THE HISTORY OF ATHENS
CITY OF ATHENS MUSEUM – Part 1
The making of a great city
Although Athens is a busy metropolis, not very long ago, just over a century and a half, the city of Athens was almost a town. Just the place to verify this is to visit the Museum of the City of Athens in its center. Housed in a beautifully preserved neo-classical building, the museum of the city depicts a very different place from that which it has become.
Athens first attained the status of a town in the Middle Hellenic Period, when the worship of Athena was established on the Acropolis. The Dorian invasions were followed by an obscure period during which the Phoenician alphabet was adopted to express Greek in writing. Athens began to emerge as an artistic center around the 8th century BC How the city began to develop over the centuries is quite amazing. Encapsulating centuries into a few pages is not easy but hopefully this will give a brief insight (but a whirlwind tour) into what went into the making of such a great city.
Thanks to the beneficence of a couple of Athenians, the museum was established around 30 years ago to highlight its glorious past and more recent history. Having just celebrated our own Queen's successful Diamond Jubilee, many people do not realize that apart from the few kingdoms that made up Greece before it ever became Greece, royalty was established in Greece by the then powers that be, some 180 years ago. Although royalty is now no longer in Greece, the benefits can be appreciated in that added buildings and plans that helped make up Athens as it is today. Plots and battles, conspiracies and reigns, defeats and triumphs all add to the history of a great city.
As a monument, the Doric Parthenon of the Temple of Athena Polias on the Acropolis is considered to have no equal. It was erected in 447-38 BC as the cardinal feature of Pericles' plan and was designed to provide a new sanctuary for Athena Polias, where her statue might be suitably housed. The 7th century BC is marked by the "Proattic" style of pottery, although sculpture was comparatively little developed then. The "archaic" style of sculpture began to develop by the early 6th century, passed on from the Cyclades to Athens. Solon cleverly re-organized the agriculture of Athens and encourage commerce with lands further afield. The state-owned mines of Lavrion were utilized by Solon to reform the currency. The inspiration for the request of Salamis from Megara soon after 570 BC came from Solon and the victor, Peristratis, closed power following this triumph.
Peristratis and his sons laid the foundations of the Athenian Empire after some victories over neighboring enemies (some of them not so much enemies as simply in their way.) Peristratis' edition of Homer made Athens the literary center of Greece while he instituted the Great Dionysia of the City, the festival from which the drama was born. He began the architectural embellishment of the city and in his reform of the Panathenaic festival (566 BC) heave it a prestige equal to that of the gatherings at Olympia and Delphi.
The reign of Hippias, elder son of Peristratis, had grandiose ideas after the slaying of his brother Hipparchos during the conspiracy of Harmatios and Aristogeiton (514 BC) His overthrow was helped along by the Alkmaenids with the assistance of Kleomenes, King of Sparta. Only by joining the Peloponnesian League was liberty then reaffirmed and Hippias retired to plot at the Court of Darius, King of Persia. Kleomenes meanwhile had a failed expedition against the Athenians who had already defeated Chalkis with the aid of Plataea, who had in turn been aided by the Athenians against Thebes.
Following the overthrow of Hippias, Kleisthenes altered the traditional division of Attica into three districts, the city, the coast and the island Mesogeia, regrouping the inhabitants. When Aristagoras of Miletus appeared for help only Athens and Eritria responded. The Athenians sent twenty ships to take part in the burning of Sardis. Darius despatched a huge army in revenge and a fleet, accompanied by the agreed Hippias, to sack Eretria. The Persian army was met at Marathon while marching on Athens, by 9,000 Athenians and 1000 Plataens under Miltiades, and the Persians were decisively defeated there.
Aegina was at this time supremely powerful at sea and spurned a war against them by the Athenians who had realized her own maritime dangers. Xerxes came to avenge his father's defeat and stormed against Athens in 480 and were attacked at Thermopylae by the heroic Spartans under Leonidas. They repelled the attack and the Athenians were forced to abandon their city and take to their ships. The Acropolis was sacked but the power of the Persians was broken in the famous naval battle at Salamis in 480. The following year at Plataea, the Persians were again defeated on land.
Athens led by Kimon and Aristides, gained a new prestige and assumed the leadership of the naval Confederacy of Delos in 478 BC and the Persian were finally defeated for good in the battle of Eurymedon in 468. Members of the League made a donation to Athens as a tribute and the treasury was thence removed to the Acropolis in 454 BC
Under Pericles, the Athenians put much of the profit towards the aggrandisement of their city and having defeated Aegina and Corinth, signed a 30 year truce with Sparta and Thebes in 445 BC abandoning an unprofitable rivalry on land for commercial expansion at sea. Under Pericles, Athens inspired some of the greatest names in Athenian art and letters including Zeno and Anaxagoras, the visiting Herodotus, Thucydides and Sophocles. Pericles also, wave scope to Pheidias in the design of the Parthenon ..
Rivalry between Sparta and Athens culminated in the Peloponesian War (431-404 BC) and with the demise of Pericles, Athens, the now fully developed democracy, lost its only capable leader. Humiliating conditions of peace were forced on Athens following the disaster of Aegospotami in 405. This was the exit of the Sicilian Expedition (415-414) urged by Alcibiades, destined to fail.
After some years of disaster and lack of democratic rule, Thrassivoulos restored the constitution in 403. Socrates was executed in 399 and Aristophanes wrote his comedies spanning these terrible times (427-387.) Konon was his great victory against Sparta at Cnidos in 394 assisted by Thebes. Athens was then able to re-establish her naval hegemony with the Second Maritime League organized in 378.
In the 4th century, philosophy and oratory reached their apotheosis in the age of Plato, Xenophon and Isocrates. A new threat in the form of Philip of Macedonia loomed following his conquer of three cities nearby. Athens took up the role of champion of liberty, spurred on by the oratory of Demosthenes, but was defeated at Chaeronea in 338.
Alexander the Great treated the city with kindness because his Macedonian tutor taught there at the Lyceum. Athen's bid for independence was foiled after Alexander's death in 323 and the assumption of a cooperating governor, Demetrius of Faliron was installed, placed by the usurper Cassander. Alternate bouts of liberty coupled with subject to Macedonian rule followed. After a defeat by Antigonus Gonatas in the Chremonidian War (266-263) Athens suffered a garrison until 229, although her democratic institutions were respected.
The Romans governed following the fall of Perseus in 168 BC but the city of Athens continued to flourish, retaining many priviledges when the province of Achaia was formed out of Southern Greece after 146. Athens became popular as a fashionable seat of learning to the Romans and Hadrian frequently lived in Athens, adorning it with imperial buildings, Herod Atticus followed his example and Athens remained the center of Greek education until the edict of Justinian in AD 529 closed the school of philosophy.
ATHENS DIMINISHED UNTIL BYZANTINE RULE
Athens dwindled to an unimportant small town under Byzantine rule. After the fall of Constantinople in 1204, the Greek provinces north of the Isthmus of Corinth fell to Boniface 111, Marquis of Monferrat, who was entitled King of Thessalonica. Boniface granted Attica and Boetia to Otto de la Roche, a Burgundian Knight with the title of Grand Seigneur of Athens and Thebes.
The Athenians, despite finding peace and prosperity under "Frankish" rule, had no part in affairs; trading priviledges were awarded to Genoese and Venetian merchants. In 1258 Guy 1 accepted the title of duke from St.Louis of France. On the death of Guy 11 in 1308 the duchy passed to his cousin Walter of Brienne. In 1311 he lost the duchy to former allies the Catalans at the battle of Kopais. Sovereignty of Athens and Thebes now came to the Grand Company who placed Roger Deslau at their head. Following a career of consent in northern Greece, they approached Frederick of Aragon, king of Sicily, in 1326, which reflected in Frederick's son Manfred being coming duke after sixty years of mismanagement by Sicily.
A Napolitanized Athens in 1386. Nerio Acciaioli, governor of Corinth and a member of a powerful Napolitan family, took the city along with Thebes and Levadia and in 1394 received the title of duke from Ladislas, king of Naples. Under his son Anthony, and protected by Venice, Athens enjoyed forty years of peace. His weak cousin Nerio 11 became his successor and Nerio held his duchy as a vassal of the Sultan with disastrous results.
After a series of manipulations by Nerio 11's successors, Mehmed 11 ordered Omar, son of Turahan, to seize the Acropolis and annexed Attica to the Ottoman Empire in 1456 and nearly 400 years of Turkish rule followed. 1821 saw the outbreak of the War of Independence in Patras, with the Greek General Odysseus seizing Athens and the Acropolis. It was not until 1834 however, that Athens became the capital of liberated Greece. Lord Byron is revered today in Greece as it's then liberator and although he did not actually save the city of Athens, his renown and activities on their behalf certainly possessed impetus to Greece's War of Independence and 1821 is one of the major historical dates on the mind of most Greeks.
In 1672, the eariest extant plan was drawn up of the city by Pere Bubin, a French Capuchin monk, and in 1675 one Francis Vernon sent the Royal Society in London the first English account of the city. The city of Athens which now occupies the greater part of the Attica plain surrounded by an amphitheater of mountains, is today inhabited by several million people and has modernized over the past two decades to include new airports and a very effective Metro.
* NB: One of the fascinating things about living in such an ancient city is the names still live in on, not only in street names, squares, monuments, but even on people. That children are given ancient names today is a lovely way of keeping the past alive. Even though some may get whittled down to a nickname, the original name still gets used. Alkyviathis becomes "Alkys" Dionysos becomes "Dino", Aristides becomes "Aris", Ariadne becomes "Dina" and so on. No matter, to me this is a great compliment to their ancestry.
CITY OF ATHENS MUSEUM – Part 2
The city inspired the museum
The City of Athens Museum is housed in a beautifully restored building built by its founder Lambros Eftaxias, who dedicated both funds and real estate plus many artefacts, books and paintings to the museum, which was to "provide as complete as possible a picture of the history of the city of Athens from the period of the Frankish occupation and to contribute to the preservation of the historical and artistic remains of that period "That's exactly what has been achieved.
The esteemed architect and archaeologist John Travlos undertook the restoration of the building which houses the city museum and which used to be known as the "Old Palace" since King Otto and Queen Amalia lived there from 1836 to 1843. It is now an exact replica of its original.
The Greeks gained their freedom in the 1820's after a long process of struggles and centuries of foreign subject. Their new state was patterned on the European models of the 19th century. With the newly found state came royalty in the form of King Otto, Royal Prince of Bavaria, first king of the Hellenes (b 1857 – d 1897) second son of Louis 1 of Bavaria, placed on the Greek throne by the Great Powers, his rule lasting from 1832 until 1862.
On the second floor of the museum, in an artfully lighted corner sits a bust of the young king by sculptor Enrico Franzoni. The interior of the museum is as pleasant as the exterior. Beginning with the upper floor, the first of several rooms homes paintings by the likes of Edward Lear, the English artist and humorist (1812-1888) Thomas Witlam Atkinson (1799-1861) and Johan Michael Wittmer (1802-1880.) The paintings adorn the walls and depict scenes of Greece from early to mid 19th century. The furniture is authentic of the period and earlier and is an excellent collection including notably a piano, a throne donated by the Baron Jurg Stuker, in the throne room which is by no means ornate, and a delightful backgammon table seemingly awaiting eager players. *
In this room is King Otto's copy of the Greek Constitution, or "Syntagma" of 1843. Although royalists are considered out of fashion these days, denying that royalty was part of Greece's history is not realistic. On a wall in this same room is a map of the "kingdom of Greece" circa 1838, and the ancient Greeks knew all about kingdoms, they had plenty of them way back
The breakfast room is across the hall, a gorgeous marble fireplace with marble and gilt surrounding the mirror above, setting the tone for this peaceful little room in which royalty, particularly Queen Amalia, partook of their morning nourishment. Further down the hall are a quarter of paintings by Andrea Gasparini dated 1843. They show Athenian monuments and sites of the time such as Hadrian's Gate, the Philopappas monument, The Lysicrates Monument and the Tower of the Winds, no doubt the paintings were commissioned at the time.
In a small ante-room are artefacts and coins, books and documents belonging to the royal family or donated to the museum. This room looks out onto the small green garden behind the museum, tucked away from the roar of the city traffic. On the landing is a large painting by one of Greece's well-known artists, Nicholas Gkyzis (1842-1901) entitled "Carnival in Greece" and dated 1892. Since the paintings and furniture, artefacts and books reflect the period, this is a grand way to see how the royal Greeks lived at that time.
A second painting by Karl Whilhelm Von Heideck (1788-1861) painted in 1835 entitled "Ascent to the Acropolis" gives an insight into how this great monument appeared from a close angle in those days. This was only fourteen years after Greece gained her independence. In the lower hall of the building is a bronze bust of King Otto, aged around 40, boasting a moustache, without which he probably would not have looked so regal as he was rather baby faced.
There are six paintings of Athens in this lower hall, again by Gasparini, dated the same time as the scenes mentioned above, and the changes that have taken place around these monuments and sites is clear and quite astonishing. In a room off this hall are displayed kitchen utensils, giving indication of how the meals were prepared and cooked in mid-19th century Greece, not necessarily in a royal kitchen either, some of the utensils are simply of those used in this period. Despite the modern Microwave cookery, most Greek kitchens still utilize many of these items, especially in rural Greece.
Further down the hall is an art gallery, beautifully designed and lit with sensitivity (by Edward Tuttle and Christian Monges) the lighting accentuating carefully the paintings and cartoons, etchings and water colors therein. A scale model of Athens circa 1842 (by John Travlos) makes Athens look even more like a small rambling town, if it were not for the obvious landmark of the Acropolis, one could mistake it for almost any town in the Meditarranean anywhere in its time.
Royal family portraits and paintings typify the dress of the era and are an indication as to how the pace of life must have been in those days (pigeon post, horse and carriage) while in the opposite room the library is stocked by the founder of the library museum with titles in Greek, French, German and English. A charming gilt mirror and side table add charm to this room. The building was also the residence of the Chief banker Stamatis Dekozis Vouros (1792 – 1881) after royalty departed. Another building forms part of the museum, joined by a covered bridge, added to the complex at No 5 on the same street. This building houses collections including original paintings and engravings and items from the Bavarian National Museum.
This interesting era of Greek history has been well recorded and is worth a visit if only to compare then with now. All around the building is the hustle and bustle of Athenian traffic, but inside a kind of peace awaits and gives time to ponder and be fascinated with what the ideals and aspirations of one proud Greek brought to light. In the Eighties when the museum first came into being, I thought that the Greeks could be proud that there was someone interested in exposing all parts of Greek history, not those which suited them at the time. Royalty, whether one is a monarchist or not, played its part in Greek history and an exciting time it was too.
I would urge anyone visiting Athens to visit the City of Athens museum. A quiet place almost overloaded with history. Although the Acropolis and the Parthenon, Sounion and the Archeological Museum are on the list of most visitors, the museum offers much of the city history laid out from early times to the present, spanning many centuries and generations.
NB: Backgammon, or "Tavli" is still played through Greece and in most cafés (kafeniea) and usually by men. However women play it too and I hear even more so in private clubs nowdays.
The City of Athens Museum