A History of Ancient and Medieval Athens


The Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze (1846) / Neue Pinakothek Collection, Web Gallery of Art, Wikimedia Commons

Athens has been inhabited from Neolithic times, possibly from the end of the fourth millennium BCE, or over 5,000 years.


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Introduction

Athens is one of the oldest named cities in the world, having been continuously inhabited for perhaps 5,000 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 and self-governing Greek state.

Name

The contest of Athena and Poseidon, Reconstruction of the west pediment of the Parthenon according to drawing by K. Schwerzek. / Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis, Flickr, Creative Commons

The name of Athens, connected to the name of its patron goddess Athena, originates from an earlier Pre-Greek language.[1] The origin myth explaining how Athens acquired this name through the legendary contest between Poseidon and Athena was described by Herodotus,[2]Apollodorus,[3]Ovid, Plutarch,[4]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,[5] 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. (Later the Southern Italian city of Paestum was founded under the name of Poseidonia at about 600 BC.) 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).[6] 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. The Greeks saw this as a symbol that Athena still had her mark there on the city.[2]

Plato, in his dialogue Cratylus, offers his own etymology of Athena’s name connecting it to the phrase ἁ θεονόα or hē theoû nóēsis (ἡ θεοῦ νόησις, ‘the mind of god’).[7]

Geographical Setting

Map of the Environs of Ancient Athens / British Library, Wikimedia Commons

There is evidence that the site on which the Acropolis (‘high city’) stands was first inhabited in the Neolithic period, perhaps as a defensible settlement, around the end of the fourth millennium BC or a little later.[8] The site is a natural defensive position which commands the surrounding plains. It is located 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 Greece. 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.

1911 map of Athens / Wikimedia Commons

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 and 400,000.[9] 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 fourth millennium BC, or over 5,000 years.[10] 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.[11] On the summit of the Acropolis, below the later Erechtheion, cuttings in the rock have been identified as the location of a Mycenaean palace.[11] Between 1250 and 1200 BC, to feed the needs of the Mycenaean settlement, a staircase was built down a cleft in the rock to reach a water supply that was protected from enemy incursions,[12] comparable to similar works carried out at Mycenae.

Unlike other Mycenaean centers, such as Mycenae and Pylos, it is unclear whether Athens suffered destruction in about 1200 BC, an event traditionally attributed to a Dorian invasion (though now commonly attributed to a systems collapse, part of the Late Bronze Age collapse). 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.[13] 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, 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).

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

Silver didrachm of Athens of heraldic type from the time of Peisistratus, 545–510 BC / CNG, Wikimedia Commons

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 (debt bondage), 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 twenty years of unrest the popular party, led by Peisistratus, 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. He preserved the Solonian Constitution, but made sure that he and his family held all the offices of state.

An archaic silver obol of Athens of heraldic type from the time of Peisistratus, 545–525 BCE / CNG, Wikimedia Commons

Peisistratus built the first aqueduct tunnel at Athens,[14] which most likely had its sources on the slopes of Mount Hymettos and along the Ilissos river. It supplied, among other structures, the fountain house in the southeast corner of the Agora, but it had a number of branches. In the 4th century BC it was replaced by a system of terracotta pipes in a stone-built underground channel, sometimes called the Hymettos aqueduct; many sections had round, oval or square access holes on top of about 10 cm × 10 cm (4 in × 4 in). Pipe segments of this system are displayed at the Evangelismos and Syntagma Metro stations.

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. 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 ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, conceived by the sons of Peisistratus. / Photo by A. Savin, Wikimedia Commons

The reforms of Cleisthenes replaced the traditional four phyle (‘tribes’) with ten new ones, named after legendary heroes and having no class basis; they were in fact electorates. Each phyle was in turn divided into three trittyes and each trittys had one or more demes, which became the basis of local government. The phyle 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.

Classical Athens

Early Athenian Military History and Persian Era

Roman statuette of Athena, copy of the Phidias statue, created for the Parthenon in 447 BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens. / Wikimedia Commons

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 of Greece. 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 Persians proceeded to capture an evacuated Athens. The city of Athens got captured and sacked twice by the Persians within one year after Thermopylae.[15] Subsequently, the Athenians (led by Themistocles), with their allies, engaged the much larger Persian navy at sea in the Battle of Salamis and routed the Persians, a great turning point in the war.

Athenian dekadrachm, 467–465 BC: Head of Athena wearing crested Attic helmet. Rev: Owl standing facing, ΑΘΕ (ΑΘΗΝΑΙΩΝ – of Athenians). / CNG, Wikimedia Commons

In 479 BC, the Athenians and Spartans, with their allies, defeated the Persian army conclusively at the Battle of Plataea.[16] Athens then 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.

Peloponnesian War

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.

Athenian Coup of 411 BCE

The Karyatides statues of the Erechtheion, constructed 421–406 BC on the Acropolis. / Photo by Harrieta171, Wikimedia Commons

Due to its poor handling of the war, the democracy in Athens was briefly overthrown by a coup in 411 BC; however, it was quickly restored. The Peloponnesian 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 was 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.

Hellenistic Athens

Athens and the Rise of Macedon

By the mid-4th century BC, however, the northern Greek kingdom of Macedon was becoming dominant in Athenian affairs. In the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC), Philip II’s armies defeated an alliance of some of the Greek city-states including Athens and Thebes, forcing them into a confederation and effectively limiting Athenian independence.[17]Philippides of Paiania, one of the wealthiest Athenian aristocratic oligarchs, campaigned for Philip II during the Battle of Chaeronea and proposed in the Assembly decrees honoring Alexander the Great for the Macedonian victory. Philippides was prosecuted in trial by Hypereides, who detested his pro-Macedonian sympathies.[18] Subsequently, the conquests of 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.

Artists and Philosophers

The modern Academy of Athens, with Apollo and Athena on their columns, and Socrates and Plato seated in front. / Photo by A. Savin, Wikimedia Commons

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.[19]

Some of the most important figures of Western cultural and intellectual history lived in Athens during this period: the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, the physician Hippocrates, the philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the historians Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, the poet Simonides, the orators Antiphon, Isocrates, Aeschines, and Demosthenes, and the sculptor Phidias. The leading statesman of the mid-fifth century BC 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].”

Roman Athens

The ruins of the Roman era Agora, the second commercial centre of ancient Athens. / Photo by Adam Carr, Wikimedia Commons

In 88–85 BC, most Athenian buildings, both houses and fortifications, were leveled by the Roman general Sulla (138 BC – 78 BC), although many civic buildings and monuments were left intact.[20] 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[21] which is still in use, several temples and sanctuaries, a bridge and financed the completion of the Temple of Olympian Zeus.[22]

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.

Hadrianic aqueduct bridge in Nea Ionia. / Photo by Carole Raddato, Wikimedia Commons

The sack of the city by the Herules in 267 and Alaric in 396, however, dealt a heavy blow to the city’s fabric and fortunes, and Athens was henceforth confined to a small fortified area that embraced a fraction of the ancient city.[23] The city remained an important center of learning, especially of Neoplatonism—with notable pupils including Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea and emperor Julian—and consequently a center of paganism. Christian items do not appear in the archaeological record until the early 5th century.[23] The Emperor Justinian I closed down the city’s philosophical schools in 529, an event whose impact on the city is much debated,[23] but is generally taken to mark the end of the ancient history of Athens.

Medieval Athens

Byzantine Athens

The Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles next to the Stoa of Attalos. / Photo by A. Savin, Wikimedia Commons

In the early 4th century AD, the capital of the Roman Empire was moved to Constantinople. The Empire became Christianized, and the use of Latin declined in favour of exclusive use of Greek; in the early Roman period, both languages had been used. The empire after this transition is known today as the Byzantine Empire due to Constantinople’s history as the ancient Greek city of Byzantion. The division is historically useful, but misleading, with an unbroken chain of emperors continuing up until the thirteenth century, and all citizens identifying themselves as citizen’s of the Roman Empire (“Rhomaioi“). The conversion of the empire from paganism to Christianity greatly affected Athens, resulting in reduced reverence for the city.[24] Ancient monuments such as the Parthenon, Erechtheion and the Hephaisteion (Theseion) were converted into churches. As the empire became increasingly anti-pagan, Athens became a provincial town and experienced fluctuating fortunes. Many of its works of art were taken by the emperors to Constantinople.

Athens was sacked by the Slavs in 582, but remained in imperial hands thereafter, as highlighted by the visit of Emperor Constans II in 662/3 and its inclusion in the Theme of Hellas.[23] The city was threatened by Saracen raids in the 8th–9th centuries—in 896, Athens was raided and possibly occupied for a short period, an event which left some archaeological remains and elements of Arabic ornamentation in contemporary buildings[25]—but there is also evidence of a mosque existing in the city at the time.[23] In the great dispute over Byzantine Iconoclasm, Athens is commonly held to have supported the iconophile position, chiefly due to the role played by Empress Irene of Athens in the ending of the first period of Iconoclasm at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.[23] A few years later, another Athenian, Theophano, became empress as the wife of Staurakios (r. 811–812).[23]

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.

Latin Athens

The Propylaea on the Acropolis of Athens (pictured with the now demolished Frankish Tower in the mid-19th century) were the palace of the Dukes of Athens. / Wikimedia Commons

From 1204 until 1458, Athens was ruled by Latins in three separate periods.

Burgundian Period

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.

Aragonese Period

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.

Florentine Period

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.

Endnotes

  1. “Name of Athena”. greeka.com.
  2. Herodotus, The Histories, 8.55
  3. Bibliotheca, 3.14
  4. Plutarch, Themistocles Them. 19
  5. Instead of a spring, Ovid says Poseidon offered a horse.
  6. Paus. 1.27.2
  7. Plato, Cratylus, Plat. Crat. 407b
  8. Lambert Schneider & Christoph Hoecker, Die Akropolis von Athen, Darmstadt 2001, pp. 62–63
  9. Encyclopedia Of Ancient Greece (ed. by Nigel Guy Wilson). Routledge (UK), 2006. Pages 214, 215.
  10. Immerwahr, S. 1971. The Athenian Agora XII: the Neolithic and Bronze Age. Princeton.
  11. Iakovides, S. 1962. ‘E mykenaïke akropolis ton Athenon’. Athens.
  12. Broneer, Oscar. 1939. ‘A Mycenaean Fountain on the Athenian Acropolis’, Hesperia VIII.
  13. Osborne, R. 1996, 2009. Greece in the Making 1200 – 479 BC.
  14. “Roman aqueducts: Athens (Greece)”. romanaqueducts.info.
  15. Lewis, John David (25 January 2010). Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History.
  16. Salomon, Marilyn J. (1974). Great Cities of the World 3: Next Stop… Athens. The Symphonette Press. p. 16.
  17. Salomon, Marilyn J. (1974). Great Cities of the World 3: Next Stop… Athens. The Symphonette Press. p. 19.
  18. Worthinton, Ian (2001). Dinarchus, Hyperides & Lycurgus. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. pp. 80–86.
  19. Henderson, J. (1993) Comic Hero versus Political Elite pp.307–19 in Sommerstein, A.H.; S. Halliwell; J. Henderson; B. Zimmerman, eds. (1993). Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis. Bari: Levante Editori.
  20. Tung, Anthony (2001). Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis. New York: Three RIvers Press. pp. 256–260.
  21. “Roman aqueducts: Hadrian’s Athens (Greece)”. romanaqueducts.info.
  22. John Travlos, Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Athens, Thames and Hudson, (London 1971)
  23. Gregory, Timothy E.; Ševčenko, Nancy Patterson (1991). “Athens”. In Kazhdan, Alexander (ed.). The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 221–223.

Originally published by Wikipedia, 01.25.2004, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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