On the Shores of the Great Sea - M. B. Synge

The Beauty of Athens

"As the flowers adorn the earth and the stars the sky,

so Athens adorns Greece and Greece the world."


Athens and Sparta were now the greatest Powers in Greece, and all the smaller Powers were anxious to obtain the friendship of one or the other. Let us see how Athens outstripped them all. First she sprang into a great commercial city thronged with traders; her merchant ships were in every part of Greece; her navy was the strongest in the world. She had untold wealth, and might have exceeded the old towns of Tyre and Carthage in the glory of her trade.

But one citizen arose, who dreamt of higher things for Greece. His name was Pericles. He saw at once that, since the Persian wars, everything was changed, and he wanted to see the men of Greece capable of ruling themselves and their country. And so while Sparta remained a plain village, Athens became a most beautiful city, which stood forth as an example to others.

Pericles had realised that mere wealth and prosperity alone could never make lasting greatness. He wanted to see his fellow-countrymen happy and prosperous, but he saw this could only come through education. He must wake up the faculties of the Greeks, by making their daily life bright and active, instead of dull and listless.

Under his guidance the temples and statues of the gods were made grand and calm and beautiful. Pictures were painted in public places of the great events in Grecian history, so that the minds of the citizens should dwell on great and noble deeds of heroism, rather than ideas of gaining wealth for wealth's own sake, as the Phœnicians had done before them. Plays, too, were written by great poets, and performed at the cost of the State in a large open building before crowds of people.

These plays were known as tragedies and comedies; they gave the Athenians great pleasure, helping them to enjoy the higher and nobler views of life, rather than the stupid amusements of the day. The great writer of tragedies for the men of Greece was called Ęschylus; he had borne shield and spear at Marathon, he had fought at Salamis, and so could write of the Persian wars from his own knowledge.

Sophocles, another great writer, was only fifteen at the battle of Salamis, but he was so beautiful and musical that he was chosen to lead the chorus, which sang the hymn of victory after the battle.

So Athens herself was made beautiful by the wise Pericles. The first spoils of the Persian war had already been devoted to the honour of the goddess of Athens—Athene on the Acropolis. This colossal bronze statue stood warlike and erect, with helmet, spear, and shield, high above the city. And the sailor from afar at sea, could see the point of her spear and the crest of her helmet gleaming across the blue waters. But the goddess Athene was to receive greater honours yet. On the south side of the Acropolis a magnificent temple, known to-day as the Parthenon, was built in her honour, as a storehouse of sacred treasure.

There is an old story which says, that the question was raised, whether the figure should be of marble or of ivory; the great sculptor Phidias suggested marble as the cheapest, but the whole assembly of Athenians shouted aloud for ivory and gold, nothing being too rich for the statue of Athene.

A theatre of music was also built, its pointed roof, made from the masts of the Persian ships which were captured at Salamis, being shaped like the tents of Xerxes.

It was little wonder, then, that when Pericles lay dying, the men of Athens began to talk of the noble deeds he had done, to praise his wisdom, his learning, as well as his buildings.

"He found Athens of brick," they said, "and left her of marble."

Suddenly the sick man raised himself on his bed.

"I wonder," he said, "you praise these things in me, and yet you have left out what is my chief honour—namely, that I never caused any fellow-citizen to put on mourning."

It was perhaps the first time in history, that humanity had been placed above all else.

Such, briefly, was Athens after the Persian wars, unequalled in beauty, unrivalled as queen of Greece.

Phœnicia had given to her colonies the heritage of commerce and trade. Greece gave her colonies a higher heritage than this. Wealth to her was a means to an end; she made her city beautiful, and so raised the minds of her citizens to care for things above riches alone. And this idea grew and spread beyond her city, beyond her colonies, even beyond her empire.

Her poetry has inspired poets of the ages that followed; her historian, Herodotus, is still called the "Father of all history"; her Art alone reached the standard of perfect beauty. What, if the very cause of her greatest glory, was likewise the cause of her fall? She gave to the world that, which no nation had given yet, that, which has helped men to do and die for their country, that which has shown them, that there are higher and better things to live for, than the attainment of wealth or the ambition of conquest.