Capital Idea

It has been said somewhere that there is power in knowing a name. Here’s your opportunity to gain a little power concerning Greek architecture. Here is a brief guide to naming the capitals, thanks to the archaeological museum at Ancient Corinth. The ruins there weren’t very well labeled, but we found this tidbit of information very helpful. I have arranged them in order of appearance in history and ornamentation. I hope this is helpful.

Doric Capital

Ionic Capital

Aeolic Capital

Corinthian Capital

Chimaera Capital

The Crumbs of Corinth

One early morning we hopped on the bus, rode nine stops, and then got on the Metro. We switched from the Metro after seven more stops and boarded the urban rail for the next hour. We caught a bus to modern Corinth and then changed busses once more to get to Ancient Corinth. We were on our pilgrimage to Corinth!

By the 6th century BC Corinth was one of the richest city-states in Ancient Greece. It was located on the Isthmus of Corinth, a thin stretch of land that connects the Peloponnesus to Attica, making this city strategic for both its trade and military access to the cities of Sparta in the west and Athens to the east. It was a powerful and influential city-state that usually allied itself with Sparta for protection. That ended when the Romans sacked Corinth in 146 BC. In 44 BC Julius Caesar decided to rebuild the city, and it once again became a major metropolitan trading center.

There is a museum at the entrance to the site of Ancient Corinth. Several statues, mosaics, friezes, and pottery pieces that were found on site are housed here. Most of them are Roman replicas of Ancient Greek pieces. Anything Greek from the site was pretty much destroyed back in 146 BC. There are pretty good write-ups for the pieces but not much to help connect the history of Corinth to the pieces.

The ruins of Corinth are just that: ruins. It was difficult to make out what was what and the map signposts that were situated around the site were not helpful. The only recognizable structure is the Temple of Apollo, built in the 5th century BC. The rest of the site was a mixture of rubble and foundations. There was an Agora with a forum for important government meetings and proclamations. It was here that Phillip II (Alexander the Great’s dad) had the people swear allegiance to him when he conquered the peninsula in 337 BC. It is also the place where the Apostle Paul preached Christianity for the first time to the people of Corinth.

The Lower Peirene fountain was really interesting. It is a natural spring that has been in use since ancient times and is still used by the people of Ancient Corinth for their water supply. The myth behind the fountain recounts the weeping of Peirene when Artemis killed her son. The gods decided to put the tears to good use and made this fountain. Doesn’t sound all that compassionate, does it?

I wish we had a bit more time, and that the kids had a bit more energy to tackle the Acrocorinth. The Acrocorinth is a natural fortress that lies on the top of a mountain directly behind Ancient Corinth. It is a beautiful mountain that everyone from Ancient Greeks to Ottoman Turks had used as a fortress lookout. Unfortunately, too many forms of transportation, a lackluster archaeological site, and the prospect of our return trip, left us resting in the park before our journey back to Athens.

On our way to and from Corinth the Urban Rail passed over the Corinth canal. If you blink, you miss it. Sorry, I blinked and therefore have no pictures, but there is a good story behind it all the same. The isthmus is less than four miles wide. The tyrant of the city-state of Corinth, Periander, at the end of the 7th century BC, decided it was time to really boost Corinth’s trade potential by digging a canal across the isthmus thus connecting the Aegean and the Ionian Seas. It turns out that the isthmus is almost entirely made up of rock, and he quickly changed plans. Instead he built a paved road for ships to be drug along to have access to both seas without having to sail all the way around the Peloponnesus. For the next 2600 years different rulers tried their hands at digging the canal. Roman emperor Nero took out a gold pickaxe and struck the first blow on his attempt. He then put 6,000 Jewish slaves to work on the project. A Gaulish invasion distracted him from the task, and it wasn’t until 1893 that a French engineering company completed the task. The steep sides of the canal are about 300 feet above the water at their deepest points, and it is about 75 wide. Almost solid rock the entire way. That would have been a lot of digging.


OK. Now before you get all worked up with, “Dude, you got to go to Santorini? Must be nice!” remember that it is still winter. It rained a bit and the wind howled the entire time which made it impossible to explore the volcanic center of the caldera. It also made for some lovely seasickness on the ferry both there and back. And, about 90% of all the stores and attractions on the island were closed. That being said, it was still beautiful, and we had the entire island to ourselves. That made it rather peaceful.

The island was once round. In fact its original name, Strongili, meant “Round Island.” Now it looks a bit like a French croissant with a small dab of jam in the center. Santorini is the southern most of the Cyclades islands, which were once a chain of active volcanoes until around 3000 BC when most of the volcanoes went dormant. People have lived here ever since. Sort of that is. Beginning around 1650 BC a century-long series of violent volcanic eruptions, arguably the largest ever recorded in human history, reconstructed the shape and habitability of the place. Huge tidal waves resulting from the earthquakes and eruptions were felt as far away as Crete, Israel and possibly Egypt. I happen to be in the camp of believing that these tidal waves were heavily responsible for the weakening and final demise of the Minoan civilization. I also think they may have played a part in the Exodus story in Egypt. After the 1440 BC eruption Santorini was pretty much devoid of life. Eventually Mycenaean Greeks made their way over and resettled the rumbly, now tiny, island. In 236 BC one of the current islets was created when volcanic activity separated it from the main croissant. In 197 BC a small island appeared in the bay at the center of the croissant caldera, a growing lava dome that became the island Palia Kameni. In AD 726 an eruption here launched pumice all the way to Asia Minor. Again in 1707, another eruption created a sister islet next to Palia Kameni with a hot spring in the bay between the two. More recently, in 1956, a massive earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale ravaged the island. As usual the locals rebuilt and continued on with their mellow, friendly lifestyle. Our “Lonely Planet” guidebook used a great word to describe the people here, insouciant. You can look it up for yourself.

Between 3000 BC and 1440 BC a highly advanced Minoan culture thrived on the island. The only evidence that remains can be found at the south end of the island at a site known as Akrotiri. Archaeologists have been having a field day here. Pottery, frescoes, statues, structures are all fairly well preserved due to their burial in volcanic ash. Unfortunately for us the site has been closed. A few years ago the concrete roof of an awning set up over part of the dig fell on some tourists and killed one. It’s been closed ever since. The legendary advanced culture of Akrotiri, even among people of the ancient world, has been connected to stories of the lost continent of Atlantis. It’s a fun idea to play with.

Evidence of the island’s volcanism can be seen everywhere. Just beyond the Akrotiri archaeological site is the Red Beach. We hiked along the road from Akrotiri past homes and small cafes through a fairly rural area. There is a striking Orthodox church built against the cliffs where the road ends and the trail to the beach begins. Sheer red cliffs of raw lava rock angle down to the surf. The layers of differing lava flows and ash make for great color on the cliffs. Rocks that fall to the sea are tumbled and buffed into smooth, beautifully colored red, black, green, and white stones.

Further evidence can be seen at Kamari’s Black Beach. Here the tidal zone is made up of surf-tumbled marble and volcanic stones, the majority of which are black. This was nice for us since it was windy and cold. By lying flat on the black sand we were able to keep quite warm. The real fun about this day was that we had the entire beach to ourselves. This is a beach that doesn’t even have standing room for sun worshippers during the summer months. We didn’t get much of a tan but Sam and I did test the water. It is cold.

On our bus rides around the island we encountered vineyard after vineyard of coiled dormant grape vines. Santorini is famous for its wines that get their unique flavor from the volcanic ash in which they grow.

On another day we walked down the face of the caldera to the old port of Fira. It’s a long cobble stoned path that most tourists bypass in favor of the tram that travels the same route. On our hike we were graced with spectacular views of the city of Fira dangling on the edge of the Caldera (How does it stay put?) and again dazzling layers of lava, ash, pumice, and even bed soil. Once at the bottom of the caldera, right on the port, we tested the buoyancy of the local pumice. I have only floated white pumice in the past, but on this day we discovered black pumice that floats almost as well as white. Red pumice we discovered is so buoyant that is should be used in the construction of life preservers.

It was also here on Santorini that Megan and I shared a romantic evening out for an early birthday celebration. There weren’t too many restaurants to choose from but we found a place for a local meal and a café with incredible crepes. But the best parts of the evening were the views we enjoyed. It’s as beautiful in the winter as they say it is in the summer.


Rome in the Shadow of Athens

The Romans began their conquest of Athens and their allies around 146 BC when they broke up the Achaean League but left much of Athens and its culture and lifestyle intact. If anything Rome emulated the Greek/Hellenistic way of life. Even after knocking down Athens’ walls and carting away much of the city’s wealth in 86 BC, Rome still honored the city by sending their most privileged youth to the city for their education. All this to say that Rome basically continued building Athens the way Pericles first envisioned it some 400 years earlier. The Romans really dug Greek culture.

Since the Greek Agora was getting too crowded, the Romans, under the direction and funding of Julius Caesar, built their own Agora. At one the end of the Roman Agora is a beautiful marble structure known as the Tower of the Winds. A Syrian astronomer named Andronicus built it in the first century BC. It is a three-story, octagonal building with each of its eight sides crested by a relief statue representation of the points on a compass. It functioned as a sundial/weathervane/water clock. It’s the only recognizable structure left in the Roman Agora.

The Roman Emperor Hadrian was also quite fond of Athens. After he stole most of the original classical Greek statues and art, carting them off to Rome, he threw his energies into copying the Classical style in his expansion of the city. Hadrian’s arch is a great example of this. It was built in AD 132 probably to commemorate the completion of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. More realistically it stood as a delineation point between Greek and Roman Athens. On one side of this marble monument it reads, “This is Athens, the Ancient city of Theseus.” On the other side it says, “This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus.” Clear enough!

Just beyond Hadrian’s Arch stand the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. This is a humungous Greco-Roman temple. It’s gargantuan! There is not much of it that remains, but if I put the rest of the pieces together in my mind, it harkens back to the scale of the Temple at Karnak, Egypt. This was a structure built for the gods, not for mere mortals. The Athenian ruler Peisistratos began it way back in the 500s BC. The scale of the complex bankrupt his budget for the temple, and it was abandoned. About 700 years later, in the year AD 131, the Romans under Hadrian’s rule competed the structure. It housed a massive statue of Zeus, and in typical emperor fashion, Hadrian had an equally large statue of himself placed alongside. This was a project more fitting of the Roman Empire mindset: Bigger is Better! Classic Greek architecture tended to be more elegant and refined, like the Parthenon. Roman copies tended to be bigger and not quite as graceful. This temple is an interesting mix of Greek elegance in its design and Roman massiveness in its size.

Hadrian continued his love affair with Athens by constructing a beautiful library near the Roman Agora. This structure was rectangular in shape with a courtyard in the middle. There were over 100 columns around this courtyard with a pool in the center. It also housed music and lecture rooms as well as a theater. Oh yeah, there were books there too.

No real ruler would be complete without leaving his mark on the Acropolis itself. The Roman General Agrippa built a 26-foot tall pedestal for a bronze statue of himself that sat right at the entryway to the Propylaia of the Acropolis. The statue showed him riding a chariot and commemorated his victory at one of the Panathenaic Games. When the general wins it usually means the race was rigged.

One other Roman structure worth mentioning is the Theater or Odeon of Herodes Atticus built in AD 161. Herodes was a wealthy Roman and built this theater in memory of his wife. It sits at the base of the Acropolis just below the Propylaia and is still used today for open-air performances of Greek drama during the summer months.

Rome clearly left its mark on Athens, but what better compliment could they pay the Greeks than to copy all their forms in art and architecture?

Thanks For Watching!

I just wanted to shout out a big thank you to all of you who have been visiting the blog. The dots on the map above represent that last 100 visitors to the blog from March 19th. It’s been very encouraging to monitor the web traffic. I know that sounds pretty nerdy, but when I began this blog I pretty much envisioned a few students, their parents, and some family and friends as visitors. To date there have been over 4700 visitors from every continent excluding Antarctica. So thank you for your support! And if you happen to know anyone in Antarctica that might be interested feel free to pass this along to them.

In the Shadow of the Acropolis

I mentioned this in an earlier blog entry, but Athens is a huge city. Not only is the city big, the buildings within the city are big. It doesn’t have the skyscrapers one might associate with a big city, but the close-knit eight story apartment buildings have a way of hiding anything more than a block away. The Acropolis is set up on a hill above all the buildings, but the numerous ancient sites that spread out before it are easily overlooked if you’re not careful. We had the luxury of several days to explore many of these sites, any of which if on their own would be a major attraction; it’s not easy living in the shadow of the Acropolis.

At the foot of the Acropolis to the northwest lies a smaller limestone mound known as the Aeropagus. There are no recognizable structural remains here, but it was the legal meeting center of Athens. Murder and treason trials were heard and decided here. For Christians this is an important site because in AD 51 the apostle Paul was invited by Athenian intellectuals to share his Christian beliefs with them. A leader from the local temple to Dionysus converted to Christianity and later became the patron saint of the city of Athens.

The ancient Greek Agora sprawls out below the Aeropagus. The first agora was built in the sixth century BC and was subsequently destroyed by the Persians after the battle of Thermopylae. A much grander agora was designed and built under the direction of Pericles during the Golden Age of Athens around 449 BC which remained in use until around AD 267 when a band of Scandinavian Goths called the Herulians pierced the Roman empire and sacked Athens. An agora was the modern equivalent of a town square. Everyday items were bought and sold, business deals were discussed and contracts sealed. Socrates and others spent a good deal of time teaching in the center. It was a place to see and be seen by other influential citizens. There were public bathrooms, fountains, and restaurants of a sort. It was all arranged kind of like a swap meet with covered stalls and some in the open air. The Stoa of Attalos is at one end of the Agora. Stoa is a fancy word for a shopping mall. It was a two-story mall where wealthy Athenians did their shopping. Today it is a well-organized museum of items found in the excavation of the grounds around here.

Further to the west of the Greek Agora is the Temple of Hephaestus. It was one of the first buildings Pericles commissioned to be built after the war with the Persians. Ictinus, one of the Parthenon architects, designed it around 449 BC. It is not as elegant or as large as the Parthenon, but is in better shape. There are 34 Ionic columns and a frieze with scenes from the Twelve Labors of Heracles surrounding the structure. And true to the god Hephaestus, the area around it was home to the foundries and metal shops of Athens. It’s really a beautiful and very accessible site.

Just beyond the Temple of Hephaestus is the Keramikos, the ancient cemetery from the 12th century BC to Roman times. Foundations of the walls that protected Athens as far back as 479 BC can be found here as well the Dipylon Gate where the Panathenaic procession began each year that ultimately ended up on the Acropolis. Along this procession way are the remains of many tombs, some to nobility and others for more ordinary citizens. All of this borders one of Athens' busiest roads. It always makes me wonder what I would find if I were to dig under one of these roads. There’s gotta be stuff under there!

Other than the Areopagus there are at least two other hills worth climbing, one to the east of the Acropolis and the other to the west. Likavittos Hill is to the East and has the best 360° views of Athens. It’s breath taking. Likavittos means “hill of the wolves,” of which there are none today. There are no major ancient ruins on 900-foot summit, but there is a beautiful little Greek Orthodox chapel there called Agios Giorgios. To the west of the Acropolis there is a great green space of trails beneath pine forests to the summit of Filopappou Hill. If you want to take sunset pictures of the Acropolis, this is the place to be. At the summit is a monument to Julius Antiochus Filopappou a distinguished Roman orator around AD 116. From here the views to the west of Piraeus and the Aegean beyond or to the east of the Acropolis are spectacular.