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Athens is the capital city of Attica, a province of central Greece, northeast of the Isthmus of Corinth (area 2 ; see also map of Attica and of Athens).
Athens is the most famous of all Ancient Greek cities, not so much by its political role --though for a while during the Vth century B. C. it was the head of an empire that dominated a large part of the eastern Mediterranean world-- as by its cultural legacy. It reached the peak of its glory between the Persian wars (battle of Marathon, 490 ; naval victory of Salamis, 480) and the Peloponesian war (431-404) so much so that this period in history has become known as the Century of Pericles, by the name of the man who ruled Athens from 443 till his death in 429. Between the late VIth century B. C. (Solon, archon in 594) and the rise of the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great (king from 336 to 323), that is, during the period covered by the chronology provided at this site, Athens not only invented democracy, but gave the world such famed artists as the tragedians Æschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the comedian Aristophanes, the historian Thucydides, the sculptor Phidias, the orators Isocrates and Demosthenes, the writer Xenophon and, last but not least as far as this site is concerned, the philosophers Socrates and Plato.

Origins and legendary traditions of Athens

Attica seems to have been populated by the first wave of invaders from Thracia (today's Balkans) that came to be known as the Greeks (or Hellenes) toward the beginning of the IInd millenium B. C. and is the only part of mainland Greece where these invaders, calling themselves Ionians, managed to stay when later invaders, such as the Achæans, the Æolians and eventually the Dorians who became prominent in Peloponnese, displaced earlier Greek populations (see Thucydides, I, 2). Athenians of classical times were proud of this remote origin and immemorial occupancy of the same land and, for this reason, called themselves autochthonoi, that is, sons of the earth itself that they were inhabiting (see Pericles' funeral oration in Thucydides, II, 36 ; Lysias' Funeral Oration, 17 ; Euripides' Ion, 589 ; Isocrates' On the Peace, 49, Panegyricus, 24, Panathenaicus, 123-124 ; and also Plato's parody of funeral oration in the Menexenus at 237b ).
Athens was under the protection of the goddess Athena, the giver of the olive-tree, and Poseidon, the god of the sea. It was keeping alive the memory of its "founding fathers", legendary kings of old, from Cecrops down to Theseus and Codrus, the last of them.

Cecrops, half-man, half-snake, was said to have been born from the soil of Attica. It is under his reign that the gods challenged one another for cities to be honored in. Athens was coveted by both Athena and Poseidon. Poseidon came to Attica and had sea water spring from the Acropolis by stricking the rock with his trident while Athena grew the first olive-tree on its slopes (Herodotus' Histories, VIII, 55). Cecrops was chosen by Zeus as arbiter between them and opted for Athena, whose gift was more useful to the people. Cecrops was a peaceful king and was credited for the first progress of civilization in Attica : the building of cities, burial of the dead, and even sometimes the invention of writing. He married Aglaurus and had one son, Erysichthon and three daughters, one named Aglaurus after her mother, the two other ones named Herse and Pandrosus. From Ares, their daughter Aglauros had a daughter, Alcippe, who was the mother of Dædalus. The three sisters were also involved in the legend of Erichthonius (see below). Cecrops' son Erysichthon died young and without children. He was credited for sailing to Delos, from where he brought back to Athens a statue of Ilithyia, godess of child-birth, but died on the trip back.
Cranaus, who, succeeded Cecrops after his son Erysichthon had died, was said to be too a "son of the soil". Cecrop, before dying, handed his kingdom over to him , because he was then the most powerful citizen of Athens. In his time, the city, then mostly limited to the rock of Acropolis, was called Cranaa (meaning "rocky" in Greek) and its people Cranaans (Herodotus' Histories, VIII, 44). The area then took the name Attica after one of his daughters, named Atthis, when she died before being wed. Cranaus had wed one of his daughters to Amphictyon, a son of Deucalion, who drove him out of power to take his place as king, only to be himself expelled ten years later by Erichthonius. Amphictyon was sometimes credited for giving Athens its name and placing it under the protection of Athena. It is under his reign that Dionysus visited Attica. He was also said to have founded the Delphic Amphictyony, which owed him its name, at a time before becoming king of Athens when he was king of the Thermopylæ, which was indeed the place where the league used to meet.

Erichthonius was said to be the son born from Hephæstus' desire for Athena : one day Athena had come to his shop to order weapons, he fell in love with her and tried to rape her. Athena fled, but Hephæstus ran after her and managed to catch her. In the fight that ensued, some of Hephæstus' semen fell on Athena's leg. The goddess wiped it out with a woolen cloth and threw it to the ground. From the god's semen thus thrown to her, Gæa (the Earth) bore a child who was named Erichthonius, a name that suggests wool (eri ), or fight (eris), and the earth (chthôn), and who was raised by Athena herself (there is an allusion to this story in Plato's Timæus, 23d-e, when the Egyptian priest talks to Solon of the foundation of Athens by the goddess who "received from Gæa and Hephæstus the seed you come from"). Indeed, Athena, unknown to the other gods, put the baby in a coffin and entrusted it to Pandrosus, one of Cecrops' daughters, who was not supposed to open it. But her sisters Aglaurus and Herse, out of curiosity, convinced her to open the coffin. In it, they saw the baby in the custody of two snakes (in some versions of the story, it is the baby himself who, like all creatures born from the earth, had the lower part of his body in the form of a snake) and, struck with madness, the three sisters jumped to their death from the top of the Acropolis. Erichthonius was raised by Athena in her temple of the Acropolis and became king of Athens after retaking power from Amphictyon. He was credited with the introduction of the four-horses chariot and of money in Attica and with the institution of the festival of Panathenæa (though some of these are sometime ascribed to his grandson Erechtheus).
Erichthonius was succeeded by Pandion, the son he had had with his wife, the Naiad Praxithea. Pandion married Zeuxippe, another Naiad and thus a sister of his mother, from whom he had two sons, Erechtheus and Boutes, and two daughters, Procne and Philomela. From another wife, he was said to be the father of Oeneus, the Attic hero eponym of one of the ten tribes later instituted by Cleisthenes. Pandion married his daughter Procne to Tereus, king of Thracia and son of Ares, in exchange for his help in a fight against Labdacus, king of Thebes and grandfather of Oedipus. But Tereus later raped Procne's sister Philomela, which led to a revenge story in which Procne ended up turned by the gods into a nightingale, Philomela into a swallow, or the other way around, depending on the sources, and Tereus into a hoopoe. At Pandion's death, his sons shared offices : Erechteus inherited kingship and Boutes priesthood, overlooking the cult of Athena and Poseidon, the two tutelary divinities of the city. It is in Pandion's time that some place the coming to Attica of Dionysus and Demeter.

Erechtheus, grandson of Erichthonius and son of Pandion, succeded his father on the throne of Athens. Erechtheus, who, in early traditions, was often confused with his grandfather Erichthonius, had a wife named Praxithea (as his grandfather), from whom he had several children :

While Erechtheus was king of Athens, a war broke out between Athens and Eleusis. Eleusis was helped in this war by Eumolpus, king of Thracia (see above), who had befriended the inhabitants of the city at a time during his wanderings when he was living there (Thucydides, II, 15, 1 ; see also Plato's Menexenus, 239b). Erechtheus consulted the oracle of Delphi for a means to win the war. He was told that he should offer one of his daughters in sacrifice, which he did. The chosen victim was either Protogenia or Chthonia, depending on the sources, but her sisters, at least those who were old enough at the time, killed themselves in grief. As a result of this sacrifice, Erechtheus won the war. But Eumolpus was killed during the fight and his father Poseidon, in reprisal, obtained from Zeus that he kill Erechtheus with a stroke of his lightning. In classical times, Erechtheus, seen as the perfect king by the Athenians, and who, in early times was often identified with Erichthonius (like him, he was sometime credited with the insitution of the festival of Panathenæa and the invention of the chariot), had a quasi-divine status, and was even eventually identified with Poseidon. Indeed, he was honored in the temple on the Acropolis that owed him its name, the Erechtheion, along with Athena and Poseidon.
Erechtheus was succeeded by his son Cecrops, second of that name, who married Metadiousa, daughter of his nephew Eupalamus (the son of his brother Metion), then by their son Pandion, also second of that name. During Pandion's reign, the sons of Metion rebelled and took over the throne of Athens, forcing Pandion into exile. Pandion seeked refuge in Megara, whose king Pylas gave him his daughter Pylia in marriage. So, when Pylas, after he had killed his uncle Bias, had to flee in Messenia (where he founded the city of Pylos), Pandion became king of Megara. Pandion and Pylia had four sons in Megara : Ægeus, Pallas, Nisus and Lycus.

After Pandion's death, his four sons reclaimed the throne of Athens from the sons of Metion and divided Attica between themselves. Ægeus, the first-born, took the largest share, including Athens ; Pallas and Lycus received parts of Attica while Nisus kept Megara as his share. Later, Ægeus expelled his brother Lycus from Attica. Lycus fled to Messenia where he became a famous seer and instituted the cult of Lycean Apollo (other traditions say he fled to Lycia and gave that region of Asia Minor its name). Pallas became the father of fifty sons, collectively known as the Pallantidæ, who hoped to inherit the throne of Athens at the death of Ægeus, that they thought was childless, until Theseus, his son born and raised in Troezen, came back and was recognized by Ægeus. Then, they challenged Theseus' legitimacy and, when he became king of Athens, they tried to oust him, but Theseus killed them all.
Indeed, after two successive marriages, Ægeus had not been able to beget a child, despite his introduction in Athens of the cult of Aphrodite Urania, the goddess of childbearing. So, he went to Delphi to ask the oracle what to do to beget a son and, on his way back, visited Pittheus, king of Troezen, renowed for his wisdom, to consult him about the meaning of the oracle he had received. There, Pittheus, seeing through the oracle, managed to get him drunk and to have him sleep with his daughter Æthra, from which union Theseus was born (see the page on Theseus for more on this story). In Troezen, Ægeus also met Medea at the time she was fleeing Corinth and her husband of the time, Jason, who had betrayed her. Medea promised Ægeus that she would cure him of his sterility if only he would marry her, which he did. Together, they had a son named Medus. But when Theseus came to Athens to be recognized by his father, Medea, aware of who he was by virtue of her magical powers, tried to have him killed by Ægeus before he recognized him, failed and had to flee with her son. She went back to Colchis, the kingdom of her father, and her son from Ægeus became the ancestor and eponym of the Medians.
Ægeus also fought and lost a war against Minos, king of Crete. The reason for that war was the death of Minos' son Androgeos : Androgeos was an accomplished athlete who took part in games organized in Athens by Ægeus, winning all the prizes ; jealous of his strength, Ægeus then sent him to a hunt for the bull of Marathon (who was in fact none other than the bull of Crete brought back in Greece by Heracles as part of his labors), who was at the time laying waste all over Attica, but Androgeos was killed during that hunt (the bull was later killed by Theseus in a similar trial imposed upon him by Medea to, unsuccessfully this time, try to have him killed in the affair). After Minos had learned about the death of his son, while he was offering a sacrifice in the island of Paros, he embarked in an expedition against Athens. In order to conquer Attica, he first took hold of Megara with the help of Scylla, the daughter of Nisus (Ægeus' brother), king of the place, who fell in love with him and cut the purple hair that made her father invincible. Minos was then able to invade Attica and to impose upon Athens, in exchange for peace, a yearly tribute of fifty boys and fifty girls to be offered to the Minotaur, a tribute that was paid until Theseus volunteered to be one of the boys and killed the Minautor (see the page on Theseus for more on this story). It is when gazing at the sea from the shore of Attica while waiting for his son's return that Ægeus, seeing a black sail that Theseus had forgotten to replace by a white one that was the set sign of victory, jumped in despair to his death in the sea that took his name.

Theseus. the son of Ægeus (he was sometime said to be the son of Poseidon), whom he succeeded on the throne, was indeed the most famous of the legendary kings of Athens. For a summary of the numerous legends surrounding him, see the entry under his name. As has been said above, he freed Athens from Cretan dominion, a deed that translated into the legend of his victory over the Minotaur, and established relations between Athens and Delos. But, above all, he unified all the villages of Attica (except Eleusis and Salamis) under a single government located in Athens, an achievement known under the name of synoecism (from a Greek word that means etymologically "bringing all the houses together") who was still celebrated in historical times by the festival of Synoecia (Thucydides, II, 15), held in June, before the Panathenæa, another festival whose origin was ascribed to Theseus (Plutarch's Life of Theseus, 24, 1-4 ; Isocrates' Helen, 35-37). He is said to have organized the city in three classes : noblemen, farmers and craftsmen and was honored as the father of democracy (Plutarch's Life of Theseus, 25, 1-2 ; Euripides' Suppliants, 403, sq ; it is such an organization, more than the one described by Socrates in the Republic, that Critias attributes to his Athens of old in the dialogue that bears his name, at 110c-d, where he mentions warriors --"to machimon", fighters more than guardians-- "and the other classes of citizens who deal with crafts and getting food from the earth" ).

Hard to locate in that succession of kings is Ion , the eponym of the Ionians, who is also listed as a king of Athens. He was, as was mentioned earlier, a son of Erechtheus' daughter Creüsa and either Apollo (in Euripides' version) or the Thessalian Xouthus, and the brother of Achæus (the eponym of the Achæans). And his father Xouthus was the son of Hellen (the son of Deucalion, eponym of the Hellenes, that is, the Greeks as a whole) and the brother of Dorus (the eponym of the Dorians) and Æolus (the eponym of the Æolians). Their wanderings through Greece retraced, in various ways depending on the sources, the migrations of Hellenic tribes in "pre-historical" times. Xouthus had come to Attica after being expelled from his native Thessalia by his brothers Dorus and Æolus. There, he was given Creüsa, the daughter of the then king of Athens Erechtheus, in marriage. But at the death of Erechtheus, he had to flee Attica with his sons Ion and Achæus and settled along the northern coast of Peloponnese that later became known as Achaia but was then called Ægialus (a word meaning in Greek "seashore"). After Xouthus death, Achæus went back to Thessalia while Ion married Helice, the daughter of Selinus, king of Ægialus, and succeeded him at his death. He built there a city to which he gave the name of his wife and called his people "Ionians". He was then called to the rescue by Athenians at war with Eleusis, who made him their leader (this was probably the war mentioned earlier in which Eumolpus sided with the Eleusinians). In this version of the story (Pausanias'), Ion died soon after in Attica, and his descendants remained in power in Ægialus until they were ousted by the offspring of Achæus, back from Thessalia, who gave the country the name Achaia.
In another version of the story (Strabo's), it is Achæus alone who, after an unvoluntary murder had to flee Attica and move to Lacedæmon where he gave local residents the name Achæans. Meanwhile, Ion waged war against the Thracians of Eumolpus and won such a repute in it that the Athenians made him their king. Ion then organized Attica in four tribes, named after his four sons : Geleon, Hoples, Argades and Ægicores (Herodotus' Histories, V, 66, 2) and, at his death, Attica took the name Ionia after him. Later, the Athenians sent settlers to Ægialus and gave the name Ionia to this country until it was conquered by the Achæans in the time of the Heraclidæ (the descendants of Heracles returning in Peloponnese reclaim what they saw as the kingdom of their ancestor Heracles) and these Ionians had to flee in Asia Minor, settle the region that was known as Ionia in classical times.

The last legendary king of Athens was Codrus. His father Melanthus, a descendant of Neleus, king of Pylos in Messenia (the father of Nestor), settled in Attica after being ousted from Pylos by the Heraclidæ. The king of Athens at the time, a descendant of Theseus named Thymoetes, offered him his throne in reward for having volunteered to fight in single combat Xanthus, the king of Thebes to end a war between the two cities about the border city of Oenoe, and having defeated him. When Melanthus died, Codrus succeeded him on the throne of Athens. During his reign, the Peloponnesians waged war against Athens and were promised victory by the oracle of Delphi on condition that they not kill the king. Informed of the oracle, Codrus decided to sacrifice his life for his country and, under a disguise, provoked an ennemy patrol in the countryside, along the banks of the Ilisus, and got killed. Upon learning who he was, the Peloponnesians abandonned their war and returned home (Plato, who was said to descend from Codrus by his father, refers to this story through the mouth of Diotima at Symposium, 208d).
Codrus' son exchanged kingship against archonship for life, sharing power in a group of Nine Archons. Over time, the tenure of the King-Archon was reduced to ten years and eventually to one year (starting in 682 B. C.), but there was still a King-Archon in the time of Socrates, with mostly religious duties, including prosecution for impiety (see Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians, 57 for the role of the King-Archon in Socrates' time ; because Socrates was prosecuted for impiety, his trial took place before the King-Archon (see Plato's Euthyphro, 2a)).
One underlying theme that can be read behind these legends is the continued struggle in the history of Athens between an agrarian tradition of citizens born from, and for, the earth, represented by Athena, goddess of the mother city, of the olive-tree and the crafts, dispenser of wisdom, and a maritime aspiration, looking toward the sea and leading to imperialism, represented by Poseidon. It starts with the story of Cecrops, arbitrating between both in favor of Athena, continues with Erichthonius raised by Athena, then with Erechtheus killing Poseidon's sons only to get killed at Poseidon's request, until Theseus, a son of Poseidon or, what amounts to the same, of Ægeus who gave his name to the sea surrounding Attica, takes over, him who sailed to Crete and removed the landlords from the fields to gather them in one single city. This theme is made explicit in Critias' story of the fight between Athens, the land of Athena (Critias, 109b-d), and Atlantis, the kingdom of Poseidon (Critias, 113b-c), in which a wise Athens was supposed to put an end to the imperialistic pretense of Atlantis, the other side of itself, in a fight led by those mythical kings prior to Theseus (Critias, 110a-b).

History of Athens' institutions

To move toward a more "historical" Athens and a description of its institutions at the time of Socrates and Plato, we may use as a thread the summary of the successive constitutions that led the city from kingship to democracy as given by Aristotle in his Constitution of the Athenians, 46. He lists 11 reforms down to and including the restauration of democracy in 403 after the short episode of the regime of the Thirty Tyrants at the end of the Peloponnesian War :

Institutions of Athens in classical times

The second part of Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians, from chapter 42 till the end (of which we only possess fragments after chapter 63) is a detailed description of the institutions of Athens after this restauration of democracy, as they were still in force in Aristotle's time. The main features of these institutions were as follows :

The charge of Heliasts was the first paid public office, with the introduction of the misthos by Pericles around 450. The salary was initially set to two obols a day, then raised to three obols by Cleon in 425. The consequences of these changes on Athenian democracy were enormous, opening public offices to all classes of citizens, even giving the poorest a new source of income (Constitution of the Athenians, 27.2-5 ; Aristophanes makes fun of these consequences in his comedy called the Wasps). Over time, more and more public offices became paid, including attendance to the Assembly and the Council. Aristotle gives a list of these salaries in his time at Constitution of the Athenians, 62.2.

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First published June 14, 1998 - Last updated December 31, 1998
© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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