The Homeless of Athens

Years of war with the Persians had destroyed the Athenian's temple to Athena Parthenos along with the rest of the Acropolis.  Pericles, who ruled Athens during the latter part of the fifth century BCE, wanted to restore his city’s pride, so in 447 BCE he began work on a new temple to Athena, one that would be even larger and grander than the original: a great home for their beloved goddess.  Today we call it the Parthenon.

Leo von Klenze,  Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens,  1846, Oil on canvas

Leo von Klenze, Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens, 1846, Oil on canvas

Though expensive, the volume of marble and gold used in the Parthenon’s construction was not the only (or even the primary) reason for its beauty.  Mathematics and design also played a role.  The equation y = 2x + 1 was used in many Greek temples, including the Parthenon, to create a consistent and harmonious sense of proportion.  The number of columns on the side and front of the temple (eight and seventeen) is derived from this equation, as are many other proportions within the structure.

Subtle refinements – curves in what appear to be straight lines – add to the Parthenon's soaring beauty.  Perfectly straight pillars might look static, but these pillars are a bit thicker in the middle than on the ends, so they look dynamic, as if they are physically pushing upward.  The horizontal lines of the temple are not perfectly straight either.  They arch upward slightly and, as a result, do not appear to sag in the middle.  These small adjustments in an otherwise geometric design serve to create a paradox; the Parthenon looks both solid and light, both strong and ethereal.

Thiersch,  Reconstruction of the Parthenon in Athens at the time of Pericles,  19th century, Engraving

Thiersch, Reconstruction of the Parthenon in Athens at the time of Pericles, 19th century, Engraving

Inside the Parthenon stood a forty-foot tall sculpture of Athena herself.  Made of gold and ivory, the giant woman held a sculpture of Nike, the goddess of victory, in her hand.  The original sculpture, made by the sculptor Pheidias, is gone now, but we have recreations of it that offer some sense of what the original was like - imposing, yes, but also generous, with the gift of victory extended in her hand.  In this benevolent gesture, she must have seemed like a guarantor of good fortune to come.

Reproduction of  Athena Parthenos  in the Royal Ontario Museum.  The reproduction was made circa 1970 by G. P. Stevens and Sylvia Hahn.  The original was made in the fifth century BCE by Pheidias.

Reproduction of Athena Parthenos in the Royal Ontario Museum.  The reproduction was made circa 1970 by G. P. Stevens and Sylvia Hahn.  The original was made in the fifth century BCE by Pheidias.

And yet, in 430 BCE, just two years after the completion of the Parthenon, the Athenians’ fortune had run out, and the city was under siege by the Spartans.  Pericles advised his people to vacate the countryside and move inside the long walls of Athens (walls he himself had fortified).  The historian Thucydides described it this way:  

The Athenians listened to his (Pericles’) advice, and began to carry in their wives and children from the country, and all their household furniture, even to the woodwork of their houses which they took down. . . .

When they arrived at Athens, though a few had houses of their own to go to, or could find an asylum with friends or relatives, by far the greater number had to take up their dwelling in the parts of the city that were not built over and in the temples and chapels of the heroes, except the Acropolis and the temple of the Eleusinian Demeter and such other Places as were always kept closed.

And so the homeless of Athens found living quarters where they could, but not, of course, in the Parthenon, which was on the Acropolis.  Athena may have been their goddess and guardian, but they were not welcome to stay in her home.

As so often happened in overcrowded ancient cities lacking modern sanitation, disease spread rapidly in Athens. When a plague arrived, it had a devastating effect.  Meanwhile, new arrivals continued entering the city.  Thucydides wrote:

An aggravation of the existing calamity was the influx from the country into the city, and this was especially felt by the new arrivals. As there were no houses to receive them, they had to be lodged at the hot season of the year in stifling cabins, where the mortality raged without restraint. . . .

Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honorable and useful. Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offences, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.

To think that just seventeen years before this time, the citizens had worked so hard to build a temple for their patron Athena!  But now, with the high likelihood of death before them (about a quarter of the Athenians died from the plague), they stopped worrying about honor and religion and simply lived out their days doing as they pleased.  The plague affected all levels of society and in 429 BCE Pericles himself fell ill and died.

Michiel Sweerts,  Plague in an Ancient City,  1652-1654, Oil on canvas

Michiel Sweerts, Plague in an Ancient City, 1652-1654, Oil on canvas

The Parthenon was meant to embody the democratic ideals of the city of Athens.  As Pericles said in a speech to his countrymen, “Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy.”  These are good words, and the idea of a democracy, obviously, outlived the man who spoke them.  Still, it is troubling to see how easily his vision for a democracy slipped away, how quickly the decorum of society fell apart in the presence of a threat. 

Today the Parthenon is dramatically altered.  Its colorful painted exterior is gone, as are most of its marbles, which were taken by the British Lord Elgin in the nineteenth century.  When we look at the Parthenon now, it is difficult to imagine what it was like during the Golden Age when it was first built.  It’s also difficult, however, to imagine the tremendous suffering that went on during that age which we nevertheless call golden.  The design of the Parthenon was so brilliant and its execution so perfect that, even in its dilapidated state, it is hard for us to envision the homeless masses that passed by it on their way through a godless, plague-infested city where they couldn't find a place to sleep.   

Perhaps it shouldn’t be.  The current refugee crisis has once again brought homeless and desperate people to Athens.  And, just as in the past, they are making homes in cramped quarters.  Refugee camps have been set up in many places, including the baseball stadium used for the 2004 Olympics.  The contrast of the grandeur of the Olympics and the misery of these displaced people is reminiscent of the contrast between the plague and the Parthenon.  Our impulse to build large shiny things is, apparently, as enduring as our impulse to wage wars that drive people from their homes.

The fragility of democratic ideals, too, is a contemporary issue.  Most of us long for what Pericles spoke of when he described an “administration (that) favors the many instead of the few.”  And yet, we find ourselves fighting over what that should look like and who, if anyone, can carry the vision forward.  We’d like a simple equation (y = 2x + 1) to teach us how to create enduring harmony and balance.  We’d like a shiny god or goddess to promise us good fortune in the future.  And we’d like all the things that seem heavy and dead to become light and beautiful.  But these ideas are difficult to uphold, so we find ourselves with flimsy scaffolds and the tedious work of resurrecting, if not the glory of Athens, perhaps the glorious things it aspired to be.