The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization | Notes & Review

Posted on February 26, 2009

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As someone who is not as well versed in this area of history, I must take caution as to the bias and presentation of programs like these. The Netflix reviews are helpful for keeping that in mind, as many are critical of the differing favorings of this presentation. Either way, if you can filter through the interpretations, I thought the time line was helpful, at the very least to give an overview of some major people and events that set the backdrop to the grand influence of Hellenism in the world.

The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization. PBS Home Video, 2000.

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Just for compilation sake , the following is the time line found at the website linked above.

1400 B.C.: THE ORACLE AT DELPHI FOUNDED

Dating back to 1200 BC, the Oracle of Delphi was the most important shrine in all Greece, and in theory all Greeks respected its independence. Built around a sacred spring, Delphi was considered to be the omphalos – the center (literally navel) of the world.

People came from all over Greece and beyond to have their questions about the future answered by the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo. And her answers, usually cryptic, could determine the course of everything from when a farmer planted his seedlings, to when an empire declared war.

Arguments over the correct interpretation of an oracle were common, but the oracle was always happy to give another prophecy if more gold was provided. A good example is the famous incident before the Battle of Salamis when the Pythia first predicted doom and later predicted that a ‘wooden wall’ (interpreted by the Athenian to mean their ships) would save them.

The lack of a strict religious dogma associated with the worship of Greek gods, also encouraged scholars to congregate at Delphi, and it became a focal point for intellectual enquiry, as well as an occasional meeting place where rivals could negotiate.

Delphi became a fantastic showcase of art treasures and all Greek states would send rich gifts to keep the Oracle on their side. It finally came to an end in the 4th century AD when a newly Christian Rome proscribed its prophesying.

c1200 B.C.: END OF MYCENEAN CIVILIZATION

From 1868 until his death twenty-two years later, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, devoted his life to finding evidence of the heroic Greek civilization described in Homer’s books The Illiad and The Odyssey. Schliemann first uncovered evidence of a civilization that predated Classical Greece by over a thousand years in Troy, on the eastern coast of Turkey. He then turned to Greece where his excavations around the Peloponnese located Mycenae.

The Myceneans, named after their capital, Mycenae, thrived between 1600 BC and 1200 BC and built huge monumental structures and citadels, such as the 1,100-meter long ‘Lion’s Gate’ at Mycenae. From these impressive forts their kings ruled over numerous smaller settlements and villages bound to them by feudal loyalties and trade.

Accomplished traders and seafarers the Myceneans conquered the older Minoan civilization, based on the island of Crete, around 1375 BC. And evidence indicates that the ‘Linear B’ writing system of the Minoans was originally developed for the form of Greek the Myceneans spoke. The bronze armor, pottery, and ivory found in the unique beehive-like tombs of Mycenean nobles also suggests they came to dominate trade in the eastern Mediterranean until the collapse of their civilization in the 12th century BC.

Why their civilization disappeared is a matter of debate, but after them, Greece fell into a long ‘Dark Age’ which lasted until the 6th century BC.

c776 B.C.: THE ORIGIN OF THE OLYMPIC GAMES

According to tradition the first Olympics took place in 776 BC. While one legends claims the games were established by Heracles (Hercules), who brought a sacred olive tree to Olympia, an alternative myth has the hero Pelops (from which the name of the Peloponnese region of Greece originates) establish the festival after defeating King Oenomaus in a chariot race.

Whatever the precise origin of the games, they became a central aspect of Greek culture very early on and in many ways were the most important factor uniting the Greeks, except for their language and mythology.

Over time the site of Olympia, in southern Greece, became famous for its temples and monuments, particularly the gold and ivory Statue of Zeus that sat upon his throne in the high temple, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

c750 B.C.: HOMER WRITES

Nothing is known of the life of Homer, but as author of two of ancient Greece’s most important literary works – the Iliad and the Odyssey – his importance to Greek culture can hardly be underestimated.

According to a hymn written in honour of the god Apollo, he was a blind man from the island of Chios, in the eastern Mediterranean. Chios was home to a guild of poets, or rhapsodists, called the Homeridai, and seems to be one of the most likely candidates. However, many other Greek cities have also claimed to have been his home, as an old Greek epigram says:

“Seven wealthy towns contend for Homer dead,Through which the living Homer begged his bread?”

Homer’s verses were first set down in writing around 700 BC, soon after the Greeks invented their own alphabet by incorporating vowels into the existing Phoenician alphabet. The verses were probably significantly older than this, because we know that until this point they had been memorized by traveling bards who earned a living by reciting them.

700 B.C.: THE FIRST TRIREMES BUILT

The guided missiles of their day, triremes were the key to Athens’ greatness in the 5th century BC.

According to the Ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, it was the Corinthians who first developed the trireme, possibly as early as the 7th century BC. (1.12.4 – 13.2) They in turn based their design on ships first made by the Phoenicians, a people living on the coast of what is now Lebanon.

Triremes derived their name from having three banks of rowers who sat almost on top of each other on each side of the ship. Build for speed and maneuverability rather than strength, they relied primarily on the muscle-power of their 170 rowers and used their front ram to devastating effect, especially in such battles as Salamis in 480 BC.

Above the rowers, perched on the open top of the trireme, would be up to 30 hoplites infantrymen. Once the trireme had engaged with the enemy ship, either by ramming it or running along side it, these soldiers would attempt to board the enemy and fight in hand-to-hand combat. Dressed in heavy bronze armor this was obviously a very dangerous activity!

Maintaining triremes was an expensive, and richer aristocrats would usually pay the costs for one or more ships as both a form of tax and a way of increasing their prestige in the political arena.

650 B.C.: SPARTA REFOUNDED

Sparta was unique among the Greek city-states because of the rigid program of military indoctrination it instilled in its citizens.

Legend dates the founding of the city to Mycenean times, when the legendary King Menelaus, who helped defeat Troy, supposedly ruled the city. Archaeologists put the date of its origin later, around 1000 BC, when a tribe called the Dorians migrated to the region.

Around the year 650 BC, Sparta was thoroughly reorganized by Lycurgus, who came to power after the city was humiliatingly defeated by its neighbor Argos. Lycurgus turned Sparta from a city ruled by an aristocratic elite into a far broader oligarchy dedicated solely to warfare. By 500 BC it had conquered almost all of the surrounding territory and dominated the Peloponnese region of southwest Greece.

570 B.C.: CLEISTHENES IS BORN

Credited with having established democracy in Athens, Cleisthenes’ reforms at the end of the 6th Century BC made possible the Golden Age of Athenian civilization that would follow in the 5th Century BC. Born into one of the city’s foremost political dynasties, he became the unlikely champion of the people when they rebelled against tyranny.Born into the rich and aristocratic Alcmaeonid clan around 570 BC, Cleisthenes was raised as a nobleman at a time when the city was deeply divided between ordinary commoners and their wealthy noble rulers.

Named after his grandfather, the young boy had a great deal to live up to. His grandfather had ruled the city of Sicyon, won the Olympics as a chariot racer, and become famous all over Greece for the year long competition he held for suitors seeking to marry his daughter. The eventual winner of the contest was an Athenian nobleman called Megacles – the younger Cleisthenes’ father – but all the other participants received generous consolation prizes.

Megacles became one of Athens’ most important statesmen and would have brought up his son to embrace the traditional heroic virtues embodied in the works of Homer. To be a leader and to achieve glory and fame were what counted in life, only through individual deeds could a man hope to achieve immortality.

But there was another important influence at work in the city, one that the highly intelligent young boy was almost certainly aware of…

In the years before Cleisthenes’ was born, the most influential man in the city had been Solon, an unselfish and model aristocratic reformer who became known as one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece. Solon had sought to limit the excessive powers of the nobility and restore Athens to a state of ‘eunomia’, or ‘good order’. To achieve this he had created a Council of Four Hundred men whose job was to represent the population as a whole, and encouraged the people, especially the aristocrats, to be responsible for their city, not just themselves.

Solon’s ideas were, however, ahead of their time and the ordinary people still had little political influence. Their main role in the politics of the city was to act as the supporters of their aristocratic leaders, not act for themselves.

So when Cleisthenes was only 10 years old and his brother-in-law Pisistratus, a popular general, seized power there was little opposition from the ordinary Athenians. After several failed attempts, Pisistratus ultimately established himself as ‘tyrant’, the undisputed leader of the city.

Pisistratus died in 527 BC. His reign would be remembered as a ‘Golden Age’ of Athenian progress and development. His son, Hippias, ruled successfully at first, and like his father avoided interfering in the private affairs of the people.

Cleisthenes was now over forty years old and an established politician with a reputation for flexibility and clever strategy. For reasons that are still unclear, but possibly because of the political plotting of his father Megacles, he had already spent a period in exile – a time he spent touring the other city-states of Greece.

Then in the year 514 BC Hippias’ brother and right-hand man, Hipparchos, was assassinated in a lovers quarrel. In response Hippias became an increasingly brutal and savage dictator.

After long years of waiting, Cleisthenes at last saw his opportunity. Calling in a favour owed him by the Oracle of Delphi, the greatest shrine in all Greece, he managed to obtain Spartan help and overthrew Hippias, who fled to Asia Minor.

The year was 510 BC, the traditional date of Athens’ liberation from the tyrants. However, almost immediately Cleisthenes’ bid for power was thwarted…

When Hippias was driven out of the city in 510 BC, Athens celebrated its liberation from tyranny. Now in his 60s, Cleisthenes, the man who more than anyone had brought that liberation about, could sense power was within his grasp. He had at last lived up to the heroic myths he’d been brought up with since childhood.

But almost immediately another nobleman, Isagoras, emerged to challenge his power.

Cleisthenes responded by appealing for supporters far beyond the normal factions of the aristocracy, proposing a series of sweeping reforms that would appeal to the ordinary people of Athens. It was a bold move that forced his opponent Isagoras to dramatically up the stakes.

An old friend of the Spartan King, Cleomenes, with whom he was rumoured to have shared his wife, Isagoras turned to the king for help. Cleomenes duly dispatched a contingent of Spartan troops to aid Isagoras and his aristocratic conspirators.

For Cleisthenes, the intervention of the Spartans spelt defeat. In the year 508, before Spartan troops had even reached the city, he was forced to flee, probably in the vain hope that with him gone the Spartans would not need to occupy Athens.

Isagoras was appointed as ‘archon’, chief civil official, in 508 BC. Supported by a faction of Athen’s most conservative aristocrats, his new regime appeared to be a return to tyranny. In reality Isagoras ruled as the head of an oligarchy of three hundred noblemen, who in turn relied upon the military backing of Sparta.

Under instructions from the Spartan king, Cleomenes, the first task of the new government was to banish Cleisthenes’ most powerful allies. Altogether over 700 households were brutally cast out of the city, including the whole of Cleisthenes’ clan, the Alcmaeonids. Calling them ‘The Accursed’, the justification used by Isagoras and his allies was based on an ancient misdeed the clan had been responsible for.

To the ordinary people of Athens, Isagoras was clearly putting an end to all opposition so that he and his allies could rule unhindered, even if that meant relying on Spartan help. Isagoras’ next target was one of the last vestiges of Solon’s rule, the Council of Four Hundred; a sort of consultative assembly with little real power.

But though the Council was largely symbolic, disbanding it was the beginning of the end of Isagoras’ rule…

In the year 507, Athens shook under an extraordinary event.

As the reformer Cleisthenes agonised in exile with the 700 families called ‘The Accursed’, his arch-enemy and current ruler of Athens, Isagoras, continued to dismantle the last vestiges of the city’s traditional government with the help of his Spartan allies.

Neither man had quite realised the power or feelings of the ordinary Athenians. So when a riot turned into a full-scale revolt both leaders were taken by surprise.

For two days and nights, people who they had always considered their inferiors trapped Isagoras and his Spartan allies on the Acropolis. Unprepared and overwhelmed by the united opposition against them, they were forced to agree to a humiliating truce. The Spartans left Athens, while Isagoras’ allies were executed. The would-be tyrant somehow managed to escape.

It was a new dawn for Athens. The ordinary Athenians had rescued their city and seized power for themselves. Now they turned to the man whose unique experience and disappointments had helped give them a new vision of themselves.

Cleisthenes was recalled from exile and asked to build the world’s first government of the people – the demos – a system of government we now know as democracy.

When Cleisthenes returned from exile to Athens in the year 507 BC, he faced a situation for which there was no precedent in history. Having proposed reform before Isagoras usurped power, he now had to make good on his promises and forge a government that genuinely reflected the will of all Athenians; aristocrats and commoners.

His solution was to form a general assembly of all Athenian free men, with each man having one vote – a type of government we now call direct democracy. These men would then meet regularly to discuss and vote on all aspects of their city, from the price of olives to the raising of taxes and declarations of war. Though we do not know for sure, it was probably Cleisthenes who established the Pnyx, the small hill in the shadow of the Acropolis, as the location of this general assembly.

The impact of Cleisthenes’ reforms was felt almost immediately, revolutionizing all aspects of Athenian life. Democracy released unheard of potentials in its citizens and ushered in an age of achievement and prosperity.

What happened to Cleisthenes after instituting his reforms is, however, a mystery.

564 B.C.: SOLON BECOMES LAWMAKER OF ATHENS

Solon was one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece and dominated Athenian politics for several decades, becoming the city’s chief magistrate in the early years of the 6th century BC (594-3 BC). Though Solon was not the city’s first legal reformer, that dubious honor belonged to the harsh Dracon, who introduced the first law codes three decades before, but he was certainly the most influential. By the time of Cleisthenes reforms nearly a century later, he had already assumed an almost mythical status.

Solon’s reforms were designed to restore the bond between ruled and rulers. Born an aristocratic himself, he did not believe the people should actually rule, only that they ought to be consulted in a popular assembly. As a result he created a Council of Four Hundred to represent the ordinary citizens, and initiated reforms in many other areas of law, such as debt relief and taxes.

Some of his reforms were, however, rather peculiar. For instance, in order to encourage participation in the affairs of the city, he argued that when two aristocratic factions were vying for power every citizen had to choose which side he supported or loose his citizenship altogether!

Ironically, many of the reforms he didn’t manage to achieve – especially economic ones – were later carried out by the tyrant Pisistratus.

According to Plato’s dialogues the Critias and the Timaeus, Solon was also responsible for bringing the Atlantis myth to Greece. He is said to have discovered it while travelling in Egypt.

547 B.C.: PISISTRATUS BECOMES TYRANT OF ATHENS

When Pisistratus became tyrant of Athens in 547 BC it marked a change of direction for city-state and the surrounding land of Attica, which despite its large size and power was overshadowed by many of the other city-states of Greece. During the long period of his rule, Pisistratus sought to correct this.

He began by constructing new public buildings, such as a ‘fountain house’ to improve the city’s water supply, and new temples on the Acropolis. Eager to glorify the city, he introduced major new festivals, including the Panathenaic Festival, a midsummer procession and sports event dedicated to Athene, and theCity Dionysia, the first known drama competitions. Promising to help the common people he also reformed the legal system.

But perhaps his greatest achievement was the transformation of the economy by introducing loans and encouraging farmers to grow ‘cash crops’, like olives.

A highly prized crop, olives provided cooking oil, lubricant, soap and even fuel, but political instability had always made them too risky a crop to cultivate: an average olive tree taking 10 years to produce fruit. Pisistratus’ stable reign made growing such crops viable, and before long Athens was producing enough olives to become an export economy. In turn this produced a massive boost to crafts, especially pottery, which was used to transport the harvest.

Pisistratus had literally sown the seeds of future greatness, he died in 527 BC and was succeeded by his son Hippias.

534 B.C.: THESPIS BECOMES WORLD’S FIRST ACTOR

The earliest origins of drama are to be found in Athens where ancient hymns, called dithyrambs, were sung in honor of the god Dionysus. These hymns were later adapted for choral processions in which participants would dress up in costumes and masks. Eventually, certain members of the chorus evolved to take special roles within the procession, but they were not yet actors in the way we would understand it.

That development came later in the 6th century BC, when the tyrant Pisistratus, who then ruled the city, established a series of new public festivals. One of these, the ‘City Dionysia’, a festival of entertainment held in honor of the god Dionysus, featured competitions in music, singing, dance and poetry. And most remarkable of all the winners was said to be a wandering bard called Thespis.

According to tradition, in 534 or 535 BC, Thespis astounded audiences by leaping on to the back of a wooden cart and reciting poetry as if he was the characters whose lines he was reading. In doing so he became the world’s first actor, and it is from him that we get the world thespian.

523 B.C.: THEMISTOCLES IS BORN

Themistocles was an Athenian general and politician of superlative skill and foresight. He fought against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon while a young man, and distinguished himself as the savior of all Greece by persuading Athens to build a navy which went on to defeat Persia at Salamis in 480 bc.

Themistocles was born about 523 BC. Although he came from the aristocratic Lycomid clan, his lineage was not particularly distinguished and almost nothing is known about his parents. Rumours that his mother was a slave or prostitute are probably no more than propaganda put about by the many enemies he managed to make during his lifetime.

As a teenager Themistocles would have been aware of the revolution in Athens which led to Cleisthenes establishing a popular assembly of the people, and this may have been one of the reasons he chose to dedicate himself to politics from a very early age. Something of a loner, he is said to have spent much of his youth practicing how to make speeches. Unashamed about his lack of a traditional aristocratic education, the Greek biographer, Plutarch, records what he said in his own defence:

“I may not know how to play the lyre or flute, but I do know how to make a city great.”

Other historians, such as Herodotus, were less sympathetic characterizing him as greedy, devious and unscrupulous. Yet, even Herodotus does not deny that he was one of the greatest generals and politicians in Greek history.

As a politician Themistocles appears to have had no tutor other than himself, but rather than prove a hindrance, this was to become his greatest asset. His ability to innovate and to think of a new ways of doing things suited the times.

Athens was experiencing the after-effects of a democratic revolution and many of the old certainties were disappearing. This was evident at all levels of society, from the lowly craftsmen who competed to create the finest examples of pottery, to the new types of sculptures being produced by Athenian artists.

In the political arena, Themistocles’ introduced an innovation of his own. He made an effort to know as many citizens as possible by name, adding to his speeches what modern politicians would call “the personal touch”.

In 493 BC, at the age of about 30, Themistocles was elected to the post of archon, one of the city’s most important elected officials. He began his term by supervising the fortification of the Piraeus, which would later become Athens’ main harbour.

The reasons were clear. The Persian Empire was on the march and Greece was its target.

In 491 BC the ‘Great King’, Darius, who ruled the vast Persian Empire, sent envoys to the Greek city-states seeking ‘earth and water’ – tokens of submission to Persian authority. Darius had been provoked by the assistance the city-states, particularly Athens, had given to an unsuccessful revolt by the Ionian Greeks – the colonies of Greeks living on the western coast of Turkey. In retaliation he now sought to establish his authority over all Greece.

In Athens, Darius’ envoys were thrown into a pit reserved for those condemned to death and Themistocles lobbied unsuccessfully to have them executed on a charge of defiling the Greek language with their ‘barbarian demands’.

Elsewhere in Greece, many city-states simply submitted. Only Sparta dared to treat the envoys with the same disregard as Athens. They threw the envoys down a well and told them to find their water there.

A furious King Darius readied his forces…

In September of the year 490, the Persian forces landed at the sandy harbour of Marathon with an invasion force of 600 ships, 20,000 or more foot soldiers, and 800 cavalry. Also with them was the deposed tyrant of Athens, Hippias.

The Athenians immediately dispatched Phidippides to run to Spartan and seek their aid. But when he arrived there Phidippides found them in the middle of a religious festival. They would not send help until the festival had finished.

The Athenian hoplites would have to face the massed ranks of the Persians alone.

The stunning victory at Marathon gave the Athenians a new sense of their city’s power and potential, but also led to overconfidence and a series of unnecessary confrontations with rival city-states.

During this turbulent time Themistocles faced a number of powerful political rivals. The most important of these was Aristides. A wealthy aristocrat known for his education, even-temper and honesty, he was the opposite of Themistocles in almost every respect. The rivalry between them was said to have begun when both men had competed for the affections of the most beautiful youth in Athens, but more importantly, they had come to represent two different factions within the popular assembly.

Whereas Aristides spoke for the hoplite class – the well-off conservative farmers who could afford their own armour – Themistocles appealed to the lower classes, mainly made up of poorer urban craftsmen, called thetes.

By 487, both men were at the height of their influence. It was also the first year the assembly used the power of ostracism, an institution invented for banishing dangerous politicians, but never before used. Suddenly, the stakes had increased dramatically and it was clear neither would rest until he had imposed banishment on the other…

In 483 a rich vein of silver was discovered at Laurion, near Athens. Its estimated value was 100 Talents, roughly equivalent to 100 million dollars in modern money. Normal procedure would be to mine the silver and divide the spoils equally among the citizenry.

Themistocles had other ideas. For some time he had warned that the Persians still remained a threat, as did those city-states, like nearby Aegina, who had taken the Persian side in the war. Themistocles now argued that this newly found windfall be devoted to building a navy.

The assembly split in two factions. Conservatives, represented by Aristides, argued against Themistocles, convinced that the Athenians should stick with what they knew: land-based infantry warfare. Radicals, mainly made up of poorer citizens, sided with Themistocles believing the building of a fleet would not only make Athens a great sea power, but provide them with jobs building the ships!

A vote on ostracism was to decide the outcome.

Ultimately, the Athenians sided with Themistocles and Aristides went into exile. Immediately work began at break neck speed to build a navy of 200 triremes, the most advanced ships of the Ancient World.

But time was running out…

When the Persian king, Xerxes, invaded Greece in the spring of 480 BC, he did so at the head of a vast army. Once the Spartan force at Thermopylae had been defeated, his route by land to Athens was virtually undefended. Attica was seized by panic.

The Athenians sought the wisdom of the Oracle of Delphi. According to Herodotus the Oracle’s response could hardly have been more negative:

‘Why sit you doomed one? Fly to the ends of the earth. All is ruin for fire and headlong god of war shall bring you low.’

When the message reached Athens the popular assembly fell into uproar and another envoy was quickly dispatched to the Oracle. The second prophecy was less apocalyptic:

‘Though all else shall be taken, Zeus, the all seeing, grants that the wooden wall only shall not fail.’

Argument raged as to what this ‘wooden wall’ could mean, with many believing it to be the thorn bushes surrounding the Acropolis. Themistocles had an answer of his own: the wooden wall, he argued, was nothing less than the fleet they had spent these last few years hurriedly constructing. He won the day and then gave the order for Athens itself to be abandoned…

In the late summer of 480 BC, almost the entire population of Athens abandoned their city in a fleet of ships bound for the town of Troizen on the Peloponnese. Crammed into every sea-worthy vessel that could be found, over 100,000 people left their homes, not knowing if they would ever see them again.

Just across the water, off the coast of the island of Salamis, the Athenian navy and its allies congregated. Salamis was perhaps the only place off Greece where the Persians could not make use of their vastly superior numbers. The narrowness of the channel would also maximize the greater maneuverability of the superior Greek triremes.

A Spartan was appointed commander in chief because of the respect and decisiveness such seasoned warriors evoked in their men, but few were under any illusion as to the real mastermind behind the plan. Themistocles of Athens had spent years preparing for this fateful confrontation with Persia, and now his moment had arrived. But as the days of waiting wore on, and the flames of ravaged Athens gathered in the distant skies, the war council began to lose its nerve…

With his plan under threat, Themistocles was forced to take the initiative. By night he sent a messenger to the Persian king, Xerxes, informing him that the Greeks intended to flee. Unless he acted now, Xerxes would lose the opportunity to defeat the Greeks in one fell swoop. The Persian king took the bait.

As dawn broke Xerxes sat upon his portable throne overlooking the sea, and prepared to relish his victory over the defiant Greeks. However, as his vast armada sailed into the narrow straits between Salamis and the coast, they were met not by a fleet in disarray, but a well-ordered line of triremes, packed with Greek crewmen singing battle songs. Themistocles had forced them to fight.

In the battle that followed, the Persian armada was devastated. The Greeks lost 40 ships, the Persians 200. Unable to keep his land army supplied Xerxes was forced to flee back to his empire, parts of which, encouraged by the Greeks’ success, had already started to rebel.

The victory at Salamis has often been described as one of the greatest naval victories of all time, and a key event that shaped the whole future of European civilization.

Outnumbered by 2:1, the Athenians at first took fright at their vast enemy, with its multicoloured costumes, turbans, and unfamiliar armour. However, after a heated debate amongst the Athenian generals, they opted to engage the enemy, advancing toward them at a run under a hail of arrows. But after a long and protracted struggle the Greeks emerged victorious. Aided by superior tactics, better equipment, and sheer determination they had achieved the impossible.

Over six thousand Persians lay dead. In contrast only 192 hoplites had perished on the Athenian side.

After the stunning victory at Salamis, Themistocles received a wreath of olive leaves in acknowledgement of his brilliance. A vote to decide who should receive the award for achieving the victory fell into dispute. It seems that Themistocles’ characteristic ability to make enemies remained with him, even at the moment of his greatest glory.

The next few years were extremely eventful in Athens. The city needed to be rebuilt and the Persians remained a threat on land for the next year or so, before finally being decisively beaten at Plataea by a Spartan led army. The Athenians now found themselves at the head of an anti-Persian naval alliance, which in time would prove to be the springboard for an Athenian empire.

Once again though, Themistocles’ shrewd foresight had alerted him to dangers his fellow Athenians could still not see. Sparta, he argued, would not easily accept the new pre-eminence of Athens. Opportunity to prove his suspicions correct came only a year after the victory at Salamis.

After the devastation wrought on their city by the Persians, the Athenians were intent on rebuilding and enlarging their city walls. Hearing of their plans, the Spartans, who had no city walls, demanded to be consulted.

Once again, Themistocles came up with a cunning plan. He traveled to Sparta, informing them that he couldn’t negotiate until the rest of the Athenian delegation arrived. Meanwhile, the delegation itself was instructed to wait in Athens until the walls were high enough to protect the city. When news reached Sparta that the walls were still being built, Themistocles suggested that the Spartans should send their own envoys to see for themselves, rather than relying on rumour.

At the same time he secretly sent word back to Athens to detain the Spartan envoys until he returned. The situation had almost become a hostage crisis when the Athenian envoys finally arrived in Sparta, led by Aristides. With the walls now complete, the old rivals united and flattered their Spartan hosts with praise for their efforts against the Persians. Placated for the time being, the Spartans released them, allowing the delegation home.

Themistocles remained one of the most powerful politicians in Athens for the next decade, though little mention is made of him in the surviving records.

He does not seem to have played a major role in the formation of the Delian League, the great naval alliance that would ensure the city’s future greatness. Nor does he seem to have occupied any of the major elected posts of the city, though the very nature of the popular assembly meant citizens could enjoy considerable power without formal office. That was its purpose: everyone had a voice.

Themistocles must still, though, have enjoyed considerable power because otherwise he would never have become a target for what happened to him next. As Athens reaped the benefits of peace, her populace began to tire of their demanding war hero and his scathing criticism of the new order:

‘They treat me like a spreading plain tree, to which they run for shelter under in a storm, but which, when the weather is fair, they tear and pluck at as they walk by.’

In retaliation the assembly ostracised Themistocles in the year 470 or 471 BC. He would never return.

510 B.C.: CLEISTHENES’ FIRST PERIOD OF POWER

When Hippias was driven out of the city in 510 BC, Athens celebrated its liberation from tyranny. Now in his 60s, Cleisthenes, the man who more than anyone had brought that liberation about, could sense power was within his grasp. He had at last lived up to the heroic myths he’d been brought up with since childhood.

But almost immediately another nobleman, Isagoras, emerged to challenge his power.

Cleisthenes responded by appealing for supporters far beyond the normal factions of the aristocracy, proposing a series of sweeping reforms that would appeal to the ordinary people of Athens. It was a bold move that forced his opponent Isagoras to dramatically up the stakes.

An old friend of the Spartan King, Cleomenes, with whom he was rumoured to have shared his wife, Isagoras turned to the king for help. Cleomenes duly dispatched a contingent of Spartan troops to aid Isagoras and his aristocratic conspirators.

For Cleisthenes, the intervention of the Spartans spelt defeat. In the year 508, before Spartan troops had even reached the city, he was forced to flee, probably in the vain hope that with him gone the Spartans would not need to occupy Athens.

508 B.C.:ISAGORAS SEIZES POWER

Isagoras was appointed as ‘archon’, chief civil official, in 508 BC. Supported by a faction of Athen’s most conservative aristocrats, his new regime appeared to be a return to tyranny. In reality Isagoras ruled as the head of an oligarchy of three hundred noblemen, who in turn relied upon the military backing of Sparta.

Under instructions from the Spartan king, Cleomenes, the first task of the new government was to banish Cleisthenes’ most powerful allies. Altogether over 700 households were brutally cast out of the city, including the whole of Cleisthenes’ clan, the Alcmaeonids. Calling them ‘The Accursed’, the justification used by Isagoras and his allies was based on an ancient misdeed the clan had been responsible for.

To the ordinary people of Athens, Isagoras was clearly putting an end to all opposition so that he and his allies could rule unhindered, even if that meant relying on Spartan help. Isagoras’ next target was one of the last vestiges of Solon’s rule, the Council of Four Hundred; a sort of consultative assembly with little real power.

But though the Council was largely symbolic, disbanding it was the beginning of the end of Isagoras’ rule…

508 B.C.: REVOLUTION IN ATHENS

In the year 507, Athens shook under an extraordinary event.

As the reformer Cleisthenes agonised in exile with the 700 families called ‘The Accursed’, his arch-enemy and current ruler of Athens, Isagoras, continued to dismantle the last vestiges of the city’s traditional government with the help of his Spartan allies.

Neither man had quite realised the power or feelings of the ordinary Athenians. So when a riot turned into a full-scale revolt both leaders were taken by surprise.

For two days and nights, people who they had always considered their inferiors trapped Isagoras and his Spartan allies on the Acropolis. Unprepared and overwhelmed by the united opposition against them, they were forced to agree to a humiliating truce. The Spartans left Athens, while Isagoras’ allies were executed. The would-be tyrant somehow managed to escape.

It was a new dawn for Athens. The ordinary Athenians had rescued their city and seized power for themselves. Now they turned to the man whose unique experience and disappointments had helped give them a new vision of themselves.

Cleisthenes was recalled from exile and asked to build the world’s first government of the people – the demos – a system of government we now know as democracy.

507 B.C.: CLEISTHENES RECALLED

When Cleisthenes returned from exile to Athens in the year 507 BC, he faced a situation for which there was no precedent in history. Having proposed reform before Isagoras usurped power, he now had to make good on his promises and forge a government that genuinely reflected the will of all Athenians; aristocrats and commoners.

His solution was to form a general assembly of all Athenian free men, with each man having one vote. A type of government we now call direct democracy. These men would then meet regularly to discuss and vote on all aspects of their city, from the price of olives to the raising of taxes and declarations of war. Though we do not know for sure, it was probably Cleisthenes who established the Pnyx, the small hill in the shadow of the Acropolis, as the location of this general assembly.

The impact of Cleisthenes’ reforms was felt almost immediately, revolutionizing all aspects of Athenian life. Democracy released unheard of potentials in its citizens and ushered in an age of achievement and prosperity.

What happened to Cleisthenes after instituting his reforms is, however, a mystery.

c.500 B.C.: THE REST OF THE WORLD

Europe:
In 510 BC, after a protracted struggle with its Etruscan kings, the nobility of Rome overthrew their monarchy and established a republic. From its very beginning the Roman Republic was a highly unified state, much more so than any of its Greek counterparts, though with its emphasis on foreign conquest it did share some similarities with Sparta. Rome’s great rival was Carthage, a Phoenician colony in northern Africa, which controlled most of the trade of the western Mediterranean. It would be another three centuries before Rome absorbed the Greek city-states into its own empire in 146 BC.

The Persian Empire:
Asia & Egypt: Originally founded by Cyrus the Great in 559 BC, the Persian Empire succeeded the Babylonian Empire in becoming the dominant power of the Near East. Drawing on the rich history of ‘multi-national’ empires that had dominated the region since the third millennium BC, Cyrus sought to make his Achaemenid Empire the greatest of them all – a true ‘universal empire’. By the time of Darius an innovative system of local administrators ensured control of a vast area extending as far east as northern India, and as far west as Egypt. However, both Darius and his son Xerxes came unstuck in their efforts to defeat independent Greece and thereafter their heirs were more concerned with keeping their vast empire together than expanding it.

China:
In the far Eastern corner of China the Zhou Dynasty, a feudal-type society based on family dynasties, was coming to the end of a long period of decline. Originating in 1027 BC the Zhou had been an amalgam of city-states that had become progressively centralized and which had thrived until 771 BC when barbarians, allied to rebel lords, sacked their capital and court. In 551 BC, the famous Chinese Scholar Confucius was born. Probably writing around the same time as Cleisthenes brought democracy to Athens, Confucius died in 479 BC, a year before the Battle of Salamis. Thereafter China began a long period of civil war that would last for over 250 years.

Mesoamerica:
During the 5th and 6th centuries BC, the ancient Olmec civilization was coming to an end in Mexico. At the about same time, the Mayan civilization was rapidly expanding in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. In time the Mayans would become the most advanced civilization of the Americas; developing huge monumental architecture, hieroglyphic writing, and a solar calendar more accurate than was used in Europe until the 16th century.

500 B.C.: THE IONIAN REVOLT

There is evidence of Greek-speaking peoples populating the islands and coasts of the Aegean Sea as far back as the second millennium BC. Those peoples who migrated eastward and either settled in Attica, or sailed across to the coasts of Asia Minor to found new colonies, became known as the Ionian Greeks.

Although the Ionians maintained close relationships with the inhabitants of Attica, by about 500 BC, all of the colonies in Asia Minor recognized the supremacy of the Persian king’s representative, the satrap, based in his city of Sardis. In return for tribute payments these cities were generally left alone to manage their own affairs. However, in the aftermath of the Athenian revolution, several of these cities became involved in a rebellion against Persian rule.

Their revolt lasted for six years before it was finally defeated in 494 BC. The Persians then made an example of several of the Ionian cities by carrying off their inhabitants to Persia to be resettled, sold as slaves, or in the case of many young men, made into eunuchs. Because of the help Athens and other cities had given the Ionians, the revolt provided the Persians with a perfect pretext to invade Greece itself.

493 B.C.: PERICLES IS BORN

For over 20 years, at Athens’ height, the city was dominated by the aloof, ‘Olympian’ figure of Pericles. A magnificent orator with a reputation for scrupulous honesty, Pericles deepened and extended the reforms that Cleisthenes had set in motion some 50 years before.

A keen patron of learning and the arts, he masterminded the construction of the Parthenon. However, in glorifying Athens, he set it upon a collision course with Sparta that would ultimately lead to its ruin.

Pericles was born around 493 BC into a rich aristocratic family. On his mother’s side he was related to the great reformer Cleisthenes. His father was a famous general.

Little is known of his early life and this may be partly to do with the great events going on all around him. These were tumultuous times for Athens. When Pericles was only three years old the Persians made their first bid to conquer the Greeks, being soundly defeated at Marathon. By the time he was 13 they had returned again, and undoubtedly the teenage Pericles would have been among the many women and children evacuated from Athens during the battle at Salamis.

In 472 BC, eight years after the defeat of the Persians at Salamis, the young Pericles, now in his late 20s, sponsored a major dramatic production for the festival of Dionysus. As well as providing entertainment for the whole city, this annual event was also an opportunity for sponsors to bring their name to wider public attention.

Pericles was lucky enough to be assigned to sponsor Aeschylus, the first of the great tragic playwrights. Aeschylus’ play, ‘The Persians’ was considered a masterpiece and won first prize, bringing its sponsor, Pericles, to widespread public prominence.

Around this time he also married, though, as with so much about male-dominated ancient Greece, we don’t even know the name of his wife. She bore him two sons.

Pericles’ first real involvement in politics began a decade later, in 461. He became involved with a politician called Ephialtes. Together they organised a vote in the popular assembly that deprived the Areopagus, the old noble council, of its remaining powers. It was an action that would have huge consequences, and many historians believe it to mark the defining moment of Athenian democracy.

In the stormy aftermath of the old noble council losing its powers, Pericles’ ally, Ephialtes, was assassinated. It was a dangerous time for the budding leader as Cimon, the pro-Spartan politician who had probably organized the ostracism of Themistocles ten years before in 470, tried to re-assert himself as Athens’ foremost politician.

But Cimon underestimated the power of the common people and was ostracised. As a result Pericles now joined the front rank of Athenian politicians. Over the next ten years he led several important military expeditions, helped reinforce Athens’ control over the naval alliance called the Delian League, approved a final peace with Persia, and introduced payment for jury service. This last act marked a major step forward for the poor, since they too could now afford to take time off their normal work to become involved in politics.

Athenian democracy was entering its most radical phase…

In 451 Pericles introduced a new citizenship law which prevented the son of an Athenian father and a non-Athenian mother becoming a full citizen. The law’s main effect was to curb the power of the aristocrats since if their heirs could not be legally recognized they could no longer forge alliances with aristocrats from other cities. Ironically, it would have major consequences for Pericles own private life.

A few years later Pericles divorced his wife and started to live with a beautiful foreign courtesan called Aspasia, described by Socrates as one of the most intelligent and witty women of her time. The relationship scandalized polite society, especially because they remained unmarried and Pericles treated her as an equal, an almost unthinkable action for most Greek men.

But though Pericles became the butt of vicious jokes about his private life, in public office he was known for his incorruptibility and refusal to accept gifts from other aristocrats, as was the normal custom. Instead he kept to himself, limiting his public appearances before the assembly, but slowly coming to dominate it with his aristocratic style and superb oratory skills.

In 447 Pericles began the project he is most famous for: the building program on the Acropolis. Through its great naval alliance the city controlled an empire – Pericles now insisted his countrymen support him in constructing a building whose magnificence, architectural genius, and sheer brilliance would reflect the prestige of imperial Athens:

‘All kinds of enterprises should be created which will provide an inspiration for every art, find employment for every hand… we must devote ourselves to acquiring things that will be the source of everlasting fame.’

The most ambitious building program in Greek history, the building of the Parthenon was Pericles’ greatest triumph and he oversaw the project personally. Costing 5000 talents in the first year alone – a figure equivalent to some $3 billion in today’s money – the building was completed in less than 15 years, despite attempts to derail the projects by Pericles’ political opponents. Made from 20 thousand tons of marble quarried from nearby Mount Pentelicus, the huge cost of the building was partly financed from the treasury of the Delian League, which caused great resentment among many of Athens’ allies, who were to be the source of many future troubles…

In the early years of Pericles’ power he was constantly challenged for the leadership of Athens. One opponent, Thucydides (not the historian of the same name), a relative of the ostracised Cimon, tried a novel way to subvert Pericles’ influence. Rather like a modern political party, he arranged for all his supporters to sit in one block in the assembly in order to strengthen his cause. Sadly for Thucydides, the plan backfired by exposing just how little support he really had. A champion wrestler who had won the Olympics, he later said of Pericles:

‘If I wrestle him to the ground he will deny this and deny it so vigorously that he will convince even those who witnessed the fight.’

Thucydides was Pericles’ main rival for a number of years but eventually followed Cimon into exile in 443, having also lost an ostracism vote.

With the politician Thucydides gone, Pericles remained secure as Athens’ leading statesman for the rest of his life. As the historian Thucydides observed of Athens during Pericles’ long rule over it:

‘In name democracy, but in fact the rule of one man.’

Nicknamed ‘The Olympian’ because of his aloof manner, Pericles brought a new authority and stability to Athenian politics. It was a unique moment in Western history and at the center of it all was Pericles.

Tutored by the philosopher Anaxagoras, whose studies in natural science are said to have made the great statesman renounce all superstition, Pericles became a patron and fervent supporter of the arts and new advances in learning. The city hummed with great thinkers like Socrates and his opponents the Sophists; was captivated by the playwrights like Euripides and Sophocles; and marveled at the designs of Phidias and the new Parthenon. Athens had become the school of Greece.

Pericles’ was by now far too popular for his rivals to topple him as the city’s leader. So instead, they attacked his close associates in the courts. Anaxagoras and Phidias were eventually exiled from Athens. Aspasia survived, but only after Pericles himself publicly pleaded her innocence in a legal case.

Elsewhere in Greece, the new magnificence of Athens was greeted with less enthusiasm. Mighty Sparta, the traditional overlord of Greece, looked on with grave suspicion at the upstart naval power. Rumors began of war…

In the year 431 BC Pericles stood before the popular assembly and urged them to make a momentous decision:

‘If we go to war, as I think we must, be determined that we are not going to climb down. For it is from the greatest dangers that the greatest glories are to be won.’

The assembly responded by declaring war on Sparta.

Pericles insisted that Athens would win the war by superior planning. To be successful the Athenians must abandon the surrounding land and retreat behind their impenetrable city walls. Supplied by a fleet of ships that could bring provisions from as far afield as Egypt and the Black Sea, they should avoid all land battles with Sparta. Instead their navy would launch surprise attacks from the coast.

The war began slowly and appeared to follow the pattern Pericles had predicted. It was during a commemoration speech for those who had already died that he made one of the most famous speeches of Ancient Greek history, called the Funeral Oration.

Tragically, for all his meticulous planning, not even Pericles could have foreseen the cataclysm that was about to strike the city he so loved…

Pericles’ plan to defeat Sparta seemed to have taken account of everything. With a fleet of 300 triremes; 13,000 hoplite infantrymen; 1,200 cavalry and 16,000 reserves; the Athenians believed themselves to be invincible. Such was their confidence that Pericles’ main problem was preventing the assembly from rushing overconfidently into land battles, when his carefully constructed strategy relied on Athens weakening the enemy from the sea.

Then in 430, barely a year after the war began, Athens was struck by a disaster even Pericles could not have foreseen. The grain boats that fed the city brought with them an additional and deadly cargo – plague.

The plague spread through the overcrowded city of Athens like wildfire. Sufferers racked with fever and overcome with unquenchable thirst dived into the city’s water cisterns, and there would die. Law and order broke down as the corpses of the dead piled up in the streets. An estimated 100,000 or more people were contained within Athens’ great walls. By the time the first outbreak of the plague had run its course at least 20,000 of them were dead, including Pericles’ two legitimate sons.

One of the victims of the plague that swept Athens in 430 BC was Pericles himself. According to the historian Thucydides:

‘…The plague seized Pericles, not with sharp and violent fits, but with a dull lingering distemper, wasting the strength of his body and undermining his noble soul.’

The city was devastated; morale was at its lowest ebb. In despair the popular assembly sent a peace delegation to Sparta, and turned on the man they blamed for starting the war: Pericles.

Tried in the courts he had helped to reform, Pericles was stripped of his office and heavily fined. Yet even now the people were reluctant to be rid of the man who had guided them for so long. Soon after they reinstated him.

But Pericles was a broken man. The plague had claimed his two legitimate sons and in an attempt to have his son by Aspasia declared as his heir he sought to repeal his own citizenship law. The man who had renounced all superstition also turned to charms to ward off the plague. In the fall of 429, at the age of about 65, Pericles, the mastermind of Athenian glory, died.

491 B.C. KING DARIUS OF PERSIA DEMANDS GREEK SUBMISSION

In September of the year 490, the Persian forces landed at the sandy harbour of Marathon with an invasion force of 600 ships, 20,000 or more foot soldiers, and 800 cavalry. Also with them was the deposed tyrant of Athens, Hippias.

The Athenians immediately dispatched Phidippides to run to Spartan and seek their aid. But when he arrived there Phidippides found them in the middle of a religious festival. They would not send help until the festival had finished.

The Athenian hoplites would have to face the massed ranks of the Persians alone.

Outnumbered by 2:1, the Athenians at first took fright at their vast enemy, with its multicoloured costumes, turbans, and unfamiliar armour. However, after a heated debate amongst the Athenian generals, they opted to engage the enemy, advancing toward them at a run under a hail of arrows. But after a long and protracted struggle the Greeks emerged victorious. Aided by superior tactics, better equipment, and sheer determination they had achieved the impossible.

Over six thousand Persians lay dead. In contrast only 192 hoplites had perished on the Athenian side.

490 B.C.: THE BATTLE OF MARATHON

The stunning victory at Marathon gave the Athenians a new sense of their city’s power and potential, but also led to overconfidence and a series of unnecessary confrontations with rival city-states.

During this turbulent time Themistocles faced a number of powerful political rivals. The most important of these was Aristides. A wealthy aristocrat known for his education, even-temper and honesty, he was the opposite of Themistocles in almost every respect. The rivalry between them was said to have begun when both men had competed for the affections of the most beautiful youth in Athens, but more importantly, they had come to represent two different factions within the popular assembly.

Whereas Aristides spoke for the hoplite class; the well-off conservative farmers who could afford their own armour, Themistocles appealed to the thetes, the lower classes, mainly made up of poorer urban craftsmen.

By 487, both men were at the height of their influence. It was also the first year the assembly used the power of ostracism, an institution invented for banishing dangerous politicians, but never before used. Suddenly, the stakes had increased dramatically and it was clear neither would rest until he had imposed banishment on the other…

c. 490 B.C.: ASPASIA IS BORN

Described as one of the most beautiful and educated women of her era, Aspasia became the consort of Pericles, leader of democratic Athens. Their relationship caused scandal in the male-dominated world of Classical Athens, not only because the couple remained unmarried, but because of her determination to be treated as an equal. Mixing with some the greatest minds of her generation, and at the very center of Athenian political life, Aspasia’s story is unique among the women of her time…

Aspasia ‘First Lady of Athens

480 B.C.: ATHENS EVACUATED

With his plan under threat, Themistocles was forced to take the initiative. By night he sent a messenger to the Persian king, Xerxes, informing him that the Greeks intended to flee. Unless he acted now, Xerxes would lose the opportunity to defeat the Greeks in one fell swoop. The Persian king took the bait.

As dawn broke Xerxes sat upon his portable throne overlooking the sea, and prepared to relish his victory over the defiant Greeks. However, as his vast armada sailed into the narrow straits between Salamis and the coast, they were met not by a fleet in disarray, but a well-ordered line of triremes, packed with Greek crewmen singing battle songs. Themistocles had forced them to fight.

In the battle that followed the Persian armada was devastated. The Greeks lost 40 ships, the Persians 200. Unable to keep his land army supplied Xerxes was forced to flee back to his empire, parts of which, encouraged by the Greeks’ success, had already started to rebel.

The victory at Salamis has often been described as one of the greatest naval victories of all time, and a key event that shaped the whole future of European civilization.

480 B.C.: THE BATTLE OF SALAMIS

After the stunning victory at Salamis, Themistocles received a wreath of olive leaves in acknowledgement of his brilliance. A vote to decide who should receive the award for achieving the victory fell into dispute. It seems that Themistocles’ characteristic ability to make enemies remained with him, even at the moment of his greatest glory.

The next few years were extremely eventful in Athens. The city needed to be rebuilt and the Persians remained a threat on land for the next year or so, before finally being decisively beaten at Plataea by a Spartan led army. The Athenians now found themselves at the head of an anti-Persian naval alliance, which in time would prove to be the springboard for an Athenian empire.

Once again though, Themistocles’ shrewd foresight had alerted him to dangers his fellow Athenians could still not see. Sparta, he argued, would not easily accept the new pre-eminence of Athens. Opportunity to prove his suspicions correct came only a year after the victory at Salamis.

480 B.C.: THE BATTLE OF THERMOPYLAE

Xerxes had spent years planning his invasion of Greece. It was to be his ‘divine punishment’ for his father, Darius’ crushing defeat at Marathon in 490 BC. Now, a decade later, he had spared no expense in preparing a vast expeditionary force.

Across the Hellespont, the narrow channel of water separating Europe from Asia, he had constructed two bridges, each made of over 300 ships tied together by a network of ropes. On the coast a fleet of some 1,200 ships amassed, while on land over 100,000 (or 1.7 million according to Herodotus’ exaggerated account) soldiers made camp at Sardis in Turkey, awaiting their orders.

Faced with such an overwhelming force only a small confederation of city-states, led by Athens and Sparta, determined to resist Xerxes. At most they possessed some thirty thousand men, and a few hundred ships.

By the spring of 480 Xerxes’ army had reached Macedonia in the north of Greece. In response a contingent of 300 Spartans and several thousand allies were sent to occupy the narrow mountain pass of Thermopylae, not far from the Greek fleet, that was anchored off the nearby coast at Artemisium.

It was a suicide mission, designed to detain the Persians just long enough for the rest of the Greek allies to gather their forces. Led by King Leonidas, the Spartans heroically held the Persians at bay for nearly a week until outnumbered, betrayed and outflanked they were finally defeated.

479 B.C.: THE BATTLE OF PLATAEA

The defeat of the Persian navy at Salamis in 480 was by no means the end of the war, but it was the decisive battle that made ultimate victory likely, if not inevitable. The final land battle between the Persians and the Greeks took place a year later in the region of Boeotia, near the town of Plataeae.

During the intervening year the Persian force, now led by the satrap Mardonius, had attempted to forge an alliance with Athens against Sparta. When his terms were rudely rejected the satrap briefly occupied Athens for a second time, completely destroying an already ruined city. Then news reached him of an advancing Spartan army, forcing him to take to the field.

Both sides had amassed huge armies. Almost every city in Greece had sent a contingent to support the effort, and in total they numbered approximately 60,000 hoplites and 40,000 light infantry. Herodotus claims their Persian opponents numbered 1.7 million, which is undoubtedly one of his wilder exaggerations: in reality they probably numbered about the same size.

The battle itself was actually a series of battles. Aided by a contingent of Boeotian collaborators the Persians were initially very successful, but when Mardonius himself was killed leading a cavalry charge, the tide changed and most of the force was annihilated.

Herodotus described the battle as ‘the finest victory in all history known to me.’ (Herod. Book 9)

472 B.C.: THE EARLIEST SURVIVING TRAGEDY

Victory at Salamis in 480 BC was a hugely triumphant moment for Athens and all Greece. A small city-state had beaten the greatest super-power in existence at that time. Not surprisingly this victory soon became a subject for the theatre.

The playwright Aeschylus submitted his tragedy The Persians for competition in the annual dramatists competition in 472 BC – eight years after the dramatic events it describes. The aristocrat who financed his production was Pericles, then in his twenties.

The Persians is the oldest surviving play from Classical Athens and tells the story of the Persian defeat from the perspective of the vanquished Persians themselves. Xerxes is portrayed as a king led astray by his own hubris, or foolhardy pride, who offends the gods with his arrogance and nearly looses his entire empire in the process.

The spirit of Xerxes’ father, Darius, also appears as wise and just ruler reprimanding his son for the military disaster (despite his own defeat at Marathon being the cause of the troubles in the first place!). It is Darius who reminds his son that future tragedy can be avoided only if Xerxes learns to respect the natural limits of his power i.e. the border with Greece.

Most surprising of all is Aeschylus’ generally sympathetic treatment of the Persians. After all, the war had claimed many Athenian lives and had taken place less than ten years before.

472 B.C: PERICLES ENTERS PUBLIC LIFE

In the stormy aftermath of the old noble council loosing its powers, Pericles’ ally, Ephialtes, was assassinated. It was a dangerous time for the budding leader as Cimon, the pro-Spartan politician who had probably organized the ostracism of Themistocles ten years before in 470, tried to re-assert himself s as Athens’ foremost politician.

But Cimon underestimated the power of the common people and was ostracised. As a result Pericles now joined the front rank of Athenian politicians. Over the next ten years he led several important military expeditions, helped reinforce Athens’ control over the naval alliance called the Delian League, approved a final peace with Persia, and introduced payment for jury service. This last act marked a major step forward for the poor, since they too could now afford to take time off their normal work to become involved in politics.

Athenian democracy was entering its most radical phase…

469 B.C.: SOCRATES IS BORN

The most famous philosopher of Classical Greece, Socrates was an Athenian citizen who revolutionized the way people thought about themselves and the world. Famous for his questioning teaching method and dogged search for the truth, he eventually provoked the fury of the Athenians and was found guilty of impiety and corrupting the city’s youth. His execution profoundly changed ideas about what it meant to be heroic since he died only because he refused to abandon his principles.

Socrates was born in 469 BC. His father was a stonemason and his mother was a midwife, a profession he would later use to characterize himself, since he would later describe himself as a midwife who helped give birth to truth.

During Socrates’ youth Athens was a city at the height of its power and the intellectual center of the Greek world. The spirit of openness which democracy encouraged had given rise to new fields of thought and enquiry. Playwrights were exploring new depths of human experience and exposing the hopes, fears, and vanities of both the great heroes of the past, and the leading politicians of the present. The first scientists were building on the insights already made by Ionian Greeks such as Thales, while the world’s first historian, Herodotus, had begun his famous ‘Histories’: our first record of Ancient Greek life.

Undoubtedly the young Socrates absorbed many of these exciting new influences as he walked through Athens’ teeming streets, played sports in the gymnasia, and discoursed with people in the market-place, but before he began his career as a philosopher, he was destined for more deadly pursuits…

In 431 BC war broke out between Athens and Sparta – the two superpowers of the Greek world. Socrates was enlisted as a hoplite, a wealthy and well-equipped infantryman. Shunning personal comfort and able to endure great personal hardship without complaint, he was to make quite a name for himself.

One story, in Plato’s ‘Symposium’, describes how Socrates remained oblivious to harm even in retreat. After one disastrous battle, this total lack of concern is said to have intimidated the pursuing enemy so much that he was left completely untouched while hundreds of his fellows were picked off and slaughtered.

Plato also recounts that when Socrates returned to Athens after a long tour of duty, he refused to answer his friends’ questions about the war. Instead he insisted they first tell him the more important news about how the search of truth was going.

After his service in the war, Socrates devoted himself to his favorite pastime: the pursuit of truth.

His reputation as a philosopher, literally meaning ‘a lover of wisdom’, soon spread all over Athens and beyond. When told that the Oracle of Delphi had revealed to one of his friends that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, he responded not by boasting or celebrating, but by trying to prove the Oracle wrong.

So Socrates decided he would try and find out if anyone knew what was truly worthwhile in life, because anyone who knew that would surely be wiser than him. He set about questioning everyone he could find, but no one could give him a satisfactory answer. Instead they all pretended to know something they clearly did not.

Finally he realized the Oracle might be right after all. He was the wisest man in Athens because he alone was prepared to admit his own ignorance rather than pretend to know something he did not.

Admitting your own ignorance was at the heart of Socrates’ method. Through a process of repeatedly questioning, he would always attempt to tease the truth out of the people he was conversing with.

Asked about whether an action was just or not, he would never simply say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Instead Socrates would ask the questioner what he actually meant when he used the word ‘justice’ and then invite him to explain how different understandings of justice might lead to different conclusions. Frequently, this process would come to no real conclusion and hit a frustrating dead end, called ‘aporia’ by the Greeks. Nevertheless to Socrates such conversations were still valuable, because only when someone admitted that he didn’t know could he hope to learn anything at all.

Some people have jokingly said that Socrates learnt his unique questioning method by arguing with his nagging wife, Xanthippe. If he did, she had good reason to be angry with him. Never at home or at work, Socrates spent his time either arguing in the marketplace or accepting numerous invitations to dinner parties. Meanwhile, like most respectable Greek wives, Xanthippe was stuck at home with the children, and only allowed out in public on special occasions!

The Sophists were a loose collection of thinkers who taught wealthy Athenians to argue convincingly: a useful skill for anyone who wanted to do well in politics. Because they accepted payment for revealing their insights, Socrates strongly disapproved of them, and he made it his personal quest to expose the lazy thinking and unexamined assumption many of their ideas were based upon.

Unfortunately, his constant arguing with the Sophists made Socrates a figure of ridicule and in 423 BC his activities became the subject of a famous play. Written by the comic playwright Aristophanes, ‘The Clouds’ portrayed Socrates as a master of pointless wordplay and verbal trickery. The head of an institute called ‘The Thinkery,’ he literally had his head in the clouds.

Unfazed by such notoriety, Socrates continued his pursuit of the truth, but the charges made against him in the ‘The Clouds’ would come back to haunt him in the future.

Though his disciple Plato always made strenuous efforts to point out that Socrates was no sophist, there were times when his challenges to common sense came very close to the pointless wordplay he so opposed. Plato’s book ‘The Symposium’, about a drunken dinner party, is one of the most famous Ancient Greek books about love, romance and friendship, and records just such an incident.

During the party a handsome but very vain young man named Alcibiades does his best to win compliments from the wisest man in Athens. Yet despite his fondness for Alcibiades, Socrates ignores him. Instead he demonstrates why, in fact, he is more handsome man:

“My own eyes must be more beautiful, because they bulge out, and therefore I can see better. And by the same account my nose is more beautiful, because my nostrils flare out and so I can therefore gather in more smells.”

Unfortunately, the comfortable existence enjoyed by the wealthy men of Athens was about to be shattered.

As the Peloponnesian War dragged on, political life in Athens became extremely unstable and dangerous. For a brief period democracy was overthrown by an oligarchy of aristocrats only to be replaced a year later, in 410 BC, by a new democratic regime.

Four years later, in 406, the Athenian navy won an important battle against the Spartan fleet. With a storm brewing, the Athenians immediately set sail for home, worried that by stopping to pick up the sailors who had fallen overboard they might risk losing the entire fleet.

Back in Athens the congratulations quickly turned into accusations. When the popular assembly learnt that 2000 men had been lost at sea the citizens demanded the fleet’s leaders be executed for cowardice. Appointed as President of the assembly for that day, Socrates denounced the decision as wrong: mass trials were illegal.

Sadly, the greatest conversationalist in Athens was a poor public speaker. His protests came to nothing and the generals were executed by being forced to drink hemlock. Socrates, by standing up for what was right, had made himself dangerous political enemies.

In 404 BC, Sparta finally defeated Athens and occupied the city, replacing the city’s democracy with an oligarchy of thirty tyrants. A period of savage repression followed, including hundreds of political killings and the exile of thousands.

The Thirty Tyrants put an end to many of the privileges enjoyed under democracy, and reduced the number of full citizens from over 20,000 to only 3,000 of their most loyal supporters. Though the details are vague, many historians believe Socrates was one of these specially appointed citizens, since several of his former pupils were also members of the Thirty Tyrants. His association could not have lasted long. When the new regime insisted he arrest a prominent foreign resident, he refused on legal grounds, just as in the case of the generals.

Credited with the phrase ‘the majority is always wrong’, Socrates’ unique style of thinking relied upon turning commonly accepted ideas upside-down. But by also associating with tyrants, Socrates had unintentionally made himself appear as an enemy of democracy.

A year later, when Sparta allowed democracy to be restored, he became one of its first scapegoats…

In the year 399 BC, seventy years after he was born, Socrates was brought before the Athenian court on charges of impiety and corrupting the city’s youth.

His belief that the gods must be good or otherwise not be gods ran contrary to almost all Greek mythology, which is filled with jealous and self-serving deities, and the jury had little difficulty in finding him guilty.

The second charge of corrupting the city’s youth raised a dilemma. Should Socrates be held responsible for the actions of his pupils, particularly those among them who had joined the tyrants?

Timed by a water clock, the old philosopher remained as stubborn as ever. Far from corrupting the city, he argued, his life of questioning had done it nothing but good.

Plato’s ‘Apology’ records what Socrates said:

‘To put it bluntly I’ve been assigned to this city as if to a large horse which is inclined to be lazy and is in need of some great stinging fly and all day long I’ll never cease to settle here, there, everywhere, rousing and reproving every one of you.’

The huge jury was infuriated, finding him guilty by 281 votes to 220. But worse was to come…

After Socrates had been found guilty of impiety and corrupting the morals of the city’s youth, he was next invited to propose a suitable punishment.

This was a legal tradition in Athens and an opportunity for him to show remorse, and hopefully lessen his sentence. But asked what sort of punishment he thought he should receive, he responded with an answer that was nothing short of a death wish.

He argued that he should receive the highest honors of the city and be granted free meals at the public’s expense, an honor reserved for Olympian athletes.

The outraged jury voted for his death by even greater majority than had found him guilty of his alleged crimes.

Led away to the city’s prison house, his trial and last days became the subject of Plato’s ‘Crito & Phaedo’. Visited by many people, he faced the prospect of death with characteristic unconcern, and even refused to be rescued and smuggled abroad by a group of friends.

Like the generals he had defended many years before, the manner of his execution was to be the drinking of hemlock. As the hour drew near, everyone in the room broke down and wept except for Socrates himself, who continued to treat the affair as if it were nothing at all, at one point turning to them and saying almost in humor:

‘For me the fated hour calls. In other words I think it’s about time I took my bath. I prefer to wash before drinking the poison rather than give the women the bother of washing me when I’m dead.’

His final request was to ask a friend to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius, the god of healing, as a way of thanking him for being delivered from the painful disease of life.

Having maintained that ‘the unexamined life isn’t worth living’ and by always insisting upon obeying his own conscience, Socrates had shown the Athenians a new way to live, and to die. Rather than honor he believed in principle, and through his sacrifice he helped create a new sense of what it meant to be human being, leaving a deep impression not only on the Athenians, but all of Western civilization.

460 B.C.: PERICLES’ RISE TO POWER

In 451 Pericles introduced a new citizenship law which prevented the son of an Athenian father and a non-Athenian mother becoming a full citizen. The law’s main effect was to curb the power of the aristocrats since if their heirs could not be legally recognized they could no longer forge alliances with aristocrats from other cities. Ironically, it would have major consequences for Pericles own private life.

A few years later Pericles divorced his wife and started to live with a beautiful foreign courtesan called Aspasia, described by Socrates as one of the most intelligent and witty women of her time. The relationship scandalized polite society, especially because they remained unmarried and Pericles treated her as an equal, an almost unthinkable action for most Greek men.

But though Pericles became the butt of vicious jokes about his private life, in public office he was known for his incorruptibility and refusal to accept gifts from other aristocrats, as was the normal custom. Instead he kept to himself, limiting his public appearances before the assembly, but slowly coming to dominate it with his aristocratic style and superb oratory skills.

454 B.C.: DELIAN LEAGUES TREASURY MOVES TO ATHENS

The spectacular defeat of the Persians at Salamis in 480 led to the formation of a more permanent alliance. Three years later negotiations, led by Aristides of Athens, began on the Greek island of Delos. The result was the Delian League, a sort of ancient equivalent to NATO.

Few records remain of this initial meeting and historians are not even clear which city-states, apart from Athens, were the founders of the League. We do know that within a few years, almost all of the Ionian Greek cities had joined it as a way of guaranteeing their freedom from Persian domination.

At its height the Delian League numbered some two hundred members which met annually on Delos. Athens was its undisputed leader and gradually used the alliance as a springboard for its own imperial ambitions. By 454, when the League’s treasury was transferred to Athens and used to fund monuments of imperial splendor such as the Parthenon, it had become an empire in all but name. Five years later a permanent peace was made with the Persians and its very reason for existing was no longer valid, but by then most of the alliance had already lost its autonomy to Athens.

The League and the power it gave Athens over the rest of Greece were to become one of the major reasons for the Peloponnesian War against Sparta and its allies.

447 B.C.: THE ACROPOLIS REBUILT

In the early years of Pericles’ power he was constantly challenged for the leadership of Athens. One opponent, Thucydides (not the historian of the same name), a relative of the ostracised Cimon, tried a novel way to subvert Pericles’ influence. Rather like a modern political party, he arranged for all his supporters to sit in one block in the assembly in order to strengthen his cause. Sadly for Thucydides, the plan backfired by exposing just how little support he really had. A champion wrestler who had won the Olympics, he later said of Pericles:

‘If I wrestle him to the ground he will deny this and deny it so vigorously that he will convince even those who witnessed the fight.’

Thucydides was Pericles’ main rival for a number of years but eventually followed Cimon into exile in 443, having also lost an ostracism vote.

With the politician Thucydides gone, Pericles remained secure as Athens’ leading statesman for the rest of his life. As the historian Thucydides observed of Athens during Pericles’ long rule over it:

‘In name democracy, but in fact the rule of one man.’

438 B.C. THE PARTHENON COMPLETED

Started in 447 the Parthenon was masterminded by Pericles who took personal responsibility for the whole project.

It featured numerous architectural innovations and sat on a base 70 meters long and 26 meters wide. Constructed in the ‘Doric’ style it had 17 columns along its length and eight columns along its width, each of which was over 10 meters high and 2 meters in diameter.

Because right-angled buildings tend to create an optical illusion that can make them look top heavy, the Parthenon’s columns have been expertly sculpted to compensate for this strange effect, and get gradually thinner from the middle up. An effect called entasis.

The magnificent figures carved into the space between the top of the columns and the rooftop, are some of the finest ever example of ancient sculpture. Lord Elgin, a British diplomat, removed many of these from the ruins in 1801. Shipped back to Britain, they are now housed in the British Museum, whose ownership of them has been disputed ever since.

Other striking parts of the temples that have survived include the Parthenon Frieze. Only two and a half inches thick at its maximum depth it depicts a procession of 360 noble Athenians, as well as numerous animals and gods. A pinnacle of art, barely visible in its original position, the Parthenon Frieze stood 1 meter tall and would have encircled almost the whole building’s upper walls, making its total length 160 metres.

438 B.C.: PERICLES TRIUMPHANT – ATHENS AT ITS HEIGHT

In the year 431 BC Pericles stood before the popular assembly and urged them to make a momentous decision:

‘If we go to war, as I think we must, be determined that we are not going to climb down. For it is from the greatest dangers that the greatest glories are to be won.’

The assembly responded by declaring war on Sparta.

Pericles insisted that Athens would win the war by superior planning. To be successful the Athenians must abandon the surrounding land and retreat behind their impenetrable city walls. Supplied by a fleet of ships that could bring provisions from as far afield as Egypt and the Black Sea, they should avoid all land battles with Sparta. Instead their navy would launch surprise attacks from the coast.

The war began slowly and appeared to follow the pattern Pericles had predicted. It was during a commemoration speech for those who had already died that he made one of the most famous speeches of Ancient Greek history, called the Funeral Oration.

Tragically, for all his meticulous planning, not even Pericles could have foreseen the cataclysm that was about to strike the city he so loved…

431 B.C.: PERICLES PERSUADES ATHENS TO GO TO WAR

Pericles’ plan to defeat Sparta seemed to have taken account of everything. With a fleet of 300 triremes; 13,000 hoplite infantrymen; 1,200 cavalry and16,000 reserves; the Athenians believed themselves to be invincible. Such was their confidence that Pericles’ main problem was preventing the assembly from rushing overconfidently into land battles, when his carefully constructed strategy relied on Athens weakening the enemy from the sea.

Then in 430, barely a year after the war began, Athens was struck by a disaster even Pericles could not have foreseen. The grain boats that fed the city brought with them an additional and deadly cargo – plague.

The plague spread through the overcrowded city of Athens like wildfire. Sufferers racked with fever and overcome with unquenchable thirst dived into the city’s water cisterns, and there would die. Law and order broke down as the corpses of the dead piled up in the streets. An estimated 100,000 or more people were contained within Athens’ great walls. By the time the first outbreak of the plague had run its course at least 20,000 of them were dead, including Pericles’ two legitimate sons.

431 B.C.: THE BEGINNING OF THE GREAT WAR

The long anticipated war between Athens its allies and Sparta and its allies finally broke out in 431 BC. Like the more recent antagonism between NATO and the Soviet Union it was a war between two power blocs, with two very different ideologies.

The Delian League of democratic Athens had begun as a naval alliance to protect Greece from Persia, but by the outbreak of the war it more closely resembled an empire with subject states. Its opponent, Sparta, was the greatest land power of Greece, a strict military oligarchy that had brutally conquered neighboring states in its early days, it attempted to use the war to pose as the ‘liberator of Greece’ because of the highhanded way Athens had treated its allies.

The war started slowly at first with the Athenians retreating behind their long city walls and receiving shipments of food from their harbor. The Spartans meanwhile set up camp eight miles north of the city and set about destroying the city’s crops. Numerous small-scale skirmishes took place, but Pericles insisted that Athens avoid land battles and use its navy to cripple Sparta by attacking the coasts of the Peloponnese, the Spartan homeland.

When plague broke out in Athens in 430 BC, things took a dramatic turn for the worse. With Pericles’ dead, the popular assembly became indecisive and years were to pass before a decisive encounter

430 B.C.: THE PLAGUE STRIKES ATHENS’

The bodies of dying men lay one upon another, and half-dead creatures reeled about in the streets. The catastrophe became so overwhelming that men cared nothing for any rule of religion or law.’

Thucydides 2.47 – 55.

Thucydides himself suffered from the plague and recovered, and was concerned with giving an accurate description of its symptoms and social consequences. Modern historians and researchers have not been able to identify the Athenian plague with any great certainty – some believe it to have been typhus, others think it could have been some sort of influenza.

429 B.C.: THE LONG DEATH OF PERICLES

One of the victims of the plague that swept Athens in 430 BC was Pericles himself. According to the historian Thucydides:

‘…The plague seized Pericles, not with sharp and violent fits, but with a dull lingering distemper, wasting the strength of his body and undermining his noble soul.’

The city was devastated; morale was at its lowest ebb. In despair the popular assembly sent a peace delegation to Sparta, and turned on the man they blamed for starting the war: Pericles.

Tried in the courts he had helped to reform, Pericles was stripped of his office and heavily fined. Yet even now the people were reluctant to be rid of the man who had guided them for so long. Soon after they reinstated him.

But Pericles was a broken man. The plague had claimed his two legitimate sons and in an attempt to have his son by Aspasia declared as his heir he sought to repeal his own citizenship law. The man who had renounced all superstition also turned to charms to ward off the plague. In the fall of 429, at the age of about 65, Pericles, the mastermind of Athenian glory, died.

425 B.C.: THE WAR DESCENDS INTO BARBARITY

In the year 425 BC the pattern of the war began to change. With resources now stretched on both sides the cruelty and savagery of the war began to escalate. Both sides began punishing their opponents with increasingly barbarity – enslaving women and children, even murdering the entire male population of some cities.

Sparta suffered a major setback when the Athenians surrounded the island of Sphacteria and forced 420 elite Spartan hoplites to do the unthinkable and surrender. But this advantage was soon lost as a new generation of younger Spartan generals got their first taste of war. They began encouraging members of the Delian League to leave the alliance, promising that Sparta would allow them to run their own internal affairs, even if they were democrats.

Only a year later this new tactic had already caused several city-states and colonies to abandon the Delian League, forcing Athens to agree to an armistice in 423.

421 B.C.: THE PEACE OF NICIAS

The armistice of 423 lasted for a year before its terms expired. The Athenians then tried to retake one of their former colonies, Amphipolis, but the attempt ended in disaster, killing important generals on both sides. Exhausted by the cost, savagery and sheer failure of either side to win a significant advantage, the two great powers of Greece began to consider peace.

Negotiations began and dragged on for another two years before the terms were finally agreed in 421 BC. The Peace of Nicias, named after the chief Athenian negotiator, was a treaty of mutual defense between Athens and Sparta in which they each agreed to defend each other for the next fifty years!

Almost straight away problems became apparent. Sparta was in no position to ‘hand-back’ those city-states it had encouraged to rebel, and several of its more powerful allies were openly critical of the peace terms. It was also facing another war with its old neighbor and rival, Argos. Athens’ position looked better, but in truth it was also far from stable. A new generation of young aristocrats was eager for power and within a few short years they would set Athens on a course that would ignite the war once more.

418 B.C.: ALCIBIADES BECOMES LEADER OF ATHENS

In 418 BC Sparta defeated its neighbor and oldest rival, Argos, a city theoretically allied to Athens. One again, hostilities began to brew.

In Athens, the charismatic aristocrat, Alcibiades, had been elected strategos (general) of the city. Famous for cultivating a speech impediment, Alcibiades had been raised by Pericles’ and tutored by thinkers such as Socrates. A desperate attention-seeker, he would stop at nothing to increase his influence over Athens, and now used Sparta’s renewed aggression as an excuse to increase his own influence.

An expedition to Argos followed in which those that had supported the Spartan invasion were deported from the city. Soon after, Athens besieged the island of Melos, which had always refused to become a member of the Delian League and whose inhabitants were primarily of Spartan decent.

Like the struggle between the USA and the USSR in modern times, the rivalry between Athens and Sparta had become a Cold War, with each fighting the other only indirectly. So when the Sicilian city of Segesta appealed for Athenian help against its opponent Selinus, the Athenian assembly saw an ideal opportunity to not only enrich itself, but take a decisive tactical step against Sparta which was allied to Sicily’s chief city Syracuse.

415 B.C.: THE SICILIAN CAMPAIGN

In 415 BC, the Athenian assembly led by Alcibiades, voted to invade Sicily. The city-state of Segesta had promised huge financial aid in return for assistance against its enemy Selinus. With a foothold in Sicily the Athenians would also gain a tactically advantageous position from which to attack Sparta, if war broke out between the two great powers once more.

Setting off with a fleet of 100 triremes, numerous transport and cargo ships, over 5000 hoplites and additional archers and slingers, the armada was confident of an easy victory. Yet before it was more than a few days out to sea it received its first setback. Alcibiades was recalled to answer charges of religious sacrilege. Jumping ship he sought the protection of Sparta and the war began again in earnest.

Meanwhile the Athenian invasion of Sicily did not proceed well. The Segestans had tricked them about the extent of their wealth and military strength, and in 413 Athens was forced to send out another 60 ships as reinforcements.

Trapped behind their city walls, the Athenians heard no news for three months. Then, according to Plutarch (Rise & Fall of Athens, 7:30) a sailor arrived at the Piraeus in need of a haircut. He told the barber an appalling story of an invasion force decimated in a failed invasion of Sicily. Athens had suffered the most spectacular defeat in its history.

413 B.C.: SPARTA AND PERSIA STRIKE UP AN ALLIANCE

The reaction of the Athenians to the Sicilian defeat was to look for scapegoats. Spartan forces now occupied Attica and over the next few years more than twenty thousand slaves defected to the enemy side. The last of the Athenian cavalry was in bad shape, only a few triremes remained in the docks, and the walls had to guarded night and day by older men and youths. But the Athenians still refused to give up.

The assembly passed a series of austerity measures and proposed the building of a new fleet. They also set up a new body of ten probouloi, older men who would prevent hasty or rash decisions being pushed through the popular assembly.

Nevertheless with Athens now at it weakest ebb, many of its former colonies and allies were defecting to the Spartan cause. Persia, the old enemy, had even struck up a series of alliances with Sparta and in the years 413 and 412 the two powers signed three treaties. Having brought his native city to its knees, Alcibiades now attempted to intervene on the Athenian side, claiming he could turn the Persians against Sparta if Athens renounced its democracy, a form of government the Persians distrusted.

411 B.C.: THE BRIEF RULE OF THE 400

At home in Athens various factions of aristocrats began plotting to overthrow the popular assembly and replace it with an oligarchy. Prominent democrats were assassinated and the Council of Five Hundred was intimidated by threats. A commission was set up to devise new proposals for governing the city, and with the help of soldiers it evicted the Council of Five Hundred, replacing it in 411 with a Council of Four Hundred. On hearing this what remained of the Athenian fleet rebelled. They formed a popular assembly of their own and planned to sail from their base off the coast of Turkey at Samos to re-establish democracy at Athens.

However, Alcibiades, an unlikely champion given his previous statements in favor of oligarchy, dissuaded them and led the fleet to several important victories over the Spartans at sea. After ruling for only four months the Four Hundred were deposed and their power transferred to a larger body of five thousand whose task was to redraft the Athenian constitution. In 410 democracy was restored.

The war continued to drag on indecisively for another three years, with each side capturing and recapturing strategic colonies and city-states. But just when the Athenians appeared to be once again gaining the upper hand, new forces emerged…

407 B.C.: LYSANDER BECOMES SPARTAN WAR LEADER

In 407 the Spartans made Lysander the chief general of their forces. Like Alcibiades he was a man of exceptional gifts, but unlike him he renounced all luxury, pleasure and show, unless it served to help his one overriding ambition: victory for Sparta.

Lysander spent a year avoiding all unnecessary conflict. Instead he concentrated his energies on building up a navy and striking up a close relationship with Greece’s traditional foe: Persia. Only once did he openly engage in battle, and as the result of that naval victory, Alcibiades was removed from office: he had made the mistake of leaving his fleet in the command of one of his drinking companions.

A year later a newly built Athenian navy won a major victory, only to lose 2000 men on the way home due to storms. The assembly blamed the generals, and condemned them to death. Of the officials appointed to review the case only the philosopher Socrates refused to accept the judgement. Democracy was descending into mob rule once more. More atrocities followed when the assembly voted to chop off the right hands of all prisoners of war in an attempt to prevent them fighting again.

Sparta suggested peace, once again Athens refused. They had missed their last chance.

405 B.C.: ATHENS DEFEATED

In early 405 the Spartan general, Lysander, captured the whole of the Athenian fleet. Alcibiades alone had foreseen the danger, but his advice had been ignored. With no fleet left, Athens tried desperately to win support from its few remaining allies, treating them with a level of respect and equality that would have been unthinkable only a decade before.

Meanwhile, the Spartans blockaded the Piraeus with a fleet of their own. The situation was hopeless. Athens’ long road to self-destruction was at an end. As the assembly set up a series of show trials to punish their erstwhile leaders, a peace delegation set off for Sparta.

The conditions were severe. Unconditional surrender was far more unusual in the ancient world than it has become in the 20th century, but by any standards the terms amounted to total defeat. To their credit, the Spartans refused to enslave the whole population as many of their allies desired. Nevertheless, the starving Athenians had no choice but to accept the loss of their navy, the dismantling of their great walls and fortifications, and Spartan control of their foreign policy.

404 B.C.: THE TYRANNY OF THE THIRTY

In 404 the victorious Spartan general, Lysander, replaced the popular assembly of Athens with an oligarchy of thirty men, called simply ‘The Thirty’. It proved to be an ill-judged decision. A bloodbath followed in which 1,500 people were executed, and 5000 either fled the city or were exiled.

A year later, the Spartan king, Pausanias, intervened and democracy was restored once more.

In the meantime, one of the Peloponnesian War’s most important figures, Alcibiades, was murdered in exile, though few Athenians shed tears for the man who had almost destroyed them. His opponent, Lysander, attempted to transform the former colonies of Athens into part of a greater Spartan empire. His efforts came to nothing, but seduced by his newly found sense of power and authority he fell foul of the two Spartan kings. Sent home and demoted, he lost his life in the ‘Corinthian War’ some five years later, when many of Sparta’s former allies turned upon for its ‘tyrannical’ domination of Greece.

Athens’ democracy was unexpectedly reinvigorated by its great defeat and though it would never again be as politically powerful, it remained Greece’s most important city and a center of learning for many years to come.

399 B.C.: THE TRIAL OF SOCRATES

In the year 399 BC, seventy years after he was born, Socrates was brought before the Athenian court on charges of impiety and corrupting the city’s youth.

His belief that the gods must be good or otherwise not be gods ran contrary to almost all Greek mythology, which is filled with jealous and self-serving deities, and the jury had little difficulty in finding him guilty.

The second charge of corrupting the city’s youth raised a dilemma. Should Socrates be held responsible for the actions of his pupils, particularly those among them who had joined the tyrants?

Timed by a water clock, the old philosopher remained as stubborn as ever. Far from corrupting the city, he argued, his life of questioning had done it nothing but good.

Plato’s ‘Apology’ records what Socrates said:

‘To put it bluntly I’ve been assigned to this city as if to a large horse which is inclined to be lazy and is in need of some great stinging fly and all day long I’ll never cease to settle here, there, everywhere, rousing and reproving every one of you.

337 B.C.: THE FINAL END OF ATHENIAN DEMOCRACY

A year after their defeat of Athens in 404 BC, the Spartans allowed the Athenians to replace the government of the Thirty Tyrants with a new democracy. The tyranny had been a terrible and bloody failure, and even the Spartans acknowledged that a moderate form of democracy would be preferable.

As a system of government, democracy quickly spread to a number of other leading city-states, despite the authoritarian grip of Sparta on the Greek world. However, Sparta’s dominance was not to last. Overextended and unable to adjust to new battle techniques, in 371 BC Spartan hoplites suffered their first major defeat in 200 years at the hands of the Theban general Epaminodas. Only a decade later Sparta had been reduced to a shadow of its former self.

But Thebes’ dominance of Greece would be short-lived. A new power had begun to assert its leadership over the country: Macedonia. Once a backwater, the Macedonian king, Philip II, had turned his country into a military powerhouse. Philip’s decisive victory came in 338 BC, when he defeated a combined force from Athens and Thebes. A year later Philip formed the League of Corinth which established him as the ruler, or hegemon, of a federal Greece.

Democracy in Athens had finally come to an end. The destiny of Greece would thereafter become inseparable with the empire of Philip’s son: Alexander the Great.

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