President Barack Obama on the Acropolis of Athens,
November 16th, 2016
A Brief History of Athens
Athens of illustrious name first gave
(Lucretius: De Rerum Natura: VI:1-4)
The history of Athens bears every analogy to the history of Greece, for this great city was, for many centuries, the focus and the vanguard of Greek civilization. Its origin, as that of most Greek cities, fades in the darkness of time. That there had been an indigenous people, the Pelasgians, was first testified by the Athenians themselves, who vividly remember it, and is testified by a great number of names of places. Besides the Cyclopean walls of the Acropolis of Athens, many other prehistoric remains confirm this hypothesis. But, of the Prehellenic period we have but a vague idea.
Athens must then have been one of the several boroughs of Attica, with its king residing in the acropolis, perhaps in the palace to which Erechtheus lent his name and which afterwards disappeared, to give place to the magnificent temple, the Erechtheion.
The founder of this royal dynasty was Cecrops, at about the middle of the 2nd millenium. Under his successors Pandion, Erechtheus, Egeus and Theseus, Athens became a powerful city for it had subdued, one after the other, all other small boroughs and townships of Attica, such as Eleusis, Laurion, Thoricos, Anaphlystos, Marathon, etc. An Ionic tribe from Marathon invaded Athens, and gave that special character to the Athenians, who from that time onward prided themselves of their Ionic descent.
It is mostly to Thesseus, at approximately 1300 B.C., that legend attributes the great political achievement of Synoikismos, i.e. the unification of all small states of Attica into one under the leadership of Athens.
Among his successors, king Menesthious led the Athenian fleet to Troy in the 12th c. Some years later, the Neleides, of Ionian origin and descendants of Nestor, took possession of the throne of Athens, and it was Codros, a Neleid, who by his supreme sacrifice, according to the legend, saved the city from the Dorian invasion. Following this hero-king, the royal power was almost abolished, for his son Neleus, in charge of a great number of Ionians, left Athens and went to Asia Minor, where he founded the famous Ionian colonies which soon were to become shining centers of the Greek civilization.
During this time, the constitution in Athens underwent a radical change. The royal power passed from the hands of the kings to that of the distinguished nobles, the aristocrats. Three among them would share the supreme power. The first, a descendant of Codros, would continue to bear the title of king as basileus, being in charge of justice and religious affairs. The second was polemarchos, the chief of the armed forces and the third would be the archon, in charge of the city affairs.
This new reform, however was to last only for a short time, since the people began to rise and fight against the Athenian aristocracy which had gathered all state authority and power in its hands. The people demanded a radical change and written laws. For this purpose, in 594 Solon, a man of distinction from a prominent family, was vested with absolute power in order to work out a democratic constitution. Solon fulfilled his duty admirably, and his constitution was the work of great wisdom and lasted for many centuries, setting the foundations of Democracy.
As it should be anticipated, the road to Democracy was not smooth and with no obstacles. At one early point it nearly ran aground, for Peisistratos, a powerful, ambitious and bold statesman took possession of power and established tyranny in Athens, though he was a lover of letters and the arts. He was the first to give Homer's epics the form they kept to-date and he also embellished the city of Athens with several monuments. His sons, however, and especially the elder Hippias, were hated tyrants up to 514 when two Athenian aristocrats, Armodios and Aristogeiton, killed the younger Hipparchos and saved the Republic.
The Persian wars put Athens at the head of all Greek city-states, and the Athenian navy under Themistocles, a man of genius, did wonders. The naval battle of Salamis at 480 BC constitutes the pedestal of Athenian grandeur. But Themistocles was also a great politician, and he completed his victories with splendid diplomatic success. In protracting the parleys with Sparta he gained the time necessary to complete the city fortification, which, with the construction of the long walls connecting Athens to the port of Piraeus, became impregnable.
Kimon, his successor, was a great general and a lover of the arts as well. Under his rule, between 466 and 449, Athens extended her domination beyond Asia Minor. No foreign ship dared any longer to appear in the Mediterranean waters. The conquest of the Greeks over Asia Minor was complete. Kimon embellished Athens and continued the work of Themistocles and Aristides, with the services of his friend Polygnotos, an eminent painter from the island of Thassos, who perpetuated the glory and the victories of the Athenians.
Pericles, Kimon's successor, brought Athens to the highest point of her power and glory. An aristocrat with deep respect for democracy, Pericles extended the rights of the Athenians and secured the dominance of Athens throughout the Greek world.. An art-lover himself, he drew close to him all artistic geniuses, and with their collaboration he completed the wonder of Acropolis and erected temples and monuments which still render Athens as one of the most illustrious and marvelous cities of the whole world.
Among this immense prosperity and glory, the Peloponnesian War broke out. It lasted from 431 to 403 and was an atrocious destructive war which ruined Athens and several other Greek city-states. Pericles could not resist the hatred of his countrymen towards rival Sparta, so war was declared. After some initial success, misfortunes fell over the divine city. It began with the plague, the cursed pest, which came suddenly to spread death and misery. Having lamented the death of many of his own children and relatives, Pericles succumbed too, and confusion followed after his death.
Alcibiades, Pericles' nephew, enticed Athenians to undertake the disastrous Campaign of Sicily, destined to become the tomb of the finest youth of Athens. Following the Sicilian disaster Athens never regained her old prosperity. The Tyranny of the Thirty completed this misery, and wise Socrates was condemned to death. During this period of political forfeiture and vicissitude, Athens preserved the dazzling aureole of arts and science. It was Euripides and Aristophanes in the Theater, Praxiteles, Skopas, and a crowd of other artists in the Arts, Plato in Philosophy and a multitude of other philosophers, orators, poets and writers whose genius projects its bright rays to this day.
In the affairs of the Republic, Conon (393), reviving the days of ancient glory, set up again the demolished fortifications, repaired and extended the wall of Piraeus and restored the Long walls. Some time later, the orator archon Lycourgos (338-326) restored the ancient splendor of several monuments which had suffered in the course of time and mostly war. At the same time, on the Athenian tribune, on the hill of the Pnyx, sounded the voice of Demosthenes, the great orator whose name is forever united with the last splendor of Athens. But Athens never ceased being a great city and a center of light, even in the darkest days of her existence.
Later on, and under the Romans, at the time of Herod Atticus, under Hadrian and the Antionines, Athens became the School of Rome, and it is then that these great lovers of art and admirers of Athens' glorious past restored several monuments and built new ones, which gave the city of Pericles her revived majestic new appearance.
Athens, however, no longer played any important role in the history of the world. She would soon remit the sceptre to Constantinople, which under the Byzantines became the great cosmopolitan city of the Bosporos. Indeed from the 4th c. Constantinople became the center of the Greek world and of the whole East. But Athens retains the intellectual focus.
The decline of the Byzantine Empire drew Athens into darkness. During the domination of the Franks (1204-1456), a French dynasty, the Dukes de la Roche, made themselves masters of the glorious city and established the capital of their Duchy on the Acropolis. In 1308 the dukedom of Athens went over to Gautier de Brienne, who was then overthrown and killed by the Catalans, a fearful band of adventurers and robbers who caused many evils to Greece. In 1394 the Florentine Nerio Acciauoli, Lord of Corinth and Vostiza, took possession of Athens and used the Acropolis Propylaea as his palace. This new dynasty lasted till 1456, when Athens submitted to the Turkish yoke under general Mohammed II. The Parthenon, which from the 5th c. had been transformed into the orthodox church of St. Sophia, was now changed into a mosque. The Turkish governor resided on the Acropolis and kept his harem in the Erechtheion. Day by day Athens was losing her population and by the 17th c. she was but a borough of 9.000 inhabitants, lodged in small houses at the foot of the Acropolis. In 1687, Doge Francesco Morosini, an admiral of the navy of Venice besieged Athens having previously conquered Peloponnese. During this siege, a bomb fired from the Philopappos Hill blew up the Turkish munitions depot within the Parthenon. By this explosion caused by an idiot, the immortal monument of Ictinos and Phidias, which till that inauspicious day had been respected by both barbarians and time was almost entirely ruined.
At last, after the atrocious Turkish yoke which lasted four centuries, the luminous day of Greek deliverance arose. On March 25th 1821, a day celebrated as the Greek National Independence Day, the Greek people reclaimed their rights and following several years of war, they gained their liberty in 1833. Odysseus Androutsos, one of the chief leaders of the Greek revolution, took possession of Athens and the Acropolis. But in 1826-27, the Acropolis was besieged by Reshid Pasha. Its brave defenders resisted fiercely first by General Gouras with 470 volunteers, then by General Favier, who hastened to aid the Greek cause. During this siege, the monuments of the sacred rock of the Acropolis suffered greatly from the over 500 bombs and innumerable bullets hurdled against it. The citadel surrendered on May 24th. On April 23rd, the hero Karaiskakis was killed while storming the camp of Reshid, and the English Admiral Cochrane along with General Church attempted in vain to raise the blockade of Athens. The Acropolis was not evacuated by the Turks till April 12th 1833, when Colonel Baligand officially took possession of it, in the name of young King Othon.
In 1834, Athens became the capital of the kingdom of Greece, which, following a national referendum in 1974, is now a Republic, and under the Constitution voted for in 1975 has a President, elected every five years and for up to two terms, by the Greek Parliament.
Till that time, and with the dark exception of the few dark years that Greece came under German Nazi occupation during WWII, the Greek flag proudly flies on the Acropolis rock and reminds the world of the values and glory that Greece still represents.
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Author: Edith Hamilton
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