By Mike Willis
Every western nation could legitimately say that it was influenced by the Grecian culture developed in Athens. Today, more than one-third of the Greece’s ten million population are centered around this metropolis. There are many remains of ancient Athens, the city that Paul saw when he came there on his second missionary journey, for one to see.
Acropolis. The Acropolis is the heart of the ancient city and the logical starting point of a visit to Athens. Literally the “upper city,” the Acropolis is a great table of limestone rock which rises 300 ft. above the Attic plain. It became a fortified city in the 13th century B.C. (Mycenean period). Peisistratos built a palace there 700 years later. In 480 B.C. the Persians destroyed the temples, but Pericles (the Grecian ruler who was perennially elected ruler from 460-430 B.C.) restored them, making them more splendid. Most of the monuments on the Acropolis were in honor of Athena — protectress of Athens, goddess of war, handicrafts and practical reason. In spite of all the ravages of the Roman, Byzantine, Turkish, and Venetian invaders, what one sees today is essentially Pericles’ 2500-years-old conception of a sanctuary for the Greek nation.
Entrance to the Acropolis is through the Beule Gate, which was built in A.D. 267 after the raid of a Germanic people. It was named after the French archaeologist Ernest Beule who discovered the Roman construction of the 3rd century A.D. in 1852.
Propylaea. The Propylaea, a monumental gatehouse, is the grandest of all surviving secular edifices of ancient Greece.
It is made of white Pentilic marble. Its construction was begun in 437 B.C. The central building has a portico of six Doric columns flanked by two wings that serve as reception halls for visitors to the Parthenon.
Parthenon. One of the world’s most famous buildings, this temple was begun in 447 B.C. under Pericles. Its original foundations were already present for it had previously been used as a location for the worship of Athena. The Parthenon was built primarily to house the statue of Athena Parthenos sculpted by Phidias. The statue was a 38 feet tall statue of the virgin goddess constructed of ivory and gold.
The Parthenon temple is built in Doric style. Over the centuries the Parthenon has been used as a church, a mosque, and an arsenal. It has suffered severe damage. In the nineteenth century, the British Lord Elgin was concerned about preserving the Parthenon. He was given permission by the Turks to take whatever he wanted from the ruins, which proved to be almost all of the sculptures from the Parthenon. They are now on display at the British Museum in London, much to the dismay of the Greeks. They consist of about 50 marble statues and are generally known as the Elgin Marbles.
The Parthenon at one time served as the meeting place of the court or council of Areopagus. This group considered itself responsible for religion and educational matters and by Paul’s time met in the Royal Portico, located in the northwest corner of the Agora.
Under Emperor Justinian, the Parthenon became the Church of Saint Sophia, with galleries added for female worshipers. It was a Catholic Cathedral until the 13th century, and then the Turks used it as a mosque. It was shelled by the Venetians in 1687. There are surviving fragments of the pediment gables in the British Museum and in the Acropolis Museum.
Temple of Athena Nike. Dedicated to the goddess in her role of “bringer of victory” (built 427-424 B.C.), this temple commemorates the Athenian victory over the Persians and points to the Parthenon (Callicrates designed both). During the Venetian invasion of l687, the temple was dismantled by the Turks and used as an artillery position. The masonry was later gathered up by 19th and 20th century archaeologists and reassembled using drawings from another temple designed by Callicrates as a guide. It was reconstructed in 1834-38 and again in 1935.
Erechtheion. The Erechtheion is the last of the four great monuments on the Acropolis. This structure features Ionic styles. It is dedicated to three dieties (Erechtheus, Poseidon, and A- thena) and is built on two levels on the north side of the plateau. (Parts of this structure are in the British Museum.) The temple marks the site of Athena’s mythical contest with Poseidon for the patronage of the city. Poseidon supposedly struck the rock with his trident next to the Erechtheion and created a spring; Athena created an olive tree, the staple of the Grecian economy. The judges declared Athena the winner. The most celebrated feature of the Erechtheion is the southern Porch of the Caryatids. Six maidens support six columns (four at the front and two at the sides) with baskets of fruit on their heads. They take their name from the girls of the Spartan valley of Caryai who were admired for their upright posture. Today’s statues are replicas — five of the original statues are in the Acropolis Museum and one is in the British Museum.
Areopagus. West of the Acropolis are three hills (Areopagus, Pnyx, and Mousion) that played an important role in the city’s history. The Areopagus is the hill of Ares (a war god unpopular with the Greeks because he sided with their enemies). According to tradition this little hill was the place where Ares, the god of war, stood trial for slaying the son of the sea god, and thereafter this place served as the meeting place of the most ancient court and council of Athens. The Areopagus was synonymous with the aristocracy and supreme court which judged capital crimes of murder and treason. The Areopagus (Acts 17:19) was where Paul was taken by the philosophers. The Acropolis itself was formerly the site of the fortress that protected the town. In Paul’s time the Areopagus had control over teachers like Paul who were expounding a new philosophy. Paul was invited to go to this little hill to expound his philosophy (vv. 22-31). In Paul’s famous sermon on Mars’ Hill, he quoted two poets here: Epimenides — “we live, and move and exist”; Aratus: “We are all his children.”
On the north side of the hill, where Paul spoke to the men of Athens, are traces of a 16th century church. It was dedicated to Dionysius the Areopagite.
James Thompson wrote with reference to the altar to the unknown god: “‘To the unknown god.’ That such altars were known in Greece, and in particular in Athens, is borne out by two writers of ancient times. Pausanias, who lived in the second century A.D. and traveled widely, observed in his description of Greece, that at Athens there were altars of gods called ‘unknown.’ Again Philostratos in the early third century spoke of Athens, ‘where even unknown divinities have altars erected to them’” (Archaeology of the Bible 101).
Theater of Dionysious. The Theatre of Dionysious stands almost directly below the Parthenon. It was built in the 5th century B.C. as a place to perform the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. There was a front row of 67 marble “thrones” for VIPs but the rest of the people had to sit on ledges of beaten earth (17,000 — full house). The Romans installed the curved terraced seating of marble and limestone. Next to the auditorium there is a double-tiered colonade, the Stoa of Eumanes (2nd century B.C.), a sheltered promanade for theatre-goers. The performances were always in the daytime. The original Stoa linked up with a smaller theatre seating 5000, the Odeon of Herodus Atticus (built around A.D. 161). It has been restored with white marble and is used during the Athens Summer Festival.
At a bend in the main road between the Acropolis and Syntagma, Hadrian’s Arch (A.D. 132) marked the border betwen Old Athens and the emperor’s new city, Hadrian- opolis. Hadrian completed the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It was the largest temple in Greece (672 x 423 ft.) — 15 of the original 104 Corinthian columns remain. The temple was begun in the 6th century B.C. The Corinthian columns were added by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (lived approx. 165 B.C.).
Agora. The agora was the political heart of ancient Athens from 600 B.C. Socrates was indicted and executed in the state prison here in 399 B.C. The theaters, schools, and stoas (roofed arcade) made the agora the center of social and commercial life. The American School of Classical Studies began excavation of the ancient agora in the 1930s and vast remains have been revealed. The Hephaisteion, a temple also known as Theseion is the best preserved building in the ancient agora and was built c. 449-440 B.C.
The Agora looks like a mess of rubble. This area sprawling below the northern ramparts of the Acropolis was “downtown,” the heart of the ancient city and the ancestor of every city center and village square in Greece. From the entrance one looks down on broken pillars, walls and paving stones that once were shops, banks, schools, libraries, temples, courthouse, etc. A panoramic pictorial reconstruction helps one visualize the original buildings.
The long porticoed gallery closing off the east side of the Agora is a reconstitution of the 2nd century B.C. Stoa of Attalos which served as a promanade and pavilion. It was made into a museum in the 1950s by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, which has been excavating at the Agora since 1931. The museum exhibits major archaeological finds from the site.
The Doric-columned Temple of Hephaistes (god of fire, patron of metalworkers) is the first of the temples built by Pericles after the Persian Wars. Archaeologists have uncovered traces of iron foundries and workshops near the temple. This is the best preserved of Athens’ temples.
Archaeology and the Scriptures: Athens
One of the contributions of archaeology to the text in Acts shows Luke’s intimate knowledge of the places Paul visited. William Ramsay wrote that “in Ephesus, Paul taught ‘in the school of Tyrannus’; in the city of Socrates he discussed moral questions in the market place. How incongruous it would seem if the methods were transposed” (Thompson 389).
In light of archaeological excavations that have uncovered the many temples and religious statues on this site, one can understand Paul’s statement that the Athenians were “too superstitious” (Acts 17:22). Also the reference to the image with the inscription “To the Unknown God” is confirmed by two extant writers: Pausanias who lived in the second century A.D. and Philostratus of the third century.
When Paul spoke to the Athenians he quoted from Aratus, a Stoic poet of the third century B.C. (Acts 17:28). Aratus had written,
Zeus fills the streets, the marts,
Zeus fills the seas, the shores, the rivers!
Everywhere our need is Zeus!
We also are his offspring (Unger 238).
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