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A demagogue, a treacherous ally, and a brutal Roman general destroyed the city-state—and democracy—in the first-century BC.

Two scenes from Athens in the first-century BC: Early summer, 88 BC, a cheering crowd surrounds the envoy Athenion as he makes a rousing speech. He’s just returned to the city-state from a mission across the Aegean Sea to Anatolia, where he forged an alliance with a great king. Athens, humbled in recent years by the Romans, can seize control of its destiny, Athenion declares. After his speech, the excited throng rushes to the theater of Dionysus, where official assemblies are held, and elects Athenion as hoplite general, the city’s most important executive position. Athenion struts on stage before the crowd, then displays the sloganeering skills of a modern politician, saying: “Now you command yourselves, and I am your commander in chief. If you join your strength to me, my power shall reach the combined power of all of you.” Then March 86 BC, shouts and trumpet blasts rend the night air as Roman soldiers, swords drawn, run through the city. Blood flows in the narrow streets, as the Romans butcher the Athenians—women and children included. The number of dead is beyond counting. In despair, many Athenians kill themselves.

Less than two years separate these scenes. How did Athens swing so quickly from euphoria to catastrophe? The answer lies in a dramatic tale starring the demagogue Athenion, a mindless mob, a tyrant, and a brutal Roman general. The heart of this story is a months-long battle featuring treachery and clever siege warfare. And its denouement is the Roman sack of Athens, a bloody day that effectively marked the end of Athens as an independent state.

Athens in the early first century had energy and culture. The city held festivals and presented nine plays each year, both comedies and tragedies. Its popular Assembly directed internal affairs as a showcase of democracy. But this was all before the powerful Athens of the fifth century BC, when the city had been at its zenith. Macedonians under Philip II—father of Alexander the Great—had defeated Athens in 338 BC and installed a garrison in the Athenian port city of Piraeus. Under Macedonian control, Athens had dwindled to a third-rank power, with no independence in foreign affairs and an insignificant military.

In 229, when the Macedonian King Demetrius II died, leaving nine-year-old Philip V as his heir, the Athenians took advantage of the power vacuum and negotiated the removal of the garrison at Piraeus. But in 200, Philip, having come of age and claimed the crown, dispatched an army toward Athens to regain the port. With few military resources of its own, the city turned for help to the Roman Republic, the rising power of the day. Rome responded, rushing 20 warships and 1,000 troops to Piraeus to keep Philip V at bay.

This newfound alliance initially benefited Athens. When the Romans destroyed the Macedonian Kingdom in 168, the Senate awarded Athens the Aegean island of Delos. Athens declared the Delos harbor duty-free, and the island prospered as a major trading center. In 129 BC, after Rome established its province of Asia, in western Anatolia across the Aegean, Delos became a trade hub for goods shipped between Anatolia and Italy.

Over time, however, the Romans had begun to look less friendly. In 146, they ruthlessly destroyed the city-state of Corinth and established their authority over much of Greece. Then, early in the first century BC, a political crisis engulfed Athens when its “eponymous archon,” or chief magistrate, refused to abide by the Athenian constitution’s one-term limit. Rome, which was preoccupied fighting its former Italian allies in the Social War (91–88), failed to step in to settle matters, increasing resentment in Athens.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Aegean, events touched off an explosion whose force would swamp Athens. The Romans were extorting as much revenue as possible from their new province of Asia. Suffering dearly, the Greek cities on the Anatolian coast went looking for help and found a deliverer in Mithridates VI, king of Pontus in northeastern Anatolia. Mithridates, who came from a Persian dynasty, ruled a culturally mixed kingdom that included both Persians and Greeks. To the Persians, he emphasized his descent from ancient Persian kings. To the Greeks, he represented himself as a “new Alexander,” the champion of Greek culture against Rome.

War between Pontus and Rome—the First Mithridatic War—broke out in 89 BC over the petty state of Bithynia in northwestern Anatolia. The Romans placed a proxy on the Bithynian throne and encouraged him to raid Pontic territory. Mithridates swiftly retaliated, invading and overrunning Bithynia. The Pontic army used scythes mounted on chariots as weapons of terror, cutting swaths through the Bithynian ranks. Appian, the historian who wrote in the second century AD, records that the Bithynians were “terrified at seeing men cut in halves and still breathing, or mangled in fragments, or hanging on the scythes.”

After defeating the Bithynians, Mithridates drove into the Roman province of Asia. Most of the Greek cities there welcomed the Pontic forces, and by early 88, Mithridates was firmly in control of western Anatolia. At the king’s order, the locals slaughtered tens of thousands of Romans and Italians who lived among them. Terrified Romans fled to temples for sanctuary, but to no avail; they were butchered anyway. Not all the Anatolian Greeks wanted to do the dirty work: the citizens of the inland town of Tralles hired an outsider—a man named Theophilus—to kill for them. Theophilus even hacked off the hands of Romans clinging to statues inside a temple.

About the same time that the Pontic army was sweeping across the province of Asia, Athens dispatched the philosopher Athenion as an envoy to Mithridates. The Greek emissary became an enthusiastic booster of the king and sent letters home advocating an alliance. Athenion promised that Mithridates would restore democracy to Athens—an apparent reference to the archon’s violation of the constitution’s one-term limit. He also said that Mithridates would free the citizens of Athens from their debts (whether he meant public or private debts is not clear).

According to a fragmentary account by the historian Posidonius, Athenion’s letters persuaded Athens that “the Roman supremacy was broken.” The prospect of the Anatolian Greeks throwing off Roman rule also sparked pan-Hellenic solidarity. When Athenion returned home in the early summer of 88, citizens gave him a rapturous reception. People rushed to greet him as he was carried into the city on a scarlet-covered couch, wearing a ring with Mithridates’s portrait. The next day, as he made his way to the Agora for a speech, a mob of admirers strained to touch his garments. With the help of bodyguards, Athenion pushed through the crowd to the front of the Stoa of Attalos, a long, colonnaded commercial building among the most impressive in the Agora. Athenion at first feigned a reluctance to speak because of “the sheer scale of what is to be said,” according to Posidonius. Then he recounted events in the east. Gloating over Roman misfortunes, he declared that Mithridates controlled all of Anatolia. The Roman leaders, he said, were prisoners, and ordinary Romans were hiding in temples, “prostrate before the statues of the gods.” Oracles from all sides predicted Mithridates’s future victories, he said, and other nations were rushing to join forces with him. Athens, too, should throw in with this rising power, he asserted.

Athenion had the mob eating out of his hand. His election as hoplite general quickly followed. Yet his plans hit a snag when Delos refused to break from Rome. The island had many Roman and Italian residents and relied heavily on the Roman trade. When Athenion sent a force to seize control of Delos, a Roman unit swiftly defeated it.

But where Athenion failed, Mithridates was determined to succeed. The Pontic king sent his Greek mercenary, General Archelaus, into the Aegean with a fleet. Archelaus was to seize Delos, then solidify Pontic control of Athens and as much of Greece as possible. The king probably wished to engage the Romans far to the west, away from his core territories in Anatolia. As the “new Alexander,” he may also have seen the conquest of Greece as a natural move.

Arriving at Delos, Archelaus quickly took the island. Historian Appian states that the Pontics massacred thousands of Italians there, a repeat of the slaughter in Anatolia. Though Archelaus restored Delos to Athenian control, he turned over its treasury to Aristion, an Athenian citizen whom Mithridates had chosen to rule Athens. When the fleet reached the city, Aristion quickly seized power, thanks in part to a personal guard of 2,000 Pontic soldiers. Athenion’s fate is not clear. He disappears from the historical record; Aristion must have deposed him.

As the Pontic general Archelaus persuaded other Greek cities to turn against Rome—including Thebes to the northwest of Athens—Aristion established a new regime in Athens. City residents who had cheered lustily for Athenion, the demagogic envoy, now found themselves ruled by a tyrant. Aristion executed citizens accused of favoring Rome and sent others to Mithridates as prisoners. Such brutality may have been carried out with a design; Athenians fearing a Roman military intervention were growing restless under Aristion. Many tried to flee, but Aristion placed guards at the gates. When some topped the walls and ran away, he sent cavalry after them.

The Athenians had reason to fear for their lives. The Italian Social War ended in 88, freeing the Romans to meet the Pontic threat in the east. They didn’t act immediately; a fight over who would lead the army against Mithridates was settled only when Consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla secured the command by marching on Rome, an unprecedented move. Sulla arrived in Greece early in 87 with five legions (approximately 25,000 men) and some mounted auxiliaries. As he advanced, Thebes and the other Greek cities that had allied with Archelaus nimbly switched back to the Roman side.

Once near his target, Sulla moved to isolate Athens from Piraeus and besiege each separately. The famous Long Walls that had connected the two cities during the Peloponnesian War had since fallen into disrepair. He detached a force to surround Athens, then struck at Piraeus, where Archelaus and his troops were stationed.

Following standard Roman procedure, Sulla’s men made a quick assault on the walls of the port, trying to catch the defenders by surprise. When that failed, the Romans settled in for a long siege. Sulla had siege engines built on the spot, cutting down the groves of trees in the Athenian suburb of the Academy, where Plato had taught some three centuries earlier. Sulla obtained iron and other material from Thebes and placed his newly built siege engines upon mounds of rubble collected from the Long Walls. Inside Piraeus, Archelaus countered by building towers for his siege engines.

As the year 87 drew on, Mithridates sent additional troops. Archelaus, who had more men than Sulla at the outset, tried to make use of his numerical superiority in an all-out attack on the besiegers. In the furious fighting that followed, he kept his army close to Piraeus to ensure that his archers and slingers on the wall could still wreak havoc on the Romans. Neither side gained an advantage until a group of Romans who had been gathering wood returned and charged into battle. Some 2,000 of Archelaus’s men were killed. The Romans drove the rest back into Piraeus so swiftly that Archelaus was left outside the walls and had to be hauled up by rope.

The stalemate continued. With winter coming on, Sulla established his camp at Eleusis, 14 miles west of Athens, where a ditch running to the sea protected his men.

Throughout the siege, Sulla got regular reports from spies inside Piraeus—two Athenian slaves who inscribed notes on lead balls that they shot with slings into the Roman lines. The two either supported the Romans or were currying favor with the side that they expected to win. Regardless, Sulla benefited greatly. With Athens running short of food, Archelaus one night dispatched troops from Piraeus with a supply of wheat. Sulla, tipped off by a lead-ball message, captured the relief expedition.

Eventually Archelaus realized someone was divulging his plans, but turned it to his advantage. He sent out another convoy carrying food for Athens, and when the Romans attacked it, his men dashed from hiding inside the gates and torched some of the Roman siege engines.

As winter stretched on, Athenians began to starve. They butchered and ate all their cattle, then boiled the hides. Becoming more desperate, they gathered wild plants on the slopes of the Acropolis and boiled shoes and leather oil-flasks. (According to Plutarch’s Life of Sulla, the tyrant Aristion and his cronies were drinking and reveling even as famine spread. Plutarch also claims that Aristion took to dancing on the walls and shouting insults at Sulla. However, Plutarch drew on Sulla’s memoirs as a source, so these anecdotes may be unreliable; Sulla had an interest in denigrating his opponent.)

To protect their money, some Athenians buried coin hoards. Archaeologists discovered these caches thousands of years later and found bronze coins minted during the siege, when Aristion and King Mithridates jointly held the title of master of the mint. These bronze coins bore the Pontic symbol of a star between two half-moons.

Sulla had logistical problems of his own. His political opponents had seized control of Rome, declared him a public enemy, and forced his wife and children to flee to his camp in Greece. The capital would be sending no more reinforcements or money. Sulla’s solution: rob the Greek temples of their treasures. The Romans looted even the great shrine at Delphi dedicated to Apollo. As soldiers carted away their prized and sacred possessions, the guardians of Delphi bitterly complained that Sulla was nothing like previous Roman commanders, who had come to Greece and made gifts to the temples.

Meanwhile, the siege of Piraeus continued, with each side matching the other’s moves. The Romans built a huge mobile siege tower that reached higher than the city’s walls, and placed catapults in its upper reaches to fire down upon the defenders. Archelaus in turn built a tower that he brought up directly opposite its Roman counterpart. An artillery duel developed. Men on both towers discharged “all kinds of missiles,” according to Appian. Sulla eventually gained the upper hand, thanks to large devices that Appian said “discharged twenty of the heaviest leaden balls at one volley.” These missiles killed a large number of Pontic men and damaged their tower, forcing Archelaus to pull it back.

At one point, the Romans carried a ram to the top of one of the mounds fashioned from the rubble of the Long Walls. But without warning, it sank into the earth. Archelaus’s men, Sulla discovered, had dug a tunnel and undermined it. The Romans quickly got to work on their own tunnel, and when the diggers from both sides met, a savage fight broke out underground, the miners hacking at each other with spears and swords “as well as they could in the darkness,” according to Appian.

As below ground, so above. When a Roman ram breached part of the walls of Piraeus, Sulla directed fire-bearing missiles against a nearby Pontic tower, sending it up in flames like a monstrous torch. The Romans then fractured a nearby portion of the wall and launched an all-out attack. The opposing forces clashed bitterly for a long time—Appian records that both Sulla and Archelaus held forth in the thick of the action, cheering on their men and bringing up fresh troops. Ultimately, the Romans grew exhausted, and Sulla ordered a retreat.

During the night, Archelaus sealed the breaches in the walls by building lunettes, or crescent-shaped fieldworks, inside. Sulla attacked again the next morning with his entire army, hoping the wet mortar of the lunettes would not hold.

But geometry worked against him. Attacking into the half circle of the lunette, they were hit by missiles from the front and both flanks. It was too much. Sulla ordered another retreat, and turned his attention to Athens, which by now was a softer target than Piraeus.

With the city starving, its leaders asked Aristion to negotiate with Sulla. Though he at first refused, he later relented and sent a delegation to meet with the Roman commander. But when one of the Athenian delegates began a grand speech about their city’s great past, Sulla abruptly dismissed them. “I was not sent to Athens by the Romans to learn its history, but to subdue its rebels,” he declared.

Soon after, Roman soldiers overheard men in the Athenian neighborhood of the Kerameikos, northwest of the Acropolis, grousing about the neglected defenses there. One night Sulla personally reconnoitered that stretch of wall, which was near the Dipylon Gate, the city’s main entrance. In the dark early morning of March 1, 86 BC, the Romans opened an attack there, launching large catapult stones. Centuries later, archaeologists discovered some of these in the ruins of the Pompeion, a gathering place for the start of processions. Apparently, some Roman stones had missed the gate and crashed into the Pompeion next door.

Eventually the Romans breached a section of the wall and poured through. The Athenian defenders, weakened by hunger, fled. A mass slaughter followed. According to Appian, Sulla “ordered an indiscriminate massacre, not sparing women or children.” Many Athenians were so distraught that they committed suicide by throwing themselves at the soldiers. Inside homes, the Romans discovered a sight that must have horrified even the most hardened among them: human flesh prepared as food.

Realizing the city’s defenses were broken, Aristion burned the Odeon of Pericles, on the south side of the Acropolis, to prevent the Romans from using its timbers to construct more siege engines. He and his allies then retreated to the Acropolis, which the Romans promptly surrounded. Aristion didn’t hold out long: He surrendered when he ran out of drinking water. Sulla had the tyrant and his bodyguard executed. He also helped himself to a stash of gold and silver found on the Acropolis.

Now, Roman senators and Athenian exiles in Sulla’s entourage asked him to show mercy for the city. Sulla called a halt to the pillage and slaughter. Scorning the vanquished, he declared that he was sparing them only out of respect for their distinguished ancestors.

With Athens under his thumb, Sulla turned back to Piraeus. Weary of the siege and determined to seize the city by assault, he ordered his soldiers to fire an endless stream of arrows and javelins. Others brought up rams and entered the breach they’d made in the walls earlier. This time, they burst through Archelaus’s hastily constructed lunette. The Pontic troops had built other lunettes inside, but the Romans attacked each wall with manic energy. Sulla circulated among his men and cheered them on, promising that their ordeal was almost over. At last, Archelaus saw that the game was up and skillfully evacuated his army by sea. Sulla, lacking ships, could not give chase.

The war had one last act to play out. Archelaus landed on the Greek coast to the north and withdrew into Thessaly, where he joined forces with Pontic reinforcements that had marched overland from Anatolia. Sulla also moved north, however, and defeated Archelaus in two pitched battles in Boeotia, at Chaeronea and Orchomenos.

Those defeats persuaded Mithridates to end the war. The terms of the 85 BC peace agreement with Sulla were surprisingly mild considering that Mithridates had slaughtered thousands of Romans. Though Mithridates had to withdraw from territories he had conquered and pay an indemnity, he remained in power in Pontus.

Sulla had reason to let Mithridates off easy—he was anxious to deal with his political opponents back in Rome. In 83 BC, Sulla and his army returned to Italy, kicking off the Roman Republic’s first all-out civil war, which he won. In the meantime, Mithridates used the respite to rebuild his strength. Rome would have to fight the Pontic king again before his final defeat and death—purportedly by suicide—in 63.

Athens, meanwhile, was devastated. The Pompeion was ravaged beyond repair and left to decay. Buildings in the Agora and on the south side of the Acropolis remained damaged for decades, monuments to the poverty in postwar Athens.

The effect on the city’s model democracy was also staggering. Archaeologists have found no inscriptions with decrees from the Assembly that date within 40 years of the end of the siege. A small number of families came to dominate the leading political offices and ruled almost as an oligarchy—one that was careful not to provoke the Romans. Thanks to Sulla’s ruthlessness, Athenion’s demagoguery, and the Athenians’ manic enthusiasm for the proposed alliance with Mithridates, Athens’s days as an autonomous city-state were all but over.


Originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here