Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Greek by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

How Athens Rose From Its Ashes

The torch of Xerxes and Mardonius left Athens a heap of ashes. But, like the new birth of the fabled phœnix, there rose out of these ashes a city that became the wonder of the world, and whose time-worn ruins are still worshipped by the pilgrims of art. We cannot proceed with our work without pausing awhile to contemplate this remarkable spectacle.

The old Athens bore to the new much the same relation that the chrysalis bears to the butterfly. It was little more than an ordinary country town, the capital of a district comparable in size to a modern county. Pisistratus and his sons had built some temples, and had completed a part of the Dionysiac theatre, but the city itself was simply a cluster of villages surrounded by a wall; while the citadel had for defence nothing stronger than a wooden rampart. The giving of this city to the torch was no serious loss; in reality it was a gain, since it cleared the ground for the far nobler city of later days.

It is not often that a whole nation removes from its home, and its possessions are completely swept away. But such had been the case with the Attic state. For a time all Attica was afloat, the people of city and country alike taking to their ships; while a locust flight of Persians passed over their lands, ravaging and destroying all before them, and leaving nothing but the bare soil. Such was what remained to the people of Attica on their return from Salamis and the adjacent isles.

Athens lay before them a heap of ashes and ruin, its walls flung down, its dwellings vanished, its gardens destroyed, its temples burned. The city itself, and the citadel and sacred structures of its Acropolis, were swept away, and the business of life on that ravaged soil had to be begun afresh.

Yet Attica as a state was greater than ever before. It was a victor on land and sea, the recognized savior of Greece; and the people of Athens returned to the ashes of their city not in woe and dismay, but in pride and exultation. They were victors over the greatest empire then on the face of the earth, the admired of the nations, the leading power in Greece, and their small loss weighed but lightly against their great glory.

The Athens that rose in place of the old city was a marvel of beauty and art, adorned with hall and temple, court and gymnasium, colonnade and theatre, while under the active labors of its sculptors it became so filled with marble inmates that they almost equaled in numbers its living inhabitants. Such sculptors as Phidias and such painters as Zeuxis adorned the city with the noblest products of their art. The great theatre of Dionysus was completed, and to it was added a new one, called the Odeon, for musical and poetical representations. On the Acropolis rose the Parthenon, the splendid temple to Minerva, or Athené, the patron goddess of the city, whose ruins are still the greatest marvel of architectural art. Other temples adorned the Acropolis, and the costly Propylæa, or portals, through which passed the solemn processions on festival days, were erected at the western side of the hill. The Acropolis was further adorned with three splendid statues of Minerva, all the work of Phidias, one of ivory in the Parthenon, forty-seven feet high, the others of bronze, one being of such colossal height that it could be seen from afar by mariners at sea.

The city itself was built upon a scale to correspond with this richness of architectural and artistic adornment, and such was its encouragement to the development of thought and art, that poets, artists, and philosophers flocked thither from all quarters, and for many years Athens stood before the world as the focal point of the human intellect.

Not the least remarkable feature in this great growth was the celerity with which it was achieved. The period between the Persian and the Peloponnesian war was only sixty years in duration. Yet in that brief space of time the great growth we have chronicled took place, and the architectural splendor of the city was consummated. The devastation of the unhappy Peloponnesian war put an end to this external growth, and left the Athens of old frozen into marble, a thing of beauty forever. But the intellectual growth went on, and for centuries afterwards Athens continued the centre of ancient thought.

And now the question in point is how all this came about, and what made Athens great and glorious among the cities of Greece. It all flowed naturally from her eminence in the Persian war. During that war there had been a league of the states of Greece, with Sparta as its accepted leader. After the war the need of being on the alert against Persia continued, and Greece became in great part divided into two leagues,—one composed of Sparta and most of the Peloponnesian states, the other of Athens, the islands of the archipelago, and many of the towns of Asia Minor and Thrace. This latter was called the League of Delos, since its deputies met and its treasure was kept in the temple of Apollo on that island.

This League of Delos developed in time to what has been called the Athenian Empire, and in this manner. Each city of the league pledged itself to make an annual contribution of a certain number of ships or a fixed sum of money, to be used in war against Persia or for the defence of members of the league. The amount assessed against each was fixed by Aristides, in whose justice every one trusted. In time the money payment was considered preferable to that of ships, and most of the states of the league contributed money, leaving Athens to provide the fleet.

In this way all the power fell into the hands of Athens, and the other cities of the league became virtually payers of tribute. This was shown later on when some of the island cities declined to pay. Athens sent a fleet, made conquest of the islands, and reduced them to the state of real tribute payers. Thus the league began to change into an Athenian dominion.


A Reunion at the House of Aspasia.

In 459 b.c. the treasure was removed from Delos to Athens. And in the end Chios, Samos, and Lesbos were the only free allies of Athens. All the other members of the league had been reduced to subjection. Several of the states of Greece also became subject to Athens, and the Athenian Empire grew into a wealthy, powerful, and extended state.

The treasure laid up at Athens in time became great. The payments amounted to about six hundred talents yearly, and at one time the treasury of Athens held the great sum of nine thousand seven hundred talents, equal to over eleven million dollars,—a sum which meant far more then than the equivalent amount would now.

It was this money that made Athens great. It proved to be more than was necessary for defensive war against Persia, or even for the aggressive war which was carried on in Asia Minor and Egypt. It also more than sufficed for sending out the colonies which Athens founded in Italy and elsewhere. The remainder of the find was used in Athens, part of it in building great structures and in producing splendid works of art, part for purposes of fortification. The Piræus, the port of Athens, was surrounded by strong walls, and a double wall—the famous "Long Walls"—was constructed from the city to the port, a distance of four miles. These walls, some two hundred yards apart, left a grand highway between, the channel of a steady traffic which flowed from the sea to the city, and which for years enabled Athens to defy the cutting off its resources by attack from without. Through this broad avenue not only provisions and merchandise, but men in multitudes, made their way into Athens, until that city became fuller of bustle, energy, political and scholarly activity, and incessant industry than any of the other cities of the ancient world.

In a city like this, free and equal as were its citizens, and democratic as were its institutions, some men were sure to rise to the surface and gain controlling influence. In the period in question there were two such men, Cimon and Pericles, men of such eminence that we cannot pass them by unconsidered. Cimon was the son of Miltiades, the hero of Marathon, and became the leader of aristocratic Athens, Pericles was the great-grandson of Cleisthenes, the democratic law-giver, and, though of the most aristocratic descent, became the leader of the popular party of his native city.

The struggle for precedence between these two men resembled that between Themistocles and Aristides. Cimon was a strong advocate of an alliance with Sparta, which Pericles opposed. He was brilliant as a soldier, gained important victories against Persia, but was finally ostracized as a result of his friendship for Sparta. He came back to Athens afterwards, but his influence could not be regained.

It is, however, of Pericles that we desire particularly to speak,—Pericles, who found Athens poor and made her magnificent, found her weak and made her glorious. This celebrated statesman had not the dashing qualities of his rival. He was by nature quiet but deep, serene but profound, the most eloquent orator of his day, and one of the most learned and able of men. He was dignified and composed in manner, possessed of a self-possession which no interruption could destroy, and gifted with a luminous intelligence that gave him a controlling influence over the thoughtful and critical Athenians of his day.

Pericles was too wise and shrewd to keep himself constantly before the people, or to haunt the assembly. He sedulously remained in the background until he had something of importance to say, but he then delivered his message with a skill, force, and animation that carried all his hearers irresistibly away. His logic, wit, and sarcasm, his clear voice, flashing eyes, and vigorous power of declamation, used only when the occasion was important, gave him in time almost absolute control in Athens, and had he sought to make himself a despot he might have done so with a word; but happily he was honest and patriotic enough to content himself with being the First Citizen of the State.

To make the people happy, and to keep Athens in a condition of serene content, seem to have been leading aims with Pericles. He entertained them with quickly succeeding theatrical and other entertainments, solemn banquets, splendid shows and processions, and everything likely to add to their enjoyment. Every year he sent out eighty galleys on a six months' cruise, filled with citizens who were to learn the art of maritime war, and who were paid for their services. The citizens were likewise paid for attending the public assembly, and allowances were made them for the time given to theatrical representations, so that it has been said that Pericles converted the sober and thrifty Athenians into an idle, pleasure-loving, and extravagant populace. At the same time, that things might be kept quiet in Athens, the discontented overflow of the people were sent out as colonists, to build up daughter cities of Attica in many distant lands.

Thus it was that Athens developed from the quiet country town of the old regime into the wealthiest, gayest, and most progressive of Grecian cities, the capital of an empire, the centre of a great commerce, and the home of a busy and thronging populace, among whom the ablest artists, poets, and philosophers of that age of the world were included. Here gathered the great writers of tragedy, beginning with Æschylus, whose noble works were performed at the expense of the state in the great open-air theatre of Dionysus. Here the comedians, the chief of whom was Aristophanes, moved hosts of spectators to inextinguishable laughter. Here the choicest lyric poets of Greece awoke admiration with their unequalled songs, at their head the noble Pindar, the laureate of the Olympic and Pythian games. Here the sophists and philosophers argued and lectured, and Socrates walked like a king at the head of the aristocracy of thought. Here the sculptors, headed by Phidias, filled temples, porticos, colonnades, and public places with the most exquisite creations in marble, and the painters with their marvellous reproductions of nature. Here, indeed, seemed gathered all that was best and worthiest in art, entertainment, and thought, and for half a century and more Athens remained a city without a rival in the history of the world.

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