As a city state, the coastal capital of Athens reached its heyday in the fifth century BC. Under Pericles, from 461BC until his death in 429BC, an unprecedented spate of construction resulted in many of the great classical buildings (the Parthenon, Erechtheion and Hephaisteion in Athens and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion), now regarded as icons of Ancient Greece. Physical evidence of the city's success was matched by achievements in the intellectual arts. Democracy was born, drama flourished and Socrates conceived the foundations of Western philosophy. Remarkably, although the cultural legacy of this period has influenced Western civilisation ever since, the classical age in Athens only lasted for five decades. Under the Macedonians and Romans, the city retained a privileged cultural and political position but became a prestigious backwater of the Empire rather than a major player.
Five centuries of Roman rule preceded the Byzantine period, which in turn was followed by four centuries of Ottoman Turkish domination, as of 1456, which has left an indelible cultural mark on the city. Under the Turks, the population declined and the Parthenon was converted into a mosque. By the end of the 18th century, Athens was also suffering the indignity of having the artistic achievements of its classical past removed by looting collectors – the Parthenon Marbles, taken by Britain’s Lord Elgin, being among them. The Greek War of Independence (1821-1832) saw the eventual overthrow of Turkish hegemony.
Modern Athens was born in 1834, when the city was made capital of a newly independent Greece, and Otto of Bavaria installed as the first King of Greece. He employed Prussians architects to redesign the city and erect impressive neo-classical buildings, such as the Royal Palace, today the Greek Parliament. In 1923, Greek refugees flooded the city at the end of the Greek-Turkish war, swelling the population and bringing further cultural influence from Anatolia.
During WWII, Athens was occupied by the Germans, who raised the Nazi flag bearing the swastika above the Acropolis. After WWII, fighting between Communist sympathisers and Royalists lead to the Greek Civil War (1946-1949). American money funded a massive expansion and industrialisation programme. The rapid growth of the post-war years resulted in unregulated urban sprawl and a rise in pollution.
Continued animosity between the right and the left culminated in coup d’etat staged by a group of high ranking army officers. They installed a right-wing military dictatorship, known as the Junta (1967-1974). The Greek Communist Party (KKE) was outlawed and communist sympathisers sent into exile on remote islands.
Greece joined the European Union in 1981 and received considerable subsidies for development. In 2002, Greece was also one of the initial 12 EU countries to adopt the Euro as common currency. The mood was optimistic, and the 2004 Olympics saw upgrading of the public transport system, increased pedestrian-only zones in the historic centre, and the refurbishment of many hotels.
However, due to the economic crises, increased austerity since 2010 has resulted in civil unrest and confrontations between protestors and riot police. Despite a series of bail-outs from the EU and International Monetary Fund, speculation continues that Greece may eventually default.