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Historia of the History of Athens

The Greek word ἱστορία (of course I’m going to tell you about the Greek word) means inquiry or investigation or the learning that happens through inquiry.  There’s a trend in higher ed about how to get students to learn by doing and the inquiry that occurs in the engagement beyond the classroom, and I’ve been struck myself by how I, someone who has dedicated her life to thinking about things Greek, still needed the motivation of a trip to Greece to read and reread Ancient Greek history, mythology and architecture.  I’m trying to be a good student, preparing myself by learning and refreshing my learning in advance so that I can achieve better insight and understanding when I’m there.  I hate the oh-I-should-know-that-feeling and the if-I-knew-more-about-this-I’d-probably-appreciate-it feeling that comes from not having done the research, so this time, I’m hoping that doing my homework lets me have those brilliant serendipitous moments of recognition, connection and clarity.  So you could say I’ve been engaged in a historia of the history of Greece, but especially of Athens. 

Athens is three miles from the sea.  I think I learned this in my college ancient history course, but it didn’t seem like a detail that had any significance.  Turns out, Athens’ proximity to water has tons to do with its history and its politics.  Because it was close to the sea, it was able eventually to develop a strong navy to back up its imperial ambitions.  Because its navy needed rowers to man the triremes, Athens became a democratic city.  At least, that’s what Aristotle thought: “In this way, each popular leader enhanced the power of the people and led them on to the present democracy.  It seems that this did not come about through Solon’s deliberate choice, however, but rather more by accident.  For the common people were the cause of Athens’s naval supremacy during the Persian wars” (Pol. 1274a12).  I guess when you realize how much you are the source of the city’s power, you start to think you should have a say in the way things go in the city.

The Athenians referred to themselves as Erechtheidai, sons of Erechtheus, the archaic king of Athens who was said to be the son of Gaia, the earth goddess. From this mythical origin, the Athenians claimed that they were autochthonous, sprung from the earth, indigenous.  You can imagine the kind of view of foreigners this permitted the Athenians to have: not so much disdaining, but perfectly justified in excluding others from full political engagement.  King Erechtheus is said to have been raised by Athena who won the right for the city to be named after her after a battle with Poseidon.  So there you see, the goddess of wisdom and the god of the sea battle it out in the origin story of Athens.  Wisdom and power in an age-old clash.

According to archaeological evidence, we know that the Acropolis was the center of Mycenaean power. The Mycenaeans were the civilization of Agamemnon and Achilles, Odysseus and Nester, the Achaeans who fought the Trojan War.  Athens survived the downfall of that civilization toward end of second millennium BCE. And it survived what the Greeks themselves called the invasion of the Dorians, though historians and classicists today speculate that this might have been Greek pride explaining a migration into the Peloponnese by non-Greek people — remember, the Athenians were autochthonous, everyone else was an invader.  Hesiod refers to this time as the Iron Age because the discovery and use of iron allowed the invaders/immigrants-who-had-to-fight-to-be-allowed-to-settle much better weaponry and thus ascendancy.  Athens was ruled by Ionian Greeks (from the coast of present-day Turkey), when, around 1065, legend has it, King Codrus sacrificially died in battle to save his country, succeeded by Medon and his descendants until the eighth century BCE when the communities of Attica joined to form Athens, a process attributed to King Theseus.  Plutarch writes: “The lineage of Theseus, on the father’s side, goes back to Erechtheus and the first children of the soil; on the mother’s side, to Pelops. For Pelops was the strongest of the kings in Peloponnesus quite as much on account of the number of his children as the amount of his wealth. ” So Athens was really into being ‘born from the soil,’ autochthonous.  They kind of even had a chip on their shoulder about it, and extended that sense of their autochthony, eventually, to basically, all the Greek soil they could get their hands on.  I’ll get to that.

So between the 11th century and the 6th century, there is a slow dissolution of power from kings–the Athenians called them archons–to aristocrats, and eventually from aristocrats to the masses.  The peasants did not appreciate the concentration of wealth in the aristocrats and this provoked considerable tension.  Enter Solon, who becomes chief archon in 594 / 3 or so Diogenes Laertius tells us.  He is given power to form laws.  His particular laws were called Seisachtheia, the shaking off of burdens, because they involved releasing all peasants from serfdom by the cancellation of any debt for which land or liberty was the security and redemption of all who were sold into slavery and prohibition of borrowing on the security of the person. Solon invested the assembly with legislative powers and made it into a jury where for the first time the people acted as jurors and judges. He also established the boulê which was comprised of 100 members of each tribe. Solons reforms were considered beginnings of democracy, but you can see that while the masses were satisfied now, the tensions didn’t really disappear because now the aristocracy was pissed off that their wealth was being confiscated to pay for those no-good hoi polloi to dawdle in the street and that their wealth didn’t buy them the influence and power it used to.  You can see why Cleisthenes is going to need to introduce ostracism in a couple decades if this is going to work because you gotta get rid of the people who are too powerful or too upset.  And maybe why they’ll need to get rid of Socrates two centuries after Solon.

Solon’s reforms were welcomed, but they also led to some societal upheaval (this is not meant to be an argument for conservatism, but hey, there was fast change and then there were tyrants).  Pisistratus, who along with his kids was called the name you should give your next band, the Peisistratids, set himself up as tyrant. He died in 527 and his sons Hippas and Hipparchus took power. One thing the Peisistratids did which was kind of cool was begin the long tradition of minting the silver coins that have the head of Athena and her own on them.  But then Hipparchus was assassinated and then Hippias was ostracized by an aristocratic revolution supported by Sparta. Aristotle tells us that “the attack on the Pisistratids took place because they abused Harmodius’ sister and showed contempt for Harmodius himself,” in a warning to tyrants not to be so arrogant, because, well, people don’t like to see their sisters abused and themselves disrespected.  Cleisthenes, who is famous for his reforms emerged from the power vacuum left by the Peisistratids, defeating external invasions from Sparta, Chalcis and Boeotia.

I don’t like to claim that the Greeks were obsessed with biopolitics (you know, that their politics focused on life and how it could be controlled and defined), but the Athenians can’t shut up about being autochthonous and then Cleisthenes tries to strengthen democracy by forming tribes that break the associations previously formed by blood lines and forming what Michael Grant in A Guide to the Ancient World calls artificial tribes.  You can see how this sets up the idea that politics is artifice but family is natural.  Aristotle notes that Cleisthenes enrolls many foreigners and aliens into the tribes, a move that seems to challenge the autochthony of the Athens and to curtail their self-understanding in terms of their bloodlines.  Political questions seem forced away from the I’m-right-because-this-is-mine that familial associations permit and even encourage, prompting a new need for consideration and deliberation over what is good.  Cleisthenes tries to further these deliberative efforts by subordinating the boulê and Areopagus to the Ecclesia, the assembly, requiring the assembly to meet regularly.

Then, in 498 the Athenians get caught up with the Persians. They send a fleet to support the unsuccessful revolt of Ionian Greeks against the Persians, but then they are successful against the Persians at Marathon, famously at Salamis, and also at Plataea and Mycale. After these Persian defeats, the Athenians motivate  to consolidate power in the face of Spartan resistance to get involved against Persia. Athens establishes the Delian league which eventually becomes the Athenian empire. Athens establishes long walls to the Piraeus (456) and Phaleron (445) to protect the empire.  Tensions grew with Sparta though Pericles establishes a peace with Sparta in 446 which left Athens free to deal with jumpy allies like Samos. This peace lasted until 431 when Sparta and Athens really go at it for about twenty-five years in a war that Thucydides writes about in The History of the Peloponnesian War.  The Athenians lose the war to their surprise and at the close of the war, the Thirty Tyrants establish themselves / are established as a puppet regime of Sparta.  But they were only in power for thirteen months because they killed a lot of people, ostracized their political enemies, and took whatever property they wanted.  While the Thirty Tyrants didn’t last, some people argue that Athens was never really a democracy again after their reign because they did a good job of entrenching oligarchic interests.

The Athenians try, convict and execute Socrates in 399 BCE.  The Poros building in which Socrates spent his last days has now been identified.  Plato lived from 428/427 to 348/347, the son of Ariston and brother of Glaucon.  Diogenes Laertius writes that Ariston, Plato’s father, traced his ancestry back to King Coedrus, the first king of Athens and to King Malanthus of Messenia.  But Diogenes Laertius could be loosy-goosy with the historical facts, so this is disputed.  Aristotle was born in 384 BCE and died in 322.  Aristotle joined Plato’s Academy at 18 and stayed there until 347–that’s nineteen years to be in college.

During this time, from 378-355 BCE, the Second Athenian Confederacy is established in defense against Sparta and Persia but it is crippled by revolts in 357-354.  The Macedonians see the weakness of the cities to the south of them, and begin their efforts to consolidate an empire, efforts which the Athenians and their former colonies try to resist, but by 338, Philip of Macedonia forces Athens to join a new Hellenic league under Macedonian control.  How’s that for a taste of your own medicine?   Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) becomes emperor after his father, Philip II, and asserts his lineage to the Greek heroes, demanding to be worshipped as a god.  I guess that is to be expected since his father depicted himself as Apollo on the coins he minted.  The Athenians try again to oust the Macedonians in the Chremonidea War 266-262 and were defeated, but the Macedonians then leave in 229 when Athens recovers its independence, and retain a certain kind of freedom even after the Romans took power in 146. In 88-86 BCE, Athens supported the governor of Athens against Rome and Athens was sacked and partially destroyed by Sulla, the Roman general / dictator. The Athenians pleaded their glorious past. But Sulla said he was there to punish rebels not to give lessons in ancient history, which is funny, unless, of course, you’re an Athenian. But still, Cicero and Horace studied in Athens. There is archaeological evidence that shows fourteen Christian basilicas in Athens during the fifth and sixth centuries CE. Julian the Apostate 361-63 CE was a lover of Athens and their philosophical schools were still in business until their closure in 529 CE.

So there you have it.  From the Mycenaeans to the Romans, a thriving metropolis in the center of the world to a little town on the edge of an empire.  If only there was a lesson in all this.

References: Moses I. Finley, The Ancient GreeksMichael Grant, A Guide to the Ancient World.

Updated May 24, 2014, 10:20: Grammar corrections.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Anne Schultz #

    Very efficient summary! When are you going? Where?

    May 23, 2014
  2. We’re off to Athens on Monday and then staying in Nafplio for June with excursions into the Peloponnese and to Delphi. See more in my previous blog post: Hella Yes!

    May 23, 2014
  3. Roseann Trott #

    Of course you must know that Mycenae is related to the Greek word from whence we derive our word mycology.

    July 8, 2014
    • Mycenae and mycology actually share a mutual root in a word, ‘mykes,’ meaning cap. Perseus is fabled to have named Mycenae such because the mykes or cap of his scabbard fell off at the place that is Mycenae.

      July 22, 2014

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