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Democracy was invented in the city-state of Athens

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Institutions, Philosophy, Politics on Friday, 31 January 2014

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This edited article about Ancient Greece first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 536 published on 22 April 1972.

Athens,  picture, image, illustration

The city of Athens in Ancient Greece

Men have lived on the hill which soars above modern Athens for nearly five thousand years. Pieces of the walls they built in the Bronze Age are still standing. They were lured by its dominating position, and precious natural springs, life-giving water in a land often barren and parched.

On that great rock, at a time when the Egyptians were building temples to the god Osiris, and the Jews raising their voices in hymns to “the one true God of Righteousness,” lived a race of people who worshipped a whole hierarchy of Gods, from Zeus, the king of them all, to Cerberus, the three-headed dog who kept the gates of Hell.

Superstitious though they sound, they were about to take a step into the future which would influence the whole way of life of everyone in the western world. To the Romans, we owe our knowledge of civil engineering; to the Jews our idea of one God. For almost everything else, we are indebted to the Greeks. All our science, literature and art began with them.

Greece at that time was a country of scattered independent villages, and little primitive townships which often perched on a hill-top site called an acropolis.

The peaceful peasants loved their fields, and countryside, and composed songs and dances to celebrate the seasons. Out of their pastoral festivals grew the great Greek dramas we know today. Out of their love of making beautiful things grew the simple, elegant architecture which is one of the world’s marvels.

Peaceful though they were, they seem to have been constantly at war, and from about 800 B.C. they began to draw closer together for mutual protection. Many people moved from the scattered villages to the shelter of the hill-top townships, which squatted there like mother-hens. Other villages, for increased strength, merged their governments. In some places a mixture of the two took place.

This happened in a district called Attica, a great plain with hills to the north, and to the south the Gulf of Aegina, part of the Mediterranean Sea.
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With its dominating acropolis, the natural watchdog of this area was Athens – named for Athene, goddess of wisdom, science and art – six miles inland from the sea.

The city became head of a united state which included all Attica, and of which all the inhabitants of Attica became citizens. Other city-states developed on more or less similar lines: Sparta (Athens’ great rival), Thebes, Argos and Corinth.

A lot of political experiment took place in the years that followed. Athens was first a monarchy, then an oligarchy (rule by a few, in their own interests) followed by an attempt at tyranny.

By 640 B.C. it was close to anarchy. A rich, money-lending aristocracy exerted its dominance over the trading middle-classes to the point where a man who owed money he could not pay was reduced to slavery.

Rescue came through Solon, a rich merchant of royal descent, a man of practical wisdom, a philosopher, statesman and law-giver.

He abolished the “rights of pedigree,” and granted graduated powers to all those who owned property, dividing the people into four “classes” according to their means – each class having definite duties.

He set the poorest people free to elect their own magistrates, and established these as a final court of appeal.

He abolished the penalty of slavery for debt (though slavery in other forms remained).

Solon changed the whole character of Athenian life, and laid the foundations of its future glory. Without revolution or strife he established the first democracy.

Athens kept her independence, exchanging ambassadors and making treaties and alliances with other city-states (few of them larger than an English county) as though they were foreign countries. But she was aware, too, of being Greek, like them. She shared their reverence for the voice of the Oracle, which communicated the thoughts of the Gods. She shared in the national festivals and games. She shared, too, in the wars against the Persians in 480 B.C. when Sparta was overwhelmed, and most of the buildings on the Athens Acropolis destroyed.

But gradually, in the 5th century B.C., she emerged as the most powerful of all the city-states, and began to attract great men to make her still more powerful: great teachers, mathematicians, scientists, philosophers, artists and poets. One of the greatest was Pericles, the soldier-statesman, orator, thinker and artist who turned her from a powerful city into the greatest the world has ever known. Under his rule Athens entered her Golden Age.

Pericles made Athens strong, reformed her laws, broadened her justice, increased her prosperity. He opened gigantic theatres, free to all, where the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were performed. And he covered the hills of Athens with glorious buildings.

Almost miraculously there appeared on the scene at this time an inspired artist-in-stone, Phidias, who superintended all the works of art designed to beautify the city, and especially its crown – the Acropolis. Since the 6th century B.C. the Athenians had ceased to live there themselves. They moved down into the Lower City and left the Acropolis to the gods. The buildings they erected there, for this reason, were the finest man could devise.

Phidias designed the frieze of carved figures which decorated the main building – the great Temple of Athene (which we call The Parthenon) and it was executed by his pupils under his supervision. He himself sculptured the great statue of the goddess, in ivory and gold.

The architects of the Parthenon knew something about the optical illusions created in enormous buildings; that outside pillars will appear to lean outwards unless they are designed actually to lean inwards; that very tall pillars must have a “midriff bulge” if they are not to appear “waisted”; that vast floors appear to sink in the centre unless they are slightly “domed.” In fact, in the Parthenon, lines that appear horizontal are really curved, and lines that appear vertical are slightly inclined, to correct these illusions. The columns in fact lean inwards as much as two and a half inches.

Today, the Parthenon is bone-white against the burning-blue Greek summer sky. Originally it was decorated with rich colours, its ceilings dark blue, sprinkled with gilt stars.

Although the vast sprawl of modern Athens, with its skyscraper buildings its wide, straight, streets and its thundering traffic, is scattered with memorials to that long-gone golden age, it is to the Acropolis, and particularly the Parthenon, that men instinctively turn to recapture the former glory.

Incredibly, since it left such a powerful legacy, its true greatness lasted for only about two centuries. Wars with Sparta, and with the Macedonians, weakened the city-state. In A.D. 146 it became just one more part of the Roman Empire.

But nothing could ever quite destroy, or even dim, the wonderful inspiration Greece, and particularly Athens, gave to the rest of the world.

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