To contrast Athens with Sparta is to contrast theories of governance with political style. That is the major lesson to be drawn from Thucydides. The reputation of Athens is that it was cultured and learned, willing to expose itself to other peoples, compared to Sparta's austerity and militarist form of social organization. The Speech of the Corinthians of the Debate at Sparta implicitly valorizes Athens when observing that Lacedaemonian insularity "makes you rather ignorant in foreign affairs" (Thucydides 17). Athens made a project of inserting itself into foreign affairs. Its naval mobility empowered it to extend its conquests to a variety of distant places to engage in wealth-building trade and to absorb cultural lessons from abroad--and collect tribute.
Tribute-paying city-states around the Aegean would be protected from other invaders and would be fully engaged in the trade network of the Delian League. So-called resident aliens (Thucydides 34) were routinely recruited into the Athenian naval forces, providing linkages between subjugated peoples and the mother country. Athens perceived naval power as the ultimate in enrichment and prestige, superior to Sparta's land power. As Pericles explains in the opening phase of the Peloponnesian War:
If they build only an observation post . . . they may damage some of our land by raiding it, and they may take in runaway slaves; but this would not be enough to keep us from sailing to their land and building forts there or retaliating with our navy, which is our great strength. Our naval experience has actually done us more good on land than their infantry experience has done for their navy (Thucydides 34).
Two additional aspects of Athenian society are noteworthy. One is its use of democracy as its political form, i.e., participation in government by free citizens. In his speech to Athens at the time of the plague, Pericles distinguishes between the oligarchic form of government adop...