Athens in 421 BC

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We have chosen the year 421 BC as our chronological reference for the virtual reconstruction of the city of Athens. Indeed, in 421 BC, Athens was at the height of its power. Even though the city presented itself as the leader of the Delian League, this league was an empire all but in name and the Athenians effectively ruled over a territory extending from the Adriatic Sea to the Black Sea.

The city rise to power began during the Persian Wars. After an initial victory over a Persian expeditionary force at Marathon in 490 BC, the Athenians had to face a much more serious threat when a powerful Persian army accompanied by a huge fleet invaded Greece in 480 BC. A coalition of Greek City States led by Sparta vainly tried to stop the invading forces in Thessaly leading to the heroic sacrifice of Leonidas along with 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians at the Thermopylae and to the indecisive naval battle of Cape Artemision. After the withdrawal of the Greeks towards the isthmus of Corinth, the Persian forces advanced unopposed throughout Boeotia and Attica, taking Athens whose population had previously been evacuated. Nevertheless, the Athenian fleet did not abandon the Greek coalition and a great naval battle was fought in the bay of Salamis where the Persian fleet was decisively defeated. By the end of the year, the Persian fleet and most of the army had retreated to Asia leaving an occupation army in Boeotia under Mardonius. In 479 BC, a Greek army advanced into Boeotia and won the battle of Plataea forcing the Persian army to completely evacuate continental Greece. When the Athenians returned to their city, they discovered a burned down place, almost everything had to be rebuilt. Priority was given to a fortification wall around the city, later known as the Themistoklean wall and to the Long Walls linking Athens to the harbours of Peiraieus and Phaleron.

The war had now entered a new phase with the continental Greeks conducting an offensive war of liberation and progressively freeing the Greek City States of Asia Minor formerly under the yoke of Persia. During this liberation war, Sparta gradually relented its leadership to Athens. The new leader slowly transformed the Delian League into an empire where each member had to supply ships or troops or to pay a tribute to the Athenians in return for their protection. Finally, in 454 BC, the treasure of the League was transferred to Athens and stored on the Akropolis.

Around 460 BC, the Athenians were powerful enough for a naval intervention in Egypt where they assisted a local prince in his attempt to oust the Persian invader. Simultaneously, they had to face war at home against a coalition led by Sparta. The Egyptian expedition ended in disaster a few years later. However, the mere fact that Athens was able to sustain a war abroad while fighting Spartans in Greece was a very eloquent demonstration of its power. In 445 BC, peace was concluded with Sparta, supposedly for 30 years...

Meanwhile, Athenian temples and sacred building had laid in ruins since 480 BC. Perikles took advantage of the truce to launch a huge construction program that gave us what is now called Classical Athens. The decree of Kallias interrupted these works in 432 BC. Athens needed all her resources to face a new threat: war with Sparta.

Indeed, the Spartans, at the head of the Peloponnesian League, had become increasingly suspicious of the imperial designs of Athens. War finally broke out in 431 BC. The first phase of the Peloponnesian Wars turn slightly in the advantage of Athens who, at the peace of Nikias in 421 BC, reached the height of its power.

Unfortunately, hostilities never ceased completely. Furthermore, the Athenians, boosted by their success, decided to send a huge expeditionary force to Sicily. This force was all but annihilated. Athens had lost some 200 triremes and 20,000 men. Sparta along with all the enemies of Athens then seized the initiative and finally defeated it in April 404 BC. The Long Walls were dismantled and the Athenian navy reduced to 12 triremes.

Even though Athens partly recovered its power and prestige, its hours of glory were now a thing of the past. Nevertheless, Athens' greatness has never been forgotten and the flame of the Western Civilisation whom she was the first to carry so boldly was transmitted throughout history to our present days.

Cultural Explosion

During the period between 479 and 404 BC, Athens witnessed an incredible explosion of creativity in all fields of human endeavours. She attracted talents from all around the Greek world and these exceptional personalities along with several sons of the City created the basis of the Western Civilisation. Let's mention some of them:

  • Architecture: Iktinos, Kallikrates, Mnesikles
  • History: Thukidides
  • Military: Xenophon
  • Philosophy: Protagoras of Abdera, Sokrates, young Plato
  • Politic: Themistokles, Kimon, Perikles, Alkibiades
  • Sculpture: Pheidias
  • Theater: Sophokles, Euripides, Aristophanes

There has probably never been such a high concentration of talents anywhere else in a given place at a given time.

Political System

Classical Athens was a direct democracy where some 42,000 citizens could participate to all political decisions. The ekklesia (assembly) assembled on the Pnyx and required a quorum of 6,000 men. Each and every citizen had the right to address the assembly. He also had the duty to take part to the political life of the city, this implied participation to the ekklesia but also to the regular assemblies of his own tribe, deme and phratry.

Since 507 BC, citizens were divided into ten new phyloi (tribes), replacing the old tribal organisation. Initially, each tribe was further subdivided into 10 demes which in turn were subdivided into phratries (sort of brotherhood about which not much is known).

Each year 50 citizens of each tribe, for a total of 500, were drawn by lot to assume the management of the city, they formed the boule. A citizen could hold office only twice in his lifetime and not in consecutive years. The 50 representatives of each tribe were on duty for 36 days (night and day). In this role, they were called the Prytanes. During this period of 36 days, the Prytanes had to summon the ekklesia at least four times.

Even though, this system appears to be a pure democracy, many inhabitants of Athens were excluded from the political life. Indeed, citizenship was strictly reserved to men whose father and mother were Athenian citizens, less than 10% of the population of Attica, thus excluding all women, foreigners (or partly foreigners) and, of course, slaves.

Physical Settings

Athens was located in continental Greece. Its coordinates are: Latitude 37.98 N, Longitude 23.73 E.

Athens was the main city of Attica, a small (1.812 km2) stony and unfertile region bordered by the sea to the North, East and South and separated from Boeotia to the West and Peloponnese to the South by small mountain ranges standing between 450 m and 1,500 m : Aigaleos (469 m), Parnes (1,413 m), Hymettos (1,026 m) and Pentelikon (1,109 m). The plain of Mesogeia, located between the Hymettos and the Laurion, was the most fertile plain of Attica. Vines and olive trees were the most important agricultural resources of Attica. The plain of Marathon and Eleusis were partly insanitary due to the presence of marshes. The only other natural resource of Attica were the silver mines operated on the Laurion.

The plain of Attica was drained by three rivers: the Kephisos taking its source at the foot of Mount Parnes and running for 27 km to Phaleron, the Ilissos running to the south of Athens and the Eridanos taking its source at the Lykabettos and running through Athens to the north of the Akropolis.

Topography of Athens

Athens lay in a plain only 6 km away from the sea. The Lykabettos Hill (273 m) overlooked the city from the North-East. The city was grouped around the Akropolis (150 m), a steep irregular oval rock about 300 m long and 150 m wide, culminating some 106 m above the surrounding plain. The city proper was surrounded by fortifications delimiting an area of a diameter of about 1,5 km. Xenophon estimated that the city counted some 10,000 houses.

Besides the Akropolis itself, "the Marsh" was the oldest quarter of Athens. It stood immediately to the south of the Akropolis along the course of the Ilissos river. However, as early as the VIIth century BC, urban life concentrated in the northwest quarter known as the Kerameikos (potters quarter). In fact, the Agora (marketplace) of Athens was located in this quarter and was often referred to as the "Agora of the Kerameikos".

To the north stood a large residential quarter called Skambonidai where most rich Athenians lived. From this quarter, the gates of Acharnae and Phyle gave access to the countryside.

To the southwest, the two popular quarters of Kollytos and Melite stood between the Kerameikos and the "Marsh".

The suburb of Agryle, dedicated to leisure, extended beyond the walls to the east.

Besides the main streets like the Sacred Way or those giving access to the city gates, most streets were labyrinthine. These streets were often narrow alleys not wider than 5 m. They were very dusty, sometimes muddy and contaminated by great accumulations of filth. Dirty water was simply thrown into the streets. City slaves were responsible for cleaning this filth from the streets.

Three important gymnasiums were located immediately outside the city: the Akademeia (Academy) to the west, the Kynosarges to the south and the Lykeion (Lyceum) to the east.

The main cemetary of Athens was located on both sides of the road leading to the Akademeia in the area known as the outer Kerameikos.

A few Numbers

Principal Civic Deities: Athena Polias (symbols: owl, olive tree, snake) and Zeus Polieus

Population: around 431 BC, Athens counted some 440,000 inhabitants consisting of (approximation):

Citizens of class I, II, or III aged between 18 and 60 20,000
Citizens of class I, II, or III younger than 18 or older than 60 13,500
Thetes 33,500
Total number of Athenian men 77,000
Total number of Athenian women 63,000
Total number of Athenians 140,000
Metoikoi (foreigners) adult men 13,000
Metoikoi (foreigners) boys 12,000
Total number of Metoikoi men 25,000
Total number of Metoikoi women 25,000
Total number of Metoikoi 50,000
Total number of slaves 250,000
Grand total of the entire population 440,000

However, the plague of 430 BC killed approximately one third of the population of Athens.


Brulé, Pierre, La cité grecque à l'époque classique, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 1994

Camp, John M.; The Archaeology of Athens, Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 3-10

Connolly, Peter and Hazel Dodge; The Ancient City - Life in Classical Athens & Rome, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998

Davis, W. S.; A Day in Old Athens, 1910

Flacelière, Robert, La vie quotidienne en Grèce au siècle de Périclès, Hachette, 1959

Hurwit, Jeffrey M.; The Acropolis in the Age of Pericles, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004

Martin, Jacques; Les voyages d'Alix - Athènes, Casterman, 2001

To Do

  1. Integrate the pertaining informations from the eBook A Day in Old Athens