The Athenians were in a panic in 490 (all dates BC). A Persian army had landed at Marathon, on the coastline east of Athens, intent on capturing the city and even conquering all Greece. The Athenians sent for help to other Greek cities, but only Plataea (in Boeotia) responded. Thus, a predominantly Athenian army faced the enemy—and won. The famous battle of Marathon was Athens’ coming of age as a military power; a decade later its navy helped to block another Persian invasion (led by Xerxes), a stepping-stone to Athens’ rise as a wealthy imperial power.
Then came its downfall. In the Peloponnesian War (431-404) Athens was defeated by Sparta; its navy practically annihilated, its league of allies disbanded, its economy wrecked and enduring a Spartan-backed oligarchy. One year later the Athenians restored their democracy; a little over two decades later they formed a new league, which became another empire, and their city was again dominant in Greece.
Then came another downfall. By the 350s Macedonia, under its dynamic king Philip II, had extended its influence in all directions until, in 338, Philip’s army faced a coalition Greek army headed by Athens and Thebes at Chaeronea (in Boeotia), fighting for Greek freedom. Philip won, with Greece falling under Macedonian hegemony. While there was no interference in Athens’ constitution, its league was dissolved, and it was again in financial ruin.
One—perhaps the—common thread in Athens’ history in this Classical period is the people’s resilience. When faced with many adversities, the Athenians never gave up hope and fought for their cherished democracy and freedom. Under Philip and his son Alexander the Great, they remained cowed, and in the following two centuries of Macedonian rule Athens was a very different place. It suffered a decline in military and naval power, faced considerable economic distress, suffered a property requirement for citizenship, which saw the expulsion of thousands of citizens, and endured periods of autocratic rule and even Macedonian garrisons in the port of Piraeus and on the Museum Hill, within eyesight of the Acropolis.
Nothing much seemed to change in the middle of the second century when Macedonia fell to Rome, and the latter annexed Greece and Macedonia into its empire. Now subject to Rome’s will, the Athenians saw their city increasingly “Romanized” with new buildings under Caesar, Augustus, and (in the first century AD) Hadrian, the appropriation of much of their (and Greek) culture by Rome, and their patron deity Athena having to share her home, the Acropolis, with the goddess Roma when the imperial cult was established in the city. Arguably nowhere is the mastery of Rome more evident than on an inscription on the famous Arch to Hadrian of AD 132: “This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus.”
At first sight we have a dreary, unexciting, second-rate Athens compared to its illustrious past. Nothing is further from the truth, as I show in my Athens After Empire. Instead of studying post-Classical Athens just in the “Hellenistic” era (from Alexander’s death in 323 to 30, when Egypt fell to Rome), as is the norm, I take Athenian history as a single block from Alexander’s death to AD 132 under Hadrian.
Certainly, Athens suffered in this long period. But as in Classical times, the people’s nature never changed: they fought for freedom and to regain their democracy, even against impossible odds. Their resilience and defiance are defining features that hitherto have been overlooked.
Thus in 268, despite Macedonian troops in their city, the Athenians allied to Egypt and Sparta against Antigonus II of Macedonia in the Chremonidean War. Seven years later, Antigonus had defeated his enemies, and Athens suffered his wrath. But in 229 the city managed to regain its independence, carefully remaining neutral while it tended to its standing in Greece and overseas as well as economic recovery. Then came warfare with Philip V of Macedonia in 200, with the people turning to Rome for help against his attacks.
Still, Athens continued to increase its influence, though always under Rome’s thumb. When in the 80s Mithridates VI of Pontus (Black Sea) called on the Greeks to support his war against Rome in return for championing their freedom, Athens was quick to join him. That decision led to their darkest hour, when in retaliation the Roman general Sulla besieged and sacked the city in 86, slaughtering indiscriminately and destroying many buildings.
Decades of economic distress followed until the Athenian recovered, ironically restoring some buildings and constructing a new market area funded by Roman money—specifically from Pompey and Caesar. Then came the final years of the Roman Republic, in which Athens found itself as a refuge for Brutus after Caesar’s assassination, as a home for Mark Antony after he defeated Brutus and Cassius, and as subservient to Octavian after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium.
Even so the people stayed defiant. When Augustus visited the city in 21, he was angered that they had splashed blood on the statue of Athena on the Acropolis and turned it to face westward, making it look like the goddess was contemptuously spitting on Rome. Under the emperors the Athenians were left to their own devices, though they singled out Claudius for special honors and received a visit from Trajan. Then under Hadrian the city was catapulted again to prominence in the Greek world, for in AD 132 he made it the center of his new league of cities in the east, the Panhellenion.
That is why the fall of Greece to Macedonia and the policies of Hadrian bookend post-Classical Athens: from dominance to fall to resurrection. And during that time many of the city’s institutions, religious and civic, continued to function (albeit restricted), and as the center for philosophy and rhetoric it enticed many Romans to visit and study there and to appropriate aspects of Greek culture for their own political and cultural ends.
Athens was still a vibrant city, its rich and varied history continued, and it commanded respect in the Greek world and even Rome. Some years after Chaeronea, the orator Demosthenes argued that while the Athenians lost that battle, they had fought for the noblest of causes, freedom, and would have made their ancestors who fought the Persians for the same ideal proud. The Athenians of the post Classical period were no different; they were often down, but never out.