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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


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A′thens. This celebrated city, as the birthplace of Plato, and through him so widely influential on Judaism and Christianity, deserves something else than a geographical notice here. We shall briefly allude to the stages of her history, and remark on some of the causes of her pre-eminent greatness in arms, arts, and intellectual subtlety.

The earlier and more obscure period of the Grecian province named Attica reaches down nearly to the final establishment of democracy in it. Yet we know enough to see that the foundations of her greatness were then already laid. To a king named Theseus (whose deeds are too much mixed with fable to be narrated as history) is ascribed the credit of uniting all the country-towns of Attica into a single state, the capital of which was Athens. This is the first political event that we can trust as historical, although its date and circumstances are by no means free from obscurity.

The population of this province was variously called Pelasgian, Achaian, and Ionian, and probably corresponds most nearly to what was afterwards called Æolian. The first name carries the mind back to an extremely primitive period. When the Dorians, another tribe of Greeks of very different temperament, invaded and occupied the southern peninsula, great numbers of its Achaian inhabitants took refuge in Attica. Shortly after, the Dorians were repulsed in an inroad against Athens, an event which has transmitted to legendary renown the name of King Codrus; and thenceforward Athens was looked upon as the bulwark of the Ionian tribes against the barbarous Dorians. Overloaded with population, Attica now poured forth colonies into Asia; some of which, as Miletus, soon rose to great eminence, and sent out numerous colonies themselves; so that Athens was reverenced as a mother of nations, by powerful children scattered along the western and northern coasts of Anatolia.

Dim tradition shows us isolated priesthoods and elective kings in the earliest times of Attica; these however gradually gave way to an aristocracy, which in a series of years established themselves as a hereditary ruling caste. But a country 'ever unravaged' (and such was their boast) could not fail to increase in wealth and numbers; and after two or three centuries, while the highest commoners pressed on the nobles, the lowest became overwhelmed with debt. The disorders caused by the strife of the former were vainly sought to be stayed by the institutions of Draco; the sufferings of the latter were ended, and the sources of violence dried up, by the enactments of Solon. Henceforth the Athenians revered the laws of Solon as the groundwork of their whole civil polity; yet they retained by the side of them the ordinances of Draco in many matters pertaining to religion. The date of Solon's reforms was probably B.C. 594.

The usurpation of Pisistratus and his sons made a partial breach in the constitution; but upon their expulsion, a more serious change was effected by Cleisthenes, head of the noble house of the Alcmæonidæ (B.C. 508), almost in the same year in which Tarquin was expelled from Rome. An entirely new organization of the Attic tribes was framed, which destroyed whatever remained of the power of the nobles as an order, and established among the freemen a democracy, in fact, as well as in form. Out of this proceeded all the good and all the evil with which the name of Athens is associated; and though greatness which shot up so suddenly could not be permanent, there can be no difficulty in deciding that the good greatly preponderated.

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Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Athens'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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