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Greece » Sterea » Attica » Athens » Athens History » The Persian War and Democracy (508-479 b.C.)
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The Persian War and Democracy (508-479 b.C.)

After the city had got rid of the sons of Peisistratos the power was taken by Kleisthenes, the leader of the family of Alkmaeonidae, who had returned from exile. Based on the people and supported by almost the entire population of the city, Kleisthenes initiated a broad program of reforms during the years 508-507 b.C.; this date is considered the birthday of Athenian Democracy. The core of the reforms of Kleisthenes is comprised of two points of capital importance: first, every privilege of local archons was abolished and second, all citizens obtained equal rights and had equal chances to take various offices of the state, even the higher and the most important ones.

Athens and Attica were divided in ten “phylae” (tribes) and every tribe to ten “demoi”. The old division of Attica in three big regions, the “asty” (the “city”), the coast and the inland country, lost the importance it had in the past. Now, every tribe was formed of “demoi” which belonged to all three regions and would be the same in future. Every tribe sent 50 delegates, chosen by lot, to a new legislative council, the Boule, or “Council of 500”. The year was also divided in ten parts, during each of which a group of 50 delegates of the Boule governed and prepared the agenda for the Ecclesia; this group was called Prytaneia. In this way, the Ecclesia obtained considerable power, including some formerly attributed to Areios Pagos; the power of this latter became now purely judicial. In order to avoid concentration of power, Kleisthenes introduced the “ostrakismos”, the exile of a powerful person of the state for at least ten years, if six thousands of citizens voted for that.

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These reforms were at the base of the first democracy ever, and attributed strong power to the people, at least to those people that had civil rights. In Athens, only free men of Athenian origin could be citizens; women and slaves were excluded, as well as the free men of non-Athenian origin who lived and worked in the city and were called “metics”.

By the end of the 6th century b.C., a threat had appeared at the East of Greece. The Persian Empire kept expanding its power in Asia and gradually reached the Greek cities of the Aegean and the Black Sea. Very soon, the Persians would occupy several sites in Asia Minor and Thrace and would subjugate the Greek cities of the coast of Asia Minor. When in 499 b.C., the Ionian city of Miletus, the most important of them, revolted against Persian domination, Athens hastened to assistance; however, the rebellion was soon put down, Miletus was totally destroyed and the population was massacred or enslaved. When in Athens the tragedian Phrynichos presented in Athens his tragedy The Capture of Miletus , the audience burst in tears; the writer was strongly fined, as he reminded to the city its “intimate calamities”, and the work was banned.

Following the capture of Miletus the Persian king Darius, in 492 b.C., set out a strong army against Greece; however the Persian fleet wrecked by the peninsula of Athos and the whole campaign went up in smoke. Two years later, in 490 b.C., Darius decided to repeat the campaign; he set out a troop of a hundred thousands of soldiers, under the command of Datis and Artafernis. The army achieved to conquer every city, town and island they found on their way to Athens. The places that resisted, as Eretria, were destroyed, whereas those who surrendered were left intact. In September of 490 b.C., following the instructions of Hippias, the former tyrant of Athens, they arrived at Marathon, on the purpose to attack and conquer Athens too.

Still defenceless, Athens managed to gather some ten thousands of soldiers and formed a hand-picked troop under the command of Miltiades who knew very well the tactics of the Persian army, as he had combated them a few years earlier; a corps of some 600 men from Plataeae had also come to assist, whereas the assistance from Sparta seemed to be delaying. Using a pretty smart disposition of their troops the Athenians achieved to trap the heavily armed and ponderous Persian army within the marshes of the area and defeat it. After their victory they hurried off to Athens, lined up in front of the port of Phaleron and inhibited the Persians from disembarking. Thus the Persians retired and took the way home.

The news of the great victory were communicated in Athens by Pheidippides, a messenger who ran all the way from Marathon to Athens wearing his arms; when he arrived to the area called today Psychiko, exhausted he cried “we have won” and dropped dead. To celebrate this fact modern Olympics have included in the game program the Marathon, the long distance foot race of 42 kilometers, the distance between Marathon and Athens; this race dates back to the Olympics of 1896.

Having lost only 192 men in the battle of Marathon the Athenians did obtain a victory of immense importance in history. To honor their heroes and mark the importance of the battle, the Athenians buried their dead on site, raising a tomb, still existing today; the state also honored them post mortem, as well as their families.

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This great victory that gave to the Athenians self-reliance and confidence to the power of the people was followed by several reforms of the regime towards a more democratic direction. In the year 488 b.C. were for the first time elected archons by lot whereas the next year they practiced “ostrakismos” for the first time. These facts had broadened and deepened a lot the democratic basis of the regime. Ever since, only the ten generals would be elected by vote. In the same period a new temple of Athena was constructed on the Acropolis, just at the place where later on the Parthenon would be built; Attica was also enriched with new temple dedicated to various gods. The following years are marked by the great personality of Themistocles. Although of humble background he was elected general and he spared no pains to persuade his fellow citizens to build a strong navy in order to confront the Persians who had not abandoned their aspiration to conquer Greece. Luck was on his side, as in this very time, in 484 b.C., a new silver vein was discovered in the mines of Lavrion; along with a less important conflict with the near by island of Aegina, these facts definitely allowed Themistocles to put his plans in practice. The fleet of two hundreds of up-to-date, well equipped, rapid and easily moving vessels that was then built was the main factor of the Athenian victories against Persians. To complete his plans, Themistocles moved the port, till then in Phaleron to the better protected natural ports of Piraeus which he fortified for better results.

Xerxes, the successor of Darius on the Persian throne, had planned a new campaign against Greece. According to his plans, both his fleet and the army, himself on head, would descend to Greece aiming to conquer it totally. Facing such a great danger the Greek city – states left their quarrels apart and decided to unite their forces. Sparta, the most expert in wars, took the lead of the war. Xerxes set off in 480 b.C. and on his way southwards he defeated one city after the other. Whatever the attempts of the Greeks, he advanced quickly; he passed from Thermopylae, despite the heroic sacrifice of 300 Spartan warriors and 700 men from the village of Thespiae, commanded by the Spartan king Leonidas. The Greeks beat the Persian fleet at cape Artemision in Thessaly, but did not achieve to defeat it totally. After that, the Greeks retired both on earth and in the sea and decided to confront the Persians at the isthmus of Corinth. Some cities, as Thebae decided to leave the alliance and range on the Persians’ side, a fact that somehow weakened the power of the Greeks. At the same time the Athenians, following the instructions of Themistocles abandoned their city and moved to the neighboring islands. Thus, when the Persian army and fleet arrived in Attica by the end of September, the city was empty, but a few elderly people who had refused to leave it and had taken refuge in the Acropolis. The Persians occupied the city, devastated it, set it in fire and massacred the few people left behind. Meantime the Greek fleet had been gathered at the straights of Salamina and was ready to depart for Corinth, according to the commands of Evryviades, the Spartan commander in chief. Themistocles, resolved that the sea battle would be victorious only if the Persians were beaten in the straights, resorted to a trick in order to achieve this goal. The result is well known. The heavy and difficult to navigate in the straights vessels of the Persians had suffered a painful defeat.

The collapse of the Persian fleet was total and the Greeks gained a definite victory, which was completed some months later, in 479 b.C., when they beat the rest of the corps of Xerxes who had remained in Greece, under Mardonios; the battle at Plataeae was the last on Greek territory. On the same day, the remains of the Persian fleet were defeated anew, at the straights of Mykali, between Samos and the coast of Asia Minor, a fact that stimulated the Greek cities to revolt and regain independence from the Persian yoke.
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