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Athens is one of the oldest named cities in the world, having been continuously inhabited for at least 7000 years. Situated in southern Europe, Athens became the leading city of Ancient Greece in the first millennium BC and its cultural achievements during the 5th century BC laid the foundations of western civilization.
During the early Middle Ages, the city experienced a decline, then recovered under the later Byzantine Empire and was relatively prosperous during the period of the Crusades (12th and 13th centuries), benefiting from Italian trade. Following a period of sharp decline under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Athens re-emerged in the 19th century as the capital of the independent Greek state.
The name of Athens, connected to the name of its patron goddess Athena, originates from an earlier random city-state, Greek Pre-Greek language.[verification needed] The etiological myth explaining how Athens acquired this name through the legendary contest between Poseidon and Athena was described by Herodotus, Apollodorus, Ovid, Plutarch, Pausanias and others. It even became the theme of the sculpture on the West pediment of the Parthenon. Both Athena and Poseidon requested to be patrons of the city and to give their name to it, so they competed with one another for the honour, offering the city one gift each. Poseidon produced a spring by striking the ground with his trident, symbolizing naval power.
Athena created the olive tree, symbolizing peace and prosperity. The Athenians, under their ruler Cecrops, accepted the olive tree and named the city after Athena. A sacred olive tree said to be the one created by the goddess was still kept on the Acropolis at the time of Pausanias (2nd century AD). It was located by the temple of Pandrosus, next to the Parthenon. According to Herodotus, the tree had been burnt down during the Persian Wars, but a shoot sprung from the stump. To the Greeks they saw this as a symbol that Athena still had her mark there on the city.
The site on which Athens stands was first inhabited in the Neolithic period, perhaps as a defensible settlement on top of the Acropolis ('high city'), around the end of the fourth millennium BC or a little later. The Acropolis is a natural defensive position which commands the surrounding plains. The settlement was about 20 km (12 mi) inland from the Saronic Gulf, in the centre of the Cephisian Plain, a fertile valley surrounded by rivers. To the east lies Mount Hymettus, to the north Mount Pentelicus.
Ancient Athens, in the first millennium BC, occupied a very small area compared to the sprawling metropolis of modern Greece. The ancient walled city encompassed an area measuring about 2 km (1 mi) from east to west and slightly less than that from north to south, although at its peak the ancient city had suburbs extending well beyond these walls. The Acropolis was situated just south of the centre of this walled area.
The Agora, the commercial and social centre of the city, lay about 400 m (1,312 ft) north of the Acropolis, in what is now the Monastiraki district. The hill of the Pnyx, where the Athenian Assembly met, lay at the western end of the city. The Eridanus (Ηριδανός) river flowed through the city.
One of the most important religious sites in ancient Athens was the Temple of Athena, known today as the Parthenon, which stood on top of the Acropolis, where its evocative ruins still stand. Two other major religious sites, the Temple of Hephaestus (which is still largely intact) and the Temple of Olympian Zeus or Olympeion (once the largest temple in mainland Greece but now in ruins) also lay within the city walls.
According to Thucydides, the Athenian citizens at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War (5th century BC) numbered 40,000, making with their families a total of 140,000 people in all. The metics, i.e. those who did not have citizen rights and paid for the right to reside in Athens, numbered a further 70,000, whilst slaves were estimated at between 150,000 to 400,000. Hence, approximately a tenth of the population were adult male citizens, eligible to meet and vote in the Assembly and be elected to office. After the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, the city's population began to decrease as Greeks migrated to the Hellenistic empires in the East.
Athens has been inhabited from Neolithic times, possibly from the end of the 4th millennium BC, or nearly 7,000 years, according to books. By 1412 BC the settlement had become an important center of the Mycenaean civilization and the Acropolis was the site of a major Mycenaean fortress whose remains can be recognised from sections of the characteristic Cyclopean walls. On the summit of the Acropolis, below the later Erechtheion, cuttings in the rock have been identified as the location of a Mycenaean palace.
Between 1250 and 1200 BC a staircase was built down a cleft in the rock to reach a protected water supply, in a similar way to ones at Mycenae. Unlike other Mycenaean centers, such as Mycenae and Pylos (see Bronze Age collapse), we do not know whether Athens suffered destruction in about 1200 BC, an event often attributed to a Dorian invasion, and the Athenians always maintained that they were "pure" Ionians with no Dorian element. However, Athens, like many other Bronze Age settlements, went into economic decline for around 150 years following this.
Iron Age burials, in the Kerameikos and other locations, are often richly provided for and demonstrate that from 900 BC onwards Athens was one of the leading centres of trade and prosperity in the region; as were Lefkandi in Euboea and Knossos in Crete. This position may well have resulted from its central location in the Greek world, its secure stronghold on the Acropolis and its access to the sea, which gave it a natural advantage over inland rivals such as Thebes and Sparta.
According to legend, Athens was formerly ruled by kings (see Kings of Athens), a situation which may have continued up until the 9th century BC. From later accounts, it is believed that these kings stood at the head of a land-owning aristocracy known as the Eupatridae (the 'well-born'), whose instrument of government was a Council which met on the Hill of Ares, called the Areopagus and appointed the chief city officials, the archons and the polemarch (commander-in-chief).
Before the concept of the political state arose, four tribes based upon family relationships dominated the area. The members had certain rights, privileges, and obligations:
During this period, Athens succeeded in bringing the other towns of Attica under its rule. This process of synoikismos – the bringing together into one home – created the largest and wealthiest state on the Greek mainland, but it also created a larger class of people excluded from political life by the nobility. By the 7th century BC social unrest had become widespread, and the Areopagus appointed Draco to draft a strict new code of law (hence the word 'draconian'). When this failed, they appointed Solon, with a mandate to create a new constitution (in 594 BC).
|Didrachm of Athens, 545-510 BC|
|Obv: Four-spoked wheel||Rev: Incuse square, divided diagonally|
|Silver didrachm of Athens of heraldic type from the time of Peisistratus, 545-510 BC|
|Obol of Athens, 545-525 BC|
|Obv: An archaic Gorgoneion||Rev: Square incuse|
|An archaic silver obol of Athens of heraldic type from the time of Peisistratus, 545-525 BC|
The reforms that Solon initiated dealt with both political and economic issues. The economic power of the Eupatridae was reduced by forbidding the enslavement of Athenian citizens as a punishment for debt, by breaking up large landed estates and freeing up trade and commerce, which allowed the emergence of a prosperous urban trading class. Politically, Solon divided the Athenians into four classes, based on their wealth and their ability to perform military service. The poorest class, the Thetai, (Ancient Greek Θήται) who formed the majority of the population, received political rights for the first time and were able to vote in the Ecclesia (Assembly). But only the upper classes could hold political office. The Areopagus continued to exist but its powers were reduced.
The new system laid the foundations for what eventually became Athenian democracy, but in the short-term it failed to quell class conflict and after 20 years of unrest the popular party, led by Peisistratus, a cousin of Solon, seized power (in 541 BC). Peisistratus is usually called a tyrant, but the Greek word tyrannos does not mean a cruel and despotic ruler, merely one who took power by force. Peisistratus was in fact a very popular ruler, who made Athens wealthy, powerful, and a centre of culture, and instituted Athenian naval supremacy in the Aegean Sea and beyond. He preserved the Solonian Constitution, but made sure that he and his family held all the offices of state.
Peisistratus died in 527 BC and was succeeded by his sons Hippias and Hipparchus. They proved to be much less adept rulers and in 514 BC, Hipparchus was assassinated in a private dispute over a young man (see Harmodius and Aristogeiton). This led Hippias to establish a real dictatorship, which proved very unpopular and he was overthrown in 510 BC. A radical politician with an aristocratic background named Cleisthenes then took charge, and it was he who established democracy in Athens.
The reforms of Cleisthenes replaced the traditional four "tribes" (phyle) with ten new ones, named after legendary heroes and having no class basis; they were in fact electorates. Each 'tribe' was in turn divided into three 'trittyes' and each trittys had one or more demes, which became the basis of local government. The tribes each elected fifty members to the Boule, a council which governed Athens on a day-to-day basis. The Assembly was open to all citizens and was both a legislature and a supreme court, except in murder cases and religious matters, which became the only remaining functions of the Areopagus.
Most public offices were filled by lot, although the ten strategoi (generals) were elected. This system remained remarkably stable and, with a few brief interruptions, it remained in place for 170 years, until Philip II of Macedon defeated Athens and Thebes at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC.
Prior to the rise of Athens, Sparta considered itself to be the leader of the Greeks, or hegemon. In 499 BC Athens sent troops to aid the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor, who were rebelling against the Persian Empire (the Ionian Revolt). This provoked two Persian invasions on Greece (see Persian Wars). In 490 BC the Athenians, led by the soldier-statesman Miltiades, defeated the first invasion of the Persians under Darius I at the Battle of Marathon.
In 480 BC the Persians returned under Darius's son Xerxes. When a small Greek force holding the pass of Thermopylae was defeated, the Athenians evacuated Athens, which was taken by the Persians. Subsequently the Athenians (led by Themistocles), with their allies, engaged the much larger Persian navy at sea in the Battle of Salamis. Xerxes built a throne on the coast in order to watch the Greek navy being defeated, but instead, the Persians were routed.This established a great turning point in the war.
In 479 BC, the Athenians and Spartans, with their allies, defeated the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea. However, it was Athens that took the war to Asia Minor. These victories enabled it to bring most of the Aegean and many other parts of Greece together in the Delian League, an Athenian-dominated alliance.
The period from the end of the Persian Wars to the Macedonian conquest marked the zenith of Athens as a center of literature, philosophy (Greek philosophy) and the arts (Greek theatre). In Athens at this time, the political satire of the Comic poets at the theatres had a remarkable influence on public opinion.
Some of the most important figures of Western cultural and intellectual history lived in Athens during this period: the dramatists Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides and Sophocles,the physician Hippocrates, the philosophers Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, the historians Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, the poet Simonides and the sculptor Phidias, The leading statesman of this period was Pericles, who used the tribute paid by the members of the Delian League to build the Parthenon and other great monuments of classical Athens. The city became, in Pericles's words, "the school of Hellas [Greece]."
The resentment felt by other cities at the hegemony of Athens led to the Peloponnesian War, which began in 431 BC and pitted Athens and its increasingly rebellious overseas empire against a coalition of land-based states led by Sparta. The conflict ended with a victory for Sparta and the end of Athenian command of the sea.
The democracy in Athens was briefly overthrown by a coup in 411 BC, due to its poor handling of the war, but it was quickly restored. The war ended in 404 BC with the complete defeat of Athens. Since the loss of the war was largely blamed on democratic politicians such as Cleon and Cleophon, there was a brief reaction against democracy, aided by the Spartan army (the rule of the Thirty Tyrants). In 403 BC, however, democracy was restored by Thrasybulus and an amnesty declared.
Sparta's former allies soon turned against her, due to her imperialist policy, and soon Athens' former enemies Thebes and Corinth had become her allies; they fought with Athens and Argos against Sparta in the indecisive Corinthian War (395 – 387 BC). Opposition to Sparta enabled Athens to establish a Second Athenian League.
Finally Thebes defeated Sparta in 371 BC in the Battle of Leuctra. But then the Greek cities (including Athens and Sparta) turned against Thebes, whose dominance was stopped at the Battle of Mantinea (362 BC) with the death of its military-genius leader Epaminondas.
By the mid-4th century BC, however, the northern Greek kingdom of Macedon was becoming dominant in Athenian affairs, despite the warnings of the last great statesman of independent Athens, Demosthenes. In 338 BC the armies of Philip II defeated an alliance of some of the Greek city-states including Athens and Thebes at the Battle of Chaeronea, effectively ending Athenian independence. Subsequently, the conquests of his son Alexander the Great widened Greek horizons and made the traditional Greek city state obsolete. Athens remained a wealthy city with a brilliant cultural life, but ceased to be a leading power.
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In 88 - 85 BC, most Athenian buildings, both houses and fortifications, were leveled by the Roman general Sulla, although many civic buildings and monuments were left intact. Under Rome, Athens was given the status of a free city because of its widely admired schools. The Roman emperor Hadrian, in the 2nd century AD, constructed a library, a gymnasium, an aqueduct which is still in use, several temples and sanctuaries, a bridge and financed the completion of the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
The city was sacked by the Heruli in AD 267, resulting in the burning of all the public buildings, the plundering of the lower city and the damaging of the Agora and Acropolis. After this the city to the north of the Acropolis was hastily refortified on a smaller scale, with the Agora left outside the walls. Athens remained a centre of learning and philosophy during its 500 years of Roman rule, patronized by emperors such as Nero and Hadrian.
The sack of the city by the Heruls in 267 and Alaric in 396, however, dealt a heavy blow to the city's fabric and fortunes, and Athens was henceforth confined to a small fortified area that embraced a fraction of the ancient city. The city remained an important center of learning, especially of Neoplatonism—with notable pupils including Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea and emperor Julian—and consequently a center of paganism. Christian items do not appear in the archaeological record until the early 5th century. The Emperor Justinian I closed down the city's philosophical schools in 529, an event whose impact on the city is much debated, but is generally taken to mark the end of the ancient history of Athens.
During the middle centuries of the 1st millennium, the Roman Empire retreated towards the eastern half of the Mediterranean basin and became Christianized, while the use of Latin declined in favor of Greek. The empire after this transition is known today as the Byzantine Empire, even though an unbroken chain of emperors continued to call themselves Roman ("Rhomaioi") well into the 2nd millennium. The conversion of the empire from paganism to Christianity greatly affected Athens, resulting in reduced reverence for the city. Ancient monuments such as the Parthenon, Erechtheion and the Hephaisteion (Theseion) were converted into churches. As the empire became increasingly anti-pagan, Athens became a provincial town and experienced fluctuating fortunes. Many of its works of art were taken by the emperors to Constantinople.
Athens was sacked by the Slavs in 582, but remained in Byzantine hands thereafter, as highlighted by the visit of Emperor Constans II in 662/3 and its inclusion in the Theme of Hellas. The city was threatened by Saracen raids in the 8th–9th centuries—in 896, Athens was raided and possibly occupied for a short period, an event which left some archaeological remains and elements of Arabic ornamentation in contemporary buildings—but there is also evidence of a mosque existing in the city at the time. In the great dispute over Byzantine Iconoclasm, Athens is commonly held to have supported the iconophile position, chiefly due to the role played by Empress Irene of Athens in the ending of the first period of Iconoclasm at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. A few years later, another Athenian, Theophano, became empress as the wife of Staurakios (r. 811–812).
Invasion of the empire by the Turks after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, and the ensuing civil wars, largely passed the region by and Athens continued its provincial existence unharmed. When the Byzantine Empire was rescued by the resolute leadership of the three Komnenos emperors Alexios, John and Manuel, Attica and the rest of Greece prospered. Archaeological evidence tells us that the medieval town experienced a period of rapid and sustained growth, starting in the 11th century and continuing until the end of the 12th century.
The agora or marketplace, which had been deserted since late antiquity, began to be built over, and soon the town became an important centre for the production of soaps and dyes. The growth of the town attracted the Venetians, and various other traders who frequented the ports of the Aegean, to Athens. This interest in trade appears to have further increased the economic prosperity of the town.
The 11th and 12th centuries were the Golden Age of Byzantine art in Athens. Almost all of the most important Middle Byzantine churches in and around Athens were built during these two centuries, and this reflects the growth of the town in general. However, this medieval prosperity was not to last. In 1204, the Fourth Crusade conquered Athens and the city was not recovered from the Latins before it was taken by the Ottoman Turks. It did not become Greek in government again until the 19th century.
From 1204 until 1458, Athens was ruled by Latins in three separate periods.
Athens was initially the capital of the eponymous Duchy of Athens, a fief of the Latin Empire which replaced Byzantium. After Thebes became a possession of the Latin dukes, which were of the Burgundian family called De la Roche, it replaced Athens as the capital and seat of government, although Athens remained the most influential ecclesiastical centre in the duchy and site of a prime fortress.
Under the Burgundian dukes, a bell tower was added to the Parthenon. The Burgundians brought chivalry and tournaments to Athens; they also fortified the Acropolis. They were themselves influenced by Byzantine Greek culture.
In 1311, Athens was conquered by the Catalan Company, a band of mercenaries called Almogavars. It was held by the Catalans until 1388. After 1379, when Thebes was lost, Athens became the capital of the duchy again.
The history of Aragonese Athens, called Cetines (rarely Athenes) by the conquerors, is obscure. Athens was a veguería with its own castellan, captain, and veguer. At some point during the Aragonese period, the Acropolis was further fortified and the Athenian archdiocese received an extra two suffragan sees.
In 1388, the Florentine Nerio I Acciajuoli took the city and made himself duke. The Florentines had to dispute the city with the Republic of Venice, but they ultimately emerged victorious after seven years of Venetian rule (1395–1402). The descendants of Nerio I Acciajuoli ruled the city (as their capital) until the Turkish conquest of 1458.
The first Ottoman attack on Athens, which involved a short-lived occupation of the town, came in 1397, under the Ottoman generals Yaqub Pasha and Timurtash. Finally, in 1458, Athens was captured by the Ottomans under the personal leadership of Sultan Mehmed II. As the Ottoman Sultan rode into the city, he was greatly struck by the beauty of its ancient monuments and issued a firman (imperial edict) forbidding their looting or destruction, on pain of death. The Parthenon was converted into Athens' main mosque.
Under Ottoman rule, the city's was denuded of any importance and its population severely declined, leaving Athens as a "small country town" (Fr. Babinger). From the early 17th century, Athens came under the jurisdiction of the Kizlar Agha, the chief black eunuch of the Sultans' harem. The city had originally been granted by Sultan Ahmed I (r. 1603–1617) to Basilica, one of his favourite concubines, who hailed from the city, in response of complaints of maladministration by the local governors. After her death, Athens came under the purview of the Kizlar Agha.
In 1687, during the Morean War, Athens was besieged by the Venetians under Francesco Morosini, and the temple of Athena Nike was dismantled by the Ottomans to fortify the Parthenon. A shot fired during the bombardment of the Acropolis caused a powder magazine in the Parthenon to explode (26 September), and the building was severely damaged, giving it the appearance we see today. The occupation of the Acropolis continued for six months and both the Venetians and the Ottomans participated in the looting of the Parthenon. One of its western pediments was removed, causing even more damage to the structure. The Venetians occupied the town, converting its two mosques into Catholic and Protestant churches, but on 9 April 1688 they abandoned it again to the Ottomans.
Ancient monuments were destroyed to provide material for a new wall which the Ottomans built around the city in 1777. Between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, arranged for the removal of many sculptures from the Parthenon (the Elgin marbles). Along with the Panathenaic frieze, one of the six caryatids of the Erechtheion was extracted and replaced with a plaster mold. All in all, fifty pieces of sculpture were carried away, including three fragments purchased by the French.
Nevertheless, Athens produced some notable intellectuals during this era, such as Demetrius Chalcondyles (1424–1511), who became a celebrated Renaissance teacher of Greek and of Platonic philosophy in Italy. Chalcondyles published the first printed editions of Homer (in 1488), of Isocrates (in 1493), and of the Suda lexicon (in 1499), and a Greek grammar (Erotemata).
His cousin Laonicus Chalcondyles (c. 1423–1490) was also a native of Athens, a notable scholar and Byzantine historian and one of the most valuable of the later Greek historians. He was the author of the valuable work Historiarum Demonstrationes (Demonstrations of History) and was a great admirer of the ancient writer Herodotus, encouraging the interest of contemporary Italian humanists in that ancient historian. In the 17th century, Athenian-born Leonardos Philaras (c. 1595–1673), was a Greek scholar, politician, diplomat, advisor and the Duke of Parma's ambassador to the French court, spending much of his career trying to persuade western European intellectuals to support Greek indepencence.
In 1822, a Greek insurgency captured the city, but it fell to the Ottomans again in 1826 (though Acropolis held till June 1827). Again the ancient monuments suffered badly. The Ottoman forces remained in possession until March 1833, when they withdrew. At that time, the city (as throughout the Ottoman period) had a small population of an estimated 400 houses, mostly located around the Acropolis in the Plaka.
In 1832, Otto, Prince of Bavaria, was proclaimed King of Greece. He adopted the Greek spelling of his name, King Othon, as well as Greek national dress, and made it one of his first tasks as king to conduct a detailed archaeological and topographical survey of Athens, his new capital. He assigned Gustav Eduard Schaubert and Stamatios Kleanthis to complete this task. At that time, Athens had a population of only 4,000 – 5,000 people, located in what today covers the district of Plaka in the city state Athens.
Athens was chosen as the Greek capital for historical and sentimental reasons. There are few buildings dating from the period of the Byzantine Empire or the 18th century. Once the capital was established, a modern city plan was laid out and public buildings were erected.
The finest legacy of this period are the buildings of the University of Athens (1837), the Old Royal Palace (now the Greek Parliament Building) (1843), the National Gardens of Athens (1840), the National Library of Greece (1842), the Greek National Academy (1885), the Zappeion Exhibition Hall (1878), the Old Parliament Building (1858), the New Royal Palace (now the Presidential Palace) (1897) and the Athens Town Hall (1874).
In 1896 the city hosted the 1896 Summer Olympics.
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Athens experienced its second period of explosive growth following the disastrous war with Turkey in 1921, when more than a million Greek refugees from Asia Minor were resettled in Greece. Suburbs such as Nea Ionia and Nea Smyrni began as refugee settlements on the Athens outskirts.
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Athens was occupied by the Germans during World War II and experienced terrible privations during the later years of the war. The Great Famine (Greece) was heavy in the city. Several resistance organizations were created. After the liberation, in 1944, there was heavy fighting in the city between the communist forces and the government forces backed by the British.
After World War II the city began to grow again as people migrated from the villages and islands to find work. Greek entry into the European Union in 1981 brought a flood of new investment to the city, but also increasing social and environmental problems. Athens had some of the worst traffic congestion and air pollution in the world at that time. This posed a new threat to the ancient monuments of Athens, as traffic vibration weakened foundations and air pollution corroded marble. The city's environmental and infrastructure problems were the main reason why Athens failed to secure the 1996 centenary Olympic Games.
Following the failed attempt to secure the 1996 Summer Olympics, both the city of Athens and the Greek government, aided by European Union funds, undertook major infrastructure projects such as the new Athens Airport and a new metro system. The city also tackled air pollution by restricting the use of cars in the centre of the city. As a result, Athens was awarded the 2004 Olympic Games. Despite the scepticism of many observers, the games were a great success and brought renewed international prestige (and tourism revenue) to Athens.
Throughout its long history, Athens has had many different population levels. The table below shows the historical population of Athens in relatively recent times.
|Year||City population||Urban population||Metro population|
|1921 (Pre-Population exchange)||473,000||–||–|
|1921 (Post-Population exchange)||718,000||–||–|
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