Monday, June 10, 2013

Athens: Beginnings to 479 BC

The two most important municipal states in Hellenia between 800 and 300 BC were Sparta and Athens. Sparta dominated the large peninsula called the Peloponnese while Athens controlled the area known as Attica.

People had settled at the site of Athens before 3000 BC. They first built the city on a hilltop surrounded by a fertile plain about 12 miles (20 km) from the Mediterranean Sea.

According to tradition, both Athena and Poseidon wanted to be the patron god of the city. Citizens held a contest: whichever god gave the city the best gift would be its patron. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and gave the city a spring of water symbolizing naval power. Athena created for them the olive tree promising peace and prosperity. The citizens chose Athena. The story of this contest was later celebrated in a series of marble statues created for the temple of Athena and in the words of Herodotus, Ovid, and Plutarch.

By 1400 BC the city was an important center of Mycenean civilization. Around 1200, however, that civilization collapsed. Athens, however, recovered more quickly than other cities. By 900 the city was the center of brisk trade and inhabitants had been able to build a defensive wall around it.

By 700 the municipal state of Athens had become the largest and richest in Hellenia. The leaders in smaller surrounding cities, however, resented the rule of the elite in Athens. They grew increasingly uncooperative.

Rulers in Athens responded by appointing Draco in 621 to create the first set of written (vs. oral) laws. These laws made clear the burdens the inhabitants of these smaller cities had to bear and the penalties for not doing so. Athenian creditors could enslave debtors and could have people guilty of even minor offences put to death. These laws, however, were draconian, too severe, and failed in their purpose.

The rulers then appointed Solon in 594 to create another constitution for their municipal state. He did better. Solon made both economic and political reforms. Athenian citizens could not be enslaved, the number of men controlling land was greatly enlarged, and restrictions on trade were lifted. Politically, even the poorest male citizens were given the right to vote in the Assembly for the first time.

This constitution, after many variations in acceptance and rejection, became the basis for the Athenian democracy established under Cleisthenes. He overthrew an unpopular dictator in 510, with the help of an army from Sparta (of all places), and succeeded in reintroducing democracy in 508.

In 498, Athenian rulers sent soldiers to Hellenian cities along the west coast of Anatolia to aid them in their revolt against Persian rule. These soldiers even joined their Anatolian allies in burning down the Persian regional capital of Sardis. This seriously displeased the Persian emperor Darius 1st (550-486; r. 520). Persians armies eventually ended these revolts.

Darius 1st decided to invade Hellenia and punish Athens in 490 BC. Miltiades led Athenian soldiers to a surprising victory over the invading Persian army at the Battle of Marathon. Tradition tells us that an Athenian soldier named Pheidippides ran the 25 miles (40 km) from Marathon to Athens right after the battle, yelled “Rejoice! We win!” upon reaching city leaders, then fell dead from exhaustion. People today still run marathons in celebration of this victory and his sacrifice.

The Persian threat remained. Xerxes (518-465, r. 486), son of Darius, led an army of perhaps 120,000 soldiers to Hellenia in 480. Leonidas, king of Sparta, led 300 Spartans and perhaps 1,000 other Hellenians in a heroic last stand at Thermopylae. Xerxes and his army soon established their headquarters in Thebes whose leaders, to their enduring disgrace, allied themselves with the Persians against their fellow Hellenians.

As the Persian army advanced toward Athens, the Athenians abandoned their city to protect their fleet. The Persians captured Athens and burned it down. With their fleet intact, however, Themistocles was able to defeat the much larger Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis (480). This forced Xerxes to retreat from Hellenia with most of his army. The following year (479) in Plataea, 38 miles (60 km) northwest of Athens, a Hellenian army led by Spartans and Athenians decisively defeated the Persian army and ended Persian invasions of Hellenia.

These stunning victories at Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea over armies of the Persian empire led to an explosion of creativity in Athens that we rightly celebrate to this day.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.