Few cities in the world have a history as deep and glorious as Athens does. It's sobering to consider that scarcely an idea is discussed in the present day that was not already debated in this city millennia ago, by the great philosophers, dramatists and historians of Ancient Greece. No wonder, then, that Athenians might well refer to Pericles or Hadrian with a familiarity that suggests they're still alive today.
Feature: Contest for Athens
The founding of Athens is enshrined in myth. Phoenician king Kekrops, the story goes, founded a city on a huge rock near the sea. The gods of Olympus proclaimed that it should be named for the deity who could provide the most valuable legacy for mortals. Athena (goddess of wisdom, among other things) produced an olive tree, symbol of peace and prosperity. Poseidon (god of the sea) struck a rock with his trident, creating a saltwater spring, to signify great maritime power. It was a close contest, but the gods judged that Athena’s gift, which would provide food, oil and fuel, would better serve the citizens – though of course Athens today draws its wealth from Poseidon's domain as well.
Feature: Early History
The archaeological record of Athens' earliest years shows only that the hilltop site of the Acropolis, with two abundant springs, drew some of Greece’s earliest Neolithic settlers.
By 1400 BC the Acropolis had become a powerful Mycenaean city. It survived a Dorian assault in 1200 BC but didn’t escape the dark age that enveloped Greece for the next 400 years. Then, in the 8th century BC, during a period of peace, Athens became the artistic centre of Greece, excelling in ceramics.
By the 6th century BC, Athens was ruled by aristocrats and generals. Labourers and peasants had no rights until Solon, the harbinger of Athenian democracy, became arhon (chief magistrate) in 594 BC and improved the lot of the poor by forgiving debts and establishing a process 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 a formidable navy and extended the boundaries of Athenian influence. A patron of the arts, he inaugurated the Festival of the Great Dionysia, the precursor to Attic drama, and commissioned many splendid works, most of which were later destroyed by the Persians.
In 528 BC, Peisistratos was succeeded by his son, Hippias, no less an oppressor. With the help of Sparta in 510 BC, Athens rid itself of him.
Feature: Athens' Golden Age
The Persian Wars began in 490 BC, when King Darius, angered by Greek meddling in Persian territory, sent troops to teach a lesson. He was defeated at Marathon, but his son, Xerxes, retaliated by sacking Athens. At the battles of Salamis (480 BC) and Plataea (479 BC), the Athenians, again, with the help of Sparta, repulsed the Persians for good. From here, the city-state's 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. The treasury was moved to Athens in 461 BC and Pericles, ruler from 461 BC 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 this period. Drama and literature flourished due to such luminaries as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The sculptors Pheidias and Myron and the historians Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon also lived during this time.
Feature: Rivalry with Sparta
Sparta did not let Athens revel in its newfound glory. Cooperation gave way to competition and the Peloponnesian Wars, which began in 431 BC and dragged on until 404 BC. Sparta gained the upper hand and Athens never returned to its former glory. But one of the fighters who survived the wars was Socrates, who went on to teach Plato, who, in turn, taught Aristotle. The 4th century BC was a high point in classical philosophy.
In 338 BC Athens was conquered by Philip II of Macedon, and his son Alexander (soon to be known as the Great) favoured Athens over other city-states. After Alexander’s untimely death, however, Athens passed in quick succession through the hands of his generals.
Feature: Roman & Byzantine Rule
The Romans defeated the Macedonians, and in 86 BC attacked Athens after it sided against them in a botched rebellion in Asia Minor. They destroyed the city walls and took precious sculptures to Rome. During three centuries of peace under Roman rule, known as the 'Pax Romana', Athens continued to be a major seat of learning. The Romans adopted Hellenistic culture: many wealthy young Romans attended Athens schools and anyone who was anyone in Rome spoke Greek. The Roman emperors, particularly Hadrian, graced Athens with many grand buildings.
In the late 4th century, Christianity became the official religion of Athens and worship of the 'pagan' Greek gods was outlawed. 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 AD 529. Athens declined and, between 1200 and 1450, was continually invaded – by the Franks, Catalans, Florentines and Venetians, all preoccupied with grabbing principalities from the crumbling Byzantine Empire.
Feature: Ottoman Rule & Independence
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 to a mosque and the Erechtheion became a harem.
On 25 March 1821, the Greeks launched the War of Independence, declaring independence in 1822. Fierce fighting broke out in the streets of Athens, which changed hands several times. Britain, France and Russia eventually stepped in and destroyed the Turkish–Egyptian fleet in the famous Battle of Navarino in October 1827.
Initially the city of Nafplio was named Greece's capital. After elected president Ioannis Kapodistrias was assassinated in 1831, Britain, France and Russia again intervened, declaring Greece a monarchy. The throne was given to 17-year-old Prince Otto of Bavaria, who transferred his court to Athens. It became the Greek capital in 1834, even though, after so many residents fled the 1827 siege, it was little more than a sleepy town of about 6000. At Otto's behest, Bavarian architects created imposing neoclassical buildings, tree-lined boulevards and squares.
In 1862 Otto was overthrown after a period of power struggles, including the British and French occupation of Piraeus, aimed at quashing the 'Great Idea' – Greece’s doomed expansionist goal. The imposed sovereign was Danish Prince William, crowned as Prince George in 1863.
Feature: The 20th Century
Athens' most senior citizens have lived through severe trauma in the 20th century. WWI was stressful, but the greatest change came after, when more than a million refugees arrived in Greece, first from the burning of Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey) in 1922, then due to the population exchange mandated by the Treaty of Lausanne the next spring. Hundreds of thousands settled in Athens, doubling the city population in a matter of months.
WWII proved a tragic correction, especially during the three-year German occupation, when famine set in. More Athenians died from starvation than were killed by the enemy. The suffering only continued during the bitter civil war that followed.
A 1950s industrialisation program, launched with the help of US aid, brought a population boom, as people from the islands and mainland villages moved to Athens in search of work. The colonels' junta (1967–74) tore down many of the old Turkish houses of Plaka and the neoclassical buildings of King Otto's time. The elected governments that followed didn't do much better, and by the end of the 1980s the city had a reputation as one of the most traffic-clogged, polluted and dysfunctional in Europe.
In the 1990s, as part of an initial bid to host the Olympics, authorities embarked on an ambitious program to drag the city into the 21st century. Athens finally won the competition to host the 2004 Olympics, a deadline that fast-tracked infrastructure projects.
At the same time, Athens, a lively capital on the edge of Europe, was becoming more of a global destination for labour and safe harbour. In one decade, the city absorbed more than half a million migrants, a dramatic demographic shift.
Feature: The New Millennium
The 2004 Olympics legacy was a cleaner, greener and more efficient capital, and booming economic growth. But the optimism and fiscal good times were short-lived, as it became clear the country had overborrowed. In 2010, the Greek debt crisis set in, with strict austerity measures. This and the mass arrival of refugees starting in 2015 are the two defining elements of Athens today.
- Mythological past
The goddess Athena wins a contest with Poseidon to become protector, patroness and namesake of a new city. Her gift to Athens: the olive tree.
- 594 BC
Solon, a ruling aristocrat in Athens, introduces rules of fair play to his citizenry. His radical rule-changing – in effect creating human and political rights – is credited as being the first step to real democracy.
- 461–429 BC
In what is now considered the golden age of Ancient Greece, Pericles rules Athens and orders the construction of most of the temples of the Acropolis. Democracy, in the form of the Athenian Council, flourishes.
- 399 BC
Socrates stands trial, accused of corrupting the young with pedagogical speeches. A jury condemns him to death. Rather than appealing for voluntary exile, Socrates defiantly accepts a cup of hemlock.
- AD 117–138
Roman Emperor Hadrian takes special interest in Athens, considering it the cultural capital of his empire. He invests heavily in both grand temples and transformative infrastructure.
Christianity is declared the official religion. All pagan worship of Greek and Roman gods is outlawed. Christian theology supplants classical philosophy.
Greece becomes a dominion of the Ottoman Turks after they seize control of Constantinople, sounding the death knell for the Byzantine Empire.
On 25 March, Bishop Germanos of Patra (a member of the Filiki Eteria) signals the beginning of the War of Independence on the mainland. Greece celebrates this date as its national day of Independence.
The staging of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens marks Greece's coming of age. Winners receive a silver medal and olive crown, and second and third places receive a bronze medal and a laurel branch respectively.
The hardest years of WWII, when the German occupation and an Allied blockade leads to mass famine in Athens. At certain points, more than 1000 people die each day.
Athens successfully hosts the 28th Summer Olympic Games, completing a major urban makeover in the nick of time. Greece also wins the European football championship.