The founding fathers of western culture
Athens has a unique place in human history. As the people who pioneer the arts of history, philosophy and theatre, who attempt the first radical version of democracy, and who achieve a degree of perfection in architecture, sculpture and pottery, the Athenians have rightly acquired an almost legendary status.
They surface relatively late in the story of Greece. No character from Athens plays a significant role in Homer. It is not until the late 7th century that Athens is firmly within the realm of recorded history.
The surrounding region, known as Attica, has certain clear advantages. It is perfectly placed within the Aegean to play a pivotal role in local affairs. Its plains provide a larger space, uninterrupted by mountains, than any valley in the Peloponnese, the older centre of Greek civilization. Political union, if it can be achieved and maintained, will enable Athens to become a larger and more populous city-state than any other in Greece.
Even an apparent misfortune can be turned to advantage. The soil of Attica is poor, suitable mainly for olives and vines. The need to import grain encourages the Athenians to develop two of their most significant skills – seafaring and trade.
In prehistory Athens has been a provincial Mycenaean kingdom. But unlike the fortresses of the Peloponnese, Athens is not overrun by Dorian invaders. It becomes a centre for Greeks who speak Ionic, as the Athenians do, as opposed to the Doric dialect of the invaders.
By the time of the first unmistakably historical events in Attica, in the late 7th century BC, the region has passed through stages of social development common in most parts of Greece. Monarchy has given way, in effect if not in name, to rule by a hereditary land-owning aristocracy.
Oligarchs, tyrants and democrats: 7th – 6th century BC
The nobles of Attica, known by an appropriate term (eupatridae, well-fathered), keep power in their own hands through membership of the Areopagus – a council which takes its name from the hill in Athens on which it meets. The council chooses annually seven members of the nobility to serve as ‘archons’. These magistrates conduct the business of both government and law. Once appointed archon they become members of the Areopagus for life, thus keeping the circle safely closed.
There is also a broader assembly, the ecclesia, in which the richer middle-class citizens of Athens have a right to take part. But the nobles of the Areopagus allow it only a minor role.
By the late 7th century the situation in Attica seems ripe for the replacement of aristocratic rule by that of a single strong man, or tyrant – a development familiar in many other Greek states at the time.
Not only do the aristocratic families of Attica hold nearly all political power. They also own most of the land. Meanwhile the free smallholders are falling increasingly into debt. If anyone’s land is mortgaged, a pillar is placed conspicuously upon it. The farmer must then pay a sixth of all his produce to his creditor. If he defaults on his payments he can be enslaved.
From about 630 BC there are attempts by would-be tyrants to seize power in Athens. But the first strong ruler emerges by due process of law. He proves himself a reformer with democratic sympathies.
Solon, elected archon in 594 BC, is given by the Areopagus the specific task of reconciling the opposed factions within Athenian society. His first legislation deals with the impoverished peasants. He boldly removes the pillars from their land (thereby cancelling their debts), and at the same time makes it illegal for anyone to be enslaved by a creditor.
Having eased the burden of the poor, Solon attempts to open up the political structures of Athens. He makes membership of the Areopagus dependent on wealth rather than birth. At the same time he enlarges the role of the ecclesia. He declares every Athenian citizen, however poor, to be a member (thus laying the foundation for Athens’ democracy), and he gives the ecclesia a voice in the election of archons. It is possible that Solon even establishes a new council, the boule, which later becomes an important part of Athenian political life.
Solon’s reforms point clearly to the future. But they prove inadequate to deflect the ambitions of tyrants in the shorter term.
In 560 a popular general, Peisistratus, seizes power in Athens. He loses and regains control more than once, but from 546 he is securely established. He rules as a benevolent dictator, reserving the office of archon for himself and his immediate clan. Athens enjoys an unprecedented period of prosperity. Attica is united. Trade develops in a period of prolonged peace. Impressive public buildings are constructed in Athens, including the first Parthenon on the acropolis.
On his death, in 527, Peisistratus is even succeeded peacefully by his son, Hippias. But Hippias is toppled in 510 when the nobles of Attica, eager to get power back into their own hands, enlist the help of Sparta.
Athens and Sparta: 508 – 478 BC
The intervention of the Spartans only serves to hasten the progress of Athens towards democracy. In 508 power is won with popular support by an aristocrat, Cleisthenes, who undermines the power of his own class by a major reorganization of the political structure (see the Ten tribes of Cleisthenes)
He allows all citizens, regardless of wealth, a voice at local level where the demos (effectively the town or village) becomes the heart of political life. He gives an increased role to the ecclesia, which every citizen can attend as a participating member. These reforms establish the principle of democracy in Athens. It seems a good omen that when the aristocratic Spartans return, in 506, they are soundly defeated in battle by the Athenian democrats.
In 480 the threat from Persia brings Sparta and Athens together, with most of the other city-states of mainland Greece, in a rare show of unity. During the Greco-Persian wars the leading position of Sparta is acknowledged by all.
By the time the Persians withdraw at the end of 480, soundly defeated, Sparta’s military reputation has been enhanced at Thermopylae and Plataea. The Athenians, by contrast, have lost their city, laid waste by the Persians. Yet on balance it is the Athenians who emerge stronger. The navy which routs the enemy at Salamis is largely theirs. And it is becoming evident that control of the Aegean Sea is the best defence against Persia.
The Delian League: from 478 BC
A shift in the balance of power between Athens and Sparta is emphasized in 478, when representatives of Athens and other Aegean states meet on the island of Delos to form a coalition, subsequently known as the Delian League. Members will subscribe to a common fleet, either by contributing ships and crews or in a minority of cases by a tribute of money. One of the aims is to liberate the Greek territories held by Persia on the east coast of the Aegean.
Sparta is not interested in membership, having little in the way of a fleet. So Athens is unmistakably the leader of this new Greek alliance.
In its early years the Delian League grows in strength, achieving several significant victories against Persia. This in itself is alarming to Sparta. Even more so is the way Athens begins to treat the League as an Athenian empire, with its fleet at the automatic disposal of Athens.
The behaviour of Athens towards its supposedly equal allies is soon that of an imperial bully. States which attempt to bow out of the league are forcibly retained. Annual subscriptions are demanded instead of ships. Most significant of all, in about 454 the accumulated funds of the League are transferred from Delos to Athens.
To make matters even more alarming for Sparta, Athens is now once again a strongly walled city. After the Persian destruction of the city, in 480, Themistocles makes a priority of building new walls – against strong protests from Sparta.
Sparta herself has no city walls. In the supposed interests of peace, the Spartans now argue that all Greek cities should dismantle their walls.
Athens goes to the other extreme. In addition to building new city walls, the Athenians join their city for the first time to the harbour at Piraeus, 5 miles (8km) to the southwest. The famous Long Walls from the city to the coast are begun in 461 and are largely completed by 457.
With the most powerful navy in Greece, and a fortified seaside zone around their capital extending to several square miles, the Athenians are unmistakably presenting themselves as the dominant power of the region.
Build-up to the First Peloponnesian War: 478-460 BC
Sparta is having difficulty in retaining the loyalty of the members of its own Peloponnesian League, several of whom adopt democratic governments hostile in principle to the Spartan oligarchy.
Sparta’s troubles are compounded by a devastating earthquake in 464. Indirectly it brings to a head the simmering hostilities between Sparta and Athens.
The earthquake destroys much of the city of Sparta and kills many Spartiates – the Greek term for Sparta’s warrior citizens. The helots seize the opportunity to rise in revolt. The Spartans manage to contain the rebels in the region of Mount Ithome, in Messenia, but they lack the strength to defeat them. They appeal to their allies for help.
Athens, at this stage technically an ally of Sparta, is among the city-states which send an army.
Instead of welcoming this Athenian support, the Spartans send the soldiers back to Athens without involving them in the campaign. The precise reason is not known, but is probably political. The decision follows the news that Athens is in the process of introducing a more radical democracy, a measure profoundly offensive to aristocratic Sparta. The episode is interpreted as a snub by the Athenians, who are constitutionally inclined to distrust Sparta.
Soon after this event Athens makes provocative alliances with two city-states opposed to Sparta. Open hostility breaks out in 460, the year commonly taken as the start of the First Peloponnesian War.
Pericles and the heyday of Athens: 462-433 BC
The move towards a more radical form of democracy represents an early success for the greatest statesman of 5th-century Athens – Pericles. Although himself an aristocrat, he is determined to divert power more fully from the oligarchic Areopagus to the Athenian citizens.
While his main political opponent is away in Sparta with the army, Pericles uses a majority in the people’s assembly to pass resolutions restricting the Areopagus. Their legislative role is transferred to various bodies in which all citizens have the right to vote and even to hold positions of leadership, often assigned by lot. Athens is now firmly committed to one of history’s most thoroughgoing experiments in direct democracy.
During the First Peloponnesian War, a spasmodic and protracted affair, the personal authority of Pericles is steadily consolidated through his influence in the Athenian assembly. He is the official entrusted in 461 with constructing the Long Walls from Athens to the Piraeus – an important task which he completes by 457.
His power is immeasurably increased in 454, when he is put in charge of the funds of the Delian League. This rich haul of treasure, largely captured in warfare, is transferred in this year to Athens, to be kept on the acropolis.
In 446 Pericles negotiates a Thirty Year Treaty with Sparta – an astonishing achievement, since it closely follows an alarming invasion of Attica by a Peloponnesian army under the command of the Spartan king.
Mysteriously the army turns back at the last moment (it is immediately rumoured that Pericles has bribed the king, and in Sparta the king is tried and fined on this charge). The treaty is a pact of non-aggression based on the present status quo.
The treaty provides Athens with a breathing space and some dazzling opportunities. The city has an inspired leader in Pericles, and the voters know his worth (from 443 the assembly selects him as the leading general for fifteen years in succession). Athens has great wealth as a trading nation, as an imperial power, and now as the holder of the funds of the Delian League. The citizens include brilliant playwrights, sculptors, architects. But the sacred centre of Athens, the acropolis, is in urgent need of rebuilding after the visit of the Persians.
The result, in the interim before the next outbreak of war, is the extraordinary period often referred to as the Age of Pericles.
Empire and the return of war: 445-431 BC
The Athenian empire is consolidated and extended by Pericles in a forceful manner. Uncooperative behaviour from allies usually leads to the arrival on their soil of an Athenian garrison. In strategic areas colonies of a new kind are established; known as cleruchies, they have a direct political link with Athens because the colonists remain Athenian citizens (a privilege they will not give up lightly). An extensive trading network, backed up by force, gives Athens control over the whole of the Aegean and the Black Sea.
But in 433 Pericles overreaches himself, in a move which leads to a breach of his own Thirty Years Treaty.
The large island of Corcyra (Corfu, off the northwest coast of Greece) is in origin a colony of Corinth. But it is now a powerful state in its own right, and in 433 BC it is at war with Corinth. The Corcyrans turn for help to the only Greek fleet which can match that of Corinth. They appeal to Athens.
The first response of the Athenian assembly is caution. But an ally in the western sea, close to the heel of Italy, is an attractive proposition. Pericles persuades the assembly to send thirty triremes for defensive purposes only, arguing that this will not breach the treaty.
Events prove Pericles wrong. Hostilities escalate to the point where Athenian ships are blockading an ally of Corinth (Megara) and threatening a Corinthian colony (Potidaea). In 432 the Spartans decide that Athens is guilty of aggression. They send an envoy demanding withdrawal of the Athenian ships.
Pericles again is among the hawks. He persuades the assembly to reply that Athens will never bow to an ultimatum from Sparta, but will agree to independent arbritration. Diplomatic stalemate ends in 431 when Thebes, an ally of Sparta, suddenly attacks Plataea, an ally of Athens. The Second Peloponnesian War, often known simply as the Peloponnesian War, has started.
Disaster and recovery: 404-338 BC
The outcome of the war, nearly thirty years later, is a disaster for Athens. Defeated on both land and sea by Sparta and her allies, the Athenians suffer the indignity of having their famous Long Walls to the Pyraeus systematically demolished. Even so, the damage is less than has been normal for losing states in Greek wars. The high prestige of Athens saves the city itself from destruction and the Athenians from enslavement.
As a result the cultural and intellectual life of Athens continues undiminished. Socrates is still alive at the end of the war. Plato is in his twenties. Aristotle, a future pupil in Plato’s academy at Athens, is as yet unborn. By his time there is even a recovery in Athens’ political status.
Sparta, from 404 BC, has the opportunity and the strength to impose some sort of unity on Greece, but her hidebound social structure is ill-equipped to provide the necessary leadership.
Instead Athens recovers sufficient prestige to put together, in 377, a revised version of the Delian League. This alliance proves strong enough to defeat the Spartan navy off Naxos in 376. A few years later the Spartan army receives a terminal blow when overwhelmed by a smaller number of Thebans, thanks to the revolutionary tactics of Epaminondas, at Leuctra in 371. In 369 Epaminondas liberates Messenia, the neighbouring territory long exploited by the Spartans and the basis of much of Sparta’s strength.
The emergence of Macedonia: 356-338 BC
By the mid-century, with the military reputation of Sparta tarnished, Athens is again perceived as the leading Greek city-state.
But the Athenians are slow to respond to a new threat – the remorseless but diplomatically skilful pressure from the north of Philip II of Macedon. From about 349 the great orator Demosthenes urges his fellow citizens to make a stand against Philip (his series of speeches on the theme become known to history as the Philippics), and in 338 they finally do so. But a joint army from Thebes and Athens is convincingly defeated in that year by Philip at Chaeronaea. Demosthenes delivers the funeral oration for the Athenians who have died in the battle.
The long decline: from the 1st century BC
From now on, until relatively modern times, Athens will always exist under the shadow of an alien empire. Unsucessful rebellions against Macedonia, from as early as 323, incline the Athenians a century later to support an imperial rival of Macedonia – Rome.
The city receives many favours from Rome, until an unwise act of rebellion in 86 BC leads to Athens being besieged and looted by a Roman army led by Sulla.
Greece languishes under Roman rule. The Roman example may civilize the more primitive western empire. But Greek civilization loses its vitality in a provincial setting, even though the influence of Greek culture is now spread far and wide in what becomes known as the Hellenistic Age.
Athens and Sparta, as cities of resounding fame, are allowed to keep their independence. Athens, in particular, remains a centre of cultural excellence. It has one of the Roman empire’s best universities. Its architecture and sculpture bring tourists from Italy. When Nero wants to prove his artistic tendencies, this is where he comes in AD 66-7. But the throb of Athenian life, in politics, literature or theatre, is a thing of the past.
Even the intellectual reputation of Athens is somewhat dimmed, for the spirit of Greek scientific enquiry has migrated to Alexandria. Nevertheless the city of Socrates, Plato’s Academy and Aristotle is still the acknowledged home of philosophy.
The fatal blow to this final distinction is struck by the emperor Justinian. In AD 529 he decrees that no pagan philosophy shall be taught in the famous schools of Athens, which date back to Plato. The centre of classical Greek civilization is reduced to the status of just one Christian city among many within the Byzantine empire.