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.

But if that minister promoted the love of action, he found it necessary at least to comply with, if not to excite, the extreme passion for pleasure which then began to distinguish his country-men. The people of Athens, successful in every enterprise against their foreign as well as domestic enemies, seemed entitled to reap the fruits of their dangers and victories. For the space of at least twelve years preceding the war of Peloponnesus, their city afforded a perpetual scene of triumph and festivity. Dramatic entertainments, to which they were passionately addicted, were no longer performed in slight, unadorned edifices, but in stone or marble theatres, erected at great expense, and embellished with the most precious productions of nature and of art. The treasury was opened, not only to supply the decorations of this favorite amusement, but to enable the poorer citizens to enjoy it, without incurring any private expense; and thus, at the cost of the state, or rather of its tributary allies and colonies, to feast and delight their ears and fancy with the combined charms of music and poetry. The pleasure of the eye was peculiarly consulted and gratified in the architecture of theatres and other ornamental buildings; for as Themistodes had strengthened, Pericles adorned, his native city; and unless the concurring testimony of antiquity was illustrated in the Parthenon, or Temple of Minerva, and other existing remains worthy to be immortal, it would be difficult to believe that in the space of a few years there could have been created those numerous, yet inestimable wonders of art, those temples, theatres, statues, altars, baths, gymnasia, and porticoes, which, in the language of ancient panegyric, rendered Athens the eye and light of Greece.

Pericles was blamed for thus decking one favorite city, like a vain voluptuous harlot, at the expense of plundered provinces; but it would have been fortunate for the Athenians if their extorted wealth had not been employed in more perishing, as well as more criminal, luxury. The pomp of religious solemnities, which were twice as numerous and costly in Athens as in any other city of Greece - the extravagance of entertainments and banquets, which on such occasions always followed the sacrifices - exhausted the resources, without augmenting the glory, of the republic. Instead of the bread, herbs, and simple fare recommended by the laws of Solon, the Athenians, soon after the eightieth Olympiad, availed themselves of their extensive commerce to import the delicacies of distant countries, which were prepared with all the refinements of cookery. The wines of Cyprus were cooled with snow in summer; in winter, the most delightful flowers adorned the tables and persons of the wealthy Athenians. Nor was it sufficient to be crowned with roses, unless they were likewise anointed with the most precious perfumes. Parasites, dancers, and buffoons, were a usual appendage of every entertainment. Among the weaker sex, the passion for delicate birds, distinguished by their voice or plumage, was carried to such excess, as merited the name of madness. The bodies of such youths as were not peculiarly addicted to hunting and horses, which began to be a prevailing taste, were corrupted by a lewd style of living; while their minds were still more polluted by the licentious philosophy of the sophists. It is unnecessary to crowd the picture, since it may be observed, in one word, that the vices and extravagances which are supposed to characterize the declining ages of Greece and Rome took root in Athens during the administration of Pericles, the most splendid and most prosperous in the Grecian annals.'

During this period flourished Eschylus and Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, dramatists; Pindar, a lyrical poet; Herodotus and Thucydides, historians; Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Socrates, philosophers (reasoners upon the nature of the human mind, and upon man's immortal destiny). In this period also, under the administration of Pericles (from 458 to 429 B.C.), sculpture and architecture attained their perfection. It was then that Phidias executed those splendid works, statues of the gods and goddesses, which excited the admiration of the world, and which succeeding artists have in vain endeavored to rival. While Athens had extended its power over a great part of the coasts of the Egean Sea, and increased its trade and commerce by every available means, it had also become a city of palaces and temples, whose ruins continue to be the admiration of ages for their grandeur and beauty. It is understood that the Greeks had acquired their knowledge of architecture from the Egyptians; but they greatly excelled them in the elegance of their designs, and are in a great measure entitled to the character of inventors in the art. The beauty of the Corinthian pillar, for example, has never .been excelled either in ancient or modern times.

After the surrender of Athens to the Spartans (404 B.C.), the democratic constitution was abolished, and the government was intrusted to thirty persons, whose rapacious, oppressive, and bloody administration ere long procured them the title of the Thirty Tyrants. The ascendancy of these intruders was not, however, of long duration. Conon, assisted privately by the Persians, who were desirous of humiliating the Spartans, expelled the enemy, and reestablished the independence of his country. About seventy years later a new source of agitation throughout Greece was caused by the warlike projects of Alexander, king of Macedon.