Athens

Definition

by
published on 28 April 2011
The Parthenon (Andrew Griffith)

The city of Athens, Greece, with its famous Acropolis, has come to symbolize the whole of the country in the popular imagination, and not without cause. Athens began as a small, Mycenaen community and grew to become a city that, at its height, epitomized the best of Greek virtues and enjoyed such prestige that the Spartans refused to sack the city or enslave the citizens, even after Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian War. This set a model that would be followed by future conquerors who would defeat Athens but not destroy it.

Early Settlement

Evidence of human habitation on the Acropolis and, below, in the area around the Agora, dates back clearly as far as 5000 BCE and, probably, as early as 7000 BCE. According to legend, the Athenian King Cecrops named the city after himself but the gods, seeing how beautiful it was, felt it deserved an immortal name. A contest was held among the gods on the Acropolis, with Cecrops and the citizenry looking on, to determine which deity would win the honor. Poseidon struck a rock with his trident and, as water gushed forth, he assured the people that now they would never suffer drought. Athena was next in line and dropped a seed into the earth which sprouted swiftly as an olive tree. The people thought the olive tree more valuable than the water (as, according to some versions of the story, the water was salty, as was Poseidon's realm) and Athena was chosen as patron and the city named for her. 

Under Pericles, Athens entered her golden age and great thinkers, writers, and artists flourished in the city

As the soil was not conducive to large-scale agricultural programs, Athens turned to trade for its livelihood and, mainly, to sea trade. The early Mycenaean period (c. 1550 - 1100 BCE) saw massive fortresses rise all over Greece, and Athens was no exception. The remains of a Mycenaean palace can still be seen today on the Acropolis. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey portray the Mycenaeans as great warriors and seafaring people, and there is no doubt they traded widely throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean region. In c. 1200 BCE the Sea Peoples invaded the Greek archipelago of the Aegean from the south while, simultaneously, the Dorians came down from the north into mainland Greece. While the Sea Peoples made definite incursions into Attica (the mainland region surrounding Athens) the Dorians by-passed the city, allowing the Mycenaean culture to survive (although, like the rest of Greece, there seems to have been an economic and cultural downturn following these invasions). The Athenians, afterward, claimed for themselves a special status in that they spoke Ionian, instead of Doric, Greek and held to customs they felt were superior to their neighbors.

Caryatids of the Erechtheion

Athenian Government & Laws

The wealthy aristocrats held control of both the land and the government and, in time, poorer land owners became enslaved (or nearly so) through debt to the more wealthy. Further, there was a perceived lack of consistency among the other laws of the city. The first series of laws written to address these problems were provided by the statesman Draco (also known as Dracon/Drakon) in c. 621 BCE but were considered too severe (the penalty for most infractions was death), and so the great lawgiver Solon was called upon to modify and revise them. Solon, though an aristocrat himself, created a series of laws which equalized the political power of the citizenry and, in so doing, laid the groundwork for democracy in Athens in 594 BCE. After Solon resigned from public office various factional leaders sought to seize power and the ultimate victor, Peisistratos, recognized the value of Solon's revisions and kept them, in a modified form, throughout his reign as a benevolent tyrant. His son, Hippias, continued his policies until his younger brother, Hipparkhos, was assassinated over a love affair in 514 BCE. After this Hippias instituted a reign of terror which finally culminated in the overthrow of the Peisistratid tyranny in the Athenian Revolt of 510 BCE (backed by Sparta and lead by the Spartan Kleomenes). In the aftermath of the coup, and after settling affairs with Spartan factions such as Isagoras's bid for power, Cleisthenes was appointed to reform the government and the laws and, in 507 BCE, he instituted a new form of government which today is recognized as Democracy. According to the historian Waterfield, "The pride that followed from widespread involvement in public life gave Athenians the energy to develop their city both internally and in relation to their neighbors". This new form of government would provide the stability necessary to make Athens the cultural and intellectual center of the ancient world; a reputation which lasts even into the modern age.

After the Athenians (with the help of Plataeans) defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE and, again, after driving off a second Persian invasion at Salamis in 480 BCE (and soundly defeating the Persians at Plataea and Mycale in 479 BCE), Athens emerged as the supreme naval power in Greece. They formed the Delian League, ostensibly to create a cohesive Greek network among city-states to ward off further Persian attacks, and, under the leadership of Pericles, grew so powerful that the Athenian Empire could effectively dictate the laws, customs, and trade of all her neighbors in Attica and the islands of the Aegean. The historian Waterfield writes: 

There is no little irony in the fact that one of the things we most admire in the ancient Greeks is their love of freedom - and yet one of the chief manifestations of that love was their constant striving to control in some way the futures of their neighbors.

The Golden Age

Even so, under Pericles, Athens entered her golden age and great thinkers, writers, and artists flourished in the city. Herodotus, the `father of history', lived and wrote in Athens. Socrates, the `father of philosophy', taught in the marketplace. Hippocrates, `the father of medicine', practiced there. The sculptor Phidias created his great works for the Parthenon on the Acropolis and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Democritus envisioned an atomic universe. Aeschylus, Euripedes, Aristophanes, and Sophocles wrote their famous plays and Pindar his Odes. This legacy would continue as, later, Plato would found his Academy outside the walls of Athens in 385 BCE and, later, Aristotle's Lyceum would be founded in the city centre.

Peloponnesian War

The might of the Athenian Empire encouraged an arrogance in the policy makers of the day which grew intolerable to her neighbors. When Athens sent troops to help Sparta put down a Helot rebellion, the Spartans refused the gesture and sent the Athenian force back home in dishonor, thus provoking the war which had long been brewing. Later, when Athens sent their fleet to help defend its ally Cocyra (Corfu) against a Corinthian invasion during the Battle of Sybota in 433 BCE, their action was interpreted by Sparta as aggression instead of assistance, as Corinth was an ally of Sparta.

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) between Athens and Sparta (though involving, directly or indirectly, all of Greece) ended in disaster for Athens after her defeat. Her empire and her wealth gone, her walls destroyed, only her reputation as a great seat of learning and culture prevented the sack of the city and the enslavement of the populace. Athens struggled to throw off their condition as a subject state, and with some success, until they were defeated in 338 BCE by the Macedonian forces under Philip II at Chaeronea. Athens was then subject to Macedonian rule until their defeat by the Romans in 197 BCE at the Battle of Cynocephalae after which Greece was methodically conquered by the Roman Empire. It is a tribute to an enduring legacy that the Roman general Sulla, who sacked Athens in 87-86 BCE, slaughtered the citizenry, and burned the port of Piraeus, refused to allow his soldiers to burn the city itself. In the modern age the name of Athens still conjures to the mind words and images of the classical world and the heights of intellectual and poetic creativity, while the Parthenon on the Acropolis continues to symbolize the golden age of ancient Greece.



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Timeline

Visual Timeline
  • c. 7000 BCE - 5000 BCE
    Earliest known human habitation on the Acropolis and around the Agora of Athens.
  • c. 1550 BCE - c. 1100 BCE
    Mycenaean Period. Agora established at Athens.
  • c. 1100 BCE - c. 600 BCE
    Iron Age Development, public buildings erected at the Agora in Athens.
  • 683 BCE - 682 BCE
    List of annual archons at Athens begins.
  • c. 624 BCE
    Drakon codifies Athenian law.
  • 600 BCE - 550 BCE
    The Dionysia becomes a major Athenian festival in honour of Dionysos.
  • 600 BCE - 480 BCE
    Attic black-figure pottery dominates the greek ceramic market.
  • 594 BCE - 593 BCE
    In Athens the archon Solon lays the foundations for democracy.
  • c. 560 BCE
    Pisistratos becomes tyrant in Athens for the first time.
  • c. 546 BCE
    Pisistratus lands his Argive mercenary force at Marathon and with victory at Pallene establishes himself once again as tyrant of Athens.
  • c. 540 BCE
    Athens removes and prohibits further burials on Delos to purify the sacred island.
  • c. 525 BCE - c. 456 BCE
    Life of Greek tragedy poet Aeschylus.
  • 514 BCE
    Fall of the Peisistratid tyranny in Athens.
  • 514 BCE
    The tyrant of Athens Hipparchos is killed by Harmodios and Aristogeiton - the 'tyrannicides'.
  • c. 508 BCE
    Reforms by Cleisthenes establishes democracy in Athens.
  • 507 BCE
    Cleisthenes establishes new form of government, Democracy, in Athens.
  • c. 496 BCE - c. 406 BCE
    Life of Greek tragedy poet Sophocles.
  • c. 495 BCE
    Birth of Pericles.
  • 493 BCE
    The first fortifications are constructed at Athens' port of Piraeus.
  • 490 BCE
    Athens builds a treasury at Delphi following their victory at Marathon against Persia.
  • 490 BCE - 480 BCE
    A 1.4m tall Iris or Nike sculpture is erected on the acropolis of Athens in memory of the general Kallimachos, killed in the battle of Marathon.
  • 11 Sep 490 BCE
    A combined force of Greek hoplites defeat the Persians at Marathon.
  • 487 BCE - 486 BCE
    Archons begin to be appointed by lot in Athens.
  • c. 484 BCE - 407 BCE
    Life of Greek tragedy poet Euripides.
  • 482 BCE
    Themistocles persuades the Athenians to build a fleet, which saves them at Salamis and becomes their source of power.
  • 480 BCE
    Sack of Athens by the Persians under Xerxes. The Agora is destroyed.
  • 480 BCE
    The fortifications of Piraeus instigated by Themistocles are completed.
  • Aug 480 BCE
    The indecisive battle of Artemision between the Greek and Persian fleets of Xerxes I. The Greeks withdraw to Salamis.
  • 479 BCE
    Xerxes' Persian forces are defeated by Greek forces at Plataea effectively ending Persia's imperial ambitions in Greece.
  • 478 BCE - 454 BCE
    The treasury of the Delian League is kept on Delos until its removal to Athens.
  • 478 BCE - 404 BCE
    The Delian League in Greece, led by Athens.
  • 470 BCE
    Statue group of Harmodius and Aristogiton in Athens.
  • c. 469 BCE - 399 BCE
    Life of Socrates.
  • c. 465 BCE
    Construction of the Long Walls fortifications joining Athens to the port of Piraeus are begun.
  • 462 BCE - 461 BCE
    Radicalisation of democracy in Athens; Cimon exiled, Pericles comes to exercise influence.
  • c. 462 BCE - 458 BCE
    Pericles introduces democratic institutions in Athens.
  • 461 BCE - 429 BCE
    Pericles is ruler of Athens.
  • 460 BCE - 445 BCE
    First Peloponnesian War.
  • 460 BCE - 429 BCE
    The Age of Pericles. Athenian Agora is rebuilt, construction of Parthenon.
  • c. 460 BCE - 403 BCE
    Life of Critias, one of the Thirty Tyrants of Athens.
  • c. 460 BCE - c. 380 BCE
    Life of Greek comic poet Aristophanes.
  • c. 460 BCE - c. 320 CE
    Period of full and direct citizen democracy in Athens.
  • 457 BCE
    Hegemony of Athens over central Greece.
  • 457 BCE
    Sparta wins the battle of Tanagra during the 1st Peloponnesian War with Athens.
  • 454 BCE
    The Athenians move the treasury of the Delian League from Delos to Athens.
  • 453 BCE
    Pericles erects trophy at Nemea after Athenian victory over the Sikyonians.
  • c. 451 BCE - c. 403 CE
    Life of Athenian statesman and general Alcibiades.
  • 449 BCE
    The Hephaisteion, temple to Athena & Hephaistos, built in Athens.
  • 447 BCE - 432 BCE
    The construction of the Parthenon in Athens by the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates under the direction of Pheidias.
  • 28 Jul 447 BCE
    Construction of the Acropolis of Athens begins under Pericles' leadership.
  • 446 BCE
    The Middle Wall fortifications are added to the Long Walls which connect Athens and the port of Piraeus.
  • c. 443 BCE
    Thurii in Magna Graecia founded by Athenian settlers.
  • 438 BCE
    The cult statue of Athena Parthenos is dedicated in the Parthenon of Athens.
  • c. 437 BCE - 431 BCE
    The Propylaea is constructed on the acropolis of Athens under the supervision of Mnesicles.
  • 433 BCE
    Alliance between Athens and Corcyra.
  • 433 BCE
    A naval battle between the victorious combined forces of Corcyra and Athens against Corinth.
  • 432 BCE
    Sparta declares that Athens has broken the Thirty Year Peace and prepares for war.
  • 431 BCE
    Athens invades Megara.
  • 431 BCE - 404 BCE
    The Peloponnesian Wars which leave Athens defeated and the Agora damaged.
  • 431 BCE - 404 BCE
    The 2nd Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (the Delian League and the Peloponnesian League) which involved all of Greece.
  • 430 BCE
    The plague decimates Athens.
  • 430 BCE - c. 354 BCE
    Life of Xenophon of Athens.
  • 429 BCE
    Athens successfully campaigns in the Corinthian Gulf regions during the Peloponnesian War.
  • 429 BCE
    Following attacks by Sparta, fortifications at the port of Piraeus are extended to reduce the width of the harbour entrances.
  • 427 BCE - 347 BCE
    Life of Plato.
  • 425 BCE
    Pylos campaign, under Cleon and Demosthenes' command Athens defeats Sparta at Pylos.
  • c. 425 BCE - c. 420 BCE
    The Temple dedicated to Athena Nike is constructed on the acropolis of Athens.
  • 424 BCE
    A force of Athenian peltasts defeat Spartan hoplites on Sphaktria in the Peloponnese.
  • 424 BCE
    The Athenian expeditions against Megara and Boeotia are a failure with a particularly heavy defeat near Delion.
  • 422 BCE
    Spartan general Brasidas employs Myrkinian and Chalkidian peltasts to defeat a force of Athenian hoplites at Amphipolis.
  • 421 BCE - 406 BCE
    The Erechtheion of Athens acropolis is constructed with six Caryatids in the south porch.
  • c. 415 BCE
    The Histories of Herodotus is published. The work is divided into nine chapters, each dedicated to one of the Muses.
  • c. 415 BCE
    Alcibiades persuades the Athenian assembly to send a military expedition to Sicily.
  • 415 BCE - 413 BCE
    Athenian expedition to attack Syracuse.
  • 414 BCE
    The Athenian expedition in Sicily ends in disastrous defeat and the Athenian generals Nikias and Demosthenes are executed.
  • 414 BCE
    Athens constructs fortifications at Sounion.
  • 413 BCE
    On the advice of Alcibiades the Spartans take over the Athenian-held fort of Dekeleia.
  • 411 BCE
    The oligarchy of the 400 take over the democracy in Athens and in a matter of months is replaced by an oligarchy of 5000.
  • 410 BCE
    Alcibiades leads the Athenian fleet to victory over Sparta at Cyzicus.
  • c. 407 BCE
    Alcibiades returns to Athens in triumph and is made strategos autokrater.
  • 406 BCE
    The Athenian fleet is defeated by Lysander of Sparta at Notium.
  • 404 BCE
    End of the Peloponnesian war, Athens defeated By Sparta at Aigospotamoi, Rule of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens.
  • 404 BCE
    Sparta attacks the Athenian port of Piraeus destroying parts of the Long Wall fortifications.
  • 403 BCE
    Restoration of the democracy in Athens, death of the tyrant Critias.
  • 395 BCE - 386 BCE
    The Corinthian Wars between Sparta and an alliance of Athens, Corinth, Argos, Boeotia and Thebes.
  • 390 BCE
    Athenian leader Iphikrates employs peltasts to defeat Spartan hoplites at Lechaion near Corinth.
  • 387 BCE
    Sparta attacks the Athenian port of Piraeus.
  • 384 BCE - 322 BCE
    Life of Aristotle.
  • 380 BCE
    Plato founds his Academy outside of Athens.
  • 362 BCE
    Indecisive Battle of Matinea where Thebes fought against Sparta and Athens. Theban general Epaminondas is killed.
  • c. 354 BCE
    Xenophon dies at Athens or Corinth.
  • 338 BCE
    The Battle of Charonea gives Athens to the Macedonian victors. Agora takes on Macedonian characteristics.
  • 338 BCE
    Philip of Macedonia defeats the Greek allied forces of Athens, Thebes and Corinth in the Battle of Chaironeia.
  • 166 BCE
    Rome gives dominion over the Cyclades to Athens.
  • 166 BCE
    Rome puts Delos under the jurisdiction of Athens and makes the island a free port.
  • 159 BCE - 138 BCE
    King Attalos II of Pergamon builds the great Stoa in the Agora of Athens.
  • 86 BCE
    The Roman general Sulla sacks Athens and the port of Piraeus.
  • 86 BCE
    Siege of Athens by the Roman general Sulla. Agora is destroyed.
  • 117 CE - 138 CE
    Rule of the Roman Emperor Hadrian who supports great building projects in and around the Agora of Athens.
  • 267 CE
    The Goths sack Athens, Corinth, Sparta, and Argos.
  • 267 CE
    Agora of Athens burned by invading Herulians.

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