The Long Walls of Athens are often-overlooked symbols of that city’s industry and independence, but it is well worth reflecting on the history of these defences, evidence of which can still be found dotted through the city. These remains may not be infused with the authority of the Pnyx, and they are certainly not as iconic as the Parthenon shining high on the Acropolis. But more than those sites, the ancient city fortifications testify to the resilience of the ancient Athenians.
Consider, first, the money and manpower needed to build and maintain 26 kilometres of walled defences. Walls that not only encircled both the city of Athens and the port complex on the Piraeus peninsula, but also linked these two sites some 7 kilometres apart. And this remarkable system of fortifications was absolutely central to the strategies of successive Athenian leaders – Themistocles, Cimon, and Pericles – who played a key part in establishing the city as the most dynamic polis in the Hellenic world. From the early fifth century BC onwards, Athenian imperial ambition was consequent to security at home: in a time of crisis the entire population of Attica could find shelter within the walls, and live there on provisions brought in by sea. And so with an impregnable fortress on the mainland, and a mighty fleet of triremes supreme in the Aegean, Athens was preeminent for a period.
A statement of independence
But beyond the material detail, it is interesting to consider the symbolic importance of these fortifications for the ancient Athenians. These walls were always much more than just stout defences. Of course, their significance stemmed from the assurance the walls provided citizens, but it was also linked, crucially, to the particular political history of Athens. Consider, for example, the circumstances in which Themistocles brought about the rebuilding of the city’s defences in the years after 478 BC. In his History, Thucydides provides details of the endeavour (Book 1.90.1-93.2), and highlights how the pointed opposition of other Greeks was not about to sway the Athenians from completing this project. We are told that the Spartans and her allies appealed to Athens, and ‘begged her not only to abstain from building walls for herself, but also to join them in throwing down the walls surrounding cities outside of the Peloponnese’ (1.90.2). Ignoring what Thucydides highlights as a disingenuous call for unity, Themistocles intensified Athenian efforts to restore the city after the devastation of the Persian occupation: he himself set off for the Peloponnese to distract and divert the Spartans, but advised that ‘the whole population in the city was to labour at the wall, the Athenians, their wives and their children, sparing no edifice, private or public, which might be of any use to the work, but throwing all down’ (1.90.3). The Athenians ransacked all available materials to complete the work in double-quick time; at which point, Themistocles finally revealed to the Spartans that ‘…Athens was now fortified sufficiently to protect its inhabitants’, and, further, that henceforth ‘any embassy which the Spartans or their allies might wish to send to them, should in future proceed on the assumption that the people to whom they were going were able to distinguish both its own and the general interests…’ (1.91.4)
The completion of even a preliminary set of defences allowed the Athenians to make their first clear statement of future intent and ambition. This was a city that would no longer be dictated to by Sparta, or any other power.
It is interesting that Thucydides highlights the discontent of key allies before the restoration of Athens’ walls; noting that, in the years after the Persian Wars, other Greek states were already alarmed at the strength of the Athenian fleet and the growing enterprise of her citizens. That feeling would only have increased when the Athenians (led by the statesman and general, Cimon) began to busy themselves with the construction of the Long Walls, those ‘legs’ (σκέλη) that linked the city and Piraeus (built between c.461 and 456 BC, with the Middle Wall added c.446 BC). Once again, we hear of a determined opposition to the ambitious project. This time, however, resistance comes from both outside and inside the city. Thucydides, again, tells us that a party with Athens itself ‘hoped to put an end to the reign of democracy and the building of the long walls’ (1.107.4). For the oligarchs in Athens any further extension of formidable city walls would make the city even more dependent on the navy, which would make the demos, in turn, even more powerful. Opponents of the democracy were even prepared to turn to the city over to the Spartans in an attempt to halt Cimon’s plans. And so this extension of the defences was a contentious and charged construction project, a political project opposed by key groups in the city: consequently, for many the Long Walls of Athens were powerful symbols of the city’s radical democracy from the very beginning.
The full strategic and symbolic significance of these fortifications was highlighted at the end of Peloponnesian War, when the enemies of Athens finally entered the city and began to target key sites of importance for destruction. Unable to hold out any longer, in 404 BC the Athenians opened the city to the Spartans, whose commander, Lysander, agreed to spare Athens, but only after the Athenian navy was reduced to an absolute minimum and the Long Walls, the harbour, and even the shipsheds in Piraeus were razed (Lysias, 13.14). Plutarch records that in late spring Lysander sailed into Athens and:
‘…sent for many flute-girls from the city, and assembled all those who were already in the camp, and then tore down the walls, and burned up the triremes, to the sound of the flute, while the allies crowned themselves with garlands and made merry together, counting that day as the beginning of their freedom.’ (Plutarch, Lysander 15.4)
Those famous walls, erected by the demos in defiance of Sparta and extended in the face of oligarchic oppositions, were now reduced to save the city from those same enemies, as all the great symbols of Athens’ radical democracy were eradicated to great fanfare.
Recovery and restoration
In 404 BC Athens was a beaten city, with its long circuit of fortifications in ruins. And yet… in just over a decade both the walls and the city within were restored. Signs of the recovery came quickly: the oligarchic junta was ousted and the democratic constitution restored within a year; by 397 BC the Athenians were sending arms and men in support of a Persian fleet in the Aegean; and in 395 BC the city was at the head of an anti-Sparta alliance of cities, about to contest the Corinthian War. As the history of internecine strife among the Greek cities took another fascinating turn, it was now time for the Athenians to take advantage of the strained relations between rival powers. And while the recovery of this once-great Panhellenic champion was financed by a Persian king, the resilience and vigour of the Athenian demos was the same as a century earlier when they first set to the task of restoring the walls. The same defence system that Xerxes destroyed was restored with money from his successor Artaxerxes, as part of this Great King’s attempts to challenge Sparta’s control of the situation in Greece. In 393 BC, the veteran Athenian general Conon sailed into his home city with a fleet of 90 ships (paid for by the Persian satrap, Pharnabazus), in order to support rebuilding efforts that were already under way. As Xenophon records:
…Conon proposed to put in at Athens and aid the Athenians in rebuilding their long walls and the wall around Piraeus, adding that he knew nothing could be a heavier blow to the Spartans than this. ‘And by this act, therefore’, he said, ‘you will have conferred a favour upon the Athenians and have taken vengeance upon the Spartans, inasmuch as you will undo for them the deed for whose accomplishment they underwent the most toil and trouble.’ Pharnabazus, upon hearing this, eagerly dispatched him to Athens and gave him additional money for the rebuilding of the walls.
Upon his arrival Conon erected a large part of the wall, giving his own crews for the work, paying the wages of carpenters and masons, and meeting whatever other expense was necessary. There were some parts of the wall, however, which the Athenians themselves, as well as volunteers from Boeotia and from other states, aided in building. (Xenophon, Hellenica 4.8.9-10)
There are echoes here of the old Themistoclean endeavour in the account of these events, as the Athenians again rebuilt the old fortifications at an impressive pace and with real proficiency; the project was completed by 391 BC, and the scattered remains of the ancient walls and gates that are still visible today date to this reconstruction.
The city stands again
In antiquity, a city was not a city without its defences; so, inevitably, with these walls again in place, Athens was on the rise once more: within five years, her fleet of ships was again preeminent in the Aegean; by 378 BC (less than thirty years after her traumatic defeat by Sparta) the city was at the head of another great, an even greater, maritime alliance. But the first clear and assertive indicator of that recovery was the restoration of those formidable fortifications. Just as the Spartans made a clear strategic and symbolic point when tearing down the Long Walls, so they were restored by the Athenians in a striking demonstration to the outside world that the city, and its demos, were a force to be contended with once more.