Roman Athens

Late Hellenistic and Roman Athens



The Hellenistic city of Athens benefited significantly from its reputation as a steadfast fighter against the Macedonians in the early decades of Roman hegemony over Greece, being rewarded with the addition of several islands to its territory. The Roman upperclassdiscovered Athenian culture in 155 BC. (especially philosophy and rhetoric): the Athenians had made a failed attempt to annex the port city of Oropos, but had been whistled back by the senate and ordered to pay a fine of 500 talents of gold. Then they sent the leaders of the three major philosophy schools of Athens (the Stoa, Academy and Lyceum) to Rome to plead their case. The Romans, who had never heard so much eloquence and wisdom, reduced the fine to a hundred talents and from then on sent their sons to Athens to study philosophy and rhetoric (as well as many Hellenistic princes) and to make a so-called grand tour through Greece . One of the many grateful students was the later monarch Attalos II of Pergamon, who expressed his gratitude by building a regal stoa, nowadays called ”stoa of Attalos (restored by the American excavators) on the agora.

With the establishment of the Roman province of Achaia (after the destruction of Corinth by Mummius), Athenian independence ended, after which the Athenians bet several times on the losing horse in this turbulent period. In 88 BC. The Athenians (led by the peripatetic philosopher Athenion and later the epicurean Aristion) sided with Mithridates of Pontus in his (doomed) war against the Romans, after which general and dictator Sulla inflicted heavy damage on the city: the Dipylon gate was bombed, the Pompeion behind it was destroyed, the Long Walls from Athens to Piraeus demolished, while the defenders, in turn, burned down the Odeion of Pericles, to prevent the rafters from being used to build weapons of war. Huge quantities of artwork were transported to Rome (and some even simply forgotten in the harbor, to be found 2000 years later!), while Aristotle’s library went up in flames, and thousands upon thousands of civilians were killed. In the later struggle between Caesar and Pompey, the Athenians again chose wrongly, but fortunately Julius Caesar was inclined to mercy. Caesar even had a new market built, the so-called Roman Agora, which was later completed by Augustus.

Fragment of statue of Hadrian (from the agora).

Notice how the goddess Athena (who is crowned by the goddess Nikè)

stands on top of the image of Romulus and Remus.

(click on image to enlarge)

The “Tower of the Winds” and the Roman Agora

Life-size head of Athena Lemnia, Roman copy found on the Pnyx.

(Click to enlarge)

The Acropolis, with in front the Odeion of Herod  and the poor remains from the stoa of Eumenes.

The following century the city was flourishing, with the construction of a new Odeion (by Agrippa in 15 BC), suitable for about 1000 men, and the construction of the famous Tower of the Winds, with a sundial and water clock. Nero stole countless works of art here (as elsewhere), and had the Parthenon dedicated to himself, but also had the theater of Dionysos restored. In 114-116 AD. C. Julius Antiochus Philopappos, the king of Commagene, had a tomb built for himself on top of the hill that is still called the “Philopappos Hill”, while Emperor Hadrian had many old structures repaired (including the Pnyx and the theater of Dionysus), a new urban district was built with the famous Arch of Hadrian, and the ancient temple of the Olympian Zeus was  finally completed. The latter action cannot but be related to the divine worship that the Athenians gave him, under the name of “Zeus Olympios” (apart from his election as archont). The temple contained a huge statue of Zeus of gold and ivory, inspired by the statue in Olympia. Finally he had the famous Hadrian’s Library founded. This first bloom was finally completed by the buildings of Herodes Atticus of Marathon (heir to a huge fortune and raised in imperial circles in Rome). Herodes Atticus had new buildings erected in countless places in Greece and enjoyed the atmosphere in Attica, especially his villa in Kifissiá. A stay in this villa, with its bath house, its tree-filled garden, chirping crickets, birdsong and starlit nights, later inspired the prolific writer Aulus Gellius to write his book Noctes Atticae (Attic Nights, about life, philosophy and many other things). In Athens he made improvements to the Odeion of Agrippa, and had a new Odeion built in honor of his late wife Regilla, the so-called Odeion of Herodes Atticus.
In the middle of the third century, Athens was raided and captured by the Herulians, a Germanic tribe who had come by ship from Crimea, despite earlier attempts by Emperor Valerian to protect the city with a new defensive wall. Only the Acropolis was left untouched, while much of the lower town was destroyed, including the Library of Hadrian, the Stoa of Eumenes, the Odeion of Herodes Atticus, and numerous other buildings. The later Roman city was much more modest in design, largely confined to the current Plaka, and protected by a hastily erected city wall (“Valerian’s Wall”), which used countless fragments of older buildings as building material (to the delight of modern archaeologists) . After this critical period, many buildings were restored, but still remained outside the fortifications, while the 4th century saw a renewed flourishing of the schools of philosophy in Athens.
Finally, in the 4th century, the old fortifications were also restored, just in time to stop the advancing Alarik, who invaded Greece, captured the Piraeus and laid siege to Athens, until he was deterred from a further siege by believing to have seen the goddess Athena patrolling the walls in her traditional outfit. Willing to relinquish the siege, he was feted and guided around the city, after which he continued his plunderings the  towards Peloponnese. Finally, the edict of Theodosios II to close all pagan temples, and the later edict of Justinian ordering the closure of all schools of philosophy, led to the demise of “ancient Athens”.

Portrait of Herodes Atticus, NAM

Stoa of Attalos