This article Creating Athens traces the civilisations of antiquity to the rise of Athens as a city-state after the world’s first “Dark Age”. It is intended as background reading material or an introduction to you taking a holiday in Greece as a solo traveller or a member of a small group tour.
Athens is the capital and largest city of the modern-day Greek Republic, but thousands of years ago, when Hellas (as ancient Greece was then called) was not a single unified nation, Athens was one of its most important self-governing city-states (poleis; singular form: polis). Athens was the birthplace of direct democracy, and of prominent philosophers such as Socrates and Plato, home of the “father of history” Herodotus, the Acropolis of Athens, the temple of Poseidon, and Aristotle’s Lyceum, and the city that nurtured the tragedian Sophocles and the comedian Aristophanes. Athens was the centre of Greek civilised life and the wellspring of the artistic, philosophical, and intellectual ideas that still guide us to this day.
Before Athens: The Minoan and Mycenaean Civilisations
Based on archaeological evidence found around the Acropolis, Athens has probably been the site of human settlements since the Neolithic Period (circa 4,000 BC, or the last stage of the Stone Age). At around this time, a civilisation was being built on the island of Crete off mainland Greece.
These settlers were primarily the ancient Cretans that archaeologists now refer to as the “Minoans”, after the labyrinthine nature of a Bronze Age archaeological site unearthed in Crete, and which was probably the origin of the ancient tale of King Minos and the Minotaur. (You can read about the Minoans in this article about the Greek island of Santorini.)
The Minoans had an advanced culture, the first of its kind in Europe, and they used a writing system, dubbed “Linear A” (discovered by Sir Arthur Evans), that is still currently untranslated.
Minoan culture would decline shortly after, subsumed under the rising Mycenaean civilisation based in mainland Greece. Its fortified city, Mycenae, from which its culture and people derive their name, was founded on a plain in the Peloponnese, a region in Greece bounded by the Aegean and the Ionian seas. The region where Athens now stands was one of its strongholds.
The Mycenaeans, influenced by the Minoans, employed a syllabic writing system called “Linear B” to represent their spoken language: an early Greek dialect called Mycenaean Greek. This makes the Mycenaean clay tablets and vases found inscribed with Linear B the oldest preserved form of written Greek known to man.
While “Linear A” and the Minoan language remain unknown, Linear B was deciphered in 1952 by Michael Ventris. Elements of the dialect survive in Homer’s epic poetry.
Archaeological finds–richly decorated palace complexes, fortification walls, bridges, jewellery, elaborate drainage systems–reveal that the Mycenaeans lived in sophistication and prosperity.
Founding of Athens and the Poleis
The Mycenaean civilisation mysteriously came to an end around 1200 BC during what historians call the Bronze Age Collapse. It is still not known what caused this sudden, violent breakdown that affected not just the Mycenaeans but also the thriving cultures of Egypt and the Near East, but historians and archaeologists speculate the collapse could have been caused by a “perfect storm” of several factors, including natural disasters (such as climate change and earthquakes), invasions, and internal conflict.
This was followed by the so-called “Greek Dark Ages“, during which settlers on Greece lived scattered in small farming villages–a far cry from the palaces and busy trade ports established in the region just years before.
These villages soon grew larger, and over time each village evolved to have the same features: a large population concentrated in a fortified town centre built on top of a hill (acropolis) or harbour, with temples and a marketplace (agora, “gathering”) that was also used for civic activity.
Each of this urban centres became a polis, an independent city-state with its own political, religious, and social institutions, self-governing and involved in affairs with other poleis and non-Greek states.
There would be over 1,000 poleis in the Greek world by the 8th century BC. According to legend, Athens was founded in the historical region of Attica (a peninsula in central Greece on the Aegean Sea) by King Cecrops, who named the city after himself. The city grew prosperous and beautiful and attracted the attention of the gods, who believed “Cecropia” deserved a better, immortal name.
Poseidon, God of the Sea, and Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, duelled for the honour by presenting gifts to Cecrops and his people. Poseidon struck a rock with his trident, causing water to gush forth. The gift of water meant the people would never experience drought, but to their disappointment the water was as salty as the ocean. Athena planted a seed into the earth, which sprouted into an olive tree. The people thought the olive tree more valuable, as it meant firewood, food, and oil, and so the city was renamed “Athens” to honour its new protector and patron goddess.
Legend also says that “Cecropia” was only one of 12 small communities in Attica, which were united by King Theseus.
It is interesting that in the symbolic story, the people of the city turned away from Poseidon, but in reality Athens grew prosperous through maritime trade and later created a large and powerful naval fleet.
Athens and Democracy
Common to most Greek poleis was the fundamental idea that all (male) citizens had equal rights. However, in Athens, as in the rest of the Greek world, these rights were traditionally tied to land ownership.
As land was held (and kept through inheritance) by a few wealthy families, the elite (eupatridae) ended up dominating the city’s political institutions and the military. The divide between the rich and the poor in Athens was further exacerbated by the rich growing richer through investments and the loans made to poorer land owners and farmers.
According to Aristotle, six magistrates (archons) were instituted in Athens to record the laws around the 7th century BC. One of the archons, Draco (or Dracon), introduced a comprehensive revision of the legal code to deal with the citizenry’s disenfranchisement and to avert a civil war.
Though the Draconian laws gave political power to lower-class foot soldiers (hoplite), the rest of the code was incredibly harsh, with almost every offence (even trivial ones) punishable by death and permitting enslavement to pay one’s debts. So memorable was the legal code that the word “Draconian” survives in the English language to mean anything cruel.
Solon, a statesman and a noted poet who about 20 years prior had served as archon, was asked to step in to revise the code. Of the Draconian laws, Solon only retained Draco’s statutes regarding homicide. Solon relieved the distress caused by debt by redeeming all forfeited land and freeing enslaved citizens. He ended the exclusive government control of the eupratidae (though the system he substituted was still ran by wealthy citizens) and introduced a humane law code.
Solon’s laws were met with complaints, and before long the city became divided into factions headed by nobles from the old aristocratic families. After Solon resigned from office, these factional leaders fought to seize power. In the end, Solon’s friend Peisistratus emerged a victor, retaining the laws but rising to become a (by all accounts, benevolent) tyrant circa 560 BC.
He was succeeded by his son, Hippias, who continued his policies until Hippias’s younger brother, Hipparkhos, was assassinated in 514 BC. Hippias responded to the tragedy by having his brother’s murderers executed and instituting a reign of terror. His reign ended in 510 BC with a coup backed by another Greek polis, Sparta.
After a struggle with Spartan-backed Isagoras and the members of the old noble families, Cleisthenes rose to power as chief archon and by 507 BC instituted a new form of government which can be recognised as the root of modern-day democracy (from demos “the people” plus kratia “rule” or “power”).
The biggest reform was changing the basis of an individual’s political responsibility from the family or clan to the place where an individual lives. The reform was built on the principle of equal rights for all, leading to a more active participation by all citizens in public life. This new democracy gave stability to Athens that would lead the city-state to its golden age.
The Delian League
Two kings of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia–father and son Darius and Xerxes–attempted to invade Athens in 490 BC (Darius) and again in 480 BC (Xerxes), but were soundly defeated, making Athens the supreme naval power in the Aegean.
In 478 BC, in hopes of creating a union among the Greek city-states to ward off further attacks from Persia, Athens formed a league headquartered on the sacred island of Delos, named the Delian League or the Delian Confederacy by historians. As leaders of the Delian League, the Athenians supplied the commanders in chief, received regular tribute from the member states, and controlled the league’s treasury, which was kept in the temple of Apollo.
At around the same time, the Peloponnesian League was born, involving city-states that swore its allegiance to Sparta. Unlike Athens, Sparta did not ask for tribute, but instead demanded the provision of troops under Spartan command.
Athens and Sparta relations broke down in 461 BC, and Athens and its allies campaigned against the Peloponnesian League, at the same time launching a large-scale offensive to take over territories in the eastern Mediterranean and subjugate the other Greek city-states. After Athens’ defeat in Egypt, the Athenians moved the league treasury from Delos to Athens.
The next five years saw Athens resolving conflict with Sparta and Persia, and the Delian League, at this point composed of more than 300 city-states under the leadership of Pericles, became an Athenian Empire. Athens at this point was at the height of its power.
The Golden Age in Athens
The brokered peace ushered in the Athenian golden age around 449 BC. Pericles tapped the Delian League’s treasury to fund massive projects in the city, such as the Acropolis and the Parthenon. An avid patron of the arts, Pericles subsidised theatre admission for poorer citizens and maintained friendships with philosophers and writers. He also encouraged civic participation.
Eric Weiner, writing for The Atlantic, argues that Athenians’ involvement in public life, openness to foreigners and the outside world (unlike the Spartans who walled themselves off), and receptivity to even the strangest ideas made Athens a city of geniuses. Weiner also cites anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, “who theorised [in 1944] that culture, not genetics, explained genius clusters like Athens.”
The modern world owes so much to Athens’ great thinkers. The eccentric Socrates, who carried long conversations in the Athenian agora, exerted influence on philosophy with his insight and argumentative skill. His student, Plato, would found his Academy in Athens around 385 BC, and one of Plato’s students, Aristotle, would found his own Lyceum around 334 BC.
It was in Athens where Hippocrates practised, putting forth the theory that ailments had natural causes and were not punishment from the gods. His “Hippocratic Oath” is the earliest expression of medical ethics and still guides physicians and health practitioners to this day.
Democritus correctly theorised that the Milky Way was composed of millions of stars, and authored the earliest tables of astronomical calculations. Herodotus lived in Athens and wrote Histories, which covered the Greek victory over the Persians.
Athens was the home of great playwrights: Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy, who wrote The Oresteia; Sophocles (Antigone, Oedipus Rex); Euripides (The Trojan Women, The Bacchae); and the political satirist Aristophanes (Lysistrata, The Clouds).
Despite the truce between Athens and Sparta, the two leading poleis observed an uneasy peace. Around 433 BC, Athens imposed what today would be considered a trade embargo on Megara, preventing it from using any port of the Delian League. One argument said the unusually harsh Megarian Decree was to put Megara in its place. Megara was a long-time ally of Sparta and had supported Corinth in battle. Corinth in the 430s BC was already calling on the other members of the Peloponnesian League to push back against Athenian power, and the Megarian Decree seemed to say that to support the Corinthians’ call would mean economic suffering for those involved.
Sparta asked for concessions on behalf of Megara, but Athens refused. In 431 BC, a Spartan ally, Thebes, attacked an Athenian ally, Plataea, and the war between Sparta and Athens began once again.
Athens was seen as the supreme naval power, while Sparta had the stronger army. Pericles, knowing that Sparta could fight better on land, evacuated the countryside and moved everyone inside Athens’ fortified walls. He then made naval attacks against Sparta and its allies.
The strategy was financially costly but worked at first, until a plague hit Athens and decimated its citizens. Pericles and his sons died months apart in 429 BC. Sparta, supported financially by Persia, remained strong and continued the war.
The next years saw Athens in complete disarray, with its much-loved democracy dismantled and replaced once again by the rule of the few. The Peloponnesian War ended around 404 BC with Athens bankrupt and defeated.
The once great city-state would not be able to rise again. It fell under Macedonian rule under Philip II in 338 BC, and was defeated by the Romans in 197 BC. The other Greek city-states would eventually be subjugated by the rising Roman Empire.
Athens leaves behind a great legacy, and serves as a bleak reminder of how far even an enlightened and advanced civilisation can fall.
Travelling to and Visiting Athens
Modern Athens is a popular tourist destination, with its importance in Greek history and its archeological sites. From your hotel in Athens, you can go on a walking tour of this famous Greek city.
If you want to learn more about Athens and the ancient Greeks, do join Odyssey Traveller’s small group tours, designed for the mature or senior traveller who wants to go on an adventure alone or with a partner.
- The tour to Greece begins and ends in Athens and visits the Greek islands of Corfu, Mykonos, and Delos as well as the ancient cities of Corinth, Delphi, and Olympia.
- The Eastern Mediterranean Islands small group tour covers Athens, Santorini, Cyprus, and Crete
- For something different, check out the Glory of Greece Summer School which examines the history of the Ancient Greeks in a classroom setting in central Hobart.
Articles on Greece published by Odyssey Traveller.
- Questions About Greece
- Dawn of Greek Civilisation
- Exploring Ancient Cities
- Dawn of Greek Civilisation
- Greek Islands & Cyprus
- Bronze Age Civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean Islands