Episode 02: Classical Athens

Ancient Athens, showing Piraeus A map of ancient Athens, showing the wall which reached down to its port, the Piraeus

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Music on a reconstructed Greek Kithara.

Athens.  Ἀθῆναι.  Twenty-five centuries ago, depending on who you were, that name would inspire pride, fear, devotion, or rage.  Fueled by pride from having repelled an invasion by the seemingly invincible Persians, Athens embarked on a course of action that would make it the first great Western city.    Its hubris would result in disaster, but not before it gave birth to one of the most enduring philosophies in the world.

Athens subway Athens subway

Athens today is a bustling metropolis, dealing with many of the challenges that cities everywhere have to face.  But one challenge is unique—it seems everywhere you look, there are signs of a history that goes back some 45 centuries.  One century spanned the lives of two of Athens’ most famous sons: Socrates, and his student Plato.  It was the age of Pericles, the age of the Parthenon, and it seems all Western history is ultimately viewed in the light of this sunrise.

The dominant power in the Eastern Mediterranean just before this time was the Persian Empire, which stretched from what is now Afghanistan to the Eastern shores of the Aegean Sea.  Many of the cities on that coast had been founded by seafaring Greeks, and around the end of the 6th century BC, a number of them rose up in rebellion against the Persians, with help from their brothers in Athens.  In 490, the emperor Darius launched an invasion to punish Athens and conquer Greece itself, which consisted of a patchwork of small feuding city-states.  It should have been a cakewalk; the Persians had a well-armed professional army and the Greeks were disunited and unaccustomed to Persian weapons.  But they were fiercely independent, and, led by the Athenian army, they defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon.

Darius died in 486, before he could avenge his loss.  That task fell to his son Xerxes who invaded Greece again in 480 with an army said to be of a million men.  The Persians won hard-fought victories on land, but were defeated by the navy of Athens at the battle of Salamis.  This allowed the reinvigorated Greek armies to defeat Xerxes at Plataea the following year.  The mighty Persian army licked its wounds, and left, never to return.

Map of Ancient Greece A map of ancient Greece and the Aegean Sea.

After joining together to fend off the invasion, the Greek city-states—Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes and others–returned to their favorite activity: fighting among themselves. Theirs was a culture that valued courage and honor, and war was their best proving-ground.

Although Athens had routed the Persians on the sea, it had paid a great price; it had been burned and its walls pulled down.  But it used its new-found domination of the sea to establish the Delian League—in name, a mutual protection society of Greek cities in the Aegean, but one that in practice  became an Athenian empire.  Controlling trade in the Aegean, and collecting tribute from other cities, Athens soon became rich beyond anything it had known before.  Athens’ arch-rival, Sparta, formed its own land-based Peloponnesian League, and they were in almost constant conflict.  Fighting small wars in the Aegean kept the Athenian navy occupied, but Athens also developed a sophisticated system of diplomacy which was often attempted before resorting to warfare.

As would be the case with the Florentines during the Italian renaissance, Greeks of this time were surrounded by evidence of an older, more glorious culture. The stories of great heroes contained in the works of Homer, and the physical ruins of temples and statues, reminded them of a great heritage.  With the defeat of the Persians, the Greeks—especially Athenians—began to realize that they too could have heroes like Paris and Odysseus; they too could achieve great things.

Map of Attica, cropped from old public domain map of Greece, from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd A Map of Attica

Athens was the capital of the larger region, or polis, called Attica, which at that time is estimated to have had a population of about 250,000 people—men, women, children, slaves and immigrants called metics.  Of this number, though, only about 30,000 had citizenship, which was reserved for adult men both of whose parents were Athenians.  In his book The Republic, Plato describes four different forms of government, and all except tyranny were present to some extent in Athens.  Even tyrannies existed briefly, although the Athenians would not let them stand.  A timocracy is a system based on honor and competition, and as we’ve seen all the Greek states were eager to prove their valor in war.  An oligarchy, which was the dominant form in many other states, was government by the rich and powerful, and even though the Athenian system contained checks and balances to prevent any one family from getting too much power, money and connections did count and an informal aristocracy did exist.

But Athens and Attica were unique in its commitment to democracy, although it was not one of Plato’s preferred forms. Citizens were divided into 10 tribes or demes, and any citizen had the right to speak (isonomia) in the general assembly, to propose a new law or topic for debate.  A legal system was established that used juries of fellow citizens—usually around 501–to resolve disputes. And because being able to plead your case effectively became important, teachers of reasoning and rhetoric thrived, helping to solidify Athens’ preeminence as the intellectual capital of the Mediterranean.

While much of Attica was agricultural, growing wheat and olive oil and grapes for wine, Athens was essentially a sea-oriented city and its navy policed the Aegean, reducing piracy and helping trade to flourish.  The Piraeus, its port,  was always filled with ships bringing all kinds of goods and making the Greek language and coinage the standard for the eastern Mediterranean. Unlike the more insular Spartans, Athens also welcomed or at least tolerated new ideas and philosophies, which also contributed to its supremacy as an intellectual and cultural center.
     Athens itself was safe from attack for the time being, and it embarked on a rebuilding program that raised architecture and engineering to new heights.  Under its elected ruler Pericles, it built temples, theaters, stadiums, and new defenses, including walls that went from Athens proper down to the Piraeus.  It was one of the first great public works projects in the world, employing men who would otherwise be without work because of the relative peace.

Athena and Herakles

Athena and Herakles. Her helmet is by her side and she carries an owl.

     Temples were built to maintain the good graces of the gods, who were believed to take a direct interest in the affairs of humans, to the extent of sometimes reproducing with them.  The worship of the gods was central to the Greek identity, and the religious holidays and elaborate rituals of animal sacrifice were part of the glue that held Athenian society together.  The most important of the gods for them was of course the city’s namesake—Athena, daughter of Zeus, king of the gods.  She is always depicted wearing a helmet and carrying a spear in her warlike aspect: Athena Promachos, or First Fighter.  But she also is associated with wisdom, and is often seen carrying an owl.

The Parthenon from the SouthThe Parthenon from the South

    And in her aspect as Athena the Virgin, Athena Parthenos, she was honored in the most famous building in Athens, then as now: the Parthenon.  Built in a mere 15 years, beginning in 447, it has served ever since as a model for the perfection of its proportions and execution.

    While the impression is sometimes given that all Athenians at this time were peripatetic in their pursuit of philosophy, it should be noted that life was still a struggle for most of them, and even the rich could not insulate themselves from much of the unpleasantness.  There was still no sanitation system, which resulted in foul smells and occasional plagues.  The diet was very plain and meat was a luxury.  Houses were small and dark, so much of the civic life was lived outdoors.  But still it had a vibrancy that most other cities of the time could only envy, and Athenians were second to none in their pride.

     No better evidence exists of this self-conscious pride the Athenians took in their city and way of life than the words of Pericles, excerpted from an oration given at the mass funeral of the Athenians who died in the early years of the PeloponnesianWar.  As recorded by the historian Thucydides he says, “Our form of government does not enter in rivalry with the institutions of others.  Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them.  It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few.  But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit.  Because of the greatness of our city the fruits of the whole earth flow in upon us; so that we enjoy the goods of other countries as freely as our own….Our city is thrown open to the world, though, and we never expel a foreigner and prevent him from seeing or learning anything of which the secret if revealed to an enemy might profit him.  …We alone do good to our neighbors not upon a calculation interest, but in the confidence of freedom and in a frank and fearless spirit.  To sum up: I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with utmost versatility and grace.” ¹

     It was into this world that Socrates was born, in 469 BC.  We will learn more about him, his student Plato, and their philosophical tradition in the next episode.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.  Special thanks to Richard G. Geldard.

¹  There are many editions of this speech, e.g. Wikisource

Remembering that our subject is the Ideal, for more information on ancient Greece, see suggested books in the sidebar.

Also recommended: Isabelle Pafford’s course at Berkeley

Also Donald Kagan’s course at Yale, although it tends more to the military history.