1. Explain the legend about who should be the protector of Athens:
2. Explain how democracy developed in ancient Athens.
3. Explain how the Persian Wars started and what happened.
4. Talk about Pericles and the Delian League.
5. Explain what led up to the Peloponnesian War and how it ended.
ATHENS Athens is the capital of Greece today, and it was an important polis in ancient times, too. The Dorians, who burned the Mycenaean’s hilltop fortresses in the 1100s BC, missed Athens, which was far to the east on the Attica Peninsula. As a result, the Athenians can trace their roots back a long time. The acropolis of Athens is a magnificent flat mountaintop covered with temple ruins – the most famous of which is the Parthenon, an enormous temple dedicated to the goddess, Athena.
One of the legends about Athens is the competition between Athena and Poseidon over who should be the protector of the city. One day, Athena appeared on the acropolis and planted an olive tree, a wonderful gift that provided food and oil for cooking and lighting homes at night. Poseidon dropped down beside her and struck the top of the acropolis a mighty blow with his trident. A fissure split the rock and water spouted forth. We all know how valuable to life water is, but because Poseidon is god of the seas, his water fountain spewed salt water, which was undrinkable. The people chose Athena as their patroness, which made Poseidon so angry, he cursed the polis with earthquakes and tidal waves until the people relented and allowed him to be their patron as well. You can still see Athena’s olive tree and the fissure where Poseidon’s fountain bubbled up on the acropolis today.
Athens is most famous for giving us democracy – a form of government in which the people vote for leaders and help decide laws. To understand how amazing this is, you must realize that NOWHERE in the world at the time was their anything like democracy. In every other continent, communities were ruled by kings (who had armies to force obedience) or priests (who claimed that the gods were on their side). Athenians were very feisty and insisted that they should have a say in who governed them. It took some time to get it right.
First, Athenian citizens asked that the laws be written down so that everyone could read them and know what the punishment for breaking each one would be. A wise man named Draco took on the job, but he was a little harsh: the penalty for almost everything was death! According to Draco, if you want to stop small crime, make the punishment huge. If the crime is big, what better punishment is there than death?
Most Athenians were poor and had little power, which led to conflict between rich and poor. Draco’s harsh laws made this worse, so in the 590s BC, a lawmaker named Solon got rid of the worst laws, introduced trial by jury, and created a council of 400 elected men to help govern Athens. Men from any social class could be elected. This was the first real step toward democracy. But tensions in Athens flared again, so Peisistratus (PY-sistruht-uhs), a tyrant, seized power by force. After he died, Cleisthenes (KLYS-thuh-neez) took over. He increased the council to 500 citizens and gave men from every class the same rights.
Only free male Athenians over age 20 who owned property and had military training were allowed to vote. In the 300s BC, that was about 10 percent of the population. Women, slaves and poor people weren’t allowed to vote. Eligible men were expected to vote in all elections, to serve if they themselves were elected, to show up
for jury duty and to fight in the military. At its height, Athenian democracy consisted of three parts: The assembly, which included all Athenian voters, The Council of 500, which wrote the laws to be voted on by the assembly, and the courts, where cases were tried and decided by juries. Members of the courts came from the assembly.
THE PERSIAN WARS
In the 500s BC, the mighty Persian Empire attacked Greek colonies in Ionia (modern-day Turkey), defeated them and imposed taxes on the people. The Ionians rebelled, asking their fellow Greeks for help. The Persians, under King Darius, quickly put down the revolt, then attacked the Greek mainland, especially Athens to teach them a lesson. In 490 BC, thousands of Persians landed near a town called Marathon. The Athenians surprised the Persians and defeated them. The Athenians fought in a phalanx, which is a tight formation of several rows of soldiers carrying long spears.
The Persians planned revenge. In 480 BC, a huge army under the leadership of Darius’s son Xerxes attacked Greece by land and sea. Spartans marched north to help Athens, but were defeated in the pass at Thermopylae. The Persians stormed into Athens and burned it to the ground. However, Greek triremes were waiting in the nearby Bay of Salamis where they destroyed Persian supply ships. Without supplies, the Persian army was stranded! In 479, Sparta led the Greeks to defeat the Persians at Plataea.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF ATHENS
After the Persian Wars, Athens became the leading polis in Greece. It created and controlled the Delian League, an alliance of several city-states who paid dues to buy warships and pay armies to defend Greece against future Persian attacks. Poleis that rebelled against Athens’ power or refused to join the league were attacked and destroyed. The league was basically an Athenian empire.
Athens had to be rebuilt their burned city after the Persian Wars. Temples, roads, and walls were built, and the port was expanded. Much of the rebuilding was organized by Pericles (PER-uh-kleez), a military and political leader in the 460s BC. Although he had a lot of power, he supported democracy. He “borrowed” funds from the Delian League to pay for beautifying Athens with sculpture and marble buildings. He built the Parthenon, which turned Athens into the most glorious city in Greece. During this Golden Age, trade made Athens rich, and merchants brought in new food and customs, making the city very cosmopolitan. There were also festivals, religious games, and theater competitions.
THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
Sparta wanted to end the Delian League’s dominance in Greece, so they formed the Peloponnesian League with their own allies. Athens and Sparta declared war on each other in 431 BC. At first, Sparta dominated on land, Athens at sea. After a few years, they agreed to a truce. This lasted six years, then Athens attacked one of Sparta’s allies. This time, Sparta destroyed the Athenian fleet and Athens was forced to surrender. The war nearly destroyed Athens, and also damaged Sparta. Sparta tried to dominate Greece, but it was worn down. In 371 BC Thebes – another polis - defeated Sparta but could not maintain control either. In the 350s BC, Phillip of Macedonia, a Greek-speaking kingdom to the north, took control of all of Greece. Greek poleis never regained the independence and prosperity of their golden years.