The history of Athens: exploring the birthplace of democracy and philosophy
The city that’s now the capital of modern Greece has been an influential hub of civilisation and culture for more than two and a half millennia. Paul Cartledge guides us on a concise journey through its turbulent and triumphant past
Legend tells of a line of seven kings who if real would have ruled Athens from around 1500 BC to 1200 BC, the first of whom was Cecrops I. During his reign, the Olympian gods Athena and Poseidon vied to become the new city’s deity; having gifted its people the olive tree, Athena prevailed – and the city was named after her.
So runs one foundational myth.
Ancient Athens: what do we know?
Evidence has been found of habitation as far back as about 9000 BC. And in the late Neolithic, around 4000 BC, people were living in caves on the north side of the Acropolis. The National Archaeological Museum displays wonderful examples of painted pottery from this period, as well as artefacts from the next era of Athens’ history.
Around the time of the legendary Cecrops I – the late Bronze Age, from around 1500 BC – the region of Attica around Athens, and indeed much of mainland Greece and Crete, was inhabited by a civilisation now known as Mycenaean. These were the people (mainly from the Peloponnese, but also Thessaly and Boeotia and Crete as well as Athens) who, according to Homer in his Iliad, attacked Troy under the great King Agamemnon.
Archaeological evidence shows that Athens was one of the great centres of late Bronze Age Mycenaean Greek civilisation and settlement. Such evidence includes the huge stones used to build walls on the Acropolis – limestone chunks so big that later Greeks thought they could only have been hefted by the one-eyed giants called Cyclopes. Also in this period, from about 1300 BC, Athenians began to be buried in the first cemetery, known as the Kerameikos or “potters’ quarter”, because it was sited where craftsman potters worked.
Athens’ ‘dark age’
Around 1200 BC, major settlements across Greece suffered severe attacks and conflagrations – and it was in some of those fierce fires that clay tablets bearing the earliest-known Greek writing were inadvertently baked hard and preserved. These administrative tablets are inscribed with a syllabic script known as Linear B, revealing the nature of a Middle-Eastern kind of bureaucratic civilisation, based around palaces ruled by kings.
We don’t know exactly what happened to spark this period of destruction, but it seems to have resulted in a kind of dark age, interspersed with shafts of light, lasting about four centuries. The population of Athens plummeted by perhaps 90 per cent between the 13th and 11th centuries BC, and the various centres of population became disconnected, with communications between them severed. Yet it was also during that period that the Homeric epics, which were orally transmitted, were developed by a series of illiterate poets during the 11th to eighth centuries.
Greece experienced a renaissance from the later ninth century, with a gradual reopening of contact between different parts of the mainland, then between Greece and the Middle East. A key sign of this was the development of the ancient Greek alphabet which, unlike the Linear B syllabary, was a fully phonetic alphabetic script, based on signs borrowed from Phoenicia in what’s now Lebanon.
Athens the ‘city-state’
From about the eighth century BC, an institution developed called the polis, sometimes translated as “city-state”.
However, “citizen state” might be more accurate: never did the Greeks say “Athens did this”; rather, they said “the Athenians” – and by Athenians they meant the adult male citizens.
By the seventh century, Athens was run by a narrow clique of what the Greeks called the eupatridae, literally “sons of good fathers”.
Their council was known as the Areopagus, because it met on the pagos (hill) of the god of war, Ares. You can climb slippery steps west of the Acropolis to visit the bare, rocky mound where those ancient assemblies were held.
Athens, from aristocracy to democracy
By the start of the sixth century BC, though, Athens was in a bad state, both economically and politically. In 594 BC, the eupatrids appointed one of their number as archon, or “leader”, to repair the situation. That man, Solon, instituted a wide-ranging set of reforms addressing economic, political, legal, moral and social issues.
That wasn’t the end of Athens’ troubles, but it seeded ideas that came to fruition towards the end of the sixth century. After the overthrow of the tyrant Hippias, another great statesman – the lawgiver Cleisthenes – introduced in 508 BC the framework of what we now called democracy, from the ancient Greek demos (the people) and kratos (power).
Following Cleisthenes’ reforms, an area just to the north-west of the Acropolis, now known as the Ancient Agora, came to be the focus of both political assembly and commerce. You can still wander among remains of political, religious, social and commercial structures here. To the south of the Ancient Agora rises the Pnyx Hill, another important site where democracy was enacted in regular open-air assemblies.
Athens and the Persian Empire
As Athens established this more equitable political system, a threat was emerging to the east: the Achaemenid empire, founded by Cyrus the Great in Persia (now Iran) in the mid-sixth century.
The empire rapidly expanded, stretching east as far as what’s now Afghanistan and Pakistan, south into Egypt, and through Anatolia to its western shore, which had been settled by Greeks.
When those subjugated Asiatic Greeks rose up in 499 BC, the Athenians supported the revolt – which was finally crushed at sea off what’s now western Turkey, and which prompted Persian expeditions to mainland Greece. After the Athenians and their allies defeated Persian forces at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC, the invaders returned with a much bigger army under Xerxes I.
His forces devastated Athens in 480–479 BC, destroying major public buildings, especially religious buildings – including temples on the Acropolis and in the Agora – as well as private houses, which they put to the torch.
By the time Persia was decisively defeated, in 449 BC, Athenian coffers had been refilled and a major rebuilding programme was launched in the city under its great leader, Pericles.
That included rebuilding the three big temples to Athena on the Acropolis: the Temple of Athena Polias (of the City), the Parthenon, and the Temple of Athena Nike (Victory).
This period also witnessed an astonishing cultural flourishing, with the city’s burgeoning wealth fuelling endeavours such as theatre and philosophy. Great dramatists such as Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes created enduring works.
And Athens attracted minds from elsewhere, including the early philosophers Protagoras and Democritus, joining local Socrates. His student Plato founded the Academy, the remains of which you can still see today, along with sparse remnants of his pupil Aristotle’s Lyceum.
Athens’ place in the wider world
Perhaps 1,000 Greek cities were scattered around the Mediterranean and Black Sea at this time – and there was much rivalry, not least between Athenians and Spartans, who dominated the Peloponnese to the south. Sparta proved victorious in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), only to be overtaken in the following decades by Thebes, in central Greece.
Then the Macedonians arrived from the north, first under Phillip II and then his son, Alexander III, later Alexander the Great. That marked another sea-change, beginning when Alexander spread Greek civilisation and ideas across his newly conquered lands – essentially, much the same territory that had been ruled by the Persians he defeated, from Greece to Pakistan and Egypt.
Was Athens known to the Romans?
Greek influence had also spread west, so Republican Rome (a name that, incidentally, means “strength” in Greek) was well aware of the civilisation across the Adriatic.
From the later third century BC, the Romans pushed east until, with victory at the battle of Corinth in 146 BC, they took the Greek peninsula. Subsequently, Roman territory stretched right around the Mediterranean and beyond – including to Britain.
Athens felt this change profoundly, and was largely transformed under two Roman emperors. The first, Augustus (reigned 27 BC to AD 14) – known in Greek as Sebastos – was less popular in Greece, largely because he defeated Mark Antony and the last Macedonian Greek ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra. A notable relic of his rule is the Pedestal of Agrippa, dedicated to Augustus’ son-in-law, which still stands on the Acropolis.
The second was Hadrian, who reigned from AD 117 to 138, and who was a great philhellene – a lover of Greek culture. Indeed, he liked to be depicted as a Greek philosopher with a full beard like Socrates.
He left his mark in the form of the great Arch of Hadrian, linking his new city with the ancient centre. It stands near the Temple of Olympian Zeus – the largest in Greece – begun in the sixth century BC but only completed under Hadrian in AD 131.
You can also see the Roman Agora, Roman baths, a library founded by Hadrian, and a great theatre, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, built into the Acropolis, where open-air concerts are still staged.
When the Roman empire split in the fourth century, Athens naturally fell within the territory of the eastern part ruled in the fourth century by Constantine, which became the Christian Byzantine empire.
Athens and the Byzantine empire
For some thousand years, from the fifth century AD to the 15th century, Athens was quite insignificant, and fell prey to attack by a succession of invaders. In the 13th century, it was crusaders from France; in the 14th century, Catalans; later that century and the next, it was Florentines.
Orthodox Catholic Christianity was the official religion during this time, and many Byzantine churches were built. Most were destroyed – some as recently as the 1930s – but one important monument survives, the Church of the Holy Apostles in the Ancient Agora. It dates from the 10th century and gives a sense of what Byzantine Athens might have looked like.
Athens and the Ottoman empire
That era ended abruptly with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, followed by Athens in 1456. The whole of Greece had become part of the Ottoman empire, and remained so for nearly four centuries.
Their conqueror, Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, spoke Greek and purportedly revered Homer and other ancient Greek culture.
During Ottoman rule, the Plaka district on the north-east slopes of the Acropolis was considered the Turkish quarter. Today you can find a few visible remains of that period here and elsewhere in Athens, in the form of the 17th-century Fethiye Mosque and nearby hamam (Turkish baths) by the Roman Agora.
Athens’ place in modern Greece
In 1821, Greeks launched a revolt against Ottoman rule, sparking a war of independence that led to the foundation of the modern Greek state in 1832.
Yet in some ways it wasn’t true independence. Western powers installed a Bavarian prince, Otto, who ruled as Othon, establishing a German dynasty of Greek kings.
Then, in 1863, a Danish dynasty took over – the line that led to the future Prince Philip, and which ruled (apart from an 11-year hiatus from 1924) till the monarchy was abolished in 1973.
When Athens was named capital of the new Greek state in 1834, mainly for symbolic reasons, it was really just a village. So it was redeveloped, with the construction of great neoclassical buildings along Vasilissis Sofias Avenue and Panepistemiou Street (University Street).
Into the 20th century, Greece, and Athens, remained preoccupied with Turkey. After the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1918, Greece made the fateful decision to invade western Anatolia – at the cost of vast numbers of lives.
Following defeat in the Greco-Turkish War in 1922, Athens received huge numbers of Greek-speaking exiles from Turkey. Today you can see the results in the names of districts of Athens: for example, Nea Smyrni, where people from that city (now Izmir) settled, and Nea Ionia, housing exiles from that wider region of western Anatolia.
Nazi occupation during the Second World War was followed by a bitter civil war; even after peace returned, political faultlines endured and enabled a right-wing military dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974.
Since then, Athens has developed into a big, modern city, boosted by moments such as the 2004 Summer Olympics. But visitors can still immerse themselves in the relics of more than two and a half millennia of turbulent and influential history.
Professor Paul Cartledge was talking to Paul Bloomfield, travel journalist and host of our podcast series History's Greatest Cities. Listen to the companion podcast on Athens or explore the entire series
Professor Paul Cartledge is A G Leventis Professor of Greek Culture emeritus at the University of Cambridge. His books include Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, now available in paperback (Picador, 2021)
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine for £21.99 every 6 issues + receive a £10 M&S gift card (use online instore).
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99