Athens: A Portrait of the City in Its Golden Age

Athens: A Portrait of the City in Its Golden Age

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Athens: A Portrait of the City in Its Golden Age by Christian Meier

A lively and accessible history of Athens's rise to greatness, from one of the foremost classical historians.

The definitive account of Athens in the age of Pericles, Christian Meier's gripping study begins with the Greek triumph over Persia at the Battle of Salamis, one of the most significant military victories in history. Meier shows how that victory decisively established Athens's military dominance in the Mediterranean and made possible its rise to preeminence in almost every field of human eavor--commerce, science, philosophy, art, architecture, and literature. Within seventy-five years, Athens had become the most original and innovative civilization the ancient world ever produced.

With elegant narrative style, Meier traces the birth of democracy and the flourishing of Greek culture in the fifth century B.C., as well as Athens' slow decline and defeat in the Peloponnesian War. The great figures--from politicians and generals like Themistocles and Alcibiades to the philosophers Socrates and Plato--emerge as flesh-and-blood human beings, firmly rooted in their times and places. This is history in the tradition of Simon Schama and Barbara Tuchman--learned, accessible, and beautifully written.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781627797856
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 08/04/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 1,013,309
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Christian Meier is a professor of ancient history at the University of Munich. He is the author of three books, including Caesar: A Biography.

Read an Excerpt


A Portrait of the City in Its Golden Age

By Christian Meier, Robert Kimber, Rita Kimber

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1993 Wolf Jobst Siedler Verlag GmbH, Berlin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-785-6


The Needle's Eye at Salamis: A Region Ventures into World Politics

At such times halfhearted souls take the opposite view from that of real generals. They think that by reducing their forces they can repair the damage; they resort to fragmentation, to compromising their real needs, whereas Themistocles convinced the Athenians, when Athens was threatened with ruin, to abandon their city altogether and take to the sea in order to found a new Athens there, on a different element.


Wherever in [Machiavelli's] The Prince we detect an honest feeling it is one of hatred and contempt for the dilettante, the bungler in political life who does things by halves, acting out half cruelties and half virtues.


In the late summer of 480 B.C., most likely toward the end of September, a dramatic, heartrending scene played out on the coast of Attica. Athens' entire population, including men, women, children, and slaves, was fleeing from the approaching Persian army. Only a few people remained, mostly the old, the infirm, and a few priests. The Athenians left behind the graves of their ancestors, their shrines, homes, fields, and plantations, entrusting them to the protection of their goddess, Athena. Horses, donkeys, and dogs may have accompanied the convoy as far as the harbor, but there they, too, presumably had to be left behind. There was hardly enough room on the ships for the 100,000 or more human beings, much less their animals. The Athenians did take along the statues of some gods, at least the wooden figure of Athena, for safekeeping and probably also to invoke the goddess's assistance.

Their warships were built in such a way that there was little room for anyone beside the crew; they were not passenger vessels. At most, they could have carried a few thousand passengers across the Saronic Gulf to the Athenian-controlled island of Salamis. So the people resorted to merchant ships, fishing boats, and any other watercraft they could find. Many of the vessels had probably traveled this route before, for the only destinations besides Salamis were the nearby island of Aegina and the town of Troezen on the Peloponnesian peninsula.

This was not the first time in Greek history that an entire population had left its homeland. The citizens of the Ionian cities of Phocaea and Teos on the coast of Asia Minor had done so two generations earlier, also in flight from the Persians. But their numbers had been much smaller than those evacuating Athens, which by 480 B.C. had by far the largest population of any Greek city. Those earlier evacuees had also been much more cosmopolitan; the Phocaeans had founded numerous colonies and had trade connections as far away as the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar. The Athenians, on the other hand, had been relatively stationary up to this point, and their outlook was rather narrow. The final point of difference was that the Phocaeans and the Teans had left their homes to found new cities. Greeks had done so before, but in the past it had always been only a fraction of the citizenry that left, and only when the homeland was getting too crowded.

Perhaps the Athenians, too, would have done better to look for new places to settle in the western Mediterranean, for the primary motive behind the Persian expedition was revenge against the Greek states that had so long resisted and challenged Persian imperial control. But the Athenians had decided on a different course of action. They abandoned Attica, but they did it in order to continue their war against the Persians with the help of their Greek allies. They wanted these allies to join them in a risky strategy, calculated with brilliant rationality to confound all expectations. It was, in fact, the only strategy that held out any hope for victory in this desperate situation.

The Athenians were ready to stake everything on a single card. Their flight was a daring act. As it turned out, it was not just the battle of a David against a Goliath but the greatest military campaign of the fifth century B.C., the century of Athens — and one of the boldest, most unlikely, and most momentous campaigns in world history.

The inhabitants of some of Athens' allied cities north of the Peloponnese also took flight. Some hid or barricaded themselves in the mountains; some tried to flee to the Peloponnese. But the difference was not just that between a few thousand and a hundred thousand people were leaving their homes; it was a qualitative difference between retreating from the enemy — even if done to enable the soldiers to go on fighting — and evacuating a city as part of a great, ambitiously conceived scheme, a daring, deliberate trap. In such a situation, there is a marked distinction between a city that thinks only of its own fate and one that considers that of Greece as a whole.

With this act, the Athenians embarked on a path that quickly and inevitably led them away from old traditions and involved them ever more deeply in the affairs that were bound to arise from the transformed relationship between East and West. Naturally, the Athenians always had immediate goals in mind, during those September days in 480 and in the decades that followed. What makes this period remarkable is the ingenuity with which they responded to difficult challenges.

The boats full of refugees headed for the islands and for Troezen were not the only ones to take to the sea in late September. The warships of the newly created Attic navy also set out from Piraeus in order to join Athens' allies in the narrow sound north of Salamis. The ships were triremes, ingeniously designed and highly maneuverable warships of a type that had been in use by the Greeks for some time and whose defining features were their three staggered banks of oarsmen.

While some of the departing Athenians must have mourned the loss of their homeland or been afraid of the uncertain fate that awaited them, others must have conveyed at least the impression of resolution, perhaps even of desperate courage, as the commands rang out loudly and the oars struck the water in coordinated rhythm.

Alongside one of the triremes swam a dog. It belonged to Xanthippus, who was the father of Pericles and a descendent of the noble family of the Alcmaeonids. Xanthippus had been banished, but earlier that year Athens had allowed him and all other political exiles to return home. His dog swam as far as Salamis, where it collapsed, dead of exhaustion.

The vast Persian forces, traveling toward Greece by land and by sea, would soon arrive. Xerxes, the great king (shahinshah) of Persia, had spent years preparing for this expedition, which was to bring all of Greece under his control. But he was especially intent on punishing the Athenians. Twenty years earlier, in 500 B.C., they had assisted a rebellion of the Greeks who lived along the coast of Asia Minor and on nearby islands, and who had been Persian subjects for over a generation. A similar punitive campaign against the Athenians, undertaken ten years earlier, in 490, had failed when the Athenians defeated the Persians at Marathon. Now Xerxes determined to put the Greeks in their place and to demonstrate the full superiority of his empire. He took no chances; the campaign was expected to be a total success.

Since Greece was small as well as poor, the Persian king had begun years before to build and fill storehouses north of the Aegean Sea to ensure supplies for his army. To eliminate all risk to his navy, he had spent three years cutting a canal across the isthmus connecting the peninsula of Athos with the mainland. The canal was about 2,200 meters long and 30 meters wide, enough room for two warships to be rowed through abreast. Herodotus, our main source for this period, notes that this ambitious project was superfluous because the ships could have been hauled across the isthmus with much less effort. But that would not have been in the king's style. He wanted to leave a lasting mark on the landscape and sought to make a grand display of his empire's power.

For the same reason, Xerxes had caused two bridges of boats to be constructed across the Hellespont, between Abydos and Sestos. The bridges, one of 360 ships, the other of 340, were tied together by a network of ropes made from white flax and papyrus stems. They are said to have made a fine sight. Logs were tied across the decks of the ships and planks placed over the logs. Railings were added to keep the horses from taking fright. To the Greeks, the bridges seemed an extreme act of hubris; an attempt to subdue even the sea was bound to stir the wrath of the gods.

In the fall of 481, the Persian land army assembled near Sardis, in Lydia, a three-day march from the port city of Ephesus. The Persians must have formed a colorful camp, spread out far over the landscape. Conscripts arrived from all parts of the Persian empire, which stretched from the Aegean Sea to the Indus and from Egypt to the Caspian Sea. There probably were over 100,000 men. Meanwhile, on the coast, a fleet of over 1,200 Greek and Phoenician ships was being assembled. When scouts sent out by the Greeks were intercepted, instead of punishing them, Xerxes turned them to his own purpose. Magnanimously, he let them go, perhaps with a touch of scorn, so that they would report back home how overpowering the forces making ready for war were.

In any case, it was hard for the great king to comprehend how the few Greeks on the other side of the Aegean could have the nerve to defy him — they must have taken leave of their senses. Besides, only a minority of the Greek cities put up resistance. Many others had offered earth and water, symbols of their submission, to the envoys he had sent. And some of the city-states that wavered probably did so for appearance's sake. Only Sparta and Athens, as well as Sparta's allies on the Peloponnese and a few cities in the north and on the islands, were determined to take up arms — a total of maybe thirty city-states, most of them small and insignificant. They would be able to raise a force of some thirty thousand men at most, and had far fewer ships than the Persians.

The Persian army left Asia Minor in the spring of 480 and made its way overland, across the Dardanelles and Macedonia toward Greece. The Greeks quickly abandoned their original plan of occupying a mountain pass in northern Thessaly. Instead, a small contingent of Spartans was dispatched to the narrow pass of Thermopylae, and the main body of the Greek navy was stationed nearby, off Artemisium on the northwestern coast of Euboea. The Persian land army then circled in behind the Spartans under the command of Leonidas, and after a fierce battle defeated the last Greek troops. In contrast, an engagement of the two fleets ended without victory for either side — no mean achievement for the Greeks, considering that the Persian ships outnumbered theirs by at least two to one.

After the Greeks' defeat on land, their ships hurriedly sailed south. Athens' allies headed directly for the sound between Salamis and the mainland, while the Attic ships set course for Piraeus to ready the populace to leave on a moment's notice.

Did the Athenians really think that the Persian army and navy could be stopped before it reached Attica? The Athenian leadership is said to have expected the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies to set out for Boeotia to wage battle there. But the Spartan forces were otherwise engaged, working feverishly to build a defensive wall across the isthmus of Corinth. Sparta had fought at Thermopylae only to gain time and perhaps to put on an illusory show of strength for the benefit of the wavering communities north of the Peloponnese. In reality, however, the Spartans had long since given up on Attica. Of course, later on it may have seemed advantageous to the Athenians to pretend to have been surprised at Sparta's lack of support.

In all probability the Athenians, too, realized, even before the battle of Thermopylae, that they would have to flee. They may have reached this decision as early as June and they likely began preparations then. Arrangements had to be made with Troezen and Aegina for the arrival of so many refugees; food and water had to be brought along, and additional means of transport found. Cautious Athenians probably moved their families, cattle, and some valuables out of the country in good time.

Responsibilities were divided up, possible courses of action discussed, and old boats made seaworthy — evacuating so many people by water was no small matter. But the majority of the citizenry seems to have put off action, not wanting to suffer the misery of exile before it was necessary.

In the course of their long debates over strategy, the Athenians decided to consult the oracle of Delphi. The oracle advised the city to defend itself from behind a "wooden wall." Some citizens, especially the older ones, interpreted this to mean the Acropolis, which was surrounded by thornbushes. Others interpreted the "wooden wall" to mean the navy, and this opinion finally prevailed. The Athenians decided to evacuate their city and to fight the Persians at sea.

Themistocles, son of Neocles, is said to have put forward this motion. He was well into his forties at the time, an extraordinary man endowed with a sharp, analytical mind and a fierce independence. He possessed an astonishing clarity of vision and a passion for planning, but he did not share his thinking readily. Even so, some years earlier, in 485, he had persuaded the Athenians to build a larger fleet than had ever existed in mainland Greece. He must have convinced his fellow Athenians that he had a strategy that would work against the Persians. Not everybody was impressed by his plans; in fact, there are signs he was reviled by many Athenians. The majority, however, put their trust in him, even if in the end they did so like drowning men clutching at straws. Initially all they needed to do was vote on a motion to approve the appropriation of public funds for the navy.

Then, in 480, reality caught up with them. Heralds enjoined all to save themselves and their dear ones as best they could. The fleet sailed into port, and the crews hurried to their families. Homes and possessions were to be relinquished. Many Athenians must have been reluctant. No matter how promising Themistocles' plan had seemed, everything looked different once they had to act on it and actually abandon their property and their homes. It is normal to assume when a dangerous course has been chosen that things will not turn out quite as badly as feared. But did the Athenians hold even the slightest hope of defeating the vast Persian forces? Would it not have been better to stay home or to set out for a new place to settle permanently? Why gamble on a battle? Why put Athens' last hope, the ships it had built with such great effort, in jeopardy in a venture whose outcome appeared uncertain at best?

It is important to bear in mind how novel and strange the idea of a sea battle must have been to the Athenians. Battles were traditionally fought on land, honorably, face-to-face on solid ground, the way the Greeks had met the Persians at Marathon in 490 and, with the help of the gods, emerged victorious. Would this new, totally untested strategy succeed? Had they been right to go along with Themistocles, the peculiar man who had set everything on its head, who had planned and seen to the buildup of the fleet, and on whose advice all available men had been pressed into service on the ships for weeks and even months at a time in order to learn how to row and maneuver them? The time had come when the Athenians were to face battle on this unfamiliar element, the sea.

It is not hard to imagine what sort of speculation this situation would raise. People must have talked among themselves in the streets and as they shopped in the marketplace. Themistocles and his strategy could not have been very popular, no matter what instructions the ships' crews had been given when they landed at Piraeus.

A small scene that has come down to us by chance sheds some light on those days. A tall young nobleman, "well-built and with a head of beautiful locks," caused a stir as he and his companions strode confidently through Keramikos, the potters' quarter, and across the market toward the Acropolis. At the temple of Athena he consecrated his horse's bridle to the goddess, picked up a shield captured in an earlier campaign, offered a prayer, and then departed for the harbor at Piraeus.


Excerpted from Athens by Christian Meier, Robert Kimber, Rita Kimber. Copyright © 1993 Wolf Jobst Siedler Verlag GmbH, Berlin. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. The Needle's Eye at Salamis: A Region Ventures into World Politics,
2. The Late Rise of Athens,
3. The Greek Way,
4. The New Founding of the Polis Under Cleisthenes,
5. The Persian Threat,
6. From Devastation to Democracy: 479-461,
7. "Adventurous Beyond Their Power": Athens at Midcentury,
8. Periclean Athens,
9. The Eve of the Peloponnesian War to the Peace of Nicias,
10. The Long Road to Collapse,
Bibliographical Notes,
Chronology of Events,
Also by Christian Meier,
About the Author,

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