Two things in Athens’ early history led to internal peace that made its history and development much easier. First of all, there was no Dorian conquest of Attica, the region surrounding Athens. The myth of the Athenian king, Codrus, who sacrificed himself in battle against the Dorians tells us there probably was Dorian pressure on Attica, but that it failed. Consequently, with no conflict of Dorians against non-Dorians, internal peace could reign in Athenian society. Second, Athens united all of Attica under its rule at a fairly early date and made all its subjects Athenian citizens. Therefore, they were more likely to work for Athens’ interests in contrast to the Spartan Helots who were always looking for an opportunity to revolt.
Despite these advantages, the tensions that accompanied both a rising middle class and overpopulation in other poleis affected Athens as well. For example, there was a failed attempt to establish tyranny at Athens by a man named Cylon who seized the Acropolis with the aid of Megarian troops.
One issue causing discontent was the lack of a written law code. Since nobles controlled the religion, which was seen as the source of law, they could say the law was whatever they pleased and then change it at will. At last, in 62l B.C.E., they gave in and commissioned Draco, whose name meant “dragon”, to write down the laws. His law code was so harsh that even today we use the term “draconian” to describe something extremely severe. Some people claimed Draco’s law code was written in blood rather than ink. But Draco did get the laws written down, which was a step forward for the people. And, of course, they wanted more.
By 600 B.C.E., the nobles in Athens were becoming more nervous as the complaints of the very poor and the rising middle class grew increasingly louder. As a result, they gave a man named Solon extraordinary powers to reform the state and ease the tensions between the different classes. Solon passed both economic and political reforms that laid the foundations for Athens’ later greatness.
Solon improved Athens’ economy in several ways. First, since Attica’s soil was particularly poor for farming wheat and barley, he outlawed the export of grain from Attica. This encouraged the cultivation of olive trees that were better suited for Attica’s soil. The olive oil produced from these trees was a valuable commodity used for cleansing and as a fuel for light and cooking. Later, grapevines would also be cultivated, and Attica’s wine became still another highly valued Athenian product. Second, Solon developed trade and manufacture in Athens, largely through attracting skilled craftsmen to settle there. He especially encouraged pottery since Attica had excellent clay for ceramics. In later years, Athenian pottery would come to be some of the most beautiful and highly valued in the Mediterranean. One other thing Solon did to relieve the poverty in Athens was to abolish debts and debt slavery. While this was not popular with the nobles, it did ease some of the tensions threatening Athenian society at that time.
The profits gained from selling olive oil, pottery, and wine were then used for buying grain from the Black Sea. Since Athens’ economy now was much more suited to local conditions than when it was barely getting by on the old subsistence agriculture, it could buy the grain it needed and still have money left over. The Athenians could use this extra money for further developing their economy through more trade, industry, and olive orchards. This would lead to even more profits, and so on.
Solon’s reforms set the stage for the Persian Wars and Athens’ later cultural accomplishments. Since Athens was heavily dependent on the Black Sea for grain, it was very sensitive to any events in that part of the world, just as the United States today is sensitive to events in Middle East where it gets much of its oil. As a result, Athens expanded to the shores of the Black Sea, thus leading to a collision with Persia over control of that region.
Solon’s political reforms
made the Athenian state more democratic in three ways. First, he changed the qualifications for holding public office from being determined by birth into a particular class to how much wealth one had. This meant that someone not born a noble still had a chance to rise up through society by means of his ability. Solon also admitted the poorest class of citizens to participate in the popular assembly and juries. Finally, he granted a few powers and privileges to the popular assembly, which opened the way for more sweeping democratic reforms a century later. These measures delayed, but did not prevent, the overthrow of the aristocrats by a tyrant. Fighting in Athens continued between the Hill (peasants on small farms), Shore (artisans and traders), and Plain (nobles) factions. Eventually, the leader of the hill faction, Peisistratus, gained the upper hand and became tyrant. Peisistratus did two things important for Athens’ future. For one thing, like other Greek tyrants, he enriched the lower classes by providing them with land and jobs on building projects. Second, he secured Athens’ grain supply from the Black Sea by getting control of the town of Sigeum, which safeguarded Athens’ grain ships in that area but also set Athens up for an eventual clash with Persia.
There were also cultural developments during Peisistratus’ rule. For one thing, he gathered scholars to take all the different versions of Homer’s Iliad and decide which was the definitive one. One other cultural accomplishment was the invention of tragic drama. This evolved from rather boisterous goat songs ( tragoidea) dedicated to Dionysus, the god of song and revelry. However, by this time, these songs had become much more serious, and the addition of an actor to interact with the chorus of fifty led to the birth of drama.
As we have seen, in most poleis the first generation of tyrants would rule rather peacefully. For example, Cypselus, tyrant of Corinth, was so popular that he went about without so much as a bodyguard. However, the second or third generation of tyrants usually ran into problems, either because their rule was oppressive or people wanted more political rights to go along with their rising wealth. Athens was no exception. Peisistratus ruled and died peacefully, but his son, Hippias, ruled more oppressively, especially after an unsuccessful assassination attempt aroused his suspicions of all around him. Popular anger would grow, triggering more oppression, causing more anger, and so on. Finally, Hippias was driven out of Athens with help from the Spartans who then put a garrison of 700 soldiers in Athens’ Acropolis. However, the Spartans were hardly the people to go along with the democratic aspirations of the Athenians, and their garrison had to be driven out of the Acropolis before democracy could be established. The man who did this, Cleisthenes, was also responsible for setting up a stable democracy at Athens.
Cleisthenes saw clearly that the friction between the factions of Hill, Shore, and Plain and between the four different tribes had to be stopped. He cleverly did this by breaking up the old tribes and replacing them with ten artificial tribes comprised of elements from different tribes and factions. Artificially mixing people from different loyalties tended to break up those old loyalties, leaving only loyalty to Athens. Cleisthenes also made the popular assembly the main law making body. The democracy that emerged, much like those in other poleis of the time, was a somewhat limited one favoring the middle class of farmers, merchants and craftsmen. However, it was still a democracy, which meant the Athenians had more than ever at stake Athens’ security.
Therefore, the combination of this greater sense of commitment to Athens, the struggle with Persia over the security of the Black Sea grain supply, and the fortunate discovery of large deposits of silver at Laurium in Attica, would prompt the Athenians to use their economic power to build a navy with which to fight Persia. It was this navy which would lead the Greeks to victory over Persia and lay the foundations for the Athenian Empire in the fifth century B.C.E. That empire in turn would provide the wealth to support the cultural flowering at Athens that has been the basis for so much of Western Civilization.