The Acropolis Of Athens
( Originally Published 1936 )
Nobody, I am sure, will seriously challenge the right of the Acropolis of Athens to recognition as foremost of all monuments of antiquity. On what its preeminence rests is not always apparent to the visitor when first he sets eyes on the torn and shattered fragments of its temples. Nothing here is on any such scale as the stupendous remains of Karnak, and nothing is in a state of preservation comparable to the Theseum, lying below. Yet the Acropolis is infinitely the more impressive.
It is the wealth of associations clustering around these old columns and carvings that makes a visit—or a series of visits—to the Parthenon so affecting an experience. To look upon the great works of Pheidias, Ictinus and Mnesicles is a satisfaction to both eye and mind. But it is not alone the majesty of the Parthenon, the grace of the Erechtheum nor the chastity of the little temple of Athena Nike that quickens the emotions. Rather it is the thought of the procession of genius to whose tread these old stones have echoed—of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, of Pericles and Phocion, of Pheidias and Praxiteles, of Demosthenes and AEschines. What a panorama fancy unfolds. The Acropolis is first of all a place of immortal memories.
There is no experience of life more common than the failure of things long anticipated to come up to the picture limned by an eager imagination. Some eminent men have frankly said that the first view of the Acropolis is bound to be a disappointment. It could hardly be otherwise, for no group of buildings is capable of carrying the burden of so great a fame. But when one returns, again and yet again, to this hoary rock and meditates amongst its ruins in the ever changing lights of morning, noon and night he comes to feel, rather than to understand, that here is the world's chief goal of the desire of thoughtful men.
There comes, too, something of bitterness and resentment when one realizes how recent is the destruction apparent on every hand. These incomparable buildings survived to modern times substantially unscathed by the decay of ages and the shock of earth-quake. But for the vandal hand of man we might today look upon the same picture that gratified the eyes of the magnificent Pericles.
The word acropolis means roughly the high city, and it was the presence of these crags that led to the founding of many of the towns of the Greek world. Corinth, Argos, Mycenae, Nauplia and even Thebes are cases in point, though the Cadmea of the last named town is today what it has always been a hill so insignificant that it must be reinforced by walls. In prehistoric times security was the first consideration and it was the thought of "safety first" that led the old wanderers to choose for settlement sites that provided a convenient refuge in the event of attack. Thus, when the Pelasges came down from the shores of Asia they found in the great rock of Athens a stronghold too tempting to be passed by.
The early city always clustered about the Acropolis and stirring events took place upon its summit and under its cliffs long before there was such a thing as recorded history. It was from these heights that King AEgeus kept watch for the return of Theseus, gone out to slay the Cretan Minotaur. Thence he rushed to Phaleron when he saw the distant ship. Mistaking the white sail for the black token of defeat he cast himself into the waters and gave us the name of the AEgean Sea. A band of literalists perished here during the ravishing of Athens by Xerxes. The Delphian oracle had warned the Athenians to find refuge behind walls of wood and these forerunners of Mr. Bryan took the priestess at her word. They built a barricade and died behind it. Had they gone to Salamis with Themistocles they would have lived to share the glory of one of Greece's greatest days. But to them walls of wood meant walls of wood, and not ships. It was just an-other example of the disadvantage of lacking imagination.
Toward the end of a warm morning we drove through the fringe of scrub and aloes and drew up under the Propylaea. An Athens amaxi is not a heavy vehicle, but I felt sorry for the old horse as he struggled up the steep slope. The driver knew his capabilities and refused to get out and push as the Scutari cabmen are wont to do in like case. Many carriages and motors were parked here and among the crowd circulated guides and peddlers of relics and souvenirs. Tickets of admission cost twelve drachmae, for Greece now properly tries to make her historic places pay their way.
I do not know at exactly what height the Acropolis towers over the surrounding city. It is about six hundred feet above the sea and perhaps half as much above the near-by houses. From very remote times its cliffs have been reinforced by walls, so that the summit is quite inaccessible except on the western side. The Propylaea is of necessity the first of the ruins the visitor encounters, for he must pass through it to see the others. It was the last of the great works of Pericles, who wanted a worthy entrance to the temples that already adorned the summit. The work was begun in 437 B. C., and it may properly be said never to have been finished. The Peloponnesian War broke out five years later and for the next twenty-seven years the Athenians had plenty to do, apart from building gates or temples for the adornment of their city.
When those black years of starvation, pestilence and disaster came to an end the star of Athens was set and her empire was no more. If the architect Mnesicles had been permitted to carry through his entire project the ruins we see to-day would have been far larger and more symmetrical. Unfortunately he made the error of so arranging the design that part of the structure would have encroached on the precinct sacred to Athena. The storm of religious prejudice that he raised was too violent for even the influential Pericles to overcome.
The work actually completed includes the great stairway, a central hall with porticoes, and two wings whose purpose remains obscure. The probable details of the final plan still provide a question over which archaeologists have long puzzled without any very conclusive result. The soundest opinion, apparently, is that which holds that Mnesicles refused to amend his original plan, hoping against hope that in better days to come he would be enabled to complete it. If this hypothesis be correct the remains we now have are naturally unintelligible because nobody knows exactly what the architect had in mind or what relation the completed portions might have borne to the finished structure.
Whatever we may have missed, the sections that survive are sufficient to excite our wonder and admiration. The architraves above the inner door are solid blocks of marble twenty-two feet long and how they were brought down from the quarries of Pentelicus and hoisted into their lofty position is a question that again raises speculation as to what appliances the primitive engineers possessed. The medieval builders spent centuries on a great cathedral, but the Parthenon was put up in less time than a modern State House. Great numbers of slaves were doubtless employed, and at the height of Attic supremacy they far outnumbered their masters. Still the tasks involved in these giant works seem far beyond the power of human hands, no matter what their number.
The great stairway is today in sound condition, and as I climbed it I could have wished that the builders had not made the steps so high. Some notion of its spaciousness may be had from the fact that it is seventy feet in width.
From the inner gate practically the whole summit is in view. The ground is everywhere littered with the fragments of early marbles so that the general effect is that of a badly managed stone yard; but this is true of nearly all the more important ancient places. I looked down only enough to insure against cracking my shins on the tumbled debris, for the three remaining temples were all before me. The Parthenon dominates the foreground. Immediately to the right the Athena Nike clings to the precipice's brink, and on the left, overlooking the city is that temple, or group of temples, called the Erechtheum in honor of the traditional king and founder of Athens.
These four buildings, together with the small museum, so neatly tucked away in the low ground at the east, are the chief places of interest. More serious scholars study the whole area in detail, identifying the spots where famous statues stood or examining the prehistoric walls and foundations. It must be remembered that the existing buildings were not the earliest, but were constructed to replace the older and cruder ones that the Persian looters burned.
We had not progressed far when we had the pleasure of encountering our former traveling companion, the Swedish archaeologist who had in the meantime come into Athens. There he sat alone, looking exactly as before, except that by this time his tweeds were a little battered and there were holes in his stockings. He gazed intently into a deep hole that resembled a square well. Twenty feet down there was a polygonal wall. " That wall," he said, "was built by men who have probably been dead four thousand years. It is a true Pelasgian work and it was ancient when the Greeks began the siege of Troy.
How wonderful that we can look on. their work today."
His attitude reminded me, by contrast, of an article I had just been reading in one of the popular travel magazines. The writer was an American woman who seemed to be of some consideration, for she had access to various governments and sported a fellow-ship in some geographical society. Athens she dismissed with a few words, calling it " a dull city, filled with Armenians and having to show some old columns that compared badly with a good bank building." Her banalities recalled yet another young American of whom my learned friend, Judge Rodney Pope, of Cheltenham, once told me. While standing in the Castle of Chillon looking at the name of Byron carved upon the stone, he became lost in reflection and unconsciously muttered the name—" Byron, Byron." A bright college boy standing near was willing to share his knowledge. " Oh, yes," he said cheerfully. " You know he wrote a poem about this place."
The impression of majesty that the Parthenon inevitably produces is not lost, but is tinctured with sadness that it should have been so mutilated by the two classes of men who have been aptly described as " reckless foes and ruthless lovers." It was built in the nine years between 447 and 436 B. C., and stood practically unchanged until the fateful year of 1687. There was in progress at that time a war between the Turks and the Venetians and the Italian commander, Francesco Morosini, had penetrated to the outskirts of Athens. It was then the midst of " The long Turkish night" and the Venetian soldiers were in no conciliatory humor after their hardships in the Peloponnesus. Deserters brought news that the Turks had established their main powder magazine in the Parthenon. Military necessity took precedence over sentiment, just as it did in a later day at Rheims and Ypres, and the Venetians turned their guns on the ancient fane. On the 26th September a shell dropped through the roof and a great explosion shook the citadel. The glory of the Parthenon was a memory. The walls of the cella were blown out and the central pillars fell, leaving the temple cut squarely in two. The great drums lay scattered about the ground.
From this unhappy day its profanation continued. The Venetians attempted to carry away the statuary of the west pediment, representing the contest of Athena and Poseidon for the land of Attica, and thought by many to have been the finest group in the world. The clumsy devices of the soldiers failed and the immortal composition was dashed to pieces on the rocks below.
The times were rude and it is not strange that the people no longer respected a building already violated by governments and armies. I know not what havoc the petty vandal did during the next one hundred and twenty years, but it was probably during this period that the mutilation of most of the smaller figures took place. It was great fun for the Turkish soldier at rifle practice or the boy with a slingshot to see the marble dust fly from a face chiseled by the disciples of Pheidias.
The final act was reserved for Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Porte. He first went to Constantinople in 1801 when Britain's success in Egypt had raised her prestige to the highest point. Without difficulty he induced the Sultan to sign a firman giving him the right to enter upon ancient places and remove from them sculpture and inscriptions.
The Parthenon was the first object of his attack and the work was supervised by the Italian, Lusieri. The labor staff which he assembled was made up of ignorant and careless men. They removed most of the frieze portraying the Panathenaiac Festival and the sculptured metopes of the outer entablature. Exactly what occurred is not clear, because the operations were from the very first the subject of embittered controversy and there was no such thing as unbiased opinion. The reliefs were not much injured, but so rough and hasty was the work that the structural fabric of the building was much impaired. The loot was shipped away to England and later bought by the Government for some twenty thousand pounds and placed in the British Museum, where to-day it is commonly known by the name—The Elgin Marbles. The length of the frieze was originally nearly five hundred feet and to-day hardly more than twenty feet remain in the original position. Its lofty situation within the colonnade makes it difficult to see with any satisfaction. In the Acropolis Museum are some fifteen slabs, a few of which are in good condition.
Whether the world has gained or lost by the act of Lord Elgin is a matter public opinion has not yet decided. Byron regarded the ravishment as the vilest sacrilege and Edward Dodwell was so outraged that he could not bring himself to mention Elgin's name. It is easy to understand why sensitive minds were so affected by the pillage of the finest ancient monument and there is merit in the contention that the sculptures would have greater interest in their original setting. But there is another side. How many would have remained had they been left exposed to the vicissitudes of war and weather? Now they are at least safe, and they can be, and are, enjoyed by hundreds to every one who would have made the pilgrimage to Athens.to look upon them.
The chief purpose in building the Parthenon was to provide a suitable shrine for the gold and ivory figure of Athena that Pheidias was then creating. It is improbable that he, personally, did any of the decorative work, but it was all from the designs of the master and was executed under his super-vision. It is customary to refer to these marbles as " the work of Pheidias and his pupils," but there is no reason to believe that his assistants ever had —a higher standing than the stone carvers who are employed on important buildings to-day. Records have been found to indicate that they were mere piece-workers, receiving less than twelve dollars for each completed figure.
The north side of the Parthenon is now defaced by scaffolds and I heard in Athens an interesting, and I suppose an authentic, story of what was being done. My informant said that Dr. John H. Finley, of The New York Times, had observed, in the course of a visit to the Parthenon, that the drums and capitals of ten columns lay undamaged on the ground, where they had fallen two hundred and fifty years ago. He ascertained that these columns could be reerected for $1,000 each, and returning to New York he suggested to ten of his friends that each provide for the restoration of one. To this they readily assented, and the work is under way. Through this happy philanthropy one of the great gashes in this noble building will be in part healed.
The architectural success of the Parthenon rests on its perfect combination of mass and proportion. It was in the complete mastery of the latter that Greek art established and maintained its supremacy. The structure is large and has a dignity that cannot be obtained in small dimensions. But after all it is symmetry that makes it so satisfying. In its construction Ictinus made good use of the principle of entasis, which involves the sacrifice of geometric exactness to obtain perfection of visual effect. Herein lies the temple's grace. The Doric columns thirty-four feet high have a slight swelling in the central drums thus overcoming the optical illusion that tends to make a row of straight columns appear to curve inward.
The general effect of stability is emphasized by the expedient of inclining the pillars slightly inward. The deviation from the vertical amounts, I believe, to three inches during the entire rise. Indeed in the whole structure there is hardly a straight line, but the curves are so developed that they give the effect of straightness. 'Were they in fact straight there would be an appearance of concavity. Even the outer lines of the stylobate are so formed and the steps are higher at center than at ends.
The color of the Parthenon has been the subject of both rhapsodies and complaints. The marble of Pentelicus is touched with iron and by oxidization weathers into a deep, russet brown. It pleases the true Philhellene to call it golden and to apostrophize its sheen under the rays of the setting sun. I could not quite see all this, but if the color did not seem golden it was at least rich and mellow. Of the various ruins I have seen in Greece the Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion alone retains its pristine whiteness.
If there are any who do not think the process of the ages improves and enriches a great building I commend to their attention the new Monument to King Victor Emanuel in Rome. Its dazzling whiteness and shimmering gold make it the parvenu of the Eternal City. But the Romans know that time will cure these faults. When the Parthenon was young I wonder if it, too, did not by its gaudiness offend the taste of that fine period. The masses of sculpture, painted in blue and red and gold must have been very conspicuous against their white background.
Just as the Parthenon remains first amongst the Doric temples, so the Erechtheum retains its place at the head of the Ionic school. No doubt it has had greater influence on subsequent design than the Parthenon itself, By comparison it is but a small affair, though actually of respectable dimensions. The Portico of the Caryatides is its most widely known feature. There were six of these pillars in the form of maidens, but the thorough Lord Elgin did not fail to carry one away to London. A terra cotta figure, cast from the original, has taken its place, but the color and texture of the material instantly reveal the substitution. The Erechtheum is associated with the very oldest traditions of Athens, and every visitor is shown the deep gash in the rock where Poseidon struck in his combat with Athena. It was a titanic thrust, for it let in the waters of the sea.
The Athena Nike is by every standard a tiny structure, but it stands on a fine bastion from which one can look far to sea. It was intact when Wheler visited Athens, but succumbed to the same assault that wrecked the Parthenon. The Turks deliberately tore it down to make a block house when Morosini threatened. Fortunately they used all the material in their new fort and French archaeologists restored the building in 1836. It reveals the effect of reconstruction to the most unpracticed eye, but the ancient form and materials are there, for all its crudities.
When Pausanias made his memorable journey in the second century A. D., the Acropolis was still a vast outdoor museum, though the Roman conquerors had pillaged it of much to adorn the palaces and country places of their Emperors. Of all this statuary little survives. The small museum on the Acropolis is the repository of some fourteen hundred specimens of every kind, and its builders had the taste to place it so that it does not mar the ancient skyline. It is especially rich in archaic sculpture and there is no better place to trace the development of the stiff figures of early times into the grace and majesty of the Golden Age. I am of the impression that everything shown in this museum was found on the Acropolis, and as temples existed there in the pre-historic period it is natural that many things of great antiquity should have been found. The stone used in the primitive sculpture is quite as inferior as the workmanship. It was as a rule soft poros whose sole merit was that it was easily worked. The best slab from the Parthenon frieze is the one showing Poseidon, Dionysos and Peitho, and its condition is more perfect than any other I can recall.
Those who are interested in comparing the two famous marbles of Greece can see many specimens of each in this museum. The marble of Paros was more highly regarded for sculpture, but was never sufficiently accessible to be used as a building material. It is harder, of slightly coarser grain and more translucent than the Pentelic marble, but only an expert can distinguish between them.
The Theatre of Dionysos and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus both lie at the foot of the Acropolis. The former saw the first performances of the great tragedies of AEschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and is for this reason the most notable theater of the world. Excavation work is always in progress on the site and I observed with curiosity a stalwart young German making photographs of the bottom of a trench. On looking in I could see nothing save clay and I wonder what of value the eye of his camera discovered there. Bits of ancient pottery were scattered all around and some of these unconsidered trifles were still good enough to be appealing souvenirs. Some that I picked up still retained their brilliant glazing and interesting decorations.
There are always many visitors on the Acropolis. It is a favorite playground and resort of the mothers and nursemaids of Athens. The larger boys make merry among the ruins. Serious students are prying about in odd corners and there is always a sprinkling of casual visitors. We encountered here a group of sailors from the American destroyer Sharkey, but I am afraid they were more interested in the Greek maidens than in the antiquities. On another day two hundred English people were abroad, having arrived that morning on the Asia. They lunched at our hotel and the rough tweeds and heavy boots of the Britisher on holiday contrasted sharply with the sartorial perfection of Sackville Street.
Quite apart from the ruins, the view from the Acropolis alone would repay a visit. Lycabettus stands out boldly. The Theseum looks like a toy house below. Athens stretches away like a yellow blanket and on the sea we could see the distant ships.
The notable hills near-by are confusing until one is well oriented. Philopappos cannot be mistaken be-cause of the monument that marks its top commemorating the Roman Consul who became a citizen of Athens. At its foot are the caves popularly called " the prison of Socrates," though they probably had no connection with either his life or death.
The Areopagus (Mars Hill), the Pnyx and Observatory Hill are grouped together toward the west, and all these heights were intimately connected with the life of the ancient city. The Areopagus lies nearest and is sometimes called a spur of the Acropolis because a low rock saddle connects the two. It was the scene of the early courts, but is known to the Christian world as the spot where Saint Paul boldly declaimed against the superstitions of Athens and denounced the worship of an unknown God. I have never read any particulars of this pagan deity, but Pausanias mentions a statue set up in his honor which he saw in the Piraeus more than a century after Saint Paul had passed away. There is now little on this hill to attract notice.
Exactly as the Areopagus is associated with Athenian justice, so the Pnyx was the seat of legislation. Here was the true home of democracy. The retaining walls built to support the seat of the council are still visible, even from a distance.
The Observatory Hill is not so rich in early associations, but the seismograph that keeps track of the numerous earthquakes is situated there.