Athens History

Athens History
Information about the history of Athens, Greece

Mythological background

According to the Greek mythology, the first city of Athens was Phoenician and Cecrops was the king who founded it. The city of Athens was officially created the day the Gods decided to have a contest: the growing city would be named after the deity who would offer to mortals the most useful gift. The deity would therefore become the patron god of the newly named city. The contest took place between the god of the sea Poseidon and the goddess of wisdom Athena. Poseidon offered a horse, which symbolised strength, while Athena offered an olive tree, for peace and prosperity. The town was finally named after Athena.

Prehistoric Times

The Acropolis hill saw its first inhabitants during the Neolithic period. This rock offered a great position with great visibility towards land and sea, and was therefore early used as a military fortress. In 1,400 BC, Athens became a Mycenaean city, prospered and evolved into a religious center dedicated to the goddess Athena. A dark age followed in which Greece remained from the 12th till the 8th century BC. It is believed that this was the time when king Theseus, a semi-existent and semi-mythical person, ruled the town.

Archaic Times

Ancient Athens emerged economically during these centuries but it lost the control of the entire Attica, now divided into minor kingdoms. Athens regained the power over Attica in the 7th century and gradually became the cultural and artistic center of the country. For a century, the city was ruled by military generals and aristocrats. The hierarchy of each citizen depended on his wealth, which meant that poor people had no rights and slavery was a commodity.

In the 8th century BC, Solon, an Athenian poet and law maker, opened the path to democracy and abolished injustice to the less fortunate by declaring all Athenians (besides slaves) equal by law and abolishing any inherited title and privilege. The Oracle of Delphi, the most powerful in ancient Greece, declared at the same time the Acropolis as the province of the Gods.

Classical Times

After the Persian Wars (490-479 BC), Ancient Athens developed as the leading city-state in Greece. This period is the peak in the history of Athens. The 5th century BC is known as the Classical Century or the Golden Age of Pericles, the man who dominated on the political scene of Athens that time. This was a time when Athens obtained the great fleet in Greece, traded its products all over the Mediterranean and took advantage of the Treasury of the Delian League to build the Acropolis. That time, with the initiative of Pericles, a new regime was formed: democracy. In this regime, every citizen had the right to speak his opinions in public meetings and vote for public affairs.

This economic wealth of Ancient Athens brought a cultural prosperity. New philosophical ideas emerged by brilliant philosophers, like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and many sciences and arts flourished. Political gatherings were held in the Ancient Agora and many public buildings were constructed. Also a new form of art was formed, theatre, that was originally part of religious ceremonies and then obtained an educational character. In fact, theatre was so important for ancient Athens that by law proposed by Pericles, the state had to pay the tickets for the less-priviledged citizens so that every Athenian would attend the theatrical plays.

Decline of classical Athens

The golden age of Athens was stopped after a defeat against Sparta during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). Athens then fell under the rule of Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great but remained nevertheless the cultural centre of Greece.

The next threat came from the Romans, whose empire was now ruling the Western Mediterranean and slowly moving east. After several attacks they finally defeated the Macedonians. Ancient Athens did not suffer a lot from the Roman occupation since it was a city admired and respected for her culture, her arts, her philosophy and literature, hence the Pax Romana that was established.

Peace lasted until the 3rd century AD, when Greece was invaded by the Goths. While Christianity was spreading across the Empire, Saint Paul came to Greece in 51 AD to preach his famous sermon to an Unknown God. The Emperor Constantine I moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium in 324 A.D. and named it Constantinople.

Byzantine Times

The Roman Empire finally was divided in two parts: the Roman Empire at the west and the Byzantine Empire at the east. As it happens with all empires, and after years of power and wealth, the Roman Empire started its downfall, ceding its power to Byzantium. At that time, the Parthenon Temple became a church of Agia Sofia. Athens remained the center of Greek education and culture until 529 AD, when the Emperor Justinian banned the teaching of classical philosophy. Athens was invaded, between 1200 and 1459, by many western tribes: Franks, Catalans, Florentines, Venetians and finally by the Ottomans who ruled for over 400 years.

Ottoman occupation and Independence

The Acropolis was then turned into the headquarters of the Turkish ruler and the Parthenon became a mosque. After the Greek Independence of 1821, the city of Athens crossed a period of re-organisation under the rule of the foreigner King Otto, the first monarch of the new nation. He ordered his architects to build impressive Neoclassical buildings in the town centre, including his Royal Palace, which now houses the Greek Parliament.

Today, the Parliament and the Presidential Mansion are guarded by a special military unit. In fact, every Sunday morning, people are gathered to watch the official changing of the guards. A walk around Athens will bring you to many ancient sites and famous places that are worth to visit.

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