There was a myth about how Athens was created. It said that Poseidon (god of the sea) and Athena (goddess of wisdom) both wanted to protector of this shining city-state. Kekrops (a wise man) was chosen by Zeus to settle the dispute. Each god, he stated, had to create something valuable for Athens. Poseidon gave Athens a well (another myth says the horse), and Athena gave the Athenians the olive tree. In the end, the olive tree was chosen as a sign of peace and prosperity. Kekrops was named the first king of Athens and the city was named after the goddess. Pleased at her new place of honor, Athena also obtained the vine tree (grapevine) from Dionysius, which became important in trade and life itself to the Greeks. Wine became part of religious ceremonies and therefore made Athens an important trading left.

      Athens was so much like all of Greece, sharing the language, beliefs, myths and the Olympic gods, but so very different in many ways. In reality, according to archeological findings, farmers lived in the Athens/Attica area since 3000 BCE. These farmers gathered occasionally to trade and began to see the pottery from the Minoans, and weapons from the Mycenaeans. They could see uses for the metals on their farms in the plows that they used and the rakes, and hoes. They wanted to know more. About 1200 BCE, the farmers began to put buildings in one place where they had carried out much of their trade. In the growing city-state, there would be an agora or marketplace built over a graveyard, and temples were built to their gods on the Acropolis. There were not always the lavish temples that we see or imagine on the Acropolis. This hilltop was a pretty basic, but a site for worship nonetheless. 

     Athenians had always been independent-minded farmers and had to problem-solve to survive. While the Dorians invaded the rest of Greece, Athens and the land surrounding it called Attica sat peacefully untouched by the horsemen. Peaceful were the fields of wheat, sheep, olive groves, a variety of vegetables, and grapes used to make the wine. No iron mines dotted the Athenian landscape. So the Dorians (the cruel warrior class that took over much of Greece for almost 400 years) left Athens and Attica untouched.

     During this time, the city began to grow. With its growth came new ideas of how the city should be governed. The "child" of this time period was DEMOCRACY or rule of the people.

        In 1066 BCE, Athenians decided that monarchs or kings chosen by birth (hereditary) were no longer suitable. Often, monarchs were not bright. How could they be chosen by the gods? In reality, many aristocratic families found out that they were losing wealth and power to the monarchs. With the help of the common man, they changed who would rule.

     Up to this time, all civilizations believed that the gods controlled every aspect of their lives. The Athenians did not. They believed, like Odysseus, that they could challenge fate, and make their own destiny. They believed that Athena, the patron goddess of wisdom, had given them the ability to think and reason.  Athenians believed that the only way to praise and please the gods was a concept called "arete" or excellence in any pursuit. SO the common man could compete against a king in the Olympics, etc. They found out through their lives and sporting/religious events that they were capable. Every man in Athens was capable and they worked to be the best, no matter what. And so they did....  Each man farmed, traded and defended their homes and families to the absolute best of their ability. 

      In 1066 BCE, Athenians did something revolutionary; they got rid of the monarch. Monarchs had often been viewed (like the Egyptian pharaoh) as a god or chosen by the gods.  The Athenians decided to choose their own leader. They voted for a leader. This leader, known as an archon, was chosen to rule for life. In time, however, the citizens decided that it was not a great idea to have one man rule for life. The archon may not be honest or care about the people of Athens and Attica, but only about getting wealth and power for himself. So in 752 BCE, this process was changed so that there were two archons that were advised by an aristocratic board called the Council. The Council now made the archon positions a ten-year position. This meant that if the archon was not doing his job or wished to become more powerful, Athenians could vote him out of power. This act was a real first in the ancient world. This act, the act of electing a leader, laid the foundation for democracy and said that men determined their own fate.


   What made Athens so unusual is that it believed in itself and that Athena valued a sharp mind as well as a good body. Most ancient civilizations believed that they had been put on the earth for two reasons. One was to serve the gods and the other was to entertain the gods. In other words, ancient civilizations generally felt they were servants. If anyone made the gods mad, then the entire civilization might be punished. So everyone obeyed the monarchs or government so that they would not endanger everyone including themselves. Most ancients believed that they had no control over their future; everything was predestined by the gods or the stars. They believed that no human could use their mind to problem-solve or learn new techniques. All knowledge was a gift, not an accomplishment.

     Athens was the exception to the rule. Their army was made up of citizen soldiers known as hoplites. Every male rich or poor had to serve two years of military training and was expected to fill the ranks if Athens was at war. These could not afford horses or chariots like the rich and the professional armies but were heavily armed with a sword, armor, shield, and a 9-12 foot spear. They marched in solid lines known as a phalanx. This formation moved like a tortoise with a large shell. No one was expected to be a hero.

 Here is a first-person oath that shows the oath each male had to take. This is very similar to the USA armed forces oath that men and women take when they join the armed forces.

  Primary Source- Athenian Soldier's Code

Oath of enrollment in Ephobei corps, 300s BCE

I will not bring dishonor on the weapon nor desert the comrade by my side.

I strive to hand on my fatherland greater and better than I found it.

I will not consent to anyone disobeying or destroying the constitution but will prevent him, whether I am with others or alone.

I will honor the temples and the religion my forefathers established.


     Athena was Athens patron goddess, the goddess of knowledge. She expected the Athenians to use their minds like athletes use their body. And in 776 BCE, Athens joined the other city-states in proving that they were good at both. They participated in the first Olympics. The Olympics were a religious festival to honor Zeus. Athenians came not only to win the sporting events, but also to read poetry, create a statue, or read the latest volume of history. Unlike many of the other city-states, any Athenian citizen could participate. This meant that the Athenians could compete with the best athletes, not just the rich. All citizens rich or poor were eligible to compete so this made the Athenians feel empowered. They came to win and they usually did.


    At first, monarchs (monarchy and dynasty) ruled. This did not last. Then there was an oligarchy led by archons. This still only allowed the rich to rule. Laws were non-existent and justice was only for the rich or those who had powerful protection. As time passed, and Athens became more populated and had more trade, a middle class began to appear and with it came demands for rights for all landowners.

   Also, the Lydian coins caught on much easier to carry standardized coins than a load of iron. Poor farmers began to borrow money from rich nobles until their crops came in. Sometimes the crop did not come in, and the poor farmer was deeply in debt. Without laws in place, the nobles could collect the debt any way they chose to and what they chose to do is enslave anyone and their family who owed them money. Some of these new slaves had been citizens with rights and responsibilities. The rich noble also took the slaves farmland forever. 



1. In 650 BCE, the farmers and poor began to rebel and demand their rights. They had served in the military and always taken care of business to make Athens stronger. A group that joined them were the newly rich merchants and artisans. Many of these people were not however citizens. So they had no public say. But what they did was back someone called a tyrant or someone who took power by force. Unlike the tyrants of today (Hitler, Sadaam Hussein, etc.), these rulers usually ruled fairly. They realized that they too could be replaced.

2. In 621 BCE, Athens ruling body asked a citizen-magistrate to write laws that would give rights and restrictions to all citizens rich and poor. THIS was THE FIRST TIME THAT ATHENS HAD WRITTEN LAW (moving from tribal to village society). Draco was given the task of writing laws that would be the same for everyone. There were several problems with Draco's law. The punishment for almost everything was "death" and for not being able to repay a debt meant that the citizen and his family were sold into slavery much as before. This is not what Athenians wanted. Draco's laws also made the power of the rich limited. This is not what the rich and powerful wanted, so the laws were too harsh. Today, Draco's name has been given to the word draconian, which means that the measure is much too harsh, too extreme. 

      More and more tyrants took their roles as ruler of Athens. Some worked to make Athens strong. Some worked to make themselves powerful and rich. And Athens spiraled toward ruin.

3. In 594 BCE, citizens were ready to rebel. They wanted a better set of laws, laws that were fairer and just for everyone. The poor needed land and the city needed food. The nobles of Athens appointed a statesman who they considered wise and fair and trusted by rich and poor, a man named Solon as a tyrant, to revise this code of laws. Solon is credited by historians to have written the first constitution or a document that spells out the role of all parts of government and rights and responsibilities of the citizens. It was very popular with the common people. Here is what it did:

  • He canceled all farmers' debt and took them out of slavery. He allowed all citizens to participate in assemblies and trials. In fact, this was considered their duty. Below is a drawing of a box that showed how citizens would be chosen by lot for duty as uncovered recently by archeologists
  • A council of 400 wealthy men would write the laws but the Assembly, a combination of the poor and middle-class men, would have to pass the laws. The farmers pressed Solon to give away the rich nobles' land, but this he refused to do.
  • He also made it illegal to export wheat (which was hard to grow in Athenian soil) and rewarded people who grew olives or grapes. He set up trade for wheat with an Athenian colony on the coast of Turkey for their needs.

     In 564 BCE, a general found a way win the tyrant's role. A tyrant during this time was someone who would rule not by force and not by birth but was chosen to be a leader for a short period of time. His name  Peisistratus, a showman, hired an extremely tall farm girl and dressed her up as Athena and rode into Athens with her on the back of a chariot. He told the gathering crowds that Athena had chosen him to be the new ruler. And so it was ....for a while. He took land away from the rich and divided the estates and gave it to landless farmers. He also loaned money to the poor and gave them jobs building temples and great public buildings. The rich and powerful would not take this lying down. Soon power was back in wealthy hands and Peisistratus was soon powerless. But HOPE stalked the streets of Athens: HOPE said that every man was smart enough to hold power. HOPE was like a magical tiger. It could be trained to protect its masters, but it was still wild and could devour its master if the master forgot that the tiger is always wild. 

     In 508 BCE, a new leader came unto the scene. He did something that was considered unthinkable and undoable in all societies. This made a real difference in the world that we live. His name was Cleisthenes. He was a nobleman and had been watching,  how people took and kept power. He knew one thing. He knew that power in Athens came from ordinary people; the poor, and the middle class or THE MOB. WEALTHY MEN in Cleisthenes' day believed that only the rich should have privileges. After all, had not the gods smiled on them and made them rich? He knew that HOPE had been stalking the streets for a long time. So Cleisthenes helped the masses revolt. This was the first time this had ever happened in the ancient world. 

     Cleisthenes reorganized the government so the Assembly had more power. They could debate publicly (freedom of speech). The Assembly could decide on the legality of laws, hear court cases, and appoint generals to the army. There were secret ballots made of bronze, easily hidden in the palm of the hand so no one could tell how one voted. In other words, Cleisthenes created the first real democracy. In this world, any citizen could become the leader and was expected to be smart enough to do so. Unlike their neighbors, Athens now believed that they had the power to shape the future. Once a year, leaders changed, and citizens could decide who they thought was too big for their britches. On a shard of pottery, they could write the name of someone that they wanted to kick out of Athens for TEN years, otherwise known as ostracism. This tactic supposedly kept a citizen's ego in check. One of their first choices was Cleisthenes, forced to roam the ancient world, no longer a citizen of the city he loved,  never quite recovered and died broken-hearted.

      And in this land of democracy, there were still those with no rights. Women, slaves, and males whose fathers were not citizens born in Athens were treated poorly. Citizens had the right to treat women, non-citizens, and slaves any way they chose to. Women who were wives or daughters of citizens were protected, but females born outside of these boundaries, as well as non-citizens, could be attacked, violated, beaten or killed. They had no rights or legal recourse.

  How many slaves did this great democracy have? One-third of the population were slaves. Even the poorest families had one or two slaves. Athens became a city built by slaves, much as many great civilizations that followed.