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5th Century Athens:

a world between two wars

The Persian Wars (490-479) and the Peloponnesian Wars (431-404) profoundly shaped the life, culture, thought, religion, and artistic production of all of 5th century Greece, especially of Athens.

TIME TRAVEL!: 12th - 6th centuries BCE

ca 1150

Fall of Mycenae and disappearance of palace culture

ca 1150-800

so-called Dark-Age of Greece

  • Polis
  • Migrations to western coast of Anatolia
  • Technology to forge and refine iron (=better weapons and better farming implements)

8th century


  • Contact/trade with Near East; Orientalizing period in art
  • Colonization: Black Sea, Sicily, Italy
  • Phoenician alphabet adopted/adapted
  • Regional sanctuaries locus of elite competition


Archaic Period

  • Flowering of polis (does NOT = "democracy"!)

    • Practice of citizen men making decisions communally
    • Relations handled by political institutions
  • Tension between elite families (oikos) and polis
  • Polis the central arena for elite male competition:
    • Politics
    • Athletics
    • Warfare
    • Drinking parties (symposia)
  • Tyrannies and their overthrow
  • Rich artistic and literary production (lyric and epic; click here to see example of archaic sculpture and vase-painting!)
  • Panhellenism

GREEKS AND PERSIANS, the 6th century


Croesus, Lydian king, gains hegemony over Greek Ionian poleis


Cyrus the Great conquers Lydia; Greek Ionian poleis fall under his control.


Athens ruled by a powerful elite family, the Peisistratids.


The last of the Peisistratids, Hippias, is overthrown.

Factions/strife in Athens between oligarchic and democratic factions led by elite families.

GREEKS AND PERSIANS, the 5th century




Ionian cities chafing under Persian supported tyrannies; sent embassies to mainland Greece seeking support in effort to throw off Persian control; Athenians and Eretrians (Euboia) sent military aid; burned Sardis and returned home.

Persian counterattack crushed the revolt; Miletos sacked in 494




Darius dispatched naval expedition to punish the Athenians: Persians defeated at MARATHON


  • Radical democratic measures instituted in Athens

  • A large fleet and well-trained rowers built up for defense (Themistokles' influence).


Persian naval and infantry expedition led by Xerxes faced by alliance of 31 Greek poleis

  • Infantry engagement at THERMOPYLAE: Persians win

  • Naval engagement at ARTEMISION: both sides sustain heavy losses

  • Athens evacuated; Persians sack the acropolis and occupy Greece as far as the isthmus at Corinth.

  • Naval engagement at SALAMIS (Themistokles!): Greeks win decisive victory



Greek coalition continued as naval alliance aimed at driving out Persian outposts; Athens shortly given the lead: she provided the ships and rowers, most of the other members of the league provided the money (tribute) to support the fleet.


Goal of the league met; Athens, however, financially dependent on league and tribute.


Periklean Athens

  • CONFIDENCE generated by the victory in the Persian Wars; revenue generated by the Delian League gave rise to period of intense artistic/ architectural production; period of equally intense literary production.

  • Radical democracy in Athens; increasingly dictatorial rule over subject allies.


  • Sparta and allies in Peloponnese alarmed at Athenian consolidation of power; 30 year peace treaty negotiated between Athens and Sparta.




Athens interferes with allies of Corinth; Peloponnesian war begins

430 -28

Plague: crippling loss of men and resources, coupled with losses in war and philosophical critique of traditional beliefs and values called into question the Athenians' confidence in their relationship with the gods, which had been the underpinning of the league since the victories at Marathon and Salamis.


Sparta defeats Athens; long walls are torn down

Some of the issues sparked by the 5th century Greek/Athenian experience, which we will see brought to public forum in tragedy, comedy, oratory, and philosophy:

  • Relationship between the individual/oikos and the community/polis
  • Politics of gender; relation of male and female in familial, religious, and political domains
  • New rationalism propagated by the Sophists and old education based on the poets and traditional values
  • Relationship between power and justice
  • Mystery/tragedy of human suffering and the inexplicable rise and fall of the individual's fortune

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