. Schooling was only for the rich, and mostly for the male rich.
The principal purpose of marriage was reproduction. The wedding took place at night, and the central event was the procession in which a chariot carried the bride to the home of her future husband. Husbands might have additional sexual partners of either gender. In a family with no son, the obligation to perpetuate the oikos fell on the daughter. She had to marry the closest of her father's male relatives, and a son born of the union would be considered his grandfather's heir.
The wife's dowry plus the husband's contribution constituted the economic foundation of the oikos at the start of a marriage. Dowries consisted of cash and movable property. The husband provided the land and the house with most of its contents. The division of labor was by gender: women's work was indoors and men's outdoors. The husband brought into the house agricultural products, and the wife and domestic slaves transformed these products into textiles and food ready for consumption. Domestic space was divided between the women's quarters and the men's. Visitors met only male members of the family.
Some slaves worked in the oikos, whereas others were employed in the craft industries—some working for their owners and others rented out by them. Their jobs tended to be gender specific. Not all craftspeople were slaves, but Greeks whose social and economic status allowed them some choice shunned work that made them subject to the commands of another person, and this included most craft fields.
Trade united the far-flung states, and most trade went by boat. Athenian commerce was driven largely by the need for grain to feed a large population. The Athenians exported wine and oil, sometimes in decorated vases.
Metics could not own land without special dispensation. They were craftspeople and entrepreneurs who had come from all over the Greek world to conduct business in Athens. Many of Athens' most distinguished intellectuals, such as Aristotle, were metics. Freed slaves also became metics.