Athens is one of the oldest named cities in the world, having been continuously inhabited for at least 7000 years. Situated in southern Europe, Athens became the leading city of Ancient Greece in the first millennium BC and its cultural achievements during the 5th century BC laid the foundations of western civilization.
During the early Middle Ages, the city experienced 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 independent Greek state.
- 1 Name
- 2 Antiquity
- 2.1 Origins and early history
- 2.2 Reform and democracy
- 2.3 Classical Athens
- 2.4 Athenian coup of 411 BC
- 3 Middle Ages
- 4 Modern history
- 5 Notes
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
The name of Athens, connected to the name of its patron goddess Athena, originates from an earlier, Pre-Greek language.[verification needed] The etiological myth explaining how Athens acquired this name through the legendary contest between Poseidon and Athena was described by Herodotus, Apollodorus, Ovid, Plutarch, Pausanias and others. It even became the theme of the sculpture on the West pediment of the Parthenon. Both Athena and Poseidon requested to be patrons of the city and to give their name to it, so they competed with one another for the honour, offering the city one gift each. Poseidon produced a spring by striking the ground with his trident, symbolizing naval power.
Athena created the olive tree, symbolizing peace and prosperity. The Athenians, under their ruler Cecrops, accepted the olive tree and named the city after Athena. A sacred olive tree said to be the one created by the goddess was still kept on the Acropolis at the time of Pausanias (2nd century AD). It was located by the temple of Pandrosus, next to the Parthenon. According to Herodotus, the tree had been burnt down during the Persian Wars, but a shoot sprung from the stump. To the Greeks they saw this as a symbol that Athena still had her mark there on the city.
The site on which Athens stands was first inhabited in the Neolithic period, perhaps as a defensible settlement on top of the Acropolis ('high city'), around the end of the fourth millennium BC or a little later. The Acropolis is a natural defensive position which commands the surrounding plains. The settlement was about 20 km (12 mi) inland from the Saronic Gulf, in the centre of the Cephisian Plain, a fertile valley surrounded by rivers. To the east lies Mount Hymettus, to the north Mount Pentelicus.
Ancient Athens, in the first millennium BC, occupied a very small area compared to the sprawling metropolis of modern Athens. The ancient walled city encompassed an area measuring about 2 km (1 mi) from east to west and slightly less than that from north to south, although at its peak the ancient city had suburbs extending well beyond these walls. The Acropolis was situated just south of the centre of this walled area.
The Agora, the commercial and social centre of the city, lay about 400 m (1,312 ft) north of the Acropolis, in what is now the Monastiraki district. The hill of the Pnyx, where the Athenian Assembly met, lay at the western end of the city. The Eridanus (Ηριδανός) river flowed through the city.
One of the most important religious sites in ancient Athens was the Temple of Athena, known today as the Parthenon, which stood on top of the Acropolis, where its evocative ruins still stand. Two other major religious sites, the Temple of Hephaestus (which is still largely intact) and the Temple of Olympian Zeus or Olympeion (once the largest temple in mainland Greece but now in ruins) also lay within the city walls.
According to Thucydides, the Athenian citizens at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War (5th century BC) numbered 40,000, making with their families a total of 140,000 people in all. The metics, i.e. those who did not have citizen rights and paid for the right to reside in Athens, numbered a further 70,000, whilst slaves were estimated at between 150,000 to 400,000. Hence, approximately a tenth of the population were adult male citizens, eligible to meet and vote in the Assembly and be elected to office. After the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, the city's population began to decrease as Greeks migrated to the Hellenistic empires in the East.
Origins and early history
Athens has been inhabited from Neolithic times, possibly from the end of the 4th millennium BC, or nearly 7,000 years. By 1412 BC the settlement had become an important center of the Mycenaean civilization and the Acropolis was the site of a major Mycenaean fortress whose remains can be recognised from sections of the characteristic Cyclopean walls. On the summit of the Acropolis, below the later Erechtheion, cuttings in the rock have been identified as the location of a Mycenaean palace.
Between 1250 and 1200 BC a staircase was built down a cleft in the rock to reach a protected water supply, in a similar way to ones at Mycenae. Unlike other Mycenaean centers, such as Mycenae and Pylos (see Bronze Age collapse), we do not know whether Athens suffered destruction in about 1200 BC, an event often attributed to a Dorian invasion, and the Athenians always maintained that they were "pure" Ionians with no Dorian element. However, Athens, like many other Bronze Age settlements, went into economic decline for around 150 years following this.
Iron Age burials, in the Kerameikos and other locations, are often richly provided for and demonstrate that from 900 BC onwards Athens was one of the leading centres of trade and prosperity in the region; as were Lefkandi in Euboea and Knossos in Crete. This position may well have resulted from its central location in the Greek world, its secure stronghold on the Acropolis and its access to the sea, which gave it a natural advantage over inland rivals such as Thebes and Sparta.
According to legend, Athens was formerly ruled by kings (see Kings of Athens), a situation which may have continued up until the 9th century BC. From later accounts, it is believed that these kings stood at the head of a land-owning aristocracy known as the Eupatridae (the 'well-born'), whose instrument of government was a Council which met on the Hill of Ares, called the Areopagus and appointed the chief city officials, the archons and the polemarch (commander-in-chief).
Before the concept of the political state arose, four tribes based upon family relationships dominated the area. The members had certain rights, privileges, and obligations:
- Common religious rights.
- A common burial place.
- Mutual rights of succession to property of deceased members.
- Reciprocal obligations of help, defense and redress of injuries.
- The right to intermarry in the gens in the cases of orphan daughters and heiresses.
- The possession of common property, an archon, and a treasurer.
- The limitation of descent to the male line.
- The obligation not to marry in the gens except in specified cases.
- The right to adopt strangers into the gens.
- The right to elect and depose its chiefs.
During this period, Athens succeeded in bringing the other towns of Attica under its rule. This process of synoikismos – the bringing together into one home – created the largest and wealthiest state on the Greek mainland, but it also created a larger class of people excluded from political life by the nobility. By the 7th century BC social unrest had become widespread, and the Areopagus appointed Draco to draft a strict new code of law (hence the word 'draconian'). When this failed, they appointed Solon, with a mandate to create a new constitution (in 594 BC).
Reform and democracy
The reforms that Solon initiated dealt with both political and economic issues. The economic power of the Eupatridae was reduced by forbidding the enslavement of Athenian citizens as a punishment for debt, by breaking up large landed estates and freeing up trade and commerce, which allowed the emergence of a prosperous urban trading class. Politically, Solon divided the Athenians into four classes, based on their wealth and their ability to perform military service. The poorest class, the Thetai, (Ancient Greek Θήται) who formed the majority of the population, received political rights for the first time and were able to vote in the Ecclesia (Assembly). But only the upper classes could hold political office. The Areopagus continued to exist but its powers were reduced.
The new system laid the foundations for what eventually became Athenian democracy, but in the short-term it failed to quell class conflict and after 20 years of unrest the popular party, led by Peisistratus, a cousin of Solon, seized power (in 541 BC). Peisistratus is usually called a tyrant, but the Greek word tyrannos does not mean a cruel and despotic ruler, merely one who took power by force. Peisistratus was in fact a very popular ruler, who made Athens wealthy, powerful, and a centre of culture, and instituted Athenian naval supremacy in the Aegean Sea and beyond. He preserved the Solonian constitution, but made sure that he and his family held all the offices of state.
Peisistratus died in 527 BC and was succeeded by his sons Hippias and Hipparchus. They proved to be much less adept rulers and in 514 BC, Hipparchus was assassinated in a private dispute over a young man (see Harmodius and Aristogeiton). This led Hippias to establish a real dictatorship, which proved very unpopular and he was overthrown in 510 BC. A radical politician with an aristocratic background named Cleisthenes then took charge, and it was he who established democracy in Athens.
The reforms of Cleisthenes replaced the traditional four "tribes" (phyle) with ten new ones, named after legendary heroes and having no class basis; they were in fact electorates. Each 'tribe' was in turn divided into three 'trittyes' and each trittys had one or more demes, which became the basis of local government. The tribes each elected fifty members to the Boule, a council which governed Athens on a day-to-day basis. The Assembly was open to all citizens and was both a legislature and a supreme court, except in murder cases and religious matters, which became the only remaining functions of the Areopagus.
Most public offices were filled by lot, although the ten strategoi (generals) were elected. This system remained remarkably stable and, with a few brief interruptions, it remained in place for 170 years, until Philip II of Macedon defeated Athens and Thebes at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC.
Early Athenian military history
Prior to the rise of Athens, Sparta considered itself to be the leader of the Greeks, or hegemon. In 499 BC Athens sent troops to aid the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor, who were rebelling against the Persian Empire (the Ionian Revolt). This provoked two Persian invasions on Greece (see Persian Wars). In 490 BC the Athenians, led by the soldier-statesman Miltiades, defeated the first invasion of the Persians under Darius I at the Battle of Marathon.
In 480 BC the Persians returned under Darius's son Xerxes. When a small Greek force holding the pass of Thermopylae was defeated, the Athenians evacuated Athens, which was taken by the Persians. Subsequently the Athenians (led by Themistocles), with their allies, engaged the much larger Persian navy at sea in the Battle of Salamis. Xerxes built a throne on the coast in order to watch the Greek navy being defeated, but instead, the Persians were routed.This established a great turning point in the war.
In 479 BC, the Athenians and Spartans, with their allies, defeated the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea. However, it was Athens that took the war to Asia Minor. These victories enabled it to bring most of the Aegean and many other parts of Greece together in the Delian League, an Athenian-dominated alliance.
Artists and philosophers
The period from the end of the Persian Wars to the Macedonian conquest marked the zenith of Athens as a center of literature, philosophy (Greek philosophy) and the arts (Greek theatre). In Athens at this time, the political satire of the Comic poets at the theatres had a remarkable influence on public opinion.
Some of the most important figures of Western cultural and intellectual history lived in Athens during this period: the dramatists Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides and Sophocles,the physician Hippocrates, the philosophers Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, the historians Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, the poet Simonides and the sculptor Phidias, The leading statesman of this period was Pericles, who used the tribute paid by the members of the Delian League to build the Parthenon and other great monuments of classical Athens. The city became, in Pericles's words, "the school of Hellas [Greece]."
The resentment felt by other cities at the hegemony of Athens led to the Peloponnesian War, which began in 431 BC and pitted Athens and its increasingly rebellious overseas empire against a coalition of land-based states led by Sparta. The conflict ended with a victory for Sparta and the end of Athenian command of the sea.
During the second year of the Peloponnesian War, the city-state of Athens was hit by a devastating epidemic, known as the Plague of Athens, which killed, among others, Pericles and his two elder sons. Athens lost perhaps one third of the people sheltered within its walls.
Athenian coup of 411 BC
The democracy in Athens was briefly overthrown by a coup in 411 BC, due to its poor handling of the war, but it was quickly restored. The war ended in 404 BC with the complete defeat of Athens. Since the loss of the war was largely blamed on democratic politicians such as Cleon and Cleophon, there was a brief reaction against democracy, aided by the Spartan army (the rule of the Thirty Tyrants). In 403 BC, however, democracy was restored by Thrasybulus and an amnesty declared.
Corinthian War and the Second Athenian League
Sparta's former allies soon turned against her, due to her imperialist policy, and soon Athens' former enemies Thebes and Corinth had become her allies; they fought with Athens and Argos against Sparta in the indecisive Corinthian War (395 – 387 BC). Opposition to Sparta enabled Athens to establish a Second Athenian League.
Finally Thebes defeated Sparta in 371 BC in the Battle of Leuctra. But then the Greek cities (including Athens and Sparta) turned against Thebes, whose dominance was stopped at the Battle of Mantinea (362 BC) with the death of its military-genius leader Epaminondas.
Athens under Macedon
By the mid-4th century BC, however, the northern Greek kingdom of Macedon was becoming dominant in Athenian affairs, despite the warnings of the last great statesman of independent Athens, Demosthenes. In 338 BC the armies of Philip II defeated the other Greek cities at the Battle of Chaeronea, effectively ending Athenian independence. Subsequently, the conquests of his son Alexander the Great widened Greek horizons and made the traditional Greek city state obsolete. Athens remained a wealthy city with a brilliant cultural life, but ceased to be a leading power.
In 88 - 85 BC, most Athenian buildings, both houses and fortifications, were leveled by the Roman general Sulla, although many civic buildings and monuments were left intact. Under Rome, Athens was given the status of a free city because of its widely admired schools. The Roman emperor Hadrian, in the 2nd century AD, constructed a library, a gymnasium, an aqueduct which is still in use, several temples and sanctuaries, a bridge and financed the completion of the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
The city was sacked by the Heruli in AD 267, resulting in the burning of all the public buildings, the plundering of the lower city and the damaging of the Agora and Acropolis. After this the city to the north of the Acropolis was hastily refortified on a smaller scale, with the Agora left outside the walls. Athens remained a centre of learning and philosophy during its 500 years of Roman rule, patronized by emperors such as Nero and Hadrian.
But the conversion of the Empire to Christianity ended the city's role as a centre of pagan learning; the Emperor Justinian closed the schools of philosophy in AD 529. This is generally taken to mark the end of the ancient history of Athens.
By AD 529, Athens was under the rule of the Byzantines and was no longer as revered as it had once been. The Parthenon, Erechtheion and the Hephaisteion (Theseion) were converted into churches. During the period of the Byzantine Empire, Athens was a provincial town and experienced fluctuating fortunes. In the early years of Byzantine rule, many of its works of art were taken by the emperors to Constantinople.
From about AD 600 the city shrank considerably, due to barbarian raids by the Avars and Slavs, and it was reduced to a shadow of its former self. As the 7th century progressed, much of Greece was overrun by Slavic peoples from the north, and Athens entered a period of uncertainty and insecurity. The one notable figure from this period is the Empress Irene of Athens, a native Athenian, who seized control of the Byzantine Empire in a palace coup.
By the middle of the 9th century, Greece had been fully reconquered by the Byzantine Empire and the city began to recover. Just as other cities benefited from improved security and the restoration of effective central control during this period, so Athens expanded once more.
Invasion of the empire by the Turks after the battle of Manzikert in 1071, and the ensuing civil wars, largely passed the region by and Athens continued its provincial existence unharmed. When the Byzantine Empire was rescued by the resolute leadership of the three Komnenos emperors Alexios, John and Manuel, Attica and the rest of Greece prospered. Archaeological evidence tells us that the medieval town experienced a period of rapid and sustained growth, starting in the 11th century and continuing until the end of the 12th century.
The agora or marketplace, which had been deserted since late antiquity, began to be built over, and soon the town became an important centre for the production of soaps and dyes. The growth of the town attracted the Venetians, and various other traders who frequented the ports of the Aegean, to Athens. This interest in trade appears to have further increased the economic prosperity of the town.
The 11th and 12th centuries were the Golden Age of Byzantine art in Athens. Almost all of the most important Middle Byzantine churches in and around Athens were built during these two centuries, and this reflects the growth of the town in general. However, this medieval prosperity was not to last. In 1204, the Fourth Crusade conquered Athens and the city was not recovered from the Latins before it was taken by the Ottoman Turks. It did not become Greek in government again until the 19th century.
From 1204 until 1458, Athens was ruled by Latins in three separate periods.
Athens was initially the capital of the eponymous Duchy of Athens, a fief of the Latin Empire which replaced Byzantium. After Thebes became a possession of the Latin dukes, which were of the Burgundian family called De la Roche, it replaced Athens as the capital and seat of government, although Athens remained the most influential ecclesiastical centre in the duchy and site of a prime fortress.
Under the Burgundian dukes, a bell tower was added to the Parthenon. The Burgundians brought chivalry and tournaments to Athens; they also fortified the Acropolis. They were themselves influenced by Byzantine Greek culture.
In 1311, Athens was conquered by the Catalan Company, a band of mercenaries called Almogavars. It was held by the Catalans until 1388. After 1379, when Thebes was lost, Athens became the capital of the duchy again.
The history of Aragonese Athens, called Cetines (rarely Athenes) by the conquerors, is obscure. Athens was a veguería with its own castellan, captain, and veguer. At some point during the Aragonese period, the Acropolis was further fortified and the Athenian archdiocese received an extra two suffragan sees.
In 1388, the Florentine Nerio I Acciajuoli took the city and made himself duke. The Florentines had to dispute the city with the Republic of Venice, but they ultimately emerged victorious after seven years of Venetian rule (1395–1402). The descendants of Nerio I Acciajuoli ruled the city (as their capital) until the Turkish conquest of 1458.
Finally, in 1458, Athens fell to the Ottoman Empire. As the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror rode into the city, he was greatly struck by the beauty of its ancient monuments and issued a firman (imperial edict) forbidding their looting or destruction, on pain of death. The Parthenon was converted into Athens' main mosque. The 375-year Ottoman rule of Athens (and of Greece in general) was the longest by any non-Hellenic power since the Romans.
Despite the initial efforts of the Ottoman authorities to turn Athens into a model provincial capital, the city's population severely declined and by the 17th century the city was little more than a village. Great damage to Athens was caused during this time, as the Ottoman power was declining. The Turks began a practice of storing gunpowder and explosives in the Parthenon and Propylaea. In 1640, a lighting bolt struck the Propylaea, causing its destruction.
In 1687, Athens was besieged by the Venetians during the Morean War, and the temple of Athena Nike was dismantled by the Ottomans to fortify the Parthenon. A shot fired during the bombardment of the Acropolis caused a powder magazine in the Parthenon to explode, and the building was severely damaged, giving it the appearance we see today. The occupation of the Acropolis continued for six months and both the Venetians and the Ottomans participated in the looting of the Parthenon. One of its western pediments was removed, causing even more damage to the structure.
The following year, Turkish forces set fire to the city. Ancient monuments were destroyed to provide material for a new wall which the Ottomans built around the city in 1778. Between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, arranged for the removal of many sculptures from the Parthenon (the Elgin marbles). Along with the Panathenaic frieze, one of the six caryatids of the Erechtheion was extracted and replaced with a plaster mold. All in all, fifty pieces of sculpture were carried away, including three fragments purchased by the French.
Nevertheless, Athens produced some notable intellectuals during this era, such as Demetrius Chalcondyles (1424–1511), who became a celebrated Renaissance teacher of Greek and of Platonic philosophy in Italy. Chalcondyles published the first printed editions of Homer (in 1488), of Isocrates (in 1493), and of the Suda lexicon (in 1499), and a Greek grammar (Erotemata).
His cousin Laonicus Chalcondyles (c. 1423–1490) was also a native of Athens, a notable scholar and Byzantine historian and one of the most valuable of the later Greek historians. He was the author of the valuable work Historiarum Demonstrationes (Demonstrations of History) and was a great admirer of the ancient writer Herodotus, encouraging the interest of contemporary Italian humanists in that ancient historian. In the 17th century, Athenian-born Leonardos Philaras (c. 1595–1673), was a Greek scholar, politician, diplomat, advisor and the Duke of Parma's ambassador to the French court, spending much of his career trying to persuade western European intellectuals to support Greek indepencence.
Independence from the Ottomans
In 1822, a Greek insurgency captured the city, but it fell to the Ottomans again in 1826 (though Acropolis held till June 1827). Again the ancient monuments suffered badly. The Ottoman forces remained in possession until March 1833, when they withdrew. At that time, the city (as throughout the Ottoman period) had a small population of an estimated 400 houses, mostly located around the Acropolis in the Plaka.
In 1832, Otto, Prince of Bavaria, was proclaimed King of Greece. He adopted the Greek spelling of his name, King Othon, as well as Greek national dress, and made it one of his first tasks as king to conduct a detailed archaeological and topographical survey of Athens, his new capital. He assigned Gustav Eduard Schaubert and Stamatios Kleanthes to complete this task. At that time, Athens had a population of only 4,000 – 5,000 people, located in what today covers the district of Plaka in the city state Athens.
Athens was chosen as the Greek capital for historical and sentimental reasons. There are few buildings dating from the period of the Byzantine Empire or the 18th century. Once the capital was established, a modern city plan was laid out and public buildings were erected.
The finest legacy of this period are the buildings of the University of Athens (1837), the Old Royal Palace (now the Greek Parliament Building) (1843), the National Gardens of Athens (1840), the National Library of Greece (1842), the Greek National Academy (1885), the Zappeion Exhibition Hall (1878), the Old Parliament Building (1858), the New Royal Palace (now the Presidential Palace) (1897) and the Athens Town Hall (1874).
Athens experienced its second period of explosive growth following the disastrous war with Turkey in 1921, when more than a million Greek refugees from Asia Minor were resettled in Greece. Suburbs such as Nea Ionia and Nea Smyrni began as refugee settlements on the Athens outskirts.
Athens under the Nazis
Athens was occupied by the Germans during World War II and experienced terrible privations during the later years of the war. In 1944 there was heavy fighting in the city between Communist forces and the royalists backed by the British.
After World War II the city began to grow again as people migrated from the villages and islands to find work. Greek entry into the European Union in 1981 brought a flood of new investment to the city, but also increasing social and environmental problems. Athens had some of the worst traffic congestion and air pollution in the world at that time. This posed a new threat to the ancient monuments of Athens, as traffic vibration weakened foundations and air pollution corroded marble. The city's environmental and infrastructure problems were the main reason why Athens failed to secure the 1996 centenary Olympic Games.
Following the failed attempt to secure the 1996 Summer Olympics, both the city of Athens and the Greek government, aided by European Union funds, undertook major infrastructure projects such as the new Athens Airport and a new metro system. The city also tackled air pollution by restricting the use of cars in the centre of the city. As a result, Athens was awarded the 2004 Olympic Games. Despite the scepticism of many observers, the games were a great success and brought renewed international prestige (and tourism revenue) to Athens.
Recent historical population
Throughout its long history, Athens has had many different population levels. The table below shows the historical population of Athens in relatively recent times.
|Year||City population||Urban population||Metro population|
|1921 (Pre-Population exchange)||473,000||–||–|
|1921 (Post-Population exchange)||718,000||–||–|
Ancient sites in Athens
- The Acropolis, with the Parthenon
- Arch of Hadrian
- Lysicrates monument
- Philopappos monument
- Temple of Hephaestus
- Temple of Olympian Zeus
- Tower of the Winds
Temple of Athena Temple of Nike
- Published in the 19th century
- Published in the 20th century
- Traill, John S., American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA), 1975
|Commons has media related to Athens.|
- Athens official website
- A history of Athens from prehistoric to contemporary times
- Ancient Athens 3D
- The Athenian Constitution by Aristotle
- Model of Classical Athens
- Athens in 421 BC
- The History Channel (Season 1, Episode 4)