Athens’ history stretches back to the Neolithic period, approximately 6500-3000 BC. It slowly emerged as an innovator in sculpture, ceramics, architecture and political institutions, and became an evolving city-state between 800-500 BC. Athens thrived during the Classical Period, also known as the ‘Golden Age of Greece’, which lasted from approximately 500 to 300 BC. It was during this period in history that art, literature, philosophy, and politics laid the foundations of western civilization and what we know today as democracy.
Although it continued to be the center of art and philosophy, Athens of the ‘Golden Age’ began to tarnish following the long Peloponnesian War with Sparta (431-404 BC). It faded further after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, and surely it’s not a surprise that the Romans took over Athens along with all of Greece by 146 BC. As the Romans themselves declined in power, Athens was subjected to raids of the so-called Barbarian tribes from northern Europe. After Rome lost control of Greece to the Eastern Empire based in Constantinople in 395 AD – also known as the Byzantine Empire – Athens became not much more than a backwater town. Little survived in Athens for the next 800 years except several fine old Byzantine churches, many recognizable today because they sit below current street levels.
Then in the 13th century, after Constantinople itself fell to alleged crusaders, Athens like much of Greece found itself ruled by a succession of Western Europeans. This phase ended when the Ottoman Turks took over the Byzantine Empire in 1453, but again, Athens did not play an especially important role in the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the Turks had so little regard for the glories of ancient Greece that they used the Parthenon as a storehouse for ammunition. When Venetians were trying to drive the Turks out of Athens and bombarded the Acropolis, they hit the arsenal and left the Parthenon in the ruined state that we see today.
By the time the Greeks had launched their revolution against the Turks in 1821, Athens had been under Turkish rule for over 350 years and had truly become a backwater town. In fact, after the Greeks won their independence in 1829, they chose Nafplion as their capital. Only in 1834 was the capital of modern Greece moved to Athens, and it was during the remaining decades of the 1800s that the city was once again visited and re-built. All the major boulevards and avenues, major squares like Syntagma (meaning constitution) and Omonia (meaning concord), great public buildings such as the old Royal Palace (today’s Parliament building), and the many turn-of-the-century beaux arts mansions, are the heritage of the 19th century. Athens continued to expand its structures and population during the first decades of the 20th century, then in 1923 the population of Athens drastically increased with the so-called ‘population exchange’ with Turkey, when over two million people were uprooted and re-patriated to their country of origin. Along with the rest of Greece, Athens was then occupied by the Germans during World War II (1941-44), and no sooner had that ended, the city became the battleground for a conflict that developed into a civil war that racked Greece until 1949.
Following the civil war and the victory of the conservatives – who at the time were monarchists – Athens began to head down a new road of prosperity; this was in part propelled by the growing influx of international tourists. Although temporarily sidetracked in 1967 by the rule of a dictatorship under a group of military officers, with the return of a democratic government in 1974, Athens finally entered a phase of reconstruction and expansion. Today Athens is a busy city that is home to over a quarter of Greece’s total population, spread across several lively suburbs and municipalities.