Decline of Athenian Independence - Condition of Athens

With Alcibiades perished the last of the great men who possessed the power to sway the wild democracy, or, properly speaking, the mob of Athens. From the period of his death till the subjugation of the country, the Athenian people were at the mercy of contending factions, and without a single settled principle of government. During this brief period of their history, in which a kind of popular democracy had attained the command of affairs, happened the trial and condemnation of Socrates, an eminent teacher of morals, and a man guiltless of every offense but that of disgracing, by his illustrious merit, the vices and follies of his contemporaries. On the false charge of corrupting the morals of the pupils who listened to his admirable expositions, and of denying the religion of his country, he was, to the eternal disgrace of the Athenians, compelled to die by drinking poison, a fate which he submitted to with a magnanimity which has rendered his name for ever celebrated. This odious transaction occurred in the year 400 B.C.

After the death of this great man, the political independence of Athens drew to its termination a circumstance which cannot excite the least surprise, when we reflect on the turbulence of its citizens, their persecution of virtue and talent, and their unhappy distrust of any settled form of government. Their ruin was finally accomplished by their uncontrollable thirst for, war, and can create no emotions of pity or regret in the reader of their distracted history. The Lacedaemonians, under the command of an able officer named Lysander, attacked and totally destroyed the Athenian fleet. By this means having obtained the undisputed command of the sea, Lysander easily reduced those cities on the coasts of Thrace and Asia Minor, and those islands of the Aegean, which still acknowledged the supremacy of Athens. Having thus stripped that once lordly state of all its dependencies, he proceeded to blockade the city of Athens itself. The Athenians made a heroic defense but after a lengthened siege, during which they suffered all the horrors of famine, they were obliged to surrender on such conditions as their enemies thought fit to impose (404 B.C.). The Spartans demanded that the fortifications of Piraeus, and the long walls which connected it with the city, should be demolished; that the Athenians should relinquish all pretensions to authority over their former tributaries, recall the exiled partisans of the 400 tyrants, acknowledge the supremacy of Sparta, and follow its commanders in time of war and finally, that they should adopt such a political constitution as should meet the approbation of the Lacedaemonians.

Thus sank the power of Athens, which had so long been the leading state of Greece, and thus terminated the Peloponnesian war, in which the Grecian communities had been so long engaged, to little other purpose than to waste the strength, and exhaust the resources, of their common country.

During the age preceding its fall, Athens, as already mentioned; had been greatly beautified and enlarged by Pericles. At the same time, the comparative simplicity of manners ,which formerly prevailed was exchanged for luxurious habits. This alteration has been thus described by Gillies in his History of Ancient Greece In the course of a few years, the success of Aristides, Cimon, and Pericles, had tripled the revenues, and increased in a far greater proportion the dominions of the republic. The Athenian galleys commanded the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean; their merchantmen had engrossed the traffic of the adjacent countries; the magazines of Athens abounded with wood, metal, ebony, ivory, and all the materials of the useful as well as of the agreeable arts; they imported the luxuries of Italy, Sicily, Cyprus, Lydia, Pontus, and Peloponnesus; experience had improved their skill in working the silver mines of Mount Laurium; they had lately opened the valuable marble veins in Mount Pentelicus; the honey of Hymettus became important in domestic use and foreign traffic; the culture of their olives (oil being long their staple commodity, and the only production of Attica which Solon allowed them to export) must have improved with the general improvement of the country in arts and agriculture, especially under the active administration of Pericles, who liberally let loose the public treasure to encourage every species of industry.