kids encyclopedia robot

Classical Athens facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Quick facts for kids

508 BC–322 BC
Delian League ("Athenian Empire") shown in yellow, Athenian territory shown in red, situation in 431 BC, before the Peloponnesian War.
Delian League ("Athenian Empire") shown in yellow, Athenian territory shown in red, situation in 431 BC, before the Peloponnesian War.
Capital Athens
Common languages Attic Greek
Ancient Greek religion
Government Direct democracy
• 449-429 BC
Legislature Ecclesia
Historical era Classical antiquity
508 BC
478–404 BC (404–403 BC Thirty tyrants)
• Second Athenian Empire
378–355 BC
• Dissolution of Athenian democracy in 322 BC by Antipater
322 BC
• 5th century BC
250000 (men with civil rights: 30,000)
Currency Drachma
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Athenian tyranny
BBC History

Classical Athens refers to the city of Athens from 508 to 322 BC. Athenian democracy was established in 508 BC under Cleisthenes, after the tyranny of the Peistratids and the rule of Isagoras. This system remained remarkably stable, and with a few brief interruptions remained in place for 180 years, until 322 BC. Athens was one of the most powerful cities in ancient times. It was important because there democracy developed.

In 477 B.C. Athens began the Delian League to join the city-states for protection. Their rival was the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. The Delian League's money was kept in the temple of Apollo.

Early Athenian coin, 5th century BC. British Museum.

In the classical period, Athens was a center for the arts, learning and philosophy, home of Plato's Akademia and Aristotle's Lyceum. Athens was also the birthplace of Socrates, Pericles, Sophocles, and other philosophers, writers and politicians of the ancient world. It is widely referred to as the cradle of western civilization, and the birthplace of democracy. Its culture and political achievements during the 5th and 4th centuries BC had widespread effects.

The classical period is usually dealt with by its most important political events, as follows:


Persian War

When King Xerxes of Persia fought the Greeks of Asia Minor, Athens helped them. In time, the Persians attacked Greece and the Greco-Persian wars began.

On the plain of Marathon, many Persians with bows and arrows fought the Greeks. Even though there were many more Persians than Greeks, the Greeks won because they had spears and swords of metal.

Themistocles, a statesman of Athens, warned the Athenians that the Persians would return, so they should make their navy bigger. The people did so, and Sparta offered to help. The Persians arrived and attacked the Greeks, both on land and on sea. The Persians won the battle of Thermopylae but the battle gave the Greeks time to get ready.

Although the city of Athens was burnt down before the Persians left, most of the people had run away to the nearby islands for safety. Themistocles ordered the Greeks to prepare for another attack. This time he told them to leave their ships in the Bay of Salamis. When the Persians arrived, they were surprised and confused by the harbor that was so full of ships they could not travel in it. In this battle of Salamis a few hundred Greek ships destroyed many, many Persian ships. Xerxes went away.

Map ancient athens
Map of ancient Athens showing the Acropolis in middle, the Agora to the northwest, and the city walls.

The next year, another battle happened, which 32,000 Greek hoplites and 50,000 other soldiers won. The Persians did not attack Greece again.

Peloponnesian War

Even though Sparta and Athens helped each other in battle, they were very different culturally. In 431 to 404 B.C., these two city-states fought in a conflict called the Peloponnesian War after the name of the lower part of the peninsula. Sparta had help from other states. Athens kept inside the city walls, but many people died because of a terrible sickness, including Pericles.

Athens' navy was taken by Spartans who had been trained severely since they were children. In 404 B.C., Athens surrendered to Sparta.

For 30 years Sparta ruled, but many people did not like Spartan government, and Thebes, another city-state, helped Athens defeat Sparta. For nine years Thebes was the most powerful state.

However, Greece was much weaker because of the wars inside her country. Philip of Macedonia began to move into Greek territory. Although Demosthenes warned Athens of the danger, Athenians did not care. At Chaeronea, Philip of Macedonia controlled Greece.

When Philip died, his son, Alexander the Great, even though he was only 20 years, went out to capture the world. He won Asia Minor, Persia, Egpyt, and some parts of India, but he died when he was 32 because of an unknown ailment.


The people in Athens ate simply, usually barley cakes, onions, fish, and fruit. For clothes the men wore short pieces of cloth (tunics), aprons, and sandals for work. A woman wore a chiton, which was a long, loose cloth that was attached to the shoulder. The loose garment was like a blouse because of a rope worn around the waist. Sandals were made by putting the foot on a piece of skin while the shoemaker made a covering for the foot.
The modern National Academy in Athens, with Apollo and Athena on their columns, and Socrates and Plato seated in front.

Children liked to have pet rabbits and to play ball games. For fun, they also raced little chariots pulled by dogs. They were taught by slaves, and learned poetry, music, and dancing. Exercise was also important.

When a young man became 18, he began two years of training for the army. After that he could join in the men's classes where javelin throwing was done. For protection in wrestling, he tied leather strips around his wrists. He also cut his hair. Teachers from many lands taught the young men.

The Greek hoplites fought so close together that their shields overlapped with each other. Their spears were very long.

Women in classical Athens

Women in ancient and classical Athens were treated with little respect. They could not become citizens of Athens. This means they could not vote and did not have any direct say in what happened in Athens. They could not run for election.

Girls could not be citizens. They left their home at the age of 14 to get married, sometimes with a man who was much older than she was (about 30 years old). Her marriage would be arranged by her father. On most occasions, the father would pick a rich husband for his daughter. The girl and her mother had no say in who she married, it was entirely the father's choice.

Contrast that with Sparta. Spartan women enjoyed a status, power, and respect that was unknown in the rest of the classical world. Although Spartan women were excluded from military and political life they enjoyed considerable status as mothers of Spartan warriors. As men engaged in military activity, women took responsibility for running estates.

In the 4th century BC Spartan women owned approximately between 35% and 40% of all Spartan land and property. By the Hellenistic Period, some of the wealthiest Spartans were women. They controlled their own properties, as well as the properties of male relatives who were away with the army. Spartan women rarely married before the age of 20, and unlike Athenian women who wore heavy, concealing clothes and were rarely seen outside the house, Spartan women wore short dresses and went where they pleased. Girls as well as boys received an education.

The city


Map ancient athens
Map of ancient Athens showing the Acropolis in middle, the Agora to the northwest, and the city walls.

Athens was in Attica, about 30 stadia from the sea, on the southwest slope of Mount Lycabettus, between the small rivers Cephissus to the west, Ilissos to the south, and the Eridanos to the north, the latter of which flowed through the town. The walled city measured about 1.5 km (0.93 mi) in diameter, although at its peak the city had suburbs extending well beyond these walls. The Acropolis was just south of the centre of this walled area. The city was burnt by Xerxes in 480 BC, but was soon rebuilt under the administration of Themistocles, and was adorned with public buildings by Cimon and especially by Pericles, in whose time (461–429 BC) it reached its greatest splendour. Its beauty was chiefly due to its public buildings, for the private houses were mostly insignificant, and its streets badly laid out. Towards the end of the Peloponnesian War, it contained more than 10,000 houses, which at a rate of 12 inhabitants to a house would give a population of 120,000, though some writers make the inhabitants as many as 180,000. Athens consisted of two distinct parts:

  • The City, properly so called, divided into The Upper City or Acropolis, and The Lower City, surrounded with walls by Themistocles.
  • The port city of Piraeus, also surrounded with walls by Themistocles and connected to the city with the Long Walls, built under Conon and Pericles.

City walls

Map of the environs of Athens showing Piraeus, Phalerum, and the Long Walls

The city was surrounded by defensive walls from the Bronze Age and they were rebuilt and extended over the centuries.

In addition the Long Walls consisted of two parallel walls leading to Piraeus, 40 stadia long (4.5 miles, 7 km), running parallel to each other, with a narrow passage between them and, furthermore, a wall to Phalerum on the east, 35 stadia long (4 miles, 6.5 km). There were therefore three long walls in all; but the name Long Walls seems to have been confined to the two leading to the Piraeus, while the one leading to Phalerum was called the Phalerian Wall. The entire circuit of the walls was 174.5 stadia (nearly 22 miles, 35 km), of which 43 stadia (5.5 miles, 9 km) belonged to the city, 75 stadia (9.5 miles, 15 km) to the long walls, and 56.5 stadia (7 miles, 11 km) to Piraeus, Munichia, and Phalerum.


There were many gates, among the more important there were:

  • On the West side: the Dipylon, the most frequented gate of the city, leading from the inner Kerameikos to the outer Kerameikos, and to the Academy. The Sacred Gate, where the sacred road to Eleusis began. The Knight's Gate, probably between the Hill of the Nymphs and the Pnyx. The Piraean Gate, between the Pnyx and the Mouseion, leading to the carriage road between the Long Walls to the Piraeus. The Melitian Gate, so called because it led to the deme Melite, within the city.
  • On the South side: the Gate of the Dead in the neighbourhood of the Mouseion. The Itonian Gate, near the Ilissos, where the road to Phalerum began.
  • On the East side: the Gate of Diochares, leading to the Lyceum. The Diomean Gate, leading to Cynosarges and the deme Diomea.
  • On the North side: the Acharnian Gate, leading to the deme Acharnai.

Acropolis (upper city)

Akropolis by Leo von Klenze
The Acropolis imagined in an 1846 painting by Leo von Klenze

The Acropolis, also called Cecropia from its reputed founder, Cecrops, was a steep rock in the middle of the city, about 50 meters high, 350 meters long, and 150 meters wide; its sides were naturally scarped on all sides except the west end. It was originally surrounded by an ancient Cyclopean wall said to have been built by the Pelasgians. At the time of the Peloponnesian war only the north part of this wall remained, and this portion was still called the Pelasgic Wall; while the south part which had been rebuilt by Cimon, was called the Cimonian Wall. On the west end of the Acropolis, where access is alone practicable, were the magnificent Propylaea, "the Entrances," built by Pericles, before the right wing of which was the small Temple of Athena Nike. The summit of the Acropolis was covered with temples, statues of bronze and marble, and various other works of art. Of the temples, the grandest was the Parthenon, sacred to the "Virgin" goddess Athena; and north of the Parthenon was the magnificent Erechtheion, containing three separate temples, one to Athena Polias, or the "Protectress of the State," the Erechtheion proper, or sanctuary of Erechtheus, and the Pandroseion, or sanctuary of Pandrosos, the daughter of Cecrops. Between the Parthenon and Erechtheion was the colossal Statue of Athena Promachos, or the "Fighter in the Front," whose helmet and spear was the first object on the Acropolis visible from the sea.

Hephaistos Temple
The Temple of Hephaestus in modern-day Athens
Plan Roman Agora at Athens
Plan Roman Agora at Athens

Agora (lower city)

The lower city was built in the plain around the Acropolis, but this plain also contained several hills, especially in the southwest part. On the west side the walls embraced the Hill of the Nymphs and the Pnyx, and to the southeast they ran along beside the Ilissos.


  • The Inner Kerameikos, or "Potter's Quarter," in the west of the city, extending north as far as the Dipylon gate, by which it was separated from the outer Kerameikos; the Kerameikos contained the Agora, or "market-place," the only one in the city, lying northwest of the Acropolis, and north of the Areopagus.
  • The deme Melite, in the west of the city, south of the inner Kerameikos.
  • The deme Skambonidai, in the northern part of the city, east of the inner Kerameikos.
  • The Kollytos, in the southern part of the city, south and southwest of the Acropolis.
  • Koele, a district in the southwest of the city.
  • Limnai, a district east of Melite and Kollytos, between the Acropolis and the Ilissos.
  • Diomea, a district in the east of the city, near the gate of the same name and the Cynosarges.
  • Agrai, a district south of Diomea.


  • The Areopagus, the "Hill of Ares," west of the Acropolis, which gave its name to the celebrated council that held its sittings there, was accessible on the south side by a flight of steps cut out of the rock.
  • The Hill of the Nymphs, northwest of the Areopagus.
  • The Pnyx, a semicircular hill, southwest of the Areopagus, where the ekklesia (assemblies) of the people were held in earlier times, for afterwards the people usually met in the Theatre of Dionysus.
  • The Mouseion, "the Hill of the Muses," south of the Pnyx and the Areopagus.


Among the more important streets, there were:

  • The Piraean Street, which led from the Piraean gate to the Agora.
  • The Panathenaic Way, which led from the Dipylon gate to the Acropolis via the Agora, along which a solemn procession was made during the Panathenaic Festival.
  • The Street of the Tripods, on the east side of the Acropolis.

Public buildings

  • Temples: of these the most important was the Temple of Olympian Zeus, southeast of the Acropolis, near the Ilissos and the fountain Callirrhoë, which was long unfinished, and was first completed by Hadrian. The Temple of Hephaestus, located to the west of the Agora. The Temple of Ares, to the north of the Agora. Metroon, or temple of the mother of the gods, on the west side of the Agora. Besides these, there was a vast number of other temples in all parts of the city.
  • The Bouleuterion (Senate House), at the west side of the Agora.
  • The Prytaneion, a round building close to the Bouleuterion, built c. 470 BC by Cimon, which served as the Prytaneion, in which the Prytaneis took their meals and offered their sacrifices.
  • Stoae: or Colonnades, supported by pillars, and used as places of resort in the heat of the day, of which there were several in Athens. In the Agora there were: the Stoa Basileios, the court of the King-Archon, on the west side of the Agora; the Stoa Eleutherios, or Colonnade of Zeus Eleutherios, on the west side of the Agora; the Stoa Poikile, so called because it was adorned with fresco painting of the Battle of Marathon by Polygnotus, on the north side of the Agora.
Artist's impression of the Theatre of Dionysus
  • Theatres: the Theatre of Dionysus, on the southeast slope of the Acropolis, was the great theatre of the state. Besides this there were Odeons, for contests in vocal and instrumental music, an ancient one near the fountain Callirrhoë, and a second built by Pericles, close to the theatre of Dionysius, on the southeast slope of the Acropolis. The large odeon surviving today, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus was built in Roman times.
  • Panathenaic Stadium, south of the Ilissos, in the district Agrai, where the athletic portion of the Panathenaic Games were held.
  • The Argyrocopeum (mint) appears to have been in or adjoining the chapel (heroon) of a hero named Stephanephorus.
Athènes Acropole Caryatides
The Karyatides statues of the Erechtheion on its Acropolis.


  • The Outer Kerameikos, northwest of the city, was the finest suburb of Athens; here were buried the Athenians who had fallen in war, and at the further end of it was the Academy, six stadia from the city.
  • Cynosarges, east of the city, across the Ilissos, reached from the Diomea gate, a gymnasium sacred to Heracles, where the Cynic Antisthenes taught.
  • Lyceum, east of the city, a gymnasium sacred to Apollo Lyceus, where Aristotle taught.


The period from the end of the Persian Wars to the Macedonian conquest marked the zenith of Athens as a center of literature, philosophy (see Greek philosophy) and the arts (see Greek theatre). Some of the most important figures of Western cultural and intellectual history lived in Athens during this period: the dramatists Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides and Sophocles, the philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, the historians Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, the poet Simonides and the sculptor Phidias. The leading statesman of this period was Pericles, who used the tribute paid by the members of the Delian League to build the Parthenon and other great monuments of classical Athens. The city became, in Pericles's words, an education for Hellas (usually quoted as "the school of Hellas [Greece].")

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Antigua Atenas para niños

kids search engine
Classical Athens Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.