My Trip To Europe. Day 8. Saturday, October 11. Athens.

Finally, the heart of Greece, Athens.  But first a brief detour to pay some thanks.

You’ll also get to see some Athenian Owl coins.  Including some that might be new to you.

Coins of the Day:  Athenian Owls

If there is one coin any collection of ancient coins has to have, it’s an Athenian tetradrachm from the classical era.  They served as coinage over quite a large part of the Greek world.  And they were issued when Athens was at the height of its power.

As I mentioned in the notes for Tuesday the 7th, most American collectors pronounce “drachm” as “dram.”  This not only avoids the χ “kh” sound out of Scottish loch and German ach, it gets the vowel wrong.  “Drock-em” would be much closer without having to deal with that unfamiliar χ sound, and I personally try to get at least that close.

Here’s my example.  Dated sometime between 449 and 413 BCE.

11-001 11-002Obverse, Athena wearing a helmet with crest.  Reverse, the Athena owl, her alter-ego and/or symbol, a tiny bit of an olive branch, and the letters ΑΘΕ for Athens. (Interestingly, Athens is now spelled “ΑΘΗΝΑ” on everything I see.)

I mentioned a helmet with crest.  It’s not that obvious on that coin, but it is on this one.  (I lied, I own two of ’em.)

11-003 11-004This one is technically a better grade, but losing Athena’s face below the nose makes it a bit less desirable.  On the other hand, this is the only one of these where I could even tell there was a crest on her head.

A tetradrachm is four drachms.  Did they put out other denominations?

Well, yes they did.

Here is a drachm:


And an obol.  (Six obols made a drachm.)  This coin is only 8 millimeters across on the long axis.  This is another one where I had to warn the photographer not to sneeze.

11-008These denominations seem to be a lot rarer than the tetradrachm.

Finally, there is this one Euro coin, Greek of course, showing the owl, as if to say “We had coins while the rest of you were jumping around in the trees.”  Which is true, or will be until and unless Turkey joins the Eurozone.

11-009 11-010


Athens.  The only Mycenaean settlement that didn’t burn as the Dark Age came down like a hammer in the 12th Century BCE.

Athens.  City of Athena, one of the twelve Olympian deities; no other city had its name there.

Athens.  Leader of the long struggle against the Persians.

Athens.  Center of the Delian League.

Athens.  Home of the flowering of Classical culture.

Athens.  Home of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle.  Home of Pericles and Demosthenes,  Home of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Athens.  Home of this man, Miltiades.


In 490 BCE, Darius, King of Kings, ruler of the Persian empire, responding to Athens’ helping the Ionian cities rebel against Persian rule, invaded the Greek mainland, marching overland from what is now Turkey and making their way down to Attica, with naval support.  The Persians were thought of as invincible; certainly no Greek force had ever defeated them in the field.

An Athenian force of about ten thousand under the command of Miltiades met the twenty five thosand Persians at Marathon, as they got off their boats.  The Athenians were joined by a force of a thousand Plataeans, who were assigned to be on the left flank of the formation, a signal honor.

No other city-state helped.  Not Sparta, not Thebes, not anyone.

The Greeks were hopelessly outnumbered.  And the Persians had cavalry.

But the Greeks won.  They proved it was possible to beat the Persians.  The first Persian attempt to subjugate Greece was finished.

Note the date, 490 BC.  This is at the beginning of the two century period thought of as Classical Greece, the first phase of what we now think of as Western Civilization.  It was here that people first began to think rationally, to try to understand the world without simple recourse to the supernatural.  And the incredible advances in the arts!

(Some maintain that the Renaissance is the birth of Western Civilization.  But the very name refutes that; Renaissance means “Rebirth.”  It was the rebirth of this.  It built on this.  This, therefore, is the foundation of Western Civilization.)

And if this battle had gone the other way, none of it would have happened.  Our world would be vastly different.

So my first stop today was to go to Marathon (this cost me three hours of the day in travel time alone, riding a commuter bus, and was worth every second).  There is a tumulus–a mound-under which the 192 (according to Herodotus) Athenian dead from this battle are buried; this statue of Miltiades was erected there.

11-012When I reached the site, I saw a crowd of Greek soldiers, all standing around something I couldn’t see.  Was this some sort of ceremony?  I know that Israeli soldiers are typically sworn in at Masada; are Greeks sworn in here?

Later, after I had walked around the tumulus, I found that the soldiers had all been gathered around this map of the battleground.  Maybe it was a ceremony.  More likely it was merely a military history lesson.  Perhaps it was both.

Here is the statue of Miltiades, with the Tumulus in the background.


To the hundred and ninety two Athenians under that mound, the Plataeans buried elsewhere, and the ten thousand from both places who got to go home, we all owe a titanic debt.

You thought you were defending your homes.  You were.  You did.  But you had no idea what you were doing on top of that.  You had no idea that two thousand five hundred years later, people on continents you didn’t even know existed would remember you.

11-015Thank you.

[Note:  The Persians tried again in 480 BCE (note that today we are almost midway between the 2500th anniversaries of the two attempts).  They were slowed at Thermopylae by a force from many more Greek cities, including Sparta (that is what the recent movie 300 recounts), though they did sack Athens.  The Athenian fleet, however, destroyed the Persian navy at Salamis, and finally, there was a battle at Plataea that ended in a defeat for the Persians.  That was the last they threatened the Greek mainland, though conflicts would continue, culminating in the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 320s BCE.  The Serpent Column now in Istanbul that I photographed (See Day Five, 8 August), was erected at Delphi in honor of this last battle.]

[Another observation:  I had seen a lot of signage and the like using only the Latin alphabet, over the last few days.  I assumed this was for the benefit of tourists.  But this commuter bus went through neighborhoods that I assume would be of no interest to tourists, yet I still saw plenty of ads, storefronts, etc, using only the Latin alphabet.  Do Greeks grow up comfortable with both?  That wouldn’t surprise me.  But it seems unusual so many business catering to local clientele would have non-Greek signs and ads.]

Now back to Athens proper.  One can take the Metro to a station within easy walking distance of the Acropolis area.  There’s the acropolis itself, but it is also ringed by a host of other sites.

I did NOT take a tour bus.  Every tour I could find loaded the itinerary with other stuff I frankly did not want to see, changing of the guard at the palace, the stadium built for the 1896 olympics (done the ancient way, incidentally, not like today’s stadiums) and the like.  I had found a pretty decent description of a good walking tour one could take on ones’ own, but it would be challenging given that it was already 1 PM thanks to my pilgrimage to Marathon.

(I’d bet less than one percent who go to Marathon are doing so to see the scene of the battle; the rest are interested in the eponymous footrace, based on the 26 mile dash back to Athens that, according to legend, Pheidippides made to announce the result of the battle.  He is said to have dropped dead as soon as he announced the victory.  Alas, this story is probably not true.)

The first of which is the Herod Atticus Odeon, built in 160 AD.  It is still used for concerts.  The stage (i.e., the structure with all the arches) is undergoing some sort of restoration, perhaps to have it match the restored seats and orchestra (floor).


Here’s a diagram of the Acropolis:

The Acropolis proper is entered on its west side, up a flight of stairs through the Propylaia.


You can see here that some restoration has been done; it is easy to pick out the original pieces from the replacements.

Once one has walked through the gate, the Parthenon grabs your attention.  It too is undergoing some sort of restoration, or perhaps preventive maintenance so that it doesn’t crumble further.

11-021I understand that the Parthenon was actually in fairly good shape until sometime in the 1600s.  The Venetians were trying to drive the Ottomans out of Athens; the Ottomans stored their powder in the Parthenon.  The Venetians bombarded the Parthenon (since powder was a strategic resource you wanted to deny to your enemy), and the resulting explosion blew the roof off.

I know from conversations later that day that many Athenians blame the Venetians for this.  It doesn’t bother them so much that the Ottomans did what they did, but the Venetians should have known better, seems to be the attitude.  (In other words, the Ottomans are just a bunch of barbarians anyway, and can only be held to a lower standard.  Racist, anyone?)

I disagree.  The Ottomans thought putting the powder in the Parthenon would safeguard it; it’s not unlike using human shields, as some people do today.  Those who engage in such tactics are attempting to exploit the fact that their enemy is morally better than they are (as they call them pigs and dogs).  Thus they–the users of human shields, the users of the Parthenon as a storehouse for something their enemy would need to destroy–are morally responsible for whatever the enemy must do in response.

11-022Here is a floor plan, columns surrounding an inner walled area called the cella.  Inside the cella would have been the statue of the god the temple was dedicated to, in this case it was a goddess, Athena.  We know what the statue looked like, because we have found smaller copies of it, presumably sold to visitors back then.

Based on photographs I’ve seen from recent years, it looks like they’ve disassembled what was left of the cella, presumably so that they can reconstruct it after fixing structural problems.  Hopefully, they can restore it to what it was like at the beginning of the 1800s.

Here is an area used to store replacement marble parts.

11-023In many cases the original metopes and pieces of the entablatures and pediments have been removed, and replaced by exact copies.  The originals are in the Acropolis museum, protected from the elements.

Here is the south side of the Parthenon (it’s the opposite long side from the previous Parthenon photo).



And the east end, opposite of the Propylaia.



11-026At the eastern end of the Acropolis is this Greek flag.  It turns out to be quite historically significant.

On the 30th of May, 1941, this location hosted a very different flag, the flag of the Third Reich.  Two men, Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas, tore down the Nazi flag, igniting the Greek resistance.

11-027They are honored with this plaque, placed on the pedestal that now flies the Greek flag.  You can pick out the word PATRIOTES (second line), their names on the third line, and it’s very easy to find the word NAZI on the fifth line (those letters are the same in both alphabets).

It’s significant that this particular part of the Acropolis is not bilingual.

I caught a glimpse of this from up on the Acropolis.  More on this tomorrow.


Now on to the Erechtheion; famous for the Caryatid pillars (originals in the Acropolis museum).  But on the way there you walk past the north side of the Parthenon



And here is the Erechtheion.

11-030 11-031 11-032

Now leaving the Acropolis, out through the Propylaia.




11-035The Areopagus, seen from the Acropolis.


11-036One other thing set into the bluff that is the Acropolis is a mostly ruined theater, the Theater of Dionysos.  It wouldn’t be worth showing, except that the orchestra (floor) was laid out with an interesting pattern.



11-037Next, I climbed the Areopagus, a rocky outcropping that has been polished by the millions of people who have visited it (very hazardous footing, uneven and slippery).

The Areopagus served as a burial ground during the Mycenaean period, then as both a court for murder, arson, and sacrilege trials, and as a religious sanctuary.

It’s also famous as the scene of Paul’s sermon to the Athenians in the Book of Acts (the one referencing the Unknown God).  So now I’ve followed in his footsteps twice on this trip.

There’s really not much you can do other than try to avoid a turned ankle or a broken neck.  It does seem to be a popular hangout.

11-038You can see the (rebuilt) Stoa of Attalos from up here.  The green area to the left of it is the ancient Agora.


And of course the west end of the Acropolis, the Propylaia.

After doing my best surefooted mountain goat impression getting off the Areopagus, I moved on to the Agora.

The reconstructed Stoa of Attalos dominates one side of the Agora.  It’s basically a long columned building, open to one side, the other side was (presumably) a bunch of shops.  Today, it houses a museum, and the open area has a lot of original sculptures in it.


And here you see the reconstructed ceiling.

This is your clue as to why Greek ruins almost *never* have roofs on them.  The support beams were made of wood, not stone, and that has long since rotted away.


At the other side, on a hill, is the old temple of Hephaestus, a more traditional temple, six columns wide.


Much better preserved than the Parthenon, but then it never had to endure a big explosion.

Parthenon from the temple

11-044And the Stoa.


I zoomed in (300 mm lens) on this structure on the Acroplis.  I haven’t mentioned it, but it seems to be the *old* temple to Athena (predating the Parthenon, which was also dedicated to her).   11-046



I moved on to the Kerameikos, the ceramic workers’ quarter.  A lot of some interest, a very little that was photogenic–at least in the ruins proper.

But this little creek turns out to be what is left of the Eridanus river.  A constellation (Eridanus) is named after this.


They’ve found some incredibly well preserved sculpture here, all safely kept in an adjacent museum.  This was meant as a funerary marker, and (since I didn’t photograph the placard) I’d have to guess it’s Helenistic (post Alexander the Great) or Roman period.


And of course pottery.  This specimen should date back to the 700s BCE given that it has geometric design


This is slightly more recent.

11-050At this point, my feet hurt (on top of my usual issues with my calves knotting up if I climb uphill), and I was running out of daylight.  Time to go to the Acropolis museum, where one can rely on artificial light.


It’s built literally suspended over excavated buildings, and they made the floor transparent in many places.  This is the walk up to the front door, see how it’s open below.

11-051(Quoting from the placard)  “The remains of a neighborhood of ancient Athens are preserved in situ at the base of the Acropolis Museum.  THese include streets, houses, baths and workshops dating from the 5th century BC to the 9th centyry AD.”

Here are the original Caryatids from the Erechtheion.


The top floor of the museum lays out all the extant pieces of the frieze of the Parthenon, and the two pediments, and the decorations at the top of the cella walls, and it does so keeping their relative positions.  It ends up being a gallery as large in floor area as the Parthenon itself.  And it’s far too much to show here.

Here is a model of the Parthenon, as it once was.

11-053I ended this long day of almost uninterrupted walking at a restaurant on a street to the east of the Acropolis, dining on stuffed grape leaves and lamb steak, total cost eighteen euros.  By far the most I had spent on a meal, but this was a special occasion.

In Memory of Dr. John Lewis, whose passion was Ancient Greece,
and who was sorely missed on this day


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