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Ancient Athens

Updated on November 1, 2009

Athens was named for Athena, goddess of wisdom, the city's patron. When the city first appeared in history, its population was grouped in families and tribes. Athens was gov­erned by kings claiming descent from Erechtheus, who according to legend was an early king of Athens and later was deified. In the late 700's and early 600's B.C. the monarchy was superseded by an oligarchy of archons (magistrates) elected by the Athenian aristocracy.

A social crisis led to constitutional and eco­nomic reforms promulgated by Solon in 594 B.C. Pisistratus seized power in 560 and, except for two brief intervals, ruled as a popular and benevolent dictator until his death in 527. He was suc­ceeded by his sons Hipparchus and Hippias. After Hippias was overthrown in 510, a struggle broke out between those who favored oligarchy and those who favored democracy. The demo­crats won and in 508 Cleisthenes introduced re­forms that made Athens the first democracy.

In 480 B.C., the Persians under Xerxes I captured and burned Athens. In the struggle that followed, Athens emerged in ruins but victorious, and its authority as leader of the Ionian Greeks was firmly established. Its geographical position ensured rapid commercial progress. Under the leadership of Cimon (about 468-461) and Pericles (about 461-429), Athens became a great imperial power. The 60 years following the Persian Wars were the great creative age in Athens.

Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Socrates all flourished at this time. But the Peloponnesian War (431-404) impoverished Athens. The city surrendered to Sparta and took second place in Greek affairs.

In the 300's B.C., Athens revived, but it struggled unsuccessfully against the rising power of Macedon. Athens retained a measure of autonomy under Alexander the Great (reigned 336-323) and kept its cultural preeminence. In 146 B.C., when the Greek cities were placed under the Roman governor of Macedonia, Athens kept its autonomy, but the city was sacked by Sulla, in the year 86, and in 27 it became part of the Roman province of Achaea. Although Athens ceased to be politically important, it was regarded as the great university city of the Roman world. In the 100's A.D., under Hadrian and the Antonines, it revived as a great commercial center.

After about 300 A.D., Athens began to decline as a cultural center. Under Byzantine rule from the late 300's to 1453, the city was unable to compete with Constantinople.


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