Athens History


When we think about the history of Athens, we have to go back about 2,000 years when Athens was one of the small independent city-states. Sometime around 621 BC, a legislator named Draco appeared on the Athenian scene and formed laws that substituted public justice for personal revenge.

His laws were so severe that the legislator’s actions have been immortalized by the word “draconian”. The laws were said to be written in blood rather than ink, because many types of crimes were assigned with the death penalty. These laws were held for only a quarter of a century until Solon, called the founder of Athenian democracy, abolished the death penalty for everything but murder.

Solon also created constitutional reforms that set up an election system which introduced all classes, except slaves, into the process of democracy.

One hundred years later democracy was threatened by Persia. The first of Persia’s expeditions took place in 490 BC when its army arrived at Marathon, near Athens. After the battle of Marathon a Greek soldier, ran 27 miles back to Athens, managed to gasp “We have won!”, then collapsed and died.


In their second expedition the Persians found their match when the Athenian leader, Themistocles, built a massive fleet instead of an army. Even though, the Athenians were alarmed by his move, Themistocles’ strategic innovation proved to be right; the Persians were blasted off the sea at the battle of Salamis, off the coast near Athens.

Athens , now a naval power, was headed for its Golden Age. Its ruler at this time, around the middle of the 5 th Century BC, was Pericles, an incredible orator and visionary. He practiced democracy at home, imperialism abroad. One of his wisest decisions was to compensate jurors, so that even the poorest citizens could participate.


It was Pericles who built the Parthenon, the Propylea, the Long Walls of Piraeus and many of the Temples you’ll see on your strolls around the capital. This was quite a time for Athens. While Pericles was building his Parthenon, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were writing their plays and Socrates and Plato were teaching. Athens was then involved in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta and 27 years of fighting lead to Athens’ defeat in 404 BC. But victorious Sparta’s influence lasted only 30 years after; it was then superseded by Macedonia, a kingdom in the north of Greece.

Philip of Macedon’s ambition was to unify Greece, restore Greek culture and eliminate Persia as a lingering threat. Next in line in the throne was his first wife’s son, Alexander the Great, who had studied under Aristotle. Alexander’s death marked the end of the great classical period of Greece in literature, philosophy and art. The city-states like Athens withered, the upper classes took over, and there was constant bickering and battling until 146 BC when Greece was conquered by the powerful and indomitable armies of Rome.


For 500 years, right through the early era of Christianity, Athens was subject to the power of Rome. For most practical purposes the history of classical Greece ends at this point. (Tourists come to Athens and Greece mainly to see the remains of the classical ruins, and to relive the days of glory of Pericles and the Athenians).


Obviously history continues. For many hundreds of years, Byzantium was the only civilized part of Europe. Art, especially religious art, flourished, and churches, monasteries and palaces were rising everywhere including the Athens city area. Then the Eastern and Western churches separated; Venetians, Franks and soldiers from other countries in Western Europe formed their crusades and Greece was reduced to an insignificant province and Athens became a small town. The Parthenon was turned into a Turkish mosque.


For the next 400 years, Greece remained under Turkish rule. In the early 1800s, the Greeks started to muster groups of revolutionaries, and in March 1821, they formally began their struggle for independence marked on March 25 as Greek Independence Day. In 1829 Greece was declared an independent nation.

A number of modern-day conflicts (Balkan and World Wars) left Greece at times in other hands, but today the country is a republic with a democratically elected parliament.


“… Regimes may come and go, but the glory that was Greece and Athens remains”.

©2006 Info Editions