Athens - In Search Of Antiquities
( Originally Published 1936 )
The monuments of Athens are in the main neither obscure nor difficult to find. The supreme Acropolis is one of the great landmarks and anyone who can find Saint Paul's in London, or the Opera in Paris can quite as readily locate the Theseum or the Olympian Zeus. The spring called Callirrhoe or the Academy of Plato is another mat-ter, particularly if one visits them, as I did, in an amaxi with a non-English speaking driver and a boy for a guide who got his training in archaeology by running errands for a travel bureau. Still I do not think he should be blamed, for some of the ancient sites have been made the subject of whole volumes of learned controversy. A very considerable part of Professor Gardner's well-known book on Ancient Athens consists of a weighing of the literary evidence on these points.
Naturally anyone possessed of the smallest knowledge of history, or the least interest in the persons and events that made Athens famous will wish to see the remains of classical times as fully and as speedily as possible. We embarked upon these pious excursions as soon as we had got our bearings in the mod-ern town.
Despite what some early travelers have said the monumental relics of Athens are on the whole neither so extensive nor large as those of Rome, where most of the important buildings were of a later period and were then passed on to the Christian city. The ordinary visitor to Rome is likely to give at least as much time to the great works associated with the church as to the examination of what is left of the empire of the Caesars. In Athens there is no such continuity, for if we except the few remaining Byzantine churches, there is nothing of antiquarian interest later than the period of the Emperor Hadrian and his munificent friend Herodes Atticus.
The outstanding sights of Athens are comparatively few, and as the area of the ancient city was small, they are relatively near to one another. It is not easy to realize that a place that filled so large a field in history, art and literature probably never had a population of as many as 150,000, and of these the majority were slaves.
The Acropolis and its temples are of course first not merely in Greece but in the entire world—and with them may be included the surrounding hills, the Areopagus, Pnyx, Hill of the Nymphs and the Hill of Philopappos. There is so much to be seen here, and all of such surpassing interest, that I shall deal separately with my visits to this great waymark of the ages.
The others I shall first enumerate in what I conceive to be the approximate order of their appeal to the average traveler, though professional scholars might arrange them very differently. At the head I put the Theseum, largely because of its excellent preservation. Then come the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, the Dipylon Gate and the adjoining cemetery of the Outer Ceramicus, the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, the Tower of the Winds, the Arch of Hadrian, the Academy of Plato, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the Roman Markets, the Spring of Callirrhoe and finally the great modern Stadium, which occupies the site originally used in the Panathenaiac festivals. The Agora of ancient Athens lay near the Tower of the Winds, in the shadow of the Acropolis, but its site is at present buried under twenty feet of earth and is covered with the ramshackle houses of that somewhat mean neighborhood.
This location will shortly become the scene of the most important excavations of recent years. I was informed, I think reliably, that a wealthy American whose name is not disclosed, has agreed to provide the American School of Classical Studies with the sum of two and one-half million dollars to acquire the property and carry on the work. As this was one of the most important centers in ancient times, it is easily possible that sculpture and records of the first magnitude may be unearthed, and substantial contributions made to our knowledge of Greece.
The National Museum can hardly be included in a list of ancient places, but it is certainly of the highest antiquarian interest. Its collections of Greek sculpture and vases are on the whole the most valuable in existence; but its preeminence must rest on the incomparable display of golden relics that Dr. Schliemann found in the Royal tombs of Mycenae. It has now been supplemented by similar articles discovered by others at Vaphio, and elsewhere, and I incline to the belief that the ancient world has left us nothing else quite so interesting.
Our first expedition began at to o'clock one bright Monday morning, and the patient old horse pattered along the dusty reaches of . AEolus Street to the very base of the Acropolis. I alighted, and gawking at the Tower of the Winds, I nearly stumbled over a citizen sleeping on the sunny pavement with his head propped against a wall. Thus this Athenian laborer was starting his week of toil, and if the thought of " blue Monday " worried him at all it was because it haunted him in his dreams. That I thought it worth while to take his picture was amusing to some Greek soldiers who were idling near-by.
The Tower of the Winds is neither large nor beautiful, but it is interesting in :hat it is probably the earliest of all weather bureaus. It is more properly called the Horologium of Andronicus, and was given to the city in the first c ntury before Christ by a rich Macedonian. I have cal ed it a weather bureau, because it crudely suggested he functions of such an institution, but it probably r, ndered its most important service as a town clock. There was a large sun-dial, and within a water clock fed by the spring of Clepsydra, which in those .ays gushed out of the north face of the Acropolis.
The caretaker was cleaning up the premises with a rake, and when he saw that he had visitors he came in to show us about, still carrying his tool. As usual this man spoke only Greek and French, but he was very expert in the language of signs, and he had a vivid imagination. Laying his rake on the stone bearings of the ancient shaft he twirled it around, uttering many "swishes" in im tation of the water that provided the motive power. The channels through which the water was carried away are still deep in the floor.
The building is octagonal and hardly more than thirty feet high. Its most no able feature is the series of sculptures in the frieze representing, or rather symbolizing, the various w nds. Old Boreas, whose name remains as familiar as ever, is the most striking and savage of them all.
The Choragic Monument of Lysicrates is an even smaller tower, but it is older and far richer in associations, both ancient and modern. It has the further importance of being the oldest known example of the Corinthian type of architecture. This monument is the last that remains of a series of similar memorials erected to commemorate victories in singing contests in the various games and festivals. The choruses that took part were commonly trained by some wealthy patron of the arts, who was often the financial angel as well as the director. The rich young Lysicrates was the " choragus" of such an organization that carried off the first prize at the Festival of Dionysos in the year 335 B. C.
Victory was so highly prized that it was a common custom to perpetuate a success by the erection of a pedestal, or monument, on which the tripod, that was given as a trophy, was mounted. There was an ancient street, leading from the Theater of Dionysos, at the foot of the Acropolis, into the heart of the city that was lined with such monuments and became known as the " Street of Tripods." Of all these souvenirs of ancient triumphs the one on which we gazed alone survives in situ. I believe the British Museum has a specimen—the monument of Thrasyllus, erected fifteen years later in a cave or grotto on the face of the Acropolis. Of those that are lost the Satyr of Praxiteles was no doubt the greatest work.
The monument, itself, is in the form of a miniature circular temple, set on a square base. The whole structure was ornan ented with fine carvings in which the acanthus leaf motif of the Corinthian school figures extensively. 'he narrow frieze represents the Homeric story of he adventures of Dionysos with the pirates of the ' 'yrrhenian Sea. In a less enlightened period this mon iment acquired the name of the Lantern of Demosthenes, probably because of its form.
The circumstances that have preserved the monument of Lysicrates are so unusual that they serve to show how much mere chance has to do with the fate of ancient remains. In the middle ages, before the house builders and lime bui iers had taken their full toll of priceless ancient marbles, a company of Capuchin monks erected a n onastery in Athens. Into one corner of their library they incorporated this venerable monument. That it remained protected until the year 1845, when the French archaeological society removed the surrounding building and re-stored the monument to its ncient condition.
During part of his first visit to Athens Lord Byron made his home in this monastery. The old monument then had a door in its side and it formed an alcove of the library. Within its wall Byron was accustomed to work and here he wrote parts of "Childe Harold" and the whole of the venon ous satire against Lord Elgin, upon whose head he called down the Curse of Minerva. From his refuge he could look upon the Acropolis and see the workmen rifling the Parthenon of its treasures. His ardent spirit flamed with indignation, of which these lines are an example:
" Lo, here, despite of war and wasting fire I saw successive tyrannies expire.
'Scaped from the ravages of Turk and Goth Thy country sends a spoiler worse than both.
Recount the relics torn that yet remain These Cecrops placed; this Pericles adorn'd. What more I owe let gratitude attest—Know Alaric and Elgin did the rest."
The picture of Byron pouring out the vials of his scorn and indignation against the despoilers of the Parthenon is not the only one recalled by a ramble in this old quarter. In the same year the traveler
Cockerell visited Athens and had found Byron, Haygarth and Graham, all young Cambridge men, then lodged in the house of the widow Macri. It was her daughter Theresa who was the " Maid of Athens" in the appealing verses which thus begin:
"Maid of Athens, ere we part Give, oh give me back my heart. Or, since that has left my breast, Keep it now and take the rest."
In the writings of Mr. Ferriman there is a curious story. More than thirty years ago he met in Athens a Smyrna merchant who told him that he had once had business with Mr. Black, then the British Vice-consul in Athens. To Mr. Black he expressed a desire to know something of the woman who was the subject of Byron's lines. The Englishman remarked in-differently that he could easily arrange for him to meet her. That evening he was the guest at dinner in the consul's house. Upon his arrival his host presented him to his wife in these words: " Allow me to introduce you to my wife. She was Theresa Macri and she is the ` Maid of Athens.' " The astonished merchant with difficulty retained sufficient composure to acknowledge her welcome. Mrs. Black died in Athens at the age of eighty in the year 1876, and there are still elderly people in the vicinity who re-member her. They do not recall that in her age she bore any traces of remarkable beauty, but her bearing did not lack distinction.
The remains of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus stand in the midst of a bare, sun-baked plaza in the same quarter. Here we have ruins on a colossal scale. But fifteen of the great columns remain, and of these thirteen stand in one corner of the stylobate and still support part of the entablature. The other two are some distance away. In its inception this temple is one of the oldest in Athens, dating back to the period of Peisistratos. It was not completed until the reign of Hadrian, six hundred years later. The construction was on a vast and magnificent plan, the columns, eight feet in diameter, rising to a height of more than fifty-six feet. In area it was, if I rightly remember, third in the ancient world. The extant work is rather Roman than Greek and we have no other Corinthian capitals comparable to those remaining here. It is said that when the Roman Consul Sulla sacked Athens he carried away some of the original columns to adorn the Capitoline Temple of Jupiter in Rome.
Not many years ago visitors to Athens were accustomed to see a remarkable spectacle at this ruin. For as long as eight years a pillar hermit dwelt alone on the top of one of the isolated columns, subsisting on such food and water as were provided by the pious people of the vicinity. These supplies were put into a basket which he pulled to his lofty perch by means of a cord. The site of his ascetic exploit was not merely comfortless, but dangerous. In his sleep he might easily have turned once too often and landed on the ground nearly sixty feet below. There were formerly several widely known hermits in Greece. One occupied the heights of Mount Ithome, where he was occasionally seen by seamen passing along the southwestern coast. He is reputed to have been a man of prominence in Athens, who from private disappointments retired from the world to live with the birds and beasts, who came to know him as a friend.
I have heard of but one modern hermit whose life was spent in more trying conditions than those to which the pillar hermit of the Olympian Zeus submitted. A member of one of the Bruce expeditions to Mount Everest told me of encountering a Thibetan monk immured in a cavern, or cistern, more than twenty thousand feet up the great peak. Here he was wearing out his life in darkness, repeating forever the formula of the lotus flower.
The precincts of the temple are the playground of hundreds of orphan refugees. The sturdy lads made merry over their games, but when I asked some of them to pose for a picture they showed their institutional training by standing stiffly at attention. An itinerant photographer performed a feat of photography here that still mystifies me. He wished to make our picture as we entered, but we waved him aside, and thought of him no more. When we were leaving he came up holding a photograph before us. There we were, with the columns of the temple nicely set in the background. The scene was probably " faked," but how he managed to develop and print the photo-graph in the brilliant sunlight I do not know.
The river Ilissus is immediately behind the temple and we walked back to its dry bed seeking the spring Callirrhoe, where according to.Herodotus the Pelasgians of the dim prehistoric past were wont to lie in wait for the Athenian damsels who came there for water. The location of this spring.was long a moot question. Pausanias in his "Travels" confused it with the spring Enneacrunus (nine-spouts), with which Peisistratos tried to solve the problem of public water supply. Across the river bed there is a stone ledge twelve feet high, which must cause a pleasing water-fall during the brief periods when the little stream is in spate. The spring rises below this ledge on the opposite bank and might easily pass unnoticed. It still puts out a trickle of water, but must be greatly diminished since the days when it supplied the domestic needs of a considerable section of Athens.
The Arch of Hadrian is of no great interest, except that it marks the gateway that led into the city of Roman times. Neither in size nor architectural interest does it in any way compare with the arches of Titus or Constantine in Rome. But critics should in fairness remember that it is in no way representative of Greek taste.
The stadium lies across the Ilissus a few blocks farther down, and anyone who has experienced disappointment in the arch will do well to go there at once. Here is a modern amphitheater that will satisfy the most exacting taste. Outside is a statue of Mr. Averoff and the entrance is covered by a great portico in the classical style. The whole of the vast horseshoe is faced with the purest Pentelic marble, and above its edges is a fringe of cypress trees. There are larger arenas in America and England, but none even suggestive of the magnificence of the Athens Stadium.
The gateman is one of the most picturesque figures to be seen in Greece. No pirate or mountain brigand ever surpassed his military bearing, and in the costume of his native Naxos he presents a heroic mien. In his case his face is his fortune, supplemented of course by his clothes. I daresay that he is the most photographed man in Greece and the tips he receives for posing are his chief source of income. I doubt if he ever strays far from his post, for I noticed in the little gatehouse a bed and cooking utensils where the old warrior keeps a simple bachelor's hall.
Any public event in the stadium is worth seeing, for it is a great rendezvous of society. An American who had lived there for years told me that he never realized that there were any pretty girls in Athens until he went to an affair at the stadium one day. While we were in town there were fortunately several fine turnouts, one of the largest on Sunday. The Achilles Club, of London, had brought out a team to compete with the pick of the Greek athletes. Among the Britishers were many University men, including the famous Lord Burleigh, and all Athens came out to see the games. I never heard the final outcome of the series, but on the occasion of our visit the Britishers were in the lead.
If we except the Great Temple at Paestum, south of Naples, the Theseum is the best remaining example of a complete Greek temple. It occupies a slight eminence in open ground just northwest of the Acropolis. This temple is older than the Parthenon and of the same architectural order, but for reasons too subtle for me to fully comprehend or adequately explain, it fails to produce so overwhelming an effect. It is unfortunate that the one temple that has survived in its entirety should lack the indefinable grandeur of those that are in ruins. Perhaps I can hint vaguely at some of the reasons. First of all the building is smaller than the Parthenon and occupies a far less imposing site, but the truer explanation probably lies in the fact that the architect was not an Ictinus, nor even a Mnesicles. The charm of the Greek master-pieces lies in their proportion, and in this elusive quality the Theseum has in some sense failed. I can put my finger on no flaw or defect, and I know no critic who has done so. The only unpleasant reaction is the feeling that here something is lacking that is necessary to make it supremely great. The wrecked Parthenon leaves no such impression.
The name of the building is undoubtedly incorrect. It was long believed to have been erected by Cimon to shelter the bones of Theseus when they were re-turned to Athens from their burial place in Scyros. This tradition is probably based on the decorations of the metopes, which deal with the exploits of Theseus and Hercules. The best opinion now regards it as a temple of Hephaestus. It is a strange fact that substantially nothing is known of the origin and history of the one building that has survived in its original form and completeness.
The Ceramicus is the best example of an ancient burying ground that has come down to our day.
Inside its walls are several rows of the original grave-stones, though the most valuable of these stelae have been removed to the museum. A few of the finer ones that have been left in their old positions have been enclosed in glass as a protection against the weather. There is no such monotony of design in the ancient grave markers as will be found in any modern cemetery, and to*illustrate this variety I will mention four of the better known examples. The relief known as the Hegeso Proxeno shows a lady at her toilet attended by her maid. Demetra and Pamphile are portraits. The tomb of Dionysos is topped by a marble bull and another shows two Molossian hounds. The element of sorrow is not ever-present, though I believe the ancient Greeks looked on death with little hope. Certainly there is nothing so depressing as the great monument of death that greets the visitor near the gate of Pere Lachaise, in Paris.
In this graveyard repose the bodies of many of the greatest Athenians. Solon was buried there and Pericles, Thrasybulus, Conon and a host of others whose names still live to vex the schoolboy but to inspire mankind. It has given to us the name of it potter's field," which we now apply to the burying place of paupers. The clay from which the ancient vases were made was taken from this district. Although the sculpture on many of the tombs is very fine it must be remembered that it was merely the production of artisans, who probably held in their own time no higher relative standing than the stone cutter in an American marble yard occupies to-day. It is another, but a striking example of the artistic standards that prevailed in the best periods of Greece.
At the end of the cemetery is the noted Dipylon (double) gate, the most prominent entrance to the ancient city. Adjacent to it are the best fragments of the walls erected by Themistocles.
It was soon apparent that few visitors now take the pains to seek out the grove where Plato taught. Our boyish guide was quite perplexed and assured us that he had never before been asked to go there. Nor was the cabman better informed. We wandered aimlessly through the streets of the northwestern reaches of the city, far out beyond the station. We recognized the Kolonos, the home of Sophocles, by the graves of Ottfried Muller and Charles Lenormant, which stand within an iron fence on top of the hill, marred, I regret to say, by many marks of rifle balls. Though erected by the Government to honor two great scholars they were once used as targets for rifle practice by the irreverent people of the vicinity. But for that matter so were the sculptures of the Acropolis.
Here we began to make inquiries, but the priests at the Church of Constantine were quite as ignorant of the situation as the humble workmen of the neighborhood. But we at least had a base from which to study our plan and soon after we pulled up at a pleasant walled garden, where we saw beside the cottage that stood among the apricot and olive trees a wall of sun-baked mud into which were set a number of ancient fragments. A woman 'came out.
" What place is this? " the guide inquired.
" This," she said, " is the Academy of Plato."
There remains near-by the trunk of an ancient olive tree, from which a living branch still protrudes. Because, no doubt, it is very old the tradition of the locality has it that it is the very tree under which the great disciple of Socrates taught. The Academy of Plato, if not honored, is at least not neglected, for the vegetable garden that it now harbors grows the finest artichokes I saw in Greece.
Our boyish guide was much impressed.
"This day has been good, for I have learned some-thing. I have learned of the spring of Callirrhoe and the Academy of Plato. It is good to learn."
By this time, I fancy, those who have had the patience to follow me will be glad to turn for a while from the old ruins and to drive out the crowded Patissia Road to the National Museum. It is a growing district and on the way I saw a new nine-floor apartment house, said to be the most pretentious in Athens. The museum stands behind as pleasant a garden as any in the city and its benches are a favorite resting place.
The building itself is spacious and substantial with a classical portico. Beside the door stands a marble enlargement of the Hermes of Praxiteles, and in a well, or deep alcove along the wall is a miscellaneous collection of ancient fragments awaiting further examination. The exhibit rooms are large, clean and orderly and the contents are conveniently arranged. The absence of a comprehensive catalogue in English was the only annoying feature.
The policy has now long prevailed of forbidding the removal from the country of any relics of antiquity, and this has naturally enriched the national collections. There is, I am informed, a further restriction that may not prove quite so advantageous. It requires that ancient objects are to be preserved, so far as possible, at the place of their discovery. The purpose of this was probably to enforce travel through the country by those who wished to see its ancient remains. This was apparently to the ad-vantage of the local innkeepers and the -transportation companies, but in past years the conditions of the roads and the character of the hotels have kept many away. These things are being steadily remedied now and in the end I hope Greece will succeed in her ambition to become a great tourist country, as Italy has already done.
The National Museum is rich in every form of plastic art, but an inspection of the numerous statues, reliefs and inscriptions brings a saddening consciousness of their general state of mutilation. I have had the same feeling when looking upon the Elgin marbles in London. Hardly one of the lovely figures is not lacking in nose, leg, arm or head.
The practice of " restoration," which was such a mania in the Italian museums fifty or sixty years ago has not taken root in Greece, and if we see the blemishes we at least escape the Italian combination of patchwork and guesswork. Still there are many great statues whose principal features are intact.
The Schliemann collection has the place of honor and I turned to it first of all. I suspect that few university men will now concede to Dr. Heinrich Schliemann the right to be regarded as the greatest archaeologist. It has become the fashion in some scholarly circles to affect toward this great man an attitude of superiority and contempt, which I can account for on no other ground than jealousy of his achievements. As an excavator he dug out of the earth the most remarkable trophies of prehistoric civilization that have ever puzzled and astounded modern man. No doubt in the flush of success he made serious mistakes, and set up with easy confidence claims that have not withstood the painstaking examination of his fellow Germans. He was probably hasty when he boldly announced that he had opened the very grave to which a faithless wife had condemned Agamemnon and carried from it the baubles that had adorned the corpse of the King of Men. But his was the impelling thirst for knowledge and his the zeal that tore away the veil that for so many centuries obscured the Homeric story.
Few men ever started life in circumstances less promising of scholarly achievement. The father of Dr. Schliemann was an obscure preacher in Germany and his own success in trade was due to an unusual combination of capacity and will. He was in California in 185o during the height of the. gold excitement and at that time became a citizen of the United States. His fortune was acquired in the indigo business during the Crimean War, but in the years when he was busy amassing wealth this astonishing man found time to gain a mastery of seven languages, including both ancient and modern Greek.
Having won his fortune Schliemann traveled throughout the world and in the year 1868 found himself for the first time in Greece. He pursued the Homeric tradition and wrote a book entitled " Ithaca, the Peloponnesus and Troy." Fifty-one years ago he began to dig in the site of Mycenx and from a small circle of shaft tombs dating far back of any recognized date in Greek history he took out the most stupendous array of gold, silver, stone, bronze and ivory ornaments now in existence. In mere intrinsic value the gold constituted the world's greatest treasure trove.
As it was quite inconceivable that the body of anyone save a King should have been surrounded with such magnificence, and since Agamemnon is the only Mycenaean King of whom we have either record or legend, it is not unnatural that in a moment of exaltation Dr. Schliemann should have issued his pronunciamento that he had found the grave of the man whose fateful quarrel with Achilles has given us the Iliad. He cleared away the gates of the citadel and found building stones larger than man has since used, save only at Baalbek. From these tombs he took literally bushels of relics so finely wrought that I think they must be to this day the despair of gold-smiths. Yet all these things were made unknown centuries before the date of the First Olympiad.
It requires ninety-two cases to display this great collection, and with the exception of the famous Vaphio cups, which the Greeks discovered, substantially the whole is due to Schliemann. The four fine daggers, with inlaid devices showing lions and leopards on the hunt, are of special interest in that they indicate that these great cats were then indigenous to Europe. To enumerate, much less to describe, the various articles would require a chap-ter of this book. The silver head of a bull, with horns and nose of gold and a golden rosette on the fore-head, is one of the most striking pieces. Of masks, swords, bracelets, chains and other tools and ornaments there is a multitude, many of the finest workmanship.
The ancient vases of pottery and glass are very numerous and some of the latter seemed to me to compare favorably with the Portland Vase, which is one of the most treasured trophies of the British Museum. The museum contains a large room devoted to archaic sculpture. The thick, squat figures of these early specimens have much in common with the work we associate with Egypt and Assyria. The sculpture of the Golden Age and the Hellenistic period will most engage the visitor's interest. The authorities of the museum, I was told, regard the Delian Warrior of Agasias as the most important individual work, but the Hermes of Andros was to me more impressive. The modeling of the head very nearly approaches perfection.
There is a small Athena Parthenos which is important in that it has given us the most accurate conception we now have of the form and proportions of the great work of Pheidias. The Poseidon, which was found by an orange grower in the island of Melos is worthy of the place of honor it is given in one of the large rooms. This statue is commonly believed to be from the same chisel that formed the Venus of Melos.
The two pieces accidentally taken from the sea by fishermen near Kythera are quite evidently by masters of the first rank, but nothing is known of their origin or history. No doubt they were being carried away to Rome in some vessel that was wrecked in a storm. The bronze Ephebus is almost perfectly preserved, but one side of the marble wrestler, which was exposed to the action of the water or marine parasites during its long immersion, is much corroded.
Of the stelae that of Aristion, showing in relief the figure of a warrior of the Sixth Century, is remarkable in that it retains much of the paint with which the sculpture was adorned.
There is a large group of portrait busts in room number nine that is worthy of the most careful examination. The faces of the Gods were so idealized that the impression has come down to us that the ancient Greeks were a handsome race, somewhat uniform in type. The busts I have mentioned dispel this old illusion. They are portraits of the Kosmeta!, or teachers in the Gymnasium, and there is as great a variety of features as one will find in the paintings of the presidents of Harvard University.