Athens (Acts 17)

Athens is situated 8 km from the Aegean Sea on the peninsula of Attica. Life there began at and has continued to revolve around the Acropolis, a rocky hill that rises 156 m above the city. It was there that Athenian culture gagan during the Neolithic Age (4000-3000 B.C.). Agricultural settlement on the Acropolis continued throughout the Bronze Age (3000-1100 B.C.), giving rise to the Mycenaean culture (1550-1050 B.C.), which saw the advent of commerce and the arts in the city. This culture declined during the twelfth century B.C, when Athens entered the Dark Ages, which were to last until the eighth century B.C.

The recorded history of Athens dates to the end of the seventh century B.C. Solon, an aristocrat who gained authority around 594 B.C., introduced the concept of democracy into Athenian culture. The same Solon, who was also a poet, used his art to install a sense of patriotism and care for the common good into the Athenian culture. The process of democratizing Athens was completed around the end of the sixth century B.C. under Cleisthenes.

Athens became a fortified city in the fifth century B.C. during the threat of Persian invasion. In 490 B.C. Darius sent an expeditionary force to attack Athens, but the Athenians defeated him on the plain of Marathon. In 480 B.C Xerxes, Darius’ son, made another attempt but was again forced to retreat. Although Athens withstood the invasion, the city was ravaged.

The 30 years following saw the rebuilding of Athens and the continued development of democracy. This period reached its zenith during the radical democratization under Pericles. During the years of his influence (450-429 B.C.), Athens experienced the height of her glory; during this time the city saw the construction of the great temples of the Acropolis. Of the four great buildings, the first to be constructed was the Propylaea, a gateway offering access to temples dedicatd to Athena Nike, as well as to the Erechtheum and the Parthenon, the masterpiece of ancient Greek architecture constructed from 447 to 432 B.C.

At height of its power Athens dedicated itself to learning and art, with philosophy, rhetoric, drama and science becoming the focus of the educated populace. Still, the city suffered from a short-sighted foreign policy (characterized by a harsh domination of other Greek states) that led to the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). This 27-year conflict between Sparta and Athens eventually saw the defeat of Athens. During the war the city fell victim to the military power of Sparta and to a plague that decimated a third of her population. In 404 B.C. Athens surrendered under the duress of a blockade. Sparta, beginning a tradition of treating Athens with respect, levied lenient terms against the defeated city.

At the onset of the fourth century B.C. Athens attempted to reclaim some of her previous glory. This quest was buoyed by the rise within the city of great intellectual power. Socrates (dead 399 B.C.) had begun an unprecedented period of intellectual pursuit. Although he did not write, his philosophical method and intellectual prowess created an impressive model. He was followed by his illustrious student Plato (427-348 B.C.). The Academy, established by Plato in 385 B.C., gained wide fame and attracted the great minds of the period.

In the middle of that century, however, Athens again faced invasion. In 338 B.C. Philip of Macedonia defeated the Athenian forces on the plain of Chaeronea. Due largely to the cultural stature it had achieved, Athens was once again spared harsh terms of peace. Macedonian rule continued until 228 B.C.

Athens later came under Roman influence. Many wealthy Romans sent their sons to study there, and the cultural prestige of Athens continued into the Christian era. The apostle Paul brought Christianity to Athens in A.D. 54, as he defended the gospel at a meeting of the Areopagus (Mars Hill). He began by mentioning the altar to the “unknown god” and proceeded to call for the Athenians’ repentance. Although there is a monument dedicated to Paul’s sermon on a hill traditionally known as the Areopagus, the location of the actual hill from which Paul spoke his sermon in uncertain. In 529 A.D. Emperor Justinian, in an attempt to eradicate paganisms from the empire, closed Athen’s schools, effectively ending the age of Athenian intellectual glory.

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