Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world that is still inhabited to this day. It was first populated more than 3000 years ago, during the Bronze Age. During the 5th century BC, the city managed to create one of the highest forms of civilization ever achieved in the history of humanity. Art, philosophy, and science flourished during this period, thus laying the foundations of western civilization.
After its conquest by the Roman legions, the city fell into relative decline, especially under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. In the 19th century, Athens re-emerged as the capital of the newly founded Greek state, ready to claim back its old glory. This article presents some of the most important milestones in the history of the city of Athens.
A Brief History of Athens
Archaeological evidence suggest that Athens began its long history during the Neolithic Age as a fort constructed on top of the hill of Acropolis, probably between the fourth and third millennium BC.
Its geographical position was carefully selected in order to provide a natural defensive position from invading forces or natural disasters, while at the same time allowing a strong command of the surrounding plains.
Built in the center of the Cephisian Plain, a fertile region surrounded by rivers, it was also encircled in the east by Mount Hymettus and in the north by Mount Pentelicus. The original size of the walled city was very small, calculated to be about 2km in diameter from east to west. In due time, Athens managed to become the major cultural center of the whole Hellas.
Early Beginnings – Archaic Period
By 1400 BC Athens was established as a powerful center of the Mycenaean civilization. However, when the rest of the Mycenaean cities were burned to the ground by the Dorians who invaded mainland Greece, the Athenians thwart the invasion and maintained their ‘purity’.
Already by the 8th century BC, the city had re-emerged as an important cultural center, especially after the synoikismos – the unification of many settlements of Attica into a large one, thus creating one of the largest and wealthiest city-states in the Greek mainland.
Their ideal geographical location and access to the sea helped Athenians overcome their greatest rivals, Thebes and Sparta. At the top of the social hierarchy stood the king and the land-owning aristocracy (the Eupatridae), who governed through a special council called the Areopagus.
This political body was also responsible for the appointment of the city officials, the archon, and the army commander.
Also during the Archaic period were laid the foundations of Athenian law, through the law-codes of Dracon and Solon, the two greatest lawmakers of the city. The reforms of Solon, in particular, had a great impact on political and economic matters, abolishing slavery as a punishment for debt, thus limiting the power of the aristocratic class.
Furthermore, large real estates were broken up into smaller sections and offered to people that had no land, allowing the emergence of a new and prosperous urban trading class. In the political arena, Solon divided the Athenians into four classes, based on their wealth and ability to serve in the military, thus laying the foundations of classical Athenian democracy.
However, political instability was not avoided, and an ambitious politician named Peisistratus, seized power in 541, earning the name ‘tyrant’. Nevertheless, he was a popular ruler, whose primary interest was the elevation of Athens as one of the strongest Greek city-states.
He founded the Athenian naval supremacy, preserving in the process the Solonian constitution. His son Hippias, however, managed to establish a real dictatorship, a move that angered the Athenians and led to his downfall, with the assistance of a Spartan army. This allowed Cleisthenes to take charge in Athens in 510.
Cleisthenes, a politician of aristocratic background, was the one who laid the foundations of Athenian classical democracy. His reforms replaced the traditional four tribes with ten new ones, that had no class basis and were named after legendary heroes. Each tribe was then divided into three trittyes, with each tryttys being composed of one or more deme.
Each of the tribes had the right to elect fifty members to the Boule, a council composed of Athenian citizens that, in essence, governed the city. Furthermore, every citizen had access to the Assembly (Ekklesia tou Demou), which was considered at the same time a legislative body and a court. The Areopagus only maintained jurisdiction on religious matters and murder cases. This system, with some later modifications, served as the bedrock of Athenian grandeur.
Athens was one of the major contributors to the defense of Greece against the Persian invasion. In 499 BC, Athens aided the revolt of the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor against the Persian, by sending troops. This inevitably led to two Persian invasions of Greece, the first in 490 BC and the second in 480 BC.
In 490 BC, the Athenians successfully defeated the Persian army, which was led by two generals of Darius, in the battle of Marathon. Ten years later, the successor of Darius, Xerses, led the second invasion of the Persians against the Greek mainland. The campaign consisted of a series of battles.
The most important ones were at Thermopylae, where the Spartan army was defeated, at Salamis, where the Athenian navy led by Themistocles effectively destroyed the Persian fleet, and in Plataea, where a Greek coalition of 20 city-states defeated the Persian army, thus putting an end to the invasion.
After the war in the Greek mainland, Athens took the fight to Asia Minor, relying on its strong navy. Following many Greek victories, Athens managed to create the Delian League, a military alliance consisting of many Greek city-states of the Aegean, of the Greek mainland, and of the west coast of Asia Minor.
The period between 479 and 430 BC marked the zenith of Athenian civilization, earning the name ‘Golden Age’. During this period, Athens emerged as a center of philosophy, arts, literature, and cultural prosperity.
Some of the most important and influential figures of Western cultural and intellectual history lived and flourished here: the philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the dramatists Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides and Sophocles, the historians Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, and many others.
Pericles was the leading statesman of the period, and he is remembered as the one who commanded the construction of the Parthenon and the other great and immortal monuments of classical Athens. Furthermore, during this time democracy was strengthened even more, reaching its zenith in the ancient world.
The decline of Athens began with its defeat by Sparta and its coalition in the Peloponnesian war, during the years 431 and 404 BC. Athens was never meant to reach the heights of the classical age again.
After several wars against Thebes and Sparta during the 4th century BC, Athens, as well as the other Greek city-states, were finally defeated by the emerging kingdom of Macedon, ruled by King Philip II. Philip’s son, Alexander, incorporated Athens into his massive empire. The city remained a wealthy cultural center but ultimately ceased to be an independent power.
During this time, Rome was a rising power in the Mediterranean Sea. Having solidified its power in Italy and the Western Mediterranean, Rome turned its attention to the east. After several wars against Macedon, Greece finally subdued to Roman rule in 146 BC. Nevertheless, the city of
Athens was treated with respect by the Romans who admired her culture, philosophy, and arts. Thus, Athens continued to be an intellectual hub during the Roman period, attracting many people from all over the world to its schools. The Roman emperor Hadrian showed particular interest in Athens, constructing a library, a gymnasium, an aqueduct still in use today, and many temples and sanctuaries.
During the 3rd century AD, the city was sacked by the Heruli, a Gothic tribe, that burned all the public buildings and even damaged the Acropolis. However, the end of the city’s role as a center of pagan education came to an end with the conversion of the Empire to Christianity. In 529 AD, the emperor Justinian closed the schools of philosophy and transformed the temples into churches, marking the end of antiquity and of the ancient Greek civilization.
During the early Byzantine period, Athens was transformed into a provincial town, its prestige was diminished, and many of its artworks were taken by the emperors to Constantinople. Even worse, the city shrank considerably because of the frequent raids of barbarian tribes, such as the Avars and Slavs, but also of the Normans, who had conquered Sicily and the south of Italy.
During the 7th century, Slavic people from the north invaded and conquered mainland Greece. From that period onwards, Athens entered a period of uncertainty, insecurity, and frequent changes of fortune.
By the end of the 9th century, Greece was reconquered again by Byzantine forces, improving security in the region and allowing Athens to expand once more. During the 11th century, the city entered a period of sustained growth, which lasted until the end of the 12th century. The agora was rebuilt, becoming a significant center for the production of soaps and dyes. The growth attracted many foreign traders, such as the Venetians, who frequently used the Greek ports in the Aegean for their business.
Furthermore, an artistic renaissance took place in the city during the 11th and 12th centuries, which it remained known as the Golden Age of Byzantine art in Athens. Many of the most important Byzantine churches that still survive to this day were built during this period. However, this growth was not meant to last, since in 1204 the Crusaders conquered Constantinople and subjugated Athens, putting an end to the Greek governing of the city, which was to be recovered in the 19th century.
From 1204 until 1458, Athens was under the rule of different European powers. Their period became known as the period of Latin rule, and it is further divided into three separate periods: the Burgundian, the Catalan, and the Fiorentine.
The Burgundian period lasted between 1204 and 1311, during which Thebes replaced Athens as the capital and seat of government. However, Athens remained the most influential ecclesiastical center in the duchy and was renovated as its most important fortress.
Furthermore, the Burgundians brought their culture and chivalry into the city, which was interestingly mixed with Greek classical knowledge. They also fortified the Acropolis.
In 1311, a band of mercenaries from Spain, called the Catalan Company conquered Athens. Also known as almogávares, they held the city until 1388. This period is really obscure, but we know that Athens was a veguería, with its own castellan, captain and vaguer. It seems that during this period the Acropolis was fortified even further, while the Athenian archdiocese received an extra two suffragan sees.
In 1388, Florentine Nerio I Acciajuoli took the city and made himself a duke. The Florentines had a brief dispute with Venice concerning the governing of the city, but in the end, they came out victorious. Nerio’s descendants ruled the city until the Turkish conquest of 1458, and Athens was the last Latin state to fall to the Muslim conquerors.
The city of Athens was captured by Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror in 1458. He himself rode into the city and being struck by the majestic splendor of its ancient monuments he issued an edict forbidding their destruction or looting, with the punishment being death.
The Acropolis became the residence of the Turkish governor, the Parthenon was converted into a mosque and the Erechtheion became a harem. Although the Ottomans intended to turn Athens into a provincial capital, the population of the city declined considerably and by the 17th century, it was a mere village, a shadow of its past self.
Further destruction was caused in the 1700s. The Acropolis became a storing place for gunpowder and explosives, and in 1640, a lighting bolt stroke the Propylaea causing major damages.
Furthermore, in 1687 the city was besieged by the Venetians. During the siege, a cannon shot caused a powder magazine in the Parthenon to explode, severely damaging the temple, giving it the appearance we see today. The city was further destroyed during the Venetian looting.
The following year the Turks would set fire to the city in order to capture it again. Many ancient monuments were destroyed to provide material for the new wall with which the Ottomans surrounded the city in 1778.
On 25 March of 1821, the Greeks launched a revolution against the Turks, which became known as the War of Independence. In 1822 the Greeks declared independence and gained control the city. Fierce battles broke out in the streets, which changed hands several times, falling into Turkish control again in 1826.
Finally, the intervention of Britain, France, and Russian put an end to the war, defeating the Turkish-Egyptian fleet in the Battle of Navarino in 1827. Athens was eventually freed from Turkish control in 1833.
After Greece’s independence, the Great Powers chose a young Bavarian prince named Otto as king of the newly founded state. Othon, as he was known in Greek, adopted the Greek way of life and moved the capital of Greece from Nafplio back to Athens.
The city was chosen mainly for its historic significance, and not for its size, since that period the population was roughly 4000-5000 people, mainly concentrated in the Plaka district. In Athens, there were also located few important buildings, mainly churches, from the Byzantine period. Once the city was established as the capital, a modern city plan was prepared and new public buildings were erected.
Some of the finest samples of architecture from this period are the buildings of the University of Athens (1837), Old Royal Palace (now the Greek Parliament Building) (1843), the National Garden of Athens (1840), the National Library of Greece (1842), the Greek National Academy (1885), the Zappeion Exhibition Hall (1878), the Old Parliament Building (1858), the New Royal Palace (now the Presidential Palace) (1897) and the Athens Town Hall (1874). Inspired by the cultural movement of Neoclassicism, these buildings project an eternal aura and function as a reminder of the city’s past glory days.
The first period of intense population growth in the city came after the disastrous war with Turkey in 1921 when more than a million Greek refugees from Asia Minor were resettled in Greece. Many Athenian suburbs, such as Nea Ionia and Nea Smyrni, began as refugee settlements at the outskirts of the city. During World War II, Athens was occupied by the German forces and experienced one of the most terrible privations of its history during the final years of the war. In 1944, intense fighting broke out in the city between Communist forces and the loyalists backed by the British.
After the war, Athens began to grow again thanks to the constant migration of people from the villages and islands who were looking for work. Greece joined the European Union in 1981, a move that further strengthened the economy of the capital, as new investments flowed in and new business and work positions were created.
Finally, in 2004 Athens was awarded the Olympic Games. The event was a success and brought international prestige back to the birthplace of democracy and philosophy.