Athens A City Of Legend And Mythology
By James Donahue
By its mere existence in the same place today, the ancient Greek City of Athens is a living legend. Its very history dating back 3,000 years or longer is steeped in mythology.
Athens has left an incalculable legacy in human history. It was the place where Socrates, Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocies, Euripides and many other great thinkers of the distant past were born. It was also the place where such concepts as humanism and democracy were established.
Unique to the city is the fact that its name appears to never have been changed. Yet the origin of that name may be in debate. One story, which is probably true, is that Athens was named after its patron goddess Athena.
Another story was that the city was named after the first king, Akteos.
It is generally believed that a community of sorts was located there sometime during the Bronze Age, or a period in the distant past estimated to be from 2,800 to 1050 BC when tools were cast from bronze, and before a way was discovered to smelt iron.
According to legend, Athens was governed by Ionian kings until 1,000 B.C.. After that, Athens was governed by its aristocrats until Solon rose to power in 594 B.C. Solon abolished serfdom, modified the harsh laws enforced by prior kings, and altered the economy and constitution giving power to all of the propertied classes. In doing so, he established a form of democracy.
During its long history, Athens came under a variety of rulers, some of them tyrants and others wise, allowing the city's economy to boom and its culture to flourish. Cleisthenes built on the democratic system established by Solon when he took power in 506 B.C., and Athens became known as a democracy for free men.
There are legends concerning the area that were steeped in Greek mythology yet for hundreds of years, remained unproven. The Trojan War is a prime example of this kind of story. This was said to have been a great war that occurred in about the 13th or 12th Century BC, and was waged by the armies of the Achaeans (Greeks) against the city of Troy, located in Asia Minor, after Paris of Troy stole Helen from her husband, Menelaus, King of Sparta. The Achaeans were the victors and Troy was sacked and burned.
The story was told in surviving Greek literary works, but best known in the Ilian and the Odyssey of Homer. But it was not until 1870 that German archaeologist Heinrich Schlemann excavated the remains of Troy, thus proving that it really existed.
The Persian Wars, which occurred during the fifth and fourth centuries, BC, were well established in the historical record, and are said to have been a definint moment in Greek history. The wars continued for years, with the Athenians winning their independence over the Persian Empire, and thus establishing Greece as a cultural and political power of its own. And Athens emerged as the strongest Greek city-state.
The Athenian fleet of warships enabled Athens to gain a confederation of many city-states, which eventually became the Greek Empire. Athens even arranged peace with Persia in 449 B.C., and with its chief rival, Sparta, in 445 B.C.
This period, under the time of Pericles (443-429 B.C.) was when Athens reached the height of its cultural and imperial achievement. And this was when Socrates and the dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides emerged in Greek culture. It was a time of great literary and architectural achievement, when the Parthenon was built, and sculpture and painting flourished.
Unfortunately, the old rivalry with Sparta reared its ugly head once again, and in 431 BC, the Peloponnesian War between these two city-states began. This war lasted for the next 26 years, with Spartia emerging the victor and Athens left bound under the dictates of Sparta. This humilation only lasted about a year, Athens overthrew the Spartian rulers, won a naval victory. Athens never again achieved hegemony over Greece, but enjoyed a short time of prosperity.
The rise of Philip II in Macedonia spelled the final conquest of Athens as a power. Athens was defeated by Philip at Chaeronea in 338 B.C. Philip's son and successor to the throne was Alexander the Great. Thus Athens declined as a power but remained a provincial city.
Yet through all of the wars and defeats, Athenian achievements in philosophy, drama and art continued. Aristophanes wrote comedies, Plato taught at the Academy, Aristotle was there, and Thucydides wrote his history of the Peloponnesian War. Thus, in a sense, the glory that was Athens lived on even though the city was often under seige.
Athens later became a provincial capital of the Byzantine Empire and a center of religious learning. But when Constantine moved the center of the Latin Empire to Constantinople, Athens lost its place in world importance.