Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

[Illustration] from Stories of the Ancient Greeks by Charles D. Shaw

The Splendid City

Athens is a very old city. Cecrops, who came from Egypt, is said to have founded it. The fables tell us that he was half man and half dragon, and though we know this is not true it may be true that there was a man named Cecrops and that he did begin to build the city. At first it was called after him, Cecropia, but the people were so fond of the goddess Athene that its name was changed to Athens.

The fables say that Poseidon, the god of the sea, wanted the men of the city to worship him. So he struck the rock, and a beautiful horse appeared. Then Athene struck the ground, and an olive tree sprung up. Cecrops said, "O goddess, your gift is best! The city will always honor and worship you."

Athens stands in the central plan of Attica, three miles back from the sea. All around the plain are mountains except for the south, which is open to the sea.

There are four hills in the city, the Acropolis, the Areopagus, the Pynx, and the Museum. The Acropolis is the highest, rising one hundred and fifty feet above the plain. It is very steep on every side except the west, which has a slope not easy to climb. The flat top is about one thousand feet long and five hundred feet broad.

West from the Acropolis stands the Areopagus, or the Hill of Mars, where the courts of justice were held. Sixteen steps cut in the rock lead up from the market place to the top, where the Council used to meet. Around three sides of the top, benches are cut out of the solid rock. The fourth side looks to the south and is open. On the west side is a raised block on which the criminal used to stand. Another such block is on the eastern side, and there the accuser stood.

The Pnyx is a lower hill, where public meetings were held at daybreak to avoid the heat. There were only a few wooden benches there. The people stood or sat on the bare rocks.

The Museum was where the poet Musæus was buried.

The first houses were built on the Acropolis. Afterwards men set up their dwellings on the plain below. But the Acropolis was always the citadel or fortress, the strongest part of the city.

Pisistratus was the first to think of making the Acropolis beautiful. He erected three temples and other public buildings. Xerxes, the king of the Persians, when he invaded the land, found this height surrounded by a palisade of logs, which he burned with everything else on the hill. After that, no dwellings, but many splendid temples and monuments, were built there. More and more were added through fifty years in the days of Themistocles, Cimon, and Pericles. Athens had then become the most magnificent city in Greece.

On the Acropolis stood three temples devoted to Athene. One held an image of the goddess made of olive wood, which was said to have fallen from heaven, and was the most sacred thing in Athens. This was called Athene Polias, and every four years a grand procession marched up the hill to put upon the statue an elegant new robe which the women had embroidered.

The plain on which the lower part of the city stood is rocky and barren. However, a line of olive trees reached from the river Cephissus to the sea. The air is very clear and pure, so that the people lived much out of doors. At sunset the hills around glow with different colors, violet, rose, and molten gold.

Three miles from Athens was the harbor called the Piræ. It had three openings, made narrow by walls built out into the water so that not more than two large boats could pass at once. In time of war these openings were closed by chains stretched across them. Long walls, fourteen or fifteen feet thick, were built all the way from the city down to the water's edge, and the citizens took great pride in their strength.

The Piræ was really the name of three places,—first the peninsula or point of land itself, second the harbor and third the town which grew up around the harbor. Themistocles built the walls around the port, and Pericles continued them all the way up to the city.

Lysander, the Spartan conqueror, pulled them down, but they were rebuilt. Many years afterwards, when the Romans came and conquered, they tore down the walls and forts and left Athens without protection.

Even then, when she had no power in the war, she was still honored as the most learned city in the world. For hundreds of years it was the fashion for young men to go there for education in philosophy, literature, and art. The Romans admired the splendid city and did much to add to its beauty.