A philosophical walk through Ancient Athens
As I'm sure you can tell by the Delphi stories, I’ve always loved Ancient Greece and the world of ancient philosophy. Last week, during the Easter break, I had the great pleasure of visiting Athens for the first time. I wanted to visit, not only to tread in the footsteps of the ancient philosophers, but to discover the real places behind the stories in Delphi the Philosopher. So, without further ado, let’s go on a walk…
We’ll start on this deserted stony hill, with a great view across the city and the Acropolis towering above it. This hill is called the Pnyx and a wide, rough plateau has been cut into the rock. It was here that, for hundreds of years, the members of the Assembly would gather to debate and discuss the affairs of the city. We can imagine Cleisthenes, and then Pericles – the great builders and rebuilders of Ancient Greece - speaking here. Boisterous responses would have surely been heard, with archers on hand to deter the overly boisterous. This bare rock has as good a claim as any single place to be the birthplace of democracy. There is little here now to mark its impact on the world – just hill walkers, a few children kicking a football around and determined tourists with notebooks.
Between the Pnyx and the Ancient Agora, where we will be heading next, is a great lump of rock called the Areopagus. It rises above the trees near the Acropolis but has none of its grandeur. The climb up is steep and covered in graffiti, iron walkways and tourists. It was hear that St Paul first delivered the message of Christianity to the Greeks. It must have been an intimidating atmosphere, with the temples of the Acropolis looming above him.
The Ancient Agora was in most senses, the heart of the city. A combined market, temple district and administrative centre, it was here that the ruling council of Athens would meet, as well as being the principal site to trade produce, people and ideas. It’s hard to overstate the impact of this place on the history of Western philosophy – these were the streets and squares where Socrates would stop passers by and ask his questions about the nature of justice, truth and virtue. It felt special to be there – I kept looking over my shoulder to see if Delphi was sneaking in behind me to see what was going on.
Below the miraculously preserved temple to Hephaestus, a rectangular ruin marks the edge of the Stoa of Zeus. This was said to be Socrates’ favoured haunt. It certainly would have been very visible to passers-by. It is in the very heart of the Agora, opposite the Altar of the Twelve Gods, and just down the road from the public noticeboards next to the monument of Eponymous Heroes. You can just imagine the priests heading to the temple of Ares, or the Council members heading to the courts or Tholos, trying to avoid catching his eye. Of course, he did catch their eye and was put on trial in the Royal Stoa – which was just round the back. It’s location, unfortunately, has been decimated by a train-line that now runs straight through the site.
This cave, part of the Hill of the Muses near the Pnyx, is called ‘The Prison of Socrates’. It was said to be where Socrates was taken after his trial. But don’t be fooled. It almost certainly wasn’t.
This is far more likely to be the spot. In a far corner of the Agora, where most tourists don’t bother to come, is this quiet set of ruins and trees. Clearly visible is the entrance-way, the long corridor and the cells splitting off on each side. In one of them, Socrates would have delivered his final argument for the existence of the soul and drank the hemlock poison which forever made him a martyr to independent thought. After his death, the Athenian people were said to have immediately regretted their decision and raised a statue of the great man here. Now there is just a faded information board and the occasional emotional visitor who stop and stare at the ruins for some time.
From near the western edge of the Ancient Agora, you can walk towards the old city walls and into the Kerameikos district – an extraordinary jumble of ruins which comprised the old Sacred and Dipylon Gates, as well as the main memorials and graveyard of the city. It was here that the finest sculptures and carvings were made in honour of the Athenian dead, and which now sit in the tiny museum at the corner of the site. The neighbourhood must have been a great jumble of newly arrived travellers, women tending to their ancestor’s graves and, apparently, Diogenes the Cynic, who liked to frequent the Pompeion – the large central building in the district and starting place of major processions through the city.
Let’s walk out the Dipylon gate and out of the centre of the city – eventually we come to what is now an extensive park in a residential neighbourhood. Locals chat on their phones and play football with their children and amongst the trees are the barest remains of ancient walls. There is little to tell you – but this is the site of Plato’s Academy. This ancient university had no set curriculum or professors – rather it was a place where philosophers met to discuss the issues of a post-Socratic world.
If you find your way to the far side of the park there is a tiny but delightful museum dedicated to Plato and his work. I had the place completely to myself when I visited and I spent a happy hour or so watching an animation of the Symposium, getting maximum scores in the quizzes about logical fallacies and wishing the Cave exhibit was working. The last screen in the museum is a compilation of locals expressing their wish that the site got more recognition. Given that the site was not even mentioned in my Lonely Planet guide, they may have a point.
There is a similar site on the other side of the city, although it is better preserved and much more accessible. Aristotle, the one-time pupil of Plato and one-time teacher of Alexander the Great, set up his Lyceum here – in competition and in response to the Academy. There is a circular path that leads right around the ruins, which feels appropriate, as it encourages walking and thinking in the true peripatetic philosophical style. Aristotle does not get his own museum however, and has to make do with a few of the ubiquitous tourist information boards. From here we can also visit the wonderful museum of Cycladic Art with a wonderful exhibition on day to day to life in Ancient Greece – but we’re going to head back towards the city centre.
On the way, we’ll pass the National Gardens and then the Panathenaic Stadium, site of the first modern Olympic Games. As impressive as the site undoubtedly is, my favourite place is the tunnel tucked away on the side, leading into the hill. The free audio guide paints the picture – it’s the place where the Greek competitors would emerge to the roar of the crowds in the ancient Panathenaic games and where gladiators would emerge to die for the entertainment of Rome. It was also apparently the site where Greek girls would dance naked and pray for a good husband when they were older – with the older women guarding the entrance to stop any men from taking a peek inside the cave while they were doing so. Now it contains torches from all the modern-day Olympics and photographs of Greek fans celebrating their European Championship victory in 2004.
These enormous columns dominate the skyline in this part of the city. They are from the Temple of Olympian Zeus – a structure so huge and ambitious it took six hundred years to complete. It took Hadrian, the Roman Emperor and noted wall builder, to finish it. He also raised an arch nearby, which was clearly inscribed to show that “this is the city of Hadrian and not Theseus”. He was clearly proud of his efforts.
Past the arch and we are back heading towards the Acropolis. If we take the southern entrance, we can get a great view of the Theatre of Dionysus on the way up.
This ancient theatre is perhaps the other site which could be said to be one of the birthplaces of democracy. When the Assembly outgrew the Pnyx, they came here to discuss the issues of the day – but perhaps more importantly it was here that could be said to be the birthplace of drama, theatre, tragedy and comedy. On these stone steps Athenian citizens would watch the plays submitted to annual Dionysia – drama being very much a competitive sport in ancient Athens. Spectators were encouraged to reflect on the messages of the stories and learn from them – but they weren’t shy of spectacle too. Notably, a simple crane was incorporated into some performances – not least in Aristophanes’ Clouds, where Socrates is first encountered floating above the stage and seemingly above all mortal concerns. It’s a shame we’ll never know what Socrates himself was thinking of this as he watched from these steps.
From here it is up – past the Odeion to the Propylaia – the gate to the top of the Acropolis itself. Tucked away by its side is the small temple to Athena Nike, but the eye is sucked towards the two great temples on the summit of the great hill.
The second temple you notice is the wonderful Erechtheion, a fascinating jumble of architecture that has stories almost bursting out of its walls. From the Caryatids who uncomplainingly balance the roof on their heads (though these are substitutes - the real ones have retired to the new Acropolis museum), to the hole in the roof where Zeus was said to have sent his thunderbolt during the contest to decide the city of Athens. The contest was won by Athena, whose gift of the olive tree was seen to be the more useful. Just to prove the story, an olive tree grows even now in the shadow of the temple, which goes to show that scepticism vanishes in the face of a good story.
Of course, by now we have become completely distracted by the Parthenon – the majestic temple to Athena which dominates the Acropolis and the entire city. We can just about make out the great architectural trick of the slightly curved columns, adding to the perspective of height and grandeur. Clearly visible are the remains of the pediments and friezes which would have been colourful spectacles in its prime. Now we are left to imagine what it might have been, as we look at the empty spaces in the Acropolis museum where the Elgin marbles aren’t, these being conveniently located several thousand miles away in the British Museum in London. However, in the city’s extensive and remarkable Archaeological museum, we can make one last discovery.
This copy is one twelfth the size but gives a clue as to what the famous statue to Athena would have looked like inside the Parthenon. We are left to imagine the skin of ivory and ornaments of gold – though the rest of the museum, and the city, has more than enough to get our imaginations going.
We’ll finish our walk here, at the feet of Athena, in the Parthenon, on the Acropolis, in the past, in our minds.
Look out for more in the future – including a tour of Delphi (the place, not the girl) and probably something else in Athens besides.
PS – Keep your eyes open for Delphi the Philosopher which will be available in the next couple of weeks. More adventures in Athens await!