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by Archaeology Newsroom

A brief survey of the 5000 years of Athens as a city

150 years ago the overcrowded modern Greek capital, occupied by three million inhabitants was a modest town of 4.000 people. The rapid and irregular growth of population is primarily responsible for the problems Athens faces today, since the town-plan and mechanisms for organization and function proved inadequate to serve the needs created by such growth. In the 15th century BC, the mythic King Cecrops laid the foundations for the city of Athens – and consequently of Attic civilization – on the Acropolis hill where later, in the Mycenaean period, Thesaeus, another mythic king, subordinated all the settlements of Attica under a central power. As Athens developed, the main public functions were concentrated in the Agora, which became the nucleus of the city, while religious life was located on the Acropolis. Certain laws affecting the future of Athens in a positive way were made by Solon around 600 BC.The annexation of the opponent city of Eleusis played an important part , while an impressive work of architecture and town-planning, the New Agora, started to materialize. The tyranny of Peisistratus, in 560 BC, brought a boom commerce and shipping which lasted until 508-507, when Cleisthenes restored democracy. In the years of Pericles (460-429 BC) democracy continued to evolve in a perfect tripartite scheme; elected citizens as legislative assembly – the Parliament, the judicial power – the Hiliaia court. The increased power of Athens, that emerged triumphant from the Persian Wars and expanded its boundaries through colonization, seriously bothered rival towns, Sparta and Corinth. Thus, the Peloponnesian War (431-404) came as a natural result of Athenian expansion and ended with the destruction of Athenian supremacy and the complete victory of Sparta. Throughout the 4th century, Athens tried in vain to regain its diminished power which, of course, was unable to resist Philip of Macedonia. In 228 BC Athens was on good terms with the Romans, but in spite of this compromise, the celebrated city did not avoid destruction by Sulla in the 1st century BC. Although destroyed by the Romans, Athens continued to be an intellectual and educational Centre with famous schools attended by young people from all over the empire. The high esteem in which Roman emperors held classical civilization benefited Athens finally in the 2nd century A.D. The emperor Hadrian improved the living standards of the city with a series of public works, temples etc. The fall of the Roman empire had a bad effect on Athens that was once more destroyed by the Eruls in 267 AD. However, the final blow to the city of humanism was given by Christianity. In 529 BC. the Byzantine emperor Justinian banned every activity of the philosophical schools and either closed down or altered to Christian all the pagan temples. From 1205 until the Turkish occupation the city was successively ruled by various foreign invaders. The Turks occupied Athens peacefully and through the privileges assigned to the city, they contributed to its development. In 1687 the Venetians under Morozini destroyed Athens once more and the city was temporarily abandoned by its inhabitants. Better days came in the 18th century, when commerce and handicrafts came to Greek hands. In 1833, two years after its liberation, Athens was proclaimed capital of Greece and hence a new phase for its development commenced. The first town-plan of Athens was ready in 1833 but never fully materialized. However, the basic axes of the present town-plan were drawn up and the main squares were formed. The period between 1909 and 1950 were years of war and internal political upheaval and of change that in every way greatly affected the development of the city . Both Greek territory and the population became more than twice as large and new urban and commercial Centres were created.