In ancient Greece, Athens was the largest and wealthiest city of its kind. Named after the goddess Athena, this capital was not only considered as a place of peace and prosperity but also as the center of civilization with the bulk of Greece’s scholars, politicians and businessmen. The fifth century is specifically considered as Athens’ peak as at that time the city was the center of Greece’s civilization in times of wealth, politics, power and socialization, as well as education. The city, however, experienced an economic decline that has been attributed to many things but significantly to the decline of the Greek supremacy in the world as a whole and especially in ‘Asia Minor’ and its neighbors. While the present day Athens is prospering and is ranked among the 40 wealthiest cities in terms of purchasing power parity, it is still conceivable that the city’s former glory is yet to be restored. The Athens of today is economically weak compared to the global power of ancient Greece.
Before the fifth century, Greece had constant disagreements with Persia. The Persians had considered themselves as world dominants and were, thus, attacking smaller towns and cities in the Aegean, as well as on the coast of Asia Minor. At the time, power was regarded as initiating conquest wars and expanding empires to the ends of the earth and the Persians used to fight for world domination, as well. What this implied was that as a powerful civilization, the Greek were best placed to protect their neighbors from the foreigners. The Greek were generally wealthy people with a large fleet and much money at that time. They valued their connection with the sea and their relationship with the neighboring states and it may have contributed greatly to their success as a city. It can be stated that the people of Greece were culturally religious with a strong faith in their patron goddess and in the gods in general. They believed in the immortal beings and often used their teachings as guidance for the way they related with one another. However, it changed with the rise of the Greek empire, as the power possession became a reason of numerous cases of corruption.
Pomeroy, Burstein & Donlan (2011) note that immediately after the Persians were defeated, Athens experienced an era of growth in terms of politics, economy and society. The people were slowly becoming richer, more educated and even more engaged in the building of the city. This period is referred to as the Pentekontaetia whereby, Athenians united under the cause of building their state after the Persians had finally been eliminated as threats to peace and prosperity. In his account of Athenian history Thucydides narrates that during the fifty-year period after the Persian War and before the Peloponnesian, Athens rose and declined gradually and significantly in both ways. The rise was exponential, at first with the people of Athens being fully responsible for the wealth they were accumulating.
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There are two ways to consider the growth of the Athenian city: one is the introduction of democracy and the abuse of power by the leader of the Delian League. Pericles was a great leader who strived to promote radical democracy amongst the government in Greece. He did not only create an environment in which growth and prosperity could occur but also tried to make it sustainable by emphasizing on peace, justice and fairness as the guiding principles of interaction amongst the citizens. Democracy in this case ensured that the Greeks were fully invested in wealth creation and national development as opposed to political wrangles that come with power struggles. After the end of the Persian War, it was a priority for the people of Athens to develop not only in terms of restoring their city but also in terms of claiming their place in the world at the time, as they played a significant role in the defeat of the Persians.
Pomeroy, Burstein & Donlan (2011) affirm that the political atmosphere during this period was favorable for the economic and social rise of Athens, and with such successes came the kind of wealth. It helped the Athenian afford large military arrangements that actually played a part in the formation of the Delian League. Initially, Athens shared the power with other powerful Greek cities like Sparta. However, the immense wealth accumulated during the peaceful democratic times helped Athens become richer and more reliable than Sparta as protectors of the Greek cities. The city gained the trust of the rest of the cities and offshore towns in order to appoint the leader of the Delian League.
At first, Athens used the new role as coalition leader to their advantage without imposing on the other members of the League. They were able to form trade alliances and exchange ideas, thus building their level of literature, art and even spreading their culture to other parts of the world. It implies that the 50-year period played a significant role in the consolidation of Greek culture in terms of literature and art through its interactions with other kingdoms and cities.
With time, however, the democratic aspect turned to become a major irony in the Greek history. Rather than focusing on the consolidation of the smaller towns and cities against a common enemy, Athens used the position at the helm of the League to consolidate itself and improve its wealth unfairly. The fleets that had been contributed to war operations against a common enemy started being misused for Athens’ interests. It means that the city had an unlimited supply of military equipment, with which it could make personal conquests. Moreover, it had an endless supply due to the trade partnerships most of which were also abused. Initially, the position of League leaders ensured that Athens was the most sought after in terms of alliances, thus giving them a solid position in trade circles. They Athenian continued trading, often using their position of power to their advantage and at the expense of their trade partners. It increased the city’s wealth but the cost was quite high seeing as the city continued losing popularity within and outside the Delian League.
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Like its rise, the fall of Athens also obtained a gradual form in that there were a lot of factors which cause negative effects, each at its own time. The first cause in this case would be the introduction of democracy as a mode of governance in the city. It presented them as the ideal civilization to the rest of Greece, thus accelerating the events that followed. Having the right political dispensation did not just result in domination of the city over the other towns and cities, but also developed its ambitions in terms of conquests. It occurred due to the persuasion that the well-being of the city within its walls caused by the effective policy would have the same effect for other jurisdictions in terms of administration. While it may have helped to stimulate political, social and economic growth, it created a desire for more trade routes, more opportunities to create wealth and in the end more power.
With the reputation of peace and prosperity, it was easy for Athens to present itself as the viable leader when Greece had to unite against Persia. It is, thus, understandable that the rest of Greece was willing to stand behind Athens as the leader of the League. The power given to Athens was, however, tempting and led to the fall of the great city in a gradual manner. The peace and prosperity that attracted other towns and cities to this capital were not sustainable considering that with all the power, the leaders of Athens decided to gain more power along the coast of Asia Minor and beyond. It implied that they would be willing to start wars on other civilizations to make them submit and be ruled. While they were the leaders of the other Greece cities, Athenian rulers seemed to be interested in expanding their jurisdiction. As a result, they did not want to be seen trying to dominate over other League members so they opted to undertake conquests away from the League. They, however, used the resources that had been entrusted unto them by the League members for the purpose of defeating the Persians and defending the Greek nation. Therefore, they became a disappointment to the people who had entrusted them the leadership of the entire civilization. A city that started with allies who admired Athenian way of life ended with subjects and enemies who were feeling cheated.
The third and more direct cause of Athens’ fall is the attack by Sparta. When the Delian League was formed, Sparta was not a maritime state and was, thus, excluded from the alliance. It went ahead to form a mainland coalition that became known as the Peloponnesian League. With the increasing power of Athens, it became imminent for Sparta as the leader of the mainland coalition to rescue the smaller maritime states that had been reduced to subjects by Athens. It set Sparta and its allies against Athens and its subjects, and the war, known as the Peloponnesian War, started. It not only weakened Athens, as most of its subjects joined the supposed enemy, but also weakened the economy of the whole Greece, considering that it was a very long war. The last and the most significant factor in the fall of Athens was the rise of Macedonia under the leadership of Phillip and later on his son Alexander. As the Spartan leaders, these two men contributed greatly to the uniting of the rest of Greece against Athens and eventually returned each part of the Athenian empire to its rightful owners. This way, Athens was reduced to a failed state that lacked money, honor and even allies. They were deprived of everything including their right to rule over themselves and participate in foreign policy decision-making.
The city of Athens had all the conditions for a great future as the central city in Greece. The only challenge was that its leaders did not consider being rational in their pursuit of world domination. From the story of the rise and fall of Athens, it is clear that the concept of democracy was abused to the point that only the city’s citizens had rights and the rest of the allies were considered as subjects. It can be stated that the same way the people of Athens managed to build the wealth and reputation of the city, they destroyed it by being greedy and inconsiderate to their allies. They failed to recognize the need of spreading the democracy beyond their city lines and in the end it cost them their freedom as a city.