The History of Athens

The History of Athens

Few cities boast a historic heritage as impressive as that of Athens. The position of Greece at the crossroads between Africa, Asia, and Europe has incontrovertibly contributed to the diverse and often turbulent history of Greece. The history of Athens is rich in history and legend; events that have occurred throughout the 4,500 years of Athens’ history have been imperative in the development of our civilisation. A city worshiped by gods and people, a magical city. The birthplace of civilisation, democracy and arts.

The Birth of Athens, Neolithic Era (4,000 - 3,000 BC)

Athens, the capital of Greece, was named in ancient times after Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom and daughter of Zeus, who was the divine protector of the city. The first settlement of prehistoric Athens can be traced to Neolithic settlements on the Acropolis in 3,000BC.

The Golden Age (6th and 5th century BC)

The Grande Age of Athenian history and power. Under the reign of Pericles (495-429 BC), architectural masterpieces including The Parthenon, Erechtheion and Temple of Olympian Zeus were built. Cultural and intellectual life flourished and marked the zenith of Athens as a centre of literature, philosophy, theatre and arts. Some of the most significant and influential figures of Western cultural and intellectual history lived in Athens during this period: the drama writers Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Evripides and Sophocles, the philosophers Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, the historians Herodotus, Thoukidides and Xenophon, the poet Simonides and the sculptor Phedias. In Pericles' words Athens was the school of Greece 'Hellas’. The glorious peak continued until Sparta’s complete defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). It is probably the most important event in the history of ancient Athens since it marks the point of the city’s highest peak as well as the beginning of its fall. During the second year of the Peloponnesian War, the city-state of Athens was hit by the devastating epidemic, the Plague of Athens, which killed Pericles, his two elder sons and almost one third of its people within its walls.

The Roman Empire (29 BC – 324 AD)

The Roman rule commenced in 146 BC and lasted five centuries. Athens continued to be a centre of culture and intellectual importance during the Roman Empire. Emperor Hadrian (76-138 AD) was a great admirer of Athens and the Greek culture. During his reign he built superb monuments including Hadrian’s Library and Herodes Atticus Theatre. Hadrian used to say ‘to the south of Acropolis is Theseus Athens and to the north of Acropolis is Hadrian’s Athens’. The conversion of the Empire to Christianity ended Athens’ role as a centre of pagan learning. In 529 AD Emperor Justinian closed the schools of philosophy which marked the end of the ancient history of Athens.

The Byzantine Empire (324 AD – 1204 AD)

In 395 AD the Roman territory was divided between Eastern and Western Roman Empire. Greece was within the East thus, became part of the Byzantine Empire. Athens lost its grandeur and was transformed into a small provincial town under the rule of the Byzantine Empire. The Parthenon, Erechtheion and the Theseion were converted into churches.  In 732 AD Athens was put under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. During 11th - 12th centuries many distinguished churches and monasteries were constructed with beautiful mosaics and frescos marking the peak period of Byzantine Athens such us Kapnikarea, Kesariani Monastery, Ayii Apostoloi and the Monastery of Daphni.

The Latins (1204 - 1456)

From 1204 until 1456 after the conquest of the Byzantine Empire during the Fourth Crusade, Athens was ruled by the Latins in three separate periods: The Burgundian period (1204-1311), the Catalan period (1311-1388) and the Florentine and Venetian period (1388-1456). During the Burgundian period Athens was the capital of the eponymous Duchy of Athens. The buildings of the Acropolis served as the palace for the Dukes, which is why during the Latins the Acropolis walls were further fortified.

The Ottoman Empire (1456 - 1821)

The Ottoman Turks seized Athens in 1456 which marked the decline of prosperity and development. Amazed by Athens’ beauty and stunning ancient sites the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror commanded a ‘firman’ forbidding any raiding or destruction on death penalty. The Parthenon was converted into a mosque and the Erechtheion functioned as a harem.  Despite the Sultan’s order for special privileges, the corrupt local administration of the Ottoman dignitary did not allow the city to develop and Athens faced great damage and population decrease.  During the 17th century the Ottoman Empire declined in importance with a series of revolts. The Turks commenced storing gun powder and explosives in the Parthenon and Propylaea.  During 1684-1699 Athens entered the Venetian-Turkish war with disastrous effects. The Venetians seized the city briefly in 1687. Tragically during the seizing of the Acropolis a Venetian bomb exploded the roof of the Parthenon and the long sides and the fire that lasted for two days left the monument the skeletal state we see today. Further irreparable damage was caused in 1801 by Lord Elgin, the then British Ambassador in Constantinople, who looted much of the Parthenon's sculptural decoration and removed an immense amount of the Greek cultural heritage from Acropolis.

The Greek War of Independence of 1821 (1821-1833)

During 1821-1833 Athens participated in the Greek War of Independence of 1821. The Greeks stood up against the Ottoman domination and cruelty and in 1827 the big forces of Britain, France and Russia joined in to support the Greeks. The war ended in 1829 and the first independent Greek state was formed and Ioannis Kapodistrias was set as Governor. In 1831 Kapodistrias was assassinated and Prince Otto from Bavaria became the first King of Greece, followed by George I from Denmark in 1863. King Otto declared Athens in 1834 as the capital of Greece. The New Greek state was rebuilt largely in Neo-Classical style.

World War II (1940-1944)

Led by the dictator Moussolini, the Italian forces invaded Greece on 28th October 1940, due to the Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas' rejection of the Italian ultimatum which demanded the occupation of Greek territory. This rejection was named the big ‘OXI’, meaning no in Greek, and echoed the will of the Greeks to resist. The Italian forces were defeated and forced back to the Albanian borders. The German army entered Athens in April 1941, raising the swastika over the Acropolis. The Third Reich used the Hotel Grand Bretagne as wartime headquarters.  The Greek victory over the initial Italian attack in October 1940 was the first Allied land victory of WWII, and significantly contributed to increase morale in occupied Europe. According to several historians, the Greek resistance influenced the course of the entire war by forcing the German troops to postpone the invasion of the Soviet Union in order to assist Italy against Greece. Adolf Hitler said that "if the Italians hadn't attacked Greece and needed our help, the war would have taken a different course. We could have anticipated the Russian cold by weeks and conquered Leningrad and Moscow. There would have been no Stalingrad". Furthermore in his speech praising the Greek struggle Winston Churchill quoted: "Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks".

The joint occupation by the three Axis powers: Germany, Italy and Bulgaria, brought terrible hardships: more than 300,000 civilians in Athens died from starvation and tens of thousands more through war crimes and punishments and the country’s economy was devastated. The occupation lasted until the German withdrawal from the mainland in October 1944.

Post World War II

When liberation came in October 1944, Greece was in a state of crisis and political uncertainty, which soon led to the outbreak of civil war. The US committed to economic and military aid on the provision that the Communist Left would not gain power. In the 1950s and 1960s, Athens witnessed rapid industrialisation and extraordinary economic wealth growth, mass migration from rural areas and the growth of sprawling suburbs.

Military Dictatorship (1967 - 1974)

In April 1967, a coup d’etat led by Georgios Papadopoulos signalled the beginning of a seven-year military junta. University student protests on 17 November 1973 were brutally put down by the military, who stormed  the Athens Polytechnic with tanks, killing many. The regime fell in 1974 replaced by Democracy, following an attempt to overthrow the government of Cyprus which also triggered the invasion of Cyprus by the Turks.

Modern Athens Today

Greece joined the European Economic Community in 1979. In 1985, Athens was the first European City of culture. In 2004 Athens successfully hosted the 2004 Olympic Games and was a milestone date for Athens and Greece as a whole.

Athens is a fascinating capital with astonishing beauty. Athens today is a metropolis where the grace of ancient masterpiece monuments is sided with linear modern infrastructure. The inhabitants of the capital are more than one third of the entire Greek population. Athens has unlimited choices to offer from history and culture, sports and leisure, business to entertainment, sea to mountains. The city’s authenticity; vibe, diversity and atmosphere really astonishes visitors and makes them want to return.

The rich history and culture of Athens have been imperative in the development of our global civilisation, democracy, theatre, arts, philosophy and architecture. From the glorious prosperity of the Golden Age to countless and diversified invasions, wars and excessive hardships. To some it may not be at all surprising that the Greece of today faces severe economic decline. Athens should be appreciated for what it is today as a whole, that includes both its thousand years history and its hectic modern role of business, political and artistic centre of our times.

Athens is one of the most popular tourist destinations worldwide. The city’s enviable geographical location, beautiful weather, friendly locals and seemingly never ending array of attractions make it a popular holiday choice for many.

Athens was the Greek Gods’ favourite destination, no wonder it qualifies to become yours too...