Walking around the busy streets of Greece’s capital is an experience like no other. The saying ‘you can feel the history’ is thrown around a lot, but Athens’ majesty merits this description more than most. Imagine yourself standing in the midst of the busy morning in the gridlocked Omonoia Square, with the scents of every different spice creeping out from the covered market; you look down the busy Athinas Street, and see the Acropolis, the timeless symbol of Athens’ heritage, rising above the horizon. No matter how time, culture and society move on, Athens is a city that refuses to belong to a single era. Not only is this true today, but it has been for centuries.
In early June, I set out to Athens, with the generous help of Reading Classics Department’s Austin Fund. I wanted to see Athens from the perspective of cultures interacting, assimilating and, perhaps, clashing. Specifically, I was interested in seeing how the culture of the early Christians found its place in the late antique city.
Walking around the city today, the assimilation of the cultures is represented by the various Byzantine churches that hide around every corner. The unsung heroes of Athens’ legacy, these oft forgotten structures are a true reminder that Athens’ rich history did not end with the Romans. However, my main interest in this trip was to see how some of the most important structures of the Classical era were repurposed for Christian use. The re-use of earlier buildings was a practice that was widespread throughout the Empire; indeed, many of our best-preserved examples of Classical architecture owe their survival to their Christian conversion (for example, the Pantheon in Rome, the Maison Carrée in Lyon, and many of the temples that are scattered around Sicily). In particular, I was interested to see the Parthenon and the Acropolis from this context of ‘Christianisation’, along with the Library of Hadrian, in which were built several Churches, the first being a 4th-century ‘tetraconch’ church.
Seeing this wonder of the Classical world from this new perspective was a truly great and useful experience; it reminds the viewer that the ‘Classical landscape’ played a defining role in making up the landscapes that would follow. Athens as city moved on from its Classical heritage; however, reminders of this legacy were mainstays on the city’s landscape, spearheaded by the Parthenon and the Acropolis.
Seeing the famous Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles in the ancient agora was an equally memorable experience. I was particularly interested to see how this place of worship affected the landscape of the Classical space. Overlooking the agora is the much-copied Hephaiston, a staple of Athens’ pagan past; I wanted to see how the Christian structure contrasted with the agora’s non-Christian past, and I was not disappointed. I was delighted to discover that, in the 7th Century, the Hephaistion was, like the Parthenon, converted into a Christian church to St. George. It was thrilling to get to know the temple’s later history, and more thrilling still to consider its implications on the landscape.
Seeing the physical indicators of the relationship between Christianity and pagan society was not the only outcome of the trip. Particularly memorable were the wonderful collections of the Benaki, Acropolis and Byzantine Museums; equally interesting were the other sites that the city boasts: the Kerameikos, the national gardens and the numerous churches. Experiencing the city’s culture was also a delight; walking the seemingly endless system of streets and side streets, stopping off for Greek coffee or souvlaki, being pestered by the various buskers on the Athenian metro and chatting with city dwellers all contribute to a truly memorable experience.
As a Classics student, I have spent my entire degree reading about the majesty of the ancient city, but nothing is comparable to witnessing it first-hand on an independent trip. It is an experience that I hope all Classics students and enthusiasts can undertake at some point during their lives. I would like to extend my deepest thanks to Prof. Marzano and the department for making this trip possible.
(BA (Hons) Classics 2015)