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The Archaic Age of Athens

The actual history of Athens, or Kekropia as it was then known after the King Kekropos, who had the body of a snake, begins at around 3000 B.C.

Archaic Age of Athens

** The image above shows "Theseus Taming the Bull of Marathon" by Charles-André van Loo
Charles-André van Loo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On top of the Acropolis, a huge hill standing some 150 meters above sea-level and measuring around 330 meters in length was the place where Athens began. With attacks from other parties a very real possibility, it made sense that Athens should be situated at the very top of the Acropolis where it was very easy to defend against outside attack.

Though the history of Athens started at around 3000 B.C., it was in fact inhabited at around 8000 B.C. by the Pelasgians. These original inhabitants are credited with the building of the oldest walls around the rock of the Acropolis. They are known today as either the Pegasgian or Cyclopean walls. Many other ancient temples are also credited to them.

As well as King Kekropos being credited to the introduction of monogamy and the ritual of buring the dead, he was also present in the Council of the Twelve Gods of Olympus, when Poseidon and Athens were staking their claim to Attica. Mythology tells us that Poseidon struck the rock of the Acropolis with his trident and a horse leapt out from that point along with a stream of rushing water.

Athena replied by striking the rock next to it with her spear and from this point, the very first olive tree appeared. It was decided that Athena had won the contest, and she became the proctector of the city, which then took her name in place of Kekropia. To compensate Poseidon however, the Athenians built him a huge temple at Sounion, on the southernest point of Attica.

As well as Athena and Poseidon, Athens and Attica are also connected with two other Gods. The first being Dionysos, the God of Wine and Intoxication. His gift to the city of Athens which he loved was the vineyard. Dionysia, a festival in his honour was celebrated during the historical times in Attica. Dances took place and also shows of tragedy and comedy.

The other God or Goddess was Demeter, and her daughter Persephone. Persephone was actually abduced by Hades who wanted to make her his wife. While Demeter was desperately searching for her daughter, she was offered refuge by Kekleos, the King Of Eleusis. As a jesture of gratitude, Demeter taught the people of Eleusis how to cultivate the earth. A temple was built at the sight were Athenians first met the Goddess.

Athens was not always an important city and during the rise and decline of the Mycenaean civilastion was merely like any of the other city-states. However, after beginning to merge with other villages around it, it did in fact become a very powerful city. The person responsible for this was Theseus, who was a hero to the people of Athens. He was the son of Aegeous, the King of Athens. Though a historical person, the lie of Theseus lies somewhere between reality and myth.

Theseus was considered as a demigod, who was able to carry out amazing feats due to his amazing physical strength and ability and also his free spirit. It was his desire for Athens to merge with smaller surrounding villages that brought Athens to be a powerful force, and ruler of Attica. His accomplishment was rewarded with the Panathenaia, a collection of processions and contests.

Theseus also had a relationship with the area of Sounion in the southernest point of Attica. Mythology tells us that there was an obligation from Minos, the King of Crete, that each year, he would send seven young men and seven young women to Athens as a sacrifice for the Minotaur. Theseus was against this blood-thirsty ritual and wanted to free Athens from it.

Getting on board the ship which was carrying these young people, Theseus had agreed with this father that the masts should have black sails, but on its return, if Theseus was successful in his mission, then these sails should be changed to white. After defeating the Minotaur with his superior physical strength and finding his way out of the labyrinth where the Minotaur was situated, the ship made its way towards Athens.

However, Theseus, too caught up in his happiness about defeating the Minotaur, forgot about changing the sails from black to white. His father Aegeus, who was at Sounion, watching the sea for the arrival of the ship saw that the black sails were still on the masts. Believing that the mission was unsuccessful and his son dead, Aegeus leapt to his death in the sea. The sea has been known ever since as the Aegean sea.

During the seventh century Athens became a very powerful industrial and naval force. An aristocratic form of government was in place, but again, this led to situations where aristocrats were fighting over themselves to gain more power. An attempted coup by Cylons failed in 632 B.C. and this lead to the writing down on laws by Draco.

Until these laws were written down, the law lay within the hands of nobility. Draco’s laws were very harsh and essentially included a law that a person was forbidden revenge after a murder. It also introduced that the punishment for a murderer should be determined in court.

594 B.C. was the year in which Solon drafted legislation in a bid to defuse tensions between people who were well off and those who were not. Debts were cancelled and those who had been imprisoned because of their debts were freed. Four classes of people emerged from his legislation and Solon organized the state and political power based on wealth and not birthright. This lead to him being credited as one of the forefathers of democracy.

Overpopulation once again became a problem for Athens, and instead of opting for the obvious solution of expanding and colonization, Athens only managed to form one colony. This was Sigeum. After several long and hard fought conflicts with Aegina and Megara, Athens also gained control over Salamis.

The production of olives and grapes was increased and there became more space to trade after the Attica coin was devalutated. The increase in productivity lead to an increase in exports which was in turn used to import more food to feed the ever-growing population. However, not all of these measures were appreciated and social conflict started to take place. Farmers, who had previously been able to operate as they wanted were unable to loan anything that they might need to help them during this time of hardship.

This led in the number of farmers decreasing as it was hoped that every farmer could produce enough crops. Many of these ex-farmers then moved into the city and relied on other farmers to produce enough for them to live on.

This problem was resolved however by the tyrant Peisistratos, who ruled Athens during the sixth century B.C. As well as the usual promise of cultivating the land and carrying out needed public works, Peisistratos also won over popular support with his interest and concern for the arts and sciences. This created a cultural explosion among the people of Athens. As well as the city’s commercial increasing dramatically, output from the mines in Laviro also rose.

This period under Peisistratos was a milestone in the history of Athens. Trade, which had risen dramatically was being exported as far away as Eygpt and Sicily. The cultural explosion resulted in many new and beautiful monuments and also gave birth to some of the most famous philosophers in modern history such as Plato and Socrates. Hippias, son of Peisistratos, took over the tyranny from him in 528 B.C.

However, his legency was short lived after a failed murder attempt on him made many suspicious of him. In 510 B.C., with the help of the Spartan military, he was banished and so the tyranny of Athens had come to an end. Straight away after the Spartans had left Athens, social life and the political atmosphere returned to how it had been before Solon’s legislation. Nobility again fought for the right to control Athens, and eventually Kleisthenis, the renowned politician took power. Public support for him grew by his promise to reform the political structure.

He also presented the people of Athens with institutions that would consolidate the power to stop the Persian empire from taking over Greece in its quest for control of the European continent.


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The Archaic Age