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Atticus and Rome’s priorities

Herodes’s biggest project also proved to be his most controversial: a thorough restoration, expansion, and adornment of Lycourgos’s fourth-century-BC stadium in Athens. He announced his intention with a rhetorical flourish at the end of the Great Panathenaic Festival in 140 AD, when he was given the honorary position of «athlotete» for the next festival in 144. There, he introduced an advanced model ship for the final procession that Pausanias thought ingenious. More importantly, he managed to complete the stadium in time. This, in itself, was undoubtedly linked to a wider thrust by Hadrian (who died in 138) to turn his beloved Athens into a focal point for Rome’s eastern parts via the Panhellenion, or assembly of Greek cities. Sport as well as politics was the aim: The ever-industrious emperor tried to establish Athens as a sporting center via the Adriana Olympia, to rival, if not displace, the festival at remote Olympia. The stadium, however, was regarded by locals as the product of semi-fraudulent dealings. Was it, like the later odeon, a guilt-edged as well as gilt-edged offering to the city? According to one source, Atticus’s father, Julius, had maneuvered to disinherit his overinflated son and instead sought to bestow his wealth (which he lucked into) on the city of Athens but Herodes’s refusal to carry out this wish was occasion for a long-running and bad-tempered lawsuit. And the name «Panathenaic» was considered appropriate by the Athenians – then, as now, great aficionados of black humor – who had allegedly been fleeced en masse in order to pay for the huge structure, which matched Rome’s Colosseum in size. Pausanias said that it was «not attractive to hear about, but wonderful to see,» even if it all but exhausted the marble quarries on nearby Mt Pendeli. It included Doric stoas in front and rear, plus a bridge across the now-underground Ilissos River that survived until 1778. Despite decades of effort in the second and third centuries AD, Hadrian’s imperial affront to the 1,000-year-old Olympia cult festival could not stand up to the weight of tradition, including that of honorary awards at Olympia (versus the cash prizes of Athens). The Roman origins of the idea didn’t help; even worse was the stadium’s dual usage for athletics and wild-animal hunts in the manner of the time, suggested by the parapet that surrounded the infield – barbarities never even contemplated for Olympia. Hadrian’s presumptions must have come across to the Greeks of his time rather like the awarding of the 1996 Golden Olympics to the upstart city of Atlanta seemed to the Greeks of ours – as tantamount to sacrilege. At any rate, the effort was abandoned in 267 with the Herulian sack of the city. More controversy Whether more of a traditionalist or just needing to hedge his bets, Herodes then took his projects, and their controversies, on to Olympia. There he built an elaborate water system, called the «shrine of the nymphs» or Nymphaion, to pipe in spring water from a source several kilometers away. This gave the ancient site a new taste of modern technology, as well as fresh water, after almost 1,000 years of sweltering summer reliance on brackish well water. This elaborate, thick-walled structure was a thanks-offering to the goddess Demeter after Rigilla had been chosen as honorary priestess of the Olympic Games of 153. The Nymphaion was actually a joint project of the two, as Herodes donated the pipes, while Rigilla embellished the fountain in the sanctuary’s center. But even that pious offering had its detractors; the statues of his family along with those of Roman emperors spoke of self-worship, while others disliked the introduction of modern comforts in that sacred place. At its inauguration, the Cynic philosopher Peregrinus denounced it as evidence of Olympia’s cultural decline. Pausanias, who visited there sometime between 160-170 AD, noticed everything and was a stickler for detail, did not mention the garish shrine at all. Far from allowing an elderly country gentleman to enjoy his dotage, Herodes’s enemies finally managed to level charges of tyranny against him at the age of 73 – just as the Athenians had done against his grandfather, Hipparchos – and with cruel irony, before his former pupil, Marcus Aurelius, whose wife, Faustina, nursed an old grudge against Herodes. His exoneration was supposedly occasion for a great outpouring of hollow sentiment, though the relief of the pious (and loyal) emperor was undoubtedly genuine. Herodes then fled Athens, embittered and alone, having outlived his family. Opinions of Atticus suddenly improved after his death in Marathon in 177 AD. According to Philostratus, his remains were returned to Athens (contrary to his own wishes) and given a grand burial in the stadium itself. An unfinished Roman-era sarcophagus, questionably from his tomb, is the only thing that has survived, unearthed in the Ziller renovations and placed on the hilltop just to the east, next to the running track that girds the upper rim of the stadium, with the cryptic words Eroi toi Marathonoi (The Hero of Marathon) inscribed on a separate marker. It remains part of the continuing Herodes Atticus mystery, nestled in the pines, largely – and perhaps fittingly – ignored by sweatsuited joggers. It would be another 1,719 years before any athlete ran the 40 kilometers from his ancestral home of Marathon to the stadium he built, bequeathed and was finally buried in. Yet he remains an essential, personal link with that famous place, and a forgotten progenitor of that famous race.