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Mary Macgregor

The City of Athens

When the Persians entered Athens they destroyed her temples. Some of these temples had been hastily repaired, others had been hastily built, when the Athenians returned to their own city.

But now that peace had been made with the Persians, Athens determined to show her gratitude to the gods by building in the city, temples, "exceeding magnifical," more beautiful indeed than any that had yet been built.

The most famous of these temples was the Parthenon or Temple of the Virgin, build on the Acropolis, and sacred to the virgin goddess Athene.

This marvellous temple was planned by a great architect named Ictinus, and adorned by a yet greater sculptor called Pheidias.

The architecture of the Parthenon was Doric, which was the oldest, the strongest as well as the most simple, of the four kinds of Grecian buildings. There were two rooms in the Parthenon with no entrance from one to the other.

The figure of the goddess, fashioned by the magic hands of the sculptor Pheidias, was a colossal one. Calm, majestic, with a smile upon her face, she stood in her wondrous temple, clad in a robe of gold.


The figure of the goddess was a colossal one

On her head she wore a helmet, in her right hand she held fast a little golden figure of the goddess of victory, while her left lay upon her shield. At her feet a snake lay coiled.

Neither of marble nor of bronze was the statue, but of ivory and pure gold, ivory being used for the flesh, gold for the robe and armour, which was studded with precious stones.

Nowhere was there so marvellous a statue as this of the goddess Athene wrought by Pheidias, save perchance the Zeus at Olympia, which was also moulded by the famous sculptor.

The statue of Zeus had a strange power over those who gazed upon it.

"Let a man sick and weary in his soul, who has passed through many distresses and sorrows, whose pillow is unvisited by kindly sleep, stand in front of this image; he will, I deem, forget all the terrors and troubles of human life."

Close to the Parthenon was an older temple, built not in the Doric but in the Ionic style of architecture. It, too, was sacred to Athene and also to Poseidon.

This temple, which was called the Erechtheum, was held in awe and reverence by the Athenians, for in it was kept an ancient wooden image of the goddess. So ancient was this "most holy idol" of the people that it looked more like a rough block of wood than a carved figure. The holy olive tree, too, was there, which the Persians had cut down, but which they had been unable to kill, as well as the living snake, the symbol of the presence of the goddess.

The Erechtheum was to the Athenians a shrine, in which lay hidden the story of their past, the Parthenon was to them a sign of the power and the splendour of the age of Pericles.

On the western side of the Acropolis rose a magnificent marble wall called the Propylaea. The marble had been pierced at intervals to make five great gateways, the centre one being for chariots, those on either side leading by steps to the Parthenon. Through these gateways the Athenians marched in solemn procession on their feast days.

A great theatre, sacred to the god Dionysus, was finished in the age of Pericles, and an Odeon or great hall of music was added to it, where contests of song and music were held. The roof of the Odeon was pointed like a tent, and was made of the masts of ships that had been captured from the Persians.

This pointed roof was said by the wits of Athens to be like the helmet of Pericles, whose head was curiously formed, and who often wore a helmet to conceal its strange shape.

"Here comes Pericles," says a comic poet of those days, "with the Odeon set on his crown."

Another great statue of Athene, called Athene Promachos, or Athena Foremost in Battle, stood just within the Propylaea. It was wrought in bronze and showed Athene in armour, holding shield and spear outstretched. This statue, also by Pheidias, was fifty feet high and stood on a pedestal that raised it twenty feet higher, so that it towered above the roofs of the temples. The golden plume on the helmet of the goddess was seen by sailors far out at sea.

With these and many other great works of art, Pericles adorned the city of his love. The Acropolis he said should be no longer a fortress, but a sanctuary.

Some of the Athenians, among them Thucydides, grumbled because Pericles spent the public money on these beautiful buildings.

Pericles heard that the citizens were discontented, and in the open assembly he rose and bade them tell him if they thought he used more money that he ought, to adorn the city.

"Too much a great deal," was the speedy retort.

"Then," said Pericles, "since it is so, let the cost not go to your account but to mine, and let the inscriptions upon the buildings stand in my name,"

But the people, surprised at his generosity, and perhaps wishing to share in the glory of his work, were ashamed that they had complained. They bade him spend as much of the public money as he deemed right and "spare no cost until all was finished."

In 479 b.c. the Persians had reduced Athens to ruins. Fifty years later she had been built anew and adorned with temples and statues that made her the wonder of the world.

Marble was found in Attica, gold and ivory were bought with money out of the treasury, but without the magic hand of Pheidias, marble, gold, and ivory had been bought in vain.