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James Baikie

Athens in Its Golden Age: The Journey

NOW we are going to pay a visit to the most famous city of Greece—"The City of the Violet Crown," as her orators loved to call Athens; and we want to visit her when she is at her very best, after she had become great and splendid, but before the faults which ruined her had begun to show themselves. So on a fine day, in early summer of the year 438 B.C., we find ourselves on a Lemnian trireme, sailing round Cape Sunion on our voyage to the Peiræus, the port of Athens. The ship on which we are travelling is going to join the Athenian fleet, as the contribution of Lemnos to the funds of the Confederation of Delos—the alliance of Greek states and islands under the headship of Athens, which has been formed since the Persian Wars.

This is going to be a great summer at Athens, for not only is it the year of the great Athenian religious festival, the Panathenæa, which takes place once in four years, but this year the splendid new temple, the Parthenon, which Iktinus has been building, and Pheidias, the famous sculptor, adorning, is going to be dedicated to Athene, the virgin-goddess of the city. All that is best and noblest and most beautiful in Athens will be seen, above all in the great procession when the new mantle of the Goddess is carried up to the Temple to be laid before the magnificent statue of ivory and gold which Pheidias has set up in the shrine.

We of Lemnos have a special interest in Athens and in the Acropolis, for we are really Athenian colonists, and only twelve years ago we gave Pheidias the commission for a fine statue of Athene to be set up on the old rock in the Mother-city, and we are proud to think that it goes by the name of the Lemnian Athene.

Our pleasant voyage among the Greek islands is drawing to a close. We have passed Scyros, where our old hero Theseus was buried, and whence, thirty-five years ago, Cimon brought the gigantic bones of the old champion to be buried with honour in his native city. The end of the long island of Euboea lies behind us on the north, and now, slipping between Ceos and the mainland, we see the temple-crowned heights of Sunion on our right hand, and turn northwards into the Saronic Gulf. We shall be in harbour before night. Wide to the westward lies Ægina, "the eyesore of the Peiræus," as Pericles calls it, for the islanders and the Athenians are always quarrelling. And now before us we can see through the clear southern air Peiræus itself, with its three harbours, Munychia, Zea, and Cantharus.

Behind the port, two long lines of white battlemented wall stretch inland for several miles, and at the upper end of them lies the great city that we have come so far to see. A line of low hills, girt with walls, and crowned with buildings; on the right of the line, a big square-fronted rock that no one can mistake, towering above the city that crouches at its base, and flashing with gold and bronze as the sunlight strikes upon temple and statue. That dark sharply outlined hill to the north-east, beyond the walls, must be Lycabettus; and eastmost of all, curving round behind the city, lies the great mass of Mount Hymettus, glowing rose-pink in the evening light. See that bright star that flashes highest of all from the top of the Acropolis, and that we have kept in view almost ever since we rounded Cape Sunion. That is the gilded spear-point of the huge bronze statue of Athene the Champion that Pheidias has set up to guard her rock and her temple. Nearly seventy feet she towers, from the foot of her pedestal to the golden crest of her helmet, and there is no more welcome sight to the homeward-bound Athenian sailor than the first flash of Athene's spear.

But Athens will keep for a new day, and now we are drawing up to the harbour-mouth. Had we been a mere merchantman, we should have gone into the Great Harbour; but, being a unit of the Athenian navy, our harbour is the inner basin, Cantharus. Our galley sweeps between the two mole-heads, with their huge windlasses for hauling across the chain that closes the mouth of the port at night or in war-time, and we drop anchor in the outer basin. To-morrow the ship will go into Cantharus past the second chain, and will be hauled up on a slip for overhaul. With that, however, we need not trouble ourselves, as our destination is the city itself.

Only, before we leave Peiræus, take a look round about the basin. This inner harbour is the true Cantharus, "the Cup," and its deep sweeping curve suits its name. All around it, like spokes radiating from the hub of a wheel, lie the galley-slips, the ways leading up into big sheds, where the galleys that are not on service can be stored, with their equipment, snugly under cover. Nowhere in the world will you see so fine a collection of fighting-ships, for Athens is mistress of the seas just as certainly as Sparta is foremost in land warfare. These are the descendants of the splendid 200 galleys that were the backbone of the Greek fleet at Salamis, and except that, ship for ship, they are rather bigger than their ancestors, and built on rather better lines, they are practically the same as the old wooden walls that broke the strength of Persia in that mighty struggle. Everything is perfect order, efficiency, readiness, for the Athenian knows that his fleet is everything to the city and the empire, and each trierarch strives to outdo his neighbour in bringing his trireme to the pitch of perfection. Paint and polish are not spared in the Athenian fleet; but there is a great deal more than paint and polish about it, as the Persians found, to their cost. Peiræus itself, the harbour-town, is quite a new place. Themistocles had it laid out on a regular plan after the great Persian invasion, and it has broad streets crossing one another at right angles. Indeed, so far as the streets are concerned, it is much finer than anything that you will see in Athens, and it has its own public buildings, which are quite grand and fine. All the same, it has neither the interest nor the beauty of the mother-city, and we must leave it behind us, for we have a walk of rather more than four miles before we reach the house of our friend Aristodemus, with whom we are to lodge during our stay in the city. Evening is beginning to fall, and we must walk smartly, for the streets of Athens are no joke in the dark. Fortunately Aristodemus himself has come down, with a couple of his slaves, to guide us, and the slaves have horn lanterns with them which we can light if necessary.

Before us stretches a long straight road, about 200 yards wide, closed in on either hand with high battlemented walls. These are the famous Long Walls, the great fortifications which Themistocles built to unite Athens and her harbour-town into one great fortress. The Spartans, who were rather jealous of us after the Persian War, wanted to hinder us from building them, but Themistocles was too clever for them. He went himself to Sparta to discuss the matter, leaving instructions for the work to be carried on night and day during his absence; and at Sparta he managed to spin out the discussions day after day, and week after week, till at last he got a message from Athens that the walls were high enough to be defended. Then he threw off the mask, and quietly told the Spartans that Athens did not need their permission to fortify herself, for the walls were already built. Look at this wall beside you, and you will see signs of the hurry in which it was run up. Here is a fragment of an old pillar, with an inscription on it, embedded in the wall, here again a door-lintel from some ruined house, and, a little farther on, even a piece of a broken tombstone. All the same, the fortification is very strong; the walls are 14 or 15 feet thick, and the Athenians are very proud of "The Legs," as they call them, and of the cleverness with which their leader outwitted the Spartans.

If we had not been in such a hurry, we should have taken the longer road north of the walls, which makes a pleasanter walk; but we must get into town before the gates are closed. So we tramp on steadily, the slaves behind us carrying our baggage, and at last we pass through the Melitan Gate, and are actually in Athens. Collytos, the part of the town where Aristodemus lives, is in the more fashionable quarter on the north side; but to reach it we have to go through several streets, and to cross the Agora, or Marketplace. That little hill on your right hand is Pnyx, where the public assembly of the citizens is held, and this other hill in front of you is Areopagus, where the great state trials take place. Now we turn to the left, and go northwards towards the Agora, through a narrow, and I am afraid I must say very dirty, lane. Really our friends in Athens have no great reason to be proud of their streets. This one is neither paved nor drained. The mud is pretty bad in places. Take care that you don't trip over that heap of garbage; you can smell it, even if you can't see it very clearly. Someone is opening a door beside you—look out, he is shouting "Existo!"—"Clear out of the way!"—and as we make a bolt for the other side of the street, the contents of a slop-pail come splashing out, and more smells are added to the quite sufficient number that have been assailing your nose for the last five minutes.

Here is the Agora, however, and we can keep well out in the middle of it, and be safe. Business is all over, and the market-place is quite quiet and deserted. That building on your left hand, with the rows of pillars, is the Stoa Poikile, "The Painted Porch." Some other day you must visit it, and see the great pictures of the Battle of Marathon and the Capture of Troy by our famous painters, Panainos and Polygnotus. We cross the little stream of the Eridanus by a foot-bridge, and, after a short walk through broader and cleaner streets, Aristodemus stops, and knocks at a door in a blank wall. While you wait for the porter and his dog to come out of their lodge and open the door for you, read the sentence carved on the lintel: "Let no evil enter here." That is to keep off evil spirits, but sometimes rude people make a joke of it. Aristodemus has a neighbour, Pasicles, a little farther along the street, whose reputation is none of the best. Lately he built a new house, and the first night after he had put up "Let no evil enter here" over his door some rascal wrote below: "But how is the owner to get in then?" Pasicles was very angry, but the more he raged, the more his neighbours laughed.

Here comes the porter. You can hear him grumbling and the dog growling. As he opens the double door, he is just going to say, "Not at home," for Aristodemus is rather run after, and his porter has learned to be pretty short with visitors; but the moment he sees his master he is all smiles, and the dog changes his growling into eager wagging of his tail. So we step across the threshold, inlaid with "Welcome" in mosaic; and as we are very tired, we get a wash and a light supper, and so to bed. To-morrow we shall have a better chance to see our friend's house, and all the sights of Athens.