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  • Writer's pictureGiorgia Capra, MA

A Short History of Athens (& 58 Athenian Cultural Attractions)


Athens skyline

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Introduction to Athens

The cradle of Western civilisation, the crucible of classical philosophy, the birthplace of democracy: this is Athens, capital of Greece and cultural and political centre of the ancient Mediterranean for centuries, with an extensive, influential, and fascinating history. It’s been part of the Ottoman Empire and a wealthy 19th-century capitalist city, and is now a vibrant centre of modernist and contemporary culture. Today, despite the rapid proliferation of buildings during post-war urban development, modern visitors can still admire the iconic landmarks and monuments which have become icons of Greece and of European culture. Several thousand years after the birth of a small Neolithic village on a certain prominent hill, people can now sit in one of the many traditional taverns in the heart of Athens, the Plaka, and enjoy the undeniably fascinating panorama of the monuments on the Acropolis, the city’s dominant and eternal symbol.

Athens History

Geographical Advantages

Geographical advantages attracted the first settlers to this area: the location is ideal, close to the sea with a fertile plain, while hills in the other direction offer security and refuge. The initial settlement, built on the hill where the Acropolis now stands, was a fortified Mycenaean royal palace which dominated its surroundings. By the 6th century, Athens (principally named after its patron deity, Athena) had firmly established its role as the leading city in Attica, the peninsula of the Greek mainland surrounding it. A series of social and economic reforms produced the city’s first constitution, closely associated with the legislator Solon, a key figure in the political history of Athens and, therefore, the world. In this period, Athens was under the rule of the noble family of the Peisistratids, who established a tyranny. The term only gained its pejorative connotation in modern times, and this was a period of cultural blossoming and enrichment for Athens.

Solon's Reforms and Early Democracy

The Peisistratids were overthrown at the end of the 6th century BC and the government became a form of democracy (though by no means a form encouraging mass participation) thanks to the actions of Cleisthenes, a statesman and politician who reformed Solon’s constitution, dividing Attica into units and developing the democratic system with its politic organs. Participation in the government was guaranteed to all male Athenian citizens, which means that actually only 20% of Athens’ population was allowed to take part in the democracy.

The Persian Wars and Athens' Golden Age

The beginning of the 5th century BC was dominated by the Persian wars, at the culmination of which the victorious Athenians founded an alliance with the other Greek cities against the Persians. The Delian League, as the alliance was named, was soon transformed into an Athenian empire, with the other cities forced to pay annual tributes to Athens. The Classical era, the city’s golden age under the political leadership of the statesman Pericles, had begun. During these years the most famous buildings on the Acropolis – the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike – were erected, in keeping with Pericles’ ambitious programme to beautify the city.

Decline After the Peloponnesian War

At the end of the century, after defeat in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, Athens lost its leadership role in Greece. In the following decades, the continuous wars between the Greek city-states contributed to weaken them and to the eventual loss of their independence with the Macedonian conquest of Greece in 338 BC.

Hellenistic Period

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, which we now deem the beginning of the Hellenistic period, Athens never won back its former political and military supremacy. Yet it maintained its cultural and intellectual glory and was enriched with precious gifts from the various Hellenistic kings.

Roman Period

Athens came under Roman control in the 2nd century BC, when Greece became a Roman province, but the city always maintained a privileged position and kept spreading its cultural influence over the Mediterranean, affecting the development of Roman art, architecture and literature, which were often inspired by the Greek models. Several Roman rulers and emperors completed their education in Athens and were great admirers of the city, which they enriched with further public buildings. The city remained a leading educational centre in Europe at least until AD 529, when the Christian Emperor Justinian closed the schools of philosophy, such as Plato's revered Academy.

Byzantine Athens and Ottoman Rule

In the following centuries, Athens was a small town of the Byzantine Empire with little real power. Control of the city moved between Sicilians, Florentines, Venetians and finally Turks in 1456, when the Ottoman Empire annexed Athens. After centuries of colonial domination, Greece gained its independence in 1830, and Athens became the capital of the new liberated state. It went from being a small town to a national capital, and its population started growing sharply.

Modern Athens

Today, about 30 per cent of the population of the whole of Greece lives in Athens. In 2004, Athens hosted the modern Olympic Games: this gave the impulse for many urban developments and improvements to bring back the ancient prestige and attract visitors in the cultural capital of the ancient Mediterranean.

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58 Athens Cultural Activities

Athens, the capital city of Greece, is a hub of history, art, and culture. With a plethora of iconic landmarks, museums, and archaeological sites, Athens is a must-visit destination for culture lovers. Below we bring you 58 cultural attractions that showcase the rich cultural heritage of Athens.

38. Pnyx

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