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. 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. A Center of the Arts, Knowledge and Philosophy, home of the Academy of Plato and Aristotle’s Lyceum, cradle of Western culture and the birthplace of democracy, mainly due to the impact of its cultural and political achievements during the 5th and 4th centuries BC.
Its borders included most of today’s Attica. 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. Ancient Athens was the protagonist of the Persian Wars, led by the alliance of Delos and one of the two alliances that collided during the Peloponnesian War.
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.
Democracy in Athens
Athenian men considered women and non- Athenians to be lower than all these groups. By around 500 BC, Athenian society was divided according to the extent to which people could participate in Athenian democracy.
Social and Political Structures
Athens was the city-state in which citizens had the most involvement in the government. The Athenians called their system of government a democracy from the two Greek words Demos, meaning people, and Kratia, meaning rule. It is important to realise that involvement in political life was restricted to citizens; that is, to adult males born in Athens of free parents. Women, foreign-born inhabitants (metics) and slaves were excluded. Athenians took turns in running the government. A committee organised meetings of the Assembly, known as the Ecclesia. Each year members were chosen by drawing lots. This gave each citizen the chance to assist for a short time, but prevented anyone from becoming too powerful.
A Council of 500 dealt with the day-to-day business of the city-state. These men were elected each year by the Assembly. The Assembly also chose 10 war leaders, or generals, to run the army and navy. Generals were allowed to serve for several years to avoid the disasters that could be created by changing generals too often in the middle of a war. Pericles served as a war general for 26 years. His oratory, or public speaking skills, helped him to persuade the Assembly to elect him as general 14 times.
The people’s courts
Jury courts were formed from the citizens. Citizens drew lots to decide who would be a juror. There were no judges and no professional lawyers. The accused was delivered a summons (an order to appear at court) to give his own defence.
Wars with Persia
Around 490 BC, the fate of Greece hung in thebalance. The mighty Persian Empire launched an invasion to punish Athens and other Greek cities because they had helped Greeks in the east in a revolt against Persia. The Athenians managed to push back the invading Persian army at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC. This only made the Persians more determined to plan a new attack, with much larger forces.
War at Sea
Before the Persian invasions in 490 BC, the Athenians had only a small navy. However, the invasions had made it very clear that the Persians were a powerful and dangerous enemy who fought fiercely both on land and at sea. The Athenian Assembly decided that the state needed a larger navy to protect the city and to help make Athens stronger. The Athenian navy was financed by the discovery of a particularly rich vein of silver in the mines at Laurium.
The Battle of Salamis
In 480 BC, two Persian armies, both led by the Persian king Xerxes, moved into Greece, one on land and one at sea. Despite brave resistance by the Spartans, the Persians broke through at Thermopylae. Then they moved into Athens, destroying much of the city. The leaders of the Greek states decided to try to stop the Persians in the waters around Salamis, an island south-west of Athens. Their strategies were successful. The Greek naval victory at Salamis in 480 BC was followed by a victory over the Persian army at Plataea in 479 BC.
The Olympic Games
The Olympic Games began in about 776 BC as a competition among the Greek city-states. Athens was a keen competitor. Today the Olympic Games are one of the most significant legacies that we enjoy from the ancient Greek world. This festival was dedicated to Zeus, the father of the Greek gods and goddesses. Greeks from Athens and all over the mainland, from Asia Minor to Italy and from Africa and Macedonia, travelled to participate in the Olympic Games. A truce – a suspension of hostilities that would last up to three months – was proclaimed. Women could not participate and could not attend the Games.
Men who went to the Olympic Games could admire excellence in young athletes, see famous noblemen, listen to poets and music and socialise with Greeks from many different areas. A great carnival atmosphere prevailed at the festival. People could buy Greek goods from the stalls. The Olympic Games were held every four years, during summer, after harvesting was completed.
Building a Temple of Athena Nike
Pericles wanted Athens to be the most beautiful of all the Greek cities. He was particularly keen to replace the temples on the acropolis that the Persians had destroyed during their attack on the city in 480 BC. The greatest and most famous achievement of this building program was the Parthenon. This was the temple of Athena Parthenos built both to honour the goddess Athena, who was the city’s patron, and to celebrate the victory over the Persians.
The architects Ictinus and Callicrates designed the building and the sculptor Phidias created many of its decorations. The most impressive of these was a 12-metre-high marble statue, decorated with gold and ivory, of Athena. This statue no longer exists. Phidias also designed three sets of sculptures to decorate the temple – the metopes, the frieze and the pediments.
These were 92 individual sculptures, located above the outside row of columns, that showed scenes of real and imaginary battles in which the Greeks had participated. Phidias also created a 160-metre-long frieze, comprising 115 panels, that decorated the space above the inner row of columns. Phidias’ sculptures are known as the
Parthenon Marbles. Workers, mostly slaves and prisoners of war, began building the Parthenon in 447 BC and completed it 15 years later in 432 BC. The main building material was white marble from quarries to the north-east of Athens.