As mentioned previously, Athens and Sparta were two of the most influential city-states in the ancient world. They both held sway over the history of ancient Greece and to this day have spawned much comparison and analysis. And as we wrote in a previous article, Sparta was known for their militaristic civilization and for their affinity for war.
Conversely, Athens would be remembered for it’s remarkable progress in the fields of philosophy, politics and literature. And for all of it’s beauty and devotion to intellectual progress, it was a city-state that was often harrowed with tragedy. In the words of the medieval, christian scholar Alcuin of York:
“At Athens, wise men propose, and fools dispose.”
It was said in the early years of Athens, the city-state was governed by a series of kings. In mythology it is said that the hero Theseus was one of the early kings of Athens and began his reign shortly after slaying the ferocious Minotaur. Athenian politics would evolve into a early form of democracy in 550 BCE. The Athenian system of democracy was set up as a direct democratic process in which the population was able to vote directly on legislation. However, only men who had completed their military service were actually allowed to vote or participate, which would constitute about 20% of the total population. Despite restrictions such as these, Athenian democracy was remarkable y successful and well maintained. It is for this reason that Athens is often considered “The Birthplace of Democracy”.
In addition to being the birthplace of democracy, Athens is also considered the cradle of western civilization. This is due to their progress in the fields of philosophy, literature and even architecture. Athens was the heart of ancient philosophy. It was the location of Plato’s Academy as well as Aristotle’s Lyceum. Athens was also the home of the famous Socrates as well as other influential philosophers such as Diogenes and Epicurus. Philosophy took great strides in Athens.
Whether it was Socrates’s dramatic lectures on ethics, Plato’s abstract theory of forms, or even Diogenes wandering the streets with a lantern because he was ‘looking for an honest man’; there was always something going on. In addition to philosophical progress, Athens was home to some of the most beautiful structures of ancient times. The Acropolis and the famous temple known as The Parthenon are brilliant examples of ancient structures that exemplified the skill and precision of Athenian architecture. In addition to the temple of Athena, the Acropolis was also home to the theater of Dionysus where famous playwrights such as Sophocles and Aeschylus regularly presented some of their most notable tragedies.
While Athens is often remembered for their advances in the realm of philosophy and literature, they were by no means unable to participate in warfare. While the city-state of Sparta was known for their ability to wage war on the ground, it was the superior navy of Athens that would contribute to several key victories in during the fist and second Persian invasion as well as the bloody Peloponnesian war. Perhaps the most important victory by the Athenian navy was the battle of Salamis; where the Athenian commander Themistocles defeated the Persian naval fleet, effectively ending the second Persian invasion.
The culture of ancient Athens was almost a mirror opposite of the Spartan civilization. They found themselves content enough to enjoy life and discuss the intellectual benefits of philosophy and politics. And while the Spartans insisted on perfecting the art of war, the Athenians exerted their energy on developing a foundation for what would become known as western culture. However that is not to say that Athenian civilization was perfect.
When compared to the treatment of their citizens, it could be argued that Athens loses out to Sparta. While Spartan women were allowed to walk the city freely and participate in sports, the sisters and daughters of Athens had severe restrictions on their rights. Athenian women were often confined to their homes and not allowed to leave without permission. The women of Athens were often segregated from much of the population and young girls were only allowed to eat certain foods.
And while Athens is remembered for their development of democracy, it was far from perfect. Only about 20% of the population was allowed to vote or participate in politics. Individuals who had property close to the walls of Athens were excluded from war legislation, because invaders would certainly destroy their property first and the owners would therefore have a conflict of interest. Another criticism of the Athenian civilization was that they had an affinity for carelessly executing people.
During the Peloponnesian war, the ten treasurers of the Delian League were accused of embezzling funds from the Athenian treasury. These men were tried and executed one after the other until only one remained. It was only after nine men had been executed that a simple accounting error was discovered and the remaining treasurer was released.
After the naval victory at Arginusae, several Athenian commanders were accused of failing to collect survivors after the battle. Six commanders were executed for failing to perform their duties. The city would later repent for the executions and attempted to make up for it. However they made up for it by executing the original men who accused the generals.
The city of Athens even went so far as to execute the famous philosopher Socrates for ‘corrupting the young and believing in strange gods’. Socrates would later willingly drink poison, even when he was prompted with a chance to escape. In The Gorgias, written by Plato years later, the trial of Socrates is compared a doctor being prosecuted by a pastry chef and judged by a jury of children.