AthensThe founding fathers of western culture

has a unique place in human . As the people who pioneer the arts of , philosophy and theatre, who attempt the first radical version of democracy, and who achieve a degree of perfection in architecture, sculpture and pottery, the Athenians have rightly acquired an almost legendary status.

They surface relatively late in the story of . No character from Athens plays a significant role in Homer. It is not until the late 7th century that Athens is firmly within the realm of recorded history.

The surrounding region, known as Attica, has certain clear advantages. It is perfectly placed within the Aegean to play a pivotal role in local affairs. Its plains provide a larger space, uninterrupted by mountains, than any valley in the Peloponnese, the older centre of Greek civilization. Political union, if it can be achieved and maintained, will enable Athens to become a larger and more populous city-state than any other in Greece.

Even an apparent misfortune can be turned to advantage. The soil of Attica is poor, suitable mainly for olives and vines. The need to import grain encourages the Athenians to develop two of their most significant skills – seafaring and trade.

In prehistory Athens has been a provincial Mycenaean kingdom. But unlike the fortresses of the Peloponnese, Athens is not overrun by Dorian invaders. It becomes a centre for Greeks who speak Ionic, as the Athenians do, as opposed to the Doric dialect of the invaders.

By the time of the first unmistakably historical events in Attica, in the late 7th century BC, the region has passed through stages of social development common in most parts of Greece. Monarchy has given way, in effect if not in name, to rule by a hereditary land-owning aristocracy.

Oligarchs, tyrants and democrats: 7th – 6th century BC

The nobles of Attica, known by an appropriate term (eupatridae, well-fathered), keep power in their own hands through membership of the Areopagus – a council which takes its name from the hill in Athens on which it meets. The council chooses annually seven members of the nobility to serve as ‘archons’. These magistrates conduct the business of both government and law. Once appointed archon they become members of the Areopagus for life, thus keeping the circle safely closed.

There is also a broader assembly, the ecclesia, in which the richer middle-class citizens of Athens have a right to take part. But the nobles of the Areopagus allow it only a minor role.

By the late 7th century the situation in Attica seems ripe for the replacement of aristocratic rule by that of a single strong man, or tyrant – a development familiar in many other Greek states at the time.

Not only do the aristocratic families of Attica hold nearly all political power. They also own most of the land. Meanwhile the free smallholders are falling increasingly into debt. If anyone’s land is mortgaged, a pillar is placed conspicuously upon it. The farmer must then pay a sixth of all his produce to his creditor. If he defaults on his payments he can be enslaved.

From about 630 BC there are attempts by would-be tyrants to seize power in Athens. But the first strong ruler emerges by due process of law. He proves himself a reformer with democratic sympathies.

Solon, elected archon in 594 BC, is given by the Areopagus the specific task of reconciling the opposed factions within Athenian society. His first legislation deals with the impoverished peasants. He boldly removes the pillars from their land (thereby cancelling their debts), and at the same time makes it illegal for anyone to be enslaved by a creditor.

Having eased the burden of the poor, Solon attempts to open up the political structures of Athens. He makes membership of the Areopagus dependent on wealth rather than birth. At the same time he enlarges the role of the ecclesia. He declares every Athenian citizen, however poor, to be a member (thus laying the foundation for Athens’ democracy), and he gives the ecclesia a voice in the election of archons. It is possible that Solon even establishes a new council, the boule, which later becomes an important part of Athenian political life.

Solon’s reforms point clearly to the future. But they prove inadequate to deflect the ambitions of tyrants in the shorter term.

In 560 a popular general, Peisistratus, seizes power in Athens. He loses and regains control more than once, but from 546 he is securely established. He rules as a benevolent dictator, reserving the office of archon for himself and his immediate clan. Athens enjoys an unprecedented period of prosperity. Attica is united. Trade develops in a period of prolonged peace. Impressive public buildings are constructed in Athens, including the first Parthenon on the acropolis.

On his death, in 527, Peisistratus is even succeeded peacefully by his son, Hippias. But Hippias is toppled in 510 when the nobles of Attica, eager to get power back into their own hands, enlist the help of Sparta.

Athens and Sparta: 508 – 478 BC

The intervention of the Spartans only serves to hasten the progress of Athens towards democracy. In 508 power is won with popular support by an aristocrat, Cleisthenes, who undermines the power of his own class by a major reorganization of the political structure.

He allows all citizens, regardless of wealth, a voice at local level where the demos (effectively the town or village) becomes the heart of political life. He gives an increased role to the ecclesia, which every citizen can attend as a participating member. These reforms establish the principle of democracy in Athens. It seems a good omen that when the aristocratic Spartans return, in 506, they are soundly defeated in battle by the Athenian democrats.

In 480 the threat from Persia brings Sparta and Athens together, with most of the other city-states of mainland Greece, in a rare show of unity. During the Greco-Persian wars the leading position of Sparta is acknowledged by all.

By the time the Persians withdraw at the end of 480, soundly defeated, Sparta’s military reputation has been enhanced at Thermopylae and Plataea. The Athenians, by contrast, have lost their city, laid waste by the Persians. Yet on balance it is the Athenians who emerge stronger. The navy which routs the enemy at Salamis is largely theirs. And it is becoming evident that control of the Aegean Sea is the best defence against Persia.

The Delian League: from 478 BC

A shift in the balance of power between Athens and Sparta is emphasized in 478, when representatives of Athens and other Aegean states meet on the island of Delos to form a coalition, subsequently known as the Delian League. Members will subscribe to a common fleet, either by contributing ships and crews or in a minority of cases by a tribute of money. One of the aims is to liberate the Greek territories held by Persia on the east coast of the Aegean.

Sparta is not interested in membership, having little in the way of a fleet. So Athens is unmistakably the leader of this new Greek alliance.

In its early years the Delian League grows in strength, achieving several significant victories against Persia. This in itself is alarming to Sparta. Even more so is the way Athens begins to treat the League as an Athenian empire, with its fleet at the automatic disposal of Athens.

The behaviour of Athens towards its supposedly equal allies is soon that of an imperial bully. States which attempt to bow out of the league are forcibly retained. Annual subscriptions are demanded instead of ships. Most significant of all, in about 454 the accumulated funds of the League are transferred from Delos to Athens.

To make matters even more alarming for Sparta, Athens is now once again a strongly walled city. After the Persian destruction of the city, in 480, Themistocles makes a priority of building new walls – against strong protests from Sparta.

Sparta herself has no city walls. In the supposed interests of peace, the Spartans now argue that all Greek cities should dismantle their walls.

Athens goes to the other extreme. In addition to building new city walls, the Athenians join their city for the first time to the harbour at Piraeus, 5 miles (8km) to the southwest. The famous Long Walls from the city to the coast are begun in 461 and are largely completed by 457.

With the most powerful navy in Greece, and a fortified seaside zone around their capital extending to several square miles, the Athenians are unmistakably presenting themselves as the dominant power of the region.

Build-up to the First Peloponnesian War: 478-460 BC

Sparta is having difficulty in retaining the loyalty of the members of its own Peloponnesian League, several of whom adopt democratic governments hostile in principle to the Spartan oligarchy.

Sparta’s troubles are compounded by a devastating earthquake in 464. Indirectly it brings to a head the simmering hostilities between Sparta and Athens.

The earthquake destroys much of the city of Sparta and kills many Spartiates – the Greek term for Sparta’s warrior citizens. The helots seize the opportunity to rise in revolt. The Spartans manage to contain the rebels in the region of Mount Ithome, in Messenia, but they lack the strength to defeat them. They appeal to their allies for help.

Athens, at this stage technically an ally of Sparta, is among the city-states which send an army.

Instead of welcoming this Athenian support, the Spartans send the soldiers back to Athens without involving them in the campaign. The precise reason is not known. Perhaps the decision follows the news that Athens is at this moment introducing a more radical democracy. The episode is interpreted as a snub by the Athenians, who are constitutionally inclined to distrust aristocratic Sparta.

Soon after this event Athens makes provocative alliances with two city-states opposed to Sparta. Open hostility breaks out in 460, the year commonly taken as the start of the First Peloponnesian War.

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