This is a short chapter which discusses the reasons Athens became a more dominant force on the world stage. In the following chapters, we will see discussion shift almost entirely to the intellectual circle of Athenian culture.
Athens took over as the ‘producer of great men’ after defeating the Persians in conflict. They toppled Darius in 490 BCE, and then his son, Xerxes, in 480 BCE. Sparta was a more powerful country than Athens, but they took no part in this conflict, over which they were openly apathetic. Sparta’s interest was solely Sparta.
The reason Athens rose to power so quickly was that it was populated by so many great thinkers. The islands in the area were struggling against the might of the Persian empire. Athens suggested they all group together as one force. An agreement was made that each country donate either soldiers, ships, or money. Each country gave their ships and money to Athens, who used their ingenuity and increased power to topple the Persians. The great number of boats they had meant that they soon became the rulers of the seas.
460 – 430 BCE is thought to be the golden era for Athens. This was the rule of Pericles, who took over when Ephialtes, the previous ruler, was murdered in 461 BCE. Pericles was a great ruler who injected much money into Athens. They developed great thinkers, and their economy flourished. In the 480 BCE invasion of Xerxes, many of the temples and public buildings were burned or destroyed. Pericles rebuilt all of these, along with many new monuments, colossal statues, and the Parthenon.
The four great Greek playwrights lived, successively, under Athenian rule. Aeschylus was the earliest, he fought in the war against Xerxes, and wrote great poetry and plays about it. He was followed by Sophocles, Euripides, and finally Aristophanes.
Socrates lived during the same time as Pericles. Plato’s Dialogues almost entirely set Socrates in the time and context of the Athenian golden era. During this time, intellectuals dedicated all of their time to education and rumination. They all knew Homer by heart, much epic poetry, science, literature, and the canon of philosophy. They really were a testament to what the intellect could reasonably achieve.
Towards the end of the age of Pericles, there was political unrest. He was democratic in rule, but people wanted more and more democracy, which came at the peril of Athens. At the same time, the economic prosperity they created was the envy of Sparta, with whom they eventually went to war. This became known as the Peloponnesian war, and lasted from 431 – 404 BCE. Pericles died at the start of the war.
The Peloponnesian war was long and bloody, and Athens never again returned to their glory days. The later of the great playwrights lived through parts of it. The reputation Athens had, however, lived on. Plato’s academy thrived until 529 AD when it was destroyed by Justinian Christianity.
Tomorrow we will look at Anaxagoras.
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