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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Into the New Millennium
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 such as the expansion of the metro and a new airport.
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.
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.
After the Crisis
Taking in Athens' busy streets and lively cafes, you may not immediately see i krisi – the financial crisis that Greeks have been labouring under since 2010. Conditions here are better than many other parts of the country, but tax hikes and drastic pension cuts – imposed as terms of a series of bailout loans from the EU and the International Monetary Foundation – have touched everyone. Greece suffers some of the highest unemployment rates in Europe; many have fled Athens for jobs in other countries.
The austerity measures have also widened Greece's stark economic and social disparities. Homelessness, suicides, drug use and once-rare burglary and even violent crime have risen. Youth unemployment hovers around 45% and the elderly struggle to get by on pensions that have been cut by 40%
There was brief hope in 2015, when the Syriza party came to power and promised to take a strong stand against austerity measures. But just three days after Greeks voted a resounding 'no' in a referendum on accepting bailouts, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras capitulated to another bailout deal. People reacted with rage, mass strikes and violent clashes with the police.
August 2018 marked the end of the last bailout period. So far, the economic indicators are showing faint promise. However, even if the economy grows at 2 per cent a year, it will not return to its pre-crisis size for at least another decade. And it will be years before the despair and anxiety fully lifts.