Named after the goddess Athena, Athens was one of the most important city-states* of the ancient Greek world. It was located on the plain of Attica, about three miles from the Aegean Sea, and became renowned for its great achievements in art, literature, and philosophy. The city also developed an early form of democracy, which became an inspiration to people in later ages. Today, Athens is the capital and largest city of Greece, and the administrative, economic, and cultural center of the country.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
Early History. Athens was inhabited as early as 3000 B.C. By the 1200s B.C., its inhabitants had built protective walls around the Acropolis, the rocky hill in the center of the settlement. During that period, Athens flourished as a center of Mycenaean culture, which was based at the city of Mycenae. Invasions by the Dorians between 1100 and 950 B.C. destroyed many city-states and brought an end to the Mycenaean civilization. Athens, however, survived and developed a distinctive culture of its own.
According to tradition, sometime before the 700s B.C., the legendary hero Theseus united Athens and the surrounding communities into a single city-state and established a monarchy. A succession of kings ruled the city-state until the 600s B.C., when a group of officials known as archons* replaced the monarchy. The Athenian aristocracy*, which was part of the citizens’ assembly known as the Ecclesia, elected three archons. The number of archons was later increased to nine. The aristocracy also controlled an advisory council called the Areopagus.
* archon in ancient Greece, the highest office of state
* aristocracy rule by the nobility or privileged upper class
As the power of the Athenian aristocracy increased, the lives of the lower classes became increasingly difficult. This led to a series of social crises in the 600s B.C. In 621 B.C., hoping to restore order, the ruler Draco established a code of laws for Athens. The Draconian Laws failed, however, because they contained extremely severe punishments for relatively minor crimes. In fact, most crimes were punishable by death. Twenty-seven years later, the chief archon, Solon, introduced several reforms to end the unrest. Solon abolished serfdom* and modified Draco’s harsh laws. He established a council of 400 representatives from the various tribal groups in the region. He also made the Ecclesia independent of the archons. By distributing power more equally among different groups of Athenian citizens, Solon laid the foundation for a democratic form of government.
In 560 B.C., the popular leader Pisistratus seized power in Athens and established himself as tyrant*. During the successive reigns of Pisistratus and his two sons, Athens became the political, economic, cultural, and religious center of the region. As Athens’s power increased, the city-state began to extend its control beyond the region. Then, in 510 B.C., a new struggle for power erupted between those who favored a return to rule by archons and those who favored democracy. Those favoring democracy won. Cleisthenes, a statesman and supporter of democracy, established ten new tribes based on political rather than social divisions. This helped decrease the power of the aristocracy. Cleisthenes also reorganized the ruling council to include citizens from all parts of Attica, the eastern region of central Greece. These reforms created the first true democracy in Athens.
Rise to Greatness. The outbreak of the Persian Wars in 500 B.C. led to the rise of Athens as the most powerful city-state in Greece. Athens had a significant role in the wars and won several major battles against the Persians, including a decisive army victory at Marathon in 490 B.C. Todefend itself against the Persian navy, Athens strengthened its naval force. Athens also helped organize an alliance—the Delian League—for mutual defense against Persia. The alliance, which consisted of cities on the islands in the Aegean Sea as well as on the coast of Asia Minor, eventually came under the control of Athens. The Athenians used the tribute* paid by members of the league to glorify their city.
By the end of the Persian Wars, Athens had become the strongest city-state in Greece. Moreover, it had transformed its control of the Delian League into control of an empire that consisted of more than 200 city-states. Under the leadership of Cimon and then Pericles, Athens focused its attention on repairing the damage caused by the wars. The era of Pericles was particularly important. Pericles set a tone for excellence. He had many interests—the arts, science, philosophy, and religion—and he called Athens “the school of Hellas” (the school of the Greek world). He was able to inspire the people of Athens to strive to make their city-state the greatest in Greece, telling them that “the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours.”
* serfdom condition of servitude in which peasants owe service and loyalty to a lord
* tyrant absolute ruler
* tribute payment made to a dominant power or local government
Pericles’ ambitious plans for Athens led to a “golden age” of Athenian civilization, a period during which democracy, art, and literature flourished and the economy of the city prospered. During this period, the Athenians constructed magnificent temples, including the Parthenon on the Acropolis. Individuals such as the sculptor Phidias and the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes created masterpieces of art and literature. Two great historians emerged—Herodotus, who traveled widely, recorded the customs of faraway lands, and related the history of the Persian Wars; and Thucydides, who wrote a brilliant and detailed account of the Peloponnesian War. The philosopher Socrates helped establish Athens as the intellectual center of the Greek world. Athens also prospered economically because of trade and the resources from the far-flung regions of the empire.
As Athens enjoyed this period of greatness, rivalries increased with other city-states, particularly with Sparta in southern Greece. The Spartans distrusted Athenian democracy and resented the spread of Athenian power. The hostilities between Athens and Sparta increased, finally erupting in 431 B.C. in the Peloponnesian War. The following year a plague* spread through Athens, killing many of its inhabitants. Then, in 429 B.C., Pericles died.
The Peloponnesian War dragged on for many years with neither side gaining a conclusive advantage. However, in 413 B.C., Athens received a crushing defeat at Syracuse, a Greek colony on the island of Sicily. Athens lost much of its empire after this disaster, as many city-states joined the Spartan side. The war continued until 404 B.C. when Athens finally surrendered to Sparta. Utterly defeated, Athens had lost its empire as well as its supremacy in the Greek world.
Years of Change and New Threats. In the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans forced the Athenians to replace the democratic government of Athens with an oligarchy* known as the rule of the Thirty Tyrants. The Spartans also destroyed what remained of the Athenian fleet and demolished the Long Walls, a series of fortified walls that linked Athens with its seaport of Piraeus.
Despite these losses, Athens recovered quickly as conflicts between other city-states forced Sparta to focus its attention elsewhere. By 403 B.C., the Athenians had ousted the government of the Thirty Tyrants. Within ten years, they had rebuilt their navy and the Long Walls. Athens then allied itself with several city-states, thus creating a balance of power in Greece. Although Athens had revived itself, it never regained its former greatness.
During the 300s B.C., the rising power of King Philip II of Macedonia posed a serious threat to Greece. Athens resisted Philip’s initial offensives into Greece. However, after the Macedonians crushed the Greeks at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C., Athens was forced to join a new alliance controlled by Macedonia. Athens regained some of its independence under Philip’s son, Alexander III (the Great). However, an attempt to overthrow Macedonian rule after Alexander’s death resulted in a major Greek defeat that marked the end of Athens’s role as a military power.
Athens remained an important center of culture and learning in the 300s and early 200s B.C. During these years, two of Greece’s greatest philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, taught in Athens, and the schools of philosophy known as Epicureanism and Stoicism arose in the city. However, as Hellenistic culture spread throughout Alexander’s empire, other cities, such as Alexandria in Egypt, surpassed Athens as cultural centers. Even so, Athens continued to command respect for its past achievements. Many people, including foreign kings, visited the city to marvel at its art and architecture, to listen to its philosophers, and to honor its glorious history.
* plague highly contagious, widespread, and often fatal disease
* oligarchy rule by a few people
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
Roman Rule. In 146 B.C., Rome gained control of Greece, and Athens became part of the Roman province* of Macedonia. At first, Athens retained some independence and suffered little from Roman rule. However, in 86 B.C. the Roman general Sulla sacked the city because of its support for a king from Asia Minor, Mithradates VI of Pontus, who was fighting against Rome. As a result, Athens lost all political independence, and its economy declined as well.
Despite these losses, Athens continued to be an intellectual center throughout much of the Roman period. In the A.D. 100s, Athens experienced an economic revival, but in the next century barbarian tribes sacked the city and the economy faltered once again.
Beginning in about A.D. 300, Athens began to decline as a center of Greek culture. With the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the city’s pagan* temples were converted into Christian churches, and its religious heritage faded in importance. In addition, the city of Constantinople became the largest and most important city in the eastern Roman world, replacing Athens as the preeminent center of culture and learning. Athens became a small provincial city, its past glory visible only in its monuments and buildings on the Acropolis. (See also Cities, Greek; Democracy, Greek; Golden Age of Greece; Government, Greek; Greece, History of; Polis; Tyrants, Greek.)
* pagan referring to a belief in more than one god; non-Christian