10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens

Khalid Elhassan - August 4, 2017

Ancient Athens is often referred to as “The Cradle of Western Civilization” because of the impact and influence of its political and cultural achievements, particularly during the Classical period (508 – 322 BC), on subsequent European development. Following are ten prominent figures from Ancient Athens.


Solon (630-560 BC), nicknamed “The Lawgiver“, established the foundations of the subsequent Athenian democracy. He is credited with reforms that ended the aristocracy’s exclusive control of government, replacing a political system controlled by a blood nobility with an oligarchy controlled by the wealthy, regardless of pedigree. For millennia, wealth had been based on land ownership, which ownership was disproportionately concentrated in the hands of a hereditary aristocracy. As in the rest of Greece, Athens was dominated by nobles who owned the best land and monopolized government.

The Athenian region of Attica was made of three parts: The Plains, a prosperous agricultural interior; The Coast, which relied on fishing and trade; and The Hills, an impoverished region containing a majority of the population, mostly shepherds and small farmers scratching a living from poor soil. Over the centuries, a pattern had developed in which poor farmers borrowed seed from rich aristocrats to plant, then repaid the loan at harvest time with grain and labor.

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
Solon. Sententiae Antiquae

That pattern was disrupted in the 7th century BC when commerce revived after a centuries-long slump, and the non-aristocratic Athenians of the coast got into seaborne trade, bought land with their profits, and, using slave labor, farmed it more efficiently than the aristocrats. The aristocrats, finding themselves outcompeted by the nouveau riche, resorted to squeezing their poorer neighbors, enslaving them and seizing their farms whenever they failed to repay their seed loans on time.

That outraged other Athenians – not that they objected to slavery per se, but to the enslavement of Athenians. That, combined with the resentment of the middling farmers, craftsmen, and rising merchants at their exclusion from government, brought Athens to the brink of revolution. So the citizen body met in the Ecclesia, the Athenian Assembly, and entrusted Solon, a respected aristocrat, to reform Athens, binding themselves with solemn oaths to accept his decisions.

Solon’s reforms solved the immediate problem, even as they upset all sides. The wealthy were upset because he canceled debts, freed the Athenian debt slaves, and prohibited the future enslavement of Athenians. The aristocrats were upset because he granted the vote to all adult male citizens, regardless of class or wealth. The poor were upset because he did not return the lands that had been seized by the aristocrats, refused to break up the big estates and redistribute the land, and because he reserved all posts in the Athenian government for the wealthy. And the wealthy were split because some government positions were reserved for aristocrats, to the exclusion of non-nobles.

Despite the discontent, the Athenians kept their promise to accept Solon’s decision. That done, and in order to avoid having to constantly defend and explain the reforms, Solon left the Athenians to work out the kinks in his new system, and went traveling, informing his fellow citizens that he would be gone for at least ten years.

Solon’s reforms alleviated the immediate crisis and averted civil war, but they did not resolve many underlying tensions that would continue to plague Athens for years. Solon took the first steps by making all citizens equal before the law and reducing the power of the aristocracy, but it would take generations of reformers to build upon and fine tune what he had created before Athenian democracy was established.

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
Peisistratos. Alchetron


When he returned from traveling, Solon discovered that Athens had divided into regional factions, one of them controlled by Peisistratos, a popular general whom Solon suspected of planning to overthrow the government and set himself up as tyrant. In Ancient Greece, “tyrant” did not carry the modern connotations of brutal oppression. It had instead a narrower meaning of a populist strongman who, with a support base of commoners excluded from power by an aristocracy, overthrew an oligarchy and replaced it with his own one-man rule. Many tyrants were wildly popular – except with the aristocracy.

Commoners had little power in the aristocratic system, so they were no worse off ruled by one tyrant than when they had been ruled by a clique of nobles. Moreover, with the power of an overbearing aristocracy reduced, government under tyrants tended to be more equitable, rather than wildly skewed to benefit the nobles. Economically, commoners also tended to be better off under tyrants, who usually encouraged activities such as commerce and crafts and manufactures, that had previously been viewed by the aristocracy as socially gauche, and even threatening insofar as they destabilized the social order by making jumped up commoners as rich as or richer than their social betters.

A tyranny was thus often a predicate for democracy because it removed from its path the barrier of a strongly entrenched aristocracy. Tyrants had an interest in weakening the nobles who had monopolized power for centuries, so they adopted populist policies that appealed to commoners, whose support was necessary for the tyrant’s continued hold on power. Only after the aristocracy had been weakened, and its stranglehold on power broken, would there be an opening for democracy.

Which is what happened in Athens. Its poorest and most populous region, the hill district whose impoverished residents got little from Solon’s reforms other than a meaningless vote, invited Peisistratos to make himself a tyrant. With their support, he marched on the city in a procession headed by a tall girl dressed up as the goddess Athena, who blessed Peisistratos and declared it her divine will that he be made a tyrant.

The other Athenians saw through the mummery and chased Peisistratos and his followers out of town. Fleeing, he bought silver and gold mines in northern Greece and got rich off their proceeds. Then, investing his wealth in mercenaries, returned to Athens and tried again, this time with a well-equipped private army instead of a girl dressed up as a goddess. It worked, and in 546 BC, he overthrew the government and had himself proclaimed tyrant.

Championing the lower classes, his tyranny was a wild success. He suppressed the feuding factions, exiled his aristocratic enemies and confiscated their landholdings, which he broke up into small farms and redistributed to his followers, thus cementing their support. He also loaned small farmers money for tools; lowered taxes; standardized currency; enforced the laws even-handedly; promoted the growing of olives and grapes; encouraged commerce and craftsmen; funded popular religious rites such as the Dionysia; promoted theater, culture, and the arts; built an aqueduct; implemented a public buildings program, and beautified the city.

By the time Peisistratos died, circa 527 BC, Athens was peaceful and more prosperous than it had ever been, with a growing and increasingly affluent middle class.

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
Cleisthenes. Short History


Cleisthenes, born circa 570 BC and referred to as “The Father of Athenian Democracy”, is credited with creating the system that, with incremental reforms, governed Athens during the Classical era. After Peisistratos died in 527 BC, he was succeeded as co-tyrants by his sons Hippias and Hipparchus. The duo governed Athens competently and with a light hand until Hipparchus was assassinated in 514 BC in a private feud stemming from a romance that went bad. After his brother’s assassination, Hippias grew paranoid, and his rule became oppressive as he lashed out indiscriminately at enemies real and imagined.

Hippias’ descent into violence eroded the popularity the tyranny had enjoyed since the days of Peisistratos, as the number of victims and exiles forced to flee Athens grew. One exile was Cleisthenes, who began plotting with other exiles to overthrow the tyranny. Invasion was considered, but Hippias had a well-equipped army, while the exiles did not, and lacked the funds for an army of their own. So they sought to enlist the help of Sparta, which had the Greek world’s best army, to liberate Athens.

To induce help from the Spartans, who were known for their piety, the exiles bribed the priests of Delphi, the Greek world’s most important religious site and home of the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle, which for centuries had given petitioners cryptic answers that could be interpreted in a variety of ways, suddenly began giving every Spartan petitioner who showed up the same uncryptic answer: “Liberate Athens!“.

So the Spartans marched into Attica in 508 BC, liberated Athens, then marched back home. The Athenians left to govern themselves, immediately split into rival camps: an oligarchic camp led by Isagoras, that wanted government returned to the hands of the wealthy, and a populist camp led by Cleisthenes and comprising a majority of Athenians, which declared Athens a democracy ruled by a popular Assembly.

Cleisthenes’ camp prevailed, but the oligarchic faction solicited Spartan aid to overthrow the democracy. The Spartans, no fans of democracy, sent another army to Attica, overthrew the democracy, and replaced it with an oligarchy. Cleisthenes and 700 democracy-supporting Athenian families were exiled. However, Cleisthenes and the exiles soon returned, the population rose up in revolt, and the aristocratic faction and the Spartans were besieged in the Acropolis, Athens’ fortified hilltop. The rebels allowed the Spartans to leave, but the Athenian anti-democrats were massacred.

Having decisively dealt with the oligarchic threat, Cleisthenes set about establishing the Athenian democracy. The major reform was the reorganization of the citizen body (demos) of Athens. Before, Athenians had been grouped into four tribes, based on kin groups. Cleisthenes argued that such grouping lent itself too readily to factionalism.

Instead, Cleisthenes instituted an artificial classification system that divided the citizen body into ten at-large tribes, with membership drawn at random from all classes and all parts of Attica. With each tribe thus containing a representative sample of the entire population, including all classes and regions, the incentives for parochialism would be eliminated, as no tribe would have cause to act out of geographical or familial loyalties at the expense of Athens as a whole.

A new council, the boule, was created, in which all citizens had the right to speak. At a stroke, Cleisthenes thus eliminated the parochialism that had plagued Athens for generations and granted the entire male citizen population access to institutions and powers previously reserved for the aristocracy. Another of Cleisthenes’ reforms was ostracism, whereby an annual vote would be held in which each citizen could name any person he thought was too dangerous or getting too powerful for the good of the city. The citizen receiving the most votes would be exiled for ten years, without prejudice to his property while he was gone, or to his citizenship rights upon his return.

Cleisthenes’ reforms thus established basic democracy in Athens and created the constitutional structure by which further incremental reforms would be made to transform Athens into a direct democracy.

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
Miltiades bust in Athens War Museum. Ancient History


Miltiades (550 – 489 BC) was an Athenian general best known for his victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.

Miltiades was born into a wealthy aristocratic family, which owned a private kingdom in the Chersonese (today’s Gallipoli Peninsula) that Miltiades inherited in 516 BC. In 513 BC, Darius I of Persia invaded the Chersonese, and Miltiades surrendered, accepted the role of vassal, and accompanied Darius on a campaign against the Scythians.

When the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor revolted against Persian rule in 499 BC, Miltiades marched against the rebels, but secretly supported their cause and helped funnel them aid from Athens. Athens sent an expeditionary force which joined the rebels in marching to the Persian governor’s seat in Sardis, putting it to the torch.

When the Persians crushed the revolt in 495 BC, they learned of Miltiades’ betrayal, and he was forced to flee to Athens, where he was elected one of its ten generals. The Persians determined to punish Athens for aiding the Ionians and sent a seaborne punitive expedition which landed on the plain of Marathon north of Athens, in 490 BC.

The Athenians marched out with a force of about 10,000 hoplites – armored heavy infantry – with no cavalry or archers, to confront a Persian force of at least 25,000 infantry, plus thousands of archers and 1000 cavalry. The Athenians, who had ten generals and a rotating command system by which each general held command for a day, wavered. For over a week, they simply watched the Persians from heights overlooking Marathon. Until Miltiades’ turn to take overall command.

Miltiades convinced a closely divided war council to give battle. Descending from the heights, Miltiades assembled the army with reinforced flanks and a weakened center, and advanced. Once they got within Persian archery range, Miltiades ordered his men to charge at a full run, in order to spend the least amount of time under a rain of arrows.

They rapidly closed the distance and smashed into the more lightly armed Persians. The Athenians’ reinforced flanks pushed back their opposition, then wheeled inwards to attack the Persian center, which panicked, broke, and fled in a rout to the safety of their beached ships.

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
Battle of Marathon. Ancient History

It was a stunning victory, with the Athenians and their allies losing about 200 dead to the Persians’ 6400. Miltiades returned to Athens in glory, but it would not last. The following year, he led a strong expedition against some Greek islands that had supported the Persians, but bungled it badly, and suffered a severe leg wound in the process. Returning to Athens, his defeat seemed so absurd to his fellow citizens that only deliberate treachery could explain it. Put on trial for treason, he was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was reduced to a heavy fine. He was sent to prison, where he died soon thereafter when his leg wound became infected.

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
Themistocles. Pintrest


Themistocles (524 – 460 BC) was the creator of Athens’ sea power, and the naval strategist who saved Greece from Persian subjugation with a victory at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. Born to an aristocratic father and a non-Greek concubine, he was not eligible for Athenian citizenship until Cleisthenes’ reforms made citizens of all free men in Athens. That made him a lifelong champion of democracy.

After the victory at Marathon, most Athenians thought the danger had passed, but not Themistocles. In the 480s BC, Athens’ state-owned silver mines struck a rich vein, and many Athenians called for dividing the windfall among the citizens. Themistocles, convinced that the Persians would return, called for investing the new riches on warships.

There was strong opposition: a strong navy would entail higher taxes borne by the rich, even as it enhanced the political clout of the poor classes who would row those ships. A land strategy based on hoplites, such as those who had won at Marathon, would cost less, without eroding the monopoly of the middle and upper classes – the ones who could afford to equip themselves as hoplites – on the prestige of being the city’s sole protectors and bearers of arms.

Themistocles engineered the ostracism of his opponents, then won the Assembly’s approval for his ship-building program. By 480 BC, when the Persians returned, Athens had over 200 triremes – as many as the rest of Greece, combined – and booming shipyards that were kept busy, churning out new warships. After overcoming a Spartan force at Thermopylae, the Persians advanced on and seized a nearly deserted Athens, whose citizens had been evacuated to the nearby island of Salamis, razed the city’s walls, and burned the place the ground.

Off Salamis, the decisive battle of the war was fought. Athens’ Greek allies wavered and were on the verge of taking their ships and going home, when Themistocles forced a battle by tricking the Persian king into believing he had changed sides, and convinced him to attack the Greek ships in restricted waters with tricky tide and wind patterns of which the Greeks were aware, but the Persians were not. The Persians came to grief and the Greeks won a decisive victory. Afterward, Themistocles led a naval expedition that toured the Greek islands, demanding contributions to pay for the war effort.

When the Athenians returned to their destroyed city, their Spartan allies asked them not to rebuild the city’s walls as a sign of good faith. Themistocles led a delegation to Sparta to negotiate and dragged out the negotiations while the Athenians feverishly rebuilt the city walls. By the time the Spartans caught on, the walls had already been erected.

In subsequent years, Themistocles’ political fortunes declined. Not given to gratitude for long, the Athenians ostracized and exiled him some years after Salamis. Nimble, he went to Persia and ended his days governing some Greek cities in Asia minor on behalf of the Persian king.

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
Acropolis. Realm of History


Ephialtes was the reformer who initiated the final transformation of Athens into a radical democracy. He was strongly opposed by the conservative Athenian upper classes, who, under the leadership of Cimon, son of Miltiades, had the upper hand and controlled the Assembly. That changed when, in 464 BC, Sparta appealed to Athens for help in suppressing a Helot serf revolt. Over Ephialtes’ strong objections, Cimon carried the day and convinced the Assembly to send an Athenian force to help Sparta, but when they arrived, the Spartans changed their minds, and fearing that their democratic notions might infect their remaining Helots and inflame them into joining the revolt, sent the Athenians back.

In the ensuing outcry, Cimon’s humiliated faction lost credibility, and leading conservatives were put on trial for corruption. Ephialtes engineered Cimon’s ostracism and exile assumed the mantle of Athenian leadership and launched his program of radical reforms. His greatest reform was to emasculate the Areopagus, a council of city elders similar to the Roman Senate, comprised of those who had held high public office, and that was more conservative than the citizen Assembly. It served as Athens’ highest tribunal, with jurisdiction over all cases, including constitutional review of the Assembly’s enactments, which effectively gave the Areopagus a legislative veto over the more democratic Assembly.

Ephialtes stripped the Areopagus of nearly all its powers, transferring them to more democratic bodies whose membership was drawn by lot, such as the Boule and the Heliaia. The Areopagus’ remit was narrowed to jurisdiction over murder and arson cases. He also reduced property qualifications for officeholders and introduced pay for the holders of public office, enabling poorer citizens to hold offices that previously had been the preserve of the wealthy.

Ephialtes’ reforms were strongly resented by the oligarchic faction, who had him assassinated in 461 BC. His deputy, Pericles, took the leadership reins, and completed Ephialtes’ agenda, finalizing the transformation of Athens into a direct democracy.

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
Aeschylus. Ancient History


Aeschylus (525 – 455 BC), arguably the founder of serious drama, and referred to as “The Father of Tragedy“, was Ancient Greece’s greatest playwright, who wrote over 90 plays, half of them winning prizes at Athens’ great drama festivals. According to tradition, he used to work in a vineyard, until he was visited in his sleep by the god Dionysius, who ordered him to write tragedies instead.

Greek tragedy was typically performed at religious festivals, such as the Athenian Dionysia, during which three playwrights competed for a prize with three tragedies and a comedy each.

Acting as we understand the term today, and thus theater, movies, and our favorite television series, can all be traced back to Aeschylus’ innovations. Before, theater had consisted of a narrator telling a story, broken at intervals with a chorus singing and dancing. Aeschylus was the first to produce plays in which the story was conveyed by actors playing out roles and exchanging dialogue.

Aeschylus was also noted for the use of striking imagery, and extravagant costumes. He was the first to introduce a wheeled platform to change stage scenery and employed a crane to lift actors for use in scenes that entailed flight or descent from the heavens.

The main themes of Aeschylus’ plays were conflicts between men and the gods, between the individual and the state, and the inevitability of divine retribution for misdeeds. As playwrights submitted three tragedies when competing at the drama festivals, Aeschylus took to linking his three plays into a trilogy, which followed a family over several generations, such as the Oresteia, which dealt with Agamemnon and his descendants in the aftermath of the Trojan War.

The turbulence of Aeschylus’ own era, particularly the Persian Wars, strongly influenced his plays. He fought in the Battle of Marathon, in which his brother was killed. He also fought at the battles of Artemisium and Salamis. Those experiences found expression in the earliest of his surviving plays, The Persians.

For all his literary accomplishments, Aeschylus’ self-penned epitaph said nothing of his success as a playwright but simply stated what he was proudest of in his life and what he wanted to be remembered for: that he had fought at Marathon. Aeschylus’ surviving plays are still performed in theaters all around the world.

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
Pericles. Ancient History Encyclopedia


Pericles (495 – 429 BC) was Athens’ dominant political figure in the mid 5th century BC. The Athenian golden age, during which the city reached the apogee of its power and its empire reached its greatest extent, is also known as the “Age of Pericles“. He was born to a populist general, Xanthippus, who was ostracized and exiled in 484 BC but was recalled four years later during the crisis of the Persian invasion and led the Athenians at the Battle of Mycale.

He grew up wealthy, and was a patron of culture and the arts since his youth – Aeschylus’ oldest surviving play, The Persians, was paid for by Pericles in 472 BC. Pericles was also a friend and patron of Phidias, Ancient Greece’s greatest sculptor. During the Periclean Age, Athens flowered into a center of culture, art, education, and democracy.

Inheriting his father’s democratic leanings, by the 460s BC Pericles had become the deputy and right-hand man of Ephialtes, Athens’ radical democratic leader. When Ephialtes was assassinated in 461 BC, Pericles stepped into his shoes, completed the reform agenda, and dominated Athens until his death in 429 BC. A hawk, Pericles was a proponent of expanding Athens’ power abroad, and throughout his years in power aggressively advocated the expansion of Athenian dominance in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.

He successfully transformed the Delian League, which had started off as an anti-Persian defensive alliance headquartered in the island of Delos, into a de facto Athenian empire whose members were not permitted to leave, and who were compelled to pay annual taxes and other contributions into a treasury controlled by Athens. By the 440s BC, any remaining pretense was abandoned, and the Delian treasury was transferred from Delos to Athens, where it was used to pay for a magnificent public works program. Athens’ grandest monuments, such as the Acropolis and the Parthenon, were paid for by that act of brazen embezzlement.

In 431 BC, the drawn-out Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC) between Athens and Sparta began. Pericles ably led his city in the first two years, successfully neutralizing Sparta’s advantages as the Greek world’s most formidable land power, while leveraging Athens’ sea power to take the war to Sparta and her allies. However, a plague struck Athens in 429 BC, and Pericles was one of its victims.

Athens failed to produce another leader of Pericles’ caliber. The city, led by a series of lesser men during the prolonged conflict, lurched from mistake to mistake until the war ended in catastrophic Athenian defeat and collapse in 404 BC.

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
Alcibiades. Ancient History Encyclopedia


Alcibiades (450 – 404 BC) was a brilliant and unscrupulous Athenian politician and general. A relative of Pericles, he did not share his famous kinsman’s probity or commitment to democracy and was perhaps the most dynamic, adventurous, fascinating, and catastrophic Athenian leader of the Classical era.

Born into a wealthy family, his father was killed when Alcibiades was a toddler. Pericles became his guardian but was too busy with his duties as a statesman to provide the boy with the necessary guidance. Alcibiades thus grew into a dissipated man, whose gifts of brilliance and charm were counterbalanced by self-centeredness, irresponsibility, extravagance, and debauchery.

Growing up, Alcibiades was considered Athens’ most beautiful youth, and in an era when pederasty was widespread and acceptable, he was passionately pursued by many, and showered with gifts and flattery. Even Socrates was among his admirers. When the Peloponnesian War began, Alcibiades quickly gained a reputation for courage and military talent in battle, and for being a charismatic and persuasive speaker in the Assembly.

A hawk, by 420 he had become one of Athens’ generals, and strongly opposed reconciliation with Sparta. In 415, he convinced the Assembly to send a massive expedition to invade Sicily and conquer Syracuse. On the eve of sailing, however, statues of the god Hermes throughout the city were desecrated. Suspicion fell upon Alcibiades, whose dissolute clique had a reputation for drunken vandalism and impiety. He demanded an immediate trial, but his enemies allowed the expedition, whose ranks were disproportionately comprised of Alcibiades’ supporters, to sail on with the charges still hanging over him. Then, after the city had been largely emptied of Alcibiades’ partisans, a ship was sent to Sicily, summoning him to return to Athens and face trial before an Assembly in which his enemies were now a majority.

Rather than obey the summons, Alcibiades fled and defected to Sparta. He is credited with advising the Spartans to adopt the strategy which culminated in the near-complete annihilation of Athens’ Sicilian expedition – the force he had organized, convinced Athens to send to Sicily, and whose men he once led. That was the most catastrophic, and bloodiest, defeat suffered by Athens during the war. Of the tens of thousands of Athenians who took part, only a relative handful ever saw Athens again: those who were not massacred in the fighting were enslaved, then sent to Sicilian quarries where they were worked to death.

Additionally, he convinced the Spartans to abandon their strategy of marching into Attica each campaigning season, burning in looting, then retreating and repeating the cycle the following year. Instead, he had the Spartans establish a permanent fortified base in Attica, which allowed them to exert direct pressure on Athens year round. He also went to Ionia, where he stirred up a revolt against Athens by her allies and subject cities in Asia Minor.

Despite the valuable services he rendered Sparta, Alcibiades wore out his welcome after he was caught in bed with the wife of the Spartan king Agis II. Fleeing again, this time to the Persians, Alcibiades convinced them to adopt a strategy that would prolong the war as long as possible, keeping the Athenians and Spartans too busy fighting each other to challenge Persia’s interests.

Back in Athens, which was reeling from the string of military catastrophes that Alcibiades had helped inflict on his city, political turmoil led to an oligarchic coup. However, the Athenian fleet remained pro-democracy, and in the chaos, Alcibiades used his charisma to persuade the fleet to take him back.

From 411 to 408 BC, he led the Athenian fleet in a dramatic recovery, winning a series of stunning victories that turned the war around, and suddenly it was Sparta that was reeling and on the verge of collapse. He returned to Athens in 407 BC, where he received a rapturous welcome, his earlier treasons forgiven and temporarily forgotten, and was given supreme command in conducting the war.

However, the Athenians turned on Alcibiades a few months later, after a minor naval defeat when he was absent from the fleet. He fled again and having burned bridges with all sides, holed up in a fortified castle in Thrace, before fleeing even further away to take refuge in Phrygia. However, a Spartan delegation traveled to Phrygia and convinced its Persian governor to have Alcibiades murdered in 404 BC.

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
Plato. Encyclopedia Britannica


Plato (427 – 347 BC) was the student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle, and the trio laid the very foundations of Western philosophy and science. Plato ranks among history’s most influential figures, and for over two millennia has been one of the world’s most widely read and studied philosophers. In addition to his writings, he founded the Western World’s first institution of higher learning, The Academy in Athens.

Plato was born in a wealthy and conservative, even reactionary, family. He was related to two of the “Thirty Tyrants” who overthrew Athenian democracy and instituted a reign of terror after the city’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War. That family influence is reflected in Plato’s political philosophy, which is skeptical of democracy and favors enlightened authoritarianism.

The Thirty Tyrants were in turn overthrown, democracy was restored, and a counter-reaction set in against conservatism and anti-democratic thought, culminating in Socrates’ execution in 399 BC. Many of the Thirty Tyrants had been students of Socrates, as had been the traitorous Alcibiades. From the perspective of pro-democracy Athenians, Socrates was not a harmless old man whose only crime was to ask questions, but a pernicious guru whose teachings catered to rich aristocrats hostile to democracy. Many of Socrates’ students had gone on to commit treason, joining the enemy during wartime in fighting against their city as did Alcibiades, or overthrowing the democratic government and replacing it with a repressive regime that engaged in widespread murder as did the Thirty Tyrants.

When the Athenians looked back at the glory days under Pericles, only three decades past, contrasted them with their reduced circumstances in the aftermath of catastrophic defeat and violent repression, and asked themselves “what went wrong?“, Socrates and his boat rocking were among the answers. Athens became unhealthy for students of Socrates, so Plato left and traveled around the Mediterranean, returning years later, after passions had cooled, and founded The Academy in the 380s BC. There, Plato would spend most of his remaining years teaching and writing.

The origins of Western political philosophy can be traced back to Plato’s writings, particularly the Republic and Laws. In addition to his impact on science, philosophy, politics, and education, Plato greatly influenced spirituality and religion. His impact on Christianity can be seen in the strong influence his philosophy exerted on Saint Augustine of Hippo, early Christianity’s most influential theologian, and one whose writings played an oversized role in shaping that religion and subsequent Western thought.

Among Plato’s innovations was the introduction of dialogue and dialectic forms in philosophical writings. In his books, characters engage in intellectual debates, during the course of which philosophic points are advanced, challenged, shot down, or honed.

Nothing written by Socrates has survived, and virtually all we know of his philosophy has been transmitted through Plato, whose early writings are generally considered to be Plato’s account of Socrates’ life and thought. Plato’s later writings, such as his best-known book, the Republic, are deemed to contain Plato’s own philosophy, as the main characters speak for Plato himself.


Sources For Further Reading:

World History – Ancient Athens

The Atlantic – What Made Ancient Athens a City of Genius?

Encyclopedia Britannica – Solon

Constitutional Rights Foundation – Solon Put Athens on the Road to Democracy

Ancient Origins – Assassins in Ancient Athens: The Tyrannicides, Harmodius and Aristogeiton

History Hit – How Significant Was the Battle of Salamis?

Greek Reporter – How Ancient Greeks Harnessed Wind Power to Win the Battle of Salamis

Mvorganizing – What Was A Helot In Spartan Society?

The Collector – The Ancient Festivals Of Dionysus In Athens: ‘Euhoi Bacchoi’

Aeschylus – The Oresteian Trilogy

Aeschylus – The Persae

Getty – A Guide to Aeschylus’s “Persians”

PBS – How Salamis was remembered – Aeshylus’ The Persians

New York Times – ‘The Persians’ Review: Aeschylus’s Ancient Portrait of Defeat

ThoughtCo – Biography of Alcibiades, Ancient Greek Soldier-Politician

Grin – Why Did the Sicilian Expedition Fail?

Daily History – What Was The Impact Of The Defeat Of The Sicilian Expedition On Athens?

History Collection – Democracy, Disability & Death: 7 Amazing Facts About Ancient Greece