Fifth Century

The Fifth Century

The fifth century was one of the greatest periods in world history. The Greeks, or at least the Athenians, invented and improved many aspects of the way the world thought.

Two goddesses from the East Pediment of the Parthenon

Two goddesses from the East Pediment of the Parthenon

The only comparable era in world history is the Industrial Revolution that took place in the 18th and 19th century, here in Britain. It is interesting however to note the differences. The Industrial Revolution saw a revolution in engineering and medicine, but was poor artistically; whereas the Greeks were very good at the arts, but made few advances in engineering or the sciences. Modern historians of Ancient Greece tend to disparage its achievements because there were no advances in technology and engineering, yet this is to take too narrow a view of the Greek achievement. The Greeks made few technological advances – iron working came at the beginning, and the Romans invented concrete thereby making possible the huge roofed buildings as seen in the baths and basilicas of the dying days of the Roman Empire.

But they made enormous advances in politics and the arts. The situation in the modern world is in many ways the reverse: we have seen huge changes in science and technology,  but artistically the Industrial Revolution has seen the arts go backwards with the Gothic revival dominating architecture and the Pre-Raphaelite movement dominating painting, at least in England, while in the 20th century the arts generally have lost their way. But both were based on the underlying market economics, and both saw the enormous benefits of the freedom to speak, to act, and to innovate, to do new things, and do them differently.  But what exactly are the major changes that took place in the 5th century in Greece? How did this new-fangled idea of democracy work out?

As far as politics is concerned, the story of the 5th century is chaotic. It is the story of how Athens built up an empire, almost like the British Empire in a fit of absent mindedness, and then lost it, with the century ending with the disastrous Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta which Athens eventually lost leaving Sparta triumphant. We should perhaps look into it a little more carefully.

The story begins

Map to show the Athenian allies, many of whom were recaptured from the Persians.

The story begins in 479 BC with the Battle of Plataea in which the Greeks finally defeat the Persians: the combined Spartan/Athenian alliance was triumphant. However the islands in the Aegean and the Greek cities in Ionia remained under Persian rule and needed to be liberated. The Greeks led by the Athenians got together and formed a new league known as the Delian League, with its treasury on the sacred island of Delos in the centre of the Aegean. More than 150 cities joined and agreed to contribute either ships or money to the common good. It was very successful and the islands and many of the towns on the Ionian coast were liberated. However many of the city states found it inconvenient to contribute ships and so instead they commuted their ships into money payment, and soon the fleet became almost entirely Athenian. The money piled up in the treasury and in 454 BC the treasury was transferred to Athens. The Athenian tribute lists carved onto stone have survived, so the payment can be followed in the greatest detail. The Athenian Empire was established.

Athens and the Long Walls which connected it with the port at Piraeus

The income from the tribute was spent first and foremost on maintaining the fleet which successfully established and maintained the freedom of the Greek cities in the islands and the coast of Iona. But money was also spent on the defence of Athens and the building of the “long walls”. Athens lies five miles inland from the sea, but the harbour at Piraeus is one of the finest natural harbours in the world and so the Athenians built long walls from the city down to the Piraeus, making it impregnable.


The years from 454 BC and 432 BC when the Peloponnesian war broke out were the golden age of Athens. They were dominated by the figure of Pericles who began as something of a firebrand, but rapidly matured into the elder statesman, being re-elected as a general for much of this time. Thucydides puts into his mouth one of his finest speeches, a famous defence of Athenian democracy. Under his leadership, money was spent lavishly on beautifying the city.  The major expense was on rebuilding the Parthenon, the great temple on its rock that dominates Athens and was presumably the site of the former Mycenaean palace. The original temple was destroyed in the Persian wars when the Athenians abandoned their city and went to Salamis and the Persians came in and destroyed the old temple. At first the Greeks vowed never to rebuild the temple destroyed by the Persians, but after forty years it was decided to rebuild and on a lavish scale forming one of the greatest works of art the world has ever seen.

The lavish expenditure caused resentment among the allies: this was not what they paid their tribute for. Tensions grew up, and eventually in 432 BC the Peloponnesian war broke out between Athens and Sparta which was to result thirty years later in the defeat of Athens and the victory of Sparta. The tactics at the start were simple: the Spartans, thanks to all their training, were supreme on land. The Athenians however were supreme at sea thanks it is said to their democracy. The boats were the triremes rowed by three banks of oars, tough hard work ideal for the lower classes of Athenian democracy. Thus every year the Spartans invaded Attica, the land of Athens. The farmers abandoned their land and retreated into the city which thanks to the long walls could be supplied with food imported from the fertile agricultural lands on the other side of the Aegean. The Spartans only stayed three weeks – they had to get back to their harvest, but in those three weeks they destroyed the Athenian harvests and played havoc with their economy.

Key actions in the Peloponnesian War. Note the capture of Sphacteria by in the south-west corner of the Peloponnese, from which the Athenians should have raised the Messenians but failed to do so.
And note Aegispotami, in the top right corner, the site of the battle where the Spartans captured the entire Athenian fleet, thereby ending the war. 

The Athenians however had one big success, for they sailed round the Peloponnese where they captured the small island of Sphacteria, just off Pylos. This was in Messenian territory, dominated by the conquered Messenians who had been reduced to serfs, and had the Athenians played their cards properly, they could have liberated the Helots, the Spartan serfs, which would have ruined Sparta completely. But the follow-up was incompetent; they failed to raise the Helots, though they succeeded in capturing a couple of hundred Spartiates whom they kept prisoners as a bargaining chip. Meanwhile the Spartans found a brilliant general, Brasidas who set off for northern Greece and captured the town of Amphipolis.

Thucydides the historian was held responsible for the loss of Amphipolis, so he went into exile and became a historian writing what is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most profound investigations of history and politics in the world. But stalemate was reached, Amphipolis was swapped for the 300 prisoners and a peace treaty was signed. But Athens then had a masterstroke: it would go and establish a new empire in Sicily. The man behind it all was Alcibiades. Alcibiades was brilliant but erratic. As a youth he was very beautiful, and he grew up to become a brilliant general, a superb speaker, an excellent politician, but unreliable. He was always making enemies, fleeing into exile, changing sides and then coming back again. He persuaded the Athenians to go to Sicily to capture Syracuse the greatest town in Sicily which was oppressing a smaller town that was one of Athens’ allies.

However when the fleet was about to sail, all the herms in the city, the little statues that stood in front of every house for good luck, were mutilated. It was a huge scandal and Alcibiades was suspected of being responsible. He was relieved of his post as leader of the expedition and replaced by Nicias, an elderly cautious general who disapproved of the whole project. Alcibiades might have pulled it off, but Nicias dithered and eventually the Athenians were defeated and the whole army destroyed. It was a disaster, for Athens lost not only its army but also its prestige.

From there on, it was downhill all the way. Alcibiades, having fled from Athens, went to Sparta and advised them to build a permanent post in Attica at Decalia, from which they could threaten the Athenians all the year round. However Alcibiades then flip-flopped and returned to Athens and won a string of victories which somewhat restored their spirit. But then he was driven out again and this time fled to Persia. The Spartans meanwhile were building up their fleet and joined up with the Persians and finally destroyed the Athenian fleet at the battle of Aegospotami. The following year, 404 BC, Athens surrendered. The Spartans were magnanimous in victory and spared the Athenian people, but insisted that they pull down the long walls and install a sensible oligarchic government like the Spartans and give up their silly democracy. In the event, the Athenians didn’t stay down for long and the Spartans didn’t stay up for long, but the end of the century (by our Christian reckoning) makes a convenient end to the glorious (but chaotic) fifth century.

But what was Athens like in the 5th century? It is time to look at some of the buildings, to go down into the market place and find out how early democracy took its first wobbling steps. Then we must climb up to the citadel, the Acropolis, and admire the wonderful new temple, the Parthenon which had just been built. Then we must go round to the other side of the Acropolis and find out how the Greeks invented drama. And then we must leave the centre and make our way to the smoky suburbs, to the industrial heart of Athens, the Kerameikos, the pottery centre, where the sometimes noble, sometimes saucy pots were produced, which made their way around much of the known world at the time.

On to The Marketplace

20th January 2016
20th January 2016