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James Baikie

Athens in Its Golden Age: The City

Very early in the morning we waken, refreshed and ready for a day's sight-seeing, after the night's rest. It is not much past dawn, but already the household is stirring, for the Athenians are all early risers, and think nothing of going to call on one another as soon as the sun is up. When we come out into the courtyard of the house, Aristodemus is already there, walking up and down in the early sunshine, dressed in his white tunic and mantle, purple-bordered. We shall have early breakfast in a few minutes, merely a little bread dipped in wine. Meanwhile we may take a look at the house where we are to stay during our visit to Athens.

It didn't look very imposing as we came to it yesterday evening, for, like almost all Athenian houses, it showed only a blank wall to the street, and the walls are only of sun-dried brick, set in wooden frames, and covered with stucco. The Athenians keep their splendour for their great public buildings, and even a famous man like Pericles lives in quite a simple and unpretending house. The open court where we are standing is the favourite gathering place for the family and its friends, for in this fine climate we all live, as much as possible, in the open air, and the lighter meals, breakfast and lunch, are served in the court. Dinner, in the evening, takes place in the large dining-room, which opens off the court on one side. Round the court runs a covered veranda, whose tiled roof is supported by pillars about ten feet high. In the centre stands the family altar, dedicated to Zeus of the Home, where Aristodemus gathers his family and slaves for family worship. The floor of the court is of cement, patterned in different colours. On either hand, doors, covered with hanging curtains, open into our little bedrooms. These are quite simply furnished, with bedsteads of olive-wood or bronze, the legs inlaid with ivory. The flock mattresses are supported by leather thongs laced through the framework of the bedstead, and the coverlets are wool, or else skins dyed purple. One or two light folding chairs and a tall bronze lampstand complete the furnishings, which, though very plain, are very gracefully designed. We must not forget the wardrobes, however, which are big wooden chests, carved and exquisitely inlaid with ivory and colour.

On one side of the court opens the door into the women's side of the house; but that we shall not see, for though Praxinoë, Aristodemus's wife, may perhaps come to breakfast or lunch, with the children, in the courtyard, when we have become more at home in the house, the Athenian women keep very much to their own quarters. In fact, the saying goes in Athens that "that woman is best who is least spoken of among men, whether for good or for evil," and wise men say that a woman's chief duty is "to see as little as possible, to hear as little as possible, and to ask as few questions as possible." So Praxinoë, who is a model wife, keeps herself pretty much to the women's side of the house, where she looks after the slaves, and manages household affairs. All the same the Athenian ladies manage to get a good deal of their own way, and perhaps the children get even more. Indeed, our great man, Themistocles, once jokingly said that his child was the real ruler of Greece: "For Athens rules Greece, and I rule Athens, and my wife rules me, and the child rules her." So perhaps we need not be too sorry for Praxinoë, with her spinning and weaving behind the curtain, or for little Megacles and his sisters, whose toys are lying about the courtyard, and whose swing is hanging under the veranda, between two pillars.

Now comes breakfast, and after it we shall go down town with Aristodemus. First of all we shall go to the Agora, for the fish-bell has just rung to let the town know that the new catch is up from Peiræus, and when that sound is heard everybody runs to the market, for the Athenians eat a good deal of fish, and very little meat. As we go down, with two slaves behind us to bring back our purchases, Aristodemus tells us the last joke about the fish-bell. Charicles, the famous harpist, was giving a recital the other day in a hall near the market, when suddenly the bell rang. Up jumped all the company and ran off to the fishmongers' stalls—all except one man—leaving poor Charicles in despair. He came up to his one listener. "Thank you, sir," he said, "for being the only man to have the manners to stay when the fish-bell rang." "What?" said the good-mannered one, "did you say the fish bell? I am too deaf to hear it. Thanks very much for telling me. Good-bye." So he took to his heels like the others, and Charicles was left lamenting.

The market-place is as busy this morning as it was empty last night. It is full of wooden stalls and wicker-work booths, which will all be cleared away after noonday, and everyone is making the most of the "full-market" from nine to twelve. All the merchants seem to be shouting at once—"Buy vinegar—buy oil—buy charcoal," till your ears are deafened. But the fishmongers are the worst. They know they are indispensable, and their impertinence is beyond bearing. Just listen to this rascal talking to that decent citizen, who could buy him and his booth fifty times over. "How much for these two mullets?" A grunt from the fishmonger—"Might be half-a-crown." "Rather dear, isn't it," (for we never buy in Athens without haggling), "won't you take two shillings?" "M—yes, for one of them." "Now, my good man, stop joking, and take two shillings." His highness gives the fish an indignant slap—"Prices is fixed," he shouts, "if you won't give the half-crown get out of this."

Nearly everybody who is anybody in Athens is in the market-place, for the Athenian loves to be sociable, and to know what is going on. Of course, the poorer citizens have their work to attend to; but as every well-to-do Athenian owns a fair number of slaves, there is plenty of leisure among the upper classes, and life is a very pleasant and unhurried affair to them. Most of the quiet dignified gentlemen with whom Aristodemus exchanges salutations are dressed very much like himself, in white tunic and mantle, with purple border. Nearly all are bareheaded, and while a good many wear sandals or shoes, red or white, nearly as many go barefoot. It is no hardship in such a delightful climate. Some of the younger men, however, are as gay as a flower-garden, in cloaks of purple, red, or green, and wear broad-brimmed hats, and very gorgeous boots laced high up the calf, while they have a fine taste in knobbed sticks, with rings of gold or silver round them. Young men, of course, have a kind of special licence to make themselves splendid; but on the whole your Athenian rather laughs at extravagance in dress. There is Meidias the Ionian, bustling through the Agora, with four slaves behind him (no well-bred man would have more than two), and wearing a long purple mantle, whose gold fringe comes right down to his heels. As he swaggers along, with much waving of heavily beringed hands, everybody smiles behind his back, and Aristodemus grumbles something about "the town not being big enough to hold these outsiders."

In one corner of the Agora, where a rather shabby side-street opens off the market-place, a noisy discussion is going on, round the door of a dirty-looking shop. Half a dozen tall Scythian archers, with their bows slung over their shoulders, are standing by the door, and their officer is saying sharp things to the shop-keeper. In fact, he is telling the man that if he doesn't keep better order in his wine shop the magistrates will shut it up altogether. The worthy sergeant speaks his Greek with a most pronounced Scythian brogue; but he manages all the same to make his meaning quite clear to the tavern-keeper, who looks very uncomfortable. Not more so, however, than one or two citizens, who ought to have known better than to be in such a place, especially at such an hour. One of these puts his head out at the door, but, seeing the crowd, draws back, looking very shamefaced. As he vanishes, Aristodemus gives him a parting hit. "You had better come out, Kallias; the more you draw back, the more you will be inside the shop."

These Scythian archers are the Athenian policemen. There are 1,200 of them, and the force was set up by Speusinos. So we call them Speusinioi, just as the British barbarians 2,200 years hence will call their police "Peelers" after their great Archon, Sir Robert Peel. They keep order, or try to keep it, at the public meetings, attend the magistrates, and carry out their orders, as we have seen them doing. And we all laugh at them and their brave attempts to speak Attic Greek—laughter seems to be the fate of policemen in all lands and ages.

Unfortunately the chances are that we shan't see the man whom we would have wished to see above all others. Pericles is not a snob—no well-bred Athenian is—but he keeps himself pretty much to himself, has the reputation of being rather distant and cold in his manner, and, above all, hates the gossip which his fellow townsmen so dearly love. Everybody, for instance, haunts the barber's shop, and when you are there you are sure to hear all the latest news, true or otherwise, from the gentleman who trims your hair or beard. But the last time Pericles was at the barber's, he mortally offended that useful newsmonger. "How will you have your hair cut?" said the barber to the great man. "In silence," was Pericles' grim answer; and now the barber is sure that Pericles is not the man to govern Athens.

But perhaps we have dawdled long enough in the Agora. Aristodemus has made his purchases and sent them home, and now we may take a stroll up to the Acropolis, and have a look at least at the outside of the great Parthenon, before its dedication. On your left hand, as we go out of the Agora, and a little north of the great rock, you will see the Prytaneum, the meeting-place of the fifty senators who form the senate's committee for public affairs. Each of the ten tribes has its fifty representatives, making a council of five hundred, and each fifty holds office for a month. The Archons, our chief magistrates, and a few of the most distinguished citizens, always dine in the Prytaneum together, and a citizen who has done special service to the State may have that privilege granted to him for the rest of his life. There is no higher honour than to be promoted to a seat at the Prytaneum dining-table.

Now we pass through the valley between the Areopagus and the great Temple-rock, and, turning to the left, we have the stairway and the great gates in front of us. By the way, Pericles has given the town a new Hall of Song, the Odeum, which stands below the rock at the farther end. It has a high, conical, domed roof, the only one of the kind in the city. Now, Pericles himself has rather a cone-shaped crown to his head—in fact, in his portrait-busts he likes to be sculptured wearing a helmet to hide that too prominent development; and a rude joker can always raise a laugh as the great man passes, by calling his head his Odeum. The Athenians are not what you would call a reverent people, and even when they think no end of a man they can't help poking fun at him all the same.

Here is the great stairway, then, with its towers and gates. We pass through an outside gate, between two square towers, almost plain, but of fine masonry, and before us a flight of marble steps, 70 feet broad, leads up to the main entrance gate, the Propylæa. Mnesicles, who designed the gate, has only got his work half-finished as yet, but already it is magnificent, and quite justifies the pride with which all Athenians regard it. It is going to cost them about a million and a half before it is complete; but they don't grudge it, because they feel that such a building is a greater honour to the city than any amount of wealth. It is fronted with a noble triple colonnade of huge marble columns, and on either side of the entrance passage there will be picture-galleries with paintings by Polygnotus, Panainos, and others.


[Illustration]

The Propylaea

We pass through the gates and colonnade, and come out on a wide paved platform. Before us, a little to the left, towers the great bronze figure of Athene the Champion, lifting the gilded point of her spear high above all the buildings on the rock. But the great sight is the splendid temple that stands on the right hand—the Parthenon, the Shrine of the Maiden-Goddess. Nowhere in all the world will you see so beautiful and magnificent a building. It is not that the size is so very great, for you may see far larger temples in Egypt; but nothing that the Egyptian builders ever reared can compare for a moment with the beauty and dignity of this wonder of the world. The temple is a great oblong, 228 feet from east to west, 101 from north to south. The eastern front, at which we are looking, has a double row of Doric pillars of golden-white Pentelic marble, supporting the triangular gable, which rises 65 feet above the base. Each pillar is more than 34 feet in height, and the two longer sides of the building are faced with single rows of similar columns, while the west front has a double row to match the east. But the glory of the whole building is its sculpture. Look up to the great triangular gable. It is filled with figures hewn out of the lovely Pentelic marble, which stand out clear and sharp upon a background of deep crimson. The subject of the whole scene is the birth of Athene from the head of Zeus. The great father-god sits majestically on his throne in the centre. Beside him stands the new-born goddess, who has just sprung full-grown and fully armed from his head, and close to them is Hephæstus, the artificer-god, whose hammer has just struck the blow that set Athene free. Iris, the swift-footed messenger of the gods, hastens to give to mortals the news of the glorious birth; while in one corner of the scene the chariot of the Sun, with its fiery horses, is rising out of the sea, and the chariot of the Moon sinks to rest in the waters at the opposite corner. All the great figures are delicately touched with colour to give them life-likeness, and the whole pediment is a hymn of praise to the glory of Athene. If we go round to the western front we shall find its gable filled with another sculptured scene, representing the contest between Athene and Poseidon, the god of the deep, and the triumph of the virgin-goddess.

Below the triangular gable, and between it and the great marble beams that cross from pillar to pillar, holding up the whole roof, is a series of square panels running round the whole temple, and separated from one another by alternate breadths of deep fluting. On the panels are sculptured in high relief scenes from ancient Greek legend, the Battle of the Centaurs and the Lapithæ, of the Greeks and the Amazons, the Gods and the Giants, and so forth. There are ninety-two of them in all, each standing out upon its background of softly glowing colour.

Now let us mount the steps and pass within the colonnade. Look up, as you walk round between the pillars and the inner wall of the temple, to the frieze of sculpture that runs right round the wall just below the roof. It is well worth craning your neck to see, for here Pheidias has put forth all his skill, and no temple on earth has such a glory on its walls as this 524-feet-long ribbon of the Panathenaic Procession.

It begins on the eastern front of the wall. Here sit the immortal gods and goddesses, quietly at home in their good city of Athens. Hera, holding aside her veil, turns to speak to great Zeus, her husband, who sits a little apart. Athene talks quietly with Hephæstus; and even Ares, the dreadful God of War, has forgotten spear and shield, and lounges at his ease, with hands clasped round his right knee. Close behind Athene, a priest takes the old robe of the goddess, which is to be replaced by a new one, folds it up, and hands it to a lad. Elders and maidens stand around, waiting for the arrival of the great procession.

Pass round the corner, and, as you move along, the procession seems to advance to meet you. Young men lead up the oxen and sheep for sacrifice; flute-players and harpers marshal in war-chariots, palm-bearing victors, and heavy-armed infantry with spear and shield. Behind them come the knights—gallant young men of the best blood of Athens, sitting their fiery barebacked steeds with ease and grace, their mantles flying in the wind. Farther back still are others, just getting ready to join the march, attendants holding the impatient horses, a young knight stooping to tie the thong of his sandal, which has got loosened. The whole thing is of the most exquisite simplicity and grace—just the actual scene as it will be witnessed in a few days, and now fixed for ever on the walls of Athene's house.

If we may enter the eastern shrine, we shall see the glory of glories. For here, in silent, lonely state, stands the great ivory and gold statue of the goddess that Pheidias has wrought to dwell in the midst of her own city. Thirty-nine feet high she towers, from her carven sandal to the peak of her triple-crested golden helmet. The face, with its lovely ground tint of creamy-white, is coloured to the life—blue eyes, red lips, golden locks escaping from beneath the shadowing helmet. She bears £150,000 worth of pure gold on shield and helm and breastplate, all so fastened that it can be detached and weighed if need be. So Pericles has ordered Pheidias to make it, lest base men should say that we have cheated the gods. Athene, for all her vastness and splendour, is not terrible; she looks down with quiet benignity upon her worshippers, as though satisfied with their devotion. And well she may be, for never since men have worshipped the gods has so splendid a temple and so costly and beautiful a statue been set up, and scarcely ever shall there be seen such another as long as the world stands.