Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Ellwood Wadsworth Kemp

A Visit to Athens When Greece Was in Her Greatest Beauty

When the Persians were at last driven away from Greece the people had time to look around and see what had been done to their country. Do you not think it must have been discouraging for them to come back and find their homes and temples all burned down? They must now begin all over and make a new city. It was surprising to see how quickly this was done.

One thing that helped them make Athens more beautiful than it had ever been before was this very war. Let me tell you how this was. All those cities in the Ægean Sea and in Asia Minor that we have spoken of were now free from Persia, but they were still afraid of the great Persian king. They thought Athens the strongest city of Greece, and wanted her to help them. So Athens and about two hundred of the cities around and in the Ægean Sea joined in a league, with Athens at the head. Another league was formed of the cities in southern Greece with Sparta at the head. Once a year men from each of these leagues met on the island of Delos to worship and to talk over important things about the union. If any of the cities had warships, they gave them to Athens to use; or if they had none, they gave money each year, and Athens built ships with it. This money was kept in Apollo's temple, on the island of Delos, and the temple grew very rich. But after a while Athens had as many ships as she thought she needed, and as the Persians did not come back again, she began to use this money to build up her own city. Thus you see how this war helped to make Athens more beautiful than she had ever been before. Besides making her people free and proud of their city, it gave them plenty of money to use.

I want to tell you now about a great man who lived in Athens at this time, and did more than any one else to make the city great and beautiful. His name was Pericles. He was a very handsome man, but that is not why we remember him. He was such a fine speaker that he generally made the Athenians believe what he said, and he easily led them to do what he wanted them to do. But even that is not the great thing. It is because he got them to do so many wise things and made Athens great as well as himself, that we remember him. Pericles had many wonderful buildings erected; some of them I want to tell you about. I wish I might take you there and let you see them all as they were. If we could really go to Athens, we could see only the ruins of many of them, and often only the places where some stood; for you must remember that Pericles has been dead more than two thousand years, and the beautiful buildings he had built are, many of them, crumbling to pieces, and some of them are entirely gone. Since we cannot see them, let us, with the help of what I can tell you from books I have read, try to get some idea of what Athens was like when Pericles lived.

You remember the Acropolis, of course, but you would hardly know it now. You must imagine it in the southwestern part of the city, a steep, high hill a thousand feet long and five hundred wide, with walls around the top to make it still steeper, so that no enemy could climb up the sides. Pericles had a flight of steps built up on the west side. They were seventy-one feet wide, rose by a gentle slope upward and were easy to climb. Let us imagine ourselves at the foot of these steps, ready to go up and look at Athens in all her beauty. Can you think how it would really seem to be there, with marble buildings and statues all around us? Now we will climb the steps, and when we come to the top we will pass into what they call a colonnade, which is much like a long path, bordered with beautiful columns and covered over; in fact, it was just two long rows of tall, beautiful columns holding up a roof. The gateways opening into this colonnade were called the Propylæa, and the Greeks were very proud of them, for they formed most beautiful openings leading up to the doors of the temples.

After we pass through the Propylæa, we find ourselves on top of the Acropolis, facing the east, for we came up the west side. Almost in front of us is a great image of Athena, who, you remember, was Athens' best-loved goddess. This image, or statue, as it was called, was so tall that men far out at sea, miles away from Athens, could see it. It made the Athenians very happy to feel that Athena was thus watching over them and ready to help them. On our right hand, still facing east, was the most beautiful temple of Greece, and indeed, though there have been many greater ones, there has never been another one built in the world quite so graceful and pleasing. It was built in honor of and as the home of Athena, and was called the Parthenon. It was 226 feet long, 101 feet wide, and it took sixteen years to build it. A little distance away, it looks as if it were mostly rows of columns and not much building, but there are two large rooms, which are surrounded by the columns you see,—one is used in which to store the gold belonging to the Delian league of which I told you a little while ago. It is kept in Athens now, instead of at Delos. In the second room is one of the most beautiful statues that was ever made. You would know right away it was Athena, by her helmet and shield and the serpent coiled at her feet. It was made of ivory and gold, by Phidias, one of the very greatest artists of the world, who could carve marble or ivory into most beautiful shapes of men, women and animals. In many places on the Parthenon we can find Phidias' work. Here at the end, right under the roof, is some, and inside, clear around the rooms I told you of, is a broad strip of carved work which he did. Over on another part of the Acropolis is another very beautiful temple, called the Erechtheum, because it was built for the god Erechtheus. One odd as well as beautiful part of it was the porches, which instead of pillars to hold them up had figures of beautiful maidens carved in stone. We could stay a long time on the Acropolis, because, though not very large, it has a great many things to see; but let us pass again through the Propylæa, down the steps and into the city, for I want you to see some other wonderful things which Pericles gave to Athens.

You will be interested in what the boys of Athens are doing, so I will take you now to a gymnasium, for the Greeks loved a straight, healthy body quite as much as a beautiful building or statue. Pericles was one who believed that Athens needed strong, brave, perfect men, and the best way he knew to get them was to train together both the bodies and minds of the boys. So he did all he could to make their gymnasiums beautiful, and fitted them up with everything they needed in their exercises. They were all outside the city, so we will have to leave Athens to see them. All the Athenian boys are sent to the gymnasium as soon as they are old enough, and they spend the whole day, from sunrise to sunset, there. What do they all do there? I cannot begin to tell you all of it. They have teachers, who teach them the different exercises that are to make them strong and manly as well as beautiful; and the Greeks believed that to have a beautiful mind one must have also a beautiful body. They are stripped in the gymnasium of all their clothing, for the Athenian boys must learn to bear the hot sun or the cold winds without flinching; but you remember that the climate of Greece was generally very delightful, neither very cold nor very hot. In one part of the gymnasium is a race course, sprinkled several inches deep with loose sand, where the boys race with each other; not very easy work, do you think? The sand is put there on purpose to make it hard for them to run. In another place you see boys getting ready to wrestle; their bodies are oiled, then sprinkled over with fine sand, so they can hold each other better. This is rough work, but it exercises the whole body, and so is good for health and strength. We must not stop to see the other work now, but I may tell you that besides these exercises they are taught among others to box, throw the spear, jump, wrestle and run races. But the Greeks did not like a man who could use only his body and not his mind, so they wanted their boys taught more than bodily exercise. All around three sides of the gymnasium were halls, with seats in them, where people could sit and talk. If you come with me to one of these halls, you will see one of the most interesting things in Greece, and I believe you will think it a fine kind of school. Here is a group of boys gathered around a man who is talking to them in a very plain, friendly way. Does that look like a school? Not much like our schools, you will say. Before we join the group I will tell you a little about the teacher, so you will understand better what they are doing. He is one of the men whom the Greeks call philosophers, which means lovers of knowledge.  These men spend their lives trying to find out the truth about everything. They wish to know how the world came to be, what men ought to live for, and how a man should act in order that his life may be made best worth living. They meet the boys and young men and talk about these things with them. The boys ask them questions, and they answer the best they can, and ask questions of the boys in turn. These philosophers, especially those like the one I am going to tell you about, because they thought so much of simple life and were interested in common plain people wherever they met them, were much like our great Lincoln. Now we will go and see what this group is talking about. You must not laugh at the odd look of the teacher. He does not look like a Greek, for he is very ugly. His body is heavy and not at all a good shape, his nose is flat, and his eyes bulge out, and roll about in a very strange way. He is not at all well dressed, but these boys all seem to love him dearly; and after we listen a while and hear his fine lesson, showing that the beauty which springs from a well-trained mind is the greatest and truest beauty one can have, you forget how ugly he is, and wish you were an Athenian boy, and might come, when your lesson in the gymnasium is over, and talk to this wonderful man. Do you know the name of this great teacher? It is Socrates, the greatest philosopher of Greece. We must not think when we leave the gymnasium and go back to the city we shall not see Socrates again, for he is everywhere, from day to day,—in the streets or wherever he finds young men ready to listen and to talk about temperance, or play, or oratory, or eloquence, or any question about how to get most pleasure and profit out of life. He begins always by saying something that causes those who hear him to listen and think, and before they know it he has them taking a lively part in the discussion. As you cannot stay long in Athens, I will tell you, before we go on, what is to become of Socrates at last. It is very sad. He is never afraid to tell people when they are wrong; and he thinks many things men do are wrong, and tells them so. For this reason many people dislike him, and finally they say that he does not truly worship the Greek gods, and that he teaches the young men bad habits, because some of his pupils are very bad men. This is not because of what Socrates teaches them, but because they do not follow what he teaches. But the people do not believe this, and they say he must die. So they compel him to drink a cup of poison, and he takes it very bravely, with his sorrowing pupils about him, calmly teaching them to the very last how to live a true life in this world, and giving them some of the best reasons for believing in a life after death.

Where shall we go next? I wonder if you would not like to see where the laws of Athens are made. Come, then, let us see which way to go. We can always find the Acropolis, so let us start from there. We go about a quarter of a mile west, when we come to a large platform which has been built in an open square. It is called the Pnyx. Here all the citizens of Athens who are over eighteen years of age meet and pass laws for the city; for Athens is a democracy now, in Pericles' time, and all the people help to rule the little state. There is a meeting of the Assembly, as it is called, about forty times a year, or oftener, if it is needed. On Assembly days the citizens meet by daybreak, for the Athenians believe in getting up early. Sacrifices are offered to the gods first, then the omens are taken, and then business begins. Some man is leader, and he rules the meeting for that day. Socrates was often leader of the Assembly and often kept the people from doing hasty and wrong things. Any one has a right to talk in this meeting, only he must come out in front and stand on a large block of stone while he talks. This is called the "bema stone." Some one proposes something which he wants the people to do. Today they are to decide whether or not they shall pay the citizens who come to the Assembly to vote. Some are against it, saying that those who love their country should serve it without pay; others are for it, saying that only the rich people can afford to give their time. So the discussion goes on, each one as he speaks coming forward and mounting the bema stone. Finally Pericles comes forward to speak, and all are eager to hear. He speaks in favor of paying the citizens, not only for attending the Assembly, but also favors giving tickets to the theater to those who could not afford to buy them; for the theater to the Greek was a great source of education, and Pericles wished everybody to have an equal chance for education; so finally the vote is taken, and they decide to pay the citizens for serving on juries, attending the Assembly and the like, and also to give the people tickets to the theater. A government in which all the people come together like this and discuss matters and decide them is called a pure democracy. You notice they vote by holding up their hands,—that is one reason they never hold meetings after dark. They have no good way of lighting as we have. Did you know that the man who proposed the law they were discussing today was not just an ordinary member of the Assembly? He is what is called a Councilor. The Council is made up of five hundred men from the different tribes. These men meet every day and talk over laws, and the Assembly can vote only on the questions which the Council has already talked over. The man who ruled the Assembly was also appointed by the Council.

I told you the Council met every day. That is not quite right. Twice a year they have no meetings; those are the feast times of the year. One thing about these feast times you must see before you leave Athens.

We will go to the Acropolis again and pass around to the southwest side, and look at the great Greek theater. Does it not remind you of the way the amphitheater at the fair is built? But there is much difference; here the seats are steps cut in the rocky hillside, and are made of marble. They are arranged in a half-circle, and down on the level ground is what we would call the stage, where the singing and acting took place.

The Greeks did not go to the theater just to have a pleasant time, as we do. It was like going to church to them. They did it in honor of their gods. This one where we now are is built in honor of Dionysius, one of their gods. Men who write plays have them acted at these feast times, and there are judges to see which one is the best. Before daylight on feast days people begin coming to the theater to get good seats. The great people and officers and judges, have special seats. The people bring fruit and cakes along for lunch, for they expect to stay all day. The play begins, and everybody listens very closely. The actors do not have a very easy time unless they are very good, for if they so much as pronounce a word wrong, the people hiss at them and pelt them with figs and raisins. But if they are pleased, they show it just as plainly. After one part of a play is finished, the people rest a little, then another one begins, and so on all day long. Nearly every one in Athens is there: think what a large place this theater is! It would hold thirty thousand people. It is not easy for the actors to speak so as to be heard by so many people in the open air, and they use a kind of speaking trumpet to speak through; then they wear what they call masks, which are like false faces and cover their heads entirely. With these masks they can make themselves look like any one they choose. They are so far away from many of the people that they look very small, so they wear shoes with very thick soles and use a great many ways of making themselves look large. Some of the greatest Greek poets wrote plays to be acted in this theater; and we read and study today, the very plays these Greeks are going to see.

There are many more things it would delight us to see in Athens, but there is one thing you must yet see in Greece before we leave it.

In the southwestern part of Greece, near the shore of the sea, in a little river valley, is a place called Olympia, in the country of Elis, which every Greek knew about. Every fourth year, from all over Greece, people went to Olympia for the games. They came in the very hottest part of summer, in what we would call July or August, though the Greeks did not have those names for months. During the time of these games no Greek state could be at war with another, and Elis was to be protected by all. The roads that led to Olympia were repaired and made safe for travelers. You remember, at the time of the battles of Marathon and Thermopylæ, the Spartans would hardly send help because they were then holding their games. Like the plays at the theater, these games were in honor of a god. Those at Olympia were in honor of Zeus, the king of gods. There was no real town at Olympia, with hotels or places for the people to stay in, so the crowds lived in tents during the games. They came to Olympia from all over Greece, the islands of the Ægean, Asia Minor, Italy, everywhere that Greeks were to be found. They brought animals with them to sacrifice to the gods. Now we will imagine we have gone to the games. We are not the first ones there, for people whose friends are going to take part have been here a month or so already, and the people who are to be in the games have been here ten months already, practicing in the gymnasium at Olympia. On the eleventh day of the month the games begin. We must be on hand early if we get a place. It will be a long day, the sun is hot, and it is dusty. We must not wear hats, because it is not thought respectful to the gods to wear hats at these games. This first day sacrifices of oxen and sheep and goats are to be offered to the gods, and the people who are to take part are to draw lots, and thus decide when their time comes. Very little else will be done on this day. The second day the boys have their games, and run and wrestle and box and do many of the things they have been taught in the gymnasiums at home. But the third day is the great day, for then the men have their contests. They do about the same things that the boys did, only ever so much better. Thus the games continue for another day; then on the fifth day there will be many processions and feasts for the victors. Those who win are shown the highest possible honor, for to win in the Olympian games is thought to be the greatest thing a Greek can do. The winners are crowned with branches of olive, cut with a golden knife by a lad from the sacred wild-olive tree of Olympia, and palm branches are placed within their hands. They are then shown to the people while their names are proclaimed aloud by a herald, and their fathers' names also, and the country from which they come. When they go home, they are treated with the highest honor. A piece of the city wall is torn down, so they need not come in like common people, and to show that if all the citizens were as strong as the victor, the city would not need walls; their statues will be put up in the market place, and all the rest of their lives they will be treated with the greatest respect.

Do the Athenians ever work, you ask, or do they spend all their time in the gymnasiums, theater, and games? Well, the real Athenian does not do much work, for the work on the farms and in the city is done mostly by slaves. Greece did not have so many slaves at first in the time of Homer, or even when she was fighting her brave battles with Persia, and what slaves she did have had a pretty easy time; but in the time of Pericles there are perhaps ten slaves to every freeman, and the story of how they lived would be very sad indeed. The Athenian thinks it is his chief work to make the laws, write poems, carve statues, build temples, attend games and fight the battles of Athens, not to plow her fields or row her triremes.

Now our short visit to Athens is over, but we shall yet study about some of the great men of Greece in Pericles' time. We have seen her at the time when she was most beautiful, for before Pericles died a dreadful war broke out between Athens and Sparta, which lasted thirty years; and at the end of that time Athens was forced to tear down her walls, give up her ships, and was never again the ruler of Greece. But we have seen in this little visit many of the beautiful things which Athens made; and though Athens is soon overcome by other rulers, the sculpture and architecture and poetry and philosophy which she worked out so carefully and so wisely was not lost but spread out all over the Eastern world by Alexander. This we will presently study about; and finally in the fifth volume of this series, when we study the Renaissance, we shall see how all this beauty was carried westward into Europe. And we shall further see in the last volume how we, in America, when we build a beautiful building, or place a statue in our homes, or in a public library, or museum, or schoolroom, or when we paint a beautiful picture, or write a fine poem, or make our own bodies straight and strong, and fit places for the growth of fine minds, that we have learned how to do very much of all this from these happy, free, art-loving Greeks. The little country of Greece did not teach as great a lesson of religion as the Jews taught, or trade over so much of the world as little Phoenicia, but they taught lessons of how to think and speak clearly, and how to carve, build and write so beautifully that the whole world still turns to Greece as its greatest teacher in these things.