Athens history

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Information about Athens history

The name of Athens in Ancient Greek was Athenai, or roughly "at-heh-nye". There is a legendary Myth on how Athens acquired this name. Both Athena and Poseidon requested to be patrons and give their name to the city, so they competed, offering the city one gift each.

Poseidon produced a spring by striking the ground with his trident, symbolizing naval power. Athena created the olive tree, symbolizing peace and prosperity. The Athenians under Cecrops accepted the olive tree and named the city after Athena.

Athenai is a plural form: the city was called "The Athenses" since it was originally a group of ten cities which Theseus unified into one city.

Thus for Plato in his dialogue Cratylus, her name was to be derived from Greek Etheonoa or Atheonoa which the Greeks rationalised as from god's (theos) mind (nous).

The National Academy in Athens, with Apollo and Athena on their columns, and Socrates and Plato seated in front.

Athens is the birthplace of European civilization, a city which inspired modern democracy and spawned three of the world's greatest ever philosophers - Aristotle, Plato and Socrates.

Inhabited for nearly 7,000 years, the city has been ravaged by interminable wars which have done more to destroy its former splendour than time and the forces of nature.

The city's history is inextricably woven into the ruined walls of its awe-inspiring Acropolis - one of the world's most famous monuments which attracts no fewer than three million visitors a year.

The word acropolis comes from acro (meaning high point) and polis (meaning city).


Around 5000 BC Neolithic settlers were drawn to the Athens hilltop because of its steep slopes and the abundant supply of water from two springs. By 1400 BC a powerful city had developed on the Acropolis under the Mycenaean Civilisation which saw various kings inhabiting fortified palaces on hill tops which could be easily defended.

The 6th century BC saw the emergence of an early form of democracy when the relatively enlightened chief magistrate Solon introduced some radical reforms, including trial by jury.

In 510 BC, after the city managed to rid itself of the tyrant Hippias, the Oracle at Delphi decreed that the Acropolis should in future remain the province of the gods and should never more be occupied by humans.

The city was about to enter its glorious golden era when money extracted from the surrounding islands was poured into a no-expense spared building programme under Pericles who ruled the city state from 461-429 BC.

The Acropolis was transformed into a magnificent city of temples with the Parthenon - the temple of the city's namesake goddess Athena - as its crowning glory. Literature, drama, the performing arts and philosophy all flourished during this golden age.

The opening ceremony of the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens

Jealousy from the aggressive city-state of Sparta led to the Peloponnesian Wars which lasted from 431-404 BC when Sparta emerged triumphant over its arch rival Athens.

In 338 BC Athens was conquered by Philip II of Macedon and later became the power base of his son, Alexander the Great.

Athens flourished under Roman rule. Many grand buildings were constructed by various emperors - notably Hadrian - and the Roman nobility sent their children to study at the city's revered schools of art, literature and philosophy.

But the city had relatively little importance under the Byzantine Empire which was created out of the sub division of the Roman Empire into east and west (with Byzantium - present day Istanbul - as the capital of the more powerful eastern region).

In 1456 Athens was captured by the Turks who held sway for the next 400 years. The subsequent resentment of the Greeks towards the Turks is still tangible today.

The Turkish governor turned the Acropolis into his home and converted the Parthenon into a mosque. The city was finally freed by Greek liberators in 1827 after the six-year War of Independence but the Peloponnesian town of Nafpio was initially declared the capital.

Athens became the capital of Greece in 1834 under King Otho who set about transforming it into a modern city of neoclassical buildings, elegant squares and wide boulevards.

The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 saw the forced exchange of Greeks and Turks and the arrival of nearly one million Turkish refugees in Athens.

Ugly concrete apartment blocks were hastily thrown up to accommodate this sudden influx of humanity, creating the uninspiring sprawl which characterises the city outskirts today.

Athens suffered further with the German occupation in WW2 and the subsequent civil war.

The military junta which was in power from 1967-74 destroyed many of the city's most beautiful old buildings including some lovely housese in the old Turkish quarter of Plaka.

The Karyatides statues of the Erechtheion on Acropolis

The recent development of the metro, the construction of the new airport at Spata to the east of Athens and the successful hosting of the 2004 Olympics have all done much to restore the declining fortunes of this once glorious city.


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