onuments and Crowds


A History of Athen

Greek flag

Hadrians Gate

A lot can happen in 3000 years. And, in fact, a lot did happen in Athens in the last 3000 years. People have lived in the area at least 6000 years and more probably 10,000. But it is about 3000 years ago, or more precisely XX years, according to an imprecise legend, that Theseus founded the city.

Three thousand years may seem a long time, but if we look at 250 year periods, i.e. just a bit more than the time that the United States has had its independence or since Voltaire was writing, it doesn't seem so long or complicated. Just twelve "short" periods. And what happened in those periods? Athens, as is more famously said of Rome, rose and fell. Then, after a long absence of Greece from the political map, in a way that may have inspired the nationalist of Poland, Israel, and other once indendent countries become colonies or political non-entities, it rose again.

At the time of its founding and for several hundred years afterwards other Greek cities, in particular Sparta and Corinth, were larger and shown brighter. But from about 600 BC it blazed like a giant red star, creating democracy, philosophy, and among the greatest architecture ever seen. Then, apparently having consumed its intellectual fuel, like a red giant, it faded and fade until after 350 BC little glory was left.

In 344 bc?, Athens and Sparta weak, Philip of Macedonia extended his rule south into Attica and the Peloponnese, and created a unified Greek or Hellenic empire. Philip's empire was expanded by son, Alexander, not only into the Hellenic city-states of Asia minor but beyond, conquering the Persian empire and Egypt. During this time Athens retained much of its intellectual attraction with its academies and schools of philosphy but it had little economic and political clout.

The Philip-Alexander empire lasted only 200 years, about 350BC - 150 BC before the Roman tsunami that had first overwhelmed Italy and Scily and the Asia Minor, reached and covered Athens. For the next 100xx years Corinth became the capital of the Greek territories and Athens remained a minor player.

In 395 A.D. the Romans moved their capital east from Rome to the Bosphorus, much better placed to control, tax, and defend a much enlarged empire. There they built Constaninople on the foundations of a relatively sleepy backwater, Byzantinum. It grew and grew and prospered and prospered. The western part of the Roman empire, less populated and more at the mercy of wandering peoples was all but gone two hundred years later. In this period belief in Roman-Greco gods was suplanted by Christianity and the Byzantine empire was born. Athens remained a minor player and was a sleepy backwater.

The Byzantine empire had things its way only about one hundred years. By 700 A.d. it was threatened by the Sassanians based in Iran, the Avars and others to the north, and the Islamic wind storm coming out of the Arabian desert In the next seven hundred and fifty years — three of our "short" periods — the Empire met with challenges, won some, lost some, and went more downhill than up. In 1453 the last of its nine lives was used up: the Ottomans, who over four hundred years had nibbled at small pieces and then bitten off larger and larger pieces, swallowed up the last morsels, Constantinople, the Peloponnese, and Attica, the home of Athens. The Ottomans had their problems too: Veneitians and others conquered part of their empire and sometimes controlled Athens and its neighborhood.

Through the 750 Byzantine years and the following 400 hundred Ottoman years the vast majority of the people of Athens were and remained Orthodox Christians. Numerous churches existed, a dozen or so built in what had been temples to Athena, Zeus and the older Greek gods. Many were small brick buildings now so associated with the Byzantine style. But there were also Moslems. Immigrant Turks and converted and assimilated Greeks built their mosques. While the great churches such as Saint Sophia of Constantinople had become mosques, in Athens there were no such great churches and no such conversions.

The final chapter of our look at Athens starts about 1800 or 1810 when the Greek nationalist and independence movement, inspired some by the American revolution but more by the French revolution and its nationalist ideas, began to grow. In 1832, very much dependent on British and French aid, the Greeks achieved recognized independence, but only for the Peloponese and Attica, one third of what is Greece today. At first Athens was not the capital but it became it in 1834 and really started to grow.

In 1921-23 Greece and Turkey fought a way, initiated by Greece and won by Turkey. The treaty ending the war called for most ethnic Turks to leave Greece and vice versa. The result was that Athens lost almost all its Turkish population. Mosques and hamans were pulled down. Turkish housing that stood on the Acropolis and over the ancient Agora was removed and archeolical excavation and restoration done.

At that time most of Greece was without roads; access was as difficult as it is today for large parts of Laos or the remoter parts of Ibero-America. Initially very little changed.

With its history in mind, let's imagine traveling in just a day or two through pre-Greek, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern (post 1830) Athens. We can do this in a walk of about 30 kilometers, or 20 miles. We start our visit at Elefsina, once known as Eleusis, the site of the Sanctuary of Demeter, which dates back to Myceaean times (1500 BC). We walk generally east, following the Elusian or Sacred Way, as would have the crowds participaling in the huge annual festival of classical times. About half-way to Athens we experience a time warp as we pass the Dafni Monastary (Moni Dafniou), an 11th century Byzantine-Christian center now most visited for its mosaics. With some imagination we can place ourselves back in the Dafni of 500 BC when it was the home of a sancuary to Apollo. Continuing on, today we pass through mostly low rise and low density commerical suburbs and have the roar of traffic in our ears. In another 10 kilometers we are nearly at the gates of Periclean Athens. We pass Plato's Academy, then 1.6 kilometers into the country side; now surrounded in the suburbs that run continuously from central Athens to Piraeus, the politically distinct port of the City. In fact, if we had started our imaginary journey differently, we could be have jumped out of our boat, landed on a sandy beach of Piraeus, come in 550 BC to report the victory of our Athenian forces over the Persian navel excursion at Salamis. As we passed the Academy we might have been joined by Plato himself or one of his successors for our remaining walk to the city walls.

Just 200 meters before the walls we would come to the Kerameikos cemetery, where the wealthy and powerful buried their dead and erected beautifuly memorial grave stella, some 3 meters high. Some families erected impressive monuments. Over the centuries our way, the xx road, was covered by three meters of gravel and rock eroded from the slopes of the Acropolis and smaller, nearer hills.

At the end of the cemetery the road forks. If we arrive on a festival day we will pass on the right and enter through the Sacred Gate. On most days we will go left and enter through the XX gate and its large forecourt where we would find people talking, some tradign going on, and perhaps even money changing.

Imagine, if you will, that you are a visitor to Athens in the days when Rome controlled the city. Some six hundred years after Pericles managed the construction of the temples on the Acropolis you would find Hadrian's gate. On one side, facing the Acropolis, the side by which you might have arrived, it says "This is Athens, the Ancient city of Theseus." On the other side, the side you are about to enter it says "This is the City of Hadrian, and not of Theseus".

Emperor Hadrian of Rome, (130 AD?) would have had this gate erected as a monument to himself. As emperor he would not have been concerned about modesty, and none would be appropriate. For after those six hundred years he had found (given? taken?) the financing to complete the nearly-by Temple of Zeus, started 150 years before the Parthenon but never completed.

November 8, 2005