In the late seventh century the darkness begins to dissipate, although our knowledge of the earliest period is limited to isolated incidents and developments.
When we first learn of events in Athens it is clear that the city was already rent by internal divisions of two types, rivalries between prominent aristocrats and between the social classes: 'the Few and the Many'. The divisions within the aristocracy were based upon loyalties to important families which wielded influence in particular parts of Attica, which were no doubt evident in the form of confrontations between their rival heads and their supporters as they jockeyed for inf1uence and power in city politics. It may have been an outcome of such a conflict that from the chief officers of the state, the archons, were limited to holding office for ten years.
When one clan became too powerful, its head might try to seize power by force, and become a tyrant. In such an attempt in 632 B.C., ╩yl´n, an Olympic victor and son-in-law of the tyrant of Megara, seized the Acropolis with the help of his father-in-law and friends. Athenians flocked in from the countryside and besieged them. In the end, Kylon escaped, but his supporters were slaughtered in the sanctuary. Following this sacrileg▀´us murder, those considered most immediately responsible, Megakles and the family of the Alkmaeonids, were banished. This incident led to a war between Athens and Megara.
The first known Athenian law code was issued by Drakon circa 621, possibly as a consequence of these events. ╔t was later described as extremely harsh, and as 'written in blood'; giving us the word 'draconian'. It authorised generous application of the death penalty.
By the beginning of the sixth century, the social strains in Athens were becoming severe. Wealth had come to be concentrated in the hands of a clique of important landowners. In 620 B.C. two Athenian colonies were founded at the approaches to the Black Sea, suggesting that the Athenians had an interest in the important grain trade from that region. The widespread scattering of Athenian olive jars of this date found across the Mediterranean indicates that olives and olive oil were the main product of Athenian agriculture at this time, and that the city may have needed to import grain to feed its citizens. Olive production, which requires substantial investment which will not yield fruit for many years, can only be satisfactorily accomplished on a large scale by wealthy landowners, not by subsistence farmers who have to live off their land from year to year.
Many Athenian freemen had got themselves into debt with these great landowners by offering their persons as security. When they were unable to pay off their debts, some had been enslaved, while others had chosen exile. At the same time, changes in the techniques of warfare had led to the development of hoplite armies. Warriors equipped with a round shield and long spear would advance upon the enemy in ranks. The men who could afford to equip themselves with the necessary arms and armour for this style of fighting, and who could not afford the horse and groom necessary to fight in the cavalry, were mostly small farmers. Each man's shield covered his own left hand and partially guarded his neighbour. This method of fighting required that the men developed a sense of loyalty to their comrades so as not to beak the 'shield wall'. It was therefore to be expected that the hoplites would develop a sense of a corporate identity and pride as those upon whom the safety of the city now depended, and would begin to look out for their common interests. The small farmers became increasingly unwilling to put up with economic insecurity; and in any case, whenever a man lost his land, and was no longer able to provide himself with a shield and spear, the city lost a valuable warrior.
Fearing civil strife, the extraordinary step was taken of appointing the well-travelled and widely-respected Solon as mediator and extraordinary legislator in 594, with a commission to solve the problem within one year. An aristocrat, who believed firmly in the privileges of the few: he claimed that he made just those reforms as were strictly necessary to avoid open civil strife -but no more.
The first step he took was to dissolve all existing debts. Solon seems to have believed that wealth, rather than ancestry, should determine who should actively participate in the government of the state, and that that government should be in accordance with just laws. He divided the Athenians into classes, based upon wealth (and ability to perform military service). The poorest class, the Thetes, who were the majority of the population, received some political rights for the first time, being able to vote in the assembly of citizens (ekklesia), but political office remained restricted to the upper class. The area of the agora, a space dedicated to the conduct of public affairs in the lower town, was probably cleared and set aside for this purpose at this date.
Solon also issued a detailed law code. ╔╔ was written on four-sided wooden tablets set in frames; each tablet rotating on an axon, or axle. The laws were referred to in the following manner: 'the fifth law from the fourth axon.' Witnesses report that these tablets were to be seen on the Acropolis for many centuries. Perhaps wisely, Solon went into self-imposed exile for ten years afterwards.
Although Solon's reforms may have prevented immediate breakdown, they did nothing to solve the issue of rivalries between powerful families. In 580-79 ┬. C. a certain Damaisias tried to retain his power as archon beyond the allotted period of one year. He lasted for two years and two months before being expelled by the aristocrats. On other occasions, no archons were elected, perhaps because ousted rivals would not concede defeat.
In c.561 B.C. Peisistratos, a leading citizen from Brauron on the north-eastern coast of Attica, seized control of the acropolis with an armed bodyguard, but was soon ejected, He later returned in an alliance with Megakles, leader of a family which enjoyed influence in the area of Phaleron. They dressed up a tall woman from Paeania, on the other side of Mount Hymmettos, as the goddess Athena, and with her in tow, re-entered and took over the city. [Read more about this remarkable story in Attica.] They soon quarrelled, and Peisistratos was forced into exile once more. After acquiring a state in Thrace, he returned with an army, defeated his enemies at Pallene, swiftly entered the city during the afternoon siesta, and captured it for a third time.
Peisistratos ruled Athens from that point until his death in 528. Although he had seized, and held, power by force, he took good care to disguise the basis of his regime by outward conformity to law and custom. The laws of Solon continued to be observed, and the archons held office as usual, but it is likely that the tyrant took care to ensure that those people, elected to office could be relied upon to do his bidding. Thus when accused of murder, he duly attended the court, but significantly, his accuser dare not put in an appearance. He also took up residence on the Acropolis, which at that time had come to be reserved for religious sanctuaries. Despite the fact that his regime was founded upon force, over time he earned the reputation of being a consistent and just ruler who worked successfully to build up the wealth and power of the city.
In order to glorify the city, and thereby his own rule, and to bind the inhabitants of Attica together, he carefully fostered religion in all its forms.
He deliberately built up the state cult of Athena. In 566 B.C., he reformed the Panathenaic festival held annually in her honour, making it famous throughout Greece The festival was held every year as before; but every four years there was to be a 'Greater Panathenaia', with dancing contests for boys and youths, a torch race, a chariot race and athletic contests, in which the prizes were amphoras filled with olive oil. The highlight of the festivities was a magnificent procession from the Dipylon Gate to the Acropolis, in which many of the citizens took part, having as its focal point a new richly embroidered robe carried on a boat on wheels, to offer to the ancient xoanon or olive-wood statue of Athena Polias. The celebration ended with sacrifices, feasting and dancing. Peisistratos probably also built a new temple dedicated to Athena on the acropolis.
Similarly, he instituted the festival of the Greater Dionysia. The followers of Dionysos in the foothills of Mount Pendeli, in the area today known as Dionysos, celebrated the god by singing his praises in goatskins. In 534 Thespis, an Athenian, initiated the practice by which an actor conducted a dialogue with this chorus. Peisistratos permitted this new dramatic form of the festival to be performed from a cart in various places, usually at the village threshing floors, which provided level space. Thus was the Western drama born. Soon, plays were being performed in Athens itself at the City Dionysia in an open space below the northern walls of the Acropolis, the audience sitting on the slopes above what was later to become the Theatre of Dionysos. [Read about the Dionysian origins of the Western theatre in Attica.]
He extensively rebuilt the ancient Mycenaean sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis, erecting the first teleuterion or hall of mysteries. The public rites celebrated in connection with initiation into the mystery cult were probably first integrated into the Athenian calendar of observances at this time. [Read about the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries in Attica.]
Peisistratos planned, but failed to carry to completion, the building of an ambitiously large temple of Zeus, known as the Olympeion. Aristotle thought that the enterprise was deliberately planned to absorb all the energies of the Athenians, so that they would be less likely to rise up and expel him. The foundation of several other shrines nearby are also attributed to his patronage, including the temples of Artemis in the fields, Apollo Delphinios, and the shrine of the Nymphs.
Peisistratos built temples across Attica on the site of ancient shrines, at Rhamnous, Sounion, and his native Brauron. He carried out a ceremonial purification of the island of Delos, the island lying in the centre of the Cyclades, sacred to Apollo and revered by all the lonian Greeks. All bodies buried within sight of the god's temple were disinterred and reburied elsewhere. In doing this he was probably deliberately laying the basis for an Athenian claim to primacy over all lonian Greeks and over Apollo's island shrine.
Peisistratos was a patron of the arts in other ways as well, but usually with a clear political motive. He supervised the standardisation of the oral tradition attributed to Homer, transmitted by the recitations of the rhapsodes, or bards, by having an 'authorised' text written down. It seems likely that it was in his time that many of the legends of the hero Theseus were developed as state propaganda in deliberate imitation the much more ancient legends of Herakles, in order to provide a sense of patriotic pride for the citizens, and for the glorification of the city. An indication of his success was that poets such as Anakreon and Simonides were attracted to Athens. Athenian black figure pottery, depicting scenes from legend and ordinary life, ousted the work of Corinthian rivals, and came to be exported across the Mediterranean world.
Peisistratos was no less attentive to the infrastructure of the city. He built roads, while aqueducts brought water from Hymettos to the fountain house of Enneakrounos in the agora. He erected law courts and other public buildings in the agora, quarrying high-quality marble on Mount Pendeli. He levied a property tax to subsidise poor farmers, and sent circuit judges into the far reaches of Attica to settle disputes, consolidating the incorporation of the people of those areas into the full life of the Athenian state. He imported miners from northern Greece to work the silver mines of Laourion, in the southeast of Attica, and struck coins showing the head of Athena and her sacred owl.
He established ties of friendship with many states on the mainland, and with the tyrants of Naxos and Samos. He acquired the Thracian Chersonese, beginning the colonisation of the Hellespont, and laying the first foundations of the later Athenian empire, and further safeguarding the all-important grain route from the Black Sea.
ę John L. Tomkinson