During the Late Bronze Age, Athens was the most important settlement in Attica. In the late thirteenth century BC there was a collapse of the centralized ruling structure, drastic depopulation, and dispersal into small communities. But by 900 BC there was growth in wealth and overseas trade, population rose, and new settlements appeared throughout Attica. The synoecism of the towns and villages of Attica into a political unity under the leadership of Athens was probably gradual.
All Athenian citizens could participate in the government of Athens, but those who did not live in or near Athens found it difficult to vote. The early government of Athens was aristocratic. In the later eighth century there were three archons: the basileus, who administered the cults of the polis and judged lawsuits pertaining to religious matters; the polemarch, who commanded the army; and the archon, who supervised public affairs. The archons governed Athens in concert with the council that met on the Areopagus. Citizen males also participated in the assembly.
Alongside the official state institutions were other forms of social organization. The oikoi were grouped into larger kin-like associations: phylai, which were political and military divisions, phratries, which were concerned with matters of family, and genē, which were associations of aristocratic households.
About 632 BC, Cylon, an Olympic victor, attempted to become tyrant of Athens. The coup failed and the archon Megacles had the conspirators killed. The Athenians believed he had committed sacrilege in doing so, and later demanded the expulsion of politicians from Megacles' family, like Cleisthenes and Pericles.
Around 620 BC Draco codified Athenian law. His laws removed authority from the family and gave it to the state. His laws were severe, stipulating death as the penalty even for minor offenses.
Solon's legislation in the 590s provides evidence for Athens' economic and political problems. The Athenians could not raise enough grain to feed their increasing population, and many poor sharecroppers were losing the struggle to survive. The Athenians turned to Solon, and while he defended the rights of the elite both to their land and to a preeminent role in government, he also abolished debt slavery and freed those who had been enslaved for debt and canceled the obligations of the hektemoroi. He revised Athenian weights and measures, facilitating trade. He prohibited the export of grain, because it was needed at home. To attract artisans from other regions Solon offered them citizenship if they would settle permanently with their families.
In Solon's constitution, political privilege was allotted according to income. He ranked citizens into four classes: pentakosiomedimnoi, hippeis, zeugitai, and thētes. The chief magistracies were limited to members of the first two classes, but zeugitai could hold lower state offices and the thētes could join the others in the assembly.
Around 560, Pisistratus carried out a coup backed by one of Athens' three factions, the Men of the Hill. Five years later he was driven out by the other two factions, the Men of the Plain and the Men of the Coast. During his exile, Pisistratus gathered a force of mercenary soldiers. He came back and governed Athens for another ten years. He offered land and loans to the needy, and trade expanded greatly.
Pisistratus' building projects provided jobs to the poor while focusing attention on the city as the cultural center of Attica. He replaced the private wells guarded by aristocrats with public fountain houses. He rebuilt the temple of Athena on the Acropolis and began a temple to Olympian Zeus. He established two new festivals, the greater and lesser Dionysia, and instituted competition in tragic drama as part of the Dionysia. He commissioned the first editions of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and made Homeric recitations a regular part of the great Panathenaic festival.
Patronage of the arts became more conspicuous during the rule of Pisistratus' sons, Hippias and Hipparchus. Hipparchus was assassinated by conspirators in 514 BC, and in 510 BC Hippias was driven into exile.
Cleisthenes, the leader of the Alcmaeonid family, made reforms intended to break the power of rich families. He transferred the civic functions of the four ancient tribes to ten new ones established on a new basis. He divided Attica into three geographical areas, each subdivided into ten trittyes, composed of residential units called demes. The ten new tribes also formed the basis for the creation of a new Council of Five Hundred, with each tribe annually providing fifty members chosen by lot. The army also was reorganized on the basis of the ten tribes.
The political transformation of Greek poleis occurred at the same time as the emergence of the Persian Empire. The Persians settled in Iran by the early first millennium BC. In the sixth century BC, Cyrus II extended Persia and brought the Greeks of Asia Minor into the empire. Darius (522–486 BC) reorganized the empire, dividing it into twenty satrapies. He centralized the government into his hands, exercising absolute authority. Darius facilitated travel in many ways, even building a canal linking the Nile and the Red Sea. He minted his own coins of silver and gold.
In 499 BC the Ionian Greeks revolted against Persian rule, led by Aristagoras, the tyrant of Miletus. In 494 BC, the Ionian Revolt ended in a major naval defeat near Miletus. The women and children of Miletus were enslaved, and the men relocated to the mouth of the Tigris.
The Athenians feared that they might suffer the fate of the Miletians. Themistocles, who had just been elected archon, persuaded them to convert the three harbors of Piraeus into a fortified naval and commercial base.
The Persians and the Athenians sailed to Marathon. The Athenians and their Plataean allies attacked. The Persians were caught by surprise and fled to their ships. The Athenians lost 192 men, the Persians 6400.
Political leadership in Athens changed after the battle. The need for capable military commanders resulted in a new method of selecting archons, and ambitious men shifted their interest from the archonship to the strategia.
Meanwhile, the Athenians had made a spectacular silver strike at Laurium in southeastern Attica. Aristides advocated sharing it among the citizens, while Themistocles argued for building two hundred triremes. Aristides was ostracized and the fleet was built.
In 484 BC Darius' successor, Xerxes, decided to carry out the invasion. In 481 BC, thirty-one states formed the Hellenic League. Sparta received supreme command on land and sea. The League decided to make a stand in central Greece, placing a land force at the pass of Thermopylae while the fleet settled in at nearby Artemisium.Leonidas marched into Thermopylae with seven thousand men. Local Phocian forces were assigned to defend a secret path over the mountains leading to the rear of the Greek forces. A Greek traitor betrayed the secret and guided Xerxes' Immortals over it. On learning the Persians were in his rear, Leonidas dismissed the bulk of his forces. The Thebans, Thespians, and three hundred Spartans defended the pass, killing many Immortals before being killed themselves.
The Peloponnesians urged withdrawal of the fleet to the Peloponnesus, but Themistocles sent a messenger to Xerxes urging him to occupy the narrows and block the escape of the Greeks. The Persian fleet suffered a massive defeat. In 479 BC, Xerxes' forces were totally destroyed at Plataea. Almost at the same time, a Greek fleet defeated the Persian navy at the Battle of Mycale, finally liberating the Ionians.
According to ancient historians, Athens, Sparta, and their few allies faced the might of Persia virtually alone. They rebuffed the demand of Gelon, the tyrant of Syracuse, for a share in the command of the Greek forces. Gelon had conquered most of the cities of Sicily, sometimes selling into slavery whole populations. Fearful they would suffer a similar fate, the cities of Messina and Selinus sought help from Carthage. The Carthaginians responded in force but were defeated. Gelon died in 478 BC, and his empire disintegrated soon after.