Athens, Home of Democracy: From Antiquity to Modernity
We often think of ancient Athens as being the home of democracy, the place where it all started. And this is true. But the shocking truth is that Athens has spent the vast majority of its existence under the rule of tyrannical kings and dictators. As we look at the history of Athens, we can see just how fragile the democracy that Athens helped to create is.
The Origins of Early Athens
Athens has been inhabited in some form or another since Neolithic times, over 5000 years. Athens began as a Mycenaean center which was home to a large fortress. Ancient Mycenae fell around 1200 BC, and most Mycenaean centers collapsed with it, although it is unclear if Athens survived the downfall or not.
The Mycenaean fall was traditionally blamed on a Dorian invasion, but modern historians blame it on system collapse, when the civilization’s institutions collapsed in on themselves, like many late Bronze Age civilizations. All we know for sure is that Athenians were proud to be pure Ionians, claiming to have no Dorian blood.
During the Iron Age, Athens enjoyed prosperity. Its location in central Greece and easy access to the sea made it a leading trade center, while the fortified Acropolis made it secure. This affluence soon led to Athens taking over other towns in the region of Attica. Athens was soon the biggest and wealthiest state in Iron Age Greece.
However, as is so often the case in history, Athens’s success came at a cost. During this period, Athens was ruled by a small nobility. As Athens grew, a larger segment of its populace was excluded from politics. By the 7th century BC, this began to cause problems. There was increasing civil unrest, and a man called Draco was brought in by Athens’s leaders to introduce strict new laws (the origin of the word draconian).
Pericles’ famous funeral oration after the first year of the Peloponnesian War ( Public Domain )
The Rise of Democracy in Athens
Draco’s new laws were incredibly harsh and punitive, and were unsurprisingly unpopular with the people of Athens. When these new laws failed, a revolutionary constitutional lawmaker named Solon was brought in to try something new. His new constitution had three important facets:
- It forbade the enslavement of Athenian citizens as a punishment for not repaying a debt.
- It broke up landed estates and opened up trade and commerce to more people, thus creating a new urban trading class.
- It placed Athenians into different classes based on wealth and military capability. The lowest class (the Athenian majority) was given the right to vote, but only the upper class could hold office.
In the long term, Solon’s constitution would provide the framework for later Athenian democracy; in the short term, however, it was a failure. His system only lasted twenty years - twenty years full of civil unrest and class conflict. Eventually, the system was overthrown by the popular party of the time, led by Peisistratus.
Peisistratus may have been a dictator, but he was a popular one. During his rule, Athens became increasingly powerful and wealthy, and it was soon a center for Greek culture. Peisistratus actually kept the Solonian Constitution in place, he just made sure that it was his family members who held all the offices.
Peisistratus died in 527 BC and was succeeded by his sons, Hipparchus and Hippias. They were everything he was not. In 514 BC, Hipparchus was assassinated, leading his brother Hippias to establish a full-fledged dictatorship. This caused outcry and rebellion, and Hippias was overthrown within four years.
A radical politician named Cleisthenes then took control. He was the man who finally introduced ‘true’ democracy to Athens. He abolished the original four classes and replaced them with ten new ones named after ancient heroes.
These classes were called phyles. Each phyle was an intentionally geographically diverse electorate that had nothing to do with class. Each phyle was made up of 3 trittyes. These trittyes were the foundation of the local government.
Each phyle sent 50 members to the boule, or council, that ran Athens on a daily basis. The majority of public offices were filled by lottery, only the generals were elected. This new system was incredibly popular and stable; it lasted for 170 years and fell apart only due to the defeat of Athens and Thebes in 228 BC to Philip II of Macedon.
The Acropolis at Athens, 1846 painting by Leo von Klenze ( Public Domain )
Although Athens was a democracy, it still liked to flex its military muscles. During the classical period, Athens was embroiled in continual wars with both Greek neighbors and foreign powers.
Before the rise of Athens, Sparta had traditionally considered itself the leader of the Greeks. Athens sought to change this status quo and become the new leader. In 466 BC, the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor were rebelling against the Persians. Seeking to make a name for itself, Athens sent reinforcements.
Unsurprisingly, this upset the Persians and led to two Persian invasions of Greece. In 490 BC, the Athenians, led by Miltiades, beat back the first Persian invasion at the battle of Marathon. However, in 480 BC, the Persians returned in greater numbers.
Anyone familiar with the legend of ‘The 300’ knows what happened next. The Persians, under Xerxes the Great , defeated a small Greek force at the pass of Thermopylae and headed straight toward a poorly-defended Athens. Within a year, Athens had been sacked twice by the Persians.
However, the Persian success only lasted a year. In 479 BC, Athens teamed up with the Spartans and other allies and beat the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea. As a result of this victory, Athens brought most of the Aegean and other areas of Greece into the Delian League. They then took the fight to Persian territory in Asia Minor.
Athenian general Miltiades fighting the Persians at the Battle of Marathon ( Public Domain )
Wars with Friends
The Delian League was an alliance of Greek states that placed Athens at the top. It may have seemed like a prestigious position at the time, but it ended up causing Athens major headaches. These headaches culminated in the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC.
Essentially, the other Greek states soon became tired of Athens’s leadership, and so they rebelled, led by Sparta. The conflict was long and drawn out; the Spartans ruled the land and Athenians ruled the sea. Eventually, however, the Spartans came out victorious, and Athenian naval supremacy was smashed.
During this period, Athenian democracy was also damaged. The populace blamed Athens’s defeat on the democratic politicians. There was a brief eight-year blip where democracy in Athens was overthrown, replaced by the rule of the “Thirty Tyrants”.
Spartan dominance didn't last very long. Sparta’s allies abandoned her and flocked back to team up with Athens in the Corinthian War from 395-387 BC. Athens used this animosity towards Sparta to set up the Second Athenian League.
The Rise of Macedon and the Fall of Athenian Democracy
Sadly for Athens, it didn’t take long for a new challenger to come along. Macedon, led by King Philip II , beat an alliance of Greek city-states in 338 BC. Athens was one of those states, which were all forced into a confederation led by Macedon. Athenian independence was had come to an end.
King Philip II was succeeded by his son, the famous Alexander the Great . Alexander did an amazing job in unifying Greece and widening its horizons. Under him, Greek city-states became a thing of the past. Athens was still a hugely wealthy and cultural hot spot, but it was no longer a leading power.
The Romans Take Athens
After the death of Alexander the Great, the Roman Republic did not wait long to target Greece, and Athens in particular. It began with the First Macedonian War (214-205 BC), which ended with a peace treaty. This was followed by the aptly named Second Macedonian War (200-197 BC).
The Second Macedonian War was Macedonia’s first big defeat. It ended with the Romans declaring the freedom of Greece from the kings of Macedonia. The Third Macedonian War (171-168 BC) ended with most of Macedonia being split into four republics, all managed by Rome.
The final nail in the coffin was the Fourth Macedonian War (150-148 BC). This officially annexed all of Macedonia to Rome. The Achaean League was then beaten by Rome during the Achaean War of 146 BC, and the whole of Greece, including Athens, officially fell to Rome.
Athens’s time under Roman rule was not a particularly peaceful one. During the first Mithridatic War (89-85 BC), much of Greece rose to rebel against its Roman rulers. The Romans did not take this challenge laying down. Between 88-85 BC, Athens took a massive beating. General Sulla of Rome destroyed most Athenian buildings, including houses and nearly all the fortifications.
After the Romans had put the uprising down, they declared Athens a free city. Emperor Hadrian and the Romans respected Athens’s reputation as a place of learning, and the emperor soon began to invest heavily in Athens. His major projects included the completion of the Temple of Zeus, and the construction of the Library of Hadrian, as well as a gymnasium, and an aqueduct.
Ultimately, the Romans did not do a particularly good job of protecting their investment. Athens was raided by the Heruli (a Germanic or possibly Scandinavian people) in 267 AD. All public buildings were burnt and everything of worth was taken. After the raid, the northern part of the city was refortified to a smaller scale, leaving the Agora undefended outside the city walls.
Eventually, the Roman Empire split, and Greece fell into the eastern Roman Empire, ruled from Constantinople, until the 13th Century. During this period, Athens remained a center of learning but suffered mixed fortunes. The Roman Empire's conversion to Christianity greatly reduced pagan Athens’s standing in the Empire.
During this period, Athens was attacked several times, most significantly in the Heruli raid of 267 AD, the Visigoth raid of 396 AD, and the Slav attack of 582 AD. These decimated Athens financially, and for much of this time, Athens was diminished to a tiny, fortified area a fraction of the city's original size.
This period ended during the Fourth Crusade, when Athens fell to the Latins in 1204. The Latins (Catholic Europeans) held Athens from 1204 until 1458. This period was called the Frankokratia and lasted until the Ottomans entered the picture in 1458.
1821 painting of the Ottoman upper bazaar at Athens, Edward Dodwell ( Public Domain )
The Ottomans captured Athens in 1458, with Sultan Mehmed II personally leading the attack. Upon entering the city, the Sultan was so impressed with the city's beauty that he issued a royal decree called a firman. The firman forbade the looting or destruction of Athens under pain of death.
Sadly, Mehmed's respect for the city couldn't save it. Under Ottoman rule, Athens lost all importance and its population steeply declined. It became little more than a small country town. The city's historical sites also received little respect. The Parthenon and Propylaea became little more than a storehouse for Ottoman gunpowder. When a lightning bolt hit the Propylaea in 1640, the ancient site was almost entirely destroyed.
The Parthenon was next. During the Venetian siege of 1687, the Ottomans dismantled the temple of Athena to fortify the Parthenon. Regrettably, a wild shot hit a powder magazine inside the Parthenon, causing it to explode. The building was badly damaged, leading to its appearance today.
Athens experienced another change in its fortunes during the early 18th century, which saw an influx of Ottoman investment and much construction. The Greek population during this time was largely left to their own devices and taxation was low, leading to prosperity.
Unfortunately, this peaceful period of prosperity was not to last. From 1752 until 1822, Athens fell under the rule of several different Ottoman leaders. Some of them, like İsmail Agha, known as “the good” by the local Athenians, were good men who allowed Athens to prosper. However, the majority of them, like Hadji Ali Haseki and Sari Muselimi, were tyrannical despots who used Athens as their personal piggy banks. This period saw much civil unrest during which the local Greeks and Turks would rise and protest before being quickly and often violently quashed by the Ottoman leadership.
Athens has grown to a size unimaginable in antiquity (George E. Koronaios / CC BY SA 4.0 )
Athens in the Modern Age
The Greek resistance against the Ottomans hit its stride in 1822, when a Greek insurgency captured Athens. It briefly fell to the Ottomans again in 1826, but became permanently controlled by the Greeks again in 1833. Athens of 1833 had a small population, only around 400 houses, but this would soon change.
Modern Greece's first king, King Otto, or King Othon, quickly declared Athens the nation's capital. He ordered a detailed archaeological and topographical survey of Athens, and soon after a modern city plan which respected the city's heritage was laid out and building began. Athens has seen two additional major growth spurts, following the Greco-Turkish war of 1921, which saw a major influx of Greek refugees, and again after World War II.
Today, Athens is a thriving city of over three million people. It attempts to balance respecting and protecting its heritage, while also looking forward and modernizing. Millions of people flock to Athens every year to see the monuments and visit the home of democracy.
Athens is known as the birthplace of democracy. What is so often forgotten is that after Athenian democracy collapsed, it took the city millennia to regain what it had lost. The history of Athens is an important lesson in the fragility of democracy and how hard it can be to regain what has been lost.
Top image: Athens at sunset. Source: gatsi / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
Cartledge. P. 2017. The Democratic Experiment . BBC History. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/greeks/greekdemocracy_01.shtml
Clark, B. 2021 . Athens: City of Wisdom . Apollo.
Mark. J. 2021. Athens. World History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/Athens/