In the footsteps of the ancient Athenians

Walking about central Athens among the ruins of the ancient city, one often has the sense of being very near to a rich history filled with well-known characters and decisive events which left indelible marks on later thinkers and political and cultural developments far outside the ancient Greeks? domain. Everywhere one looks in the Athenian Agora, the city?s original central marketplace and public gathering point, or on the rocky, enclosed summit of the Acropolis or among the tiered seats of the Theater of Dionysus on the South Slope, there may once have been a great politician, philosopher, warrior or playwright whose social or historical impact is still felt some 2,500 years later. But where exactly might these venerable characters have once walked, stood or sat? Which stones might they have actually touched or brushed against as visitors still do today? Thanks to the evidence of historical texts, inscriptions carved onto stone blocks and other archaeological traces, certain Athenian sites can be identified with specific historical figures, including the likes of Themistocles, Socrates, Sophocles, Pericles and Demosthenes. Athens?s present-day inhabitants and visitors regularly walk over or past these places, often without pausing to realize they are treading in famous footsteps and themselves brushing against history.

Not all archaeological sites around the Acropolis that can be connected directly to specific historical figures are presently accessible or even still visible, since today some of these important remains are screened by fences or buried beneath modern structures. A small temple built by Themistocles, near his house west of the Acropolis in the deme (district) of Melite, now lies obscured by modern overbuilding just southwest of the intersection of Irakleidon and Amfiktionon streets in the present-day area of Thiseio. Discovered during the construction of a house in 1958 and excavated by Greek archaeologists, the remains belonged to a one-room temple with a front porch (pronaos), which, according to an inscription found nearby, was dedicated to the goddess Artemis. The writer Plutarch mentions that Themistocles had erected a small temple to ?Artemis Aristoboule? in this area (see box). Artifacts from the site, including the inscription and distinctive miniature ceramic vessels (kraters and krateriskoi) of early 5th-century BC date that were commonly used in the worship of Artemis, confirm this was the shrine described by Plutarch. Themistocles apparently built the temple just after the Greeks defeated the Persians in 480 BC with his guidance but it was later razed after circa 472 BC, following his ostracism from Athens, and rebuilt completely circa 330 BC, when public approval of the once-great leader seems to have experienced a resurgence.

In the archaeological parkland south of the Areopagus Hill, the low foundations of a walled precinct have been identified through inscriptions as belonging to a shrine jointly dedicated to a local healing hero Amynos, the healing god Asclepius and a certain ?Dexion,? which some specialists believe is a reference to the Classical tragedian Sophocles. Dexion was a name bestowed on Sophocles by the Athenians, who wished to honor him as a supporter of Asclepius and the founder of an altar within this sacred precinct. Although disputed in recent years, this association between Sophocles and the Amyneion precinct, if true, would seem to indicate that in the 5th century BC, Sophocles could be found at not only the Theater of Dionysus but other spots as well on the Acropolis? South Slope.

More certainly identified and tangible are sites and monuments within the Athenian Agora, which the philosopher Socrates is known from historical texts to have frequented during the late 5th century BC. Among these spots are the Royal Stoa, the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, the House of Simon the Shoemaker, the Street of the Marble Workers, and especially the Bouleuterion and Tholos buildings, where Socrates served on and took a turn presiding over the Council of 500 in 406/405 BC. During his leadership of the council, Socrates would have slept and eaten inside the Tholos as part of the Boule?s on-call executive committee, whose members were known as the ?prytaneis.? Just opposite the Tholos, beside the Agora?s great drain, the inconspicuous remains of a courtyard house appear to mark a less formal place where Socrates occasionally met with young Athenians interested in philosophy but legally too young to enter the Agora. This was the house of Simon, a shoemaker, as indicated by cobbler?s artifacts (bone eyelets, iron hobnails) and the inscribed base of a black-glazed cup. An inscribed boundary stone still visible beside Simon?s house reveals that this convenient venue for Socrates and his followers did in fact lie just outside the Agora?s sacred limits.

The footsteps of ancient Athenians can also be traced on the Pnyx Hill west of the Acropolis, where the ekklesia, the assembly of the Athenian people, gathered. Although now consisting of little more than a rock-cut speaker?s platform, a sloping field and a terrace wall, this peaceful, outlying site is worth visiting not only for its magnificent views of the Acropolis, Areopagus and Agora but also for the proximity one somehow feels to Pericles, Demosthenes and other great rhetoricians, whose persuasive words to the Athenian public still seem to hang in the air and evoke their city?s struggles and timeless endurance.

A temple to himself?

?He offended the multitude also by building the temple of Artemis, whom he surnamed Aristoboule, or Best Counselor, intimating thus that it was he who had given the best counsel to the city and to the Hellenes. This temple he established near his house in Melite, where now the public officers cast out the bodies of those who have been put to death and carry forth the garments and the nooses of those who have dispatched themselves by hanging. A portrait-statue of Themistocles stood in this temple of Aristoboule down to my time, from which he appears to have been a man not only of heroic spirit but also of heroic presence.?

(Plutarch, Themistocles 22, 1st/2nd century AD)