A Short History of Athens

The history of Athens is virtually the history of Greece, for this immortal city was for centuries the heart of the Hellenic world and the acknowledged leader of its civilization. Though in common with all Greek cities, its origins are too remote to be anything more than a matter for conjecture. The Cyclopean wall that runs round the rock of the Acropolis, the neolithic remains, traces of Bronze Age habitation and a number of pre-Hellenic place-names prove that Athens was occupied by man from the very earliest times.

Athens was perhaps the largest of the independent Attic communities with its king residing on the Acropolis, probably in the palace named after Erechtheus, whose memory is perpetuated in the magnificent temple of the Erechtheion. A tribe of their Ionian kinsmen from Marathon, from whom later generations of Athenians were proud to claim descent, invaded the city and rapidly became predominant. Under the rule of Cecrops, the first known king of Athens, and that of his successors, Pandion, Erechtheus, Aegeus and Theseus, Athens increased in size and importance, slowly absorbing the smaller communities of Attica, until in the reign of Theseus (c. 1300 BC) they were all united under his leadership.

About 1100 BC, the Dorians invaded the Peloponnese and swept all before them; it seemed that no army could withstand them, and Athens was in mortal danger. Its citizens sprang to arms, though with a presentiment of certain defeat in their hearts. It had been prophesied that the Athenians could only ensure victory by the death of their king. King Codrus then decided to sacrifice himself to save his people. Making his way disguised into the Dorian camp he provoked a quarrel in which he was killed. When the invaders discovered that it was Codrus they had slain they despaired of success and retreated; Athens was saved.

Since no one was thought worthy to succeed this heroic king, the monarchy yielded to government by the nobles, who appropriated all power. They chose three archons, or executive officials, from among their ranks to represent the king and share the royal power. This change was affected by the devolution of the military powers of the king to the polemarch, who then became the supreme military commander; the first archon, who later became the chief state official, was the civil governor, while the archon basileus, who was a descendant of Codrus, retained the title of king and had control of the religious rites of the state. Although first hereditary and limited to the royal clan, the tenure of the archonship was later reduced to a period of ten years and all noblemen were eligible for office.

This reform, however, did not satisfy the masses that resented the concentration of all state authority in the hands of the aristocracy and clamored for a written constitution. In 594 BC the nobles bestowed full power to remodel the new state on one of their number, the celebrated Solon, trusted by noblemen and peasant alike. For the first time in the history of the world the people were given a measure of participation in government, the grant of political rights and a constitution. Later the office of archon was made annual and elective and to the existing three offices, military, civil and religious, were added the six thesmothetae whose sole duty was to record judicial decisions. In spite of these concessions discontent was rife, and a number of popular revolts exposed the state to constant danger.

In 546 BC, Peisistratus, a distinguished and daring statesman seized power and made himself dictator. Under his autocratic rule Athens enjoyed great prosperity. He stimulated commerce and industry, and by fostering agriculture laid the basis for the development of Athens’ chief export, the olive. Through his vigorous foreign policy, for the first time, Athens emerged as an Aegean Power. Posterity is indebted to this devoted lover of the arts since he ordered the preparation of the first authorized version of Homer’s sublime epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. He also embellished the city with monuments whose splendor was later surpassed only by those of the Golden Age of Pericles.