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Ancient Athens

Ancient Athens

History of Athens

Athens is the capital and largest city of Greece. It is one of the oldest cities in the world with its recorded history spanning over 3,500 years. In the area of Attica, there was a strong human presence from the Neolithic era. The Athenians were Ionians in origin. The Ionians settled in southern Greece at the beginning of the second millennium BC. At the end of the 2nd millennium (about 1100 BC), the Ionians were displaced from their territories and moved eastward.


During the early Middle Ages, the Ancient Athens faced a decline, then recovered under the later Byzantine Empire and was relatively prosperous during the period of the Crusades (12th and 13th centuries), benefiting from Italian trade. Following a period of sharp decline under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Athens re-emerged in the 19th century as the capital of the modern Greek state. Ancient Athens was a powerful city-state, developed alongside its harbor, which was originally Faliro and later Piraeus. It was also one of the most important cities of the ancient world in general. Athenians beyond Attica dominated by their powerful fleet in a large number of Ionic colonies in the Aegean islands and the coasts of Asia Minor. Ancient Athens, in fact, was also the metropolis of most Ionic colonies. 

Legend of the Athens foundation

According to Greek mythology, the city took its name from the goddess Athena. Athena competed with god Poseidon over who would be the patron god of Athens. The result would depend on who would offer the city the finest gift. Poseidon (Greek god of the sea) hit the Acropolis rock and created a seawater spring for the Athenians while Athena, offered them an olive tree. The Athenians preferred the olive, as it symbolized to them peace and prosperity and thereinafter, the city was called Athens. The first settlements in the location of Athens date back some 5,000 years ago. Gradually the Neolithic village grew into one of the first Greek city-states, which reached its “golden” peak in the fifth century BC, under the leadership of Pericles.
During that era, the city of Athens became the birthplace of democracy and the spring of free, human-centered, thinking, which formed the basis of western civilization. Athens experienced a unique intellectual and artistic blossoming, representative samples of which are the monuments of Acropolis and the development of tragedy, with the most important representatives being Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, comedy with Aristophanes and historiography with Herodotus and Thucydides. The education of Athenians during this period was focused on philosophy with the contemporary sophists and Socrates.

At the same time, Athens prospered as a naval – mercantile power of the ancient world and became the leader of the Greek alliance that defeated – twice – the armies of the invading Persian Empire. Nevertheless, after decades of bitter fighting with its rival Greek city of Sparta, Athens was utterly defeated and lost everything but timeless edifices and its illustrious cultural reputation. Athens was conquered and destroyed time and time again.
In the 2nd century BC, it falls to the Romans becomes part of their empire and subsequently part of the Byzantine Empire. A series of raids and especially the one from Goths in 260 AD, damaged badly the ancient city. After suffering greatly at the hands of the Catalans, Florentines, and Venetians during the Middle Ages, the city was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1456. In a battle for the control of Athens, in 1688, the Venetians bombarded the Turks who were fortified on the Acropolis – which was holding on remarkably until then – and reduced its ancient temples to the ruins that we see today.

In 1800 Lord Elgin, ambassador of England in Constantinople, invoking on the disasters of the ancient Athenian monuments and offering the excuse of protecting them, violently took away parts of the interior decoration of the temples on the Acropolis Mountain. In 1821 the Greek Nation rose against the Ottoman Empire and soon afterward Athens was liberated. In 1833 the city was designated as the capital of modern Greece and from a backwater market town around the Acropolis, developed into the cosmopolitan center that it is today. In 1896 the revival of the Ancient Olympic Games took place in Athens, with the occasion of which in the capital was realized appreciable work.

A brief history of Athens

History of Athens is long, impressive and fascinating; inextricably woven with mythology, it makes it hard to disentangle facts from fiction.

Athens was founded in the Neolithic Era, by early settlers who were attracted by the abundant springs on the hill of what later became the Acropolis. Balancing between the war-oriented times and the love of gods, Athens benefited from its ideal location and started growing to a large and independent city, becoming the cultural and political hub of the known world. Democracy was born here; philosophy and arts skyrocketed in this blessed region.

The Golden Era came a few centuries later; after finally repulsing the persistent Persians, Athenian power knew no bounds. In the 460s BC Pericles, the leader of the Athenian Democracy decided to transform the state creating an ideal and unprecedented city eternally admired. And he did.

The pinnacle of the classical era was the starting point of a tremendous change for Athens. Most of the monuments of the city date from this Era. Literature and theatre were born and flourished, while architecture and sciences took off.

Athens boasts a vast array of influential men and women, known for their glorious minds and undisputable abilities; the historian Herodotus and Thucydides, Xenophon and Pausanias were born here. Same with Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, whose tragedies are being played all over the world till the present.

Athens knew a downfall during the Byzantine Era when the center of attention was strategically moved to Constantinople, as the new religion was about to be born. The city knew long occupations ever since; 400 years of Turks, a long and successful Revolution against them, Wars and occupation again by Germans.

Despite the frantic periods of time of doomsaying, wars, conflicts, and poverty, Athens never lost its glory or charm. It managed to surprise everyone pulling off the most successful Olympic Games in 2004, reminding everyone that the Games were actually born in this country; therefore Greeks still know how to do the job.

The development and beautification of the city and its suburbs have changed a lot, to the best. Athens became a more attractive, green and efficient capital, competing with the richest capitals in the world.

Establishment of City-States

In Ionia, where kingship was also the early rule, the refugees remained on the seacoast and quickly organized themselves into cities, probably in order to defend themselves better from the adjacent Near Eastern population, though there must have been a considerable cultural interchange between the two peoples. The walled cities, which served as the focus of the surrounding population, began to evolve into the city-state (the polis). The defensible city, with its citadel, central shrine, hearth, and sacred fire, and marketplace (agora), became the center of government for town and country. One’s city, not one’s village or race, determined one’s political identity. A similar process occurred in Greece itself, though in some areas, such as Arcadia in the center of the Peloponnesus, village life continued; in other areas, exceptional or fortunate cities assimilated a relatively large surrounding area. Thus Athens and Sparta absorbed Attica and Laconia, respectively.

The Greeks on both sides of the Aegean early frequented common shrines. Apollo was worshipped at Delphi, Zeus at Olympia, Apollo, and Artemis at Delos. The Greeks celebrated festivals at these shrines with dance, song, and athletics. These meetings reinforced their common identity and prompted them to formulate some basic rules of interstate behavior concerning warfare, religious truces, and the sanctity of heralds or messengers. Delphi became the center of a league that initially comprised only the surrounding peoples but eventually came to include both Athens and Sparta. The oracle at Delphi was much consulted throughout ancient times. In the archaic period, it was very influential, fixing the site of prospective colonies and helping to formulate major policies for cities as well as individuals.

“ The men who died were not all heroes, but by their death they have made up for shortcomings. I know that for love of Athens they were glad to do so. They were all alike, swept away from a world filled for their dying eyes not with terror, but with glory.“


Rise of Democracy

The Archaic years were a period of experiment in methods of government in Athens, as well as in other areas. Athens passed from monarchy to archonship and to oligarchy. The rich industrialist Solon (638-588 B.C.) as one of the archons was given dictatorial power to introduce constitutional and social reforms on democratic lines (594 B.C.).

This included the emancipation of the peasantry, curtailment of aristocratic power and the codification of Athenian law. From 560 to 528 B.C. the tyrant Peisistratos was in power, a period of great artistic and architectural activity. In 507 BC the reforms of Cleisthenes introduced a genuinely democratic constitution in which the assembly of citizens had sovereign power.

This led to the establishment of the fundamental principle of democracy, and that of equality before the Law (isonomia). The other city-states after similar experiments, arrived at democratic governmental reform, with the exception of Sparta, which retained its peculiar dual kingship and constitution based on rigid military code.

The founding fathers of the United States of America drew heavily upon the political and philosophical experience of Ancient Greece in forming representative democracy.

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Education in Ancient Athens

The educational systems of ancient Greece varied dramatically, depending on the tradition of each city-state. Let us examine the two prevailing systems (Ionian vs Doric) whose style, apart from Athens and Sparta respectively, was also similar for most of the other cities.

Proper enunciation of sound and clearness of words were essential and voice training was constant. Classes were taught and information was learned almost entirely from the spoken word. This is why the Greeks had a love of drama, recitations, public recitals, and contests. Paintings the Athenians put on their vases show us pictures of the school rooms.

Playing the lyre, an instrument resembling a small hand-held harp was considered so important, that if a boy couldn’t play the lyre well enough, it was thought to be a sign of bad breeding.

The readings were mainly the works of Homer, Hesiod, Theognis, and the lyric poets and probably, towards the end of the fifth century (499-400) B.C. the tragic plays of various authors. Especially emphasized were the poems of Homer. These poems were the very backbone of the school course.

Primary education for Athenian boys lasted usually from the ages of six to fourteen. Secondary education, for boys from the wealthier families, was from the ages of fourteen to eighteen. Then, finally, the boys entered a military training camp for two years, until the age of twenty, when they were called ephebes. Gradually this military training was decreased to only one year.

The Delian League

The league founded in 477 B.C. and was under the presidency of Athens. It included hardly any other state besides those that had conducted the defense of Greece. It was formed, almost entirely, of the states which had been liberated from Persian rule by the great victories of the war.

The Delian League, even in the form in which it was first established, as a confederation of autonomous allies, marks an advance in political conceptions. Provision is made for annual revenue, for periodical meetings of the council, and for a permanent executive. It is a real federation, though an imperfect one. The fleet was mainly Athenian, the commanders entirely so; the assessment of the tribute was in Athenian hands; there was no federal court-appointed to determine questions at issue between Athens and the other members; and, the worst omission of all, the right of secession was left undecided. By the middle of the century, the Delian League has become the Athenian empire. Henceforward the imperial idea, in one form or another, dominates Greek politics. Athens failed to extend its authority over the whole of Greece. Her empire was overthrown after the Peloponnesian War, but the triumph of autonomy proved the triumph of imperialism. The Spartan empire succeeds to the Athenian, and, when it is finally shattered at Leuctra (371 B.C.), the hegemony of Thebes, which is established on its ruins, is an empire in all but name. The decay of Theban power paves the way for the rise of Macedon.


Pericles was the political leader of Athens from about 460 B.C. to 429 B.C., a time at which Athenian culture and military power were at their height. His name is associated with the greatest artistic creations of the age, both in letters and in marble, and he initiated the great public building program that produced, among other structures, the Parthenon.

Pericles was born in 495 B.C. into the family of the Alcmaeonids. His mother was Agariste, the sister of Cleisthenes, and his father was Xanthippus. He commanded an Athenian contingent of the allied fleet. Because he belonged to a wealthy family and had rich friends, he was able to travel and meet envoys. This travel and exploring gained him much experience. Pericles was chosen as a statesman because this way his opinions counted considerably.

In 448 B.C., after Cimon’s death, peace had finally been concluded with Persia. Six years before this, the allied treasury had been transferred, and now the funds were under Athenian management. These funds were applied by Pericles for the rebuilding of temples that were destroyed by the Persians. After the peace with Sparta, a critical step in the transition from league to the empire was taken in the year of 454-453 B.C. when the treasury of the Delian League was moved from Delos to the Acropolis of Athens. The Athenians took one-sixtieth of the tribute paid by the allies as firstfruits for the goddess Athena Polias, patroness of the city. The Athenians began to grow exceptionally wealthy. The League was no longer at war with Persia and the tax money kept rolling in. When Cimon died in 448, Pericles replaced him as leader of the state. He married Aspasia which was most likely a woman of exceptional intellect and physical beauty.

In 443 B.C., his power became even greater by allowing no possible competitor to get in the way. In this year, Thucydides was ostracized and went into exile. Anaxagoras was also exiled form Athens, charged with immorality. Others experienced similar fates. This left Pericles in complete control. This left him in control during part of the Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431 to 404 B.C.

Pericles possessed quite an affection for Athens. He was distinguished by lofty ideals for uplifting Athens culturally and spent a lot of money to beautify the city. His love of Athens motivated the citizens to be good fighters during the battles. Despite all of his attempts at saving his great city, Athens finally lost. The men grew desperate, and democracy proved to be a failure. Pericles died in the year 429 B.C. of a plague that broke within the city walls, while war did not end before 404. A dictatorship was left behind.

While the war was raging, Pericles gave a memorable speech to the Athenians over who died in the war, his famous ‘Epitaph’. There he praised the freedom of the country, liberal education, and the love of beauty and wisdom which provided many pleasures, such as festivals and contests. When it came to fighting, Athenians were just as tough as Spartans.


With the wealth that poured into Athens from the Delian League, Pericles funded the restoration projects that repaired the damage that had been done during the Persian Wars. Athens experienced an unprecedented burst of artistic activity. It is said that the quality of these works was even more amazing than the quantity.

During this period, he introduced many innovations. He had proposed to the people that jurymen should be paid, and the people agreed through the process of voting. This allowed poor people to take the time from other business. Another law that he proposed was of citizenship. He refused citizenship to anyone if both of their parents were not Athenian-born.

Pericles funded many new building projects. The most splendid of these was the Parthenon. The Parthenon, dedicated to the city’s patron goddess, was the jewel in the crown of the Periclean building program. It carried architecture to a new height of refinement. Great comedies and tragedies were produced and acted out during religious festivals at the theatre of Dionysus. He also developed the Athenian agora, the city’s central marketplace. The agora fostered trade for spices, honey, olives, oil and slaves from all around the world. It was also the center of Athenian civic life and contained temples, courts, the council house, and other public buildings.

These new projects enabled the poorer citizens of Athens to work with abundant income. It also made Athens the most beautiful city in the ancient world. At the height of its time, Athens may have had a population of 200,000 people. The thriving city had a democratic constitution and a prosperous way of life. Citizens gained respect for their wonderful city and they prided themselves on its achievements.

Athenian-Spartan Rivalry

The 5th century also saw a great conflict between Athens and Sparta, the strongest powers in Greece and the proponents of two different systems of government and society–progressively radical democracy and oligarchy, respectively. By the middle of the century, Athens had used its mighty naval force to transform the Delian League into an empire. Athens’s new prosperity and pride in its achievements, particularly under the leadership of Pericles, led to an outpouring of creativity, especially in drama, and allowed the city to adorn itself with public buildings of unsurpassable beauty such as the Parthenon (see Acropolis), begun in 447 B.C.

In the 450s B.C., while Athens was attempting to deprive Persia of Egypt, it entered into a sporadically fought and inconclusive war with the Peloponnesians for the possession of Megara and Aegina. Sparta was largely inactive in this war, though it fought and defeated the Athenians in the Battle of Tanagra (c.457 B.C.). Sparta was probably distracted (or left weakened) by the great helot revolt that had erupted in 464 and lasted for ten (or possibly only four) years.
The war ended in the winter of 446-45 B.C.with the so-called Thirty Years’ Peace. However, the peace was broken in 431 B.C., when the Peloponnesian War began; it was to last until 404 B.C.. This destructive conflict, which is chronicled by Thucydides, brought revolution to many cities and resulted in increasingly brutal acts perpetrated by both sides. After the Spartans invaded Attica and sought to incite Athens’s subjects to rebellion, Athens retaliated by raiding the Peloponnesian coast. The Athenians sought to retain control of the sea and attacked Corinthian settlements in northwestern Greece. After Athens’s disastrous defeat in Sicily in 413, Sparta itself became a naval power and gradually drove Athens from the sea. Under siege, Athens capitulated in 404 B.C.. It consented to the destruction of its fortifications and gave up its navy and empire. Meanwhile, Persia had succeeded in reasserting its presence in Ionia by financing the Spartan fleet.



The Peloponnesian War did not start overnight. In fact, there were many reasons and events leading up to the start of military hostilities. Tension and resentment between Athens and Sparta began after the Spartans chose to return home instead of continuing the siege against the Persians in the Near East in the years following the defeat of the Persians in the Second Persian War.

Athens, continuing to fight, began to show that it too had a strong military like the Spartans. Because of this many of the smaller city-states in northern Greece and on the islands in the Aegean Sea became Athens’ allies. The resulting alliances became known as the Delian League. In addition to their infantry advancement, the Athenian fleet had become by far the largest and most formidable navy in the region. This was mostly due to the fact that the Athenians were collecting tribute (a sort of tax) from the other city-states in the Delian league. This tax was in exchange for the protection the Athenian fleet and army provided. In addition to offensive military growth, Pericles, one of the Athenian leaders, used some of the tribute in the rebuilding of Athens’ walls for defensive purposes. This show of Athenian power frightened the Spartans (and Corinthians) who now saw a real threat in the growing size of Athenian power.

This threat became all the more real when the Athenian navy came to the aid of the Corcyraeans (a very small city-state on the northwestern coast of Greece) against the Corinthians in 433 B.C. Democratic factions had taken control of the colony’s government and forced the aristocrats out of power. In revenge for this action, the aristocrats joined with barbaric forces and attacked the city and its surrounding areas. When Corcyra refused to help the Epidamnians in their political struggle the colony went to the city-state of Corinth for assistance. Being itself distantly related to the people of the colony, the Corinthians sent ships to suppress the violence. This move greatly displeased the Corcyraeans who saw the Corinthians interfering with their affairs. So they sent their own ships to intercept the Corinthians.

To further counter the Corinthian action, the Corcyraeans made an alliance with Athens (who had a very bitter relationship with Corinth through many years of economic competition). Acting according to a duty to protect the Epidamnians and probably to stand up to the Athenians the Corinthian fleet engaged the Corcyraeans anyway. The resulting engagement was won decisively by Corcyraeans because they now possessed Athenian help. This act embittered Corinth even more toward Athens.

The final straw leading up to the Peloponnesian War was when Potidaea, a member of the Athenian Empire (Delian league), revolted against Athenian control. The city-state built fortifications to resist occupation by the Athenian army and sparked revolt elsewhere in the region in Chalcidice and Boeotia. After negotiations failed the Athenians sent troops into the region by ship. However, the Athenians were also fighting the Macedonians in the same region and had difficulty in suppressing the revolt. In spite of this, the Athenians were able to regain control of most of the region upon the arrival of reinforcements.

Seeing that their own citizens were now trapped in Potidaea, Corinth called a meeting of the Peloponnesian (the Peloponnese is the name for the peninsula that makes up southern Greece) assembly at Sparta. At this meeting, the complaints against the Athenian Empire reached their peak. After another meeting a month later the Peloponnesian decision was for war. However, it was winter and war did not begin right away. The Spartan (and Peloponnesian) demands were that Athens withdraw from Potidaea and that all the city-states in northern Greece be given their freedom. To this Pericles is quoted by Thucydides as saying:

Men of Athens, I hold to the opinion that I have maintained
consistently: do not yield to the Peloponnesians. . .

First Half of War

In the second year of the Peloponnesian War, 430 B.C., the Spartans invaded Athens itself. Pericles called for everyone to enter the city walls for refuge against the well trained Spartan warriors. At the same time, the Athenian fleet was able to raid the Peloponnesian coast and keep supply lines open to the city by the sea. This seemed to be an effective strategy for the Athenians to use, because their navy would meet no formidable match, unlike an infantry assault.

However, being enclosed in walls did not provide an effective way to attack the interior of the Peloponnese, a definite advantage for the Spartans who had been afraid of the growing strength of Athenian infantry. Instead, it actually worsened the Athenian position because a plague broke out and ravaged the population in the walled-in city. More unfortunate for the Athenians was that one of the victims was Pericles (in 429). Still, there was no clear winner in the war because Athenian supply lines were still in place.

Despite all the problems the Athenians faced, neither side gained a clear advantage. In 427 B.C. Athens reclaimed Mytilene, a rebellious colony that had sided with the Spartans. In the summer of 424 B.C., the Athenians won two more battles at Pylos in Messenia and Cythera in Laconia. But that same year Brasidas, a Spartan general took over the city of Amphilopolis, by the Strymon River, known for its resources of timber and silver. The next year, in 423 B.C., a one-year armistice was signed.

The war resumed and in 422 B.C. and still little advantage was gained. Shortly thereafter Athenian infantry under Cleon engaged the Spartans under the command of Brasidas at Amphilopolis. The impending battled proved costly to both sides because both Cleon and Brasidas, both highly revered generals, were killed. The next year, in 421 B.C., both sides agreed to peace again, due to great losses on both sides. This became known as the Peace of Nicias. It was a treaty that was to last fifty years. A little under seven years later both sides had declared war again.

The Sicilian Expedition

With the prospect of war going on for an unforeseeable amount of years, a new strategy began to unfold in the Peloponnesian War. The Athenians, behind the support of Alcibiades, a young officer, planned to invade the island of Sicily and assist a group of barbarians, the Segestans, in attacking Dorian (or Spartan) colonies there, specifically Syracuse. The strategy was to capture the main source of Spartan food and supplies and then blockade the Peloponnese with the Athenian navy until the occupants were starved. At the same time, the Spartans began to see the importance of naval supremacy and began to build a naval contingent of their own. Little did they know that this decision would greatly determine the outcome of the war.

Athens was enthusiastic about the prospect of shortening the war with what is known as the Sicilian expedition or Syracusan expedition. However, one delay after another severely damaged this plan. Days before the expedition was set to take place, in 415 B.C., the city awoke to find that all of the stone statues of Hermes, a symbol of fertility, had been mutilated. Alcibiades, the commander of the Sicilian expedition himself, was charged for the crime. People remembered the curse of the Alcmaeonids, and Alcibiades’ mother was an Alcmaeonid. Nevertheless, he was allowed to go on the expedition before trial. This decision by the Assembly proved to be in wrong judgment, because on the request for Alcibiades to return to Athens to stand trial he betrayed his homeland and joined the Spartan army.

A direct result of the loss of the leader was the indecisiveness under what terms they would fight and from where they would set up operations. By the time the first battle was fought and won by Athens, it was almost winter and the fleet had to return home. This allowed the Syracusans to build up a significant resistance in preparation of a resumed siege in the spring. It also allowed the Spartans a chance to plan intervention. Athenian enthusiasm would eventually be dampened.

When spring did come Athens continued to pound the Syracusan defenses and almost had the colony defeated. However, the new commander Nicias delayed in finishing off the sparse Syracusan resistance and was surprised when the Spartan General Gyllipus came with some Corinthians to defend the colony. This weakened the dominant position the Athenians had been in the previous winter.

When Demosthenes, an Athenian general, came the next summer to reinforce the Athenian contingent, he too underestimated the remaining hostile forces. Instead of regrouping his retreating forces for a large, organized assault he elected to continue the smaller skirmishes already taking place. These tactical errors made first by Nicias and then Demosthenes ultimately cost Athens the successfulness of the expedition, for they had to return home beaten on land and sea.

Fall of Athens & Results

In a counter-offensive the Spartans now did what the Athenians had failed to do: finish the war. Upon returning from Sicily, the Spartans completed building a fleet of ships with money provided by the Persians (who were trying to weaken Greece as a whole by lengthening the war) and sailed northeast into the Black Sea, cut off the Athenian food supply, and established some control over the seas. Then Sparta and her allies invaded Attica (and Athens) again in 404 B.C. As in 430 B.C., the Athenians were once again forced to seek the refuge of their walled city. But unlike the previous invasion, Sparta had the city choked off due to the Athenian inability to fund its navy. The result was the unconditional surrender of Athens in 404 B.C.

RESULTS: For the Spartans victory meant regaining the dominance and respect of old. The Athenians were forced to give up all lands outside their polis (city-state) and fall into a submissive state of existence. The democratic government that had been in place was removed and its exiled opposition returned home to rule under Spartan watch. Though this control only lasted a short time Athens would never again control the power it had at the start of the war.