The leading city-state of Greece in the Classical Age and one of Greece's oldest, most famous, and most influential cities. Athens's urban center, which was surrounded by a stone defensive wall, was situated in the southern sector of the Attic peninsula, about 4 miles (6.4km) from the Saronic Gulf, a wide inlet of the Aegean
Sea; but Athenian territory came to include all of Attica. In the early years of the Bronze Age, perhaps as far back as 3000 B.C., a rudimentary version of the urban center grew up around the rocky outcrop that came to be known as the Acropolis. For a long time this habitation was only one, though the largest, of the many scattered towns and villages across Attica. Sometime in the late Bronze Age, according to legend, the Athenian king Theseus brought all these towns together into a single political unit. Legend also claims that a while later Athens was among the Greek kingdoms that assembled to attack Troy. In the catalog of combatants in his Iliad, Homer says the Athenians contributed fifty ships to the expedition. This may be based partly on fact, as evidence shows that Athens was a Mycenaean stronghold in this era; and it was probably a Mycenaean raid or war that inspired the legend of the Trojan conflict.
Following the collapse of Greece's Bronze Age civilization in the twelfth century B.C., Athens was one of the few Mycenaean towns that survived intact. However, its inhabitants steadily lost their heritage and came to think of themselves as Athenians rather than Mycenaeans. Not much is known about the city in the Dark Age. But it appears that in the subsequent Archaic Age (ca. 800–ca. 500 B.C.) it grew rapidly in size and its government underwent a series of reforms, each more progressive than the last. The ancient kingship (or whatever form of it existed in the Dark Age) was eliminated. For a while some kind of aristocratic council held power, but the common people increasingly came to resent the power of the nobles. And over the course of two or more centuries the Assembly (Ekklesia), whose exact origins are unknown, steadily gained authority. In the late seventh century B.C. a written law code was drafted by a man named Draco. But the people viewed these laws as too harsh, and it was not long before a civil war between the aristocrats and commoners became imminent. A bloody conflict was avoided by the intervention of Solon, a citizen known for his wisdom and fairness. He threw out Draco's laws (except for those dealing with murder), set up a new social ranking based on wealth rather than birth, and created the Council (Boule), a group of four hundred men chosen by lot from all classes. These moves provided a workable balance between the power of the aristocrats and that of the people. But that balance could not be maintained because Solon had—probably unintentionally—set in motion a slow but relentless democratic revolution. That progressive movement exploded in about 508 B.C., transforming Athens's government into a full-blown democracy, the world's first. Under a reformer named Cleisthenes, the Assembly gained far-reaching powers, including declaring war, making peace, and deciding foreign policy.
No sooner had the Athenians begun their historic experiment with democracy when they found themselves threatened with annihilation. In 490 B.C. Darius I, ruler of the Persian Empire, sent an army to capture Athens. The city appeared to be doomed; however, a small force of Athenian militiamen stunned the world by defeating the invaders on the plain of Marathon. The Persians invaded again ten years later. This time the Athenians led other Greeks in a major naval victory at Salamis, and after the war Athens emerged, along with Sparta, as one of Greece's two leading states. Athens spearheaded the formation of the Delian League to guard against further Persian incursions, but in
the years that followed the Athenians transformed the organization into their own maritime empire. At its height, more than one hundred Greek cities came under Athens's economic and political influence. These states paid the Athenians tribute, and large amounts of this money was used to erect temples (including the magnificent Parthenon) and other public buildings, making Athens the marvel of Greece.
But during these same years Athens incurred the rivalry and wrath of the Spartans, who viewed Athenian ambitions as dangerous to the balance of power in Greece. Periodic disputes and small-scale fighting between the two states and their respective allies escalated and in 431 B.C. erupted into the ruinous Peloponnesian War. Athens surrendered in 404 B.C. and had to endure a Spartan hegemony (dominance) of Greek affairs for several years afterward. By the 370s B.C., however, the Athenians had recovered and were on the road to creating another maritime empire. What ultimately stopped them was the rise of Macedonia under King Philip II. He defeated a Greek coalition headed by Athens and Thebes at Chaeronea in 338. His son Alexander and other successors controlled Greek affairs, including those of Athens, for many years to come. In Hellenistic times Athens underwent steady economic and military decline and found itself occupied off and on by troops from the large Greek kingdoms that dominated that age. The city never regained its former power and glory, although it remained a popular tourist destination and important literary center for most of the rest of antiquity.
SEE ALSO: Athena; Cimon; Cleisthenes; Demosthenes; Greco-Persian Wars; Parthenon; Pericles; Solon; Themistocles; Theseus