A Short History of Athens

The history of Athens is virtually the history of Greece, for this immortal city was for centuries the heart of the Hellenic world and the acknowledged leader of its civilization. Though in common with all Greek cities, its origins are too remote to be anything more than a matter for conjecture. The Cyclopean wall that runs round the rock of the Acropolis, the neolithic remains, traces of Bronze Age habitation and a number of pre-Hellenic place-names prove that Athens was occupied by man from the very earliest times.

Athens was perhaps the largest of the independent Attic communities with its king residing on the Acropolis, probably in the palace named after Erechtheus, whose memory is perpetuated in the magnificent temple of the Erechtheion. A tribe of their Ionian kinsmen from Marathon, from whom later generations of Athenians were proud to claim descent, invaded the city and rapidly became predominant. Under the rule of Cecrops, the first known king of Athens, and that of his successors, Pandion, Erechtheus, Aegeus and Theseus, Athens increased in size and importance, slowly absorbing the smaller communities of Attica, until in the reign of Theseus (c. 1300 BC) they were all united under his leadership.

About 1100 BC, the Dorians invaded the Peloponnese and swept all before them; it seemed that no army could withstand them, and Athens was in mortal danger. Its citizens sprang to arms, though with a presentiment of certain defeat in their hearts. It had been prophesied that the Athenians could only ensure victory by the death of their king. King Codrus then decided to sacrifice himself to save his people. Making his way disguised into the Dorian camp he provoked a quarrel in which he was killed. When the invaders discovered that it was Codrus they had slain they despaired of success and retreated; Athens was saved.

Since no one was thought worthy to succeed this heroic king, the monarchy yielded to government by the nobles, who appropriated all power. They chose three archons, or executive officials, from among their ranks to represent the king and share the royal power. This change was affected by the devolution of the military powers of the king to the polemarch, who then became the supreme military commander; the first archon, who later became the chief state official, was the civil governor, while the archon basileus, who was a descendant of Codrus, retained the title of king and had control of the religious rites of the state. Although first hereditary and limited to the royal clan, the tenure of the archonship was later reduced to a period of ten years and all noblemen were eligible for office.

This reform, however, did not satisfy the masses that resented the concentration of all state authority in the hands of the aristocracy and clamored for a written constitution. In 594 BC the nobles bestowed full power to remodel the new state on one of their number, the celebrated Solon, trusted by noblemen and peasant alike. For the first time in the history of the world the people were given a measure of participation in government, the grant of political rights and a constitution. Later the office of archon was made annual and elective and to the existing three offices, military, civil and religious, were added the six thesmothetae whose sole duty was to record judicial decisions. In spite of these concessions discontent was rife, and a number of popular revolts exposed the state to constant danger.

In 546 BC, Peisistratus, a distinguished and daring statesman seized power and made himself dictator. Under his autocratic rule Athens enjoyed great prosperity. He stimulated commerce and industry, and by fostering agriculture laid the basis for the development of Athens’ chief export, the olive. Through his vigorous foreign policy, for the first time, Athens emerged as an Aegean Power. Posterity is indebted to this devoted lover of the arts since he ordered the preparation of the first authorized version of Homer’s sublime epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. He also embellished the city with monuments whose splendor was later surpassed only by those of the Golden Age of Pericles.

Peisistratus died in 527 BC. Though a dictator, he had been an enlightened and benevolent ruler. He had cared for the interests of the common man and curbed the power of the nobles; but his sons, especially the elder, Hippias, were brutal tyrants who exercised their power solely in their own interests. They excited the hatred of the Athenians to such a degree that in 514 BC a conspiracy was organized and the leaders, two patricians, Harmodios and Aristogeiton, killed the younger brother, Hipparchus. Hippias was driven into exile and the civic liberties of the state were restored.

The resounding victories over the Persians at Marathon, in 490 BC, and particularly the glorious Battle of Salamis, in 480 BC, in which Themistocles proved himself a naval commander of genius, laid the foundations of Athenian supremacy over the Hellenic city-states. A statesman of uncommon foresight, Themistocles added diplomatic triumphs to his victories. By protracting the parleys with Sparta he gained the time necessary to complete the rebuilding of the city’s fortifications, which had been destroyed by the Persians during their second invasion.

Themistocles’ policies were continued by his successor, Cimon. Athenian domination over the states of Asia Minor was consolidated and no enemy ship now dared appear in the waters of the Mediterranean. Besides being a brilliant strategist Cimon was also a great lover of art. He embellished the city, and commissioned his intimate friend, the eminent painter Polygnotus of Thasos, to execute vast frescoes recording the glorious deeds of the Athenians.

The year 460 BC saw the eclipse of Cimon and the rise of his political rival, Pericles, who controlled the affairs of the state, including the earlier period of the Peloponnesian war, until his death in 429 BC. An aristocrat but at the same time leader of the democratic party, he was a fervent advocate and champion of people’s rights. During the years of his administration Athens reached the summit of her grandeur, and the most brilliant century of Greek history is known as the Age of Pericles. Athens was now mistress of a superb fleet of three hundred sail and an army of thirty thousand perfectly armed and disciplined soldiers, with fortifications extending to the port of Peiraeus; she was impregnable to attack from land or sea, while her commercial prosperity and the tribute of the Delian League amassed in the treasury made her the richest city in all Hellas.

If the material prosperity of Athens was great during this period, her attainments in every field of culture were incomparable. A galaxy of architects, sculptors and painters and their gifted assistants adorned the city with a dazzling array of temples, public buildings and other works of art. Nor were Athenian achievements in literature less noteworthy. In this period the Attic drama produced many immortal masterpieces. It is also to Periclean Athens that the scientific thought of Europe in logic, ethics, rhetoric and history owes its origin. Supreme in the arts of war and peace, Athens was the most illustrious city of antiquity and seemed destined to endure for ever, but the inconstant gods were envious of happiness that matched their own.

The outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 was the first of a series of misfortunes to fall upon the city. Two years after the beginning of this internecine and intermittent struggle between Athens and Sparta for the hegemony of Greece, Athens suffered irreparable loss in the untimely death of Pericles during the dreadful plague that ravaged the city. Twelve years later the treachery of Pericles’ nephew, Alcibiades, was the cause of an even greater calamity.

Idol of the masses, Alcibiades was a gifted but completely unscrupulous demagogue who served his native city only when it suited him. Against the opposition of more experienced generals he succeeded in persuading his fellow citizens to embark upon the Sicilian Expedition (415) and was appointed one of the commanders. Shortly after the fleet had set sail he was recalled to stand trial on a charge of sacrilege, but fled to the Spartans, to whom he betrayed Athenian plans for the invasion of Sicily.

The crushing defeat of her fleet before Syracuse with the loss of forty thousand men and two hundred and forty ships, struck a crippling blow at the naval prestige of Athens and in 404 after twenty-seven years of war, utter exhaustion and starvation forced her to capitulate to her rival, Sparta.

Though her defeat deprived Athens of the leadership of Hellas, she retained her cultural eminence. The plays of Euripides and Aristophanes, the sculpture of Praxiteles and Scopas, the paintings of Zeuxis and the philosophical works of Plato mark this period as one of particular brilliance in the history of arts.

During the Corinthian War (395 BC) there was a revival of the Athenian naval power under Conon, whose squadron utterly routed the Spartan ships at the historic battle of Cnidus (394 BC). Following his triumphant return Conon ordered the rebuilding of the Long Walls (393 BC), which Athens had been compelled to demolish by the victorious Spartans at the end of the Peloponnesian War.

These walls completed the city’s chain of giant defenses. A roadway 8 kms in length and 170 m. wide, protected on either side by walls 18 m. high and 3 m. thick, secured communication between the city and the port of Peiraeus with its adjoining harbors. To the south was a had already been removed for the adornment of the new city on the Bosporus, and she was the object of further depredation in AD 523 when the great church of St. Sophia was erected. Under Byzantium the Parthenon and other glorious temples were converted into Christian churches, and in AD 529 Constantinople ordered the closing of the celebrated philosophical schools and the confiscation of their libraries; Athens was but a name.

After the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204 the Burgundian Count Otto de la Roche was granted the lordship of Athens, later raised to a duchy by Louis IX, and established his court on the Acropolis. On the death of Guy II, last duke of the House of de la Roche, the duchy passed to his cousin, Gautier de Brienne, the last French duke of Athens. Three years later (1311) he perished at the battle of Copais where a fearsome army of Catalan adventurers, known as the Grand Company, slaughtered the flower of Frankish chivalry. The Catalans terrorized the country for seventy years until they were overcome by another horde of Spanish mercenaries, the Navarrese Company.

In 1388 the Florentine Nerio Acciajuoli, Castellan of Corinth and Lord of Thebes, whom the Navarrese had elected as their leader, seized Athens and installed himself in the ducal court of the Acropolis. The house of the Acciajuoli lasted until 1456 when the last duke, Franco, was forced to yield to the Turks.

In 1684 when Venice declared war against the Turks, Doge Francesco Morosini was appointed to command the expedition. Ably seconded by a Swedish general, Count Otto Koenigsmark, he drove the enemy out of the Peloponnese and then marched against their garrison in Athens. In Morosini’s bombardment of the Acropolis, then held in force by the enemy, severe damage was done to the monuments there.

In 1821 the great revolution against Turkish occupation, which had lasted for almost four centuries, spread third wall, the Phaleric, which extended to the coastal town of Phaleron and protected the bay connecting it with Peiraeus. These massive walls rendered Athens an impregnable fortress, making it impossible for an invader to cut her off from her trade and food supplies.

From 338 BC the orator Lycurgus was archon. During his tenure of office he further embellished the city and restored those ancient monuments that had suffered either at the hands of man or from the ravages of time. In this same period, from the tribune of the hallowed rock of the Pnyx, resounded the voice of the great orator, Demosthenes, whose name will forever be linked with the last splendors of the immortal city.

Alexander the Great treated Athens with marked favor and granted her a considerable measure of autonomy. Though she had lost her supremacy in science and scholarship to Alexandria, Athens was still considered the natural home of philosophy, while in the theatre Menander’s New Comedy made Athenian life known throughout the civilized world.

After being sacked by Sulla in 86 BC for her part in supporting Mithridates the Great against Rome, she became part of the new Roman province of Achaea in 27 BC. Her only importance now lay in her philosophical schools which were frequented by such young Romans as Cicero, Herodes Atticus and Horace.

Athens was later restored to favor as a free and sovereign city and regarded as the cultural center of the Roman world; Hadrian and later Antonines lavishly endowed her with many new buildings. During the reign of the Emperor Hadrian a whole new city, Novae Athenae, to which the Arch of Hadrian was the gateway, rose around the Olympieion.

With the foundation of Constantinople Athens sank into the obscurity of a provincial Byzantine town and is rarely mentioned in the chronicles of the period. Pheidias’ statue of Athena Promachos and other works of art throughout Greece. A year later, in 1822, the intrepid Odysseus Androutsos, one of the principal figures of the War of Independence (1821-1833) succeeded by a surprise attack in capturing the Acropolis. In 1826 the Turks under Reschid Pasha again besieged it. An attempt by the French philhellene Colonel Baron Fabvier to relieve the heroic defense force was defeated, and the garrison commander Gouras killed. Further attempts to relieve the Acropolis proved no more successful than the first, instructions were therefore sent to the garrison to surrender.

On 24th May 1827, the Turks having accorded them the honors of war, the remnants of the gallant defenders marched out with flying colors.

The Acropolis remained in the hands of the enemy until 12th April 1833 when, in the name of Greece, Colonel Baligand took formal possession from the Turkish commander. On 13th December of the same year King Othon, the first King of Greece, entered the city. One year later, on 18th September 1834, Athens was officially proclaimed the Capital city of the Kingdom.

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