Writing in his Epistles at the end of the 1st century BC, the Roman poet Horace commented that ‘captive Greece took her crude conqueror captive, and brought her arts to rustic Latium’ – by which he meant that Roman society had gone mad for Greek culture. Hellenic ways had long been familiar to the republic, thanks to the coastal communities who settled in southern Italy from the 8th century BC (lands that the Romans called ‘Magna Graecia’), while subsequent contact with – and conquest of – the lands once united under Alexander the Great only strengthened these influences. By the 3rd century BC, aristocratic enthusiasts were proudly declaring themselves ‘philhellenes’ (despite the protests of naysayers like Cato the Elder, who decried Greek customs as morally decadent), and adorning their atria with statues and bronzes. Come the dawn of the Empire, when Horace was writing and the Greek mainland had been under Roman rule for almost 150 years, its art, architecture, literature, religion, philosophy, medicine, and much more were all solidly embedded in the Roman imagination.
This admiration, however, was founded in a romantic vision of a lost ‘Golden Age’, centred on the Athens of Pericles in the 5th century BC, and its intellectual and artistic achievements. It did not automatically translate into preferential treatment for the contemporary population – as Athens found to its cost in 88 BC, when the city sided with Mithridates VI, King of Pontus, during his revolt against Rome. Revenge was swift and terrible: the general Sulla first besieged and then sacked Athens, indiscriminately slaughtering civilians and burning swathes of the city to the ground.
Yet Rome’s idealisation of Athens and its prestigious past ultimately proved the city’s salvation. Most of its monuments and grand public buildings were spared Sulla’s wrath, and under Roman rule the city was granted an unusual degree of autonomy. Gradually, thanks to the attentions of wealthy Roman benefactors and emperors who felt a particular affinity with Greek culture, Athens was able to rebuild. More than that, while many conquered Greek cities were stripped of their treasures for export back to Italy, the famous temples of the Acropolis escaped interference, and the city below gained a wealth of new facilities and infrastructure. So, what traces of this tale of destruction and rebirth can be seen in Athens today?
For modern visitors, perhaps the most obvious sign of Roman activity – at least in terms of nomenclature – is the Roman forum, today located close to the vibrant ‘Old Town’ neighbourhood of Plaka, which is known for its cobbled streets lined with tavernas and shops. The forum’s large open-air courtyard was once a bustling commercial centre, its shady colonnades frequented by stallholders and strolling citizens, and its construction in the late 1st century BC was funded by Julius Caesar and Augustus. This munificence is commemorated by an inscription above its monumental western gate, which was dedicated to the city’s patron goddess, Athena Archegetis (‘the founder’), and which still towers above the site today. The pillars of the corresponding eastern entrance are now reduced to stubs, and the forum’s once-elegant column-lined walkways survive only in sections, but its layout remains clear – as do the foundations of a particularly important part of any busy public space: the communal latrines.
One of Athens’ most determined Roman benefactors was the emperor Nero (r. AD 54-68), whose Hellenic habits extended to learning the cithara, a Greek form of lyre – it is this instrument that he was said to have been playing during the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64. Although images of him ‘fiddling while Rome burned’ are posthumous propaganda, the fact that these accounts describe him singing The Sack of Troy, a now-lost Greek epic, shows how closely he was associated with these interests. Nero also entered the Olympic Games in AD 67, forcing a change of date to enable him to take part and adding a number of acting and singing competitions to make up for his lack of athletic prowess (despite which he ‘won’ every event that he entered, although his name was removed from the list of champions shortly after his death). In Athens, traces of Nero’s artistic interests can be seen on the southern slope of the Acropolis, where he donated a new stage to the Theatre of Dionysos – not just a key centre of the eponymous god’s cult, but the birthplace of ancient Greek drama, hosting the premieres of plays by Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes.
City of Hadrian
It is Hadrian (r. AD 117-138), though, who had the greatest imperial impact on the city. He was so enthralled by Greek culture that, as a youth, he was nicknamed Graeculus (‘Little Greek’), and as an adult he was the first Roman emperor to wear a full beard and moustache – a distinctly Greek fashion, in contrast to the austerely clean-shaven style favoured by most Roman elites. This esteem seems to have been mutual, as in AD 112 Hadrian was made an Athenian citizen and served a year as archon eponymus, the chief public official. After becoming emperor, he lavished attention on his favoured city, establishing a foundation to sponsor public games and festivals, building a large section of ‘new town’, and funding the construction of an aqueduct that for centuries remained the city’s main source of water. Sections of its 20km route can still be seen in Athens today, while the cavernous reservoir at its end survives behind large viewing portals in the upmarket Kolonaki neighbourhood at the foot of Mount Lycabettus.
Other grand projects included a vast library built in AD 132-134. Its remains stand a short distance to the north of the Roman forum, in the multicultural Monastiraki district, which is home to Orthodox churches and an Ottoman mosque, as well as sprawling flea markets that are a particular draw for souvenir-hunters. Today, Hadrian’s Library lies in ruins, but soaring sections of pillars testify to the former glory of a multistorey building that once boasted more than 16,000 ‘books’ (rolls of parchment and papyrus). Although now reduced to the lower courses of their walls, the layout of some of its main halls and smaller transcription and reading rooms can still be traced, with colourful fragments of mosaic floors visible among the grasses, poppies, and olive trees that now populate its inner courtyard. At the rear of the site, the library’s back wall still stands, with the niches that held many of its texts clearly visible, and the remains of one of the auditoria that once hosted lectures and public readings can still be seen in its northern corner.
Hadrian’s most-ambitious undertaking, though, was the completion of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which today stands in a wide green space bordered by busy roads near the National Garden. When work first began in 515 BC, it was designed as one of the largest temples in the ancient world, measuring a mighty 110m long – but construction faltered amid political upheavals and a lack of funding. Centuries later, Augustus took up the challenge of continuing the work, but it was Hadrian who finished the job in AD 131-132, inaugurating an enormous building flanked by two rows of 20 columns on each side, and three rows of eight at each end. The emperor was not shy about celebrating his achievement: the temple’s gold and ivory statue of Zeus was accompanied by a figure of Hadrian, and both individuals were worshipped as equals within its walls. Grateful citizens also marked the temple’s completion by building an 18m-high gateway now known as Hadrian’s Arch.
Made entirely of marble, this monument stands just north-west of the temple precinct, on an ancient street that led from the old city to the new district established by the emperor. Its façades combine Roman and Greek architectural styles, and inscriptions pay tribute to Hadrian’s public works. On the side facing the old town, the carved text says: ‘This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus’, while that facing the new district reads: ‘This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus’. Theseus, of minotaur-slaying fame, was a legendary founder-figure for the Athenians, and his pairing with Hadrian on this monument powerfully imagines the emperor’s works as a rebirth for the city.
Theatres and temples
Athens did not only benefit from the attention of emperors, however: fashion-conscious members of the social elite were also keen to demonstrate their cultured taste by bestowing grand public buildings on the city. A short distance to the west of the Roman forum lies the site of city’s original – and much larger – commercial heart: the agora. This space is scattered with the remains of religious, commercial, and public buildings, but they would all have been dwarfed by the construction of the Odeon of Agrippa in c.15 BC. Built to accommodate 1,000 spectators, this concert venue was a gift to the Athenian people by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a Roman general, statesman, and son-in-law of Augustus. The building’s ambitious design ultimately proved its undoing – its 25m span had no central support, and in AD 150 the roof collapsed – but the Odeon was rebuilt in grand style, gaining an ornate façade whose columns, crowned with huge sculptures of giants and tritons, still stand today.
Over on the lower slopes of the Acropolis, the winding path that leads throngs of tourists up to the hill’s famous temples passes the curved seating banks of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Impressively restored in the 1950s, this theatre has hosted performances by such modern icons as Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, and Elton John, but its eponymous founder was a Roman senator of Greek descent who also funded the rebuilding of the city’s Panathenaic Stadium entirely in marble (see CWA 106); this venue hosted games of the same name in ancient times, and some of the events of the first modern Olympics in 1896. As for the buildings on the Acropolis itself, the Romans seem to have drawn a line at significantly altering their layout – with one exception. Modern visitors admiring the iconic architecture of the Parthenon might initially overlook the rather unprepossessing collection of masonry fragments arranged in a circle nearby – but these are all that is left of a temple dedicated to the goddess Roma, divine personification of Rome, and the imperial cult of Augustus, probably built c.19 BC when the emperor visited Athens for a second time.
Many of the sculptures and artefacts recovered from the famous hilltop and its slopes are now displayed at the nearby Acropolis Museum, which opened its doors in 2009 (see CWA 96). Underneath this building, more evidence of Roman activity can be found in the form of an ancient neighbourhood whose remains were uncovered during the museum’s construction. Traces of buildings dating back to the 8th century BC have been identified on the site, together with signs of more-organised occupation three centuries later, though this early settlement was swept away by Sulla’s wave of destruction. From the mid-2nd century AD onwards, however, this part of the city flourished anew, and in luxurious style, gaining colonnaded courtyards, rooms with multicoloured wall paintings, mosaic floors, and private baths. These structures, too, were later destroyed (during the invasion of the Heruli, a Germanic people who laid waste to much of Athens in AD 267), but they were replaced in turn by more high-status houses in the 5th and 6th centuries. Today, the remains of streets and buildings from these different periods are preserved beneath the museum building, which floats above the archaeology on tall pillars. Much can be seen from the vantage point of the main courtyard (which also has glass panels in the floor, revealing sections of mosaic), but an admission ticket to the museum allows you to pass through turnstiles and follow raised pathways winding through the archaeological remains for a closer look.
Unsurprisingly, this is far from the only time that modern construction has brought ancient remains to light in Athens. In the run-up to the 2004 Olympics, for example, works to improve the city’s Metro system uncovered a host of important finds (see CWA 6), many of which are now on display in the stations whose construction led to their discovery. The creation of an associated ventilation shaft also revealed the well-preserved remains of a Roman bathhouse, which can still be seen on the roadside close to the National Garden, about 200m from Hadrian’s Arch. Dating to the late 3rd or early 4th century, this complex was one of the public facilities that sprang up in Hadrian’s thriving ‘new town’, and today you can see two hypocaust systems belonging to the caldarium and tepidarium (hot and warm rooms), as well as heating spaces, other small chambers, and a large water tank. Such finds represent only a fraction of the remains that may yet be uncovered during future developments within the city, but even today visitors can find plenty of echoes of Roman influence in plain sight.