Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Fall of Athens and the End of the Greek Golden Age

I. The Urban Landscape in Athens

A. The Benefits of the Delian League--Athens prospered due to the dues fees from other Delian League members, war plunder, and taxes on the booming seaborne trade. Its navy ensured the empire's numerous ports remained safe for travellers, merchants, and their wares, and its courts resolved legal disputes. Artisans were able to sell the goods they made, which were found in locations throughout the Mediterranean--and beyond.

B. Civic Building Program--Athens spent these riches not just to pay for its citizens to participate in democratic government--although that was an important use for the money--but also to build civic buildings, public art, and religious festivals. Some rich urban dwellers splurged on luxury goods in the Persian style, but there were few ostentatious displays of public wealth that did not serve a public function.

1. Taxes--there were no income taxes or property taxes, but the rich were required by law to pay for certain public events, and also to equip warships.

2. The Parthenon--built on the acropolis during the 440s-430s B.C.E., and meant to honor the god Athena, for whom Athens was named, the Parthenon (the virgin goddess's house) probably cost somewhere in excess of a billion dollars in today's money when it was built; Pericles' political rivals of course criticized this extravagance. The Parthenon was not a church, where Athenians gathered to worship Athena; it was rather her house when she might visit Athens after descending from Mt. Olympus. The Parthenon was constructed using a number of innovative techniques. It was much more massive than other structures of its time, and the architects and buildings used a number of techniques (tapering columns so they appeared straight to the human eye, and compensating for the tendency of the human eye to perceive rectilinear objects as curved, strategically places slight curves in the building to make it appear perfectly rectilinear). The frieze that ran along the top inside depicted the Athenians themselves, who therefore inhabited the same space as depictions of the gods themselves.

3. Sculpture's New Message--Sculpture took on a breathtakenly new realism, looking more like humans in motion (but also looking like perfect humans). This new sculpture in fact seems to celebrate the human body, and curves are hinted at when humans are depicted with clothing one.

II. Tradition and Innovation in Athen's Golden Age--the prosperity and international contacts that created the innovations in architectue, art, drama, education, and philosophy also created tension with traditional ways of living--just as we experience in the modern world.

A. Religious Tradition in a Period of Change--Greeks maintained religious traditions publically by participating in the city-state's sacrifices and festivals, and privately by participating in the rituals of hero cults and mystery cults.

1. Public worship--Greek gods required ritual sacrafices to remain in good spirits. The usual practice during a public fesitval was to sacrafice (kill) a large animal (or three, depending upon how public this festival was), roast it (the aroma created by this process was the gods portion), and then the sacrifice was distributed among the crowd at the festival. For many poor Greeks, this might be the only time they would taste meat. Athens demonstrated its prosperity by sponsoring more public festivals than any other Greek city--in fact, nearly half the days of the year were dedicated to one public festival or another. The biggest festivals also featured parades and contests, with valuable prizes in music, dancing, poetry, and athletics. some festivals were for women only, including one dedicated to Demeter, the goddes of agriculture and fertility.

2. Private worship--people of this time in Greece took a keen interst in affirming their personal relationship with the divine. Families marked significant events--births, marriages, deaths--with prayers, rituals, and sacrafices. They honored ancestors with offerings at their tombs, consulted seers about the meanings of dreams and omens, and paid magicians for potions to improve their love lives or curse their enemies.

a. Hero cults--Greek heroes were thought to have special powers that remained with their bodies after death, and were thought to retain the power to heal the sick, provide protection in battle, and inspire oracles to reveal the future. The strongman Hercules (or Herakles) inspired cults all over the Greek world because of his superhuman reputation

b. Mystery cults--involved a set of prayers, sacrifices, and other forms of worship that initiated members into secret knowledge about the divine and human worlds. Initiates believed that they gained divine protection from the cult's god or gods.

B. Women, Slave, and Metics--Women, slaves, and metics (foreigners who were granted permanent resident status in return for paying taxes and serving in the military) made up the majority of the population in Athens, but they lacked political rights

1. Women--bearing children in marriage earned women status because it was literally the heart of Greek society. To defend this fundamental institution, men were expected to respect and support their wives. Childbirth was often, however, the most dangerous time during a woman's life. Women brought property into a marrage (dowry), which she was entitled to if her husband divorced her for some reason. Property was to be accumulated and passed on to the sons; daughters became part of the family they married into. If the parents died without a son, the closest relative of the father then had to marry the eldest daughter, and the property would be inherited by their son.

a. The daily life of women--the main task for Greek women was to produce a male heir--that guaranteed the continuation of the family, and of the family's wealth. Women were largely kept within the household, and contact with strange men (that is, men they were unfamiliar with) was kept to a minimum; this was thought to guarantee that any male children would therefore be legitimate heirs. While this sounds restricting to we moderns, for Greek women it would have been a sign of their social standing. Hetairas (usually foreign-born women) were the exception to this rule--but they had to be physically attractive, witty in speech, skilled in music and poetry--and often times willing to serve as prostitutes.

2. Slaves and metics--traditional social and legal restrictions in Golden Age Athens meant slaves and metics counted as outsiders, no matter how much they contributed to the city-state.

a. Slaves--captured in war, purchased from traders, or those Greek children abandoned by their parents (an accepted practice called infant exposure) who were then picked up by others and raised as slaves. Slave may have made up about 100,000 people in a population of 250,000 in the city of Athens. Slaves worked on farms, in homes, rowed next to their owners in the navy (the owner got double pay for that)--or, if they were really unfortunate, they worked in the silver mine Athens owned, slaves did most of the work in Golden Age Athens. Unlike in Sparta, slaves in Athens never rebelled, since they came from so many different places, they had a difficult time organizing.

b. Metics--the economic growth and possibilities of Athens attracted many metics from around the Mediterranean, hoping to make money as importers, artisans, entertainers, and laborers. At the start of the Peloponnesian War, metics may have constituted a population of  50,000 to 75,000 of the estimated 150,000 free men, women, and children. Metics paid for the privilege of living in Athens through a special tax, and by serving in the military.

C. Innovative Ideas in Education, Philosophy, History, and Medicine--Building on the intellectual foundation of rationalism that emerged in the Archaic Age, thinkers in the Greek Golden Age developed innovative ideas in education, philosophy, history, and medicine. These innovations delighted some 5th Century BCE Greeks, but frightened others, who thought it undermined tradition (which, of course, it did).

1. Education--the only formal education came from private teachers, which meant that only those who could afford to pay for it received it. Well-to-do families sent their sons to learn to read, write, play a musical instrument or sing, and to develop the physical skills and stamina suitable for war--which they gained be exercising nude in the gymnasium every day. Greek girls also learned to read, write, and to calculate, so they could assist their husbands and manage a household. Poor children received no education; they learned a trade, and as much reading and writing as they could pick up on their own.

a. Public life--after their education was completed, young men from prosperous familes learned how to participate in public life through their association with a mentor--an older man known to the family. They often accompanied these men to various events--both political and social--and exercised in the gymnasium everyday. Sometimes tis led to sexual relations between the two, which were accepted as an expected occurence in some cities (Sparta, Athens), while condemned in others

2. Sophists and Philosophers as a Threat to Tradition--to rise in politics in Athens during this time, young men sought to approve their oratorical skills, and sought out master teachers called Sophists, who used a new technique called reason to persuade others. Sophistry now has a negative connotation (and developed one at this time because traditionalists opposed to them. Sophists created controversy because they used rational arguments to challenge traditional ways of thinking; this caused their opponents to accuse them of moral relativism, agnosticism, and other crimes against society. While this provided a way to challenge authority and tradition, because only the rich could afford these lessons, it did indeed threaten democracy in Athens.

3. Socrates on Ethics--Socrates, the most famous of the Greek philosophers, lived in Athens during this time, challenged tradition, but claimed he was not a Sophist, because he did not take money for his teaching. Socrates did not write philosophical texts, the knowledge of the man, his life, and his philosophy is entirely based on writings by his students and contemporaries. Foremost among them is Plato. Xenophon, Aristotle, and Aristophanes also provide important insights. The difficulty of finding the “real” Socrates arises because these works are often philosophical or dramatic texts rather than straightforward histories. Aside from Thucydides (who makes no mention of Socrates or philosophers in general) and Xenophon, there are in fact no straightforward histories contemporary with Socrates that dealt with his own time and place. A corollary of this is that sources that do mention Socrates do not necessarily claim to be historically accurate, and are often partisan (those who prosecuted and convicted Socrates have left no testament). Historians therefore face the challenge of reconciling the various texts that come from these men to create an accurate and consistent account of Socrates' life and work. The result of such an effort is not necessarily realistic, merely consistent.
Plato is frequently viewed as the most informative source about Socrates' life and philosophy. At the same time, however, many scholars believe that in some works Plato, being a literary artist, pushed his avowedly brightened-up version of "Socrates" far beyond anything the historical Socrates was likely to have done or said; and that Xenophon, being an historian, is a more reliable witness to the historical Socrates. It is a matter of much debate which Socrates Plato is describing at any given point—the historical figure, or Plato's fictionalization.
It is also clear from other writings and historical artifacts, however, that Socrates was not simply a character, or an invention, of Plato. The testimony of Xenophon and Aristotle, alongside some of Aristophanes' work (especially The Clouds), is useful in fleshing out a perception of Socrates beyond Plato's work.
4. History Writing--Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 485-425 B.C.E.) and Thucydides of Athens (455-399 B.C.E.) changed he way history was written during this time, and are considered the co-fathers of written history. His Histories attempted to explain the Persian wars as a result of cultural differences. Herodotus recognized that other cultures with respect, pushed his inquiries deep into the past, and focused on human psychology and interactions to explain events, rather than the intervention of gods. Thucydides wrote contemporary history--specifically, the history of the recently concluded Peloponnesian War, of which he had served briefly--and unsuccessfully--as a general. Thucydides again concentrated upon the actions of men and politics, rather that the intercession of the gods, as the driving force in history
5. Hippocrates and the Birth of Scientific Medicine--Hippocrates challenged tradition by grounding medicine in clinical observation, rather than relying upon magic and ritual. This didn't improve actual treatment much--Hippocrates believed that if one kept the four fluids in balance, good health would follow--but it provided a system to begin diagnoses and treatment using the scientific method.
III. Greek Theatre
A. The Development of Greek Tragedy--portrayed events from mythology or recent history that provoked its audience to consider controversial issues in contemporary Athens. In that city, tragedies were presented at a theatre dedicated to the god Dionysus built into the southern slope of the acropolis, which held about 14,000 people. The best known of the playwrights are Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.E.), Euripides (c. 485-406 B.C.E.), and Sophocles (c. 496-406 B.C.E.). Sophocles wrote some of the works best know today--Antigone, Electra, and especially Oedipus the King (which some guy named Shakespeare appropriated to write Hamlet).
B. The Development of Greek Comedy--while tragedies often made oblique commentary on contemporary Athenian life, comedies openly satirized, lampooned, and ridiculed the rulers of the city. Like the tragedies, the comedies were written in verse, and used clever profanity, bodily functions, and sex to get laughs (Judd Apatow has nothing on Aristophanes).
IV. The End of Athen's Golden Age, 431-403 B.C.E.

A. The Peloponnesian War, 431-404 B.C.E.--fearing that the Athens-led Delian League threatened the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League, Sparta attacked Athens. The great Athenian leader, Pericles, seeing a long war of attrition ahead, advised using the Delian League navy to attack the coastal cities of the Peloponnesian League, and to remain within the impenetrable walls of Athens in response to Spartan attacks. If Athens would have followed this advice, they might of won, but Pericles influence died with him in an epidemic in 429--and epidemic that killed thousands of Athenians during the war. Athens and  Sparta made peace in 421 (after a contingent of Spartans unexpectedly surrendered in 425 B.C.E.--obviously, they forgot about the 300). An ambitious Athenian general, Alcibiades, persuaded the Athenian assembly to reject peace in 418. In a savage campaign of 416-415 B.C.E., Athens and allies overpowered the tiny and strategically meaningless Aegean island of Melos because it refused to abandon its allegiance to Sparta--killing all the men, selling all the women and children into slavery, and colonizing the island. Alcibiades in 415 persuaded the assembly to launch the greatest and most expensive invasion in Greek history against the Spartan allies at Syracuse on the island of Sicily. They Syracusans prevailed, however, and so weakened the Athenian forces that they were unable to resist the Spartan counterattack, which devastated the Athenian countryside. In 411 B.C.E., the assembly voted itself out of existence, political chaos ensued, and when the Persian king provided Sparta with the funds to build a navy, Athens was forced to surrender in 404 B.C.E.
B. Tyranny and Civil War, 404-403 B.C.E.--following Athens defeat, Sparta installed a regime of antidemocratic Athenians known as the 30 Tyrants who were willing to collaborate with the Spartans. Brutally suppressing the democratic opposition, the Tyrants embarked on an 8 month campaign of murder and plunder, until democratic forces that had organized outside the city were able to take advantage of a political dispute in Sparta to overthrow the Tyrant forces. Much of the city seethed in anger at the conduct of the Tyrants, and leaders attempted an early version of the Truth and Justice Commissions, but those efforts largely failed.


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.