Ancient Athens made fun for kids

The answer to every touring parent’s nightmare – keeping their kids entertained while dragging them around Athens’s archaeological sites – has come in the form of a guide book for children brought out by the Foundation of the Hellenic World. Out in English, this compact hardback, written by Eleni Svoronou, aims to make archaeological sites an interesting and educational experience through peripatetic descriptions of the sites in which the features are pointed out to children. In the words of the author, the book attempts to make «the miracle of ancient Athens come alive in front of your eyes as you walk.» A clear layout, nicely illustrated by Marina Roussou, certainly does much to help in this direction. The facing page to the foreword usefully explains how the book is organized. A map of downtown Athens has the sites marked in squares and numbered (five sites are covered: the Acropolis, Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Kerameikos and the Temple of Olympian Zeus), and shows the course of the ancient walls. The map is repeated throughout the book at the beginning of each section, accompanied by instructions on how to get to each site. The text, which contains useful explanatory insets, is set between wide margins containing boxes that define terms, pose questions, provide suggestions and point out features, marked respectively with an open book, question mark, exclamation mark or an eye. A potted history of Athens follows the foreword, while a list of museums in the area and an index can be found at the end. Thus parents and their kids visiting the Temple of Olympian Zeus, for example, are directed to pause at the entrance and look for a part of Themistocles’ walls. There, at the Hippades Gate, they are told they stand exactly on the boundary between fifth-century Ancient Athens and the Roman city. The temple’s construction saga – it was started in the sixth century BC and finally finished in the second century AD – is related a little further on. And by the way, the sixth century tyrant Peisistratus was the first to grapple with the issue of the city’s water supply. Two-and-a-half millennia later, they’re still grappling. Obviously, this is a guide with plenty of information. A list of the Ancient Greek names for the winds (inset at the Tower of Winds) is an example of knowledge that is fun for kids (and adults). But despite the cartoon owl, Athena’s own emblem, which flutters on the map pages, the book sometimes seems more directed at adults than children, owing to the large number of archaeological terms. Many, such as pronaos and opisthodomos, are defined well after they first appear. Some of the definitions require definitions themselves – a metope is described as «the marble plate between the triglyphs;» other terms (such as frieze and bas-relief) are not defined at all. The questions are sometimes challenging, occasionally absurd (calculate the price of an ancient wreath when a calf cost 8 drachmas) or obscure (to children): «Why do you think the Christians changed the Parthenon into a church dedicated initially to Hagia Sophia and then to the Virgin of Athens?» Though wholly commendable, this book would have benefited from editing and proofreading by a native speaker. To give examples, the Pnyx (ancient nominative form) is referred to throughout as the Pnyka, the Pelasgians were «marines and merchants» – sailors, one assumes – the Ionians are called a «tribe,» and King Otto was «dismissed from the Greek throne.» He should have thought about it before taking the job. More humor would also have been welcome. But you can’t get everything right the first time. One hopes that future editions will wholly fulfill the aim of an informative, fun-filled guidebook for children.