This video is part of a series of 16 animated maps.

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A Greek city-state: Athens

This map is part of a series of 16 animated maps showing the history of Ancient Greece.

During the classical period, the Greek city, or polis, was an independent city-state, established by a group of citizens who, as free men, were entitled to participate in the government of the city.  All the poleis in Ancient Greece shared a common language and values. There were several hundred city-states in the Greek territories on both sides of the Aegean Sea and in colonies along the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts. These cities were mostly small in size. Three-quarters of them covered a territory of less than 100 square kilometers, but some, including Sparta, Syracuse and Athens, were much larger. 

The city of Athens is a typical example of a classic city-state.  Its territory covered the peninsula of Attica and was characterized by two essential elements:

- The city itself, known as the asty, which housed the political, military and religious institutions, as well as its principal trading activities.

- And the countryside or chora, where the land was cultivated and the rural population lived in isolated farms and villages.

 Scattered throughout the chora were military fortresses where the citizen-soldiers could protect the city and, if necessary, seek refuge. 

In the region of Laurium in Southern Attica, lead ore was mined and provided substantial revenues for the city’s coffers. At Eleusis, the sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Demeter was one of the principal religious centers where Athenians would gather for the ritual ceremonies of the Eleusinian Mysteries.  

Beyond the inhabited and agricultural areas, the frontier was marked with boundary stones. But the frontier areas, in particular when they contained good arable land, were often a source of conflict between the cities. 

Athens was situated on a small plain on the coast, through which flowed the rivers of Cephissus and Ilissos. The town, surrounded by protective walls, was dominated by the Acropolis, a steep rock in the city centre. 

At the beginning of the 5th century BC, Themistocles built up a powerful navy for the city of Athens and founded the city of Piraeus on a site that could easily accommodate three harbours. This replaced the moorings at Phaleron, which were no longer suitable. 

As Athens’ trading center, Piraeus quickly became the main redistribution port for the whole Greek world, thanks to the passage of many key products, including wheat from the Black Sea.  

During the 450s, the Long Walls linked Athens and Piraeus in order to protect the road between the city and its port. 

During the Peloponnesian war, the Athenians found refuge behind these walls while the hoplites from Sparta ravaged the surrounding countryside in Attica. The city remained invulnerable as long as its naval supremacy protected its supply of provisions.