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Greece » Sterea » Attica » Athens » Athens History » Athens during the Geometric and Archaic periods (1100-508 b.C.)
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Athens during the Geometric and Archaic periods (1100-508 b.C.)

The first centuries after the Mycenaean era are called in archaeology “dark ages”, as poor archaeological evidence is available; the dark ages are followed by the Geometric and Archaic times, which signal the beginning of development of Athens and of Attica. After the collapse of the Mycenaean sites, the palaces are abandoned and the whole life seems to have been reduced. From these times the Athenians were already boasting of being autochthonous. Very soon they started to colonize various places at the coasts of the Aegean Sea, of the Black Sea and of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea; the cities they founded in this period would later play a significant role in the history of ancient Greece and of the Greek nation in general. In what concerns some of the settlements, the real facts are confused with legends; thus, we are not sure whether the Ionian cities as Miletus or Ephesus were in fact established by Athenian colonists or there were only some racial, cultural and linguistic affinities between them.

In Athens, all the powers of the former king were now shared among three archons, coming from aristocratic clans. The “archon basileus” was charged with religious duties; the “polemarchos” became the chief of the army and the “eponymos archon” performed all administrative authority and gave his name to the year during which he governed. Later on, to these three archons were added six more, called “thesmothetae”, whose duty was to interpret customary law and make sure that it was correctly applied. The transfer of powers from one person, the king, to three archons also signaled the transfer of the seat of the government; ever since the archons lived at the lower town and the Acropolis, which became “the sacred rock”, was reserved only for religious activities. Despite this new function, the fort of Acropolis remained a place of refuge for the Athenians, in case of external threats and invasions.
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The city-state is now governed by the aristocrats, wealthy landlords who were the offspring of ancient clans; all of them claim that their origin goes back to the mythic kings of Athens: Erechtheus, Erysichthon, Kekrops, Aegeus, Theseus and other heroes or local archons. Thus, they are them that wield control to all offices and to Areios Pagos, the supreme court of the city. The “Eclessia tou Demou” (the assembly of the people) comprised by all male adult free citizens of Athens, is already established in this period; however, its power is still quite reduced and rather of a figurehead.

It is in this period that Salamina and Eleusis were incorporated to the Athenian state; only Megara, a Doric town was left out of the Athenian territory in Attica. Thus, Athens was now the bigger city-state, with an extent compared only to that of Sparta in Peloponnese. By the same time, Egyptians and Phoenicians collapsed, thus leaving enough space to Athenians and other Greeks to extend their activities to the sea. Several city states turned to sea transport and trade and very soon the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the Black Sea became in fact “Greek lakes”, in terms of economic and commercial influence. Athens became one of the most important sea powers, built a considerable commercial fleet and started to compete Megara, Corinth, Halkis, Aegina, Samos and other city-states which were the most important sea powers of the epoch; it is quite characteristic that Aegina used a coin system a whole century before Athens issued their numismatic system.

As time passed, conflicts between classes were deepened, as debts of the small farmers increased and land gradually passed to the hands of aristocrat landowners; on the other hand, the craftsmen, although wealthy enough, did not enjoy any of the civil rights that were reserved exclusively for the aristocrats. The period is marked by the attempts of able and ambitious men to rise to power; they are known as “tyrants” and once they would take power, they governed alone. One of these attempts occurred in 632 b.C., when Kylon, an aristocrat and victor of the Olympic Games, raised arms against the government intending to become a tyrant. The attempt failed, Kylon escaped to Megara, but his followers took refuge in the temple of Acropolis, where they were all killed, although being “iketae”, which meant that it was forbidden to touch them. Then, Megacles coming from the eminent family of Alkmaeonidae and the rest of the chiefs who commanded this massacre were exiled from Athens, although they had saved the city from tyranny. This episode of the Athenian history was ever since referred to as “Kylonion Agos” (“the shame of Kylon”).

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The year 621 b.C. signals the first written code of law of Athens; this code is known as the laws of Dracon (meaning “dragon” in Greek). With his law Dracon tried to resolve conflicts between the over-indebted farmers and the landowners; but the measures he took and the penalties he established were so harsh that it was told this code was written with blood! Even today, we use the term “draconian” (of Dracon) to characterize measures that are exaggeratedly hard and harsh. As things got worse and in order to avoid revolts, in 594 b.C., the Athenians confided to Solon, one of the seven wise men of ancient world, to compose a new code of laws and introduce all those reforms that could permanently settle the problems; for this reason he was invested with broad emergency powers.

Solon reorganized the categories of citizens, attributing rights according to the economic situation of each class. He also released the over-indebted farmers of their debts. In addition, the poorest citizens, the “thetae” were given the right of voting in the Ecclesia, but they were not allowed to take any office. In all probability, it is in this period that the assembly of the citizens started to use the area of Agora to sit. Just after he completed his work, Solon, sagely thinking, left Athens, so that he would not be involved in the conflicts he foresaw to approach. He was right; in 580-579 b.C., archon Damaesias refused to leave his office on time and remained to power for another two years, but at the end, the Athenians achieved to banish him.

Since 561 b.C. Peisistratos tried to raise to power in Athens. After several military attacks and conspiracies, which either failed or had a temporary success, he defeated his adversaries at the battle of Pallini and in 541 b.C. became tyrant of Athens, which he ruled until 528 b.C., when he died. Although he seized power violently, he did not abolish the law of Solon; on the contrary, the regime operated normally, except that everything was under his personal control. Gradually, Peisistratos obtained the acceptance of the citizens, mainly thanks to the extensive program of public works he initiated. He reorganized the feast of Panathinea, enacting the participation of young boys and girls to it and he constructed a new temple of Athena on the Acropolis. He also took care for the rest of the important feasts of the city, as Dionysia; in his times the feasts gained in grandeur and in participation of the people. He restored several old temples as the Mycenaean temple of Demeter and Pershephone in Eleusis; he also founded new temples, as the huge temple of Olympian Zeus which was to be completed some 650 years later, in the Roman era! Entire Attica was decorated with new temples, or with well restored old ones, as those of Ramnous, of Sounion and of Vravrona, the homeland of the tyrant.

Peisistratos also protected and stimulated Fine Arts and Letters; it is during his tyranny that the works of Homer, until then in oral versions only, were written down for the first time. He also declared Theseus the founder of the city and he favored the enrichment of the mythology of the city with unknown local myths, which counterbalanced the rich tradition of Hercules, the Dorian hero. He also encouraged manufacture and in his times the Athenian black figure vases were sold in every market of the Mediterranean.

He also constructed a lot of public works; streets, an aqueduct that brought water from Hymettus to the Enneakrounos fountain at the Agora, public and private buildings are only some of the works that are dated in this period. Also, he brought slaves to work to the silver mines of Lavrion and he was the first to issue the famous Athenian silver coin, with the head of goddess Athena on one side and an owl on the other.

Finally, Peisistratos tried to secure the trade of Athens by establishing trading posts, colonies and alliances all along the Black Sea. In this way, he achieved to set the bases of the Athenian hegemony that was to follow in the Classical period.

After Peisistratos died in 528 b.C. the power came to the hands of his sons Hippias and Ipparchos; both, and especially Hippias, established an authoritarian government and soon reactions arose which reached their peak in 514 b.C., when Armodios and Aristogeiton tried to assassinate them during the feast of Panathinea. They achieved to kill only Ipparchos, while Armodios too was killed by the bodyguards of Hippias; a civil war followed this episode until 510 b.C.; in this war there were also involved the Spartans, as well as the exiled family of Alkmaeonidae. Finally, the Athenians got rid of Hippias who took refuge in Persia and started to plot against Greece. Later on, during the period of Democracy, the tyrant killers, Armodios and Aristogeiton were highly honored by the state; among others their statues were erected at Kerameikos.
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