Ath’ens (city of Athene), the capital of Attica, and the chief seat of Grecian learning and civilization during the golden period of the history of Greece.
Description.—Athens is situated about three miles from the seacoast, in the central plain of Attica. In this plain rise several eminences. Of these the most prominent is a lofty insulated mountain, with a conical peaked summit, now called the Hill of St. George, and which bore in ancient times the name of Lycabettus. This mountain, which was not included within the ancient walls, lies to the northeast of Athens, and forms the most striking feature in the environs of the city. It is to Athens what Vesuvius is to Naples, or Arthur’s Seat to Edinburgh. Southwest of Lycabettus there are four hills of moderate height, all of which formed part of the city. Of these the nearest to Lycabettus, and at the distance of a mile from the latter, was the Acropolis, or citadel of Athens, a square craggy rock rising abruptly about 150 feet, with a flat summit of about 1000 feet long from east to west, by 500 feet broad from north to south. Immediately west of the Acropolis is a second hill of irregular form, the Areopagus (Mars’ Hill). To the southwest there rises a third hill, the Pnyx, on which the assemblies of the citzens were held. South of the city was seen the Saronic Gulf, with the harbors of Athens.
History.—Athens is said to have derived its name from the prominence given to the worship of the goddess Athena (Minerva) by its king, Erechtheus. The inhabitants were previously called Cecropidæ, from Cecrops, who, according to tradition, was the original founder of the city. This at first occupied only the hill or rock which afterwards became the Acropolis; but gradually the buildings spread over the ground at the southern foot of this hill. It was not till the time of Pisistratus and his sons (b.c. 560–514) that the city began to assume any degree of splendor. The most remarkable building of these despots was the gigantic temple of the Olympian Zeus or Jupiter. Under Themistocles the Acropolis began to form the centre of the city, round which the new walls described an irregular circle of about 60 stadia or 7½ miles in circumference. Themistocles transferred the naval station of the Athenians to the peninsula of Piræus, which is distant about 4½ miles from Athens, and contains three natural harbors. It was not till the administration of Pericles that the walls were built which connected Athens with her ports.
Buildings.—Under the administration of Pericles, Athens was adorned with numerous public buildings, which existed in all their glory when St. Paul visited the city. The Acropolis was the centre of the architectural splendor of Athens. It was covered with the temples of gods and heroes; and thus its platform presented not only a sanctuary, but a museum containing the finest productions of the architect and the sculptor, in which the whiteness of the marble was relieved by brilliant colors, and rendered still more dazzling by the transparent clearness of the Athenian atmosphere. The chief building was the Parthenon (i.e., House of the Virgin), the most perfect production of Grecian architecture. It derived its name from its being the temple of Athena Parthenos, or Athena the Virgin, the invincible goddess of war. It stood on the highest part of the Acropolis, near its centre. It was entirely of Pentelic marble, on a rustic basement of ordinary limestone, and its architecture, which was of the Doric order, was of the purest kind. It was adorned with the most exquisite sculptures, executed by various artists under the direction of Phidias. But the chief wonder of the Parthenon was the colossal statue of the virgin goddess executed by Phidias himself. The Acropolis was adorned with another colossal figure of Athena, in bronze, also the work of Phidias. It stood in the open air, nearly opposite the Propylæa. With its pedestal it must have been about 70 feet high, and consequently towered above the roof of the Parthenon, so that the point of its spear and the crest of its helmet were visible off the promontory of Sunium to ships approaching Athens. The Areopagus, or Hill of Ares (Mars), is described elsewhere. [Mars’ Hill.] The Pnyx, or place for holding the public assemblies of the Athenians, stood on the side of a low rocky hill, at the distance of about a quarter of a mile from the Areopagus. Between the Pnyx on the west, the Areopagus on the north and the Acropolis on the east, and closely adjoining the base of these hills, stood the Agora or “Market,” where St. Paul disputed daily. Through it ran the road to the gymnasium and gardens of the Academy, which were situated about a mile from the walls. The Academy was the place where Plato and his disciples taught. East of the city, and outside the walls, was the Lyceum, a gymnasium dedicated to Apollo Lyceus, and celebrated as the place in which Aristotle taught.
Temple of Victory at Athens.
Character.—The remark of the sacred historian respecting the inquisitive character of the Athenians, Acts 17:21, is attested by the unanimous voice of antiquity. Their natural liveliness was partly owing to the purity and clearness of the atmosphere of Attica, which also allowed them to pass much of their time in the open air. The Athenian carefulness in religion is confirmed by the ancient writers. Of the Christian church, founded by St. Paul at Athens, according to ecclesiastical tradition, Dionysius the Areopagite was the first bishop. [Dionysius.]
Present condition.—(The population of Athens in 1871 was 48,000. Its university has 52 professors and 1200 students. Educational institutions are very numerous. A railway connects the Piræus or port with the city, and its terminus stands in the midst of what was once the Agora.—Ed.)