Athens, Greece

Athens is the capital city, as well as the largest city in Greece. The history of Athens goes back at least 3,000 years. Athens was host to the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Athens has many sights to offer including the Parthenon on the Acropolis, which serves as a landmark of western civilization. There are also a number of Roman and Byzantine monuments standing in Athens.

Athens offers sunshine nearly every day, and access to beautiful beaches and scenic islands. Modern Athens is a metropolis of activity for visitors. From shopping to dining, there are many ways to enjoy the traditional Greek heritage in Athens. Due to its large number of four and five star hotels, Athens is currently the sixth most visited capital city in all the world. Planning a visit to Athens is planning a trip back in time to an era when gods and mystical creatures traveled the world, and the first Olympic Games were held in the 700s B.C.

The decay of a great civilisation causes in the reflective the reconsideration of many problems of human life. We who live in Great Britain, in security and prosperity, and boast of the power of our empire, should feel somewhat humbled by the contemplation of the ruins of Athens. The story of the rise and fall of ancient Greece abounds with lessons and warnings for those who ponder seriously upon the destiny of great nations. That little country jutting into the sea, and broken up by gulfs and inlets, at the southern extremity of Europe–with an area not so large as that of Portugal–once dominated wide territories in Persia and Egypt, tracts of Turkey and Asia Minor, parts of Italy, and the shores of the Black Sea.

Attica and its capital covered a district that could be crossed to-day in its widest part, by a railway train in less than one hour. The capital of this small but powerful region was a city with a population less than that of Sheffield. Yet Athens stood for the whole of the civilised world as a token of might, wealth, and culture, united in a city of limited dimensions, situated in the midst of natural surroundings not wholly kindly for the development of tillage. The Athenians, descendants of tribes of the North, and of the old race of Pelasgians, were a vigorous, adventurous, and highly intelligent race when western Europe was inhabited by rude primitive tribes. Long before the introduction of Christianity in the East, Athens was a beacon-light of religious and ethical culture. Three hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Greeks had made Alexandria the chief seat of learning and refinement in the world, and “the birthplace of modern science.” And while other states of Europe were ruled by autocrats and tyrants, the Athenians adopted an advanced republican form of government.

The light of Athens shone dazzlingly for centuries. Its many splendid buildings, and the glorious Parthenon, were erected in the days of its proudest prosperity; in the days of gifted architects and sculptors, such as the world had never known, and in the days long before the apostles of Christianity had set foot on Attic soil. The light, and not too generous, soil of this limestone tract had been wrested from nature, irrigated, and tilled to perfection. Around Athens was a land of gardens and vineyards, with groves and pastures by pleasant streams. The Piraeus, on the Saronic Gulf, was connected with Athens by walls and roads, and used as a port for vessels of war and commerce. In the city were superb temples, theatres, halls of learning, and academies; while the open spaces were adorned with statues carved by Praxiteles and Phidias.

During this period of magnificence, Socrates discoursed in the city, and the plays of Sophocles were performed in the vast theatre. We tread to-day on venerable ground as we wander amid the shattered pillars upon which Demosthenes and Aristotle gazed, and stand where Plato stood in contemplation. Athens is haunted in every corner with the spirits of mighty philosophers, poets, artists, and statesmen of eternal fame.

The passionate admirer of Grecian civilisation sometimes fails to detect any imperfection in the Athenians of the immemorial epoch. But there were grave faults in the populace of Athens even in the days of its rarest enlightenment. The democracy showed at times the same irrationality  hen as to-day. The statesmen fell into our errors, and were often as prejudiced as our modern politicians. Miltiades was thrown into prison; Aristides was ostracised; and Thucydides and Herodotus were banished. Themistocles became unpopular, and had to fly from his country to Persia. Socrates was made to drink the bitter cup. Even in this era of culture and science, the reformer and the innovator of moral and social customs ran the risk of persecution. And then, as in our own time, the flippant scoffer, such as Aristophanes, was admired and applauded, while the serious thinker was exposed to the ingratitude and cruelty of the less earnest and educated.

Although the cultured of Athens were rationalists in the main, the masses were prone to monstrous and hurtful superstitions. There were in Athens, as in modern cities to-day, a number of persons who lived upon the credulity of their neighbours. Seers, soothsayers, and charlatans preyed on the foolish, in spite of the ridicule of the philosophers. No wonder that Socrates was misunderstood by the mob!

In their treatment of women, the Athenians were not entirely just and sensible. Aristotle held that women were “inferior beings,” though he justly demanded the same measure of chastity for men as for their wives. Plato was one of the most “feminist” of the philosophers, as we may gather from his “Republic”; but Plutarch went further, and stated that women should be educated equally with men, a teaching directly opposed to that of Xenophon, who declared that young girls should know “as little as possible.” We learn, however, that at one period the women of Greece were, in civic matters, on a level with their husbands, and could act without their consent in political affairs. The finest and most educated women were the courtesans.

The Athenians bought and sold slaves, without the least consciousness of injustice. No doubt the serfs were treated fairly well, on the whole. But no Athenian appears to have recognised the moral evil of the system of slavery.

Yet, despite these blemishes, what a resplendent state was that of
Attica, and how wise and sane in many important respects were the laws,
the home life, and the recreations of the people of Athens. Perhaps one
cannot convey in a better manner an idea of the life of the city in its
days of noblest fame than by giving a page or two out of the lives of a
few of the heroes of war, the lawgivers, and the artists of the capital
who were the makers of its glory.

One of the famous victors in battle among the Athenians was Cimon, son
of Miltiades, who passed a wild youth in the city, but became a great
admiral. “In courage he was not inferior to Miltiades,” writes Plutarch,
“nor in prudence to Themistocles, and he was confessedly an honester man
than either of them.”

Cimon was “tall and majestic,” and had an abundance of hair which curled
upon his shoulders. The Athenians admired the young and handsome man,
and elected him a commander of battleships. One of his victories was
over the invading Persian hosts, who harassed the Thracians.

A picture of his daily life is given by Plutarch, who tells us how the
admiral kept open house each night for his friends and any citizens who
chose to join the repast. Cimon had a following of young men; and when
walking out, if he met a poor man in meagre garments, he enjoined one of
his friends to give him his clothes in exchange for the rags. “This was
great and noble,” says Plutarch. The admiral loved riches, but not from
a passion for amassing money. It was his pleasure to distribute money to
the needy.

His naval skill and enterprise were the wonder of the inhabitants of
Athens. In one engagement with the Persians, Cimon captured two hundred

During the siege of Citium, the great warrior died, either from a wound,
or from natural causes. His body was brought to Athens, where a monument
was erected in memory of his prowess on land and sea.

During the rule of Pericles, Athens was beautified by the building of a
new Parthenon under the direction of Callicrates and Ictinus. At this
time the walls of the city were extended, the Odeum, or music theatre,
erected, and numerous statues set up in the buildings. Phidias was
chosen by Pericles as superintendent of all public buildings in Athens.

The name of Phidias is spoken with reverence by every student of
sculpture. He was a supreme artist of varied parts; he carved in marble,
made images of ivory and gold, and cast effigies in bronze, besides
exercising the art of the painter. Some of his matchless statuary has
been happily preserved for us in the British Museum. It was the chisel
of Phidias that adorned the frieze of the Parthenon. It was this genius
who made the famous statue of Minerva, and the image of Athene in ivory,
thirty feet high, for the Erechtheum.

Unfortunately, the Minerva image was the cause of the undoing of
Phidias. A man so eminent was sure to evoke envy among his
contemporaries. First he was falsely charged with theft; then his work
was condemned on the score that he had introduced his own image upon the
shield of Minerva.

For this breach of convention, in representing a modern figure in a
historical subject, the sculptor was deemed disloyal to the ancient fame
of Athens. He was sent to prison, where he died. “Some say poison was
given to him,” writes Plutarch.

Praxiteles, another mighty image-maker of Athens, lived over a hundred
years before the days of Phidias. He carved the youthful figure with
surpassing delicacy and grace. His Aphrodite was one of the world’s
masterpieces; and among his finest works were statues of Hermes and
Niobe and her children.

We must now glance at an Attic social phenomenon of much importance. The
power of the courtesan among the cultured Athenians is instanced in the
life of Pericles. We can learn but little of the Grecian social life,
without inquiring into the status of the hetæræ at this period in the
history of Athens. Xenophon and Socrates were the visitors of Aspasia,
the friend and adviser of Pericles. The influence of this clever woman
was almost unbounded. Philosophers, soldiers, and poets were of her
court; she was one of the causes of the Median faction, and her sway
over Pericles was supreme.

“The business that supported her was neither honourable nor decent,”
writes Plutarch. She was, indeed, of Mrs Warren’s profession. Pericles
never set out upon important affairs, nor returned from them, without
waiting upon this fascinating mistress, who combined beauty of body with
much wit and skill in conversation. At the advice of Aspasia, the ruler
of Athens proclaimed war against the Samians, in which memorable
conflict battering-rams were first used by the Greeks. And it was
through the intervention of Pericles that Aspasia was acquitted of the
charge of impiety, adduced by Hermippus, a comic rhymer. In the court
Pericles “shed many tears” for the woman he loved, and thus obtained her

Alcibiades, “the versatile Athenian,” friend of Socrates, was another of
the makers of Athens. He was a model of manly beauty, with a vigorous
frame, and active in exercises. His lisping speech gave a charm to his
oratory. He was ambitious, variable, passionate, and withal lovable.
Socrates was one of the first to discover his virtues of character, and
his rare qualities of mind. Like Pericles he was the companion of
courtesans, and his excesses provoked his wife Hippareté, who left him
on that account and went to the house of her brother. When Hippareté
appeared before the archon, with a bill of divorce, Alcibiades rushed
forward, seized her in his arms, and carried her home, where she
remained apparently contented until her death.

Alcibiades was the most eloquent orator of his day. His versatility was
great. He bred fine horses, which ran in the competitions at the Olympic
Games, and often won prizes for their owner. He loved display and
handsome apparel; he invented a luxurious hanging bed. In warfare he
distinguished himself by immense courage and a knowledge of tactics.
Timanda, daughter of the famous Lais, was the mistress of Alcibiades,
and near her house he was assassinated by hirelings, sent by his
political enemies.

Such are a few pages culled from the annals of some of the illustrious
natives of Athens in the days of its grandeur. They may serve to throw a
slight reflection of the temper and the lives of the people of this
ancient republic. Anyone who treads the streets of Athens, even if only
superficially acquainted with Grecian history, will find a host of
memories crowding the brain.

War was an occupation and a trade with the Greeks, and the Athenians
were not often at peace with neighbouring countries. Thrice at least was
Athens besieged. When Xerxes came to Greece, the citizens consulted the
oracle of Delphi, who counselled that they should find security “in
walls of wood.” Led by Themistocles, the citizens manned the vessels,
after sending the old, the infirm, and the women and children to
Troezene. But the counsel of the oracle proved futile. The Persians
entered Athens, killed the few remaining soldiers, and burnt the
splendid city to ruins.

Upon these ruins grew a second Athens. Then came Lysander and laid siege
for eight months, until the citizens yielded. Harshly ruled for a time
by the Spartan victors, Athens regained liberty through the valour of a
small force collected by Lysias.

In the third siege the city was assailed by the Roman Sylla, who strove
to expel Archelaus, King of Pontus, who had entered Athens by strategy
and deception, and usurped government.

Sylla’s attack on the walls of Athens, the tremendous bulwarks erected
by Pericles, was terrific. The general employed thousands of mules in
working the powerful battering-rams. Often the defenders rushed out of
the city to combat with their assailants in the open. The conflict was
deadly and hand-to-hand. Sylla’s soldiers endeavoured to fire the city,
the Athenians still resisted, and the troops withdrew for a spell, while
their leader reconsidered his plans.

Worn out with famine, the people within the city begged that their ruler
would surrender. His answer was cruel punishment to the deputies. The
inhabitants were now actually feeding upon human flesh. Sylla finally
captured Athens, secured the port, and became the ruler of the proud and
fallen city.

So came about the conquest of Attica by the Romans. From that day her
glory faded. One after another came the invaders, and her liberty was
no more the envy of the civilised world, for she became the vassal of
Turkey, and later of Venice.

It was the Venetians who destroyed the noble Parthenon, leaving only two
pediments standing. Siege, the ravages of time, and constant spoliation,
have removed nearly all the great historic edifices from the Acropolis.
But the pillars and stones that remain are picturesque, if mournful,
memorials of Athens in the period of splendour.

The city stands on the ground where in remote days the Phoenicians
made a settlement. Acropolis, the upper town, or citadel, contains
to-day several interesting vestiges of Attic art. From the plateau we
survey mountains of about the height of Ben Lomond or Snowdon, the famed
Hymettus, the Parnes, and the Corydallus. The inferior Hill of Mars,
where St Paul preached, is dwarfed by these heights. On this hill ruled
the awful deities of Olympus, and upon it is a monument of Philopappus.

Amid the waves in the distance are the isles of Salamis and Ægina. The
scene is beautiful beneath the glowing southern sky. In Greece the
atmosphere is very clear and bright and the sun shines ardently on the
bleached ruins, the gleaming sea, and the roofs of the modern city.

The rivers Ilissus and Cephissus lave the city. Away in the level
country is the wood where Plato had his academy. The whole territory is
classic soil. We stand in front of the site of the Erechtheum, burned by
the Persians, and rebuilt by Pericles. It was an edifice of superb
architecture, dedicated to the virgin goddess, the adored Athene. Within
stood a figure of the goddess, and there hung a lamp that burned by day
and night.

The Athenians worshipped Erechtheus and Athene in this temple of
majestic form. Athene was to them the inventress of the plough, the
giver of the olive-tree, the goddess of war. She was the daughter of the
mighty Zeus. The god who shared in her honour was the legendary ruler of
Athens, and son of the earth by Hephæstus.

The Parthenon was also sacred to Athene. The remains of this edifice are
very impressive. Huge fluted columns support the roof, and parts of the
frieze and metopes have survived. Five years were spent in the building
of the temple. The style was Doric, and the whole structure was a
splendid example of this imposing style of architecture.

The porticoes and colonnades were constructed as promenades, sheltered
from the sun and wind, and the columns were erected in double rows.
Within was the Maiden’s Chamber, beautifully embellished, and provided
with altars. Everywhere the genius of Phidias was displayed in marble
friezes, stone images, and bronze casts. The Elgin Marbles, in the
British Museum, give an example of the elegance of the decorations of
the frontages; and parts of the sculptured eastern frieze are to be seen
in the Acropolis Museum, near to the temple. The carvings represented
the war between gods and giants, the victory of the Athenians over the
Amazons, the birth of the goddess Athene, the destruction of Troy, and
other historical and mythical subjects.

Among the relics of the Acropolis are grottoes dedicated to the gods,
several traces of temples, and shrines of Pan, Apollo, and other
deities. In the Acropolis Museum is a collection of treasures, portions
of bas-reliefs and statuary rescued from the ruins of the old buildings.
The remains of the Temple of Wingless Victory, and the monument of
Lysiantes, are among the ancient stones of the Acropolis.

Modern Athens preserves in a measure the spirit of antiquity; but it is
not so ancient in aspect as many of the towns that we have visited. A
wide thoroughfare, called Hermes, is the chief street of the city. There
are several modern buildings of excellent design, such as the
University, the Academy, and the National Museum. In the museum will be
found a very fine collection of relics of the ancient buildings,
statues, and utensils.

Schools for the study of Hellenic art and culture have been established
in Athens by the British, Americans, and French. Every endeavour is now
made by the learned societies of the city to preserve the Acropolis
monuments, those triumphs of the sculptor’s art and mason’s craft of
which Plutarch wrote: “That which was the chief delight of the Athenians
and the wonder of strangers, and which alone serves for a proof that the
boasted power and opulence of ancient Greece is not an idle tale, was
the magnificence of the temples and public edifices…. The different
materials, such as stone, brass, ivory, gold, ebony, and cypress,
furnished employment to carpenters, masons, brasiers, goldsmiths,
painters, tanners, and other artificers…. Thus works were raised of an
astonishing magnitude and inimitable beauty and perfection, every
architect striving to surpass the magnificence of the design with the
elegance of the execution, yet still the most wonderful circumstance was
the expedition with which they were completed.”

The superb art of the Athenians set an example to the whole of Europe.
Everywhere its influence was manifested in architecture and sculptured
decoration. Artists with pencil and brush are inspired by the matchless
line and form of Phidias. The great English painter, G. F. Watts,
haunted the Greek corridors of the British Museum until he became
steeped in the beauty of the Elgin Marbles. “The academy training taught
him very little; the art of Phidias taught him how to produce great
works.” Albert Moore, another of our modern painters of genius, found
his æsthetic ideal in the art of the Greeks.

And so from the little nation of Attica came the mightiest influences of
morality, wisdom, and art that the world has known.


  • The Project Gutenberg EBook of Old Continental Towns, by Walter M. Gallichan