The History of Athens is one of the longest of any city in Europe and in the world. Athens has been continuously inhabited for over 4,500 years, becoming the leading city of Ancient Greece in the first millennium BC; its cultural achievements during the 5th century BC laid the foundations of western civilization. During the Middle Ages, the city experienced decline and then recovery under the Byzantine Empire, and was relatively prosperous during the Crusades, benefiting from Italian trade. After a long period of decline under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Athens re-emerged in the 19th century as the capital of the independent Greek state.
According to a myth that both Athena and Poseidon requested to be patrons and give their name to the city, so they offered the city one gift each. Poseidon produced a spring by striking the ground with his trident. Athena created the olive tree, symbolizing peace and prosperity. The Athenians accepted the olive tree and named the city after Athena.
Athens began its history in the Neolithic as a hill-fort on top of the Acropolis, around the turn between the 4th and the 3rd millennium BC. The Acropolis is a natural defensive position which commands the surrounding plains. The steep slopes formed natural defenses.
By 1400 BC the settlement had become an important center of the Mycenaean civilization. After the Doric invasion of about 1200 BC Athens lost most of its power and probably dwindled to a small hill fortress once again.
In the following centuries Greece and Athens were enveloped by a dark Age and only little is know of this period.
In the 8th century BC Athens reemerged and a period of peace followed. Athens had become a sovereign city-state ruled by generals, aristocrats and the archon (chief magistrate). Political and social influence was defined by the wealth of a person, mostly gained from trade or agriculture. Simple laborers and peasants had no position.
By the 7th century BC social unrest had become widespread, and the Areopagus (“city council”) appointed Solon, with a mandate to create a new constitution (594).
The reforms in this constitution laid the foundation for what became the Athenian democracy. Most significant parts of the social and legal reforms were the forbidding of enslavement of Athenian citizens, annulment of all debts and the implementation of trial by jury. Due to continuous unrest Peisistratus was in fact a very popular ruler, who made Athens wealthy, powerful, and a centre of culture, and founded the Athenian naval supremacy in the Aegean Sea and beyond. He preserved the Solonian constitution, but made sure that he and his family held all the offices of state.
In this time fall the Persian wars with its famous battles at Marathon (490) and Salamis and Thermophylae (480) where the Greeks defeated mighty battle force of the Persian King Xerxes. Subsequently Athens took the leadership and united in the Delian League big parts of the Aegean Sea.
The treasure of the Delian League was transferred to Athens under Perikles (461-429 BC). Perikles was the leading Athenian statesman of his time. Most of the monuments on the Acropolis date from this time Theater and arts flourished. Important philosophers of the time were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the sculptors Pheidias and Myron and the historians Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon.
The logical consequence of a long lasting rivalry between Athens and Sparta. War broke out in 431 BC. The hostilities lasted until 404 BC and Sparta gained the upper hand in the end. Athens never fully recovered and could not regain its former power.
During the 4th century BC Athens decline was continued. A progressing degeneracy had befallen Athens. Though three of the most important philosophers of western civilization were sons of this period: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
In 338 BC Athens amongst other city states came under the rule of Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great. Athens remained a wealthy city with a brilliant cultural life, but ceased to be an independent power. In the 2nd century, after 200 years of Macedonian supremacy, Greece was absorbed into the Roman Republic.
The Roman general Sulla leveled in 88-85 BC most Athenian houses and fortifications. The civic buildings and monuments were partly intact. Under Rome, Athens was given the status of a free city out of respect to its significant civilization. Many wealthy citizens and Emperors helped with the restoration of many important monuments. Greece with its philosophy, arts and civilization succeeded in influence the Romans although under their power.
The city was sacked by the Heruli, a German tribe in 267 AD resulting in the burning of all the public buildings, the plundering of the lower city, and the damaging of the Agora and Acropolis. Athens remained a centre of learning and philosophy during 500 years of Roman rule. But the conversion of the Empire to Christianity ended the city’s role as a centre of pagan learning; the Emperor Justinian closed the schools of philosophy in 529 AD. This is generally taken to mark the end of the ancient history of Athens.
Athens in Byzantine and Roman Times
During the period of the Byzantine Empire Athens was a provincial town, and experienced fluctuating fortunes. In the early years many of its works of art were taken by the emperors to Constantinople. From about 600 the city shrank considerably due to barbarian raids by the Avars and Slavs. As the seventh century progressed, much of Greece was overrun by Slavic peoples from the north, and Athens entered a period of uncertainty and insecurity.
By the middle of the 9th century, as Greece was fully reconquered again, the city began to recover. Just as other cities benefited from improved security and the restoration of effective central control during this period, so Athens expanded once more.
The medieval town experienced a period of rapid and sustained growth, starting in the 11th century and continuing until the end of the 12th century. The agora or marketplace, which had been deserted since late antiquity, began to be built over, and soon the town became an important centre for the production of soaps and dyes. The growth of the town attracted the Venetians and various other traders who frequented the ports of the Aegean, to Athens. It was the Golden Age of Byzantine Art in Athens. Almost all of the most important Middle Byzantine churches in and around Athens were built during these two centuries. In 1204 though, the 4th Crusade conquered Athens. It did not become Greek in government again until the 19th century.
From 1204 until 1458, Athens was ruled by Latins. The Burgundian period, the Catalan period and the Florentine period.
Athens under Ottoman Rule
In 1458 Athens was captured by the Ottomans and became a provincial capital. The population declined over the following centuries and by the 17th century it was more like a village than the metropolis it used to be. The Acropolis became the home of the Turkish governor and the Parthenon was converted into a mosque.
War of Independence
During the War of independence Athens suffered badly and was ruled by changing forces. Finally in 1834 Athens followed Nafplio as the capital of independent Greece. Under the new King Otho strong efforts were undertaken to rebuilt the town to be a worthy capital. Neoclassical buildings were constructed following the plans of bavarian architects. Once the capital was established there, a modern city plan was laid out and public buildings erected. The finest legacy of this period are the buildings of the University of Athens (1837), Old Royal Palace (now the Greek Parliament Building) (1843), the National Gardens of Athens (1840), the National Library of Greece (1842), the Greek National Academy (1885), the Zappeion Exhibition Hall (1878), the Old Parliament Building (1858), the New Royal Palace (now the Presidential Palace) (1897) and the Athens Town Hall (1874).
Athens in modern Times
The city of Athens grew steadily during the second half of the 19th century. Following the disastrous war with Turkey in 1921 more than a million Greek refugees from Asia Minor were resettled in Greece. Suburbs such as Nea Ionia and Nea Smyrni began as refugee settlements on the Athens outskirts.
During the 2nd World War Athens suffered along with the rest of Greece under the German occupation. In fact more people died from starvation that killed by the enemy. In the 1950s economical programs produced another fast growth of the city. Many people came from the islands to find work in Athens. During the colonels/ junta destroyed many of the old Turkish houses in the Plaka area.
Both the city of Athens and the Greek government, supported by European Union funds, undertook and undertake major infrastructure projects such as the new Athens Airport and a new metro system. The city also tackled air pollution by restricting the use of cars in the centre of the city. As a result, Athens was awarded the 2004 Olympic Games which appeared to be a great success and brought renewed international prestige to Athens.