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.
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.
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.
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.
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.