Primary History

Ancient Greeks: Athens

  • Why Athens was great

    Athens was the largest city in Greece, and controlled a region called Attica. Between the many mountains were fertile valleys, with many farms. Athens became rich because Attica also had valuable sources of silver, lead and marble. Athens also had the biggest navy in Greece.

    Athens was a beautiful and busy city. People came to the city from all over Greece, and from other countries, to study and to trade. The city's most famous building was the temple called the Parthenon. It stood on a rocky hill called the Acropolis. Inside the Parthenon stood a statue of the city's protector-goddess Athena.

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  • People power

    In the early 500s BC a new way of government was invented in Athens. It was "democracy" or "'rule by the people". Not everyone had a vote though. Only a male citizen had a say in how the city was run. There were about 30,000 citizens. The ruling Council had 500 members, all men, and chosen for a year at a time. Women could not be citizens, nor could slaves or foreigners.

    The citizens met to vote on new laws put forward by the Council. Usually around 5,000 citizens met, every 10 days or so on a hill called the Pnyx. In Athens, you can still see the stones of this historic meeting place.

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  • Guilty or not guilty?

    Athens had law courts with trial by jury. Juries were larger than the ones we have today - 500 citizens normally, but sometimes more. There were no lawyers, so people spoke in their own defence. After listening to the evidence, jurors voted by placing metal discs into one of two jars - one for guilty, one for not guilty. Punishments included the death penalty. Speeches were timed by a water-clock, as shown in the pictures.

    Citizens also voted to get rid of politicians they did not like. They wrote the name of the person they hated on a piece of broken pottery, called an ostrakon. Any politician who got more than 600 votes was banished from the city of 10 years.

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  • Slaves

    Of the 250,000 to 300,000 people in Athens (at its biggest), between a quarter and a third of them were slaves. Some slaves were captured in wars. Others were born slaves. Some people were forced into slavery when they could not afford to pay money they owed. Some slaves were owned by the state, like slave-archers from Scythia, who were used as "police" by the Athens government.

    A few slaves had special skills, such as nurses, teachers, or pottery painters. Most slaves did the hardest and most unpleasant jobs. A lucky slave might save enough money to buy his freedom.

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  • Life in Athens

    Athens had yearly festivals for athletics, drama and religious occasions. The city taxes paid some of the cost, but rich citizens had to pay extra. Important people in Athens were the strategoi, who were ten generals chosen from each of the ten "tribes" of citizens. There were also nine archons. Their jobs were mostly ceremonial, to do with festivals and family matters. One of the archons had to organize the Dionysia Festival, for the god Dionysos, every year. It was a time for fun, wine-drinking, parties and plays.

    Every man aged 20 to 50 or more could be "called up" for military service. A rich man might have to serve as captain of a warship for a year. He paid the crew and made repairs.

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Fun Facts
  • The statue of Athena in the Parthenon was made of gold and ivory. It was 12 m/40 ft high.

  • The main market place in Athens was called the Agora. People browsed the market stalls, met friends and did business deals.

  • Philosopher-teachers, such as Socrates, wandered around the city, giving classes. After upsetting the government with his ideas, Socrates was made to drink poison.

  • Students came to Athens to study at two famous schools or "colleges" in Athens: Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum.

  • The biggest factory in Athens had 120 slave-workers. It made shields for the army.

  • Draco (621 BC) ruled Athens so strictly that we still talk about 'Draconian laws' meaning very harsh ones.

  • Greeks got their milk from sheep and goats. The farmland was not very suitable for dairy cows.

  • People who got into debt (owed money) could be banished and sent abroad.

  • Some laws in Athens were very harsh, under Draco's rule. Stealing bread or fruit was punishable by death!

  • Athens was much larger than most other Greek city-states. Even the biggest had only a few thousand citizens.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

abacus
[AB-buh-KUS} Beads on a wire or wood frame used for counting and doing sums.
Acropolis
[a-CROP-olis] The Acropolis is a large hill in the centre of Athens. On top of it were many temples and other buildings, the remains of which can still be seen today
archaeologist
Expert in studying the past from remains left by people.
archer
Person who used a bow and arrow.
architect
A person who designs buildings.
Aristophanes
[aris-TOF-a-neez] Lived from about 450 to 385 BC. He wrote comedy plays comedies for the theatre in Athens.
Aristotle
[aris-TOT-ull] Lived from 384 to 322 BC. A scientist and philosopher.
artefact
Anything made by people. Artefacts found by archaeologists include broken pottery, bits of wood and metal, brick and stone.
Athena
The patron goddess of Athens, and goddess of wisdom. A huge statue of Athena stood inside the Parthenon in Athens.
Athens
The capital city of modern Greece. In ancient times Athens was a powerful city-state with its own government, laws, army and navy.
Attica
[A-tik-a] The region around Athens.
cavalry
Soldiers riding on horses.
centaur
Mythical creature with a horse's lower body and legs, but the chest, arms and head of a man. Centaurs were wild and unruly, but one named Chiron was wise and skilled in healing.
citizen
In Athens a citizen was a person with the right to take part in the assembly, serve on juries and take a turn as a member of the ruling council. Only male Athenians were allowed citizen rights.
city-state
Ancient Greek cities had their own governments, laws and armies. The city and the land it controlled around it made up the city-state.
colony (colonies)
An overseas settlement. The Greeks set up colonies around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
column
A tall cylinder-shaped support for the roof or doorway to a building. There were three styles of columns in Greek architecture: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.
comedy (comedies)
A play written to make the audience laugh. In the Greek theatre comedies poked fun at the foolishness of people and especially politicians.
Corinth
[COH-rinth] A city-state in southern Greece, famous for its pottery and overland ship-track. Someone or something from Corinth is known as Corinthian.
crest
Raised decoration on a soldier's helmet, like a ridge. On Greek helmets, the crest was made of stiff horsehair.
death penalty
Punishment for a serious crime, such as murder. The person found guilty was executed (killed).
Delphi
[DEL-fee] A city to the west of Athens, withthe famous Oracle of Delphi. People went to consult the Oracle for advice from the gods.
democracy
A system of government in which citizens can vote to decide things. Athens had democracy from 510 BC.
discus
Flat dish-shaped object thrown by an athlete, a bit like a Frisbee only smaller and heavier.

E to G

ferryman
A boatman who takes people across a river or lake in a boat called a ferry.
diphtheria
Decoration around the top of a wall or building.
gorgon
Monsters with wings and hair made of snakes. The gorgon Medusa could turn people to stone.
factory
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
governess
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

Helot
A slave who worked for a Spartan master.
historian
Someone who writes about, and studies, the past, especially from writings left by earlier people.
hoplite
[HOP-light] A Greek foot soldier. Hoplites carried round shields and long spears and had bronze helmets and leg guards.
Homer
Said to be the author of the two long poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, but nothing is really known about him.
isthmus
Narrow strip of land with sea either side.
javelin
A long spear for throwing.
jury
In a law court, the people who listen to evidence and decide whether an accused person is guilty or not.
kiln
Oven heated by wood, charcoal or some other burning fuel for 'firing' (heating and hardening) clay pots.

M to O

Macedonia
State in the north of Greece, birthplace of Alexander the Great.
Marathon
Battle between the Greeks and Persians.
mosaic
Picture-decoration made from small coloured tiles.
Olympic Games
A religious festival held in honour of Zeus, attended by people from all over Greece.
oracle
A religious custom where people asked the Oracle questions or sought advice. The Oracle was supposed to give the answers of the gods.

P to S

pankration
[pan-KRAT-ion] A type of wrestling with almost no rules; one of the Olympic events.
Parthenon
[PARTH-en-on] A huge temple on top of the Acropolis hill in Athens.
Pericles
[PER-i-kleez] A popular leader of Athens from 458 - 429 BC. Pericles was famous for his stirring public speeches.
Persia
An empire to the east of Greece, ruled by kings. Persia tried to invade Greece. Ancient Persia is modern Iran.
phalanx
Greek fighting formation, made up of ranks of foot soldiers.
philosopher
A person who thinks and writes about the meaning of life and how people live.
pirate
Sea robber. There were many pirate ships in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas at the time of the Ancient Greeks.
Plato
Lived from about 428 to 348, he was a philosopher and teacher in Athens.
politician
Person active in politics - the business of governing a city or country.
pottery
Useful containers such as bowls, dishes, plates and mugs made from soft clay that is baked hard in an oven called a kiln.
ram
In warfare, a pointed weapon for battering holes in walls or ships. Greek warships had rams fixed to their front ends or prows.
Roman
Roman means "of Rome" or a person from Rome. The Ancient Romans conquered Greece around 146 BC, but admired and copied Greek civilization.
sacrifice
A gift made to the gods. For example, pieces of meat could be burned on an altar as a sacrifice.
scholar
Someone who studies - and often writes books too.
sculptor
Artist who makes statues and other works of art from stone, wood or metal.
Scythia
Ancient kingdom, north of the Black Sea in a region now inside Ukraine and Russia.
slave
A person with no freedom, owned by someone else.
shield
Large piece of wood, leather and metal held in front of a soldier's body to protect him in battle. Most Greek shields were round.
Socrates
[SOK-rat-TEES] Lived from about 470 to 399. A philosopher and friend of Plato, he was famous for asking questions, but was forced to kill himself because Athens' rulers feared his teachings.
Sophocles
[SOF-o-kleez] A writer of plays who died in 406 BC. He was also a general, in the army of Pericles. Sophocles wrote tragedies.
Sparta
[SPAR-ta] A city-state in southern Greece. The Spartans were famous for their strict military training and powerful army.

T to Z

temple
A building used for religious worship and ceremonies. The Greeks put statues of gods and goddesses inside their temples.
tomb
The burial place for a dead person. Ancient people often put food, pottery, weapons and other possessions in a person's tomb.
tragedy
In theatre, a play with a sad or serious ending, and a moral lesson or teaching.
trireme
[TRY-reem] A Greek warship with three banks or rows of oars.
Troy
City in what is now Turkey, in which people called Trojans lived. They fought a 10-year war with the Greeks.
tunic
Typical clothing of Greek men and boys, a loose-fitting garment like a long shirt with short sleeves.
Xerxes
[Zerksees] King of Persia. Son of Darius. Led the Persian army at the Battle of Salamis.
Zeus
[zz YOOS] The king of the gods. Zeus was the most powerful of the ancient Greek gods.