Journey through Ancient Greece

Ancient Athens

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Mainly Peloponnese Itinerary

The Akropolis

The Akropolis (high city) is a large, 100 metres high, flat-topped lime stone rock, accessible only from the west. It was first inhabited in 5000 BC and was the site of the palace of the Mycenaean king Erechtheos, when it was surrounded by Cyclopean walls.

In the 7th and 6th centuries it was a fortified city ruled by the Peisistradid tyrants. However in 510 BC the Delphic oracle decreed that only the gods should live there.

In the 6th century BC there was an archaic limestone temple which was demolished after the battle of Marathon in order to build a new one.

The remains of the buildings which we see today were built between 447 and 429 by Perikles.

To celebrate their remarkable and unexpected victory over the Persians at Marathon the Athenians started to build a new temple to the goddess Athena on the Akropolis, but in 480 when the temple was only partly built the Persians returned and sacked Athens, burning the buildings on the Akropolis including the partly built temple.

Following the Battle of Plataea the Greeks swore not to rebuild the temples destroyed by the Persians but to leave the ruins as a memorial to the dead and a lasting witness to the Persians' desecration. The Athenians placed the column drums of the unfinished temple of Athena in the northern wall of the Akropolis where they could be seen from the agora. (They are clearly visible today, look up at the Akropolis when you are in the Agora or near the Tower of the Winds).

After the Athenians made peace with the Persians in 449 Perikles decided it was time for Athens to have a temple to be proud of. He had invited all the city states involved in fighting the Persians to a conference in Athens to discuss, among other things, the contributions still being made by the Delian League towards defence. No one turned up so Athens decided that the contributions should continue! Perikles persuaded the Athenian Assembly that a new temple should be built, paid for with, you've guessed, the contributions from the Delian League.

Temple of Athena Nike

On your right as you enter the Propylaia is (or was) a charming, elegant shrine dedicated to Athena Victorious, built between 432 and 421 BC in Ionic style with four columns at each end. The friezes representing the Athenian's victory over the Persians at Plateia have recently been removed and are now in the Acropolis museum. A beautiful relief from the parapet showing Nikeadjusting her sandal is also in the museum

The temple was demolished by the Turks in the 17th century and was reconstructed from the original material in the 19th century.

From here, nefos permitting, we can see the Saronic Gulf and it was on this site that King Aegeus watched for the white sails which would tell him that his son Theseus was returning safely from slaying the Minotaur, and from where he threw himself to his death, because Theseus had forgotten to change the sails.

The Eréchtheion

The Eréctheion stands on the site of the Mycenaean palace of Eréchtheos. According to legend this was the home of the sacred snake, an embodiment of King Eréchtheos, king of Athens for 50 years until his death in 1487 BC, who is said to have sprung from the earth with snake's tails as legs! (his name comes from 'chthoni', 'sprung from the earth'). Eréchtheos is also credited with inventing the chariot.

This was where Athena and Poseidon contested ownership of Athens, Athena striking the ground with her spear to bring forth an olive tree and Poseidon's trident producing a sea water spring. The Olympian gods chose Athena's olive tree. (Today an olive tree planted by early 20th century archaeologists grows beside the Eréchtheion.)

Completed in 395 BC the Eréchtheion was built in Ionic style with three structures on four levels facing in different directions. The temple housed the ancient and much revered wooden cult statue of Athena Polias and also contained shrines to Poseidon and Zeus.

On the south side is the portico with six karyatids (dancing girls) replacing the usual columns; the Turks had sheered their faces off and Elgin took one of them to London (the others were said to weep for their missing sister). The remaining five originals are now in the Akropolis museum and plaster casts stand in the temple. Above the caryatids is a narrow frieze with floral decoration.

The Parthenon (built between 458 & 447 BC)

The Parthenon, the temple of Athena Parthenos, or Virgin Athena, designed by the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates, represents the climax of the Doric style and incorporated sophisticated architectural refinements and the sublime sculptures by Phideasand his school. The temple to Zeus at Olympia had been completed 10 years earlier and Perikles wanted a temple that was even bigger and better, a symbol of Athens' superiority and a monument to victory and revenge. There was to be no compromise; this was to be the ultimate in innovation.

The design is of superb quality, the apparently simple lines concealing geometric complexities. There are 8 Doric columns, rather than the more usual 6, at each end and 17 on each side, giving a proportion of 9:4, a ratio repeated throughout the building.

The entire temple, except the roof, was constructed in white Pentelic marble, brought by 2,500 slaves from Mount Pentellus, 10 miles away. Some 180,000 tons of marble were removed from the quarry, each 40 ton block taking 10 men 10 days to move. They used sledges on slipways to get the blocks down from the quarries and carts drawn by 30 or 40 oxen to take them to the acropolis. The roof was made of Parian marble which is whiter and could be cut more thinly making it lighter and translucent.

The platform, stylobate, on which the temple rests is 11 centimetres higher in the centre to make it look flat, and the columns have a slight bulging (entasis), which actually results in them looking straight. There is in fact not a straight line anywhere.

The naos, or cella, housed Phideas' majestic, if 'over the top', 10 metres high chryselephantine (gold and ivory), statue of Athena, clothed in over a ton of gold, worth in today's money £8 million! The temple faces east so that the rising sun would light the statue and reveal its full glory. The statue has been lost since ancient times but representations on coins and Roman copies give us an idea of what it looked like.

Around the back and sides of the naos there was a two storey colonnade,above which was a continuous frieze, (1 metre high and 160 metres long), of wonderful low relief sculptures, which would have been brightly coloured, depicting the Panathenaic procession. The procession, which started at the Keraméikon and ended at the Eréchtheion, was the culmination of a major Athenian religious festival held every four years to celebrate the birthday of the goddess, when the Athenians offered a new dress (peplos) to the goddess. (It was not used to drape the statue in the Parthenon, but the much smaller one made of olive wood in the Eréchthion).

Taking part in the procession were youths and maidens, priests, riders and horses, chariots, and animals being led to sacrifice; the frieze depicts 360 human and 250 animal figures in total.

The sculptures of the east pediment showed the birth of Athena(you'll remember she was released from the head of Zeus with the aid of Hephaistos' axe!) with all the gods and goddesses in attendance. Those on the west pediment showed the struggle between Athena and Poseidon for Attika.

The 92 metopes (the Greek word for forehead), each one sculpted, depicted mythical battles (Lapiths and centaurs, Amazons, gods and giants, and Trojans). They were carved by several different craftsmen and the quality varies considerably. There is only one metope still in place on the south side; it gives you an idea of the distance they were seen from. The detail was for the eyes of the gods rather than people.

Lion head gargoyles which drained water from the roof remain on the north-east and north-west corners but the statue on the north front pediment is a reproduction.

Regrettably most of the frieze and pediment sculptures were taken by Elgin and are now in the British Museum. If you haven't already been, do go and see them, they are so splendid.

The Theatre of Diónysos

Looking down from the southern side of the Akropolis you can see the theatre of Dionysos. The first theatre on this site was a wooden one built in the 6th century BC. It was reconstructed in stone and marble between 342 and 326 BC.

As is typical of Greek theatres this one is built into the natural hollow of the slope of the acropolis. Only 25 tiers of seats remain, originally there were 64 rows seating 17,000 spectators. The front row has 67 marble thrones reserved for the guests of honour and inscribed with their names, the central one, which had a canopy, being the seat of the priest of Dionysos, Eleuthereus, and behind that a throne for the Emperor Hadrian; women were confined to the back rows!

The orchestra is surrounded with a marble barrier to give protection from the wild beasts used in performances in Roman times!

The Odeion of Herodes Atticus

Next to the theatre you will see the Odeion built in 161 AD by Herodes Atticus, an extremely wealthy Roman benefactor, in memory of his wife. Originally covered by a wooden roof and seating 5,000 in 32 rows it was intended for musical performances. It is still in excellent condition with much of the skene, seating and the black and white tiled orchestra intact, and is used for concerts and plays during the Athens festival each summer.


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Mainly Peloponnese Itinerary