29 The Rise of Athens (508-448 BCE)

In 514 BCE, the dictator Hippias established stability and prosperity with his rule of Athens, but remained very unpopular as a ruler. With the help of an army from Sparta in 511/510 BCE, he was overthrown by Cleisthenes, a radical politician of aristocratic background who established democracy in Athens.

Persian soldier (left) and Greek hoplite (right) depicted fighting, on an ancient kylix, 5th century BC.
National Museums Scotland | Public Domain


The 5th century BCE was a period of Athenian political hegemony, economic growth, and cultural flourishing that is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of Athens. The latter part of this time period is often called The Age of Pericles. After peace was made with Persia in the 5th century BCE, what started as an alliance of independent city-states became an Athenian empire. Athens moved to abandon the pretense of parity among its allies, and relocated the Delian League treasury from Delos to Athens, where it funded the building of the Athenian Acropolis, put half its population on the public payroll, and maintained the dominant naval power in the Greek world.

With the empire’s funds, military dominance, and its political fortunes as guided by statesman and orator Pericles, Athens produced some of the most influential and enduring cultural artifacts of Western tradition, during what became known as the Golden Age of Athenian democracy, or the Age of Pericles. The playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides all lived and worked in Athens during this time, as did historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the physician Hippocrates, and the philosopher Socrates.

Pericles was arguably the most prominent and influential Greek statesman, orator, and general of Athens during its Golden Age. One of his most popular reforms while in power was to allow thetes (Athenians without wealth) to occupy public office. Another success of his administration was the creation of the misthophoria, a special salary for the citizens that attended the courts as jurors. As Athens’ ruler, he helped the city to prosper with a resplendent culture and democratic institutions.(7)

The Parthenon

Diagram of the Parthenon illustrating the principal architectural features from the vantage of the façade on the left hand side and the cella (inner temple area) on the right hand side. Most notable here is that the columns outside of the temple stand lower than those inside though the base of the façade and the cella are the same. This gives the illusion that that the elevation of the temple’s inner sanctum is greater than elevation outdoors.
F. Banister | Public Domain

The temple was unprecedented in both the quantity and quality of architectural sculpture used to decorate it. No previous Greek temple was so richly decorated. The Parthenon had 92 metopes carved in high relief (each was on average 1.2 m x 1.25 m square with relief of 25 cm in depth), a frieze running around all four sides of the building, and both pediments filled with monumental sculpture.

The subjects of the sculpture reflected the turbulent times that Athens had and still faced. Defeating the Persians at Marathon in 490 BCE, at Salamis in 480 BCE, and at Plataea in 479 BCE, the Parthenon was symbolic of the superiority of Greek culture against ‘barbarian’ foreign forces. This conflict between order and chaos was symbolized in particular by the sculptures on the metopes running around the exterior of the temple, 32 along the long sides and 14 on each of the short. These depicted the Olympian gods fighting the giants (East metopes – the most important, as this was the side where the principal temple entrance was), Greeks, probably including Theseus, fighting Amazons (West metopes), the Fall of Troy (North metopes), and Greeks fighting Centaurs, possibly at the wedding of the king of the Lapiths Perithous (South metopes).

The most important sculpture of the Parthenon though was not outside but inside. There is evidence that the temple was built to measure in order to accommodate the chryselephantine statue of Athena by Pheidias. This was a gigantic statue over 12 m high and made of carved ivory for flesh parts and gold (1140 kilos or 44 talents of it) for everything else, all wrapped around a wooden core. The gold parts could also be easily removed if necessary in times of financial necessity. The statue stood on a pedestal measuring 4.09 by 8.04 metres. The statue has been lost (it may have been removed in the 5th century CE and taken to Constantinople), but smaller Roman copies survive, and they show Athena standing majestic, fully armed, wearing an aegis with the head of Medusa prominent, holding Nike in her right hand and with a shield in her left hand depicting scenes from the Battles of the Amazons and the Giants. A large coiled snake resided behind the shield. On her helmet stood a sphinx and two griffins. In front of the statue was a large shallow basin of water, which not only added the humidity necessary for the preservation of the ivory, but also acted as a reflector of light coming through the doorway. The statue must have been nothing less than awe-inspiring and the richness of it – both artistically and literally – must have sent a very clear message of the wealth and power of the city that could produce such a tribute to their patron god.(8)

The statue of Athena found at Vanderbilt University. The colossal statue is a replica of the one that may have been at the Parthenon. Adorned almost entirely in golden garments, this statue stands forty-two feet in length, holds a golden statue of the god Nike in her right hand and a golden shield in the other.
Mary Harrsch | CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

5th Century Athenian Political Institutions

The administration of the Athenian state was managed by a group of people referred to as magistrates, who were submitted to rigorous public control and chosen by lot. Only two magistrates were directly elected by the Popular Assembly: strategos (or generals), and magistrates of finance. All magistrates served for a year or less, with the exception of Pericles, who was elected year after year to public office. At the end of their service, magistrates were required to give an account of their administration and use of public finances.

The most elite posts in the Athenian political system belonged to archons. In ages past, they served as heads of the Athenian state, but in the Age of Pericles they lost much of their influence and power, though they still presided over tribunals. The Assembly of the People was the first organ of democracy in Athens. In theory, it was composed of all the citizens of Athens. However, it is estimated that the maximum number of participants it witnessed was 6,000. The Assembly met in front of the Acropolis and decided on laws and decrees. Once the Assembly gave its decision in a certain matter, the issue was raised to the Council, or Boule, to provide definitive approval.

The Council consisted of 500 members, 50 from each tribe, and functioned as an extension of the Assembly. Council members were chosen by lot in a similar manner to magistrates and supervised the work of the magistrates in addition to other legal projects and administrative details. They also oversaw the city-state’s external affairs.(7)


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