JEFF RUSTEN: Let's start where most tourists start looking at Athens today with the religious center, which is called the Acropolis, or The High City. The Acropolis we admire today could never have happened in this way had it not been for a catastrophe at the beginning of the fifth century BC. At that time, the most powerful empire on Earth was that of the Persian King Xerxes, and he was extending his rule ever farther to the west. He had already conquered the Greeks on the eastern side of the Aegean, in present day Turkey, and he now set mainland Greece as his next target.
As his huge force approached Athens, estimates of its surpass one million soldiers and 10,000 ships. The other cities of Greece, one by one, capitulated without a fight-- all but one. Athens had determined never to become a Persian subject. And so when this hoard advanced on the city, the Athenians made a desperate move. They left behind only a few priests on the Acropolis, and the entire population took to their ships and sailed to the nearby island of Salamis as refugees. The Persians entered an empty city.
King Xerxes, thinking he had won, had the cities sacked and the temples on the Acropolis set fire, and he plotted how to capture the fugitive population. He'd been given word at the Athenians were about to flee the region, so he sent his fleet into the narrow Strait between Salamis and the mainland. But there the Greeks were waiting for them. And in the narrow waters where the Persians numerical advantage was worthless, the Greeks rammed and sank the mighty flotilla of the Persians. Xerxes panicked, and he left the city and returned to Persia.
The Athenians had miraculously defeated the most powerful force on Earth, but they returned to a city in ruins. Their most sacred buildings on the Acropolis had been destroyed. We know, for example, that there'd been a temple of Athena from which some dramatic and brilliantly colored sculpture still survive. There had also been shrines for the Athenian heroes of the mythical past. But strangely enough for nearly 25 years the Athenians rebuilt nothing. The reason may have been a sacred oath taken by all the Greek cities to leave the ruined temples as a monument to the Persians impiety.
But in any case, although the next decade saw Athens building massive walls of defense and constructing a large and swift navy, the Acropolis remained in ruins. Until the 450s that is, when one man, Pericles, emerged as the boldest and most ambitious leader of the city. He inherited Athens leadership of illegal Greek island states, which was originally meant to defend against a new Persian invasion.
But Pericles fashioned this into a major military alliance in which Athens dominated the other Greeks and from which huge revenues came in for the city's use. He envisioned the Acropolis as the headquarters of this alliance, and he set about building temples worthy of an empire. For Pericles, the total destruction of the Acropolis by the Persians only cleared the way for his new unified vision of religious and civic grandeur.
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2500 years ago, the city of Athens experienced a century of brilliant philosophy, drama, politics, and art that still resonates today. Athens was the first democracy, a great military and economic power, and left behind a richly documented history and culture. Professor Jeffrey Rusten leads a tour through the ancient city as reconstructed by archaeologists and historians.
This video is part 2 of 6 in the Ancient Athens series.