The Athenian Golden Age

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13526

So much of western civilization is based upon ideas created over 200 years ago on the Greek peninsula. Explore the legacy of Athens and why its contributions are still so profound today.


Social Studies, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Bertrand Russel quote

Ancient Civilizations

egyptian gods

Civilizations certainly existed before Athens; however, the legacy of this city-state is more notable. For example, the Egyptians had a prolific and long-lasting civilization, but the legacy of Athens has become far more entrenched in modern life.

  • So, what about this Golden Age was so revolutionary?

Rise to Power

At the beginning of the 5th century B.C. the Persians began a decades-long invasion of Greece. The might of Persia would have easily been able to destroy each Greek city-state one by one, so the entire peninsula banded together to form the Delian League.

This military pact was headed by Sparta. Once the war was won, however, Athens came to spearhead this alliance.

Learn how Athens used this pact to form an empire as you watch Ancient Athens and the Delian league from Ancient Greece:

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By 450 B.C., Athens was the center of Greek trade, had the strongest navy, and had the support of much of Greece.


raised hands

Sparta's government was a dual monarchy, which instituted laws unilaterally to maintain military might. Athens developed a system of direct democracy.

  • What did this look like?

Power was not formally established under an elected ruler until the rise of Pericles in 461. He was elected by voters who individually voted on legislation and political office.

In the United States, elected representatives then vote on issues. In Athens' direct democracy, voters had to show up and vote on each piece of legislation. This meant they had to constantly stay informed.

Because of the requirements inherent in a direct democracy, the Athenian government only allowed native adult men to vote, about 1/3 of the population.

Although 2/3 of people in the city-state, most notably women, did not have the right to vote, this is the first example of a government based on the concept of rule by the people. Pericles understood this and recognized the stability that democracy brought to Athenian culture.

For clarification on Pericles' views of democracy, watch a portion of HISTORY OF IDEAS - Ancient Greece from The School of Life:

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Because Athens did not squarely focus on its military, and democracy encouraged the idea of fellow feeling, Athenians could focus on subjects that were not necessary for survival.

Most developments within civilizations until this point were the result of utility. Athens' new developments marked a society with increased leisure time, allowing for a focus on nonessential activities.


death of socrates painting

One of the most notable forms of nonessential aspects of Greek life was the advent of Philosophy. Thrust into intellectual thought during the Athenian Golden Age, philosophy was popularized by The Father of Western Philosophy, Socrates.

Watch Socrates: Biography of a Great Thinker, from Socratica, and note that he was the only philosopher to die as a result of his beliefs.

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The structure of reasoning and Socrates' method of critical thinking were by no means obvious. The idea that one could find all truths by simply asking questions had a far-reaching impact beyond the practice of philosophy.


socrates statue

The youth Socrates mentored, most notably Plato, went on to gain followings of their own and established schools in their names.

Although not a school like our modern-day institutions, Plato's Academy met at a certain place regularly, where he gave lectures and led discussions on not only philosophy but mathematics and astronomy as well. Prior to this, the main form of education had been apprenticeship, where one worked for years under an expert to learn a craft.

  • How do these two systems of education differ?
  • Which one has immediate payoff?
  • Is there value in knowing about the stars?

The ability to devote time to simply thinking and contemplating morphed this wealthy society into something completely new.


theater masks

Nowhere is the uniqueness of Athens more present than in the development of theatrical plays.

Athenian playwrights developed several different genres of plays. Some were humorous, but many utilized the tension and drama that was occurring in their city.

As you watch An Introduction to Greek Theatre, from National Theatre, pay attention to the role of the chorus:

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Through the role of the chorus and its satirical perspective, people were expected to stay informed on the drama of the politics in Greece.

  • Did anything about the competition of tragedies during the Festival of Dionysus surprise you?
  • What was the reward for having the best play?

They did not receive anything! They simply had their name put on the wall. This speaks to a society that was beginning to heavily value the development of culture.



From Sparta to Corinth, the Greeks were already prolific builders before the Athenian Golden Age.

Watch another clip from HISTORY OF IDEAS - Ancient Greece, from The School of Life, for an overview of general Greek architecture:

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The main component the Athenians added to their architecture was making it talk.

Look at these images of the Parthenon to see images of the relief at the top, which were in full view of the people of Athens:

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Both images, via Wikimedia Commons, are licensed under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

The first image is of four Athenian men standing together; directly next to them, in the second picture, are four Olympian gods sitting.

Portraying men and gods next to each other was incredibly controversial.

  • Was the architect saying men were equal to the power of the gods?

This was frightening to many Greek politicians who wanted to maintain peace and order.

Now that you've explored the incredible strides that occurred during this period of peace and unity on the Greek Peninsula, move on to the Got It? section to explore how these achievements may have been detrimental to Athenian longevity.

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