Let us try and bring to mind a picture of Athens as the ancients might have known it, drenched in diaphanous light, its arid mountains protecting it from the north winds and harsh weather, with the beauty of the Acropolis thrown into relief by the sun and the delightfully modest houses at the foot of the great rock. An Athens free of noise other than the voices of children and pedlars in the narrow streets. An Athens to be dreamed of.
That’s what it must have been like in the Age of Pericles, when the city was already very ancient. Research shows us that the area around Athens has been inhabited since the neolithic age, as testified to by artifacts found in wells near the Areopagos (Mars’ Hill) on the south side of the Acropolis, and in the Agios Kosmas peninsula near Alimos. The original inhabitants were then joined by waves of new settlers, Carians, Leleges and finally Pelasgians, mainly tribes of IndoEuropean origin. The intermingling of all these peoples contributed to shaping the Hellenes, with their contradictory temperament and frequent conflicts.
Sometime around the late 9th or early 8th century BC, Hesiod and Homer gave us the first myths, exaggerated, heroic tales which provided a glimpse of the kind of society where everything was dependent on an unknown divinity. During subsequent generations, these gods and heroes underwent many sea-changes in the service of local, often political needs. Myth may be a wonderful depiction of the world but it was also the easiest way for simple people to learn about their history. Thus the early inhabitants believed that their leaders-who sometimes took peculiar forms-were descended from the gods. Even their names can be explained in the light of societal needs.
Then gradually, over a period of time, the leaders ceased to be supernatural, and began taking on more human dimensions. And the people themselves, as they acquired knowledge of the outside world from the sea routes, stopped being afraid of the otherworldly and began to wonder about the world. It is a fascinating experience to watch myth evolving hand in hand with the development of a people and to discern historical truth through an imaginative construct.
Thus Kekrops and Erichthonios, the first kings of Athens , were strange creatures, half-man and half-snake, whose form portrayed how they had sprung from the Attic soil. Kekrops had brought in master craftsmen, the Pelasgians who, having built a strong Acropolis, stayed on to settle round it. Names ending in -ttos or -ssos appear to have been Pelasgian, such as the Ilissos, Kefissos, Hymettos, Lycabettos, Ardettos; they are all geographic landmarks (mountains, rivers) which remain prominent in the topography of Athens up to the present day. Likewise, it was Kekrops who selected the goddess Athena as protector of his city, after whom he named it. It should be noted that some scholars believe the name of the goddess to have been derived from the Egyptian word aten.
With respect to Erichthonios, mythology provides us with a number of illuminating details. It is said that Hephaestos, the lame blacksmith of the gods, wanted to join in union with Athena, the great goddess of knowledge, but she drew back from his loving embrace and the divine seed fell on her legs. She then rubbed her leg with a swatch of the wool she was spinning and threw it to the ground. But whereas Athena refused the seed of the god, the Earth received it and thus did Erichthonios spring forth.
The Athenians always had a particular affection for their founding father in his snakish form: they built him an exquisite temple, the Erechthion, which priests made sure was constantly supplied with offerings of honey cakes. In some myths, Erichthonios is called Erechtheas; in others Erechtheas is the grandson of Erichthonios and in a third version, Erechtheas has come from Egypt. Perhaps all these versions represented attempts to explain the successive waves of colonists inundating the Aegean during those turbulent years.
If we seek to unravel the threads of the myths, then the truth emerges in all its radiance. The name of Erichthonios shows us his origin: eriochthon means wool-earth, i.e. born of the earth and from it. His descendants intermarried with peoples from Thessaly whose genealogical tree shows their founding father to have been Prometheus. He was the wise Titan who gave mortals the gift of fire, i.e. the light of knowledge-previously the exclusive realm of the gods or perhaps of some priestly brother hood- and for this reason was cruelly punished on a rock in the Caucasus.
It was Prometheus’ son Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha who brought the human race back to life in the mountains of Thessaly after the great flood. His grandson was Hellene. Today we know that the Indo-European Aryan tribes, after discovering the use of metals somewhere in the Caucasus, learned to craft strong weapons. Some tribes spread out into central Europe and the Balkans, some remained to take advantage of the good grazing lands while others pressed on southward.
The initial root began to put forth many branches as Hellene, grandson of Prometheus, had sons who were quite different one from the other. There were Aeolos, Xouthos and Doros, who gave their names to Hellenic tribes in later years. Xouthos, which means “the fair”, was quite distinct from the early Athenians who had the darker skin of the Aegean peoples. He was to marry Kreousa, the granddaughter of Erechtheas: their children were named Achaeos and Ion, the forefathers of the later Hellenes. Another variation of the myth had Ion as the offspring of Apollo’s secret liaison with the same princess. This detail helped advance the mythic cycle from the primeval, with its demonic forms of nature, evolving into humanized deities like Apollo who led man to thought, poetry and philosophy.
Many modern historians believe that the later Hellenes came from Pindus, on the border between Thessaly and Epirus. This fits in admirably with the Attic myths about the genealogy of their kings and the various intermarriages, documenting the arrogance of the ancient Athenians toward the other inhabitants of the region, since from the very outset, gods would frequently come down and intermingle with the mortals, lending a divine dimension to many conjugal dramas.
We know that the first inhabitants of the Attic earth were cultivators, but its poor, arid soil made them turn toward the sea. The story of Theseus who volunteered to go to Crete and kill the Minotaur, delivering Athens from the terrible annual tribute of youths sent to feed the insatiable monster, may perhaps be telling us about the Athenians’ first great campaign at sea and their independence from a ruling naval power.
From then on, Theseus never stopped traveling, like all those who, having once experienced the vastness of new horizons, could never thereafter remain closed within narrow confines. He went with the Argonauts to the Pontus (Black Sea), fought against and defeated the imperious Amazons, winning their queen, and taught the spoiled Centaurs a hard lesson in good behavior. But he also took care of his own region, joining together little individual townships into a large and powerful confederacy, with temples in which gods and ancestors were worshiped and with a citadel for security against jealous neighbors.
Theseus was possibly a historic figure who, over the passage of centuries, has become wrapped in the glory of myth to serve domestic expediencies and presented as the scion of the divine race of Ion. A hero who was also a demi-god was always more impressive than just a worthy leader; the inhabitants of the city favored with such a leader would feel special and try to emulate him. Thus the descendants of the first Athenians began their fearless exploration of the sea. As they succeeded in guaranteeing their livelihood, their numbers grew; they learned, became wealthy and expanded their activities around the Mediterranean coasts, creating bridgeheads of commerce and free thought. The colonizers of the east side of the Aegean were called Ionians; and it was there that the ideas of philosophy, the principles of human rights, ethics, metaphysics and the harmony of the universe were born.
Economic ease created a new order of things. Until then, the head of the largest family had been king; but when other men gained power through trade, they too claimed the right to a voice in government, thrusting aside the custom of the hereditary monarchy. A special place was needed for the exchange of commodities and this was how the Agora (market) grew up. The meetings of the local people with strangers made it necessary for them to learn how to develop convincing arguments; from this need sprang the art of rhetoric.
The interests of the people had to be protected. As there were already a great many people, the proper role models had to be found on whose example they could shape their behavior, which at its most sublime moment, led to the formulation of laws by Solon the Sage in the 6th century. Developments in the administrative system were accompanied by cultural progress. The local clay was used to make ceramics which, while initially serving the needs of daily life, soon became objects of trade and then developed into works of art, since men, having assured themselves of the necessities, now sought the beautiful. Athenian potters began producing enormous grave amphoras with austere ornamentation, dominated by Greek key designs and shadowy figures. Black-figured vases were the next phase, with their stylized silhouettes; these evolved into the marvelous red-figured vases which sometimes bear the craftsman’s name under vivid compositions depicting moments from the lives of gods and men.
The gods were worshiped in stately stone temples decorated with marble statues that replaced the earlier idols. The myths became overlaid by a multitude of heroic details, as gods and mortals alike came alive in a new form of ceremony which took place in the theater. Meanwhile, more and more Athenian ships were sailing to and fro in the Mediterranean, carrying new developments and provoking envy in other lands which rapidly turned into the desire of foreign leaders for conquest and expansion. The result was the Persian wars at the beginning of the 5th century BC.
The decisive military confrontation at sea and Athens ‘ defeat of the Persians in the battle of Salamis, promoted Athens to a position of foremost power and intellectual leader over the other Hellenes, much to Sparta’s great annoyance. The Athenians, having acquired the social comfort that accompanies economic prosperity, had by then developed the versatility of thinking people with freedom of opinion and political views. On the contrary, the strapping sons of Sparta remained products of a rigid military education and attitude. Thus, when the gold-bedecked invaders, decimated and in tatters, retreated back into the hinterlands of Persia, Athens justifiably assumed a position of preeminence, achieved greatness which culminated in the classical age, and produced works of eternal beauty which have remained vital until the present day. It caused the historian Thucydides to prophesy that if ever the two great adversaries Athens and Sparta were someday lost, everybody would know where Athens had been by its wonderful monuments whereas Sparta would have left not a trace to remind people of its once great power.
These wonderful monuments were what roused military Sparta’s ire and ultimately led to the armed confrontation. Like all civil wars, the Peloponnesian War was devastating and, unbeknownst to anyone at that time, it signalled the beginning of the end for the proud city of Athens . This was a slow decline which lasted for centuries; it saw insults and passions, tyrannies and uprisings, flaming rhetoric and objections; it saw Athens yielding to the Hellenes of the North, the Macedonians, and finally its subjugation by the Roman legions. All this occurred in the shadow of the Parthenon, at a time when the theatres continually presented works by playwrights whose names would become renowned throughout history, and when Athenians would gather under the colonnades of the Agora to listen to the wandering philosophers and discuss the current political situation.
The Christian religion which was slowly spreading hope of deliverance among oppressed peoples, began to gain followers while the philosophical schools were still full of young people seeking enlightenment on questions of rhetoric, the written word and even theology. One of the most famous students of these schools (4th century A.D.) was Julian, later the Byzantine emperor who came to be known as the Apostate because of his attachment to pagan religion; others were Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus, future Fathers of the Church. The philosophical schools of Athens functioned until the 6th century, at which point Justinian closed them by decree, perhaps because freedom of philosophic thought conflicted with the dogmatism of what had become the state religion. At this point, Athens entered the Dark Ages.
Deprived of its intellectual nourishment, the city was gradually forgotten, destined to continue its progress through time as an insignificant village, the roads of which were studded with pieces of marble from statues that had been smashed by fanatics remembering the heathen past of this once-great city. It was this past that made the official Byzantine state neglect the birthplace of art and beauty, which they regarded as a dangerous incitement to those who tended to disagree with the medieval terms of immortality. The religious exaltation of the period could in no way be reconciled with the frivolity of the ancient gods and thus Christianity’s fight for dominance was a tough one without concessions or exceptions.
In the 13th century, when the Crusaders transferred their need for expansion to the East, thinly disguised under a veil of religion, knights who had been excluded from the division of the conquered lands fanned out over the Aegean and around the coasts snatching land by brute force. During the years that followed, the Franks and Catalans established their principalities in Attica and fought to keep them safe from the rising power of Islam. All during this time, the few remaining residents of Athens were simply struggling to survive, as they sank ever deeper into the lethargy of illiteracy, poverty and obscurity. The rest of Europe welcomed the educated Byzantines who had fled after the fall of Constantinople (1453), and this infusion of new culture helped push forward the Renaissance, contributing substantially to what we now know as Western civilization. But at that time, this forgotten corner of the earth was not even called Hellas, even though from time to time, travellers would fill tour journals with notes about the monuments, carved stones and inscriptions they had seen on the ground along the pathways of Attica.
It was these descriptions which awakened the memories of Hellas and soon the travellers would start coming in earnest to look, dig and depart in order to send others in ever greater numbers. The Ottoman conquerors, gazing down indifferently from the heights of the Acropolis, where they had established themselves for security reasons, looked condescendingly upon those who came to do research, while the suspicious local population tried to make some money by helping those people whom they, in their ignorance, termed “silly strangers”. In the mid- 18th century, lists had already begun to circulate around Europe of the most significant Greek monuments; some of these lists were even accompanied by drawings. By the early 19th century a few collections of the plunder had already been established.
The French Revolution brought a different atmosphere to the intellectuals of Europe. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity became accepted values. Romantic verses by Lord Byron brought back to the Western mind the memory of Hellenic culture associated with this part of the Balkans, rather than the Greece that had become known through the wealthy Greek merchants in various cities of Europe. Thus the news that the Greek War of Independence had been proclaimed fell on fertile ground and the voice of the enslaved Greek nation was heard once again after centuries of silence, inspiring artists to paint episodes from the desperate struggle waged by the few descendants of the heroes of Marathon and Thermopylae. The scene depicting a mounted, turbaned warrior fighting against an impassioned footsoldier. In his fustanela inspired a sense of heroism and the confrontation between life and death, as well as awakening feelings of anger against the oppressors and support for the oppressed.
In June 1822, the Greeks captured the Acropolis and made it their command post, while the struggle continued with an uncertain outcome on all fronts. Five years later, Kiutahis Pasha had recaptured the citadel in a last ditch effort to suppress the revolution. But the Great Powers of the times formed an alliance -either because they wanted to bow to public opinion or because they were counting on gaining influence in the new independent state in the strategic Mediterranean region, or because they regarded the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire as inevitable-and in the decisive battle of Navarino, it was they who administered the final blow to the Sultan, which gave Greece her freedom.
As soon as it gained its independence, the newly constituted state became an apple of discord for European politicians, while the dusty village of Athens was, as a matter of courtesy, designated capital. Still reeling from their bloody fight and from the heady feeling of freedom, the Greeks were struggling to rediscover their identity, and at the same time to wipe out the taint of slavery. They wore European clothes, avoided the brigand-riddled mountains and began building mansions that resembled their monuments. The simple people were awed by the fact that their huts had been built on the settlements and graves of their forefathers and began to be aware of themselves as constituting part of a long, unbroken chain. They all started tearing down, clearing away, digging up and restoring. At last, the Attic earth was ready to surrender its treasures and ideals to humanity.
It was in this way that Greek archeology, the new science of antiquities, was born.