According to Greek mythology, in the struggle between the Giants and the Olympians, the leader of the former was Athos and of the latter, Poseidon. Athos cast a massive rock at Poseidon from Thrace, but it missed him and fell into the sea, forming the pyramid-shaped mountain bearing his name. According to another myth, the ancient god Apollon fell in love with Daphne, the daughter of the king of Arcadia. In order to keep her virginity, she took refuge in the main port of Mt. Athos, thus giving her name to it. From the latter myth it can be seen that since ancient times this area was associated with the struggle against the flesh.
Ancient geographers mention six towns in the peninsula: Dion, Thyssos, Cleonae, Acrothooi, Charadrous and Olophyxos. During historical times it is mentioned for the first time in connection with the Persian expedition against Greece under the command of Mardonius in 493 B.C. Sailing around the peninsula, the Persian fleet met with bad weather and suffered a terrible disaster. The attempted invasion was thus called off. Ten years later Xerxes repeated the expedition, but in order to avoid the risk of a new catastrophe he dug a canal at the narrow neck of the peninsula.
In 368 B.C. the peninsula and its six towns became part of the state of Phillipos of Macedonia. Some years later his son Alexander the Great became king of Macedonia and joined all of Greece under his rule. It is said that at that time an architect named Dinocrates suggested to Alexander the Great that he could transform the Mountain and all of the peninsula to a huge statue depicting Alexander holding a populous city in his hand. The modest Greek leader answered that he should leave the city in peace.
The 4th century marks the complete Christianisation of the peninsula.
The beginning of Athonite Monastic Life coincides with the arrival on Athos of two great personalities. The first one is Petros of Athos, whose arrival can be placed at the end of the 8th century, while the second is Euthymios the New who came to the Mountain in about 860. In addition, some historians claim that monks from Athos attended the synod organised on the occasion of the restoration of the icons in 843. It is generally accepted that the founder of organised monastic life was Athanasios the Athonite who in 963 established the coenobium of Great Lavra, which was financed by the emperor Nikephoros Phokas. The reputation of Athanasios attracted a large number of monks who came to follow the ascetic life near their great mentor. By that period the monasteries of Xeropotamou, Vatopediou, Hagiou Pavlou, Zographou, and the non Greek Iveron had developed.
Later, at the beginning of the 11th century appeared the monasteries of Esphigmenou, Xenophontos, Docheiariou, Karakalou, Chelandariou, Stratoniketa, Philotheou and Panteleimonos. Towards the end of the 11th century the monasteries of Kostamonitou and Koutloumousiou were founded. The monk population reached the number of 7000 by 1050.
After the dissolution of the Byzantine empire by the Franks (i.e. West Europeans) in 1205, the Mountain came under the rule of the Frankish King of Thessaloniki. During that period the mountain suffered terribly from massacres, sacking, and arsons due to the refusal of the Athonite monks to accept the Union of Lyons in 1274.
In the 14th century four new monasteries appeared, Simonopetra, Gregoriou, Pantokratoros and Dionysiou. At that time Byzantium was breathing its last. A new power, the Ottoman Turks, was making its appearance. The Mountain was taken by Murat the second in 1424. Immediately, a poll tax and tithe were imposed on the monks, which were later followed by other taxes and crushing special levies. The economic position of the Monasteries was so bad that monks could not stay there and the Mountain was almost deserted. The Mountain was able to survive thanks to the aid from the Ecumenical Patriarchate which offered material and moral support. Some economic aid was given by the rulers of the countries to the north, particularly the Transdanubian Principalities but also from the Orthodox people.
A new disaster, the greatest in the History of Mt. Athos, occured during the revolution of Emmanuel Papas in 1822. Turkish forces murdered monks as well as women and children who had fled there for refuge, destroyed the printing press which had been established there, looted whatever treasures they could find and used priceless manuscripts to make cartridges and light fires.
The Mountain came under Greek sovereignity on 5 November 1912. When it was liberated, between 9 and 10 thousand monks used to live there. Later it fell into decline. In 1963, when the 1000th anniversary for the foundation of organized monastic life by St. Athanasios the Athonite was celebrated, nobody was talking about 1000 years of life. The festival was characterized by some as the Mountain's funeral.
From the middle of the 1970s a new revival of the Mountain was observed. Young people, frequently holders of one or more University degrees, came to Mt Athos in order to adopt the ascetic life.