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Friday, April 9, 2010

In the footsteps of Socrates


[click on the photos to view larger size]

Herodotus puts the following defiant words in the mouth of the Persian King Cyrus, prior to the Achaemenid invasions of Hellas in the early fifth century BCE: "'I have never feared men who have a place set apart in the middle of their city where they lie and deceive each other. . . . .' - and, Herodotus continues - "This threat he uttered against all Hellenes because they have agoras and buy and sell there; for the Persians themselves do not use agoras, nor do they have any." (Herodotos 1.153)

The agora of Athens is one of the most famous of these open places where the Athenians bought and sold, and eventually governed themselves. It was the assembly place where the citizens met daily in the open air for all purposes of community life. Among the ruins of the Athenian agora, and by the stream of the Ilissos, it is possible to retrace the footsteps of Socrates at the heart of today’s Athens.

The Athenian agora has been systematically excavated since the 1930’s by the American School of Classical Studies. In the 1950’s, the Stoa of Attalos was reconstructed, and this provides the area with a focus, and with a Museum. The rest is only ruins, scattered stones in a garden, but so well studied and preserved, that the life of ancient Athens can be made visible.

Socrates walked the agora and engaged the young aristocratic boys in dialogue, founding thereby the philosophy of his great admirer Plato. Plato’s Dialogues are the primary source of our knowledge of Socrates. Plato follows Socrates about in the agora, and describes his death in the State Prison. From other historians we know of Socrates’ having presided over the Boule (Council) of Athens, and of his sitting at the portico of the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios to discuss philosophy with the aristocratic youths of the city. Ruins of these buildings are still visible in the agora. (see below)

The excavations undertaken by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, have uncovered about thirty acres on the slope northwest of the Acropolis. Material of all periods from the Late Neolithic to modern times has been excavated, shedding light on 5,000 years of Athenian history. My concern here is only with the Athens of the fifth century BCE. Below are photographs of the agora in the 1930’s, as excavations began, and as it looks today.

A gradual change from private to public land seems to have occurred during the middle of the sixth century and the first certain public buildings or monuments, such as the Peribolos of the Twelve Gods, were erected in the 520s, during the rule of Peisistratus. He seems to have reorganized the area and established the government’s center there.

Great drain of Kleisthenes

The Great Drain of Kleisthenes, aligned with the Old Boueluterion, and well constructed of polygonal blocks of limestone, channeled the waters from the hills on the S.W. towards the Eridanos brook to the N. The two branches visible in these photographs were dug in the fourth century BCE or later. At the intersection of the great drains stood a row of dwellings and shops, including the one known as the house of the cobbler Simon. The discovery here of hobnails and of a black glazed cup dating to the third quarter of the fifth century and bearing the name of its owner, Simon, makes it likely that there really was a shop of the cobbler Simon, where, according to Diogenes Laertius, Socrates spent much of his time talking to passers by and engaging them in dialogue.

Foundations of the house of the cobbler Simon, where Socrates used to hang out and hail the youths of Athens to interpelate them

The creation of the new democracy in 508/7 BCE led to the construction of the Old Bouleuterion (Council House) on the site of the later Metroon, as well as the setting of boundary stones, and the construction of the Stoa Basileus (Royal Stoa). The Persian destruction of 480/79 left the city in ruins, but the buildings in the Agora were repaired and many more were added in the 5th and 4th centuries to accommodate the Athenian democracy at its height. The Stoa Poikile, Tholos, New Bouleuterion, Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, South Stoa, Mint, and Heliaia (popular tribunal) were all added to the periphery of the great square, as were fountain houses, temples, and shops. Below are two photographs of the ruins of the Tholos.

Ruins of the Tholos

Model of the New Bouleuterion (below on the left center of the drawing), built in the last quarter of the fifth century BCE to the west (left) of the original building which was later rebuilt as the Metroon to house the shrine of the Mother of the Gods and the public archives. The round building is the Tholos.

A drawing of the interior of the Tholos, sometimes called Skias or sunshade from the shape of its roof. Here, as Aristotle records, the fifty Prytaneis dined daily at the public expense and offered sacrifice before their deliberations. The Prytaneis were the executives of the Boule, or the City's Council, and presided over the Bouleterion, the Council House, of ancient Athens, and therefore, the Tholos was the effective headquarters of Athenian government. A small kitchen on the north side made it possible for those presiding in the Bouleterion to remain on duty and dine while working. Socrates would have eaten here when he presided in 406-05 BCE.

The Peribolos of the Twelve Gods

Photo of the Peribolos of the Twelve Gods and drawing of the Peribolos (Altar) in a restored condition, the center from which distances were measured, established in 522-21 BCE, and destroyed by the Persians in 480-79 BCE, and rebuilt in the latter part of Socrates’ lifetime. The Twelve were not synonymous with the twelve Olympian gods but represent a local Athenian grouping. The remains of this altar are now partly hidden by a wall and by the railway tracks beyond it.

Monument to the Eponymous Heroes of Athens

Above is a drawing of the monument to the Eponymous Heroes as they were re-established in the fourth century, and, below, a photo of the ruins of the monument today. Only traces of the fifth century monument are now recognizable under the foundations of the Hellenistic ‘Middle Stoa.’ The eponymous heroes were the Athenians known of old who gave their names to the ten official divisions of the Athenian citizenry, the ten tribes (phylai) into which the statesman Kleisthenes re-organized the citizens of Athens in 508-7 BCE.

The Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios

A photo of the ruins of the front portico of the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios and (right) a drawing of the model of the Stoa, which is shown left of center in foreground. The Stoa was a public arcade, like a Mall. The portico of this Stoa, which had two projecting wings, was built by unknown architects, c. 430 BCE, to honor Zeus as savior of the Athenians from the Persians. Under its colonnade, citizens transacted their private business. Socrates is known to have discussed philosophy here with the aristocratic youths of Athens.

The State Prison of Athens, where Socrates died, as described in Plato's dialogues, the Apology and the Phaedo:

The prison in a drawing of its restored aspect shows the northeast wing as a guard tower.The view of these ruins from the north have been identified as remains of the State Prison in which Socrates spent his last days.

Ruins of the prison of Athens where Socrates was executed

The Ilissos River in downtown Athens

The Ilissos Area is probably the only spot where the ancient river is still visible in Athens, since its course has been interfered with and its waters have largely vanished underground. But this small wooded area at the foot of the Olympieion (Temple to Olympian Zeus, barely visible in some of the photos) may well be the location described by Plato at the beginning of his dialogue Phaedrus. In the dialogue, Phaedrus points to a house near the temple of Olympian Zeus, and Socrates then suggests they “turn aside here along the Ilissus. Then we can sit down in peace wherever we feel inclined.”

View of the Ilissos river bed

When Phaedrus and Socrates find a place for rest, Socrates describes the spot in detail:

SOCRATES: It is indeed a lovely spot for a rest. This plane tree is very tall and spreading, and the agnus-castus [a purple-flowered bush, native of the Mediterranean region] splendidly high and shady, in full bloom too, filling the neighborhood with the finest possible fragrance. And the spring which runs under the plane, how beautifully cool its water is to the feet. . . . See too how wonderfully delicate and sweet the air is, throbbing in response to the shrill chorus of the cicadas – the very voice of summer. But the most exquisite thing of all is the way the grass slopes gently upward to provide perfect comfort for the head as one lies at length. Really, my dear Phaedrus, a visitor could not possibly have found a better guide than you.

PHAEDRUS: What a very strange person you are, Socrates. So far from being like a native, you resemble, in your own phrase, a visitor being shown the sights by a guide. This comes of your never going out beyond the frontiers of Attica or even, as far as I can see, outside the actual walls of the city.

SOCRATES: Forgive me, my dear friend. I am, you see, a lover of learning. Now the people in the city have something to teach me, but the fields and trees won’t teach me anything.”

The bed of the Ilissos river in Athens with

the ruins of the Olympieion above the hill

The slope of the Ilissos

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