Neolithic remains (5000 B.C.) have been found showing that the area was inhabited well before the 6th century B.C. The name Athens stems from the goddess Athena and the focal point is the Acropolis. While other parts of the ancient Greek world rose to spectacular levels of civilization, Athens was just one of the city-states.
Around 620 B.C., an Athenian ruler called Draco initiated the first steps towards order. His reputation for strictness comes down to us in the use of the term Draconian to indicate severe measures. This was further developed by another Athenian called Solon. He brought about constitutional reform, allowed free elections and involved all social classes, except slaves, in the process of government.
After a period of tyranny (Peisistratos and Sons), Athens grew steadily greater, its independence threatened only by the Persians, first in 490 B.C. when they were defeated at Marathon, and again in 480 – 479 B.C. when Athenians were forced to flee from their city before beating the Persians decisively at sea at Salamis (an island near Piraeus). However, temples and monuments on the Acropolis were destroyed by the Persians. It was during the time of Pericles, the golden age of Athens, that the Parthenon and later the Porpylaea and the Erechteion were built. Athens became the leading naval power of the day, the bastion of democracy, and the center of cultural and intellectual activity. This age saw such great minds as Herodotus, the first Greek historian, Thucydides, who recorded the events of the Peloponnesian War, and the great classical dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, whose works were performed in the Theater of Dionysus.
However, the greatness of the Athenian Empire was jealously watched by the Spartans, and in 431 B.C., the Peloponnesian War began. It was to last for thirty years, during which time Greece relapsed into chaos with the collapse of Athens. Tyranny and political corruption set in – humorously recorded during this period in the comedies of Aristophanes.
From 370 onwards, Athens began to make a recovery and soon regained both its naval power and cultural, intellectual reputation with such brilliant minds as Plato and Xenophon. Macedonia then became a political force under Philip and Athens was specially regarded by Alexander, whose Macedonian tutor, Aristotle taught at the Lyceum in the city.
In 146 B.C., Athens fell under the rule of the new rising power, the Romans, who were to remain for over 500 years. The city, however, flourished under their patronage (Hadrian). It was fashionable in the Roman world to be educated in Athens (Cicero and Horace). In 529 C.E., the Roman Emperor Justinian decreed the schools of philosophy to be closed. The emergence of Christianity caused the downfall of the city, although ironically, Greek was the language of the new religion.
The concept of tourism emerges during this period also. The wealthy Romans were keen travellers who loved the ancient classical world which they emulated. They traveled widely in Greece, reserving the best of their attention for Athens. A thriving trade in antiques and works of art also developed since they were eagerly sought after by the Romans for the decoration of their villas.
Under Byzantine domination, Athens diminished in importance. After the fall of Contantinople to the Crusaders in 1204, Athens fell to Boniface III Marquis of Monferrat as his share of the old Byzantine Empire. The power of Frankish Greece was eventually destroyed by the Catalans of Spain around 1311. After the rule of the Sicilians came the Venetians, then came four centuries of occupation by the Turks from 1462.
In 1834, Athens became the capital of liberated Greece. During World War I, the city was occupied by British and French troops, while in World War II, suffered under German occupation. The modern city was designed and constructed by Bavarian architects, since the first King of Greece was the Bavarian Prince Otto.
The Plaka, near the Acropolis was designated to be the old Athens, and it survives with all the character, interest and wonder that its long history attaches to it.
The Agora was the central meeting place of ancient Athens. It was both the market place and the heart of Athenian daily life. The Stoa of Attalos, King of Pergamum, was built as a trading center in 159 B.C. It was reconstructed by the American School of Classical Studies and houses finds from excavation in the area. To the east is the area of the Roman Forum, begun in the reign of Julius Caesar and completed under Hadrian.
The Plaka today consists of a mixture of ancient Greek and Roman ruins, Byzantine churches, Turkish mosques and nineteenth centrury houses.
The Athenian Acropolis stands alone in its unique combination of grandeur, beauty and historical associations. In Classical times the Pantheanic Way ended in a ramp straight up, but the modern approach is different. The Propylae, a monumental gateway designed by Mnesicles to replace an earlier entrance, its axis aligned to that of the Parthenon. It provides the only example, before Hellenistic times, of designing one building in direct relationship to another. Built of Pentelic marble, it remained intact till the 13th century, after which the Franks and Turks, as well as lightning strikes and war damaged it and altered it proportions.
The Temple of Athena Nike was built in 427 B.C. to commemorate the victory of the Athenians over the Persians.
The Parthenon represents the culmination of the Doric style of architecture. It was erected in 447 – 438 as the cardinal feature of Pericles plan. Ictinus was the architect an Pheidias supervised the whole of the sculptures.
In the sixth century B.C., it was converted to a Christian Church. Under Justianian, dedicated to Saint Sophia (the Holy Wisdom), then to the Virgin Mother of God (Theotokos). Then as a cathedral of the Frankish dukes it followed the Latin rite. During the Ottoman occupation it became a mosque and was destroyed by the Venetians in the seventeenth century.
The Erechteion is the most original specimen of Greek architecture. A joint shrine of Athena and Poseidon Erechteus was finished after 395 B.C., and owes its curious plan to the sacrosanct nature of the sanctuaries that preceded it. Like the Parthenon it became known by a name that originally applied only to one of its parts.
The Kerameikos includes the ruins of the Dipylon and Sacred Gates. Here roads from Eleusis, Piraeus and Boetia converged upon that from the Academy (Plato’s Academy), so that by this way most ancient travellers entered the city.
Cemeteries existed in this area from the 12th century B.C. By the 7th century the inner area becomes a quarter of potters and smiths and the outer, which is the cemetery, is separated by the city wall. The Academy road outside the Gate becomes the Demosion Sema, the cemetery reserved for state tombs and cenotaps. It is here that Pericles delivered the famous oration (Thycydides).