My Athens?

Over the course of the semester I have learned a lot about the history of Athens, the identity of its people, and some of the issues intertwined with reconciling modern identity and a powerful history. Before engaging in this course, I had very limited knowledge of Athens. I knew of the Acropolis, the city’s link to the modern Olympic Games, the nation’s recent economic troubles, and a bit about the history and mythology of Greece in general. I knew very little, however, about the city of Athens. My previous perceptions may have been quite ignorant, but I think they are also fairly representative of many Americans. In my mind this makes them key to my new understanding of both Athens and Greece, particularly the ways in which outside perceptions and relations affect Athens.

Classic three-quarter view of The Parthenon; Spyros Kamilalis; CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

The classical image of The Parthenon is key to this comparison. This image is universally recognizable. From just a look, most people could identify the building and even tell you were it’s located. Some might even be able to tell you approximately when it was built. However, that’s where general knowledge typically stops. So much more can be gleaned from this image though, if you know what to look for. People in the foreground allow us to perceive the structures massive size. Seams in the columns provide us with clues about the original construction techniques employed to erect the structure. Variations in style on the metopes hint at the number of artists involved in the project. Collapsed sections tell us of the Venetian attack on the city centuries ago. Scaffolding in the background suggests the ongoing efforts to preserve one of the oldest structures on Earth. All of these details are easily overlooked by those who are simply in awe of The Parthenon. The details, however, make the building even more incredible. They record a history which The Parthenon has endured with its city and generations of citizens.

Despite the fascinating record kept by both The Parthenon and the city of Athens, we tend to focus on the original structure and the classical era in which it was built. For centuries, classical Athens has been associated with democracy, education, art, and a sort of cultural sophistication to be strived for. As a result, modern institutions that want to emulate these qualities, have taken it upon themselves to present an image that makes us think of classical Greece. One of the main ways in which this is done is through architecture. Buildings are a very necessary part of large institutions. They are not only highly functional, but serve as a first impression of the institution. Prospective students tour their top choices of University, and this tour can often make a large impact on their decision. Important government buildings are visited by foreign diplomats, tourists, aspiring politicians and most frequently by elected officials and their staff. Effective architecture of these buildings can convey the authority and roots of the government while simultaneously inspiring civil servants. Design of prominent buildings can greatly affect perception and attitude towards the larger institution.

United States Capitol Building; Martin Falbisoner; CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

The United States Government was one of the first to institute democracy on a national scale, a governing system borrowed from classical Athens. Given the boldness of this choice, it makes sense they would want to ground their first impressions in tradition to exert a certain amount of authority. To that effect, the majority of US state capitol buildings are in possession of at least a few columns, and many are built in pale stone. Statues outside the structures are also quite common. Not to be outdone, the United States Capitol in Washington DC is built in white sandstone and littered with columns. The building clearly instills a sense of authority, stability and endurance, like it has always been there and will remain. These things can be inferred even without a deeper understanding of classics. However, when one recalls the origins of democracy in classical Greece. It makes sense that we equate these qualities with a structure that share the white facade and columns of The Parthenon and many other Greek structures, even if subconsciously.


Angell Hall at the University of Michigan; Emma Snyder-White

Academic buildings have also taken advantage of the implicit qualities of this sort of architecture. Angell Hall at the University of Michigan is even less subtle in its references to classical Greece. Above the entryway the carving resembles triglyphs and metopes. Carvings around the base of the columns include centaurs among other things, images frequently seen in Classical Greek work. When I first walked between the fluted columns, I could feel the tradition surrounding me, even though I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t know that it was Greece I was perceiving, I thought it was just academia. This thought was encouraged by the engravings at the base of the entryway listing some of the oldest fields, philosophy, poetry, mathematics, etc. If any question lingered about the nature of the institution, they would be answered by these. Even in my ignorance of the origin of the style, the classical Grecian style provided the perfect medium for the University to convey its intended message.

Having spent most of my life in and around high education institutions, I found this an interesting revelation. This subtle manipulation can affect a student’s choice of institution, or faith in their investment in an education. Sentiments like these can even go so far as to affect people’s motivations, both with regards to what they study and what level of effort they put in. The fact that our mindsets can be altered like this, without our knowing why is quite powerful.

This revelation also led me to reconsider the sources of my knowledge about classical Greece. I have received some education in theater and mythology in high school and college, as well as some exposure to fictional derivatives of these stories. However, one of the main sources of direct contact to classical Greece that I have experienced is museums. They allow us to view actual artifacts and art from the period, and according to the tour guide from the Kelsey Museum, Ancient Greece is a vital section in any classics collection.

Statue of a Young Girl; Marble-4th Century BCE; Emma Snyder-White

At the Kelsey Museum I was able to compare how my perceptions had changed after my additional education. Our course took a historical route, thinking about everything in terms of the history of the city of Athens. So when I walked through the doors I wanted to know the details of each piece. Who created them and why, who owned and used them, how they survived, and how they ended up at the museum. Unfortunately, museums tend to curate objects as art. Like many others, the Kelsey Museum had lots of pottery, and several sculptures and little information on their origin or function. Although this makes perfect sense, particularly given the age of the objects I found it frustrating. I did however find a new interest when observing the sculptures. This Statue of a Young Girl would have normally been of relatively little interest to me. I would have seen it as a “typical” classical sculpture, lacking a head and arms which isn’t uncommon. However, with my new found knowledge, I would have noted the intricate detailing of the dress. Both before and after my recent education, I would have noticed the statue was made in white marble, however recently I would have appreciated that that was not necessarily its original condition. Although we take for granted, now, what we perceive to have always been glowing white marble, many of the statues and buildings that remain used to be colored, which greatly changes their visual effects.

“You take cold, hard marble and you turn it into warm flesh and flowing drapery.”

Jenkins, “Bonnie Greer on The Parthenon Sculptures at the British Museum”
Elgin Marbles; Andrew Dunn;CC BY-SA 2.0

Focusing primarily on the artistic interest of classical artifacts is a pitfall into which many museums have fallen. One of the most notable cases of this is the British Museum. In the early 1800s, Lord Elgin brought the majority of the Frieze, along with various other marbles of The Parthenon to the British Museum. They have since been displayed in a long gallery facing inward, as seen in the image at left. They are out of order and thus out of context, displayed at eye level so that visitors may appreciate them as works of art. Although their artistic value is significant, they have a historical and contextual importance that is lost in this process. They were stripped clean many years ago, while in the possession of the museum because they were thought to have accumulated grime that may actually have been put there to protect them. The process may have damaged them, and was simply done because of the false notion that the marbles were supposed to be white. These sorts of aesthetic and artistic considerations don’t take into account the full historical importance of the artifacts, a fact that many may not realize, a fact that I did not realize. It’s important to loyally represent these histories, rather than polishing them, so that people understand the deeper context.

The Parthenon Frieze (Ζωοφόρος 1); thanassis 79; CC BY 2.0

Athens has recently constructed a new Acropolis Museum designed to house the artifacts of the Acropolis. It houses many of the artifacts left behind by Lord Elgin, and has space to contain those located in the British Museum as well. The Acropolis Museum makes an effort to display artifacts in a fashion similar to their original placement atop the Acropolis, with the upper gallery representing The Parthenon. This museum not only makes great strides in curation, but it also makes a great statement for the nation. It shows a desire to take charge of their heritage and the capability to do so.

The Greeks were ruled by external powers from the end of the classical period until the Greek War of Independence in the mid 19th century. During that time they were defined by their rulers, and always in relation to the classical era which was so idealized. Since the War of Independence, Greece has had difficulty regaining control of its national identity and heritage. These comparisons to the classical era, and our tendency to idealize it only exacerbate the issue. Through this course, my understanding of Athens has improved, but with each bit of knowledge that I gained came many more questions. I’ve realized that I cannot understand the city with being there, and I cannot understand its people without knowing them. My interpretation of Athens, while ameliorated, is still lacking. Thus, I have realized that I can neither speak for the identity of Athenians, or the ignorant masses who seek to claim a bit of their heritage.

Works Cited

79, Thanassis. “Ζωοφόρος 1.” Flickr, Athens, Greece, 23 June 2009, www.flickr.com/photos/30032040@N05/3654376814.

Angell Hall Facade. 11 Feb. 2019.

“Bonnie Greer on the Parthenon Sculptures at the British Museum.” Performance by Ian Jenkins, YouTube, YouTube, 15 July 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=CstmE8dmeEg.

Dunn, Andrew. “Elgin Marbles British Museum.” Wikipedia, London, England, 3 Dec. 2005, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elgin_Marbles.

Falbisoner, Martin. “US Capitol, West Side.” Wikipedia, Washington, DC, 5 Sept. 2013, www.ancient.eu/image/6798/parthenon—acropolis-athens/.

Kamilalis, Spyros. “The Iconic Temple of Athena Virgin, The Parthenon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Athens, Greece, 30 June 2017, www.ancient.eu/image/6798/parthenon—acropolis-athens/.

Statue of a Young Girl, Marble, Late 4th Century BCE. 17 Apr. 2019.