Classical Athens I
The Golden Age (478-431)
The years immediately following the Persian defeat must have been hard ones for the Athenians. They had lost their homes, property and temples, which were probably nearly all destroyed. Two consecutive harvests had been lost. Yet if the battle of Marathon had given the Athenians new self-confidence, the victories of Salamis, Plataea and Mycale inspired them to new heights of creativity.
Themistocles arranged the immediate building of a wall around the lower city with thirteen gates, known as the Themistocleian Wall, traces of which remain today. The Spartans put considerable pressure on the Athenians to desist. They clearly felt that their traditional position of primacy in Greece was threatened by the new assertiveness of the Athenians. Themistokles used his diplomatic skills to delay any action on their part until it was too late for them to do anything about it.
The Hellenic fleet under Pausanias, the Spartan victor of Plataea, captured Cyprus and Byzantium, securing control of the Aegean in north and south. The occupation of Byzantium was more important to the Athenians, for it could be used to control the all-important Black Sea grain trade route. Pausanias installed himself as ruler but they complained about his tyranny and accused him of conspiring with the Persians. He was recalled and punished, but cleared of the last charge. It is clear that the Athenians did not want a Spartan in control of this strategic city. When, in 477, the Spartans sent a replacement contingent to join the Hellenic fleet, it is clear that the Athenians and Ionians had come to an agreement to reject their aid, and they were asked to go home. In this way the Spartans found themselves deliberately excluded) by Athenian machinations from Aegean politics.
This left the field clear for the Athenians, led by Aristeides, who promptly founded a new alliance, known as the Delian League, to provide mutual protection for themselves and the Greeks of the coastlands of Asia Minor and the Archipelago. Perhaps one hundred and fifty states joined almost immediately. Each state contributed to a fleet for their common defence against the Persians; the larger states contributing ships and men, and the smaller states the money to pay for their upkeep. The treasury of the League was located on the central Ionian sanctuary of Delos, but its treasurers were Athenians. This was to be an alliance in which the Athenians were much more than equal members with the others.
Cimon encouraged the larger states of the Delian League to substitute money payments for the ships and crews due as their contribution to the common effort. As a result, the fleet of the League became, in reality, an Athenian fleet, maintained by a form of taxation on the other states. With the decisive defeat of the Persians in 468 at Eurymedon, the ostensible purpose of the League was accomplished. Previously, it had been popular as the member states had received protection against a return of the Persians for their money. But afterwards, its real purpose was seen to be the subjugation of the islands and the coast of Ionia to Athenian rule. The experience of the people of Naxos c.470 and Thasos in 465 showed that any state attempting to leave the League, would be punished, and restrained, if necessary, by force. Athenian primacy had become by default Athenian hegemony, and the Delian League an Athenian Empire.
The large and active Athenian fleet provided work for many citizens of the lower classes who could not afford to provide themselves with the arms and armour of a hoplite warrior. They found employment as oarsmen on the ships This kept large numbers of them away from the city for long periods, and may be why the old nobility were able temporarily to recover some of their influence. Under the leadership of the wealthy and well-connected Cimon, son of Miltiades, who soon came tο dominate Athenian public life, the Persians were driven them from the shores of the Aegean, and the Athenians acquired the coast of Thrace and Skyros.
On Skyros were ‘discovered’ the bones of Theseus. These were solemnly transported to Athens and interned in a new temple dedicated to the hero. An indication of the range of activities abroad in which the Athenians were engaged during this period is given by a war memorial, which records that in 458 B.C., one hundred and seventy-seven Athenians from just one of the ten ‘tribes’ were killed. They died in Cyprus, Egypt, Phoenicia, Halieis, Aegina, Megara, etc.
Cimοn levelled the devastated temples on the Acropolis, previously left in ruins as a memorial of Persian barbarism, and used the stonework to build ramparts on the summit of the rock to enlarge its surface area. In this rubble were later found many fine statues and architectural pieces. He also erected the Painted Stoa, on which scenes from the great victories of the Persian Wars were painted by Polygnotus. He was praised by contemporaries for planting many trees to beautify the city, especially in the public gardens known as the Academy. He also rebuilt other sanctuaries in Attica, such as that of Eleusis, which had been destroyed by the Persians.
In the 460s Cimon led an expedition to rescue the Spartans from a revolt by their slaves, who had taken advantage of a disastrous earthquake which had kil1ed many citizens. In his absence, a certain Ephialtes led a peaceful revolution in Athens, bringing about constitutional changes which moved power even more decisively and firmly into the hands of the ordinary people. The powers of the aristocratic Areopagus were virtually abolished. Most government functions came to be administered by boards often men chosen by lot.
The Heliaia, previously a court of appeal, became one of the chief means of holding officials responsible for their actions. Six thousand citizens were enrolled each year to act as jurymen, and were paid, enabling the less well-off to enjoy the free time to perform the duties of a citizen. When Cimon returned, having been insulted by the Spartans he had set out to aid, he was ostracised. Paradoxically, recent constitutional reforms in the direction of direct democracy made it impossible for the aristocracy to wield much influence, yet that very levelling enabled a dynamic and well-respected citizen to enjoy real power -as long as he did what the mass of the people wanted him to do. In this manner, influence in the state passed to Pericles.
Bringing an end to all pretence, in 451 the Treasury of the Delian League was moved to Athens, and the wealth of the League was diverted for the rebuilding, fortification and glorification of the city.
Already, in 458, a huge bronze statue of Athena was erected on the acropolis by Pheidias as a monument to Athenian valour in the war. Athena was represented as holding a spear and helmet, and came to be known as Promachos or “Champion.” Thirty feet high, the crest of the goddess’ helmet and the point of her spear glinting in the sun were visible from ships rounding Cape Sounion.
Border forts were built at Panakton and Phyle, etc. in order to make the ring of mountains encircling the city part of its defences. During this period the port of Piraeus grew in importance. Ship sheds and dry docks were constructed for the warships. Much of the city was rebuilt in accordance with a plan devised by Hippodamus. Many foreign residents settled there, bringing with them the worship of foreign gods, and giving the port a cosmopolitan and politically radical character. Then defensive walls were built, enclosing the fortifications of Athens and Piraeus, and connecting the city with the Bay of Phaleron, allowing the Athenians unfettered access to the sea and use of their fleet dυriηg a siege. On Ρericles’ suggestion, a second reinforcing wall was built parallel to the northern wall a few years later. The line of these two walls roughly follows the course of the present Pireos Street, while that of the Phaleron Wall is less well established.
The temples on the acropolis were magnificently rebuilt, as a demonstration of Athenian self- confidence. Α new Parthenon was designed by Iktinos and Kallikrates, while Pheidias was in charge of building operations. The marble was brought from the nearby quarries on Mount Pendeli. Inside was placed a gold and ivory statue of Athena, more than ten metres high. These precious substances were locked into a wooden framework so that they could be removed in case of necessity. Α ceremonial way was designed by Mnesikles as an imposing entrance to the Acropolis. Temples were also magnificently rebuilt across Attica, such as the temple of Poseidon at Sounion. [Read about the wonders of the Parthenon in Athens: The City.]
When Ρericles dominated the city by the force of his personality, the arts flourished, and men of letters everywhere looked to Athens for stimulation and patronage. Ρericles himself called the city ‘an education for Greece.’ Herodotus was encouraged to give readings of his travels in the Persian Empire. Aeschylos, Sophocles and Εuripedes brought Greek drama to new heights. The plays were put on by wealthy men, who were awarded monuments for their work, of which the monument to Lysikrates in Plaka is the sole survivor.
Private homes during this period formed a contrast with the fine public buildings. Narrow, streets surfaced with gravel wound in irregular fashion around the foot of the acropolis, as on many island towns today, and the houses erected on them had to accommodate their peculiarities. They were usually built of sun-dried mud brick on stone bases. Small homes were often a single room with a courtyard in front, and other rooms on either side of it. Furniture was sparse. Many houses had stone-lined cess pits. ‘Home’ meant less to the Athenians than it does to us. The men met each other and conducted their business in the agora, and took their exercise and recreation in the gymnasia.
Classical Athens II
The Great Peloponnesian War (431-404)
It was inevitable that resentment among the so-called ‘allies’ of the Athenians at their subjugation and exploitation would fester. The ‘allies’ were subject to the laws decided upon in the Athenian ekklesia: Athenian magistrates were imposed on them; legal cases involving the death penalty had to be referred to Athens. Athenian coinage and weights and measures were enforced upon them. The Allies had discovered the lessons, so obvious in our own day, that an ‘alliance’ with a greater power may turn into the subversion of one’s own government and effective subjugation, and that democracies may give some liberty to their own citizens, while simultaneously denying it to those of other states effectively under their power. Resentment was also felt keenly in rival Sparta, which had for centuries been regarded as the leading power in Greece. It was equally natural that all those independent states, such as Megara and Corinth, which felt themselves threatened by the growing power and ‘political meddlesomeness’ of the Athenians should line up with ‘the Spartans and their allies’, known to history as the Peloponnesian League. Thucydides says that: ‘the growth of Athenian power alarmed the Spartans and compelled them to war.’ After a false start, war broke out between those states loyal to Athens and those which wished to bring about the downfall of Athenian power.
This was a terrible war, involving at one time or another most of the Greek states. Since the Athenians were identified with democracy, and rule by ‘the Many’, the dominant aristocracies of the conservative states feared the attraction of Athens for their own people, and in many states, civil wars broke out, with the aristocrats favouring Sparta, and the common people Athens.
This was not merely a war between states, it was a struggle between two different ideals and ways of life. The Spartans stood for the old-fashioned militaristic values of the Dοrians, while the Athenians represented radical new ways of thinking, which required rational justification for institutions and actions rather than blind appeal to custom. This made many fearful, even among the aristocrats in Athens itself.
Ρericles’ policy was to fight offensively at sea, where the large Athenian navy could be used to best advantage, and to fight defensively on land, withdrawing behind the Long Walls and avoiding direct confrontation with the superior Spartan hoplites, who were by far the most powerful and prestigious fighting force in Greece.
During the war, each year, at the beginning of the campaigning season the Spartans invaded Attica, and the country people were obliged to abandon their homes and fields, and retire behind the Long Walls. Many encamped in an area below the eastern walls of the acropolis known as the ‘Black Stones’, where the Delphic oracle had expressly forbidden settlement, in the area of the modem Anafiotika. An unforeseen consequence was that, crowded together under siege conditions during the hot summer months, epidemics broke out. Ρericles himself died in this manner in 429.
Athens was an open society, and the long, inconclusive but damaging war provoked some real questioning. Socrates began his own struggle for understanding and truth in his dialogues with leading young aristocrats. Amazingly, after six years of warfare Aristophanes was able to put on his play The Acharnians, a plea for peace, ascribing the beginning of the war to ‘a bunch of good-for-nothing individuals.’ It won first prize. How many modem states, including those which most loudly claim to be democratic, would tolerate the public performance of an anti-war play during a long and exhausting war, let alone reward its author!
When Mytilene seceded from the Delian League, the Assembly voted to massacre all the inhabitants, sending out a ship with those orders. On the next day, the people relented and contented themselves with ordering the destruction of the city’s defences and the loss of their fleet and land. They sent out another ship with new orders to overtake the first. At the time this was seen by some Athenian aristocrats as an indication of the inherent instability of democracy.
After a decade of bitter fighting a truce was agreed by the exhausted parties in 421, after the Athenians had managed to capture some Spartans hoplites on an island in the mouth of the bay of Pylos. Contrary to the reputation which they carefully fostered, the Spartans hoplites surrendered.
Influence in Athens began to pass from generals to orators, such as Kleon, who could sway the Ekklesia. Remarkably, when the fighting ended, building immediately began again in Athens. In 420 the Asklepeion at the southern foot of the Acropolis was founded, when the god was brought up to the city from Zea, perhaps ultimately from Epidaurus. Work began on the temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion.
The Ρeace was not destined to last. The most prominent man of his day in Athens, the handsome and charismatic young nobleman Alcibiades, persuaded the Athenians to launch an ambitious naval expedition to go to Sicily to threaten the grain supply of the Spartans and their allies by taking Syracuse, the Spartans’ most powerful allies on that island. This was the largest naval expedition the Athenians ever mounted, and it set out with high expectations.
One night just before the fleet was due to set sail, some of the erect phalloi of the Hermai, stylised representations of the god Hermes which were set up on property boundaries in the streets, were broken off. This shocked many conservative citizens, and after the departure of the expedition, investigations were held. Household slaves were interrogated, and Alkibiades and his friends were accused of mocking the Eleusinian mysteries in wild drinking parties. The state trireme was sent to arrest Alkibiades and bring him back to Athens to face trial in the absence of his supporters in the fleet. Not unaware of his enemies’ intentions, he escaped and offered his services to the enemy.
Without the dynamic leadership of Alcibiades, the Sicilian Expedition proved a disaster. Now poorly led, after a failed siege of Syracuse, the Athenians were themselves threatened by Sicilian forces reinforced by Spartans. The besiegers found themselves besieged. After several failed attempts to extricate themselves, the Athenians were pursued and cut down. The survivors were imprisoned in the quarries of Syracuse, and either died there or were sold as slaves. Late in 413 the news of the disaster, and the total loss of ships and men, reached Athens. [Read about the disastrous Sicilian Expedition in Athens: The Suburbs.]
The war had already been resumed. But this time, on the advice of Alcibiades, the Spartans converted Dekelea, twenty kilometres from the acropolis, into a permanent base, so that the end of the campaign season would bring no relief to the besieged country folk packed behind the Long Walls. Some twenty thousand slaves from Laurion deserted to the Spartans at Dekelea, and the lucrative silver mines had to be closed down. Yet despite the odds, the indefatigable Athenians built themselves a new navy using a special reserve fund they had set aside for such an emergency twenty years before.
Under the strain of renewed war and siege, bitter social divisions began to appear once more among the Athenians. In 411 a group of four hundred oligarchs took over the city for several months, breaking into the bouleuterion and paying of the councillors. This coup was overthrown by the sailors who returned from Samos and had a law passed which condemned to death anyone trying to subvert democracy. Yet despite their internal problems, a victory at sea persuaded the Athenians to turn down a Spartan offer to end the war in 410.
The Spartans called upon Persian aid, and after a long struggle of attrition, Athenian naval power was finally extinguished in the battle of Aegospotami in 405, when their ships were surprised onshore and one hundred and sixty destroyed. It was said that on the night when the news of this defeat was brought to Piraeus by the galley Paralos, the people of Athens first knew that something was terribly wrong when they heard a cry of wailing approaching the city from the port. Not only was Athens’ last fleet lost, the route from the Black Sea, by which the grain which fed Athens was imported was severed. Athens was blockaded for several months by land αnd sea by Lysandros.
In 404 B.C., facing famine, the city finally surrendered. Α Spartan garrison was installed, and the Athenians were forced to demolish their own Long Walls to the sound of pipe music.
Classical Athens III
The Intellectual Centre (404 – 339)
The long period of warfare and plague had set up tensions within the city which could only be resolved by blood, and the Athenians now turned upon each other. Lysandros allowed the ‘Thirty tyrants’, an anti-democratic group of aristocrats, to assume power, upon which they instituted a reign of terror. Thrasyboulos retreated to the fortress of Phyle, gathered support, and returned to restore the democracy in 403. But the horrors which Athenians had undergone raised profound questions of responsibility and punishment in the minds of many. Socrates, who was associated with many of the aristocrats who had imposed the tyranny, was selected as a scapegoat, and forced to drink hemlock in 399.
Despite their failure in the great war, the Athenian spirit was irrepressible, and in 394 Conon defeated a Spartan fleet off Knidos in Asia Minor. The Long Walls and the fortifications of Athens and Piraeus were soon rebuilt, and an Athenian League was founded in alliance with Thebes. The Thebans destroyed Spartan supremacy once and for all under Epaminondas at the battle of Leuktra. From that point onwards, the Athenians began to fear the Thebans as their main rivals.
Despite this military revival, there seems to have been a sense at the time that something wonderful had passed away for ever. The domination of Athens by its past had already begun. People began to look backwards. Even the language of the past came to be considered more dignified than that of the present.
Athenian democracy came to be increasingly dominated by orators, who were trained to speak in public. They were the lawyer-politicians of their day. From 355, Euboulos directed Athenian policy towards peace, a less ambitious foreign policy, social harmony and sound management of the economy.
During these years several new institutions came intο existence which made Athens the centre of the scholastic world, institutions founded by intellectual giants without peer. Plato, a pupil of Socrates, created a philosophical school outside the city walls at the shrine to Akademos, from which it took its name as “the Academy.” This drew other philosophers to Athens, and in 335, Plato’s student, Aristotle, from Stagira, in Macedonia, in turn founded the Lycaeum, outside the walls on the other side of the city, near the present Parliament Building. At the end of the fourth century Zeno of Κition, in Cyprus, founded the Stoic School, and Epicurus of Abdera, in Thrace, created the school which bore his name. Yet their work, however profound, was essentially reflective. It lacked something of the freshness, and the sense of t1owing seamlessly out of the experience of life, of the thought of the fifth century.
In the middle of the fourth century, the political and military centre of gravity in Greece moved northwards, to Macedonia, where a strong-minded king, Philip II was able to build up a powerful permanent army and extend his power over the Greek peninsula. The orator Demosthenes saw clearly what was happening and warned the citizens of Athens of their danger. A league was created to unite the southern Greeks against Philip, but he decisively crushed all opposition at Chaeronea in 338. The Athenians might have expected the worst, but by this time the name of their city was already surrounded by such a halo of renown that the Macedonian king, conscious of his cultural heritage, spared the city. His son, Alexander, personally visited bearing the ashes of the Athenian dead Yet when Philip died and Thebes rebelled, the οnly reason that the Athenians were not directly involved was that its army was too slow to take the field.
Alexander, no less proud of this inheritance, nursed the ambition to take revenge for the destruction of Athens by Xerxes by taking the offensive in the clash of civilisations. Α brilliant general, he was so speedily and so overwhelmίngly successful in his invasion of Asia that in a few years he was able to take over the Empire, from Egypt to what is now Afghanistan, and then to extend its eastern borders to India. He sent back to Athens as trophies of his victory three hundred Persian shields, which were thereafter hung in the Parthenon.
Macedonian hegemony turned out to be of no immediate disadvantage to the Athenians. During the period of the great expedition, the orator Lycurgos, a financial genius, was able to resume the ambitious building plans abandoned by Pericles because of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. He replaced the treasures of the Acropolis spent during the Great War. He repaired the walls, the ship-sheds, and many of the public buildings. He renovated the Pnyx, built a stoa between the temple and theatre of Dionysos, laid out the theatre of Dionysos in its present form, and also constructed the first Panathenaic Stadium.