Athens was the largest polis in the Greek world. Its population rose to about 300,000 at its height about 440 BCE. About half of these were citizens and their families. At least 100,000 were slaves. The rest were foreigners--traders who had to be registered with citizen sponsor.
Rise of Athens
The economy of Athens was based upon farming, manufacturing and trade. Athens and other cities derived much of their wealth in the trade of woolen goods, wheat, olive oil, grapes and wine throughout the Greek Mediterranean world. (see map p. 74). Athenians also manufactured metal goods, including weapons, and also pottery which used for the home or to transport olive oil and other goods from city to city. Where there is trade, there is the need for shipbuilding and finances. Athens became a center for financial business--loans and investment, etc. Athens was also enriched by large silver mines in its territory which was worked by huge slave-gangs.
By the 400s BCE, the rising wealth from trade transformed the structure
of Athenian society and politics. A primary use for wealth was the
procurement of slaves, who were usually non-Greek foreigners captured in
war. Slaves were found everywhere, from household assistants to agricultural
workers to potters to galley rowers and miners. For wealth Athenians
they were valuable status symbols, like a car today. Every soldier
had a slave on campaign, and a wealthy man might own fifty or more, especially
for manufacturing. Slaves often worked side by side with free laborers,
and sometimes earned the same wage. One was not allowed in the streets
or markets of Athens to strike a slave, because one may accidentally hit
an Athenian, because in dress and appearance, slaves look just like common
The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few very rich people led to the buying up of small farms and the creation of large estates worked by slave labor. Wealth did have the effect of undermining traditional aristocracy, which is to say social privilege by birth and family. One could now become a powerful person through wealth. Yet this change seemed to favor oligarchy (the rule of the few), not democracy in politics. Nevertheless, we have already mentioned the importance of the Phalanx and Hoplites. The importance of the regular infantryman in warfare tended to serve as an equalizer, and open the door further for democracy. The growth of democracy in Athens in turn affected the economy. The polis itself became a major economic factor in terms of public employment on juries or in large public building projects, like Acropolis, or the famous Athenian navy.
The Politics of Athens
The political history of Athens in the classical period is the story of the rise of its Athenian power, the establishment of democracy, and its final destruction as a great power at the hands of the Spartans. If you read Thucydides, you might concluded that there is a moral somewhere in this great tale.
The politics of Athens centered on the conflict between the aristocrats who ruled Athens, and the common people. As small farmers began to sell out and lose out to rich landowners in the 600s BCE, political tensions rose, and an aristocratic leader by the name of Solon attempted in 594 a series of laws to ease those tensions. These laws freed all citizens made slaves by debt, canceled much of the debt held by common people, and widened the eligibility for public office to citizens of wealth, even if they were not of noble blood.
Solon's efforts helped, but did not end the conflict of the classes.
In 546 BCE, another nobleman named Pisistratus, with the support of commoners
and rich non-nobles, established a "tyranny" a personal rule over Athens.
Under the Pisistratus, Athens expanded its army and navy and invested in
building projects in Athens and its colonies. All these policies
were of direct benefit to the common Athenian.
An aristocrat named Cleisthenes came to rule in 508 BCE after Pisistratus' son was overthrown. Cliesthenes then established the democratic system. He divided the population into "tribes" made up of smaller divisions drawn from different regions. Because the different regions were mixed together, regional or class factions were prevented in elections. Each of the ten tribes elected 50 representatives to make up the ruling Council of 500. Male citizens over the age of 18 was eligible to vote, who numbered about 30,000 (One tenth of the total population.) It was also established that on important matters the entire assembly of citizens would meet to decide. These assemblies usually consisted of about 6000 citizens, which was the quorum required. Citizens over the age of 30 were eligible to sit on juries of 1000 to sit in judgment on criminal or legal matters.
The Rise of the Athenian Empire
It is often said that democracies will seek peace. That was not true in Athens. The tyrant Pisistratus and his son built up Athenian military power, but it was the new Athenian democracy after Cleisthenes that aggressively used that power, first in supporting the revolt of Greek colonies against their Persian overlords on the Ionian coast (see map p. 82). This action provoked a major war with Persia, and Athens, along with Sparta and other Greek cities, defeated the Persian attack both on the land and at sea. This triumph secured Athens prestige as the greatest Greek polis, and also filled the Athenians themselves with pride and self-assurance. They formed a league of Greek cities under their leadership (the Delian League) and carried the war into Persian territory, successfully pushing the Persians out of Ionia. Athenians were so proud of themselves that they wished to keep the League together, and make the smaller partners into client states of what had essentially become an Athenian Empire. Smaller cities were not allowed to withdraw their membership or their payments to the League treasury, which was moved to Athens under the leadership of the popular leader of the Athenian democracy in the years between 460 BCE and 430. Pericles used the money of the treasury to finance the rebuilding of Athens, especially the grand temple complex of the Acropolis, crowned by the Parthenon--the temple to Athena which we will consider a little later.
Interpreting the Downfall of Athens
The policy of Athenian expansion and dominance was challenge by Sparta, which formed its own Peloponnesian League to defeat Athens. The narrative of this long, drawn-out war are described in the textbook. In the end Athens is defeated. Its democracy was temporarily dissolved, and its imperial ambitions were ended forever. Thucydides, who wrote a famous history of this war, was an Athenian general in the early phase of the conflict. He is the first great historian of the classical period. He wrote his history of the war because he thought that history might have lessons about what human beings are capable of, and what went wrong in this war. His history was not factual in every detail. The speeches you read in your selections are not literal recordings, but imaginative renderings designed to give an impression of what was said and meant by the actors in the events. When you read Thucydides, consider what lessons Thucydides is drawing from his story, and compare in your mind this history with the history written by the Hebrews about King David.
Athenian Defeat and the Golden Age of Philosophy
The golden age of Greek philosophy emerged precisely at the moment that
the Athenian Empire was defeated. The defeat seems to have been a
stimulus to new questions. Pericles' Athens is destroyed. Has
the polis failed? Has humanity failed? What is true politics?
What is the human ideal? What is the good? The fundamental
concern of Greek philosophy after Socrates might be summed up in one of
Socrates's own questions in the Apology: "Who understands the excellence
which belongs to men and to citizens?" And so we turn to Socrates