History of Athens

Brief history of Athens summarized

Cradle of Western civilization, the history of Athens is eventful and fascinating. Discover briefly the past of the city from its foundation until it became the cultural, economic and political center of Greece.

Foundation and monarchy

Athens is named after Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, and daughter of Zeus. The story of Athena is very similar to the story of the founding of Greece.

The earliest settlers in Athens came from various ethnic groups organized into various kingdoms. They settled near the rock, which would later become the Acropolis.

According to Greek mythology, Cecrops, who was half man and half snake, founded Athens and became the first king. Around the 10th century BC, colonists formed twelve cities, of which Athens was always dominant.

The mythical King Theseus was in charge of unifying the cities of Attica under Athens after submitting his main competitor, the city of Eleusis. When the cities were unified, the Panathenaic Games were held in honor of Athena.

When Athens was ruled by kings, the monarch conducted political and military affairs and was assisted by the Areopagus, the king’s court.

Athens evolved from a city dominated by the monarchy, then the aristocracy, and finally gave way to Athenian democracy.

From oligarchy to democracy

During the 8th century the monarchy was replaced by nine Archons, which means ruler in Greek. These were elected rulers of the Eupatridae (the nobility of Athens).

The social upheaval forced the aristocracy to make concessions for the rest of the population. To prevent abuses of power, laws were written.

In 621 BC, Draco was the first lawgiver in Ancient Greece to impose a written legal code that would become famous as an example of severity, but was a huge step up from the primitive justice system that had come before.

Draco was replaced by Solon, one of the seven wise men of Greece, renowned for his honesty and patriotism. He made new concessions to the working classes, considered the germ of the world’s first democracy.

Solon was elected Archon in 594 and made great reforms, including the forgiveness of peasant debts, the limitation of the right to life and death of the father of the family and the division of the population into four groups according to income and service military. He also formed the boule, a council of 400 or 500 people, and the Ekklesia (assembly) and the Heliaia (court).

After the wise Solon, there were new social revolts that divided the city until Peisistratos took control of Athens by force, for which he was considered a tyrant. He was succeeded by his children who, compared to his father, were much more brutal, which created more division among the Athenians.

Finally, Cleisthenes, leader of the democratic movement in 508 BC, granted citizenship to all free men and reformed the constitution of ancient Athens.

The year 510 BC is considered the year of the birth of Athenian democracy.

Cleisthenes reorganized the boule with 500 members representing the ten tribes of Athens. The Areopagus was also reformed with three members and the Archon with ten members. The Ekklesia also grew considerably, integrating the Metics, who were the foreigners who lived in Athens, and the Freedmen. Cleisthenes is famous for establishing the figure of “political ostracism”.

To defend democracy from tyranny, the Ekklesia had the power to banish for a certain time a citizen who was perceived as a threat to popular sovereignty. Each citizen had the right to a secret ballot, in which he wrote the person’s name on an ostracon (pottery piece).

The Golden Age and Pericles

The 5th century BC is also known as the Golden Age of Athens or “The Age of Pericles”. Pericles was a noted and renowned political leader who made important reforms to democracy, by establishing the teorikon, a fund to subsidize attendance at public festivals.

He encouraged artists and writers to praise Athens and commissioned beautiful monuments and buildings with Allied money. He was also very interested in science and encouraged its development.

Imposing temples and landmarks were erected during his time in power, including the Temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheum, and the Parthenon (symbol of Athens), on the Acropolis. During the Golden Age of Athens, 250,000 people lived in the city.

The 5th century is also significant for the Greco-Persian wars and the Peloponnesian War (Athens and Sparta).

In 499 BC, Athens was involved in a series of battles against Persia called the Greco-Persian Wars. The Athenian army defeated the Persian king Darius I in 490 BC at the Battle of Marathon under the command of Miltiades. The soldier Philippides became famous during this battle for his rush to tell the victory to Athens. This led to the creation of the marathon race.

During the second battle, King Darius I’s son Xerxes I attacked Athens and destroyed the Acropolis, but was defeated once again at the Battle of Salamis in 480.

At the time, Athens was a maritime power and used that power to form an alliance that neutralized Spartan hegemony. During this prosperous period, the political leaders were always from the wealthy families.

Athens and Persia went to war once more in 468 BC at the Battle of Eurymedon, and Persia was again defeated.

After her victory, Athens became even more powerful and imposed her rule over the other Greek cities (“polis” in Greek). This upset the rest of the cities and ultimately led to the revolt of the city of Samos in 440, followed by Thebes, Megara and Corinth. Eventually powerful Sparta rebelled, and this led to the Peloponnesian War (431 – 401 BC).

After many years of war, Athens was defeated by Sparta and further weakened by the outbreak of the plague, which arose from the overcrowding of the city. A third of the population died from the epidemic, including Pericles.

After the Peloponnesian War, the democratic state of Athens was invaded by a pro-Spartan oligarchy called The Thirty Tyrants, who lasted only eight years until democracy was restored.

During the Corinthian War (395-387 BC), Sparta’s former allies fought throughout Athens against Sparta, establishing the Second Athenian League. Athens turned against Thebes along with Sparta.

During the fourth century, Athens suffered from social, cultural, and political decline, weakened by war. Many citizens lost their wealth, and the statesman Eubulus organized new holidays to appease the common people.

During this period, the Macedonian kingdom grew more and more important, eventually defeating Athens and other Greek cities at the Battle of Chaeronea, dissolving Athenian independence.

Hellenistic Athens

Philip II of Macedon was replaced by Alexander the Great, creating one of the largest empires in the ancient world. After his death in 323 BC, and until the Roman Republic conquered Greece, it was known as Hellenistic Greece. During this period, Athens was the center of attention for the arts and sciences.

Roman Athens

Athens and the rest of the peninsula were conquered by Rome in 146 BC In 88, Athens joined forces with Mithridatos VI, King of Pontus, rebelled against Rome, leading the Roman army to sack the city under the instructions of the ruthless Roman state Sulla. They destroyed numerous monuments and killed thousands of citizens.

Despite this, Athens remained the intellectual center of the time and although Rome now controlled the city, Athens was declared a free city. For the next three centuries, it was the cultural capital of the world, drawing people from all over the world to its schools.

Athens like Rome was invaded by barbarians; in 253 by the Goths and in 267 by the Herules. Finally, the city was sacked by the Visigoths in the year 396.

In 395 Athens came under the rule of the Byzantine Empire.

In 529 Justinian I closed the schools and the temples were transformed into churches. Athens was the center of the pagan rebellion against Christianity and the last non-Christian ruler of the Roman Empire, Julian the Apostate, settled in Athens.

Medieval times

Athens declined when the Byzantine Empire became Christian. Several centuries later, the city was sacked by the Normans who had conquered Sicily and southern Italy.

Athens prospered during the 11th and 12th centuries and many of the Byzantine churches were built during this period. However, in 1204 the Crusaders conquered Athens after occupying the Byzantine Empire and less than two centuries later, in 1456, it was occupied by the Ottoman Turks. The churches of the city were transformed into mosques.

Modern history

The Venetians conquered Athens from the Ottoman Empire in 1687. During the conflict for control of the city, the Parthenon was accidentally blown up and severely damaged. The building was looted by the Venetians until they withdrew a year later and it came back under Turkish rule.

The much-reduced city from the rule of the Ottoman Empire revolted in 1822, but was again captured by the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans finally left Athens in 1833.

In 1832, the Great Powers made up of the United Kingdom, the Russian Empire, and France founded an independent state of Greece. The named king was the son of Ludwig II of Bavaria, King Othon of Greece. On September 18, 1835, Athens was elected the capital of the country and during this period numerous public buildings were built.

After World War I, Greece, administered by Prime Minister Eleftherios Kyriakou, was promised new territory in Ottoman Turkey by some of the Western Allies. This led to the Greco-Turkish War between 1919 and 1922.

The Turks crushed the Greeks in Smyrna and as a result, the Greeks and the Turks decided to exchange their population, forcing thousands of Greeks living in Turkey to return to Greece and become refugees and vice versa. Most of the Greek citizens returned to Athens, creating chaos in the city.

On March 25, 1924, after a turbulent past, the Republic was proclaimed. In 1936 Ioannis Metaxas became the dictator of Greece until his death in 1941.

Although Metaxas applauded some of Mussolini’s ideals, he remained neutral when World War II broke out. The city was occupied shortly after by Italian troops, but was expelled by the Greeks. In 1941, German troops invaded Greece until 1944.

After World War II, much of the country’s rural population moved to Athens, and the city grew rapidly.

In 1946 a civil war broke out between supporters of the left and the Conservative government, supported by the British and the Americans. The Conservatives ultimately won.

In 1967, several colonels staged a coup and imposed a dictatorship that ended in 1974.

In 1981, Greece became a member state of the European Union and in 2001 it adopted the euro as its official currency. The accession and the 2004 Olympic Games led to a major reform of the city and its main buildings.

Today the city is the political, economic and cultural center of Greece and one of the most popular tourist destinations.

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