The Rise of Athens

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Excerpt from Ancient History by Hutton Webster – 1913

The Rise of Athens (to 500 B.C.)

The World according to Hecataeus (500 BC)From the story of the growth of Sparta, we now turn to recount the development of her neighbor and rival, the city of Athens.   Athens, it has been said, is for us the history of Greece.  In art, in literature, in social and intellectual life, Athens was to represent the highest and best in Greek culture.  We shall deal, in later chapters, with these contributions of the Athenian genius to civilization.  For the present we must confine ourselves to the Athenian achievement in creating the first really democratic government in antiquity.

The district of Attica, though smaller than our smallest American commonwealth, was early filled with a number of independent city-states.  It was a great step in advance when, long, before the dawn of Greek history, these several communities were united with Athens.  The inhabitants of the Attic towns and villages gave up their separate governments and became members of the one city-state of Athens.  Henceforth a man was an Athenian citizen, no matter in what part of Attica he lived. 

At an earlier period, perhaps, than elsewhere in Greece, monarchy at Athens began to give way before the rising power of the nobles.  Kingly rule, which Oriental peoples never succeeded in abolishing, disappeared from Athens before its recorded history begins.

The rule of the nobility bore harshly on the common people.  Popular discontent was especially The World according to Homer (900 BC)excited at the administration of justice.  There were at first no written laws, but only the long-established customs of the community.  Since all the judges were nobles, they were tempted to decide legal cases in favor of their own class.  The people, at

We do not know anything about Lycurgus, but we do know that some existing primitive tribes, for instance, the Masai of East Africa, have customs almost the same as those of ancient Sparta.  Hence we may say that the rude, even barbarous, Spartans only carried over into the historic age the habits of life which they had formed in prehistoric times.  1 See page 138.

length, began to clamor for a written code. Every one then could know just what the laws were.

After much agitation, an Athenian named Draco was employed to write out a code for the state.  The laws, as published, were very severe.  The penalty for most offenses, even the smallest theft, was death.  The Athenians used to declare that the Draconian code had been written “not in ink, but in blood.”   However, its publication was a popular triumph, and the first step toward the establishment of Athenian democracy.


Further Reading and External Links

iTunes U – FREE Video – Ancient Greek History

More on Draco and Solon Laws

The Athenian Court System