Athens History

Greece has been known as the cradle of civilization since ancient times. This is evidenced by the hundreds of monuments and points of historical interest that dot the city, making it an open-air museum. As one can imagine, the history of Athens is extremely rich and goes way back, even further than many of us might believe.

According to 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 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 water, while Athena offered the olive tree, for peace and prosperity. The town was finally named after Athena.

Prehistoric Times

The Acropolis Hill gained its first inhabitants during the Neolithic period. This rock offered a great position with great visibility towards land and sea and was therefore used as a military fortress. In 1400 BC, Athens became a Mycenaean city, prospered and evolved into a religious center dedicated to the Olympian Goddess Athena. A dark age followed in which Greece remained from the 12th to the 8th century BC. It is believed that this was the time when King Theseus, the most prominent hero of ancient times (after Hercules), ruled the town.

Archaic Times

Ancient Athens flourished economically during these centuries but it lost control of the entire Attica, now divided into minor kingdoms. Athens regained 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. Status was intertwined with wealth, which meant that poor people had no rights and slavery was a commodity.

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

Classical Times

After the Greco-Persian Wars (499 BC - 479 BC), Ancient Athens managed to become the leading city-state in Greece. This period is the peak in the history of Athens. The 5th century BC is known as the Golden Age of Pericles, the man who dominated on the political scene of Athens at 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. During 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 cultural prosperity. New philosophical ideas emerged from brilliant philosophers, like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and science and arts flourished. Political gatherings were held in the Ancient Agora and many public buildings were constructed. Theatre was established, too. It was originally part of religious ceremonies and then obtained an educational character. In fact, the theatre was so important for ancient Athens that Pericles proposed a law indicating that the state had to pay for the tickets for the less-privileged citizens so that every Athenian could attend the theatrical plays.

The Decline of Classical Athens

The Golden Age of Athens was stopped after a defeat against Sparta during the Peloponnesian War (431 BC - 404 BC). Athens then fell under the rule of Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great but remained the cultural center 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 Roman occupation since it was a city admired and respected for its culture, arts, philosophy and literature, and Pax Romana (Roman Peace) 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. Emperor Constantine the First moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium in 324 AD and named it Constantinople.

Byzantine Times

The Roman Empire was divided into 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. Athens remained the center of Greek education and culture until 529 AD when Emperor Justinian banned the teaching of classical philosophy.

Around the end of the fifth post-Christian century, the Parthenon converted into a Christian temple and the worship of the Virgin Mary replaced the worship of Olympian Athena. Even though Athens was deserted after the raids of the Erulians, Goths and Slavs, it became an important pilgrimage site in Byzantine territory. Even Emperor Basil II visited the city towards the end of his reign to thank the Virgin of Athens for giving him the strength to win the Bulgarians.

Between 1200 and 1459, Athens was invaded by many western tribes: Franks, Catalans, Florentines, Venetians and, finally, by the Ottomans who ruled for over 400 years.

Ottoman Occupation and Greek Independence

During the years of Ottoman rule, the Acropolis was turned into the headquarters of the Turkish ruler and the Parthenon became a mosque. After the Greek Independence took place in 1821, the city of Athens crossed a period of re-organization 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 center, 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 guard. A walk around Athens will bring you to many ancient sites and famous places that are impressive reminders of its long history.