The Mother of Democracy

Attica, the region of east-central Greece around Athens, is home to one of the oldest civilizations, with a recorded history of over 3500 years. Its history, culture, and innovations are among the most influential and enduring of the ancient Greek regions, continuing to shape modern governance, science, and philosophy.

Athens, the preeminent city of Attica, was home to many architectural marvels that would influence design for a millennia. Legend has it that Athens was founded in the 4th millennium BCE on the rock of the Acropolis, one of the city's most famous landmarks. By the 5th century BCE, Athens had become a major center of arts and philosophy in the ancient world, as well as a participatory political system that led to it being dubbed the “birthplace of democracy”.


Athens was teeming with cultural activities, from lavish theaters and philosophical debates to elaborate pagan sacrifices. The agora, literally “open space”, is what Athenians called their central plaza and marketplace. Besides commerce, they used this space for civic activities, such as political debates, the announcement of scientific discoveries, theatrical performances, and more, which gave the agora a core role in Athenian civic life, providing citizens with a physical public sphere.

Plato´s Symposium, from
Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, 1869
Anselm Feuerbach
Oil on canvas

The Greek symposium was a male aristocratic activity, a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere. Bedecked in garlands, participants reclined—one or two to a couch—in a room designed to hold seven to fifteen couches with cushions and low tables (21.88.74).

What distinguished Athens from other Greek cities was its openness to new ideas. This openness, bolstered by ancient Athens’ flourishing trade connections throughout the Mediterranean and Near East, gave the city a cutting-edge in both technology and natural philosophy over other Greek cities. Ancient Athenians were thoughtful and curious, a trait fostered by a broader city culture of skepticism and of questioning the inner workings of both the universe and human beings. They were perhaps the wisest of the Greeks, providing early knowledge and theories of atoms, planets, physics, and mathematics.

School of Athens, Raphael, from Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici,
Vatican, 1509-1511

The School of Athens is the title of fresco commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 for the Stanza della Segnatura in the vatican, Rome. It represents the ancient knowledge of the most famous philosophers.


Athens became a leading trade hub in the ancient world, in part because of its favorable geography that placed it near the sea with an excellent natural harbor as well as connecting it to other inhabited regions. However, it also became a trade hub out of necessity, as the surrounding mountainous land could not produce enough food to support the ancient metropolis.

A Hoplite stands on guard at the base of the Athenian Acropolis.

Nathan Silver

In exchange for Athens’ exports, such as precious metals, marble, and fine craftsmanship, Athens was able to provide food, textiles, and other foreign goods to its citizens through trade. Athenian trade would become so prosperous that the city became one of the region’s dominant naval powers. It utilized this force and its prosperity to found colonies throughout the Mediterranean.


Athens is best known for democracy. However, in order to set up a democratic system, Athens had to first make other advances . The first of these was the introduction of a written legal code, later known as the Draconian Constitution. Prior to this, the code was only told orally. This new written code was enforced by a court of law, and it proved more difficult for the Athenian elite to manipulate the law to their benefit at the expense of the public. Importantly, this new written code was stored at a central location accessible to anyone. This development in the rule of law was the first step toward the establishment of Athenian democracy.

The Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians, (Papyrus 131), British Library, 78-79

The laws he laid down were the first written constitution of Athens. So that no one would be unaware of them, they were posted on wooden tablets), where they were preserved for almost two centuries, on stelesof the shape of three-sided pyramids. The tablets were called axones,perhaps because they could be pivoted along the pyramid’s axis, to read any side.

The next step came in 508 BCE, when the politician Cleisthenes replaced the four traditional "tribes" with ten new ones. These tribes functioned as unique electorates who then elected representatives. Each tribe elected 50 members to the Boule, a governing council. The Boule also served as an oversight committee for other public officers, and was broken up into smaller committees to provide governance and leadership on various aspects of the Athenian state, such as naval or religious affairs.

Model of the Old Bouleuterion, ca. 500 B.C. Model by Petros Demetriades and Kostas Papoulias, Athens, Agora Museum.

Bouleuterion at Priene, 28 April 2009
Photo by Zigomar

Cleisthenes, Ohio Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio, 2004

The father of Greek democracy, reformed traditional Athenian government controlled by ruling tribes into the first government “of the people” (the Demos) democracy.

While kings, tribes, and clans ruled the ancient world, Athens was ruled by the Athenian people. However, democracy in Athens wasn't perfect; women were excluded and slavery was a major cultural institution, yet Athenian democracy remained an innovation in governance that no other city or country had reached before, and has inspired many nations since.

The Acropolis at Athens, Neue Pinakothek, Leo von Klenze, 1846
Oil on canvas

Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens

governance changes

Athens lost its independence to the Macedonians in 338 BCE, and with it its democratic structure. Despite the loss, it retained its prosperity and position as an important cultural center for a time. Rome conquered the region in 146 BCE, but it wasn't until 86 BCE, when the Romans destroyed many of Athens' monuments, that Athenian culture began to regress.

The Last Day of Corinth, Musée d’Orsay, Tony Robert-Fleury, 1870s
Oil on canvas

Athens slowly lost its importance in comparison to other ancient cities like Alexandria, Rome, Byzantium, and later to the likes of Venice, Genoa, and Cordoba. From 400 CE to 1450 CE, it was treated as a cultural backwater, and Eastern Romans moved most of Athens’ remaining artworks to Constantinople. It wasn’t long before ancient pagan temples yielded to medieval churches.

Greece fell under Ottoman control in 1458 CE, which lasted until the 19th century. After the Greek War of Independence, Athens re-emerged as the capital of an independent Greek state which remains today.


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Day, John (1942): An Economic History of Athens Under Roman Domination: Columbia University Press, checked on 9/1/2020

Ehrlich et. Vanderpool (2020): Athens. Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available online at https://www.britannica.com/place/Athens, checked on 9/20/2020.

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Powell, Anton (2001): Athens and Sparta. Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC. 2nd edition: Routledge, checked on 9/1/2020.

Shear Jr., T. Leslie (1981): Athens: From City-State to Provincial Town. In Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 50 (4), pp. 356–377. Available online at https://doi.org/10.2307/147878, checked on 9/1/2020.