How could a small state, Athens, with no great military might in the 6th century BCE transform itself into a powerful nation which could defeat even the mighty Persian empire? How could Athens, which was not as powerful as Argos, Corinthia or Sparta, survive and hold out invasions? Why did democracy first set its roots here?
The PBS Documentary, The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization starts with the history of Athens beginning with the rule of Peisistratos (607 – 528 BCE) under whom this small town prospered. While great civilizations like Egypt and Persia prospered around rivers, Athens was a mountainous region. Peisistratos encouraged farming and provided loans and soon Athens was exporting the hot commodity of the times – olive oil to nations around the Mediterranian to Egypt, Persia, and Phoenicia. The booming trade made Athens wealthy and prosperous.
After the death of Peisistratos, his son Hippias took over. He ruled fairly initially, but after his brother’s death, he turned to be a tyrant. Self-Preservation was his only motive and since his only threat was from aristocrats, he turned against them. The aristocrats under the leadership of a nobleman called Cleisthenes captured Hippias and banished him from Athens in 510 BCE. As Cleisthenes became famous, he faced a rebellion under Isagoras. Isagoras with the help of Spartans, the enemies of Athens, assumed power and banished Cleisthenes.
The people of Athens then took destiny into their own hands. Isagoras and his partners locked themselves in the Acropolis, but they were forced to surrender and he was forced into exile in 508 BCE. Cleisthenes was recalled from exile and asked to form a Government. He came up with the idea of people, both rich and poor, discussing the issues facing them and casting votes to make a decision. This was quite revolutionary at that time. On issues like raising of taxes, building of roads and going to war, votes were cast, with a white stone for yes and a black one for no and the seeds of democracy were sown.
The super power in the world at that time was Persia, whose empire stretched from India in the East to Turkey in the West. In 490 BCE, Athens was attacked by the Persians in the battle of Marathon. Athens asked for Sparta’s help, but did not receive it. Though outnumbered 2 to 1, Athens won the battle. A man who participated in the war, Themistocles, knew that to hold out against another Persian invasion, they would need a strong navy. The Triremes (warships) they built became useful in another war against the Persia in 480 BCE when Athens defeated them in the Straits of Salamis.
What makes for a good story is people and events. Besides those mentioned above, the other people highlighted include Pericles who built the Parthenon and Socrates who was a dominant figure of the Axial age. A major decision was taken in 431 BCE by Pericles to attack Sparta resulting in the Peloponnesian War. This war lasted 27 years and finally Athens surrendered to Sparta. By highlighting the major turning points in the rise and fall of Athens, this documentary gives an excellent introduction to life in 6th century Athens.
Though the film is called The Greeks, it is essentially a story of Athens and its people. The movie is so focused on the region that it does not give a good perspective on the world of that time. While all this was happening, the Indian city states had already established and Buddha and Mahavira were spreading new thought. While the movie glorifies Socrates, it does not even mention such leaders of the Axial age.
The movie contains re-enactments of various scenes which consists of people dressed in ancient costumes moving in front of an out of focus camera. This is repeated through out and irritates. In the movie, the two wars with Persia, at Marathon and Salamis are, while the ones at Thermopylae and Plataea are not mentioned (According to Herodotus, a batch of Indians fought in the Persian Army) . Still, this simplified and glorified tale of Athens is a good introduction to a beginner.