When the Greek city-states found themselves threatened by the Persian Empire, it was Athens that took the lead in resisting, first at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC, and then at Salamis in 480 BC. But before Salamis, the Persians had in fact seized and sacked Athens, so it was in the decades after that incident that the Athenians set about building the city that we today know as “classical” Athens. The Acropolis had always been the focal point of Athenian religious life, and under the leadership of Pericles from 458-429 BC the Athenians erected the Parthenon, the great temple visitors admire to this day. Below the Acropolis hill lies the Theater of Dionysus: this is essentially the theater where the plays of Arechylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and others were performed.
Classical Athens and the Golden Age
When the Greek city-states found themselves threatened by the Persian Empire, it was Athens that took the lead in resisting, first at the battle of Marathon (490 BC), and then at Salamis (480 BC). But before Salamis, the Persians had in fact seized and sacked Athens, so now the Athenians set about building the city that we today know as “classical” Athens. The Acropolis (“peak of the city”) had always been the focal point of Athenian religious life, and now, under the leadership of Pericles (458-429 BC), the Athenians erected the great temple to their guiding spirit, the goddess Athena-the Parthenon (447-434 BC). Visitors are usually surprised to discover that there are still a fair number of sculptures on the Parthenon; some of the originals are in the Acropolis museum, but this does not satisfy Greeks and many others who feel that the so-called Elgin Marbles, carried off to England in 1801, should be returned to Athens. In fact, the new Acropolis museum has left an entire floor free to house the Elgin Marbles!
A visit to the Acropolis, of course, will involve viewing the other great structures there-the great entryway known as the Propylaia, the Erechtheion (with the 6 maidens known as the Caryatids, supporting the roof; 4 of the originals are in the Acropolis Museum), and the temple of Athena Nike. But while on the Acropolis, many will want to take this occasion to view some of the structures around its base. Standing with the Erechtheion at your back, you look down across the ancient Agora (“market place”), at the center of ancient Athens civic and social life; the long colonnaded, surprisingly intact building along one side is the Stoa of Attalus, a complete reconstruction after World War II (with the aid of Rockefeller money). At the far opposite corner, another surprisingly intact temple is the ”Theseion”; one of the best preserved ancient buildings in Greece (dated to about 450 BC) thanks to the fact that it was long used as a Christian church!
Walking to the other side of the Acropolis you look down on an open-air amphitheater, the Odeion of Herodes Atticus. Named after a wealthy Roman who admired Greek civilization, this theater continues to be used for all kinds of musical and theatrical performances (at least one of which you may want to attend during your stay in Athens). And then off to the left as you look down is the Theater of Dionysos; although rebuilt over several centuries, this is essentially the theater where the great dramas of ancient Athens were performed-the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and others. While still on the Acropolis, you should also turn and look across over the great entryway to the hillside facing the Acropolis-this is the Areopagus, where the ruling council of ancient Athens met (and which the Apostle Paul addressed on his first mission to Greece).
There are numerous other structures and sites around Athens associated with the Classical Age that some may wish to seek out. In particular, there is what little remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It took some 700 years before it was completed and stood as the largest temple in Greece. And even those who are not well informed about ancient Greece find it quite moving to visit Kerameikos, the cemetery of ancient Athens with its sculptured gravestones.
Athens through the Centuries
The “Golden Age” of Athens became tarnished after its long Peloponnesian War with Sparta (431-404 BC) although it continued to be the center of art and philosophy-the latter embodied by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It faded still further after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, who with his fellow Macedonians had conquered the city along with most of Greece by 338 BC. It should come as no surprise, then, to hear that the Romans took over Athens along with all of Greece by 146 BC; if we had to single out only one of the several remains of this era that visitors might want to seek out, it would be the Tower of the Winds at the Roman Forum.
As the Romans themselves declined in power, Athens was subjected to raids of the so-called Barbarian tribes from northern Europe. After Rome lost control of Greece to the Eastern Empire based in Constantinople (AD 395)-what is known as the Byzantine Empire-Athens became little more than a backwater town. Little survives in Athens from the next 800 years except several fine old Byzantine churches (recognizable today because they sit below the current street levels!). Then in the 13th century, after Constantinople itself fell to alleged “Crusaders,” Athens like much of Greece found itself ruled by a succession of Western Europeans (this was the period of a Duke of Athens, perhaps familiar to you from Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream). This phase ended when the Ottoman Turks took over the Byzantine Empire in 1453, but again, Athens did not play an especially important role in the Turks’ empire. In fact, the Turks had so little regard for the glories of ancient Greece that they used the Parthenon as a storehouse for ammunition; when Venetians were trying to drive the Turks out of Athens and bombarded the Acropolis, they hit the arsenal and left the Parthenon in the ruined state that we see today.
Athens in the 19th Century
By the time Greeks launched their revolution against the Turks in 1821, Athens had been under Turkish rule for over 350 years and had become a truly backwater town. In fact, after the Greeks won their independence in 1829, they chose Nafplion as their capital. Only in 1834 was the capital of modern Greece moved to Athens, and it was during the remaining decades of the 1800s that the city now visited by so many was laid out and built up. All the major boulevards and avenues; the major squares such as Syntagma (“Constitution”) and Omonia (“Concord”); the great public buildings such as the old Royal Palace that is now the seat of Greece’s Parliament and where the elite unit known as the Evzones guard the Memorial to the Unknown Soldier (the uniforms, based on those worn by soldiers in the early 19th-century revolution, may amuse you but realize that Greeks regard this as a solemn site); the University and other educational and cultural institutions; the many turn-of-the-century beaux arts mansions-these are all the heritage of the 19th century (one of these mansions, just down from Syntagma Square and now the site of a Numismatic Museum, was built by Heinrich Schliemann, the legendary excavator of Troy and Mycenae).
Athens continued to expand its structures and population during the first decades of the 20th century as Greeks were forced out of Turkey in 1923 and villagers from all over Greece flocked to the capital for jobs and community. Then Athens, like the rest of Greece, had to endure the harsh occupation (1941-44) by the Germans during World War II, and no sooner had that ended than it became a battleground for the conflict that developed into the civil war that racked Greece until 1949. When that ended with the victory of the conservatives/monarchists, Athens started down its new road to prosperity, in part propelled by the growing influx of international tourists. This was temporarily sidetracked under the dictatorship under a group of Army officers (1967-74), but with the return to a democratic government, Athens began the phase of construction and expansion that has made it the home of at least a quarter of Greece’s total population (and at least one half when several contiguous suburbs and its adjacent city of Piraeus are included).