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A Glance at the Site and Antiquities of Athens

by J. L. T. Phillips

The day is a happy one to the student-traveler from the Western World in which he first looks upon the lovely plain of Athens. Rounding the point where Hymettus thrusts his huge length into the sea, the long, featureless mountain-wall of Southern Attica suddenly breaks down, and gives place to a broad expanse of fertile, and well-cultivated soil, sloping gently back with ever-narrowing bounds until it reaches the foot-hills of lofty Pentelicus. The wooded heights of Parnes enclose it on the north, while bald Hymettus rears an impassable barrier along the south. In front of the gently recurved shore stretch the smooth waters of the Gulf of Salamis, while beyond rises range upon range of lofty mountain-peaks with strikingly varied outline, terminating on the one hand in the towering cone of Egina, and on the other in the pyramidal, fir-clad summit of Cithaeron. Upon the plain, at the distance of three or four miles from the sea, are several small rocky hills of picturesque appearance, isolated and seemingly independent, but really parts of a low range parallel to Hymettus. Upon one of the most considerable of these, whose precipitous sides make it a natural fortress, stood the Acropolis, and upon the group of lesser heights around and in the valleys between clustered the dwellings of ancient Athens.

View of the Acropolis and The Columns Of The Temple Of Jupiter Olympus.

View of the Acropolis and The Columns Of The Temple Of Jupiter Olympus.

It was a fitting site for the capital of a people keenly sensitive to beauty, and destined to become the leaders of the world in matters of taste, especially in the important department of the Fine Arts. Nowhere are there more charming contrasts of mountain, sea and plain—nowhere a more perfect harmony of picturesque effect. The sea is not a dreary waste of waters without bounds, but a smiling gulf mirroring its mountain-walls and winding about embosomed isles, yet ever broadening as it recedes, and suggesting the mighty flood beyond from which it springs. The plain is not an illimitable expanse over which the weary eye ranges in vain in quest of some resting-place, but is so small as to be embraced in its whole contour in a single view, while its separate features—the broad, dense belt of olives which marks the bed of its principal stream, the ancient Cephissus, the vineyards, the grain-fields and the sunny hillside pastures—are made to produce their full impression. The mountains are not near enough to be obtrusive, much less oppressive; neither are they so distant as to be indistinct or to seem insignificant. Seen through the clear air, their naked summits are so sharply defined and so individual in appearance as to seem almost like sculptured forms chiseled out of the hard rock.

The city which rose upon this favored spot was worthy of its surroundings. The home of a free and enterprising race endowed with rare gifts of intellect and sensibility, and ever on the alert for improvement, it became the nurse of letters and of arts, while the luxury begotten of prosperity awakened a taste for adornment, and the wealth acquired by an extended commerce furnished the means of gratifying it. The age of Pericles was the period of the highest national development. At that time were reared the celebrated structures in honor of the virgin-goddess who was the patron of Athens—the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Erechtheum—which crowned the Acropolis, and were the glory of the city as they were the masterpieces of Grecian architecture. During the preceding half century many works of utility and of splendor had been constructed, and the city now became renowned not only in Greece, but throughout the ancient world, for the magnificence of its public buildings. Thucydides, writing about this time, says that should Athens be destroyed, posterity would infer from its ruins that the city had been twice as populous as it actually was. Demosthenes speaks of the strangers who came to visit its attractions. But the changes of twenty-three centuries have passed upon this splendor—a sad story of violence and neglect—and the queenly city has long been in the condition of ruin imagined by Thucydides. Still, the spell of her influence is not broken, and the charm which once drew so many visitors to her shrines still acts powerfully on the hearts of scholars in all lands, who, having looked up to her poets, orators and philosophers as teachers and loved them as friends, long to visit their haunts, to stand where they stood, to behold the scenes which they were wont to view, and to gaze upon what may remain of the great works of art upon which their admiration was bestowed.

So the student-pilgrim from the Western World with native ardor strains his sight to catch the first glimpse of the Athenian plain and city. He is fresh from his studies, and familiar with what books teach of the geography of Greece and the topography of Athens. He needs not to be informed which mountain-range is Parnes, and which Pentelicus—which island is Salamis, and which Egina. Yet much of what he sees is a revelation to him. The mountains are higher, more varied and more beautiful than he had supposed, Lycabettus and the Acropolis more imposing, Pentelicus farther away, and the plain larger, the gulf narrower, and Egina nearer and more mountainous, than he had fancied. He is astonished at the smallness of the harbor at Peiraeus, having insensibly formed his conception of its size from the notices of the mighty fleets which sailed from it in the palmy days when Athens was mistress of the seas. He is not prepared to see the southern shore of Salamis so near to the Peiraeus, though it explains the close connection between that island and Athens, and throws some light upon the great naval defeat of the Persians. In short, while every object is recognized as it presents itself, yet a more correct conception is formed of its relative position and aspect from a single glance of the eye than had been acquired from books during years of study.

Arrived at the city, his experience is the same. He needs no guide to conduct him to its antiquities, nor cicerone to explain in bad French or worse English their names and history. Still, unexpected appearances present themselves not unfrequently. Hastening toward the Acropolis, he will first inspect the remains of the great theatre of Dionysus, so familiar to him as the place where, in the presence of all the people and many strangers, were acted the plays of his favorite poets, Eschylus and Sophocles, and where they won many prizes. Hurrying over the eastern brow of the hill, he comes suddenly upon the spot, enters at the summit, as many an Athenian did in the olden time, and is smitten with amazement at the first glance, and led to question whether this be indeed the site of the ancient theatre. He finds, it is true, the topmost seats cut in the solid rock, row above row, stripped now of their marble lining and weather-worn, but yet the genuine ancient seats of the upper tier. These he expected to find. But whence are those fresh seats which fill the lower part of the hollow, arranged as neatly as if intended for immediate use? and whence the massive stage beyond? He bethinks himself that he has heard of recent excavations under the patronage of the government, and closer inspection shows that these are actually the lower seats of the theatre in the time of the emperor Hadrian, whose favorite residence was Athens, and who did so much to embellish the city. The front seats consist of massive stone chairs, each inscribed with the name of its occupant, generally the priestess of some one of the numerous gods worshiped by that people so given to idolatry. In the centre of the second row is an elevated throne inscribed with the name of Hadrian. The stage is seen to be the ancient Greek stage enlarged to the Roman size to suit the demands of a later style of theatrical representation.

Theatre of Dionysus (Bacchus).

Theatre of Dionysus (Bacchus).

After looking in vain for the seat occupied by the priestess of the Unknown God, our traveler passes on and enters with a beating heart the charmed precincts of the Acropolis itself. The Propylaea, which he has been accustomed to regard too exclusively as a mere entrance-gate to the glories beyond, impresses him with its size and grandeur, and the little temple of Victory by its side with its elegance. But the steepness of the ascent perplexes him. It seems impracticable for horses, yet he knows by unexceptionable testimony that the Athenian youth prided themselves upon driving their matched steeds in the great Panathenaic procession which once every four years wound up the hill, bearing the sacred peplus to the temple of the goddess. A closer examination reveals the transverse creases of the pavement designed to give a footing to the beasts, as well as the marks of the chariot-wheels. Nevertheless, the ascent (and much more the descent) must have been a perilous undertaking, unless the teams were better broken than the various accounts of chariot-races furnished by the poets would indicate. Entering beneath the great gate, a little distance forward to the left may readily be found the site of the colossal bronze statue of the warrior-goddess in complete armor, formed by Phidias out of the spoils taken at Marathon. The square base, partly sunk in the uneven rock, is as perfect as if just put in readiness to receive the pedestal of that famous work. A road bending to the right and slightly hollowed out of the rock leads to the Parthenon. The outer platform which sustains this celebrated temple is partly cut from the rock of the hill and partly built up of common limestone. The inner one of three courses, as well as the whole superstructure, is formed of Pentelic marble of a compact crystalline structure and of dazzling whiteness. Long exposure has not availed to destroy its lustre, but only to soften its tone. The visitor, planting himself at the western front, is in a position to gain some adequate idea of the perfection of the noble building. The interior and central parts suffered the principal injury from the explosion of the Turkish powder magazine in 1687. The western front remains nearly entire. It has been despoiled, indeed, of its movable ornaments. The statues which filled the pediment are gone, with the exception of a fragment or two. The sculptured slabs have been removed from the spaces between the triglyphs, and the gilded shields which hung beneath have been taken down. Of the magnificent frieze, representing the procession of the great quadrennial festival, only the portion surrounding the western vestibule is still in place.

Victory Untying Her Sandals.

Victory Untying Her Sandals.

Temple of Victory

Temple of Victory

The Parthenon.

The Parthenon.

Still, as these were strictly decorations, and wholly subordinate to the organic parts of the structure, their presence, while it would doubtless greatly enhance the effect of the whole, is not felt to be essential to its completeness. The whole Doric columns still bear the massive entablature sheltered by the covering roof. The simple greatness of the conception, the just proportion of the several parts, together with the elaborate finishing of the whole work, invest it with a charm such as the works of man seldom possess—the pure and lasting pleasure which flows from apparent perfection Entering the principal apartment of the building, traces are seen of the stucco and pictures with which the walls were covered when it was fitted up as a Christian church in the Byzantine period. Near the centre of the marble pavement is a rectangular space laid with dark stone from the Peirseus or from Eleusis. It marks the probable site of the colossal precious statue of the goddess in gold and ivory—one of the most celebrated works of Phidias. The smaller apartment beyond, accessible only from the opposite front of the temple, was used by the state as a place of deposit and safekeeping for bullion and other valuables in the care of the state treasurer.

Bas Relief of the Gods (Frieze Of The Parthenon).

Bas Relief of the Gods (Frieze Of The Parthenon).

Having examined the great temple, and tested the curvature of its seemingly horizontal lines by sighting along the unencumbered platform, and having stopped at several points of the grand portico to admire the fine views of the city and surrounding country, the traveler picks his way northward, across a thick layer of fragments of columns, statues and blocks of marble, toward the low-placed, irregular but elegant Erechtheum, the temple of the most ancient worship and statue of the patron-goddess of the city. This building sits close by the northern as the Parthenon does by the southern wall of the enclosure. It has suffered equally with the other from the ravages of time, and its ruins, though less grand, are more beautiful. Most of the graceful Ionic columns are still standing, but large portions of the roof and entablature have fallen. Fragments of decorated cornice strew the ground, some of them of considerable length, and afford a near view of that delicate ornamentation and exquisite finish so rare outside the limits of Greece. The elevated porch of the Caryatides, lately restored by the substitution of a new figure in place of the missing statue now in the British Museum, attracts attention as a unique specimen of Greek art, and also as showing how far a skillful treatment will overcome the inherent difficulties of a subject. The row of fair maidens looking out toward the Parthenon do not seem much oppressed by the burden which rests upon them, while their graceful forms lend a pleasing variety to the scene. Passing out by the northern wing of the Propylaea, a survey is had of the numerous fragments of sculpture discovered among the ruins upon the hill, and temporarily placed in the ancient Pinacotheca. The eye rests upon sweet infant faces and upon rugged manly ones. Sometimes a single feature only remains, which, touched by the finger of genius, awakens admiration. A naked arm severed from the trunk, of feminine cast, but with muscles tightly strained and hand clenched as in agony, will arrest attention and dwell in the memory.

North-west of the Acropolis, across a narrow chasm, lies the low, rocky height of the Areopagus, accessible at the southeast angle by a narrow flight of sixteen rudely-cut steps, which lead to a small rectangular excavation on the summit, which faces the Acropolis, and is surrounded upon three sides by a double tier of benches hewn out of the rock. Here undoubtedly the most venerable court of justice at Athens had its seat and tried its cases in the open air. Here too, without doubt, stood the great apostle when, with bold spirit and weighty words, he declared unto the men of Athens that God of whom they confessed their ignorance; who was not to be represented by gold or silver or stone graven by art and man's device; who dwelt not in temples made with hands, and needed not to be worshiped with men's hands. In no other place can one feel so sure that he comes upon the very footsteps of the apostle, and on no other spot can one better appreciate his high gifts as an orator or the noble devotion of his whole soul to the work of the Master. How poor in comparison with his life-work appear the performances of the greatest of the Athenian thinkers or doers!

A little more than a quarter of a mile west of the Acropolis is another rocky hill—the Pnyx—celebrated as the place where the assembly of all the citizens met to transact the business of the state. A large semicircular area was formed, partly by excavation, partly by building up from beneath, the bounds of which can be distinctly traced. Considerable remains of the terrace-wall at the foot of the slope exist—huge stones twelve or fourteen feet in length by eight or ten in breadth. The chord of the semicircle is near the top of the hill, formed by the perpendicular face of the excavated rock, and is about four hundred feet in length by twenty in depth. Projecting from it at the centre, and hewn out of the same rock, is the bema or stone platform from which the great orators from the time of Themistocles and Aristides, and perhaps of Solon, down to the age of Demosthenes and the Attic Ten, addressed the mass of their fellow-citizens. It is a massive cubic block, with a linear edge of eleven feet, standing upon a graduated base of nearly equal height, and is mounted on either side by a flight of nine stone steps. From its connection with the most celebrated efforts of some of the greatest orators our race has yet seen, it is one of the most interesting relics in the world, and its solid structure will cause it to endure as long as the world itself shall stand, unless, as there is some reason to apprehend will be the case, it is knocked to pieces and carried off in the carpet-bags of travelers. No traces of the Agora, which occupied the shallow valley between the Pnyx and the Acropolis, remain. It was the heart of the city, and was adorned with numerous public buildings, porticoes, temples and statues. It was often thronged with citizens gathered for purposes of trade, discussion, or to hear and tell some new thing.

Porch of the Caryatides.

Porch of the Caryatides.

Half a mile or more to the south-east, on the banks of the Ilissus, stood a magnificent structure dedicated to Olympian Zeus—one of the four largest temples of Greece, ranking with that of Demeter at Eleusis and that of Diana at Ephesus. Its foundations remain, and sixteen of the huge Corinthian columns belonging to its majestic triple colonnade. One of these is fallen. Breaking up into the numerous disks of which it was composed—six and a half feet in diameter by two or more in thickness—and stretching out to a length of over sixty feet, it gives an impressive conception of the size of these columns, said to be the largest standing in Europe. The level area of the temple is now used as a training-ground for soldiers. Close by, and almost in the bed of the stream, which is dry the larger part of the year, issues from beneath a ledge of rock the copious fountain of sweet waters known to the ancients as Calirrhoe. It furnished the only good drinking-water of the city, and was used in all the sacrifices to the gods. A little way above, on the opposite bank of the Ilissus, is the site of the Panathenaic stadium, whose shape is perfectly preserved in the smooth grass-grown hollow with semicircular extremity which here lies at right angles to the stream, between parallel ridges partly artificial.

Northward from the Acropolis, on a slight elevation, is the best-preserved and one of the most ancient structures of Athens—the temple of Theseus, built under the administration of Cimon by the generation preceding Pericles and the Parthenon. It is of the Doric order, and shaped like the Parthenon, but considerably inferior to it in size as well as in execution. It has been roofed with wood in modern times, and was long used as a church, but is now a place of deposit for the numerous statues and sculptured stones of various kinds—mostly sepulchral monuments—which have been recently discovered in and about the city. They are for the most part unimportant as works of art, though many are interesting from their antiquity or historic associations. Among these is the stone which once crowned the burial-mound on the plain of Marathon. It bears a single figure, said to represent the messenger who brought the tidings of victory to his countrymen.

Near the Theseium was the double gate (Dipylum) in the ancient wall of the city whence issued the Sacred Way leading to Eleusis, and bordered, like the Appian Way at Rome, with tombs, many of them cenotaphs of persons who died in the public service and were deemed worthy of a monument in the public burying-ground. Within a few years an excavation has been made through an artificial mound of ashes, pottery and other refuse emptied out of the city, and a section of a few rods of this celebrated road has been laid bare. The sepulchral monuments are ranged on one side rather thickly, and crowd somewhat closely upon the narrow pavement. They are, for the most part, simple, thick slabs of white marble, with a triangular or pediment-shaped top, beneath which is sculptured in low relief the closing scene of the person commemorated, followed by a short inscription. The work is done in an artistic style worthy of the publicity its location gave it. On one of these slabs you recognize the familiar full-length figure of Demosthenes, standing with two companions and clasping in a parting grasp the hand of a woman, who is reclining upon her deathbed. The inscription is, Collyrion, wife of Agathon. On another stone of larger size is a more imposing piece of sculpture. A horseman fully armed is thrusting his spear into the body of his fallen foe—a hoplite. The inscription relates that the unhappy foot-soldier fell at Corinth by reason of those five words of his!—a record intelligible enough, doubtless, to his contemporaries, but sufficiently obscure and provocative of curiosity to later generations.

There are other noted structures at Athens, such as the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates—the highest type of the Corinthian order of architecture, as the Erechtheum is of the Ionic and the Parthenon of the Doric—but want of space forbids any further description of them. Let the American traveler visit Athens with the expectation of finding a city occupying the most charming of sites, and containing by far the most interesting and important monuments of antiquity, in their original position, to be found in the whole world.

Monument of Lysicrates.

Monument of Lysicrates.