Amazing Athens: Where Civilization Began and the Feta Never Ends

by Shelli Stein

When people know you’re “well traveled” they make assumptions. Rather than ask you, “Have you been to a particular destination” they’ll ask, “How did you like a place?” Lately, that’s been happening with Athens and Greece. People assumed I’d been there. I have and want to return! I’m hopeful that next year’s itinerary could include a return visit to Greece.

Due to the pandemic, travel was pushed forward. However, a return visit to Greece and Athens was in the planning stages when the pandemic began. Obviously, I put the visit to Greece on hold. However, my trip planning was done and my interest in history and culture never stops! As I learn, I share, so thought it would be fun to write about some of the fascinating things I learned about Athens and Greece and lead you on this armchair tour of this extraordinary culture and destination. You might just want to add Athens to your post-pandemic bucket list of places to visit.

One can’t visit Greece without immersing in her history. Okay, you can go there for the magical islands, fabulous beaches, and delicious food. However, I contend your trip will be much richer if you learn something about history.

No Visit to Greece Is Complete Without a Visit to Athens

We often think of Athens as the birthplace of Western civilization, primarily for its contributions to knowledge, culture and art during the Classical Age (480-323 B.C.)

But did you know that humans have continuously inhabited the area around Athens for more than 3,000 years –since the Neolithic Period?

There are many reasons for this city’s role in human history. The glorious city of Athens is located on the peninsula of Attica. It is protected by mountains on all sides. At sea level, it is surrounded by the Aegean Sea, the Gulf of Evoikos, the Saronic Gulf, and the Gulf of Corinth.

In this idyllic Mediterranean setting, you can sense the historic events that occurred here (both mythical and real).

History Overview of Ancient Greece

  • Athens today is the product of thousands of years of history. This overview gives an idea of the values, the culture(s), and the struggles of Greece through the ages.
  • Neolithic Period (6000-2900 BC) Settlers from the East; introduced pottery, farming, domestic animals.
  • Early Bronze Age (2900 – 2000 BC) Settlers developed metallurgy skills, working with bronze, silver, and gold; learned to craft weapons and make ornaments and jewelry.
  • Minoan Age (2000-1400 BC) On Crete: peaceful society evolved, known for sculpture and pottery.
  • Mycenaean Age (1100 – 600 BC) Art and sculpture developed; engineers and scientists created buildings, roads, and bridges.
  • The Dark Ages (1100 – 750 BC) Economic problems and financial repression; war (including the famous Trojan War).
  • Archaic Period (750 – 480 BC) Development of the arts, political theory.
  • Classical (Golden Age) Period (480 – 336 BC) Development of democratic system; the Parthenon was constructed. Conflict with neighboring Persia.
  • Hellenistic Period (336 – 146 BC) Time before Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire.

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Roman Athens

The Romans conquered Athens (and the rest of Greece). A series of conquests followed. The Barbarians took over Athens in 253 AD. It was plundered by Visigoths in 396.

Athens became part of the Byzantine Empire in 395 AD.

Medieval Period

Under the Byzantine Empire, Athens became a Christian country. The Normans took over the area in the 11th century. The Greeks built many Byzantine churches during this period. In 1204 the Crusaders conquered Athens.

By 1456, the Ottoman Turks invaded Athens and the city’s churches were converted to mosques.

Historic takeaways: Athens is a wonderful, hybrid hodge-podge of cultures, ideas, arts, sciences, and styles!

The Very Beginning of Athens

Back to the beginning…

Athens was named for the Greek goddess Athena. The daughter of Zeus, Athena represented the fighting spirit of war. She also represented wisdom.

In fact, you’ll notice that Greek mythology was a core belief.

As a quick review, Zeus was the king (god of sky and thunder). Hera was his queen (goddess of marriage and birth). Poseidon was god of the sea. Hades was god of the dead. Aphrodite was goddess of love and beauty—and the list goes on!

The first leader of Athens was the mythical king Theseus. Theseus was the son of Poseidon. The Greek storytellers told of his bravery and adventures (you might remember reading legends about how he slayed the Minotaur). King Theseus is credited with joining together many smaller communities around Attica.

Theseus led Athens to defeat its main rival, Eleusis. They celebrated by holding an early version of the Olympics called the Panathenaic Games.

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Creation of the Polis, or City-State

Early Greece was comprised of small farming communities. Land was the most important resource. As these communities grew, the people developed more sophisticated ways of organizing and protecting themselves. These early Greeks believed in the various gods and goddesses. They showed reverence through their respect, sacrifice, and religious rituals.

The oldest prominent period of history refers to Archaic Greece (700-480 B.C.).

During this time, the ancient Greeks developed the polis, or city-state. The polis replaced the previous structure of villages around the island that were ruled by kingdoms. The various kingdoms protected themselves by constructing walls, and they built marketplace centers where people could meet. These were called agoras.

This social structure is important because it was the first time that people organized as citizens within a community, living by defined laws or a constitution. In these city-states, people organized to protect themselves by raising armies, and collecting taxes.

The classical period of ancient Greece is when the democratic system developed. It was called demokratia, or rule by the people. The early Greeks recognized that in order to live honest lives and avoid abuse of power, they needed to not just establish laws, but write them down, and punish those who did not follow them.

These city-states were ruled by wealthy aristocrats rather than kings. In the 10th century BC, there were hundreds of small polis communities, as well as 12 main cities around Attica. The most powerful was Athens.

Democracy in Ancient Greece

The idea of “rule by the people” started around 500 B.C. Three different institutions made up the first democracy.

First was the ekklesia, the body that wrote laws and foreign policy. Second was the boule or council of representatives from 10 tribes around Athens. Third was the dikasteria, or system of courts with jurors selected by lottery.

The Greeks followed this system for several centuries before adding some innovations. Historians still say our present system of governance emerged from these roots.

An interesting feature of early Greek democracy was that it acknowledged the difference between social classes. The system of making and enforcing laws attempted to equalize citizens and remove power from the Athenian aristocrats who had ruled the area.

However, it’s also important to note that in historian Herodotus’ account of democracy, we might find his teachings hypocritical (another good Greek-rooted word, coming from the word “Hypokrites” or “actor” from the 1st century B.C.).

In the 4th century, there were 100,000 Athenian citizens (men and women whose parents had been citizens); 10,000 foreign residents, and 150,000 slaves! Only males older than 18 were part of the “demos”. In other words, only about 40,000 people at the time could be part of the democratic process.

The Pursuit of Knowledge

Another contribution the Athenians made to civilization today is their love of knowledge. The literal translation is “philos” or love and “Sophia” or wisdom. The science and art of philosophy—a pillar of western thought—started in Athens.

Several schools of philosophy originated in Athens.

Socratic philosophers were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Socrates (470-399 BC) didn’t lecture; he asked thought-provoking questions to keep students challenging their underlying assumptions.

Plato (387 BC) focused on teaching about justice, ethics, and virtue in relation to human behavior.

Aristotle (367-347 BC) developed the study of rhetoric, a way to use logic, emotion, and credibility for effective persuasion.

In the Greek education system, students thought, talked, and debated ideas, often walking around rather than sitting in a classroom (not sure what they would have done in these days of Zoom).

These philosophies still influence how we approach learning and knowledge today.

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What Is Athens Known For?

The Acropolis (means the highest point in a city) is a wonder of architecture. It’s not a building, but rather a plateau consisting of many buildings, including the Parthenon. The Acropolis is the site of many monuments to the gods, as well as citadels and other achievements of early engineering and scientific design.

The Acropolis was built under the reign of Pericles around 460 BC. Inside are fantastic sculptures of the gods, as well as famous marble frieze images.

The Agora is another site with fascinating artifacts from the ancient Greeks. There is a famous water clock, an assembly house for government works, the gymnasium, and many temples. The Temple of Hephasestus (also called the Thisseon) is another wonder to behold. Hephaestus was the god of fire and metalwork.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Gate actually predates the Parthenon. Construction started in the 6th century BC—and wasn’t completed for another 600 years (during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian). It is the largest temple in Greece, with more than 104 huge columns.

The Gate is a Roman arch that spans the road leading to the temple.

The Roman Agora is another distinctive feature of Athens. The complex of the Roman Agora is now located in the Monastiraki neighborhood. It includes the gate of Athena Archegitis, as well as the famous ruins of the House of the Winds.

Of course, Athens is also the home of the very first marathon.

“Marathon” refers to a place, not just a set of competitive games. During the Persian wars of the 5th century BC, the battle of Marathon was where the Persian troops first attacked the Greeks. The skilled Athenian army trounced the Persians.

Philippides was the speedy delivery man who delivered the good news from Marathon to Athens. The Olympics were held in Greece in 1896. Visitors to Athens often include a trip to the beautifully restored Panathenaic Stadium.

More Recent History of Athens

Clearly, there is much to see, do, and learn in Athens!

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While we’ve focused mainly on the past, the modern history of Athens is also fascinating, and adds to the unique quality of the city.

In 1687 the Venetians took Athens from the Ottoman Empire. During this struggle the Parthenon was damaged and had to be re-built. The Ottomons re-gained control of Athens for several more centuries, leaving for good in 1833. The independent state of Greece was formed in 1832 with the help of France, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Empire.

Its history of struggle has persisted through the ages. There have been continuous conflicts with Turkey in modern times, including the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922).

Greece Becomes a Republic

In 1924, the Republic of Greece was proclaimed. It was ruled by dictator Ioannis Metaxas, who sided with Mussolini. Athens was occupied by the Italians during World War II. The Germans took the city in 1941 until 1944.

Athens expanded during this period, as people from all over the island moved into the city for work.

Conflict persisted through the later 1900s, including civil war in 1946, another dictatorship in the 1960s, and Greek membership in the European Union beginning in 1981.

Looking back, Athens was a conquered city for almost 2,000 years, since the death of Pericles in 429 BC. You might say it was freed for the first time in 1833, but the next almost 200 years continued to be a time of revolution, fights against foreign occupation, and civil war.

Athens Today

By 1833, Athens had been the site of so many conflicts that many buildings (including many archeological sites) were destroyed. Only several thousand Athenians populated the hill below the famous Acropolis.

As the 19th and 20th centuries progressed, Athens developed into a modern city. German architects developed a new grid for the city, and the architecture today shows traces of design from Victorian London, Ottoman influence, and other European styles.

The modern city plan extended southward. The city added a rail system, highways, and developed real estate northward. New palaces and city buildings were constructed.

A housing boom in the 1950s resulted in new apartment complexes. New developments crept up in open space and parks.

Remnants of old Athens still exist, but now they blend in as part of the modern metropolis. The Acropolis was designated a World Heritage site in 1987. Statues and monuments still decorate the city and remind us of its profound history. I should mention that the Greek Orthodox Church has been a significant force in preserving Greek language and culture.

Today the population of Athens is about 3,150,000. It has experienced some population decline because of a weak economy and aging population.

Tourism is a major industry in Greece, and Athens is also a hub for international companies.

Final Thoughts

The history and innovation of Athens add to its resilient character. The city demonstrates a will to survive, loyalty to family, and dedication to the country of Greece. Do you have impressions of Athens you’d care to share? Did you visit Greece and think places not mentioned that are worth seeing?

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