The early history of Athens is inextricably interwoven with mythology, making it impossible to disentangle fact from fiction. What is known is that the hill-top site of the Acropolis, with two abundant springs, drew some of Greece’s earliest Neolithic settlers. When a peaceful agricultural existence gave way to the war-orientated city-states, the Acropolis provided an ideal defensive position.
By 1400 BC the Acropolis had become a powerful Mycenaean city. It survived the Dorian assault in 1200 BC but didn’t escape the dark age that enveloped Greece for the next 400 years. Little is known of this period.
After its emergence from the dark age in the 8th century BC, a period of peace followed, during which Athens became the artistic centre of Greece, excelling in ceramics. The geometric vase designs from the dark age evolved into a narrative style, depicting scenes from everyday life and mythology (known as the Proto-Attic style).
By the 6th century BC, Athens was ruled by aristocrats and generals. Labourers and peasants had no say in the functioning of the city until the reform3-oriented Solon became arhon (chief magistrate) in 594 BC and improved the lot of the poor. Regarded as the harbinger of Athenian democracy, Solon’s most significant reforms were the annulment of debts and the implementation of trial by jury. Continuing unrest over the reforms created the pretext for the tyrant Peisistratos, formerly head of the military, to seize power in 560 BC.
Peisistratos built up a formidable navy and extended the boundaries of Athenian influence on land. A patron of the arts, he inaugurated the Festival of the Great Dionysia, the precursor of Attic drama, and commissioned many splendid sacred and secular buildings – most of which were destroyed by the Persians.
Peisistratos was succeeded by his tyrant son Hippias in 528 BC. Athens managed to rid itself of this oppressor in 510 BC with the help of Sparta. Hippias went to Persia and returned with Darius 20 years later, only to be defeated at the Battle of Marathon.
After Athens finally repulsed the Persian Empire at the battles of Salamis and Plataea (again, with the help of Sparta), its power knew no bounds.
In 477 BC Athens established a confederacy on the sacred island of Delos and demanded tributes from the surrounding islands to protect them from the Persians. It was little more than a standover racket because the Persians were no longer much of a threat. The treasury was moved to Athens in 461 BC and Pericles (ruler from 461 to 429 BC) used the money to transform the city. This period has become known as Athens’ golden age, the pinnacle of the classical era.
Most of the monuments on the Acropolis today date from Athens’ golden age. Drama and literature flourished in the form of the tragedies written by such luminaries as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The sculptors Pheidias and Myron and the historians Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon also lived during this time.
Sparta did not sit back and let Athens revel in its new-found glory. The jockeying for power between the two led to the Peloponnesian Wars in 431 BC, which dragged on until 404 BC, when Sparta gained the upper hand. Athens was never to return to its former glory. The 4th century BC did, however, produce three of the West’s greatest orators and philosophers: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The degeneracy into which Athens had fallen was perhaps epitomised by the ignominious death sentence passed on Socrates for the crime of corrupting the young with his speeches.
In 338 BC, along with the other city-states of Greece, Athens was conquered by Philip II of Macedon. After Philip’s assassination, his son Alexander the Great, a cultured young man, favoured Athens over other city-states. After Alexander’s untimely death, Athens passed in quick succession through the hands of several of his generals.
Athens continued to be a major seat of learning under Roman rule, when many wealthy young Romans attended Athens’ schools. Anybody who was anybody in Rome at the time spoke Greek. The Roman emperors, particularly Hadrian, graced Athens with many grand buildings.
After the subdivision of the Roman Empire into east and west, Athens remained an important cultural and intellectual centre until Emperor Justinian closed its schools of philosophy in 529. The city declined into an outpost of the Byzantine Empire.
Between 1200 and 1450, Athens was continually invaded – by the Franks, Catalans, Florentines and Venetians, all opportunists preoccupied with grabbing principalities from the crumbling Byzantine Empire.
Athens was captured by the Turks in 1456, and nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule followed. The Acropolis became the home of the Turkish governor, the Parthenon was converted into a mosque, and the Erechtheion was used as a harem.
In the early stages of the War of Independence (1821–27), fierce fighting broke out in the streets of Athens, with the city changing hands several times between Turks and Greek liberators. In 1834 Athens superseded Nafplio as the capital of independent Greece and King Otho set about transforming the sparsely populated, war-scarred town into something worthy of a capital. Bavarian architects created a city of imposing neoclassical buildings, tree-lined boulevards, flower gardens and squares. Sadly, many of these buildings have been demolished. The best surviving examples are on Leoforos Vasilissis Sofias and Panepistimiou.
Athens grew steadily throughout the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and enjoyed a brief heyday as the ‘Paris of the eastern Mediterranean’. This ended abruptly in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne, which resulted in nearly a million refugees from Turkey descending on Athens – an event that marked the beginning of its much-maligned concrete sprawl.
Athens suffered appallingly during the German occupation of WWII, during which time more Athenians were killed by starvation than by the enemy. This suffering was perpetuated in the civil war that followed.
The industrialisation programme launched during the 1950s, with the help of US aid, brought another population boom as people from the islands and mainland villages moved to Athens in search of work.
The colonels’ junta (1967–74), with characteristic insensitivity, tore down many of the old Turkish houses of Plaka and the neoclassical buildings of King Otho’s time. But the junta failed to tackle the chronic infrastructure problems resulting from such rapid and unplanned growth. The elected governments that followed in the late 1970s and 1980s didn’t do much better, and by the end of the 1980s, the city had developed a sorry reputation as one of the most traffic clogged and polluted in Europe.
The 1990s were a turning point, with politicians finally accepting the need for radical solutions. Inspired initially by the failed bid to stage the 1996 Olympics, authorities embarked on an ambitious programme to drag the city into the 21st century. The 2004 Olympics deadline fast-tracked projects that had been on the drawing board for years and forced many more changes across the public and private sectors. Key elements were a major expansion of the road and underground metro network, and the construction of a new international airport.
As Athens absorbed more than 600,000 migrants, legal and illegal, the city’s social fabric was also changing, presenting a new set of challenges.
After a frantic, suspense-filled period of construction and doomsaying, Athens surprised much of the world by pulling off a successful Olympic Games in 2004. Billions of euros were poured into the city’s redevelopment, from transport infrastructure and stadiums to pedestrian zones around the historic centre. Major beautification projects removed ugly billboards, paved footpaths, redeveloped the city’s parks and squares, and mass-planted trees and plants. The Olympics legacy is that Athens today is a radically different city – a more attractive, cleaner, greener and more efficient capital, though it is still a work in progress and still battling with basic infrastructure issues like waste management.