Athens is one of the oldest named cities in the world, having been continuously inhabited for at least 7000 years. Situated in southern Europe, Athens became the leading city of Ancient Greece in the first millennium BCE and its cultural achievements during the 5th century BCE laid the foundations of western civilization.
Lecture 13: The Athenian Empire
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The Persian force proceeded from Eretria to Marathon, where the Athenians and the Plataeans alone faced them. The Spartans could not come to the assistance of the Athenians because the moon was not yet full. The still surviving earth mound in which the Athenians were buried at Marathon probably marks the location of the battle area. The Athenians relied on weakening their center, strengthening their wings, and so defeated the Persians.
Kleisthenes' reforms resulted in the political system undergoing major changes: the four Ionian tribes were abolished and replaced by ten new ones, involving a division of Attica into trittyes and demes. Each new tribe was to contribute fifty members each year to the new boule, and the boule was increased in size, from 400 to 500 members. The main building blocks of the new organization were the demes, the villages of Attica, and in the new system there were 140 demes.
This fragmentation, and the fact that each year nearly every official was new to his job, did not make for efficiency; but efficiency was not the main objective. The jobs were simple, without great opportunities for doing good or harm, and the record-keeping was assisted by a small number of slave clerks; the understanding was that the average citizen should be able and should be willing to play a part, and that the jobs should be shared equitably among those who were willing.
The courts were thus amateur bodies representative of the polis, pronouncing the will of the people without expert legal guidance... More disturbing from our perspective is the fact that the Athenians did not distinguish as clearly as we should wish between illegal conduct and politically unwise or unsuccessful conduct by public figures: it was too easily assumed that an opposing politician or an unsuccessful commander was willfully failing to act in the best interests of Athens, and that - since no Athenian would do that of his own free choice - he must have been bribed to do so.
The Athenians having thus succeeded to the supremacy by the voluntary act of the allies through their hatred of Pausanias, determined which cities were to contribute money against the barbarian, and which ships; their professed object being to retaliate for their sufferings by ravaging the King's country. Now was the time that the office of "Treasurers for Hellas" was first instituted by the Athenians... Initially, the Athenians commanded autonomous allies and made their decisions in general congresses.
Solon terminated aristocratic rule, setting up a representational government where participation was determined not by lineage or bloodline, but wealth. He eliminated slavery based on debt, and restituted freedom and land to those who had been enslaved. Solon created a `Council of Four Hundred' from equal numbers of representatives of the Ionian tribes to which the Athenians claimed to belong, and instituted four classes of citizenry.
Traces of Mycenaean fortifications from the thirteenth century AC can still be seen on the Acropolis, including some foundations belonging to what must have been a palatial structure. The fortifications, known as the 'Pelasgian' walls (after the indigenous people believed to have built them before the arrival of the Greeks around 2000 BC), remained in use until the Persian Wars of 490-480 BC. One stretch behind the temple of Athena Nike appears to have been deliberately preserved in the Classical period.
The Athenian legends of their own earliest days say that their city was founded about 1550 B.C. by King Cecrops, who came from Egypt and gathered the people of the neighborhood and built a city upon the steep rocky hill which we know today as the Acropolis, the sacred hill of Athens, the height which bore all of her most beautiful temples and statues. This city was called, from its founder, Cecropia.
The city of Athens has long been held up to mankind as the crown of all that was most brilliant in the ancient world. Her citizens became foremost in art and in philosophy, in military and also in literary glory. Moreover, Athens was the greatest, if not the earliest, of the Greek "democracies," states in which the people governed themselves directly, without having recourse to kings or priesthoods. Thus Athens stands as the source of all our modern doctrines of republican government, the type upon which our own American institutions are founded, and by whose errors and downfall we must learn the pitfalls to avoid.