Some of the greatest people from the Ancient World came from the city of Athens, amongst them philosophers, artists, writers, and architects. Athens was the birthplace of democracy and also the focus of the Ancient Greek civilization.
10 Famous Athenians You Should Know
Born in 638BC, Solon was a wise statesman and law maker and responsible for a number of important political reforms. He began his work at a time when Athens was in turmoil and economic decline. He was elected to be an Archon as people felt he could bring a much-needed change to the city.
Solon cleared the debts of many poor people, established a court of appeals and gave people political rights according to wealth rather than birth. He also used the measurement of wealth to allocate positions in the city’s administration and for the first time, this was a government system that included everyone, rather than just the rich.
The name ‘Cleisthenes’ was well known because his grandfather of Cleisthenes had been a tyrant. Cleisthenes overthrew another tyrant- Hippias- and rose to power. He began reforming the constitution and the system of government in Athens, increasing the power of the assembly.
He divided the citizens of the city into ten ’tribes’ and each tribe could elect 50 men to sit on the new ‘Council of 500’. The council suggested laws for the assembly to pass. Cleisthenes also changed the way the courts operated and decided that the men that sat on the jury, should be voted into their position. The changes really transformed Athens into an important and thriving city.
Plato was a student of Socrates. He was born in 429BC into a family that was heavily involved in the politics of Athens. He was given the name ‘Aristocles’ when he was born, but later gained the nickname ‘’Platon’ meaning ‘broad’ – a reference to his stature.
He founded the Academy of Athens which was the first place in the western world to offer students a higher level of education. Many of the famous philosophers studied there. Plato was a great writer, but his writings were in the form of imaginary dialogues. He wrote on many subjects including education, government, logic and justice.
His most famous teaching was the ‘Theory of Forms’ which was seen as controversial at the time. He said that nothing in the world was perfect, but philosophers were searching for ‘perfect knowledge’ which Plato believed could only be achieved by a divine form of god.
Plato also discussed politics because he felt that people should be chosen for their intellect and good ideas, not their wealth. Plato’s school of philosophy became one of the most important in the world.
Pericles was a General, a statesman and a very influential person in Athens. He held office for more than 30 years from 461AD. This was a great period for Athens as it was a wealthy and powerful city. Pericles brought about many changes in both Athens and Greece and was responsible for many of the greatest monuments including the Acropolis and Parthenon.
Pericles believed in democracy and under his rule, everyone- except those in the lowest class- could hold office and the appointments were made using lots, to ensure fairness. Pericles wanted to unite Greece, but unfortunately Sparta -which was a rival city-state- did not and the Peloponnesian War began. Pericles was one of the first people to die from the plague during the Siege of Athens.
Many believe that Socrates was the forerunner of Classical Greek philosophy. He was popular and well known for his wisdom and knowledge. He certainly completely changed the way in which Greeks thought. Unfortunately, his own wisdom led to his demise.
Socrates believed that education was the key to personal growth and for people to grow, they had to develop their powers of thought rather than learn to things by memory. His thoughts became known as the ‘Socratic Method’ which is still followed today. Socrates was critical of the democratic system as he felt that unskilled and uneducated people should not hold office.
He enjoyed asking questions of officials that he knew they would be unable to answer – this made him many enemies. He was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and not believing in the Greek gods. He was found guilty and hanged in 349 BC.
Known as the ‘Tyrant of Athens’, Peisistratos, was the son of Hippocrates. He became leader of the popular party in Athens and seized control of the city by force.
During his long rule, life became very stable in the city. and he increased its prosperity tremendously. Peisostratos constructed new public buildings including the ‘Fountain House’ to improve the city’s water supply and had several new temples built on the Acropolis.
He introduced the Panathenaic Festival which was a procession and sports event dedicated to Athena. Peisistratos reformed the legal system and introduced land reforms, redistributing confiscated lands and giving them to the poor to farm.
He levied a 5% tax on everyone and used the money to fund the farmers to increase productivity and to grow cash crops- particularly olives which were used to make oil, soap and lubricants and with wine, became a major export.
Peisistratos also encouraged craftwork – especially pottery, and he used huge clay pots for transporting the crops of olives. On his death, he was succeeded by his son, Hippias.
Known as the founder of Scientific History, Thucydides was the historian of the Peloponnese War. His huge work was the first of its kind and was used for reference for many years afterwards. He divided his work into eight books covering the period 431- 411 BC, but his work was never completed.
His work examined the motives for the war as well as the character of the people who played a significant role in it. His work certainly contained much political opinion and is still studied today by modern historians.
One of the greatest military and political figures in Ancient Athens, Themistocles had a humble beginning but had risen to the rank of General at the Battle of Marathon and had fought with distinction. He became the leader in Athens and had a grand plan to build a mighty fleet to defend the city against the Persians.
He believed that to be strong politically and economically, Athens must have a strong naval fleet. His fleet would be the first naval force in the eastern Mediterranean. He planned a naval battle to take place in the Straits of Salamina and the Greek vessels proved faster and more efficient that the Persian ships.
After the battle, Themistocles strengthened the defensive walls of Athens. Some years later, he was ostracised and sent into exile, where he died alone.
One of the great tragic poets of ancient Athens. Sophocles was born into a wealthy local family and was well connected. His personal friend was Pericles. Sophocles’ characters Oedipus and Antigone have been two of the greatest characters in the history of the theatre.
Sophocles wrote about 127 different tragedies in total, but sadly only seven have been totally preserved – ‘Ajax’, ‘Antigone’, ‘Electra’, ‘Oedipus the King’ and ‘Oedipus at Colonus’, ‘Philoctetes’ and ‘The Trachiniae’.
Sophocles made many changes in the delivery of the tragedies, including increasing the number of actors on stage from two to three and increasing the size of the chorus from 12 to 15 people. He also encouraged the development of the skill of scenery painting – scenographia – making it very dramatic – almost as dramatic as the endings to his plays.
Known for his skills of rhetoric, Isocrates was born in 436BC and by trade, was a flute maker. He was a skilled speechwriter and wrote many important speeches both for the courtroom and politics but rarely delivered them himself as he had a very weak voice.
His writings were read all over Greece. He opened a school of rhetoric in Athens, which became very famous as it developed the power of speech using rhythm and enriched vocabulary. He tried to convince the Greeks to stop all conflicts and unite as he felt all the problems in Greece were caused by internal strife.
He wrote 60 main works, but only 21 of them survived. In one entitled ‘Philip’ he prophetized that Greece would unite under Philip of Macedon which it did the year after the Battle of Chaeronea 338BC. Isocrates lived to the amazing age of 97 years. His works are still read by historians today as they give an insight into the intellectual and political life of Athens at that time.