Overview of Athens


History of Athens


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Greece is considered to be the birthplace of Western civilisation. According to Greek mythology a competition took place between the goddess of wisdom Athena and the sea god Poseidon. The people of Athens chose the former as their protector. The myth can be seen as an allegory of the historical strengths of Athens as a city associated both with learning and sea power.

Athens was first settled some five thousand years ago. By 1400 BC the area had become an important centre in the Mycenaean civilization. Thanks to Athens’ strategic location the city occupied a privileged place in the Greek world and from early in the first millennium BC Athens was a sovereign city-state, ruled by a series of mythical or semi-historical kings. A political state had yet to arise in Athens and four tribes, based upon family relationships, dominated. During this period Athens absorbed the other towns on the plain of Attica thus creating the largest and wealthiest state on the Greek mainland. A class of people excluded from this wealth, and from political life in general, also came into being however. By the 7th century BC social unrest had become widespread and a new code of law was created by Draco (hence the term "draconian"). These reforms did not satisfy the population for long and so Solon was eventually appointed to create a new constitution in 594 BC. The enslavement of Athenian citizens as a punishment for debt became outlawed, the large landed estates were broken up in order to boost free trade and commerce, and the poor majority of the population received political rights for the first time. Only the upper classes could hold political office however. The political and legal initiatives put in place at this time system laid the foundations for what would eventually become Athenian democracy.

In 490 BC the Athenians resisted the first invasion of the Persians, under the guidance of King Darius. In 480 BC the Persians then returned to attack Athens under their new ruler, Xerxes. The Spartans were the dominant Greek force in the region at that time, but they were celebrating a religious festival when the Persians attacked and could only send 300 soldiers to meet them. The heroic Spartans died as they temporarily blocked the flow of the 200,000 men of Xerxes but eventually Athens had to be evacuated. The Athenians and their allies later defeated the vastly superior Persian fleet: Sparta's hegemony was passing to Athens and the Athenians subsequent victories lead to the creation of the Athenian-dominated Delian League.

The other Greek city-states resented Athens’ hold on the region: this led to the Peloponnesian War of 431 BC which resulted in Athens losing its command of the sea. In 338 BC the armies of Philip II effectively ended Athenian independence. The famed military successes of his son Alexander the Great made the traditional Greek city-state obsolete. Athens remained a wealthy city and a major centre of culture and learning for the next four hundred years but had lost its independent political power.

In the 2nd century AD the Greek territory was annexed to the Roman Empire and Roman rule in Athens lasted for five hundred years. Athens had a special status under Rome due to its widely admired schools and the city remained a centre of learning and philosophy during Roman occupation. The Roman emperors Nero and Hadrian had temples, a library, and a gymnasium constructed, and improved the city’s infrastructure. The city was sacked by the Germanic Heruli nomads in 267 AD and much of the city was destroyed. The conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity ended the city's role as a centre of learning and the Emperor Justinian closed the schools of philosophy in 529 AD. This date is generally considered to mark the end of the ancient history of Athens.

From 529 AD Athens descended into one of its darkest periods. The once illustrious city-state was reduced to a provincial town during the Byzantine Empire, the Parthenon temple was converted into a church, and many of Athens’ art works were removed to Constantinople. Barbarian raids were commonplace and as the seventh century progressed much of Greece was overrun by Slavs. The one notable figure from this period was Irene of Athens, who was the Byzantine empress from 797 to 802.

By the middle of the 9th century Athens had begun to recover. The city’s fortunes were scarcely affected by the invasion of the Turks in 1071 and the ensuing civil wars. Archaeological evidence shows that Athens experienced a period of rapid and sustained growth in the early Middle Ages and indeed the 11th and 12th centuries correspond to the Golden Age of Byzantine art in Athens.

In 1204, the notorious Fourth Crusade conquered Athens in the name of the Latin Empire or Latin Empire of Constantinople. The Dukes of Burgundy then ruled Athens, followed by the Catalans, and finally the Florentines until 1458 when Athens fell to the Ottoman Empire. The victorious Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II was greatly struck by the beauty of the city’s ancient monuments, but despite his determination to protect the city much damage was caused during the 17th century when Ottoman power was declining. The Turks’ practice of storing gun powder and explosives in the Parthenon and Propylaea and the siege by the Venetians in 1687 led to much damage and destruction. A number of valuable sites and ancient monuments were destroyed to provide building material for a protective city wall built in 1778. Between 1801 and 1805 British Lord Elgin, then living in Athens, removed marble reliefs from the Parthenon. They acquired a new home in the form of London’s British Museum.

In 1822 a local Greek insurgency briefly captured Athens and in 1833 Ottoman forces finally withdrew. Athens was chosen as the capital of the new kingdom of Greece, although by then the city was virtually uninhabited. In 1832, Otto, Prince of Bavaria was proclaimed King of Greece. The following years produced a flowering of new architecture in the city including the construction of the University of Athens, the National Library of Greece, the Old Parliament Building and the Greek National Academy.

The Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922 occurred during the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire following World War I and was disastrous for Greece. Athens experienced its first period of explosive population growth with more than a million Greek refugees entering the territory from Asia Minor. Indeed Athenian suburbs such as Nea Ionia and Nea Smyrni were initially refugee settlements.

In 1941 German forces occupied Athens and besieged the resisting population for two months. Some 300,000 people died of starvation as a result. Following World War II civil war took hold of Greece and Athens was a focal point of the fighting. Rightwing forces, with the support of the West, prevailed, but deep divisions remained in Greek society and a military junta took over in 1967. The monarchy was exiled at this time and Greece remained a dictatorship until 1974. In 1981 Greece joined the EU and as a direct result of European Union aid Athens was able to renew its infrastructure with the construction of the new Athens Airport and a metro system. Thanks in part to its efforts to tackle air pollution Athens was awarded the 2004 Olympic Games.


Update 31/12/2008

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