Home / Ancient Greece 3000 B.C. - 323 B.C. / The Golden Age of Athens 480 B. C. to 430 B. C.

The Golden Age of Athens 480 B. C. to 430 B. C.

When Themistocles and the people of Athens came home from Salamis, they found only the ashes of a city. Their houses and shops were gone. The Acropolis was littered with chunks of broken limestone and smoke-blackened statues, the ruins of their sacred temples. The years of war had taught the Athenians courage and victory gave them pride and hope. They began to build again.

While the citizens planned new houses, Themistocles planned new walls – walls around the city, walls to protect the harbour at Piraeus and walls along the four miles of road that connected the two. When they were finished, Athens would be an island, surrounded by ramparts of stone instead of the sea and as safe as Salamis.

The Spartans already jealous of the Athenian navy, wanted badly to stop the work on the walls. They wrote to Themistocles and asked him to join them in a pact to outlaw all city walls in Greece. Themistocles knew well enough what they were after, but he agreed to go to Sparta to talk. Once he was there, he kept the talk going for weeks. When the Spartans heard that the walls were still going up, they complained. Themistocles suggested that they send ambassadors to Athens to look for themselves. When the ambassadors returned, they said that the walls were indeed being worked on. “No” Themistocles said, “by now they are finished” and he left the conference.

It was a Spartan sort of trick and no one blamed Themistocles for it. In fact, many of the Greeks were pleased, not only because Sparta had been fooled, but Athens was the city they looked to as their defender against the Persians.

The Spartans had lost interest in fighting Persians, once their own land was safe. Athens, however, had carried the fight across the ocean, freeing and protecting the Greek cities on the islands and in Asia Minor. Then Themistocles organized a league to defend Greece and he offered the protection of the Athenian navy to everyone who joined. Dozens of cities, too small or too poor to pay for a strong fleet of their own, rushed to become members. Athens welcomed them all and asked them only to give what they could to help the League – ships, if they had them, or contributions to the war treasury. The money was sent for safekeeping to the shrine of the Oracle on the sacred island of Delos and people began to call the organization the Delian League.

The Athenian Empire

Athens was, ofcourse, much stronger than her allies. Some of the small cities began to wonder if “protecting” was the Athenian word for “ordering around”. The Delian League was gradually turning into a private sea empire, bringing riches and power to the proud new city growing up around the Acropolis.

There was no emperor in Athens. Themistocles was a general, a citizen whom other citizens had elected to do a job. To keep his job, he had to please the thousands of men who voted in the Assembly. They were still the real rulers of the polis.

When the Assembly met, on the wide, sloping plain below the hill called the Pnyx, the Herald cried: “Who wishes to speak?” Any citizen would answer, climb up the three stone steps to the platform and have his say. He had to speak well. The crowd was full of sharp-tongued fellows who liked nothing better than heckling a foolish speaker. They poked fun at his tangled words, confused his ideas and finished him off with impolite comments on the shape of his nose or ears. Many young politicians gave up and hurried of the platform. However, a man like Themistocles, one who chose his words well and sent them ringing across the hillside, could silence the wise-crackers in a minute. He could win elections too and lead the people, not by commanding them, but by talking them into agreeing with his ideas.

It was impossible, however, to please of all the people all of the time. The citizens were quick to forget a man’s years of loyal service if he just once said or did something to displease them. The day came when Themistocles’ speeches lost their magic. His enemies said he had become too proud and the Athenians voted for him to leave the polis.

Their new favourite was Cimon, a big, jolly general whom no one could call too proud. He ate and drank with the people, joked with them. He had the walls of his garden torn down so that anyone could walk in and enjoy it. His table was always set with extra places for Athens’ poor and when he walked about the streets, he was followed by slaves who wore warm clothes and traded them for the tattered cloaks of penniless Athenians. Cimon, too, was sent away. He and the citizens had agreed to be more friendly with Sparta. The Spartans answered with an insult and the citizens of Athens changed their minds. Next, Cimon’s chief rival was put out of the way, by murderers. That left Pericles as the leading citizen of Athens and he was a very different sort of man from all the others.

Pericles was a nobleman. He was a quiet man, a scholar who had no patience for the whims by which many men ran their lives and cities. He rarely wandered among the common people, as Cimon had and he refused to flatter them. Unlike Themistocles, he never hurried to speak in the Assembly. However, when he did speak, he was called the “Zeus of Athens”. It was said that he had thunder and lightning on his tongue. One man who tried to argue with him at the Assembly said that if he had wrestled Pericles and beaten him, Pericles could have persuaded the people who had watched that it had not happened.

There were politicians who said that, with such powers, Pericles could make himself the tyrant of Athens, or even its king. Pericles was the grandnephew of Cleisthenes, the man who had started Athenian democracy. He said he would trust the votes of the citizens and the citizens voted for him for more than thirty years. Pericles helped to make them years of greatness, a Golden Age of wealth, beauty and wisdom. All that was best in the Greek world came to Athens and seemed to become better there. Centuries later, when people spoke with wonder about “the glories of Greece,” they usually meant Athens in the time of Pericles.

Athens, the wonder of the world, was not a place where rich men built palaces, lived in luxury and wore their gold around their necks and fingers and foreheads. The city streets were narrow and dark. The house fronts were plain, a stretch of unpainted clay brick wall with one door and no windows.

Life in Athens

The house inside the wall was just as simple. The front door led to a courtyard, surrounded by columns and a covered porch, which was the sitting room in good weather. Doors from the porch led to a long dining room, a second courtyard for the women, the big room that belonged to the master and mistress of the house, a row of dark little bedrooms and a tiny kitchen. There was no chimney for the kitchen fore, just a hole in the roof; when dinner was cooking, smoke often filled the room or blew out the door. The floors of the house were earth with a layer of pebbles beaten into it. Its furniture was well-made and handsome, but there was not much of it. There were couches in the dining room and bedrooms, a few low chairs and tables, footstools and chests that served as cupboards.

When foreigners came to Athens, they were puzzled by these plain houses. Where, they asked, does Pericles live and the people with money? “In houses like these,” was the answer.

The Athenians, like most Greeks, had little interest in possessions, the comforts and luxuries that other people said they needed. The climate was so good that a man spent most of his time outdoors. His house was only a place for eating and sleeping. As for expensive clothes and fancy food, he had never had them, so he did not miss them.

When an Athenian gentlemen woke up in the morning – on a couch that had neither springs not sheets – he got up, folded a length of white wool cloth around him once, pinned it at the shoulders, tied a sash and he was dressed. If he was going out, as he always was, he would probably put on a cloak, too. He took a minute or two to set the folds just so; people judged a man by the careful arrangement of his clothes. His breakfast was a cup of wine mixed with honey and hot water – morning coffee in Athens – and a toasted barley cake. He did not use butter, because butter was an ointment for rubbing into the skin. He had heard that the people in Thebes ate the stuff, but it sounded like a disgusting habit and no Athenian would try it.

After breakfast, he set out for the market place. His first stop was the barber shop, where he had his beard trimmed and his hair combed. Here, too, he caught up on the news. Athens had no newspaper, but the barber shop served the purpose very well. Next he went to buy groceries at the stalls under the awnings on the north side of the square. He sent his slave home with the food and then it was time for business.

Merchants and craftsmen kept shop in the side streets or in the stoas, the long covered porches that overlooked the square. Bankers and shipping men also met their clients in the stoas. In fact, nearly everyone took a stroll through the porches at some time during the morning, because there was always someone there to talk to. Talk was Athens’ favourite occupation.

The morning’s business was often government business. Pericles said that a man who took no part in the city’s democracy was worse than harmless, he was useless. When the assembly met once every ten days or so, a rope dripping with red paint was swept across the market place to hurry up the dawdlers and a red blot on a man’s cloak cost him a fine. Voting was only one part of a citizen’s duties. All the day-to-day jobs of running the polis were done by citizens. They served for a year and then handed over their duties to other citizens. Well-known men were elected to the important councils, but anyone might be chosen as a juryman, an official of his clan, a market inspector, or a record keeper. Pericles had arranged for small salaries to be paid for many of the jobs so that poor men would not be made poorer by working for the city. A citizen, however, would often work without pay.

Time for Leisure

Time was the one thing in which a Greek was rich – time for his polis, time for the talk he loved, time to enjoy himself. Slaves did some of his work. Foreign craftsmen, who were not citizens, made many of the things he used and foreign merchants ran the shops where he bought them. His wife and the household slaves took care of his home. Since he has no use for many of the things people of other countries said they needed, he did not have to spend his time earning the money to buy them. When he went for lunch – an egg or some fish, with fruit for dessert – his day’s business was usually finished.


After lunch, he went back to the market place for a chat or walked out to the Lyceum or the Academy, the athletic fields in the lovely open country outside the city walls. There he and his friends strolled along the paths that wound through the olive groves at the edge of the fields – or perhaps they found seats on the benches and watched the young men practising for the Games. Some of them left the loungers and ran out to exercise with the athletes, wrestling, running, or hurling javelins. From time to time young men came in from the field to join one of the gatherings in the grove. Some of the groups were like clubs; the same men met together every day. Others gathered around one man, a teacher or wise man who had come to Athens because it was a place where he was free to speak his mind.

When the shadows of the olive trees, lengthening along the ground, showed that sunset was an hour or two away, the strollers started to the city to get ready for dinner. If they were invited out, they stopped first at the public bath. There a slave rubbed them with the olive oil which did for soap, then scraped off the oil and the dirt with a metal scraper and finished the “bath” with a dousing of cold water from a pitcher. It was said that some people had taken to bathing in tubs of warm water, but, like eating butter, it was something an Athenian did not care to try.

At dusk, the guests knocked on their host’s front door. All of them were men, for no respectable lady dined in the company of any man except her husband. As the guests came into the house, they kicked off their sandals. A slave washed the street dust from their feet. He gave them garlands of flowers to wear and showed them into the dining room. There the fine wooden couches, with their inlay of ivory and silver or gold, had been brushed. Small tables were drawn up to them and oil lamps threw a soft light. The guests lay on the couches, propped up by pillows and their left elbows. They were light eaters, not like the old Achaeans. They enjoyed a bit of sausage, meat pudding and roasted pigeon. They liked the flavours to be strong and their favourite vegetable was garlic. Since they had only one hand free to pick up food, the dinner was cut up by servants before it was brought to the tables. There were no knives and forks and spoons were used only for soft things, like eggs. Otherwise, the diners ate with their fingers, wiping them on napkins or bits of bread.

Evening in Athens

When the guests had had their fill, the slaves took away the tables and brought them back with dessert – fruit, cakes, nuts and olives. Then with much ceremony, the wine was served. It was rich and thick as syrup, so it usually was mixed with water. The slaves did the mixing in a huge bowl, then ladled the wine into wide, shallow cups made of pottery as thin and delicate as fine china.


The Symposium

The evening’s entertainment, the Symposium, began. First, the host poured out three cups of wine as sacrifices to the Gods of Olympus, to the Heroes and to Zeus. He wished his guests good health and they toasted him in return. Then he called for the entertainers – slave girls who danced and played flutes, or a singer who accompanied himself on a lyre. At a big party, there might also be clowns or acrobats or jugglers, but the Athenians were well prepared to entertain themselves. Each man had his own stock of songs to sing and always there was talk. At some houses it was jokes and riddles; at others, it was a serious discussion of Athens’ problems and the chances of war, or an argument about the life of man or the ways of the gods. What other men did in the books, the Greeks did in talk.

When the lamps flickered low and the men began to nod, a final cup of wine was sacrificed to Hermes, the messenger god who guarded travellers on the road. The guests wished their host good night. Outside in the street, their slaves waited with torches to light the way home. Around the corner came the young guests from another party, marching six abreast and singing at the top of their voices. When the first cocks crowed in the morning, it was time again to go to the market place.

It was a good life and if a man’s house was plain, he had only to look at the Acropolis to see the most beautiful buildings in the world. The smoke-stained ruins were gone, dragged off the Rock by the order of Pericles. Now he and the Athenians were covering the hill with splendid new temples for the gods who had helped them to defeat the Persians.


Pericles had hired the finest architects in Greece. He had asked a friend, the great sculptor Phidias, to plan the carvings and the statues. When the work started, nearly every artist and craftsman in Athens had a part in it. It was not a job for gangs of slaves, like those who had built the Egyptian’s temples. Infact there were no great gangs of workmen at all. Each craftsman made a contract to do a small portion of the work. A stonecutter was hired to shape one column. A man with a cart agreed to haul so many pieces of marble. He did the job with his own little crew of several freemen and slaves. As the columns grew tall, carpenters were hired to build the wooden roofs and Phidias’ sculptors began to carve the rows of figures on the marble slabs that ran along the tops of the columns. In other parts of the city, foundrymen were already casting the great bronze statues. Goldsmiths, dyers, tapestry weavers and workers in ivory were fashioning thousands of decorations for the gods’ new homes.

Each man tried to outdo all the others, to make his work the most perfect piece of work. Phidias himself made the colossal bronze statue of Athena of the Vanguard, which was to go near the entrance of the Acropolis. For Athena’s temple, he carved another statue of the goddess, the one of ivory. She seemed to have skin that glowed with life and her golden cloak hung so softly that it seemed to move in the breeze.


In the old days, the Greeks’ statues had not looked half so real. The handsome stone figures had strength, but they were stiff. Then sculptors like Phidias came to understand more about anatomy, the way bones link together and muscles change shape when men move. Their new statues were graceful and true to life. When people saw them, they thought of the tale of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his own statue of a woman and begged Aphrodite to bring her to life so he could marry her. Pygmalion’s statue, like the rest, was more beautiful than any real person. A Greek was not satisfied with things as they were. When he made something, he tried to make it perfect. It was his way to be a little like god. The architect who planned a temple tried to find one shape that was so right that no change could possibly make it better.

As the work on the Acropolis went on, watching the builders became the favourite pastime in Athens. A crew with a tricky job to do was sure to have a good-sized audience. Pericles himself kept a sharp eye on the project and he was pleased to see how quickly it was going. Soon the stonecutters had finished and painters climbed the scaffolding to add touches of purple, blue and crimson to the white of the marble. The statues were then set into place.

Then the world came to see Athens’ Acropolis, for the stories of its magnificent beauty had already spread across the Mediterranean. As travelers sailed into the port at Piracus, they could see the gleam of bronze from the spear of Phidias’ giant Athena on the mountain four miles away. When they reached the city and walked up the acropolis itself, they passed first through a vast entryway with five tall doorways and rows of columns topped with a brightly painted ceiling. This was Propylea, the gates of the sacred hill. To the left, the visitors saw a gallery of pictures. On the right, perched high upon a rock, was the beautiful little temple that belonged to Nike, the goddess of victory. Beyond the doorways were the hills where pilgrims gathered, but most visitors walked on, into the brilliant sunlight of the hilltop. Before them, towering five stories high, stood the bronze goddess whose spear they had seen from the harbour. The Erectheum, a temple built to honour a founder of the city, was on their left. When they could take their eyes of the goddess, they looked first to the right, for there stood the greatest of Greek temples.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon, Athena’s own house, was built of creamy white marble from the slopes of Mount Pontelicus in Attica. In time – a thousand years or more – the iron that was in the stone turned it a soft honey colour. Nothing could change the fact that Ictinus, the architect whom Pericles asked to plan the temple, had found that one perfect design for which he searched. To the visitors who stared up at his great building, it somehow gave the feeling of both calm and power, just as Athena was the goddess of both wisdom and war. Ictinus had been afraid that a building so big would seem to sit heavily on the earth, so he planned the platform on which it stood to curve upward at the centre. He had noticed, too, that when he stood near the tall buildings, the walls seemed to lean out, even though they were really straight. To overcome this, he made the columns thicker at the middle and tilted them slightly inward.


Phidias and his sculptors had given their finest work to the Parthenon. At each end, in the triangular spaces under the roof, their carvings showed important events in the life of Athens; her birth and her contest with the god Poseidon for the honour of Athens. The great procession of the Panathenaic Festival paraded around the topmost walls of the temple in a long sculpture inside the row of columns. On the outside of the long pieces of stone that ran across the tops of the columns, marble gods fought fierce marble giants and their old tribe of Lapiths battled galloping Centaurs carved in stone. Each sculpture taught a lesson as well as told a tale. To the Greeks, the victory of the gods and the Lapiths showed the victory of order over the unruly strength of the beasts. It was the wisdom of Athens that had turned barbarians into the men of a Golden Age.

The Acropolis was dedicated to Athena. Honoured with the most perfect beauty that the minds and hands of men could make, she stood above her city of war and wisdom.

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