8. Hellenistic Athens: A Period of Growth and Benefaction

7c446-img_20160111_154012795_hdrWhat is the Hellenistic Period?

The Hellenistic period, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the period of time between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE (pictured below) and the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. This is a complex and nuanced period of time, with a previously unseen exchange of ideas, peoples and goods between the kingdoms of the Mediterranean. Rather than write a grueling chapter, I will say a few things briefly for now, and jump into this period more as I go along.

8. Hellenistic Athens: A Period of Growth and Benefaction
Alexander the Great, Athens Archaeological Museum – 2008

Fundamental to understanding why there were kings, and other powerful men and women building monuments and civic buildings in Greece, specifically in Athens, is discussing how benefaction worked in the ancient world. Hellenistic kings sought to be perceived by their Greek subjects as benefactors of their cities, for which Greek citizens gave them honours. This reciprocal transaction of inscriptions and proclamations of honours for benefactions, or more symbolic rewards, established the legitimacy that the kings needed, and in turn continued the cultural autonomy of the Greek citizens.


In tangible terms, this could take the form of a king, say Eumenes II of Pergamon, building a massive stoa (covered walkway/shopping arcade) for the leisure and enjoyment of Athenians. Eumenes II, in return, is possibly given an inscription and official proclamation that his patronage of Athens is appreciated, and they acknowledge him as a powerful ally and friend of the Greeks. Seems like an uneven exchange, does it not?

Close view of inscription from Athenian Agora – 2008

A defining feature of the period was the ongoing warfare and rivalry between the Hellenistic kings. Their kingdoms were composed of the partitioning of Alexander the Great’s spear-won territories. The problem that these generals of Alexander faced was that they were not princes or kings in their own right. Sure, they could claim a connection to the famous world conqueror and construct their reputation and dynasties, but there was nothing inherent in being a descendant of a Macedonian general that would necessarily dissuade the Greeks to revolt against them.


In fact, quite the opposite. The Greeks had fought against the encroaching Macedonian power as it had grown following the end of the Peloponnesian wars in 430 BCE. Even Alexander and his father, Phillip II, had to walk a fine line on occasion when dealing with the Greeks. The relationship of benefaction, illustrated by the stoas, on the surface appears as other empires doing homage to Athens, forms part of an intersection between the idea of Greek independence and the reality of their domination by the Macedonians and later Romans. The careful negotiation of power between the new rulers and their subjects was facilitated by the perception of mutual benefit.

Stoa of Eumenes

Eumenes II (who ruled from 197 – 159 BCE.) had a contentious reign, with plots against his life (as was typical). At one point, a rumor spread about his untimely death, and his brother Attalos II, was hailed as king of Pergamon and married his brothers widow. Once the truth was revealed that Eumenes was still alive, rather than causing a civil war, Attalos abdicated and returned his new wife back to his borther. Amazingly, they carried on as before until Eumenes’ eventual death when his brother once more took the reigns of empire, married his brothers widow again, and held up his promise to pass on the kingdom to his brother’s son upon his death. This could be the least toxic Hellenistic dynasty in history.

The Stoa of Eumenes from the south slope of the Acropolis – 2016

Built on the south slope of the Acropolis, between the Theatre of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, this stoa was a decadent promenade and one of the most costly benefactions which the Athenians received from a king of Pergamon. It is likely this stoa was designed by the same architect as that of Attalos II.

Reconstruction drawing from placard in Athens – 2016

As in all things, location is key. The stoa served the Athenians going to the theatre, as a respite from the sun.

Stoa of Attalos


Stoa of Attalos – 2016

Attalos II of Pergamon (rule from 159 – 138 BCE.), who commissioned its construction, was the inheritor to the Attalid dynasty. Remember all that preamble about the reciprocal behavior of Hellenistic kings? To understand why half of the buildings and statues that we see in Athens are even there, you have to understand why non-Greeks spent the money and time to put them there. The Atallids were building their empire from the collapse of the Lysimachian empire. Where Lysmachus’ empire had created legitimacy in the wake and division of Alexander the Greats’ conquered lands through aggressive military exploits, marrying royal heirs and alliances with the other successor kings, once his territories were conquered, what remained was divided.

The Attalid dynasts needed to create some quick and culturally relevant links to power to legitmise their rule. The centre of their power base was the great Turkish city of Pergamon. Picture 104

Built between 159 – 138 BCE., the stoa of Attalos II was a high end shopping centre. The two-storied collonaded stoa has two architectural orders: the ‘Doric order’ was used for the exterior colonnade, and the ‘Ionic order’ was used for the interior colonnade. As with other Hellensitic building projects of the time, the stoa was a very large and elaborate – a statement piece.

Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus

IMG_4007Considered to be the first theatre in the world, it was used to honour the god of wine, revelry and theatre, Dionysus. Prior to anyone getting on with the show, a jaunty sacrifice of a bull was needed to kick off proceedings and purify the theatre. The festival of the Dionysia was celebrated here, with some of the biggest names in Classical literature of the age: Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Aeschylus.

That is incredible to me is that you can actually stand in the spot where some of the most famous plays in literature were performed, in the shadow of the Acropolis. Tradition has it that the first tragedy was performed at the Dionysia by actor-playwright Thespis (Thespis- thespian…see what they did there?) in the early 530s BCE.IMG_3940There were several phases of the Theatre of Dionysus, commencing with wooden seating in the 6th century BCE. The theatre is currently in pretty rough shape, though reconstruction work was completed between 2009 – 2015. The main problem, as with most buildings from antiquity, was that much of the stone was pilfered and used in other buildings nearby, or possibly carried off to be burned down in lime kilns.
The Theatre of Dionysus held significance for the Athenians’ sense of identity and history. The famous plays, still studied by students today, were a popular feature on this stage, even several hundred years after the initial opening night.

A detail view of the carved theatre seat – 2016

The presence of the past was notable, even during the Roman period of control over Athens, and this theatre is an interesting case study of a ‘classical nostalgia’ which everyone since the Romans has been guilty of when considering Athens. It has been suggested by scholars that the dearth of new material in the Hellenistic and Roman period in Athens, coupled with the frequent re-staging of the greats by Aechylus and Euripides, can be interpreted as savvy business decisions by elites to invest money in revivals of Athenian theatre for which benefactors could be certain of quality and popular acclaim. IMG_3933Rather than making the riskier financial decision to invest in the support of new plays, which perhaps cut too closely to home (really reflecting the loss of autonomy felt by Greeks), instead the attention was focused on a golden age where their independence was trumpeted and powerful.

The Monument of Lysikrates
Built around 333/334 BCE, this interesting dedicatory monument speaks to a time which is perhaps difficult for us in the modern era to imagine. A time when, wealthy patrons could put on an impressive show for the citizens of Athens, and through their sponsorship of plays, compete against other wealthy elites for honours. Digital camera pictures 546 (2)Awarded to the choregos, who was responsible for the training and sponsoring of the chorus in dramatic contests held in the Dinonysia, this is the only existing example of remaining in Athens today. Sculptures like this, would have been crowned with a bronze tripod which no longer survives. The limestone podium is topped with a cylindrical tholos of Pentelic marble, and six Corinthian columns which are topped by eight acanthus leaves.
Apparently, the Corinthian capital was used for the first time on the exterior of decorative structure or building. It would not be until three hundred years later until the Corinthian ‘order’ became a recurring order in Rome. This type of column capital would go on to become the preeminent Roman capital type. The change of the governance of the Mediterranean would shift, favouring the rising strength of Italy. The Roman period of Athens follows similar pathways towards controlling Greeks through benefactions

and building projects.

The perception and goodwill of the public would be an ongoing preoccupation of the elites and leaders in Greece and Italy moving forward.

7. Classical Athens: The Erechtheion

e9f9d-img_20160112_140040185_hdrThe story of the Erechtheion was one of constant change. Built to replace the Old Temple of Athena, though not atop its foundations, it accommodated several cults in the same space. The building’s namesake was the hero and foster-child of Athena, Erechtheus. The temple was also dedicated to Athena, Poseidon, Hephaistos, and the hero Boutes – all worshiped in the same space.

If you have been counting along, that is now three temples to Athena on the Acropolis. 251ba-img_3974  This temple offers an interesting glimpse at what was going on in Athens as it was building an empire. Pericles and other elites of Athensbrought together a mixture of local spaces routed heavily in the foundation mythology of the city and it’s heroes, and built up expensive, impressive buildings around them.7. Classical Athens: The Erechtheion  The temple is on a slope (as you can see above) which sees the west and north side three metreslower than the southeast portion of the temple.The building size was reduced as a result of the shortage in funds during the Peloponnesian War, and the Caryatids placement hid the change in design. 7. Classical Athens: The Erechtheion

The architectural features of the building are really quite unique, in beauty and creativity Phidias out-did himself. The decoration programme included gilded ornamental work, inset glass beads and bronze work. The design incorporated multiple levels, sections and marbles.60599-picture2b073
The frieze (not visible) which was made of dark Eleusinian limestone and the temple was constructed from Pantelic marble. The frieze’s subject matter is unknown, but an inscription recorded payments to the tradesmen who carried out the work.

The female figures which line the porch are called Caryatids. Though made most famous by their presence on the Erechtheion, Caryatids had been an architectural feature in other sacred sites in Greece; during the Archaic period there were possibly other buildings with standing female columns, most notably in Delphi. These Ionic columns carved to look like young women is pretty spectacular by anyone’s standards. The original Caryatids have been moved and restored, using state of the art technology, in the New Acropolis Museum. For quite some time they had been under restoration, but you could view the work being carried out. While visiting in 2016, I was able to walk right up to them (which you cannot do with the replicas), and they were stunning.

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My squint little sketch of the Erechtheion  Z. Guertin – 2008

This cultic complex is an interesting oddity. It drew together many aspects that Athenians could use to define themselves; their foundation myths involved gods and local heroes, and all were represented within the Erechtheion.It was created in the period which followed ahistoric clash of cultures between the Persians and Greeks,and throughout the period of its creation the growing city-state of Athens developed into the imperial power it would belauded as for the next two thousand years.

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6. Classical Athens: The Parthenon

6. Classical Athens: The Parthenon
The west-facing side of the Parthenon – 2016

Walking upwards along the processional way, passing the Temple to Athena Nike and under the Propylaea, the real feast for the eyes stands before you – the Parthenon. It is a building so thoroughly embedded in our collective imaginations through all forms of media, that seeing it evokes something in everyone. 6. Classical Athens: The Parthenon

My impression of the Parthenon has changed with each encounter. When I was 18 years old I could appreciate the elegance, but lacked any real understanding. At 24, when I returned back in 2008, much more was visible and my understanding of it was enriched by four years of studying Art History, Classics and Archaeology. I would have to try very hard not to be impressed. I sat and awkwardly sketched what my poor draftsman’s hand could barely grasp, but I was drawn to draw. Most recently, as a travel-wise woman in my 30s, I could appreciate the nuances at play within the monumental building of power, politics and art.

6. Classical Athens: The Parthenon

The painstaking nature of this current methodology of restoration work deserves comment. Previous restoration work in done in the 19th and 20th century led to problems which specialists are now trying to repair (wrong pieces were fit together and corrosive materials which were unknowingly unsuitable were also used).

The current mandate for repair work is to map out each stone to the smallest detail, and any structure that is assembled has to be done with an eye for future restoration (meaning, nothing that is done now cannot be undone). The slow pace of work might annoy some members of the public who wish to view the building in all of it’s glory, but preservation with a long-term view is obviously a worthwhile endeavour. 57c18-picture2b069The creation of this temple dedicated to Athena began in 447 B.C.E. and lasted right up to 432 B.C.E, built atop the previous “Pre-Parthenon” also destroyed by the Persians in 480 B.C.E. Under Pericles, Phidias designed a monumental Athena statue that once stood in the Parthenon, and the sculptural motifs along the metopes and pediments and frieze, though the architectural design was Callicrates and Ictinos.

The north-facing side of the Parthenon after restoration – 2016

Work on the Parthenon was slowed and interrupted by the outbreak of the Peloponnesian Wars, beginning 431 B.C.E., and ending nearly thirty years later. While the temple was dedicated to Athena, but also functioned as the state treasury. It bears contemplation that following the defeat of the Persians and the enrichment of Athens, they developed building projects which were all linked to their mythical patron and founding myths of the city. Even as hostilities rose between their main rival, Sparta, which ultimately led to a devastating war which divided all the Greek city-states against each other, the will of the Athenians (or at least the ones in power) was to carry on when possible with building. Perhaps, it was especially important in the face of foreign invaders, and even domestic ones, to complete an artistic and architectural legacy which presented their identity and power to the world.

Making a Statementathenian-acropolis-03The main themes of the artist design surrounding the Parthenon focused on their history and identity. Themes of conflict are illustrated in the two sides of the metopes (almost like a film reel running along the long sides of the Parthenon). The north-facing metopes possibly depict the sack of Troy (though it is under debate).

The south-east-facing side of the Parthenon – 2016

The south side of the Parthenon’s metopes depicted the Centauromachy (the battle of the Centaurs against the Lapiths), which highlighted a lengendary hero connected to Athens, Theseus. The west-side, running underneath the pediment, featured the Amazonomachy (battle of the Amazons against the Athenians). The east-facing metopes which faced the entrance though the Propylaea, depicted the Gigantomachy (the battle of the Olympian gods and -wait for it- you probably guessed it- the giants).Picture 081aDid you guess that last one? Gold stars, whole class.

There is basically nothing you can glean from the west-pediment now, but once restoration is complete, the structural elements should at least be visible. As with the statuary from the east pediment, the Ionic frieze, the decorations have been stripped from the building and reside in several museums around the world.

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The Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum , by: Zofia Guertin- 2016

The main components of the Parthenon’s artistic works are on display in the British Museum.IMG_7424Future blog posts will look at some of the artistic elements of Greek art, of which the Parthenon provides excellent examples.There is a lively academic debate about the nature and meaning of the images depicted on the frieze, which Mary Beard discusses in her book “Parthenon”.IMG_7422

Next time….the Erechtheion!

5. Classical Athens: The Acropolis

The Acropolis of Athens

View of the Propylaea and the Temple of Athena Nike from the Pynx – 2008

Beginning with the crown jewel of experiences in Athens, let’s talk about the Acropolis. This focal point, at the centre of the city, is as impressive at night as it is during the day. With a mixture of gleaming marble and scaffolding, the conservation and reconstruction on the Acropolis is visible at a great distance and illustrates a multi-generational project.

The rebuilding of the Parthenon began after the expulsion of the Ottomans, and the cause of its ruinous state might surprise you. We have all heard the story of how the Ottomans stored munitions in the Parthenon, which exploded and was the cause of the destruction in the late 17th century, I assume. A less frequently repeated aspect of the story was that while the Venetians were bombarding the Ottomans in their encampment within the Parthenon, they had barricaded themselves on the Acropolis with 200 of their women and children. The Venetians fired at the Parthenon, then a thousand-year-old Christian church, and killed hundreds of non-combatants. Arguably, the Ottomans did not destroy the Parthenon, it was Christian Europeans. And thus it remained in a ruined state until the 1830’s when the restoration programme began.
Why Was it Built?
The explosion which left a scar on this famous Greek symbol, interestingly, was not the first time such a disaster was unleashed on the Acropolis.

The growing power and development of Greek cities in the 490s B.C.E. allowed them a significant degree of self-determinism. While Ionian Greeks were under the rule of the Great Kings of Persia, the Athenians were working in a burgeoning democracy, the Spartans had dual kings, Thebes and Megara were ruled by oligarchies. It should be said that, most Greek cities of this period were governed by oligarchies, and the experiment of limited democracy which the Athenians were operating under was the exception, not the norm.

Once the Ionian Greek cities came into conflict with the Persian Empire, after rising up against the tyrants placed in charge of these cities by the Persian king, a rebellion spread. This led to a series of battles which would culminate in the burning of Athens before the Persians would be ousted (for a time) at the Battle of Marathon.
Column drums from a building before the Persian invasion, were later integrated into the north-facing side of the Acropolis.
 King Darius’ death in 488 B.C.E. led to his son, Xerxes’ (yes, the one from 300) invasion of Greece in a George Bush-style attempt to ‘finish what his dad started’ manoeuvre which was equally unsuccessful. This led to several incredibly famous battles at Thermopylae and Salamis, which are still in being re-imagined in our modern era.
A depiction of one of the triremes used in these battles, Acropolis Museum – 2016
An incredible cultural florescence occurred in the years following the Persians eventual defeat. The Athenians expanded their imperial reach during these 50 years of peace between the Greek city-states. The Athenians had amassed an impressive navy through the taxes which each member of the Delian League (the allied city-states) paid to maintain and develop their navy, “should the Persians strike again”. The colonies and subject people of the Athenians also provided revenue streams to the state. The leadership of Athens was in a good position to start spending some of their wealth on crafting the image of how they wanted the world to view them. Through an impressive architectural campaign under Pericles, Athens began to invest in portraying itself as the natural leader of the Greeks.
Modern historians have called this the ‘Periclean building programme’, as it was organised and led by Pericles, who was the most prominent statesman in Athens during the period between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. The whole point of the Periclean building programme was to make a statement focusing on Athens’ new position in the geopolitics of the Mediterranean. Pericles, his chief architects Callicrates and Ictinus, and the famous sculptor Phidias, were the dream team which gave us the innovative and impressive buildings we see today.  
The Temple of Athena Nike
The newly restored Temple of Athena Nike – 2016
The construction of the Temple of Athena Nike was completed around 420 B.C.E. (possibly directly) atop of the previous temple to Athena, destroyed by the Persians in the second invasion led by Xerxes.
This impressive temple stood proudly at the entrance, a bold statement to honour of the city’s namesake and of the power the Athenians sought to rebuild.
5. Classical Athens: The Acropolis
Entrance to the Propylaea – 2016
The Propylaea
This structure was the monumental and imposing gateway into the Acropolis. It had dual purposes in restricting access to the sacred spaces as well as protecting the state treasury held within.
Above, you can see the areas of modern materials added in the conservation of the Propylaea. Modern techniques and approaches no longer attempt to hide the reconstruction, rather they discretely blend the new materials into the damaged ancient structure/objects, but use a different shade.

5. Classical Athens: The Acropolis
 Passing beneath the reconstructed Propylaea – 2016
In 2008, the Propylaea and the Temple of Nike were heavily scaffolded during my visits. As you can see in the bottom left corner, there is still work being done on the columns of the Propylaea, but it has come a long way from my first encounter in 2001, or the subsequent trips. These incredible buildings offer a tantalizing greeting to any visitor, and I was thrilled and impressed to see them so nearly complete!
Coming Up…The Parthenon and the Erechtheion!

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4. Athens: Constructing A Classical Past

Creating Classical Athens

Fifteen years ago I went on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. 

It was my first time leaving North America for the wider world, with the best company in the world: my mum and big sister. Long before I became the avid, capable travel planner I am today, I had a great teacher in my mum.

Theatre of Dionysus – 2016

Interested as we were in European history, it was trekking among the ruins and sketching my first real views of Greek temples, stones and statues which would influence the path my life would take thereafter. Athens was the last stop on our month-long trip, but left a resounding impact on my life.

In Greece, I began the process of ruining my life in North America for myself. I fell in love, and knew that whatever it took, I would make my way back and find a way to the columns, capitals and carvings of the Mediterranean.

Greece in particular holds a special place for me. I’ve done my most comprehensive traveling there, trying to see for myself the places I have read about. It is an understatement to say that it’s a place brimming with history, since you find traces of the past basically everywhere.

View of the Acropolis from the Areopagus – 2016

There is a lot of agency in creating the past. We choose to highlight aspects, or periods, which mean something to us, or do so to imbue these places or periods with meaning. It is important, when considering the presentation of the past, we remain aware that at some point a choice was made about what to present on an archaeological site, and how to present it. 

Creating a Historical Narrative:
The archaeological monuments we see before us today are only skeletons of times past, and most notably often illustrating one particular phase of site use. There have been many discussions in the last few decades about the way archaeologists, governments and historians construct and present an image of the past.

For instance, you may not be aware that there was a Byzantine period which saw a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary built right into the Parthenon, which was turned into a mosque! Or a period which saw the Propylaea become part of the Ducal Palace. Not to mention the Erechtheion being turned into the Ottoman governor’s private Harem.  

None of these phases are represented any longer on the site. In fact, archaeologists dug so far down on the Acropolis there is bedrock exposed, which is slick to walk on and would not have been the stuff and muck under a Classical Athenians’ feet.  

Ottoman period building near Monastiraki station, one of the few visible reminders of the 400 year occupation – 2008

What does all this mean? 

From 1833 onwards, following the expulsion of Ottoman rule from Greece, the interest in the cultural florescence of the “Classical Period” of Greece would direct the new freedom the Greeks felt. Perhaps, it was appropriate to hearken back to a period following the expulsion of the Persians, after living so long under the rule of the inheritors of the Persian Empire. 
With an interest in archaeology, the new leadership of Greece under Otto, Prince of Bavaria, focused the gaze on the Classical period architecture to develop a new sense of Greek identity, officially making Athens the capital of Greece. His initiatives for conservation and restoration attempted to look back to a period of self-determination and incredible inventiveness which had so set them apart in the ancient world.  

A 19th Century painting depicts the presence of a minaret on the Ottoman building, illustrative of the romantic notions brought by travelers who admired the ruins, and wrote poetry about them in the din of the moon….as one does. 

Unfortunately, the 19th century interest in presenting the period of ‘Classical Athens’ required the removal of structures from other periods. This has left a disjointed archaeological impression and historical representation. We know from sketches and paintings made by gentleman travellers in the 1800’s how the landscape has been changed. Those other phases of history have been deconstructed and left unspoken in many areas. 

Early Photograph of ‘Classical’ elements of Athens

When viewing archaeological monuments and cities like Athens, it is worth remembering that the image you are presented reflects a moment in time and often is meant to symbolize how the people in power wanted to signify their rule. King Otto wanted to be seen as a liberator from the occupation by the Ottomans. Following a long established practice (especially in Athens), which we will look at in the Hellenistic and Roman posts upcoming, Otto focused on rebuilding and patronizing a period of history which saw the Greeks as leaders in Mediterranean politics and culture. None of what we see today is by accident.

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