The greatness of Athens begins at the time of the two Persian wars (490 B.C. and 480–79 B.C.). Before that time Ionia and Magna Graecia (the Greek cities of south Italy and Sicily) produced the great men. The victory of Athens against the Persian king Darius at Marathon (490), and of the combined Greek fleets against his son and successor Xerxes (480) under Athenian leadership, gave Athens great prestige. The Ionians in the islands and on part of the mainland of Asia Minor had rebelled against Persia, and their liberation was effected by Athens after the Persians had been driven from the mainland of Greece. In this operation the Spartans, who cared only about their own territory, took no part. Thus Athens became the predominant partner in an alliance against Persia. By the constitution of the alliance, any constituent State was bound to contribute either a specified number of ships, or the cost of them. Most chose the latter, and thus Athens acquired naval supremacy over the other allies, and gradually transformed the alliance into an Athenian Empire. Athens became rich, and prospered under the wise leadership of Pericles, who governed, by the free choice of the citizens, for about thirty years, until his fall in 430 B.C.
The age of Pericles was the happiest and most glorious time in the history of Athens. Aeschylus, who had fought in the Persian wars, inaugurated Greek tragedy; one of his tragedies, the Persae, departing from the custom of choosing Homeric subjects, deals with the defeat of Xerxes. He was quickly followed by Sophocles, and Sophocles by Euripides. Both extend into the dark days of the Peloponnesian War that followed the fall and death of Pericles, and Euripides reflects in his plays the scepticism of the later period. His contemporary Aristophanes, the comic poet, makes fun of all isms from the standpoint of robust and limited common sense; more particularly, he holds up Socrates to obloquy as one who denies the existence of Zeus and dabbles in unholy pseudo-scientific mysteries.
Athens had been captured by Xerxes, and the temples on the Acropolis had been destroyed by fire. Pericles devoted himself to their reconstruction. The Parthenon and the other temples whose ruins remain to impress our age were built by him. Pheidias the sculptor was employed by the State to make colossal statues of gods and goddesses. At the end of this period, Athens was the most beautiful and splendid city of the Hellenic world.
Herodotus, the father of history, was a native of Halicarnassus, in Asia Minor, but lived in Athens, was encouraged by the Athenian State, and wrote his account of the Persian wars from the Athenian point of view.
The achievements of Athens in the time of Pericles are perhaps the most astonishing thing in all history. Until that time, Athens had lagged behind many other Greek cities; neither in art nor in literature had it produced any great man (except Solon, who was primarily a lawgiver). Suddenly, under the stimulus of victory and wealth and the need of reconstruction, architects, sculptors, and dramatists, who remain unsurpassed to the present day, produced works which dominated the future down to modern times. This is the more surprising when we consider the smallness of the population involved. Athens at its maximum, about 430 B.C., is estimated to have numbered about 230,000 (including slaves), and the surrounding territory of rural Attica probably contained a rather smaller population. Never before or since has anything approaching the same proportion of the inhabitants of any area shown itself capable of work of the highest excellence.
In philosophy, Athens contributes only two great names, Socrates and Plato. Plato belongs to a somewhat later period, but Socrates passed his youth and early manhood under Pericles. The Athenians were sufficiently interested in philosophy to listen eagerly to teachers from other cities. The Sophists were sought after by young men who wished to learn the art of disputation; in the Protagoras, the Platonic Socrates gives an amusing satirical description of the ardent disciples hanging on the words of the eminent visitor. Pericles, as we shall see, imported Anaxagoras, from whom Socrates professed to have learned the pre-eminence of mind in creation.
Most of Plato's dialogues are supposed by him to take place during the time of Pericles, and they give an agreeable picture of life among the rich. Plato belonged to an aristocratic Athenian family, and grew up in the tradition of the period before war and democracy had destroyed the wealth and security of the upper classes. His young men, who, have no need to work, spend most of their leisure in the pursuit of science and mathematics and philosophy; they know Homer almost by heart, and are critical judges of the merits of professional reciters of poetry. The art of deductive reasoning had been lately discovered, and afforded the excitement of new theories, both true and false, over the whole field of knowledge. It was possible in that age, as in few others, to be both intelligent and happy, and happy through intelligence.
But the balance of forces which produced this golden age was precarious. It was threatened both from within and from without—from within by the democracy, and from without by Sparta. To understand what happened after Pericles, we must consider briefly the earlier history of Attica.
Attica, at the beginning of the historical period, was a self-supporting little agricultural region; Athens, its capital, was not large, but contained a growing population of artisans and skilled artificers who desired to dispose of their produce abroad. Gradually it was found more profitable to cultivate vines and olives rather than grain, and to import grain, chiefly from the coast of the Black Sea. This form of cultivation required more capital than the cultivation of grain, and the small farmers got into debt. Attica, like other Greek states, had been a monarchy in the Homeric age, but the king became a merely religious official without political power. The government fell into the hands of the aristocracy, who oppressed both the country farmers and the urban artisans. A compromise in the direction of democracy was effected by Solon early in the sixth century, and much of his work survived through a subsequent period of tyranny under Peisistratus and his sons. When this period came to an end, the aristocrats, as the opponents of tyranny, were able to recommend themselves to the democracy. Until the fall of Pericles, democratic processes gave power to the aristocracy, as in nineteenth-century England. But towards the end of his life the leaders of the Athenian democracy began to demand a larger share of political power. At the same time, his imperialist policy, with which the economic prosperity of Athens was bound up, caused increasing friction with Sparta, leading at last to the Peloponnesian War (431–404), in which Athens was completely defeated.
In spite of political collapse, the prestige of Athens survived, and throughout almost a millennium philosophy was centred there. Alexandria eclipsed Athens in mathematics and science, but Plato and Aristotle had made Athens philosophically supreme. The Academy, where Plato had taught, survived all other schools, and persisted, as an island of paganism, for two centuries after the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. At last, in A.D. 529, it was closed by Justinian because of his religious bigotry, and the Dark Ages descended upon Europe.