Athens: Cradle of our Civilisation
by: R. Aurelius Orcus

Athens used to be the intellectual centre of Hellas, and brought forth famous men such as Aristoteles, Plato, Sokrates… But it also provided us with the idea of democracy which we now hold on to as one of the essences of modern political life. The start for this process happened in 508 BCE, after a king give his own life for the country he loved. The strangest thing is that after this event, the Athenians decided to rid their city of the monarchy, because they believed that no other king would come, who would be prepared to die for his country. Usually we tend to think that the reason for starting a democratic process is a grudge against the misgovernment of a king.

The Athenians especially believed in the pursuit of excellence and glory regardless of obstacles. This gave rise to admirable successes in the areas of reason, philosophy, science, arts and drama. As the intellectual centre of Hellas, it was also its first real city state. When democracy was accepted, there was a council each month regarding politics, and the government could not do anything without the consent of that council.


Although Athens itself has different names, it was eventually named after Pallas Athena (see Robert Graves: Greek myths, character and deeds of Athena and Poseidon). Athens' history allegedly goes back to 1500 BCE, when Kekrops succeeded the Athenian king Akteos, who Athens her first name: Akte or Aktike. The second name was given by Kekrops himself, Kekropia. He would have divided the country in twelve sections: Kekropia, Eleusis, Aphidna, Brauron, Dekeleia, Epakria, Kephisios, Kytheros, Phaleros, Sphettos, Tetrapolis and Thorikos. He did this to be able to defend the country more effeciently against Carian pirates and the Beotians. In this way he divided the area for 20 000 people to be able to live there.

Once upon a time Athens was being beleaguered during Kekrops' government, and the Oracle of Delphi advised that every Athenian voluntarily had to sacrifice their life for the city. When Kekrops' daughter heard this, she jumped off the Akropolis, and from that point on each year a festival was celebrated to commemorate her, named the Agravleia. Kekrops himself was succeeded by his son Erysichthon, who had no children of his own, and was succeeded by Kranaos. One of his daughters was named Atthis, and it is said that this is where the name Attika comes from. Kranaos was overthrown by Amphiktyon, who was in turn exiled by Erichthonios, son of Hephaistos and Gaea.

Legend has it that he was half man, half snake, and founded a powerful dynasty that would bring forth great heroes such as Pandion, Theseus, Erechtheos and Aegeas. Erichthonios placed a wooden statue of Athena on the Akropolis, and would have invented the cart with four wheels and the first man to breed horses. He married the nymph Pasithea, and had a son named Pandion. He in turn married the nymph Zeuxippe. He had a set of twin sons named Erechtheos and Butes, and two daughters named Philomena and Prokne. Pandion was succeeded by Erechtheos.

When Erechtheos was at war with the Eleusians and the Thracians under command of Eumolpos, he was given the advice by the Oracle to sacrifice three of his six daughters. The girls agreed voluntarily and were killed by their father. With courage they then faced their enemy, but Erechtheos himself was probably killed. When the Eleusians were finally defeated, Poseidon took revenge (Erechtheos was the one who had made the choice between Athena and Poseidon as patron for Athens) and destroyed Erechtheos' house. He was succeeded by his son, Kekrops II, who as in turn succeeded by his son Pandion II, who had four sons himself: Aegeus, Pallas, Nisos and Lykos.

When Theseus, son of Aegeus, came to power, he finally named the city Athens, and renamed the festival Athenaea to Panathenaea. He also divided the population in three classes: Eupatridai, Geomoroi and Demiourgoi. The first class consisted of rich and eductaed people: governors, generals, priests… The second class consisted of farmers and the third of handworkers. All three classes possessed the same rights. Theseus introduced coins with the image of oxen named Dekaveia and Ekatoveia, which respectively had the value of 10 and 100 oxen. He had also united the twelve villages and expanded the country to the Isthmos at Corinth, and allegedly was the introducer of the Isthmian Games.

When Theseus was absent, Menestheos seized this opportunity to destroy Theseus' popularity. Around this time, the brothers Kastor and Pollux would have entered Attika to free their sister Helena. When Theseus eventually returned and saw he was in danger, he had his sons protected by Elephenor on Euboea and and retreated to Skyros, where he was murdered by his "friend", Lykomedes, the king of Skyros (in 475 BCE his remains were brought back to Athens by Kimon). The Doric temple of Hephaistos and Athene Ergane relate these adventures on the friezes and metopes. Melanthos, who succeeded his father, would become the father of Kodros, the last king of Athens.


The archonts had to rule the population. At first, there was only one, but since It was feared that one archont would have too much power, nine were elected each year. When one of the archonts wanted to do something, he had to counsel with the others first, then the Council of Nobles and finally the Assembly of the People. The Council of Nobles appeared to be bad rules, because they took a lot of the people's freedom away: subsequently, riots and revolts ensued. However, every insurrection was lead by a nobleman who professed to be a liberator but soon appeared to be a tyrant worse than the one before him. That's why this period (700-500 BCE) is called the Era of the Tyrants. The nobles accumulated more and more power, and soon free men became scarce. If a poor farmer couldn't pay the money he owed his lords, his lands and goods were confiscated. "If that didn't bring about enough money," says Mary MacGregor, "the poor farmer was sold as a slave."

In 632 BCE, Kylon tried to make use of these grudges to have him made tyrant. He didn't even bother to get the support from the people, and seized power with an army of mercenaries. They could only occupy the Akropolis, but were chased away soon. Kylon would have escaped, and left his soldiers behind. They in turn occupied the altar of Athena, which the people didn't dare to attack since it was a sacred space. However, they were promised by Megakles, an archont, that they could leave unharmed. Of course, that didn't happen. All of them were killed by the Athenian troops. Megakles himself was later banished, and his possessions confiscated. Kylon hadn't helped the people.

In 621 BCE, there was a new insurrection, demanding new laws and honest justice. This task was given to Drako, one of the archonts. Because most people didn't know the laws, he had them written down. He got the reproach that his laws were too severe (hence the word "draconic") although he only had the old laws written down. Appearently, they were thought of as too old-fashioned and strict, and they said: "Drako's laws are written in blood instead of ink." There were some reasons for this and similar statements. For example, the stealing of cabbage was punished by death. So, in the end Drako had not really helped the people either.


Allegedly Athens had 7 wise men, one of them being Solon, on the account of his intellect (he was both politician and poet). In 594 BCE he was elected as archont with the mission to reform the laws. His first act was unexpected; he ordered that no one was to be sold as a slave when said individual could not repay his debts. The laws that Solon made were written on turning wooden panels called axons. Litterally hundreds of people were freed and another hundreds of people could stop living in fear of being sold as slaves. The joy among the population was great, except of course with the nobles who couldn't enlarge their riches and lost precious slaves. There was even a party, and the name of Solon would henceforth be pronounced with great honour.

Solon also returned a larger amount to the People's Council and sought to enlarge it. This way, Athens slowly became a democracy. But as a reformer, Solon also had enemies. Some thought of his laws as too easy, others found them too severe. He himself didn't really care about the complaints and went on with his work. When someone asked him if he had made the best laws possible for the Athenians, he replied: "for them, the best".

When Solon was no archont anymore, he left Athens and travelled among other peoples and in other cities. Herodotos tells us that he met king Kroisos of Lydia. Since both didn't live in the same period, this is usually classified as a legend. When Solon reached the court of Kroisos, he was astounded. Everyone was so well dressed that he first mistook the one of the servants for the king himself. When the king showed his guest around in his treasure chambers, he asked him who, according to Solon, was the happiest man in the world. Solon replied: "Tellus, my countryman, was the happiest of all. He died a hero's death on the battlefield in defending his own country." Kroisos then asked, hoping Solon would nominate him, who the second-happiest man was. Solon answered: "Two sons who loved their mother dearly and died in taking great care of her." Kroisos became angry and inquired whether he was no happy man then. Solon answered: "Don't ever call someone happy before he dies, because no one knows what suffering may still await him."

Kroisos would later come to realise how right Solon had been when Kyros, king of Persia, had attacked Lydia in a defensive war and had put Kroisos on the stake. Kroisos began calling out Solon's name, and Kyros asked him which god he was invoking. Kroisos answered he wasn't worshipping a god but calling out a wise man's name. He then told Kyros about the words of the Athenian. Former was moved by Kroisos' words and wanted to put out the fires, but it was too late already. The flames were so high that Kroisos asked the god Apollo to help him. The clear blue sky became pitch black, and a heavy rainstorm put out the stake. Ploutarchos says that for the betterment of both kings, the Athenian should be accredited. In reality, by the way, Kroisos was skinned alive.

During the reign of Solon, Athens sought to conquer Salamis and thus declared was on Megara, to which Salamis belonged. But the war lasted so long that both nobles and farmers wanted to go home. Peace between Megara and Athens was made, and a new law was introduced in Solon's absence, saying that no one could say Salamis belonged to Athens or that Athens should conquer Salamis. Much to his dismay he found both facts out. When he did, he allegedly pretended he had gone mad and came from Salamis, and spoke on the market to the people. He told them they had to wipe out the shame of not having conquered Salamis, and his words made a deep impression even though he pretended to be a madman (as such he could escape punishment). The law was abolished, and Solon was not punished.

Under the command of Pisistratos, Solon's nephew, the Athenian forces were sent to Salamis to conquer. Allegedly, the Athenians used fishing boats to sail to the island and stole a boat from the Megarans that was to spy on the Athenian fleet. Using this vessel they safely set sail for Salamis and made way for their own ships, conquering the isle before the local population was even fully aware of it. The Athenians would hold the island until the Macedonian era. By means of ritual each year, an Athenian ship would fare to Salamis, and an Athenian soldier would jump out, fully dressed for battle, cheerily welcomed by his countrymen there.


Although most citizens of Attika were content under the laws of Solon, the mountain people and the sheperds were not, and rose up against Athens every now and then. Pisistratos wanted to make use of this to become tyrant and although Solon had warned the Athenians, they did not heed his words. As such it happened that Pisistratos occupied the Akropolis and appointed himself tyrant. Solon's friends feared for the life of their friend and asked him why he did not flee. He answered that he trusted that his old age would protect him from being sentenced to death, and he was right. The new tyrant treated Solon kindly and respectfully, and even asked him for advice in political matters. However, his reforms were recalled. Solon couldn't live with this and died two years later. Allegedly, his ashes were spread on the shore of Salamis, the island he conquered for Athens.

Although Pisistratos was a good ruler and brought prosperity, he could not convince his enemies to stop plotting against him. After five years he was banished from the city. Through a plot of Megakles', however, he managed to come back and seize power again. The idea was that a woman named Phya would dress up as the goddess Pallas Athena and would be driven to Athens. There she would be announced as the goddess Athens who asked the Athenians to reinstate Pisistratos. The plot succeeded. His second reign lasted another six years before he was forced to abdicate. He fled to Thrakia, where he familiarised himself with the locals. After ten years he mustered an army and returned to Attika. The Athenian army was sent to repel an attack, but Pisistratos showed that he was not interested in a direct attack. The Athenians felt safer, went eating and were, during lunch time, attacked by Pisistratos and his soldiers. The Athenian army was scattered and the population didn't want to resist him, so Pisistratos was now tyrant for the third time. He died in 527 BCE and was succeeded by his two sons, Hippias and Hipparchos, after having ruled 12 years.

He had instated a new holiday to honour Athena, and had started the building of a temple for Zeus which was unfinished at the time of his death. He had aesthetically improved the city and had requested scientists, orators, poets, wise men and historians to come to the city. Historians and poets could perform in public. His sons continued the reign of their father until one of them abused his powers to punish an Athenian with whom he happened to have a quarrel. Megakles' son, Kleisthenes, called upon Sparta to conquer Athens through means of a cunning plan (the Oracle). They did as they were told by the Oracle and attacked Athens. Hippias managed to resist them for a long time but when his children were taken captive, he surrendered and left the city. He and his family then went to a town in Asia Minor. Kleisthenes was made tyrant and brought Solon's reforms back.


In Persia, a new dynasty had risen to power, lead by Cyrus the Great, founding an empire comparable to that of the later Alexander the Great, reaching from India to Asia Minor. He died during one of the many attacks he had to resist to keep his empire, and was succeeded by a dynasty of kings who were all followers of the teachings of Zoroaster or Zarathustra.

When the Greek-Ionian cities came under Persian rule, there were lots of uprisings and revolts which were all struck down. The tyrants ruling in these cities were all Persia-oriented which not only made them accept the Persian king as overlord but also meant they had to fight for him in times of war. In 512 BCE, Darius came to power. He decided it was time to conquer Hellas. First he ordered the Ionian Greeks to build a ship bridge to cross the Danube, so he could pass into the territories of the Thracians and the Scythians, and told them that if he didn't return within 60 days, they had to tear the bridge down. He and his army wandered around in the barren, alien territories for more than two months without encountering an enemy. The Scythians had all fled and had driven their herds away, because they knew that they would not stand a chance against the Persian army in an armed confrontation.

Meanwhile, the Ionians were growing impatient and many wanted to tear down the ship bridge, as had been ordered. Histaios of Miletus, however, the local tyrant, convinced his colleagues otherwise and ordered everyone to wait, hoping for a reward of some kind when Darius returned. However, the circles around Darius did not trust Histaios, and he was made advisor in Darius' court instead of getting greater power in Asia Minor. His son-in-law became ruler of Milteus and Darius' brother, Artaphernes, was installed as ruler in Sardes.

Around the year 500, inhabitants of the isle of Naxos (in the Aegean) drove away the nobles. They, in turn, went to Miletus and asked Aristagoras for help. Knowing he couldn't offer this by himself, he called for help with the Persian viceroy Artaphernes. With permission of the Great King, he gave Aristagoras 200 ships in return for gold and gifts, and set sail for Naxos under the command of Megabetes to reinforce the troops of Aristagoras. However, there was some amount of rivarly between both expedition leaders. There was an incident in which Megabetes had punished a captain who had not fulfilled his duties, and Aristagoras had freed him again, which Megabetes considered an undermining of his authority. He was so upset by this that he sent a message to Naxos that they had to fortify their walls and begin stockpiling food supplies because there was an enemy coming. After months of beleaguering Naxos they had to return and to Asia Minor. There he incited the Greeks to rise up against the Persian king. This marked the beginning of the Ionian revolt.

This was the perfect moment for Histaios to get into the mix. He obtained permission from Darius to go to Ionia, but first sent a slave to Miletus, with a message burnt on its forehead. The message called upon all citizens to jointly oppose the Persians. He did not want to be a tyrant anymore and would turn Miletus into a democracy. Soon, the other Greek cities followed this example. Aristagoras was sent to Sparta to find help to defeat the Persians. Sparta refused help, but Athens was found prepared to send 20 vessels. They landed in Ephese, marched to Sardes and set the city on fire, pillaging it completely. Artaphernes remained in his keep all the while and let the city burn and fall under his eyes. On their way back, however, the Athenians were defeated. Aristagoras fled Asia Minor and went to Thracia, where he remained until his death. Darius allegedly had himself reminded every day not to forget the Athenians.


In 494 BCE, four years after the Athenians had helped the Ionians, the revolt was slain. Miletus was punished more severely than other cities and was, in spite of its heavy fortifications, captured. The temple of Apollo in Didyma was burnt down, as had been predicted by the Branchidae priests. Eight years after Sardes had been destroyed, the king decided to take revenge. General Mardonius got the command to occupy Greece and to bring back those Athenians responsible for the sacking of Sardes. He crossed the Dardanelles and marched through Thrakia and Makedonia. The fleet and another part of the army would join him in the dangerous mountains of Athos. However, because of the many attacks of wild tribes his army had suffered, and the bad weather, Mardonius returned to Persia.

During the following two years Darius made new preparations to conquer Greece. He sent for earth and water in each Greek city-state. Sparta and Athens were amazed at the barbarity of the Persian king, who asked free states for earth and water. In Sparta the messenger was thrown into a pit where he could amass enough water and earth for his king and in Athens he suffered a similar fate. In the spring of 490 BCE, the Persian army landed on the isle of Euboea and plundered the city of Eretria. Then the army went on to Attika. On the plains of Marathon, 100 000 Persian soldiers stood against 10 000 Greek soldiers. The Greek armies, lead by eight generals, disagreed on a strategy and asked their supreme general, Kallimachos, for advice. However, the fame the Greeks would acquire in Marathon would not be his but Miltiades'. Miltiades wanted to engage in combat as quickly as possible, without waiting for reinforcements from other cities. He got permission from Kallimachos to attack promptly.

At a given moment a messenger was sent to Sparta to ask for help. His name was Philipides. Allegedly, he met the satyr god Pan in an open spot in the middle for a forest. Pan told Philipides that he would help the Athenians defeat Persia if they would honour him again. After this encounter, Philipides went to Sparta where he obtained the help he sought, although the Spartans wanted to wait until full moon to engage in the war. Legend has that Philipides crossed the distance Sparta-Athens (about 800 km) in only two days. When he told what had happened to him along the way, the Athenians regained their courage to fight and rejoined the the 1000 soldiers from Plataea. The Plataeans were fighting alongside the Athenians out of gratefulness because Athens had already helped them in the past.

The camp of the Greeks was built on a hill top. Everything remained calm the first days. Then Miltiades, recognised as leader by the other generals, decided to attack. Armies at that time consisted of three parts: a left, right and central phalanx. Because the central part reinforced the flanks, the Persians' centre was weaker than that of their opponent. The Greeks ran down the hill. Their charge possessed an unstoppable force and is said to have split the Persian army into two halves. One part of their massive force was driven to the sea, and the other one was driven into a small swamp at the other end of the plains. The soldiers that escaped the Greek blades tried to get back to their fleet, which had already been captures by the victors. In the battles at the coast, Kallimachos was killed.

Miltiades, now the triumphant hero, thought the Athenians would grant him everything. He asked a fleet to bring gold and other jewels to Athens. He got it, but for some reason set sail for the isle of Pros where he attacked the city until he was seized by a tremendous pain at the gates of a sanctuary of Demeter. When he returned he was avoided, and was forced to pay a large sum of money. Before he could atone for his hybris and his fit of greed he died.


Darius was seething with anger when he learnt of his army's defeat. He spent the next three years working on a new expedition but died before he could complete it. He was succeeded by his son Xerxes, who also had ambitions to conquer Greece. And so, the third Persian war started after Xerxes had annexed Thracia and Macedonia.

Themistokles and Aristeides, who had also fought at the battle of Marathon, had become leaders of Athens. While Themistokles was preparing Greece for a new war, a war which they didn't really think of, Aristeides did the opposite. It is said that he was financially corrupted and indulged in all pleasures imaginable while Themistokles was concerned with serious matters. The port extension of Piraeus (comparable to Rome's Ostia) was built on a rock near Athens after the ordinary port was relinquished because it had become to small for the fleet – to small for the kind of fleet Themistokles wanted, a fleet that could withstand the power of the Persian navy. Aristeides opposed these naval plans and felt the armies should be reinforced instead.
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