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Bible history - ancient Greece - Athens

Updated on November 26, 2010

Introduction

The city of Athens was the capital of Attica, in Greece, and the chief seat of Grecian learning and civilization. The modern city stands on the site of its ancient predecessor, and is the capital of the modern kingdom of Greece. The ancient city was situated four miles east of the Saronic Gulf, and four and a half miles from the town of Piraeus, which constituted its port and naval station. In its early days Athens was connected with Piraeus by a system of fortifications known as the Long Walls. These enclosed the space between the city and port, and preserved uninterrupted communication between them. In the course of time Athens became the most powerful as well as the most splendid city of Greece, and the fame of its beauty, the magnificence of its public works, and the brilliancy of its literature, will never die. After experiencing various vicissitudes of fortune, it passed under the dominion of the Romans, and during this period was visited by the Apostle Paul in his journey from Macedonia.

St. Paul appears to have remained in Athens some time, and during his residence there delivered his famous discourse on the Areopagus to “the men of Athens.” In the Acts the inhabitants of Athens are regarded as an inquisitive people, a characterization attested by the unanimous voice of antiquity. St. Paul founded a Christian church at Athens during his stay there.

View of Athens, showing Piraeus and the Long Wall

Athens

The city of Athens was built round a central rocky height called the Acropolis, an elevation about three hundred feet above the general level of the town, and six hundred feet above the Mediterranean. Near this height are several smaller elevations with valleys between. Northwest of the Acropolis is a moderate hill, on which stands the temple of Theseus. At a short distance from the northwest angle is the Areopagus, where St. Paul delivered his memorable address to "the men of Athens." The principal buildings on the summit of the Acropolis were the Propylaea, the Erechtheum, and the Parthenon.

Ruins of the Acropolis

The Propylaea

The Propylaea served as an ornament to the hill, and also as a military defence of the approach from the city to the summit of the hill. Among the ancients it was even more admired than the Parthenon for its grandeur and general effect, and for the skill with which the difficulties of the site were overcome. The approach to it was seventy feet broad, and consisted of a flight of sixty marble steps. It contained the gates that provided the only entry to the Acropolis. Passing through the Propylaea, one entered the Acropolis itself, and saw on the right hand the grand building of the Parthenon, and on the left the scarcely less beautiful Erechtheum.

Ruins of the Parthenon

The Parthenon

 The Parthenon was by common consent the noblest building of the ancient world, and the most beautiful monument of Athens. It stood on the very summit of the Acropolis, and was constructed of pure white marble. It was a temple erected in honor of Pallas Athene, the protecting divinity of Athens, and was regarded as the most sacred place in the city. It formed the most conspicuous object in any view of the town, and was the first thing to greet the eye of the traveler approaching from the sea. It is regarded by modern architects as the most perfect building ever constructed, and was adorned with rare and beautiful sculptures from the hand of Phidias, the greatest of the artists of Greece. It was built in the best period of architecture, and under the inspiration of the highest genius in art. After the introduction of Christianity it was converted into a Christian Church, and used as such until the conquest of Greece by the Turks. In 1687, during a war between the Turks and Venetians, the former converted it into a powder magazine. A Venetian shell exploded the magazine and threw down the interior of the temple. During the last century some of its most beautiful sculptures were carried to England by Lord Elgin, and are now in the British Museum at London.

The Erechtheum

The Erechtheum

The Erechtheum stood on the left or northern side of the Acropolis. It was oblong in shape, with a portico of six Ionic columns at the east end, and a kind of transept at the west, a portico of four columns on the north, and the portico of caryatides standing on a basement, eight feet high, on the south. It was regarded as one of the most beautiful works of ancient times, and was held in the highest veneration by the Athenians. It was erected in honor of Erechtheus or   Erichthonius,  a fabulous hero of Attica, who, according to the tradition, was the son of Vulcan and Atthis, and was secretly reared by Minerva. Becoming by her aid King of Attica, he established the Panathenaic festival, and founded the temple which bore his name, and which subsequent generations rendered so beautiful.

Ruins of the Temple of Victory

Pericles

To Pericles, above all their other leaders, the Athenians owed the beauty and perfection of the buildings upon the Acropolis. He was resolved that this, the most sacred spot in Attica, should be also the most noted for its beauty and splendor, and with a liberal though judicious hand he lavished the revenues of the state upon this great work. 

St. Paul at Athens

It was in full sight of all this magnificence that St. Paul appealed to the Athenians to forsake the worship of their heathen deities, and turn to the faith of the God who dwelleth in temples not made with hands. The Athenians heard him with interest, but with characteristic levity. The majority treated his message as something to be listened to for amusement; but a few took the message to heart and became Christians. 

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