History Of Athens Greece

THE city of Athens has long been held up to mankind as the crown of all that was most brilliant in the ancient world. Her citizens became foremost in art and in philosophy, in military and also in literary glory. Moreover, Athens was the greatest, if not the earliest, of the Greek "democracies," states in which the people governed themselves directly, without having recourse to kings or priesthoods. Thus Athens stands as the source of all our modern doctrines of republican government, the type upon which our own American institutions are founded, and by whose errors and downfall we must learn the pitfalls to avoid.

Almost all of these old Greek cities seem to have gone through about the same course, the same cycle, we might call it, of experience in government. At first each was ruled by a king; gradually this king lost his power to what was called an oligarchy, a small collection of powerful aristocrats. From oligarchies the cities passed to tyrannies--that is, some one man seized authority, usually by the aid of the lower classes, and ruled the city with no obedience to any law but that of his own will, no reliance on aught but his own strength. Note that to the Greeks, therefore, this word "tyrant" did not carry the suggestion that it does to us of savagery and cruelty. It merely implied that the ruler had no legal authority. Generally speaking, the tyrant was a very able and well-intentioned man; almost always he was an attractive and agreeable one; for he held his position only by his influence over others, their trust in him. Usually he arose as the champion of the people, defending them against the really tyrannous oligarchy in which the powerful families crushed all the poor folk beneath their haughty whims. Thus these tyrants led naturally to the fourth condition of the Grecian cities, that in which the people, grown strong enough to do without the leadership of an able tyrant, took the government wholly into their own hands, and established democracies.

The history of Athens offers us a typical case of this development. The Athenians, you will remember, made it their boast that they had never been conquered. Both Achaean and Dorian invaders had passed them by, perchance because their rocky plain was far less fertile than the rich valleys of Argos and of Sparta. Thus the Athenians represented, or claimed to represent, the purest and most ancient Grecian stock, descended from the gods themselves. In other words, we may look upon them as being indeed the old autochthonous AEgean people, artists, sailors, and organizers of law, heirs of the vanished splendor of Crete and of the earliest Argos, brothers of the Asiatic Trojans whose kinship they had forgotten and whose city they had helped destroy. Thus with the fading of these older cities, Athens gradually came to be looked upon as the chief representative of the original Greek stock, the "Ionians," as they were called, to distinguish them from the Dorians.

The Athenian legends of their own earliest days say that their city was founded about 1550 B.C. by King Cecrops, who came from Egypt and gathered the people of the neighborhood and built a city upon the steep rocky hill which we know today as the Acropolis, the sacred hill of Athens, the height which bore all of her most beautiful temples and statues. This city was called, from its founder, Cecropia.

Even in this form the tale would be unreliable, as the Egyptians were never a colonizing race; but it is also embroidered with a mass of fanciful detail in which the deities Neptune and Minerva struggle for the honor of representing the city. Cecrops gave the preference to Minerva, or Athena, as her Greek name was; and after a while the old name of Cecropia was limited to the Acropolis, while the entire settlement became known as the city of Athena, or Athens.

The next great legendary king of Athens was Theseus, who lived in the days of the Argonauts, and joined their expedition. Theseus, who lived in the days of the Argonauts, and joined their expedition. Theseus was adopted as the national hero of the Athenians, and endless legends were told of him. His father the Athenian king was without children--nay, he scarcely dared have any, for he was surrounded by a turbulent crowd of nobles who meant to snatch the crown for themselves, only that, as the king was childless, they waited for his death, expecting thus to gain the power without a struggle. So the king was united secretly to a princess in a far land, and he told her that if their little son Theseus grew up strong and shrewd she was to send him to claim his inheritance but not otherwise. The father placed under a huge stone his own sword and sandals, saying that this should be a sign to the mother. When Theseus could himself move that great stone and get the sword, it was time for him to assert his rights. Theseus, on reaching manhood, easily moved the stone, and then set out for Athens. At that time all Greece was talking of the recent deeds of Hercules; and Theseus, determining to imitate him, travelled along the mountain paths fighting every thing he met. His combats, however, are never made supernatural like those of Hercules. Theseus met robbers and wild beasts. Most noted of those he overthrew was the bandit Procrustes, who had an iron bed on which he laid his captives. If they were too tall for it, he cut them down to fit. If they were too short, he stretched them apart upon the rack. The bed of Procrustes has become noted in literature. Theseus defeated him and fastened him to his own bed.

After many such adventures the hero reached Athens. Here he was recognized by the nobles and by that grim sorceress Medea, who had aided the Argonauts and who had become his father's wife. She tried to get his father to poison him in ignorance; and the nobles sought to slay him. But the father recognized his son in time by the token of the sword, and Theseus slew his male opponents and became prince of Athens.

Then comes the story of the Minotaur. Athens was tributary to Crete, and had to send there every year a ship-load of youths and maidens to be slain as religious sacrifices, or, as the legend puts it, they were fed to the minotaur. Theseus went as one of these youths determined to free his country from the awful tribute. He slew the minotaur, which doubtless is a way of saying he defeated the Cretans. He also brought home with him the two daughters of King Minos of Crete, which is perhaps a way of implying that the tribute was reversed.

Yet, even Theseus, great hero as he was, could not retain control of the turbulent Athenians when he succeeded his father on the throne. In his old age he was driven from the city and died in exile. Then his countrymen remembered all his services and brought his body back in honor, and ranked him among the gods.

One other of the old Athenian kings is worth remembrance. This was Codrus, the last of them all. His story brings us down within the limits of real history. Codrus was king about 1060 B.C. when the first Dorian invaders attempted to conquer Attica. The oracle at Delphi predicted that if the Dorians killed the Athenian king they could not win the city. Thereupon Codrus resolved to sacrifice himself; and, since the Dorians avoided him in battle, he disguised himself as a common soldier, went among the enemy, and, picking a quarrel with some of them, was slain. When the Dorians realized who the victim was, they withdrew from Attica without further struggle. The Athenians declared that no other king could be noble enough to take the place of Codrus, and therefore they would have no more kings.

Without pinning too much faith to the details of this story, we know that its chief outlines are true. The Dorians were repulsed from Attica, and Athens passed from kingship to oligarchy, that is, to the rule of the turbulent aristocracy who had so often threatened to dethrone the earlier kings. These aristocrats controlled Athens for several centuries. Gradually they seized all power. They made what laws they pleased, seized upon the farmers' lands, sold children for their fathers' debts, and reduced the common people to utter misery.

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