The city of Athens has played a leading role in the development of European civilization.
When we look back through time to the origins of so many of the institutions and activities
which thrive or are valued today, we are led to ancient Greece and, most often, to
Athens in the Classical period (480–323 B.C.). Time and again we find a connection with
antiquity and a sense that little has changed but the technology; this is true in the case of
theater, philosophy, art, law, athletics, medicine, architecture, and politics. Every time we
watch a marathon, walk through the colonnaded facade of a public building, tell the story of
the tortoise and the hare, or vote, we pay tribute to the enduring legacy of ancient Greece.
Of the figures associated with the greatest accomplishments of Classical Greek civilization,
many were native Athenians and others were drawn to the city from all over the
Mediterranean to contribute to a remarkable period of intellectual and artistic achievement.
Statesmen and playwrights, historians and artists, philosophers and orators—
Thucydides, Aischylos, Sokrates, Pheidias, Euripides, Demosthenes, Aristotle, and Praxiteles—
all f lourished here in the fifth and fourth centuries, when Athens was the most
powerful city-state of Greece; collectively they were responsible for sowing the seeds of
Here, too, the political institution of democracy first took root under the guidance of
Solon, Kleisthenes, and Perikles. Even when the city’s political, economic, and military significance
waned, Athens remained an inf luential cultural and educational center for centuries,
drawing teachers and students of philosophy, science, logic, and rhetoric until the
sixth century A.D. Archaeological exploration of the city and study of its monuments can
therefore shed light on all aspects of the early history of modern institutions.