The site of the city of Athens has probably been inhabited for some six thousand years. It may be the oldest continuously inhabited capital city in Europe. The most glorious days of its ancient history are well-known and well-documented. The history of Athens since the end of classical times is much less well-known, yet it has much to teach us.
Prehistoric Athens (4,000 – 1,600 BC)
Athens Before History (5000-1500)
Athens enjoys a singularly fortunate site. The acropolis with its small nearby hills and convenient access to spring water, is a natural fortress and place of retreat in times of danger. The plain around it, the Lekanopedia, broken only by the range of Anchesmos, of which Mount Lycabettus, to the east of the Acropolis, is the highest point, is often described as arid. Yet it is carpeted with fertile sediment washed down from the surrounding hills, Aigaleos, Parnes, Pendeli and Hymettus, which shelter it on all sides from the worst weather, and which provide a ring of natural fortifications, except on the south-west, where the plain borders on the sheltered waters of the Saronic Gulf.
For all these reasons, it is not surprising that the area of the acropolis and its immediate neighbourhood have been inhabited since the early part of the fifth millennium Β. C., making Athens possibly the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe. The remains of Neolithic houses and graves have been found on and around the Acropolis. Archaeological evidence supports the view that this area was continuously inhabited from that time through to the Bronze Age, which began circa 3,000 B.C., at which time there were also settlements in eastern Attica, at Marathon, Spata, Vraona, Τhοrikοs and elsewhere, suggesting a high degree of security and prosperity for the entire region.
At the beginning of the second millennium B.C. Greek-speaking people, sometimes called Achaeans, first entered Greece from the north. The Athenians always distinguished themselves from non-Greek-speaking people, whom they usually referred to as Pelasgians. It is not known whether they massacred them, drove them out, or subjugated them. Traces of their non-Hellenic tongue are still to be found in many of the topographical names of Attica. Even the name ‘Athens’ itself does not appear to be Greek. Topographical names with the forms ‘-ssos’ and ‘-ttos’, such as Kifissos, Ilissos, Ardettos, Lykabettos and Hymettos, are also believed to belong to the pre-Greek language once spoken in Attica. This extensive adoption of existing topographical names by the Greek-speaking incomers, together with later claims by the Athenians to represent the indigenous inhabitants of the area, suggests that in Attica the invaders did not drive out or massacre their predecessors, but cohabited with them.
The Athens of Legend (c.1500-1200)
Near the end of the Bronze Age, the Achaeans began to demonstrate increasing cultural sophistication under the influence of the civilisation of Minoan Crete, named after the legendary King Minos. At the same time, they retained their own distinctive ways. The result of this synthesis is known as the Mycenaean civilisation, since the most important city exhibiting this cultural fusion was Mycenae. Α syllabic script, Linear Β, was used to put the Greek language into writing, and this, together with the work of the archaeologists, gives us some insights into their society.
The chief Mycenaean settlements were usually built around a royal palace, maintained by an elaborate bureaucracy working under a king. Around the foot of the eminence on which the palace was built lived the freemen and slaves who worked the land.
It is likely that during this period the kings of Athens had such a palace on the Acropolis. Unfortunately, later building has destroyed most of the evidence dating from this period. It is most likely that this building consisted of a great hall, or megaron, and a forecourt, like the palaces at Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos. Α rich chamber tomb has been found on the northern slopes of the Acropolis containing fine Mycenaean pottery, gold and bronze ornaments and a carved ivory box, making it evident that the burial was that of a woman, probably of royal birth. It is referred to as ‘the Ρrincess” Tomb. Another family chamber tomb found under the temple of Ares was in use between 1450 and 1200 B.C. Excavations in the area of the later Athenian agora have revealed a cemetery from this period. Mycenaean tholos tombs are found scattered about the countryside of Attica: in Τhοrikοs, Spata, Marathon and Menidi. [Read about the Mycenaean tomb in Menidi in Attica.]
Nothing is known of the Mycenaean kings of Athens except a few names and legends, and what may be inferred from excavations. The traditional date assigned to the founder of the royal line, Kekrops was 1581 B.C. He was said to have selected the goddess Athena as patron of the city and named it after her. It is equally possible that the goddess is named after, and personifies, the city. Other royal names include Kodros, Εrichthοniοs, Erechtheos, Pandion, Aegeus and Theseus. [Read about the legends of the earliest Athenian kings and their families in Athens: The City.]
The port of Mycenaean Athens was in the Bay of Phaleron. Archaeologists have recently uncovered what appear to be traces of this port, which preceded Piraeus.
The memory of the last great event of the Mycenaean age, the Trojan War, was long preserved in the oral traditions of bards. One such survived long enough to be written down in the epic poem the Iliad, in its late form attributed to the blind poet Homer. According to the Iliad, the Athenians were represented at the war of Troy under their king, Menestheus, but they had only a minor role to play in the great affairs of the day. This fits in with the impressions of relative importance of the Mycenaean states gathered by the archaeologists.
Dark Age Athens
The Centuries of Obscurity (1200-750)
At the beginning of the twelfth century the Mycenaean palace-cities were first more strongly fortified, with water supplies secured within the walls, and then later abandoned. This is generally attributed to the invasion of Greece from the north by another Greek-speaking people distinguished by their dialect and customs as Dοrians. These invaders swept down through central Greece into the Peloponnese, and burned Mycenae Tiryns and Pylos.
The Athenians always maintained proudly that they were autochthonous, or ‘sprung from the earth’; that is, that they were not incomers but ‘the people of the land’, already settled on their land before the Dοrian invasion. The evidence of excavations on and near the Acropolis suggests that this claim to continuity is correct. The tombs in the cemetery in the Keramikos have yielded an uninterrupted sequence of pottery spanning some five hundred critical years. One particular group, dating over some fifty years, shows a range of Mycenaean pottery lying together with the characteristic long bronze shoulder pins and safety pins which were introduced into Greece by the Dοrians. Moreover, the important pottery remains show a gradual transformation from one style to another, without any sharp breaks.
In the 1930s the Swedish-American archaeologist Oscar Broneer discovered evidence that the walls and defences of Athens, like those of other Mycenaean cities, had been strengthened around 1300B.C. A section of this wall is visible today near the entrance to the Acropolis. There is evidence that at the same time, housing beyond the north-east wall was abandoned.
There are few traces of buildings dating from the centuries which followed, and the tomb gifts are poor, showing a deterioration in the economic condition of the Athenians, and possibly a reduction in population. But it is clear that the Dοrian invasions passed Athens by without the destruction of the city or its inhabitants. On the far side of Mount Hymettos, on the sheltered Midland Plain and the north-east coast of Attica, Mycenaean burial pottery continued to be manufactured and deposited in graves for some time, suggesting the survival there of a style, and perhaps a culture, which had been destroyed elsewhere in Greece. The result everywhere, however, was a ‘dark age’ in which writing disappeared entirely and both the population and the standard of living fell. As a result of the destruction beyond the borders of Attica, Athens, although a minor Mycenaean town, may have become by default the most important city in Greece, and something of a refuge for the Mycenaeans. An ancient tradition states that refugees from Pylos fled to Athens after the destruction of that city. The father of Κing Kodros, Neleus, was supposed to have come from Pylos, and the name ‘Neleus’ appears in the genealogy of King Nestor of Pylos. Neleus was supposed to have saved the Athenians from the Dοrian invaders at the cost of his life, by agreeing to be sacrificed in accordance with the promise of an oracle. From him some famous Athenians, such as Solon, Peisistratos and PIato, later claimed descent. The precise significance of this legend is by no means clear, but it may be based upon a genuine historical memory of a king who lost his life successfully repelling the invaders from the borders of Attica.
In the sixth generation after the Trojan war, some of these refugees from Mycenaean Greece allegedly went to Asia Minor, where they settled. Certainly, at a level dated about 1000 BC in Old Smyrna, to the north west of the modem city, locally produced pottery has been found decorated in a style which seems to be very closely imitative of Athenian protogeometric style. It is certain also that there was a general migration from the mainland across the Aegean to Asia Minor (modem Turkey) at about that time. Most cities along the Asian coast were subsequently Greek speaking. Their dialects showed that those in the central region were Ionians, akin to the Athenians; and the Athenians were later to claim, correctly or not, that Athens was the metropolis of all the 1onians of the Aegean islands and the Asian shore.
The evidence provided by pottery assumes great importance during the Greek ‘Dark Age’, for when all else rots or rusts, pottery survives. Also, the Athenians began to develop the art of ceramics as a major form of artistic expression, so that it can tell us much. Finally, their practice was to bury pots with the dead, and the burial ground at the Keramikos was used continuously for several centuries, providing archaeologists with evidence over a long period of time. Moreover, since each society developed its own style, similarity of pottery in different places reveals the existence of commercial contacts or cultural influence.
The development of the distinctive style of protogeometric pottery in Athens in the eleventh century is held to show that some degree of peace and prosperity gradually returned to Attica; while the appearance of the geometric in the ninth suggests increased prosperity. Stylistic inf1uences from the east in the later eighth century provide evidence of renewed commercial contact with the Aegean world. Some historians infer from the superior character of Athenian pottery during much of this period that Athens was then the most highly-developed state in Greece.
Although most of what we know about this period has to be inferred from later traditions, it is clear that during this ‘Dark Age’ that some of the most distinctive characteristics of the city states of the later Archaic and Classical periods evolved.
At some point, the kings of Athens lost their power to the landowning aristocracy, which met in council on the Areopagos Ηίll. The aristocrats were divided into four tribes and rival clans, the members of each of which claimed a common descent. The members of a clan, together with their retainers and supporters, were enrolled in ‘brotherhoods’. Enrolment into a brotherhood signified that a person was officially a citizen of Athens.
The chief duties of government came to be shared among three archons, or officials, chosen from among the aristocracy: the king archon, who performed the religious duties of the former king; the polemarch, who led the citizens in battle; and the eponymous archon, who presided over the civil administration and gave his name to the year. Later these were assisted by a board of six ‘lesser’ archons, known as thesmothetai, who were responsible for the interpretation of customary law. With the transfer of power, the institutions of government were symbolically located in the lower town; while the Acropolis became a ‘sacred rock’ reserved for religious sanctuaries and monuments, as well as remaining a place of refuge in times of danger.
The eupatridai, or ‘well-born’, owners of large estates on the fertile plains, enjoyed control of the Areopagos Council and these offices of state. The ekklesia, an assembly of freemen, probably had no rights other than that of giving, or withholding assent to decisions made by the aristocrats. Even though there were conflicts between great families and prominent personalities, these ‘Few’ were united by their common interests against the ‘Many’.
During the early ‘Dark Age’ Attica was a land of independent towns and villages which sometimes went to war with each other, so that we hear, for example, of a war between Athens and Eleusis; but the various communities became united in a single polity. This extended the authority of the city over a wide area including the plain of Thria, and the Midland Plain. Unification was probably achieved over a long period as the result of a gradual process, one not quite completed in the late sixth century, when the island of Salamis was taken from Megara. However, in accordance with the widespread ancient practice of attributing important political developments to a single occasion, and the work of a single prestigious ancestor, the union was attributed by the Athenians to the semi- mythical King Theseus, who had lived in the distant Mycenaean Age. However achieved, this union created a single state larger than any other in Greece except that of Sparta.
The decline in the power of the Egyptians and Phoenicians during the eighth century led to a power vacuum ίη the eastern Mediterranean. Many Greek city states were able to take advantage of this by sending out settlers to found new colonies. Corinth and Megara and the cities of Euboea were very active, but Athens was not. Despite its unusual size, Athens was surprisingly underdeveloped commercially before the sixth century. The most active cities were comparatively close to Athens, which may have been overshadowed by more powerful neighbours. The Aeginetans adopted the use of coinage at least fifty years before the Athenians, and seem to have then played a more active role in Aegean politics. They, in particular, may have stifled Athenian commerce and hampered its progress, for Herodotus hinted of ‘an ancient hatred’ between the two states.
Archaic Athens I
The Age of the Tyrants (750-528)
In the late seventh century the darkness begins to dissipate, although our knowledge of the earliest period is limited to isolated incidents and developments.
When we first learn of events in Athens it is clear that the city was already rent by internal divisions of two types, rivalries between prominent aristocrats and between the social classes: ‘the Few and the Many’. The divisions within the aristocracy were based upon loyalties to important families which wielded influence in particular parts of Attica, which were no doubt evident in the form of confrontations between their rival heads and their supporters as they jockeyed for inf1uence and power in city politics. It may have been an outcome of such a conflict that from the chief officers of the state, the archons, were limited to holding office for ten years.
When one clan became too powerful, its head might try to seize power by force, and become a tyrant. In such an attempt in 632 B.C., Κylοn, an Olympic victor and son-in-law of the tyrant of Megara, seized the Acropolis with the help of his father-in-law and friends. Athenians flocked in from the countryside and besieged them. In the end, Kylon escaped, but his supporters were slaughtered in the sanctuary. Following this sacrilegίοus murder, those considered most immediately responsible, Megakles and the family of the Alkmaeonids, were banished. This incident led to a war between Athens and Megara.
The first known Athenian law code was issued by Drakon circa 621, possibly as a consequence of these events. Ιt was later described as extremely harsh, and as ‘written in blood’; giving us the word ‘draconian’. It authorised generous application of the death penalty.
By the beginning of the sixth century, the social strains in Athens were becoming severe. Wealth had come to be concentrated in the hands of a clique of important landowners. In 620 B.C. two Athenian colonies were founded at the approaches to the Black Sea, suggesting that the Athenians had an interest in the important grain trade from that region. The widespread scattering of Athenian olive jars of this date found across the Mediterranean indicates that olives and olive oil were the main product of Athenian agriculture at this time, and that the city may have needed to import grain to feed its citizens. Olive production, which requires substantial investment which will not yield fruit for many years, can only be satisfactorily accomplished on a large scale by wealthy landowners, not by subsistence farmers who have to live off their land from year to year.
Many Athenian freemen had got themselves into debt with these great landowners by offering their persons as security. When they were unable to pay off their debts, some had been enslaved, while others had chosen exile. At the same time, changes in the techniques of warfare had led to the development of hoplite armies. Warriors equipped with a round shield and long spear would advance upon the enemy in ranks. The men who could afford to equip themselves with the necessary arms and armour for this style of fighting, and who could not afford the horse and groom necessary to fight in the cavalry, were mostly small farmers. Each man’s shield covered his own left hand and partially guarded his neighbour. This method of fighting required that the men developed a sense of loyalty to their comrades so as not to beak the ‘shield wall’. It was therefore to be expected that the hoplites would develop a sense of a corporate identity and pride as those upon whom the safety of the city now depended, and would begin to look out for their common interests. The small farmers became increasingly unwilling to put up with economic insecurity; and in any case, whenever a man lost his land, and was no longer able to provide himself with a shield and spear, the city lost a valuable warrior.
Fearing civil strife, the extraordinary step was taken of appointing the well-travelled and widely-respected Solon as mediator and extraordinary legislator in 594, with a commission to solve the problem within one year. An aristocrat, who believed firmly in the privileges of the few: he claimed that he made just those reforms as were strictly necessary to avoid open civil strife -but no more.
The first step he took was to dissolve all existing debts. Solon seems to have believed that wealth, rather than ancestry, should determine who should actively participate in the government of the state, and that that government should be in accordance with just laws. He divided the Athenians into classes, based upon wealth (and ability to perform military service). The poorest class, the Thetes, who were the majority of the population, received some political rights for the first time, being able to vote in the assembly of citizens (ekklesia), but political office remained restricted to the upper class. The area of the agora, a space dedicated to the conduct of public affairs in the lower town, was probably cleared and set aside for this purpose at this date.
Solon also issued a detailed law code. ΙΙ was written on four-sided wooden tablets set in frames; each tablet rotating on an axon, or axle. The laws were referred to in the following manner: ‘the fifth law from the fourth axon.’ Witnesses report that these tablets were to be seen on the Acropolis for many centuries. Perhaps wisely, Solon went into self-imposed exile for ten years afterwards.
Although Solon’s reforms may have prevented immediate breakdown, they did nothing to solve the issue of rivalries between powerful families. In 580-79 Β. C. a certain Damaisias tried to retain his power as archon beyond the allotted period of one year. He lasted for two years and two months before being expelled by the aristocrats. On other occasions, no archons were elected, perhaps because ousted rivals would not concede defeat.
In c.561 B.C. Peisistratos, a leading citizen from Brauron on the north-eastern coast of Attica, seized control of the acropolis with an armed bodyguard, but was soon ejected, He later returned in an alliance with Megakles, leader of a family which enjoyed influence in the area of Phaleron. They dressed up a tall woman from Paeania, on the other side of Mount Hymmettos, as the goddess Athena, and with her in tow, re-entered and took over the city. [Read more about this remarkable story in Attica.] They soon quarrelled, and Peisistratos was forced into exile once more. After acquiring a state in Thrace, he returned with an army, defeated his enemies at Pallene, swiftly entered the city during the afternoon siesta, and captured it for a third time.
Peisistratos ruled Athens from that point until his death in 528. Although he had seized, and held, power by force, he took good care to disguise the basis of his regime by outward conformity to law and custom. The laws of Solon continued to be observed, and the archons held office as usual, but it is likely that the tyrant took care to ensure that those people, elected to office could be relied upon to do his bidding. Thus when accused of murder, he duly attended the court, but significantly, his accuser dare not put in an appearance. He also took up residence on the Acropolis, which at that time had come to be reserved for religious sanctuaries. Despite the fact that his regime was founded upon force, over time he earned the reputation of being a consistent and just ruler who worked successfully to build up the wealth and power of the city.
In order to glorify the city, and thereby his own rule, and to bind the inhabitants of Attica together, he carefully fostered religion in all its forms.
He deliberately built up the state cult of Athena. In 566 B.C., he reformed the Panathenaic festival held annually in her honour, making it famous throughout Greece The festival was held every year as before; but every four years there was to be a ‘Greater Panathenaia’, with dancing contests for boys and youths, a torch race, a chariot race and athletic contests, in which the prizes were amphoras filled with olive oil. The highlight of the festivities was a magnificent procession from the Dipylon Gate to the Acropolis, in which many of the citizens took part, having as its focal point a new richly embroidered robe carried on a boat on wheels, to offer to the ancient xoanon or olive-wood statue of Athena Polias. The celebration ended with sacrifices, feasting and dancing. Peisistratos probably also built a new temple dedicated to Athena on the acropolis.
Similarly, he instituted the festival of the Greater Dionysia. The followers of Dionysos in the foothills of Mount Pendeli, in the area today known as Dionysos, celebrated the god by singing his praises in goatskins. In 534 Thespis, an Athenian, initiated the practice by which an actor conducted a dialogue with this chorus. Peisistratos permitted this new dramatic form of the festival to be performed from a cart in various places, usually at the village threshing floors, which provided level space. Thus was the Western drama born. Soon, plays were being performed in Athens itself at the City Dionysia in an open space below the northern walls of the Acropolis, the audience sitting on the slopes above what was later to become the Theatre of Dionysos. [Read about the Dionysian origins of the Western theatre in Attica.]
He extensively rebuilt the ancient Mycenaean sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis, erecting the first teleuterion or hall of mysteries. The public rites celebrated in connection with initiation into the mystery cult were probably first integrated into the Athenian calendar of observances at this time. [Read about the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries in Attica.]
Peisistratos planned, but failed to carry to completion, the building of an ambitiously large temple of Zeus, known as the Olympeion. Aristotle thought that the enterprise was deliberately planned to absorb all the energies of the Athenians, so that they would be less likely to rise up and expel him. The foundation of several other shrines nearby are also attributed to his patronage, including the temples of Artemis in the fields, Apollo Delphinios, and the shrine of the Nymphs.
Peisistratos built temples across Attica on the site of ancient shrines, at Rhamnous, Sounion, and his native Brauron. He carried out a ceremonial purification of the island of Delos, the island lying in the centre of the Cyclades, sacred to Apollo and revered by all the lonian Greeks. All bodies buried within sight of the god’s temple were disinterred and reburied elsewhere. In doing this he was probably deliberately laying the basis for an Athenian claim to primacy over all lonian Greeks and over Apollo’s island shrine.
Peisistratos was a patron of the arts in other ways as well, but usually with a clear political motive. He supervised the standardisation of the oral tradition attributed to Homer, transmitted by the recitations of the rhapsodes, or bards, by having an ‘authorised’ text written down. It seems likely that it was in his time that many of the legends of the hero Theseus were developed as state propaganda in deliberate imitation the much more ancient legends of Herakles, in order to provide a sense of patriotic pride for the citizens, and for the glorification of the city. An indication of his success was that poets such as Anakreon and Simonides were attracted to Athens. Athenian black figure pottery, depicting scenes from legend and ordinary life, ousted the work of Corinthian rivals, and came to be exported across the Mediterranean world.
Peisistratos was no less attentive to the infrastructure of the city. He built roads, while aqueducts brought water from Hymettos to the fountain house of Enneakrounos in the agora. He erected law courts and other public buildings in the agora, quarrying high-quality marble on Mount Pendeli. He levied a property tax to subsidise poor farmers, and sent circuit judges into the far reaches of Attica to settle disputes, consolidating the incorporation of the people of those areas into the full life of the Athenian state. He imported miners from northern Greece to work the silver mines of Laourion, in the southeast of Attica, and struck coins showing the head of Athena and her sacred owl.
He established ties of friendship with many states on the mainland, and with the tyrants of Naxos and Samos. He acquired the Thracian Chersonese, beginning the colonisation of the Hellespont, and laying the first foundations of the later Athenian empire, and further safeguarding the all-important grain route from the Black Sea.
Archaic Athens II
The Birth of Democracy (528-494)
It could fairly be said that Peisistratos laid the foundations of future Athenian greatness. He was undoubtedly a man of great ability, and perhaps for that reason, his tyranny was generally accepted. But after he died, the rule of his sons, Hippias and Hipparchos, was resented. After a lovers’ quarrel with Hipparchos, two Athenians, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, decided to overthrow the ruling dynasty during the procession at the Panathenaic festival in 514 B.C. Hipparchos was stabbed, but the bodyguard of Ηippias managed to arrest the pair. Threatened, Ηίppias ονerreacted, killing many citizens he thought dangerous to him. The disinherited aristocrats met to eject him, but were defeated at Leipsydriοn near Mount Parnes, where many young nobles were killed. In 511-10, Ηippias fortified the hill of Munychia, overlooking Phaleron, where the warships were beached. The powerful Alkmeonid family then engineered his overthrow by calling upon the aid of King Kleomenes of Sparta. Wealthy patrons of Delphi, the Alkmeonids bribed the oracle to urge the Spartans to free Athens. Two attempts were necessary, but a Spartan army drove away the Thessalian cavalry which Ηippias had summoned to his aid, and besieged him on the Acropolis. When some of his children, hiding in the lower city, were caught by the besiegers, he surrendered and left under safe conduct.
The Spartan king then tried to interfere in the internal affairs of Athens in support of his ally Isagoras, in his rivalry with Kleisthenes, head of the powerful Alkmeonid clan, and expelled the latter, but when the Spartans withdrew, Kleisthenes placed himself at the head of the people against the return to power of the discredited aristocracy. He ostensibly ‘took the people into partnership’ and profoundly reformed the government of Athens in 507 B.C. These changes clearly had two purposes: to destroy once and for all the persistent and divisive loyalties to rival local leaders, and to create a situation of isonomia, or equality before the law, with an equal chance for everyone to participate in the government of the city. In this way he sought to defuse the divisions between rival families and between social classes which had so rent the life of the city before Peisistratos had imposed his tyranny, and at the same time remove the local bases of their power.
Every Athenian citizen was enrolled in one of the new ‘tribes’, depending upon where they lived. The land of Attica was divided into three large areas representing the power bases of the main rival clans: the south-western shore, the city and its surrounding plain, and the land beyond the surrounding mountains. Each of the tribes was allotted people who lived in one area of each of these regions, and these areas were deliberately not adjacent to each other.
The ten tribes each sent fifty members, chosen by lot, to a new council, called the Boule, or Council of the Five Hundred. The year was divided into ten parts, and one tenth of the council, the Prytany, would meet during each period. The Prytany would prepare the agenda for the ekklesia, a function they probably took over from the Areopagus, which retained only limited judicial functions. Α Bouleuterton was built for the meetings of the council on the west of the agora. As a further measure against the division of the people into factions by the ambitions of powerful rival individuals, Kleisthenes also introduced the legal process of ostracism. The Assembly would vote each year on whether to hold an ostracism. If the vote was positive, a day would be appointed upon which the people would vote whom to exile. They would write the name of their choice on an ostrakon, or potsherd. If 6,000 citizens participated, the person whose name appeared on most ostraka had to leave the city within ten days, and could not return for ten years.
Although Kleisthenes’ motives may have been limited to gaining short-term advantage against rivals, his reforms provided the foundations for the world’s first known democracy. It is one thing to empower the people, and another for them to possess the self confidence to employ that power. It was to be twenty years before these new rights were exercised, but by that time events had conspired to endow the people of Athens with precisely that spirit of self-confidence which would enable them to take their destiny into their own hands.
Archaic Athens III
The Persian Threat (494-478)
At the end of the sixth century the very existence of Athens was threatened by a danger looming in the east. The expansion of the Persian Empire, the superpower of its time, had reached the Aegean shore and absorbed the Greek cities of Ionia. It was not to be expected that the fiercely independent spirit of the Greek city states could be crushed easily, even by such overwhelming force; and in 499 B.C. the Ionian city of Miletos led a concerted revolt against Persian rule. Answering their call for aid, the Athenians sent twenty ships to assist them. Although the rebels burned Sardis, the seat of the Persian satrap, the revolt was soon extinguished at the battle of Lade. In brutal reprisal, Miletos was destroyed, and its entire population massacred or enslaved. The strong identification of the Athenians with the Ionian cause was evident shortly afterwards, when Phrynichos put on his play The Capture of Miletos in Athens. Many in the audience burst into tears. Phrynichos was fined one thousand drachmas and his play banned.
In 492 B.C. the Persian king, Darius, sent an expedition to conquer Thrace and Macedonia which was only withdrawn after much of his fleet was destroyed by a storm while rounding the peninsula of Athos.
The Aegean Sea, however, was no barrier to the spread of Persian power, for the islands of the archipelago, for the most part lying within sight of each other, invited further expansion. In June 490 Darius sent another force, which sailed from island to island across the Aegean receiving submission and tribute, and reducing any cities which resisted. This expedition was probably designed only to subdue the islands and then to reconnoitre the European shore; but the Athenians, conscious of the assistance they had rendered to rebel Miletos, expected Persian retribution. When, in September, having subdued Euboea, the Persians landed their forces in the Bay of Marathon, the Athenians feared the worst.
It is not known at that time whether the lower city was surrounded by a wall, but no unambiguous trace of one has yet been detected by the archaeologists. The defencelessness of the city has been used to explain why, with only some six hundred Plataean allies, the Athenian citizen army, under the command of the polemarch Kallimachos and the ten generals, numbering perhaps ten thousand men in all, marched out to Marathon.
The Athenians stationed themselves on the lower slopes of the hills above the bay to observe the invaders, having already sent a runner to Sparta to seek assistance. He seems to have had some sort of religious experience while crossing the mountains of Arcadia, which he interpreted as an encounter with the god Pan. When he arrived, the Spartans warmly expressed willingness to come to the aid of the Athenians in principle, but also explained that they. were forced to delay actually setting out to help them on account of a religious holiday they were observing. It seems likely that the Spartans were not unwilling to see the destruction of a potential rival.
The Athenian forces contented themselves with observing the Persians watering their horses at a lake on the north of the plain for several days Then when he saw an opportunity to strike, one of the generals, Miltiades, who had acquired experience of the fighting practices of the Persians in the Straits area, led a surprise attack against the invaders and defeated them. Then the victorious warriors rushed back to defend their city from further attack in case the fleet should land a force at Phaleron, but the reconnoitring ships did not put anyone ashore.
Our knowledge of this battle comes almost entirely from a single source: Herodotus. His Histories was written more than one generation after the events he narrates, and were designed to be read aloud before an Athenian audience, so he was unlikely to present a clinically detached viewpoint. In addition, there are some important respects in which his account is deficient. For example, he writes that King Darius had special ships built to transport cavalry horses, yet in his account of the battle itself, the cavalry plays no part, and he never accounts for their absence. Again, he describes the Persians as defeated at Marathon and fleeing in panic to their ships, yet he inconsistently portrays the Athenians as afraid that, when the fleet rounded Cape Sounion, the Persians might land a force at Phaleron and take the city. He never explains why the Persians, if they intended to take Athens, landed at Marathon, on the wrong side of the peninsula, and stayed there for such a long period. With the overwhelming force he attributes to them, a landing at Phaleron would have been the obvious preliminary to an attack on the city.
There is reason to believe that the expedition may have been over already, as far as the Persians were concerned. They probably landed at Marathon to water and graze their horses at the lake which then occupied the north of the plain, in preparation for the return journey back to Asia Minor. There is some late evidence that most of their forces had already embarked on the ships when Miltiades launched his attack, so that only a fraction of the Persian forces were actually defeated; hence the nervousness of the Athenians that their city was still in danger from the Persian forces after the battle.
Yet despite all these qualificattons, Marathon remains one of the most important battles in world history. The Athenians lost only one hundred and ninety-two men, and their ‘victory’, how- ever insignificant it may have seemed to the Great King in distant Susa, filled the Athenians with a heady sense of their own potential, the results of which were to play a crucial role in the history of the long upward march of the human spirit. Α new self-confidence filled the people of Athens, and this spirit, however insecure its basis, was to have momentous consequences for the history of civilisation.
The results were not slow in coming. An awakening of confidence of the citizens in their ability to govern themselves is evident in the new readiness of the people actually to exercise their powers of ostracism against prominent citizens. The first ostracism was voted in 488-7 B.C. It was probably in the next year that the method of choosing the archons by lot was introduced. This was a profound move towards genuine democracy. It destroyed the advantage which the wealthy and well-known necessarily enjoy in elections, and removed a source of corruption. It also indicated that these, and all, offices of state were no longer to be as important as they had been, that ambitious citizens would no longer campaign for their election, and that the boule and ekklesia had taken upon themselves a greater role in the government of the country. The various specific duties of government were generally taken up by boards of officials chosen by lot, who could serve only once. Only the ten generals were elected, and could serve an indefinite number of times.
It was intended to erect a magnificent new temple to Athena, now known as the ‘older Parthenon’, on the acropolis. Older buildings were demolished and the rubble used to extend the surface area of the citadel. New temples were constructed at Rhamnous and Sounion. The cult of the rural god Pan was introduced into Athens. The sanctuary of Pan in the cave on the northern side of the acropolis was dedicated following the victory of Marathon. An annual torch race and sacrifices were established in honour of the god. Another sanctuary to Pan lay by the IIissos, near the present church of Ay. Photini, where a carving of the god could still be seen on the rock until recently. In the countryside of Attica he frequently came to share the caves originally sacred to the nymphs.
The first prominent citizen who was to win his position by his ability, and whose origins lay outside the ranks of the old aristocracy, was Themistokles. He saw clearly that the expansion of Persian power had not really been checked, and that the Athenians must prepare for the real threat which would inevitably come.
A stroke of pure luck provided the means to make preparations to beat off an invasion. Α particularly rich vein of silver was discovered in the mines of Laurion. Themistocles knew his fellow citizens well enough to realise that there was no way that he could persuade them to spend this money on building a navy to protect their shores from a distant enemy whose resources and strength they did not yet appreciate. So he took advantage of a long and inconclusive war with the Athenians’ nearby rivals, the Aeginetans, to persuade the citizens to use their new wealth to make Athens a great naval power. Α new war fleet of two hundred ships was built; and instead of beaching the ships at Phaleron, as had been the practice, the three natural harbours at Piraeus were developed and fortified. [Read more about the mines of Lavrion, ancient and modern, in Attica.]
When it became clear that King Xerxes was planning a campaign to subdue the whole of Thrace, Macedonia and the Greek peninsula, a meeting those states determined to resist met at the Isthmus. The Hellenic League was formed, and the Spartans were accepted as head of this alliance. All wars between its members, including that of Athens with Aegina, were promptly ended.
The attack, when it came in 480 B.C. was by both land and sea. 1η an attempt to prevent the Persian army entering the peninsula, a detachment was sent to block the Vale of Tempe. But when the leaders of this force found out that there were other ways into Greece, they returned to the Isthmus. Α second blocking attempt was made at the pass of Thermopylae. Most of those soldiers left when the Persians appeared; and the Spartan rear guard was surrounded and annihilated. As so often happens in wartime, this defeat was transformed by propaganda into a ‘moral victory’, but one that in no way held up the advance of the Persians. Despite the loss of many of his ships in a storm off Euboeia, and an indecisive engagement with Greek ships at Artemiston, the Thebans and some other states decided to side with the invaders, while the Peloponnesians built a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth, leaving Athens defenceless against overwhelming force.
The Delphic oracle had instructed the Athenians to rely on their ‘wooden walls’. Themistocles convinced the people that this was a cryptic reference to their ships, and the new navy was employed to evacuate the citizens to the nearby islands of Salamis and Aegina, and the peninsula of Troizen, while the fleet of the Hellenic League, having protected the operation, put into Salamis. Nine days after the engagement at Artemiston, the Persian fleet anchored in the Bay of Phaleron.
When Persians land forces arrived at Athens there were just a few people left behind, described as the Treasurers of the Temple of Athena and a mass of poor people, all barricaded on the acropolis. Because it was thought impregnable, the defenders had left the steep north side of the hill unguarded, and Persian soldiers managed to scale the cliff and the walls. The despairing defenders flung themselves from the battlements or fled into the temples, where they were slaughtered. The lower city and the temples on the acropolis were alike plundered and burned.
Themistokles had to employ all his cunning and duplicity to prevent the Greek fleet from either withdrawing to defend the Peloponnese, protected by its hastily built wall, and abandoning the rest of Greece, or simply breaking up, with the various contingents going their several ways. In secret communications with Xerxes he lured the Persian fleet into the narrow Bay of Salamis after convincing him that the Greek ships would otherwise escape his clutches, and provoked a battle in which the Persian fleet was decisively defeated. In this victory the new Athenian fleet played a key role, although it was agreed at the time that the first prize for valour in the battle really went to the Aeginetans. ‘
Disgusted, Xerxes went home, leaving his general Mardonius with part of his forces to winter in Greece and complete the subjugation of the region in the next spring. Mardonius, however, was defeated by the combined land forces of the Hellenic League at the battle of Plataea, and on the very same day, the Greek fleet, which had gone onto the offensive, defeated a Persian fleet at Cape Mycale, in Asia Minor. The Greeks of lonia promptly rose in revolt once more, and drove out the Persians, whose power in the Aegean was set to fade from this time onwards.