Archaic Athens - Ancient Greece
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Archaic Athens

Athenian acropolis
The Acropolis of Athens

January 2017 - Athens was a city-state in the center of Greece. People moved there because it has a good seaport nearby (at Piraeus) and a steep hill that makes Athens easy to defend. Athens was already an important city in the Late Bronze Age, and appears in Homer's Iliad as the kingdom of Theseus.

There was almost certainly a Mycenaean palace on the Acropolis, and lots of Mycenaean pottery has been found in Athens. During the Dark Ages, Athens declined like other Mediterranean towns, and the old palace was abandoned, but the Athenians were proud to say that unlike Sparta or Corinth, Athens had never been sacked by invaders.

In the early Archaic period, around 900 BC, Athens began to grow again. They didn't choose a new king. Instead they chose an oligarchic government. A group of rich men (but not women) got together to make the laws and decide everything.

seaport with ships
Piraeus, the port of Athens

During the Archaic period, the system of government seems to have been pretty hard on ordinary people, and to have favored rich men and women. In 621 BC Draco was serving in the government of Athens as an archon. Draco was a rich man, part of the oligarchy. He ordered his slaves to write down the laws, so that everybody would know what the laws were and the rich men in the oligarchy wouldn't be able to just make up laws to suit themselves. These laws said that poor people could be killed for even small crimes like stealing a cabbage. The laws also had different punishments for poor people and for rich people. If a poor woman owed money to a rich man, she would be sold into slavery to pay the debt. But if a rich man owed money to a poor woman, he only had to pay a fine.

But most people in Athens weren't happy when they saw the laws written down - they were angry! They thought these laws weren't fair. They complained especially about debt bondage - being sold into slavery because you owed somebody money. So in 594 BC the Athenian oligarchy chose another rich man, Solon, to fix the government. They told him, "Do something so everyone won't be so mad at us, but let us keep all the power." (We know about Draco and Solon mainly from the Greek historian Herodotus).

Solon changed the law so that poor people could not be sold into slavery just because they owed people money. He cancelled debts and redistributed land so people got a fresh start. He changed the law so that people couldn't be killed except for any crime except murder.

Under Solon's rules, the rich men in the oligarchy kept most of their land and most of their power. But he did start an Assembly, so that any citizen could come and vote on important questions. And Solon decided that judges would be chosen through a lottery, so that even poor men might be judges. He did not allow women to be in the Assembly or to be judges. He did make it illegal for parents to abuse their children. For a while, this worked. The ordinary people weren't so angry, and the rich men got to stay in power.

Learn by doing: find Athens, Sparta, Corinth and Thebes on a map
More about Athens under the Tyrants

Bibliography and further reading about ancient Athens:

More about Athens under the Tyrants
Ancient Greece
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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