Encyclopedia of The Bible – Athens
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ATHENS ăth’ ĭnz (̓Αθῆναι, G121; city of Athena). Chief city of the ancient city-state of Attica and capital of modern Greece.

1. Topography. The city is located about five m. from the Aegean Sea on the narrow plain between Mount Parnes to the N, Mount Pentelicus to the E and Mount Hymettus to the SE. It was originally settled by neolithic people because of its Acropolis which was easily defended and had an accessible supply of water. Attica is one of the driest regions of Greece, but the rainfall is sufficient for olive groves and vineyards. The export of olive oil and wine was one of the chief sources of the prosperity of classical Athens. In addition, there were excellent clay beds nearby for pottery making, and silver and lead were mined at Laurium at the southern tip of Attica. Mount Pentelicus provided beautiful marble for local use and for export.

The city was enclosed by fortification walls throughout most of its history. During the Late Bronze Age a wall (the Pelargikon) was built around the perimeter of the Acropolis. Because of the Pers. threat at the beginning of the 5th cent. b.c. the Athenians hastily fortified the expanded city and soon thereafter extended the walls down to the excellent port facilities of the Piraeus. The Emperor Hadrian encouraged the enlargement to the E of the city walls which stood intact until the Herulian invasion in the 3rd cent. a.d.

The classical and Rom. city was located within roughly circular walls. The Acropolis occupied the S central portion. The Areopagus Hill lay to the NW, the Pynx Hill to the W and the agora (marketplace) to the N. There were residential areas to the N, E and S. Visitors to Athens such as Paul and Pausanias would have entered through the Dipylon Gate just beyond the Kerameikos (the old potters’ quarter) cemetery and traveled along the Panathenaic Way through the agora to the Acropolis.

2. History. The Athenians described themselves as autochthonoi (sprung from the earth) to indicate that their ancestors had inhabited the city without interruption. The site was originally settled on and around the Acropolis in the Neolithic Period. Tradition says that Athens was not affected by the Dorian invasion at the end of the Bronze Age and further that Nestor led the people of Pylos there when the Dorians overran the Peloponnesus. During the Geometric Period (Early Iron Age) the city expanded in a northwesterly direction. At some time during the period the agora ceased to be used for burials, and it became the public center of the city. During the 6th cent. an archaic temple of Apollo and the old Bouleuterion were built, as well as the old temple of Athena on the Acropolis.

Athens emerged into history in the 6th cent. The city was first ruled by an oppressive aristocracy until the reforms of Draco. In 594 the constitution of Solon provided safeguards against mistreatment of the people, but it remained for the tyrants, Peisistratus and his sons, to bring prosperity and public confidence. Cleisthenes, at the end of the 6th cent. was the true founder of the democracy.

The role of Athens in the Persian War brought it to a place of great prominence. Even though the city was completely destroyed, the Athenians recovered quickly. The fleet which had a decisive part in the defeat of the Persians became the basis of a maritime empire. The years of Pericles’ great influence (443-429) were the most glorious in Athenian history. Athens became a complete democracy and by its encouragement of the arts nurtured one of the greatest periods in the history of mankind. The city was adorned with magnificent public buildings. The dramatists and historians recited its greatness. Athens attracted intellectuals from all over Greece and encouraged the study of philosophy, rhetoric and science. Only the short-sighted foreign policies of its leaders led to the decline of Athens and to the Peloponnesian War.

Although deprived of its empire and wealth, Athens remained a center of art and lit. in the 4th cent. A precarious democracy was restored for a time until Philip of Macedon conquered all of Greece. The Macedonian kings, Egypt, Syria and esp. Pergamum courted favor by benevolences to the city. In the 3rd cent. Athens joined the Achaean league, but soon thereafter lost its independence to Rome. In 86 b.c. the Rom. general, Sulla, besieged the city and allowed his soldiers to loot it. Now poor and stripped of its commerce, Athens was reduced to a university center which was visited by many prominent Romans. The Rom. emperors, particularly Hadrian, supported the city by their benevolences. The city continued to decline until the early 19th cent. a.d. when it was a mere village of 5,000.

3. Monuments. Ancient monuments are numerous enough in Athens to give the visitor an insight into the glories of the past. Painstaking work has been done by the Greek Archaeological Service on the Acropolis, by the American School of Classical Studies in the agora and by the other foreign schools in the city and its environs. As one enters from any direction, the Acropolis dominates the city. The entrance to the hill is the Propylea which like the Parthenon was built during the time of Pericles. The Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, is a building of the Doric order. It is 238 ft. long and 111 ft. wide at its base. The outer colonnade was made up of forty-six columns thirty-four ft. high. The pediments at each end depicted mythological scenes; the birth of Athena on the E, the contest of Athena and Poseidon for Attica on the W. Above the inner colonnade ran a frieze depicting the Panathenaic procession. On the N side of the Acropolis is the Erechtheum, the common shrine of Erechtheus and Poseidon. Also on the hilltop can be found the fortification walls of Themistocles, the Temple of Wingless Victory and the foundations of a number of older buildings. Below the Acropolis on the S side are the theater of Dionysius and the Odeum of Herodes Atticus.

The agora was the forum and marketplace of the ancient city. All that remains today are the foundations of buildings and the Stoa of Attalus which stretched across the E side and has been faithfully reconstructed by the American School as a museum. The commercial area included the Stoa of Attalus and the S, E and middle stoas along the S side. The W side consisted of the important public buildings of Athens: the circular Tholos, the office and dining room of the Prytaneum; the Bouleuterion or senate house; the Metroon, the official archives; the temple of Apollo Patroon and the Stoa Basileios. In front of the Metroon was a temple of Ares and the statues of the eponymous heroes of the city. Above the agora to the W on the Kolonos Agoraios stands the 5th cent. temple of Hephaestus, one of the best preserved Gr. temples.

4. Paul’s visit. When the Apostle Paul visited Athens the city still retained its reputation as a center of learning, although it was no longer prosperous. He noticed the magnificent public buildings and shrines which were still intact despite Sulla’s barbarism (Acts 17:23). He came there because of the Jewish protests against his preaching in Thessalonica and Berea. He witnessed in the agora and was called before the Areopagus Court to which he gave an intellectual defense of the Gospel. He mentioned an altar to the unknown god which both Pausanias and Philostratus also observed. The synagogue (17:17) is unknown, but Jewish burials have been found in the Kerameikos. A few converts were made as a result of his preaching before he left for Corinth (Acts 17:15-18:1).

Bibliography P. Gaindor, Athènes de Tibère à Trajan (1931); Athènes sous Hadrian (1934); M. L. W. Laistner, History of the Greek World from 479 to 323 B. C., passim (1936); I. T. Hill, The Ancient City of Athens (1953); The American School of Classical Studies, The Athenian Agora, a Guide to the Excavations (1954).