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The Persian Wars, in which the Greeks defeated a numerically superior enemy, later came to be seen in the Greek tradition as an epoch-making conflict between Greek and Barbarian, west and east. The threat of Persia, albeit reduced, became a rallying cry for politicians wanting the cooperation between Athens and Sparta to continue, or, indeed, for any cause for which the specter of the Persian menace could be exploited. However, the Greek historian Herodotus does not dismiss the Persians as barbarians. For, as he explains, his account of the war was written "so that the memory of the past may not be blotted out from among men and time, and that great and marvellous deeds done by Greeks and foreigners and especially the reason why they warred against each other may not lack renown."

Although the threat to the Greek mainland was removed, the Greeks of Ionia in Asia Minor, still under Persian control, wanted to continue the struggle. It was now that Athens, benefiting from the prestige she had gained from the war, replaced Sparta as the leader of the eastern Greeks, who formed an alliance under her leadership. Created in 478 BC, this Delian League met on the island of Delos, with each member paying a contribution. Its aim was to expel the Persians from the Greek territories they still held. It was not long before it expanded to include most of the Aegean islands and many of the northern and eastern coastal cities.

In 450 BC, fighting between the Greeks and Persians eventually ceased and was ratified by the signing of the Peace of Callias a year later. However, despite the end of hostilities, the league remained intact, with Athens increasingly dominating the other members. Indeed, four years before, the league's treasury had been moved from Delos to Athens, giving the latter control of the alliance's funds.

During this period Athens's democratic development came to fruition. The city's sovreign authority was the Assembly in which all citizens had the right to vote. However, this meant, in effect, only adult men, since neither women nor slaves were full citizens. The Assembly met several times a month, and any citizen could propose a motion, which, if it received a majority of votes, normally became the law. Only another meeting of the Assembly of the Athenian courts could overrule a law.

The power of the citizens was considerable and included ostracism, a procedure by which citizens could be sent into exile. Each year, a vote was held in the Assembly as to whether an ostracism would be held. If it was successful, citizens then had to write the name of the person they wanted to exile on an "ostrakon", a piece of broken pottery. If a person collected 6,000 or more votes, he was duly ostracized for ten years.

Since the Assembly was large and unwieldy, a council, or boule, of 500 men chosen by lot helped to supervise its administration, prepare its agenda and take minor decisions. The council's members changed annually, and no one could serve in it for more than two years. After 487 BC, the archons, the once powerful chief magistrates, were chosen by lot, thus reducing their political influence.

Citizen power also extended to the law courts, where ordinary people, not professional lawyers, presented their own cases, which were heard by juries chosen by lot. Some government positions were decided by election, including military commanders, who were elected annually. The Areopagus, the ancient council recruited from former archons, was stripped of its more important powers in 462 BC. This was brought about by the prominent figures of Ephialtes and Pericles.