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?

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