Overview of Athens

Athens is the city that Greeks love to hate, complaining that it's too expensive, too crowded, too polluted. Some 40% of the country lives here, making the city burst at the seams with five million inhabitants, a rumored 15,000 taxis--but try to find one that's empty--and streets so congested that you'll suspect that each of the five million Athenians has a car. The new Metro (subway) station in Syntagma Square opened in January 2000, although work on the Metro elsewhere in Athens proceeds at a snail's pace, with the tunneling further complicating traffic in much of central Athens.

Knowing this, you may be wondering if Athens, with all its fabled glories, is the place for you. Don't despair: Quite soon, you'll almost certainly develop your own love-hate relationship with Athens, snarling at the traffic and gasping in wonder at the Acropolis, fuming at the taxi driver who tries to overcharge you--and marveling at the stranger who realizes that you're lost and walks several blocks out of his way to take you where you're going.

Even though you've probably come here to see the "glory that was Greece," perhaps best symbolized by the Parthenon and the superb statues and vases in the National Archaeological Museum, allow some time to make haste slowly in Athens. Your best moments may come sitting at a small cafe, sipping a tiny cup of the sweet sludge that the Greeks call coffee, or getting hopelessly lost in the Plaka--only to find yourself in the shady courtyard of an old church, or suddenly face to face with an ancient monument you never knew existed. With only a little advance planning, you can find a good hotel here, eat well in convivial restaurants, enjoy local customs such as the refreshing afternoon siesta and the leisurely evening volta (promenade or stroll)--and leave Athens planning to return, as the Greeks say, tou chronou (next year).

And if you do get caught in an Athenian gridlock, just remember what it was like when the Parthenon was built: Teams of mules dragged carts laden with 12-ton blocks of marble from Mount Pendeli along today's Queen Sophia Avenue to the Acropolis. If an axle broke, traffic stopped for several days until the damage was repaired.

If you take a look at "Suggested Itineraries for First-Time Visitors," you'll get some good ideas on how to approach the city. As far as when to go, from March through May it's almost always pleasant and mild in Athens, although Greeks say that the March wind can have "teeth." Between June and August, the temperature usually rises steadily, making August a good month to emulate Athenian practice and try to avoid the city. If you do come here in August, you'll find that Athens, like Paris, belongs to the tourists: 56% of all Athenians take their summer holiday between the first and fifteenth of August. September is usually balmy, with occasional light rain, although it's not unknown for August heat to spill over well into September. October usually offers beautiful summer/autumn weather, with rain and some high winds likely, and it might be intermittently chilly. Most rain falls between November and February, when Athens can be colder and windier than you might expect. Average daytime temperatures range from 52°F in January to 92°F in August. Stretches when it's well over 100°F are not uncommon in summer, when anyone with health problems such as asthma should be wary of Athens's nefos (smog). The city can be very hot and exhausting--be sure to give yourself time off for a coffee or a cold drink in a cafe. After all, you're on vacation!


ATH'ENS (ath'enz). A city named after the patron goddess Athena, and the capital of the important Greek state of Attica, which became the cultural center of the ancient pre-Christian world. It grew up around the 512-foot-high Acropolis and was connected with its seaport Piraeus by long walls in the days of its glory. Tradition carries the fortunes of the city back beyond the time of the Trojan War in the thirteenth century B.C.

After a great victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C. and at Salamis in 480 B.C., the Athenians were able to establish a small empire, with Athens as its capital and a substantial fleet as its protector. In the age of Pericles, an enlightened leader, art, literature, drama, and architecture flourished. But before the death of this great leader the Peloponnesian War broke out (431 B.C.), eventuating in the surrender of Athens to Sparta in 404 B.C. Thereafter the city passed through many vicissitudes politically, but the culture and intellectual preeminence of its inhabitants gave them prestige despite varying political fortunes. Four great systems of philosophy flourished there-Platonic, Peripatetic, Epicurean, and Stoic-attracting students from all over the ancient world.

The city was captured by the Romans in 146 B.C. and was under Roman rule when Paul came as a visitor (Acts 17:15). The remark of the sacred historian concerning the inquisitive nature of the Athenians (17:21) is attested by the voice of antiquity. For instance, Demosthenes rebuked his countrymen for their love of constantly going about in the marketplace, asking one another, "What news?" The apostle Paul's remark upon the "religious" character of the Athenians (17:22) is likewise confirmed by the ancient writers. Thus Pausanias and Philostratus, second-century A.D. writers, record altars dedicated to "the unknown god" as existing along the four-mile road from the port Piraeus to the city and elsewhere in the city itself (cf. v. 23). Pausanias, moreover, says the Athenians surpassed all other states in the attention that they paid to the worship of gods. Hence the city was crowded in every direction with temples, altars, and other sacred buildings. Among pagan temples still standing in the city are the Hephaistion, overlooking the marketplace (agora; which see), the temple of Zeus, and overtopping all, the architectural splendors of the Acropolis (which see)-the temple of the Wingless Victory, the Erechtheum, and the superb Parthenon. The American School of Classical Studies has excavated the agora and outlined the streets and buildings with which Pericles, Phidias, Plato, and Paul were familiar.

Mars' Hill or the Areopagus was at the W approach to the Acropolis. Here Paul preached the gospel of redemption through Christ to the devotees of three current philosophies-Platonism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism. The apostle argued against polytheism and offered salvation in the name of the one God manifested in Christ. Dionysius, an Areopagite, and a few others were converted (17:34), but Paul did not succeed in establishing a church at Athens, as at Corinth, Thessalonica, Philippi, Colossae, and Ephesus.

It was in Athens that Paul manifested evidence of his Hellenistic culture by familiarly quoting a verse taken from an invocation to Zeus, written by a minor Cilician poet, Aratus (312-245 B.C.). Doubtless while in the city the great missionary saw the music hall or Odeion of Pericles (cf. 1 Cor 13:1) and the great Tower and Waterclock of Andronicus (cf. 5:16). Likewise he may have visited the keramikos, or pottery-making section of the city, which was famous (cf. Rom 9:21).

Archaeological work in Athens has been extensive. The American School of Classical Studies excavated the agora from 1931 to 1940, from 1946 to 1960, and in the late 1960s. A few hundred feet E of the Greek agora lay the Roman market, built by Julius and Augustus Caesar. Here the Greek Archaeological Society worked intermittently from 1890 until 1931. Greek archaeologists also dug the whole Acropolis area down to bedrock in 1884-91, and the American School of Classical Studies excavated the N slope of the Acropolis in 1931-39. The Greek Archaeological Society worked at the Temple of Zeus in 1886-1901, and the German School conducted a new excavation there in 1922-23.  H.F.V.

From The New Unger's Bible Dictionary. Originally published by Moody Press of Chicago, Illinois. Copyright (c) 1988.)



Capital of Attica, the center of Grecian refinement and philosophy. Paul visited it in journeying from Macedonia, and stayed sometime (Acts 17:14, etc.; FOUR-DRACHM OF ATHENS. 1 Thess 3:1). Four hills are within it, the Acropolis, N.E., a square rock 150 feet high; W. of it is the AREOPAGUS (see). S.W. is the Pnyx, or Assembly Hill. S. of this is the Museum Hill. The Agora where Paul disputed was in the valley between the four. The newsmongering taste of the people (Acts 17:21) is noticed by their great orator Demosthenes, "Ye go about the marketplace asking, Is there any news?" Their pure atmosphere, open air life, and liberal institutions, stimulated liveliness of thought. Pausanias (1:24, sec. 3) confirms Paul's remark on their religiousness even to superstition: "the zeal devoted by the Athenians to the rites of the gods exceeds that of all others." See ALTAR, AREOPAGUS. Dionysius the Areopagite convert of Paul was, according to tradition, the first bishop of an Athenian church. Theseus' temple is the most perfect of the remaining monuments. The Parthenon or temple of Minerva, built of Penrelic marble, 228 feet long, 102 broad, 66 high, with 8 Doric columns on each front and 17 on each side, was the masterpiece of Athenian architecture. The colossal statue of Minerva Promachus, Phidias' workmanship, was 70 feet high, so as to be seen towering above the Parthenon by the mariner in doubling Cape Suniurn. Lord Elgin deposited several of the finest sculptures in the British Museum.

(from Fausset's Bible Dictionary, Electronic Database Copyright (c)1998 by Biblesoft)



(ath'-enz) Athenai In antiquity the celebrated metropolis of Attica, now the capital of Greece. Two long walls, 250 ft. apart, connected the city with the harbor (Peiraeus). In Acts 17 we are told what Paul did during his single sojourn in this famous city. He came up from the sea by the new road (North of the ancient) along which were altars of unknown gods, entered the city from the West, and passed by the Ceramicus (burial-ground), which can be seen to this day, the "Theseum," the best preserved of all Greek temples, and on to the Agora (Market-Place), just North of the Acropolis, a steep hill, 200 ft. high, in the center of the city. Cimon began and Pericles completed the work of transforming this citadel into a sanctuary for the patron goddess of the city. The magnificent gateway (Propylaea), of which the Athenians were justly proud, was built by Mnesicles (437-432 BC). A monumental bronze statue by Phidias stood on the left, as one emerged on the plateau, and the mighty Parthenon a little further on, to the right.

In this temple was the famous gold and ivory statue of Athena. The eastern pediment contained sculptures representing the birth of the goddess (Elgin Marbles, now in the British Museum), the western depicting her contest with Poseidon for supremacy over Attica. This, the most celebrated edifice, architecturally, in all history, was partially destroyed by the Venetians in 1687. Other temples on the Acropolis are the Erechtheum and the "Wingless Victory." In the city the streets were exceedingly narrow and crooked. The wider avenues were called plateiai, whence Eng. "place," Spanish "plaza." The roofs of the houses were flat. In and around the Agora were many porticoes stoai. In the Stoa Poecile ("Painted Portico"), whose walls were covered with historical paintings, Paul met with the successors of Zeno, the Stoics, with whom he disputed daily. In this vicinity also was the Senate Chamber for the Council of Five Hundred, and the Court of the Areopagus, whither Socrates came in 399 BC to face his accusers, and where Paul, five centuries later, preached to the Athenians "the unknown God." In this neighborhood also were the Tower of the Winds and the water-clock, which must have attracted Paul's attention, as they attract our attention today.

The apostle disputed in the synagogue with the Jews (Acts 17:17), and a slab found at the foot of Mount Hymettus (a range to the East of the city, 3,000 ft. high), with the inscription haute he pule tou kuriou, dikaioi eiseleusontai en aute (Ps 118:20), was once thought to indicate the site, but is now believed to date from the 3rd or 4th century. Slabs bearing Jewish inscriptions have been found in the city itself.

The population of Athens was at least a quarter of a million. The oldest inhabitants were Pelasgians. Cecrops, the first traditional king, came from Egypt in 1556 BC, and by marrying the daughter of Actaeon, obtained the sovereignty. The first king was Erechtheus. Theseus united the twelve communities of Attica and made Athens the capital. After the death of Codrus in 1068 BC, the governing power was intrusted to an archon who held office for life. In 753 the term of office was limited to ten years. In 683 nine archons were chosen for a term of one year. Draco's laws, "written in blood," were made in 620. Solon was chosen archon in 594 and gave the state a constitution. The tyrant Pisistratus was in control permanently from 541 to 527; his son Hipparchus was assassinated in 514. Clisthenes changed the constitution and introduced the practice of ostracism. In 490 the Athenians defeated the Persians at Marathon, and again in 480 at Salamis.

In 476 Aristides organized the great Athenian Confederacy. After his death Conon became the leader of the conservative party; and when the general Cimon was killed, Pericles became the leader of the people. In 431 the Peloponnesian War broke out and continued till 404, when Athens succumbed to Sparta. An oligarchical government was set up with Critias and Theramenes at the head. War broke out again but peace was restored by the pact of Antalcidas (387 BC). In the Sacred War (357-355) Athens exhausted her strength. When Philip of Macedon began to interfere in Greek affairs, Athens could neither resolve on war measures (to which the oratory of Demosthenes incited her), nor make terms with Philip. Finally, she joined Thebes in making armed resistance, but in spite of her heroic efforts at Chaeronea, she suffered defeat (338). Philip was murdered in 336, and Alexander the Great became master.

After the subjugation of Greece by the Romans, Athens was placed under the supervision of the governor of Macedonia, but was granted local independence in recognition of her great history. As the seat of Greek art and science, Athens played an important role even under Roman sway-she became the university city of the Roman world, and from her radiated spiritual light and intellectual energy to Tarsus, Antioch and Alexandria. Philo, the Jew, declares that the Athenians were Hellenon oxuderkestatoi dianoian ("keenest in intellect") and adds that Athens was to Greece what the pupil is to the eye, or reason to the soul. Although the city had lost her real independence, the people retained their old characteristics: they were still interested in art, literature and philosophy. Paul may possibly have attended the theater of Dionysus (under the Southeast cliff of the Acropolis) and witnessed a play of the Greek poets, such as Euripides or Menander. Many gifts were received from foreign monarchs by Athens. Attalus I of Perg amum endowed the Academy, Eumenes added a splendid Stoa to the theater and Antiochus Epiphanes began the Olympeium (15 columns of which are still standing), the massive sub-basement of which had been constructed by Pisistratus. Athens became a favorite residence for foreign writers who cultivated history, geography and literature. Horace, Brutus and Cassius sojourned in the city for some time. Josephus declares that the Athenians were the most god-fearing of the Greeks eusebestatous ton Hellenon. Compare Livy xlv.27.  J. E. HARRY

(from International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Electronic Database Copyright (c)1996 by Biblesoft)



[ATH ins]-the capital city of the ancient Greek state of Attica and the modern capital of Greece (see Map 7, B-2). It was the center of Greek art, architecture, literature, and politics during the golden age of Grecian history (the fifth century B.C.) and was visited by the apostle Paul on his second missionary journey (Acts 17:15-18:1).

Even today the visitor to Athens is impressed by the city's ancient glory. The ACROPOLIS (the great central hill)-with its Parthenon (the temple dedicated to the virgin Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the arts), its Erechtheion (the unique double sanctuary dedicated to Athena and Neptune), its Propylaea (the magnificent entrance), and its small temple to Wingless Victory (symbolizing the Athenian hope that victory would never leave them)-stand as monuments to the city's glorious past.

The history of Athens goes back before 3000 B.C., when a small village grew up on the slopes of the Acropolis. As it developed, Athens became a sea power with its port at Piraeus about eight kilometers (five miles) distant and its navy stationed at Phaleron. Its government developed in stages and in about 509 B.C. Cleisthenes provided a new constitution which became the basis of Athenian democracy.

Athens' history involved a number of battles with other city-states, such as Sparta, and with the Persians, who were led by Darius and Xerxes. In the sea battle with the Persians at Salamis (480 B.C.), the Athenians won decisively, but the retreating Persians burned Athens.

The rebuilding of Athens began under Themistocles and Athens started its golden age under Pericles (about 495-429 B.C.). Learning was stimulated and philosophers found Athens a congenial home (with the exception of Socrates, whom the Athenians put to death in 399 B.C.). Plato founded his famous school, the Academy, in 388 B.C.

As one visits the museum in Athens filled with statues and the theater of Dionysus with the heads of the gods removed, one recalls Paul's assessment of Athens as a city "given over to idols" (Acts 17:16). As one walks through the Agora (marketplace) and visits the reconstructed porch of Attalus, one remembers that in porches like these the ancient Greek philosophers used to debate. Acts 17:18, for instance, describes Paul's encounter with "certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers." In fact, the Stoics, the followers of Zeno (342?-270? B.C.), took their name from these porches. In this area, between the Acropolis and the Agora, lies the hill known as the AREOPAGUS (Mars' Hill), where Paul may have made his defense before the council of Athens (Acts 17:22-31).

(from Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright (c)1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)