When Paul arrived in 51 CE, Athens was a small city, about 20,000, far smaller than Corinth at 100,000, and well past its prime. Still, for prominent Greeks and Romans, it was a center of learning and the philosophical pursuit of truth. The Golden Age of Athens had been in the 5th century BCE during the rule of Pericles (b.495, d.429) who transformed Athens into an imperial city at the expense of other Greek city-states. Growing in power after repulsing the first Persian invasion at Marathon in 490, Athens' powerful navy dominated the Aegean Sea and Pericles built the Parthenon, the Erechtheum, and the Propylaea on the Acropolis with tribute money he extracted from the client states of the Athenian empire.
Paul doesn't say anything about Athens in his letters except that he was there (I Thess. 3:1), but Luke, the author of Acts, tells an interesting story of Paul's activities there (Acts 17:16-34). According to Luke, while waiting for Timothy and Silas, Paul explored the city. He no doubt visited the Acropolis, a religious shrine, for "he saw that the city was full of idols." He visited the synagogue and discussed his message with "the devout."
According to Acts, he spoke "daily" in the Agora, the civic and cultural center of Athens. There, he attracted the attention of some Epicurean and Stoic philosophy teachers, the leading philosophies of the day, who invited him to speak to them at Mars Hill.
Our first view of the Parthenon as we got out of the bus at the Acropolis.
As we went up the hill towards the Acropolis, we saw the Odeion of Herodes Atticus of Marathon (161 BC.)It could seat about 5,000 spectators and had an elaborate stage wall that rose about 85 feet to the level of the roof. The roof was constructed of cedar and the floor of the orchestra and the rows of seats were covered in marble.
This is one of the wings of the Propylaea (before the gate)which was built after 437 BC.
From this spot we could see the Beule Gate and beyond it the hill called Pnyx (tightly packed together) where the Ecclesia or public assembly of Athens would meet to discuss issues of the day and vote on them. More detail on these assemblies can be found at this site.
The word ecclesia means "called out" and was later used by Christians to describe the Church.
To the right of this was the Areopagus, which is both this hill and a Council with certain judicial functions which met there. It was here where Paul was asked to tell them about his "new teaching" (Acts 17:19.)
Turning now, we see the crown jewel of the Acropolis, the
Parthenon, commissioned by Pericles following the defeat of the Persians in 447 BC. Some studies of the Acropolis, including the Parthenon, conclude that many of its proportions are aesthetically pleasing because they approximate the golden ratio(when the ratio between the sum of two quantities and the larger quantity is the same as the ratio between the larger quantity and the smaller quantity--approximately 1.6180339887). The Parthenon's facade as well as elements of its facade and elsewhere can be circumscribed by golden rectangles. This view that the golden ratio was employed in the design has been disputed in more recent studies.
Measured at the top step, the dimensions of the base of the Parthenon are 228.0 x 101.4 ft. On the exterior, the Doric columns measure 6.2 ft in diameter and are 34.1 ft high. The corner columns are slightly larger in diameter. The Parthenon had 46 outer pillars and 19 inner pillars in total. The roof was covered with large overlapping marble tiles.
Our guide, Costas, talked about the Parthenon and the frieze on the west pediment.
Costas told us the story of the symbolism of the frieze in the west pediment, pictured here in a reconstruction. The Athenians were given the choice between the gods Poseidon and Athena. Poseidon drove his trident into the earth and a horse came out of the ground. He then promised them victory in all their battles. Athena then drove her spear into the ground and an olive tree came out of the ground as she promised them peace. To their credit, the Athenians chose Athena and dedicated the temple to her.
Costas also showed us the optical illusion used by the builders to counteract the laws of perspective and make the top step look straight. This was done by building it with an upward curvature towards its center of 2.36 inches on the east and west ends, and of 4.33 inches on the sides. This curvature of the top step can be seen in this photograph.
The columns also tilt in to fool the eye into seeing them as straight. It is not quite as easy to see this inward tilt of the columns, but it is visible when you compare the column with the scaffolding.
The Parthenon from the East side. Inside this architectural marvel had been a 40 foot high gold and ivory statue of Athena. The Parthenon became a Christian Church in 630 CE (dedicated to the Virgin Mary), a Moslem mosque in 1460 and survived virtually intact until 1687 when it was hit during a Venetian bombardment of the city and the gun powder inside it blew up.
Also on the Acropolis was the Erechtheion, a temple built between 421 and 406 BC, honoring Athena at this end and Poseidon at the opposite end which faced the sea.
On the side of the Erechtheion is the Porch of the Maidens (caryatids) which sheltered the tombs of some of the heroes of Athens. (The statues which took their name from the maidens of Caryae in Laconia, who carried vessels on their heads during an annual festival there.) The olive tree that we see here commemorates the ancient tree given to the city of Athens by Athena following her victory over Poseidon in their contest to be patron of Attica.
A closer view of the Carytids.
One last look at the Parthenon as we began walking down from the Acropolis.
A view of the Agora (town square) from the Acropolis. It was here that Paul first encountered the Athenians.
Another view of the Areopagus, where a council with judicial functions met. The word Areopagus means "Hill of Ares" and Ares, the Greek god of war, was known as Mars by the Romans and is therefore this hill is also called "Mars Hill."
The old stairs to Mars Hill in the center and a bronze plate to the right with the text of Paul's sermon there.
A closeup of the text.
From Mars Hill we had a spectacular view of the city with the Agora in the foreground. The long structure with the red roof is a reconstruction of the Stoa (porch) of Attalus, done by the American School of Classic Studies.