“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.
In this post, I want to show you a very unusual monument, seen but not noticed by most visitors to Athens, a monument that, if you know how to ‘read’ it, tells and illustrates an immensely momentous story. It could be described as the oldest war memorial in Greece, perhaps in Europe.
What you see: strange blocks on the Acropolis
Look closely, as if you were standing where this picture was taken from. That is just below the northern slope of the Acropolis at Athens, the sacred rock in the heart of ancient (and modern) Athens, pretty much straight down from the Erechtheion, that multi-functional shrine that we have described on this blog as the strangest building in Classical Greece.
What do you see? To start with, a natural limestone cliff, topped by a wall. That wall is what made the Acropolis a defensible citadel from the 14th century BC (or so) until quite recently. At the same time, it functioned as a retaining wall, permitting the ancient Athenians to expand the flat ground available on top of the Acropolis, to provide space for architecture and monuments.
If you look more closely, you can see that this wall is very uneven in terms of the way it is built: some sections are made of precisely-carved large rectangular blocks, others consist of rubble in a matrix of mortar, here and there it uses bricks or tiles. That’s because the wall was repaired and added to on many occasions during its long existence, using the building materials and techniques of each subsequent era – par for the course of history.
By now, you will also have spotted something more unusual: a series of large marble cylinders, in other words of column drums. If you have been on any tour with me, or if you are an avid and long-standing reader of this blog, you might say that they are spolia, reused pieces of older architecture placed within a more recent structure, a simple form of recycling that is universally common in Greek, Roman and Byzantine (and later) architecture. Why make the effort of obtaining new building material when there are ready-made blocks to be used? And you would be right: they are an excellent example of spolia indeed.
But hold on, it’s not that simple in this case. These are not just any bits of old columns placed there to save time and effort, as we usually assume, or to look good, as may sometimes be the case. They are massive pieces and they are placed very deliberately. If you look at the same wall a little further to the right (or west), you can see how it is topped by the carefully placed elements of what you might recognise as a Doric frieze, the part of a Doric Greek temple that sat above the columns (and it’s further worth noting that style and dimensions suggest that the columns and the frieze did not come from the same building). Moreover, this is the part of the Acropolis wall that faced down towards the heart of the ancient city. It is evident that these very large and visible spolia were meant to be seen in a very prominent spot – but why? What do they mean?
Why it’s there: Athenian glory, trauma and renewal in the Persian Wars…
Well, they were there to tell a story, a story that all Ancient Greeks would have been aware of and that was of central significance to the Athenians and their self-image: the story of their city’s darkest hour and her glorious resurgence – the Persian Wars.
It has been argued that we should call them the so-called ‘Persian wars’, because they are arguably more significant to the Greeks than to the Persians. That is not relevant here: from a Greek (and Greek Mainland) point of view, these were the pivotal event of the early 5th century BC, defining the subsequent century or even centuries, and especially the role of Athens, more than anything else. Let’s have a short résumé.
By the turn of the 5th century, Greece consists of a large number of competing city-states in the Mainland and Islands, as well as parts of Asia Minor (and Italy). What connects them as Greeks is, in their mind, the spoken language, a shared ancestry, the similar way of life and the shared worship of the same gods. In history and archaeology that translates into a very connected cultural expression. The Asia Minor cities have long been in contact, and in conflict, with the Persian Empire, an enormous entity stretching from what is now Western Turkey across the entire Middle East and as far as modern-day Afghanistan. For various reasons, the Persians are increasingly convinced that it might be worth subduing the Greeks of the Mainland. In 490 BC, the Persian King Dareios sends a naval expedition to ravage Greek cities such as Naxos, Karystos and Eretria, finally to invade Attica. The Athenians – more or less single-handedly – defeat the Persian army at the Battle of Marathon, outside Athens, an event commemorated by a burial mound and various monuments there and in the city herself. This alone would surely have given the Athenians material for propaganda extolling their role as defenders of Greek liberty for some time, but there is more to come!
Ten years later, in 480 BC, the new Persian King, Xerxes, engages in a much more substantial undertaking, personally accompanying a very large land army that is to invade Greece from the north. Many Greek city states surrender, others are ravaged, but an alliance led by Sparta and Athens resists. The most famous event of that campaign nowadays is probably the Battle of Thermopylae with the heroic and doomed last stand of the 300 Spartans, sacrificing themselves to delay the Persian advance southwards. From an Athenian point of view, what is even more important, however, is the unprecedented strategy implemented by the Athenian leader, Themistokles. Seeing that the Persians will soon enter Central Greece unopposed and that Athens will not be able to withstand their attack, her people facing death or enslavement, he decides to frustrate the Persian plans by temporarily abandoning Athens and evacuating its entire population (certainly numbering in the tens of thousands at the time). From their refuges on the island of Salamis and the shores of the Argolid, the Athenians have to watch their city go up in flames, as the Persian troops plunder and destroy Athens. Especially the destruction of religious shrines is perceived as a shocking sacrilege by the Greeks. The Athenian strategy pays off: a large Persian navy is destroyed in the Battle of Salamis and in the following summer (479 BC), the bulk of the Persian army in Greece, lacking naval supplies, is defeated at Plataiai (Plataea). The Persian Empire will never enter the Greek Mainland again and the Athenians, through sacrificing their city and through their participation in the ongoing war, are one of the main contributors to the victory: it will forever be a central part of the Athenian story.
…and why it matters so much
It is also one of those eternal ‘what if?’ moments in history. Considering how much was achieved or finalised or began in the Athens of the following generations, in the fields of art, architecture, philosophy, drama, science, politics, poetry, historiography, engineering, and so on and so on, it can be argued that the preservation of city-state liberty for precisely that century was indeed pivotal to human achievement of the era, and for its long and still-sounding echoes through the millennia, and moreover that world history might have turned out differently if Athens had not survived and had not been able to continue the trajectory it was already set on before those wars. This is not a minor issue. We do not know whether pivotal historic characters, contributors to human civilisation, such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and also Aristophanes, Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, Pericles and even Alexander the Great, and further down the line, Greek-educated Romans like Caesar and Augustus, Seneca and Saint Augustine, could have existed or could have become who they were if Athens had truly fallen – the domino chain works its way down through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The political discourse of 5th and 4th century BC Athens has been an immense influence on political thought in modern Europe, and especially Britain, even more so on the American Founding Fathers, and it has its echoes elsewhere – it is difficult to imagine that discourse if the Persian Wars had ended up with a different result.
But that’s the future. The Athenians of 479 BC do not, of course, know any of that, but they are conscious of having achieved something unprecedented and unlikely and they are elated and proud.
To rebuild or not to rebuild?
These Athenians of 479 BC are, however, primarily faced with the practical issue of having to rebuild their city, which has been sacked twice. The Acropolis, home to two monumental temples before the sack, is in ruins. Archaeological evidence indicates that they first build new city walls (as is logical and as history reports). They probably also restore some of the Acropolis walls, although the dates of such repairs are less clear. Perhaps, they also bury the broken pieces of statues and architectural sculpture scattered over the Acropolis at this point: the material that nowadays makes up the rich collection of Archaic sculpture in the Acropolis Museum. For over three decades, however, they do not undertake any major construction on the Acropolis, the central and visually dominant feature in the heart of their city. Why might that be?
We cannot be sure, but there is an ancient tradition, reported by the 4th century BC orator Lykourgos and the 1st century BC historian Diodorus (the Sicilian), as well as by a somewhat controversial inscription from Acharnai near Athens, of a collective oath sworn by the allied Greeks before the Battle of Plataiai, declaring solemnly that they would leave all shrines that were ravaged and burnt by the Persians in their ruined condition, to have a lasting memorial of the destruction and thus the need for Greek unity against the common foe. It is certainly not generally accepted that this oath-taking really took place, but it is very tempting to see the initial restraint from rebuilding the Acropolis of Athens in this context, presumably in concert with Athens having limited capital, forcing her to concentrate on more practical issues for the time being.
The grand rebuilding programme of the Acropolis that led to the great Classical monuments the site is now famous for began in 447 BC, 32 years after Plataiai. It was instigated by the politician Pericles and supervised by the artist Pheidias, at a time when Athens was at the height of her power, controlling much of the Aegean more or less as her own empire. Thus, our monumental spolia must have been permanently placed in the northern wall at some point between 479 and 447 BC.
The column drums appear to be from a temple that should date to 500 BC or a little later and that remained unfinished during the Persian sack. Overwhelming evidence, including their dimensions, suggests that this building was the Pre-Parthenon, a large marble temple that was probably begun after the Battle of Marathon, and remained in the process of being built where the Parthenon now stands, but was destroyed during the Persian attack. Its foundations were incorporated into those of the Parthenon itself. The Doric frieze appears to be from a considerably older and somewhat smaller temple, and one that was complete at the time of destruction. This must have been the “Old Temple” of Athena, constructed in the mid- or late 6th century BC: its foundations are still visible next to the Erechtheion and part of it may have remained standing after the sack.
A durable memorial
If a decision had indeed been taken not to restore sanctuaries destroyed by the Persians, the Athenians appear to have followed it for over a generation, until their newly-gained prestige required a new sacred centre to their city, and one more glorious than any other at the time. Be that as it may, the placement of large pieces of what had been their main monumental shrines before the sack in a prominent part of the external Acropolis Wall preserved them as a monument, both to the destruction itself and to the new-found glory of the city, visible and clearly recognisable to the present day: a powerful war memorial. These stones said and still say, for those who knew and those who know the story of Athens: look at what we built in the past, look at what happened to us and look at who we are now, the now then being the exceptional buildings of the Classical Acropolis, just above.