Birthplace of Democracy


The magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.


Skulls are a surprise in a public park. Yet the storeroom of the Agora Museum in Athens hides drawers full of them. Today, the Agora is a butterfly-filled haven in the heart of ‘Athena’s City’. We amble through the Stoa of Attalos, past the stumpy remains of the 5th- and 4th-century BC law courts, around the solid temple of Hephaistos – drinking in the triumphs of Athens’ classical Golden Age. We crane our necks to catch the columns of the Parthenon and the polished bare rocks of the Areopagus (Areios Pagos – ‘massive hill’), where Athens’ council of wise men sat. But as we stroll and marvel it can be easy to forget we are walking on the ghosts of a multi-layered past. In the case of the Agora, physically – this teeming hub, this engine of democracy, of high art, of the ‘Greek Miracle’, was once a graveyard.

There have been Greeks in Athens for over 3,500 years, human habitation for over 8,000. The Bronze Age Mycenaean Greeks buttressed the Acropolis and today their fortifications are still visible, their arrowheads and perfume bottles, their skeletons still unearthed by the excavator’s trowel. Then came the Greek ‘Dark Ages’ (a misnomer if ever there was one), when tribes, tyrants, despots and oligarchs tussled over who should hold the reins of power in this well-placed settlement. The Agora’s flesh and blood remains remind us not to read ancient Athens as a romance. This was a visceral place. A city capable of mesmerizing beauty, of the most inspirational and high-minded thoughts, but also a seat of torment, of trial and tribulation.

Side view of the Erechtheion. The Acropolis is most famous as the foundation for the temple of Athena Parthenos, but this rock was in many ways a holy-hotel for the gods, with a number of god-homes and shrines built here. The Erectheion was built to honour Erechtheus-Poseidon.

Photo Scala, Florence.

The Acropolis, crowned by the Parthenon, forms the inescapable and iconic image of classical Athens, but it has been thought sacred since at least the Bronze Age. A Mycenaean well-shaft is cut deep within the rock itself.

© Florent Reclus/

Geography gave Athens a kick-start. The story goes that the goddess of wisdom Athena and the sea-god Poseidon fought over the city. Surrounded by defensive mountains and lands rich in the raw materials of culture – marble, limestone, clay and silver – Athens is also a kingfisher’s whisper from the sea. Athenians have always benefited from maritime trade, but have little to fear from pirates. So Poseidon was rejected and wise Athena won out: the goddess was welcomed as a long-term resident of that great lump of red-veined Late Cretaceous limestone that we call the ‘High City’: the Acropolis. And in 507 BC the Acropolis witnessed something rather extraordinary. Sheltering a Spartan king – ally of bullish Athenian aristocrat Isagoras – it was suddenly, violently inhabited by the common crowd, hoi polloi, ‘the people’, who, for the first time in recorded history, acted as one, as a political agent. For an entire territory to erupt requires something seismic and in Athens there had already been popular stirrings. Sick of the filibustering power of a family of aristocrats, the law-giver Solon instituted a series of reforms (c. 594/593 BC). He reduced the power of those who ‘pushed through to glut yourselves with many good things’. He broadened Athens’ power-base. Political reforms in Athens in the 6th and the 5th centuries, founded as they were on a philosophical bedrock of justice and wisdom, paved the way for Athena’s city to become unique. Here the solidarity and self-determination of the world’s first true democracy – enacted before the word demos-kratia was invented – was made flesh.

In 479 BC the beating back of the vast and powerful Persian empire, the bully-boy of the eastern Mediterranean, further electrified the city. Suddenly it seemed that there was nothing this fledgling democracy could not do. Citizens strode through the newly constructed Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, ‘Zeus the Liberator’. In democracy’s name Athenians gathered together an empire. The strategos – the elected general – Perikles, urged Athenians to treat their violet-crowned city ‘like a lover’. High-fliers nominated their sons ‘Demokrates’. Come the 4th century BC, Demokratia was worshipped as a goddess.

Throbbing with the energy of the newly empowered, Athens now became the economic centre of the Greek world. In the assembly, boot-makers sat alongside aristocrats; one year in two these new democrats voted for war. The resident population more than doubled. Rows of modest homes – some little more than shacks – were erected. Plato might have quipped that the Greeks lived like ‘frogs around a pond’ – but those frogs were all jostling to spring on to Athens’ gilded lily-pad.

Athena and Poseidon on a red-figure krater from south Italy. Traditionally the two deities fought for ‘ownership’ of Athens – Athena eventually winning out. By linking the city to the port of Piraeus via its long walls in the 5th century BC, Athenians also ensured they kept the god of the sea on side.

Gianni Dagli Orti/Musée du Louvre, Paris/The Art Archive.

The Agora was no longer the home of the dead, but of life. A place where fountains were untapped, where musical recitals were held, where soldiers drilled, where offerings were made to immortals at fragrant altars and where administrators met to standardize the business of democratic living. During the 6th and 5th centuries the market here developed, slaves were sold alongside pyramids of figs and opiates, fresh fish, woven cloth straight off the loom, and aromatic oils from the east. The tang of newly excavated minerals, newly minted silver coins would have been in the air, the taste of exotically seasoned stews, cooked on outdoor stoves, on the tongue.

We think of Athens as a city of marble and stone yet at its height there was something distinctly floral about the place. Men and women flooded in from the hills and plains of Attica, and the craftsmen, stonemasons and painters – whether consciously or not – brought rus in urbe. Lilies unfurled on masonry, on vases olive trees were shaken, and architraves were shaded with a canopy of carved green. The lost rivers, the Eridanos and the Illyssos (today blocked underground), flowed free. At rituals across the city and during the Mysteries of Eleusis, maidens wreathed in laurel and vines, or carrying pungent, flaming pine-torches, adored and honoured the turn of the seasons. In the Agora protecting rows of plane trees were planted. All around the city forests of stelae (carved stone blocks) sprang up, inscribed with the workings and decisions of the democratic assembly.

And of course the imperial influence brought with it seeds of intellect: scientists from the west coast of Asia Minor, rhetoricians from Sicily, philosophers from Thessaly and Macedonia. Just imagine the hubbub – the Athenians had a name for it even – the thorubos – the buzz of opinion and dissent in the streets, the council chambers, the assembly, the Agora, and at those famous symposia that Plato, Aristophanes et al. have immortalized, where wit and wine flowed, where poetry was sung and schemes of self-advancement were hatched.

Silver tetradrachm of Athens, of 455/454 BC, with the head of Athena and her owl. In many ways the discovery of seams of silver at Laurion in Attica gave the Athenians the financial ballast to experiment with both democracy and with empire.

Money Museum, Zurich (

Visual matched verbal delights. Current excavations are beginning to show us just what a gaudy, glittering place classical Athens would have been: statues painted fairground-jaunty; dinner services gleaming bright; semiprecious stones glinting from the eyes of gods and demi-gods in shrines and on street corners, saffron-veiled prostitutes leaning in the doorways of their ‘knocking-shops’.

While some Athenians debauched themselves in the many (and obligingly varied) brothel districts, others, notably Perikles, were famously austere. This Olympian’s kicks, it seems, were satisfied by the philosophical conversation of Anaxagoras and Sokrates, by drama (as a young man he produced Aeschylus), and by his clever courtesan Aspasia. His energies were dedicated to raising monumental structures on the Athenian skyline: the Propylaia, perhaps too the Erechtheion, the Temple of Athena Nike. And above all Athena’s Parthenon, decorated green, blue, gold – dazzling like a peacock.

Travelling around Athens today it is still hard to escape the Parthenon. Gleaming at dawn, shadowing at twilight, it is always there, a double exposure on an old-fashioned photograph. Plutarch, writing 500 years after the Periklean building programme, marvels: ‘though built in a short time they have lasted for a very long time … in its perfection, each looks even at the present time as if it were fresh and newly built. … It is as if some ever-flowering life and unageing spirit had been infused into the creation of these works.’

But then flame burnt back the crops of democracy and empire. In 404 BC the Spartans, sometime allies but long-term enemies of the Athenians, toppled Athens’ famous city walls, took the Acropolis, and flute-girls, we are told, danced in the embers of an empire. There were shoots of regrowth. Orators such as Demosthenes ensured that Athens was a centre of excellence once more. Democracy was briefly restored. But with hindsight, these were just spasms in the Golden Age’s slow, lingering death. Perikles himself thought that Athens would be remembered because the city ‘ruled more Greeks than any other Greek state’. The Athenians weren’t consciously providing us with a robust, benign, egalitarian basis for our own modern democracies. Their inspiring, experimental society was volatile, often unforgiving, paradoxical. All qualities that enhance, rather than diminish, their achievements.

We do Athens best service if we remember the sweat and grime as well as the scent of violets; if we admit the struggle to create and maintain democratic politics, the graft in realizing world-class art. This was not a utopia. In all its complex delight and terror, in its sensuality and soulful philosophy, its rise and its fall, Golden Age Athens reminds us what it is to be human.

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