Athens is said to have derived its name from the prominence given to the worship of Athena by its king Erechtheus. The inhabitants were previously called Cranai and Cecropidae, from Cecrops, who according to tradition, was the original founder of the city. This at first occupied only the hill or rock which afterwards became the ACROPOLIS; but gradually the buildings began to spread over the ground at the southern foot of this hill. It was not till the time of Pisistratus and his sons (B.C. 560-514) that the city began to assume any degree of splendour. The most remarkable building of these despots was the gigantic temple of the Olympian Zeus, which, however, was not finished till many centuries later. In B.C. 500 the theatre of Dionysus was commenced on the south-eastern slope of the Acropolis, but was not completed till B.C. 34O; though it must have been used for the representation of plays long before that period.
Xerxes reduced the ancient city almost to a heap of ashes. After the departure of the Persians, its reconstruction on a much larger scale was commenced under the superintendence of Themistocles, whose first care was to provide for its safety by the erection of walls. The Acropolis now formed the centre of the city, round which the new walls described an irregular circle of about 60 stadia or 7 1/2 miles in circumference. The space thus enclosed formed the ASTY, or city, properly so called. But the views of Themistocles were not confined to the mere defence of Athens: he contemplated making her a great naval power, and for this purpose adequate docks and arsenals were required. Previously the Athenians had used as their only harbour the open roadstead of PHALERUM on the eastern side of the Phaleric bay, where the sea-shore is nearest to Athens. But Themistocles transferred the naval station of the Athenians to the peninsula of Piraeus, which is distant about 4 1/2 miles from Athens, and contains three natural harbours,--a large one on the western side, called simply Piraeus or The Harbour, and two smaller ones an the eastern side, called respectively ZEA and MUNYCHIA, the latter being nearest to the city. It was not till the administration of Pericles that the walls were built which connected Athens with her ports. These were at first the outer or northern Long Wall, which ran from Athens to Piraeus, and the Phaleric wall connecting the city with Phalerum. These were commenced in B.C. 457, and finished in the following year. It was soon found, however, that the space thus enclosed was too vast to be easily defended; and as the port of Phalerum was small and insignificant in comparison with the Piraeus, and soon ceased to be used by the Athenian ships of war, its wall was abandoned and probably allowed to fall into decay. Its place was supplied by another Long wall, which was built parallel to the first at a distance of only 550 feet, thus rendering both capable of being defended by the same body of men. Their height in all probability was not less than 60 feet. In process of time the space between the two Long Walls was occupied on each side by houses.
It will be seen from the preceding description that Athens, in its larger acceptation, and including its port, consisted of two circular cities, the Asty and Piraeus, each of about 7 1/2 miles in circumference, and joined together by a broad street of between four and five miles long.
Such was the outward and material form of that city, which during the period between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars reached the highest pitch of military, artistic, and literary glory. The latter portion of this period, or that comprised under the ascendency of Pericles, exhibits Athenian art in its highest state of perfection, and is therefore by way of excellence commonly designated as the age of Pericles. The great sculptor of this period--perhaps the greatest the world has ever seen-- was Phidias, to whom Pericles intrusted the superintendence of all the works executed in his administration.
The first public monuments that arose after the Persian wars were erected under the auspices of Cimon, who was, like Pericles, a lover and patron of the arts. The principal of these were the small Ionic temple of Nike Apteros (Wingless Victory), and the Theseum, or temple of Theseus. The temple of Nike Apteros was only 27 feet in length by 18 in breadth, and was erected on the Acropolis in commemoration of Cimon's victory at the Eurymedon. A view of it is given at the beginning of this chapter, and its position on the Acropolis, on one side of the Propylaea, is seen in the drawings on p. 91, as well as on the Frontispiece of the work.
The Theseum is situated on a height to the north of the Areopagus, and was built to receive the bones of Theseus, which Cimon brought from Scyros in B.C. 469. It was probably finished about 465, and is the best preserved of all the monuments of ancient Athens. It was at once a tomb and temple, and possessed the privileges of an asylum. It is of the Doric order, 164 feet in length by 45 feet broad, and surrounded with columns.
But it was the Acropolis which was the chief centre of the architectural splendour of Athens. After the Persian wars the Acropolis had ceased to be inhabited, and was appropriated to the worship of Athena and to the other guardian deities of the city. It was covered with the temples of gods and heroes; and thus its platform presented not only a sanctuary, but a museum, containing the finest productions of the architect and the sculptor, in which the whiteness of the marble was relieved by brilliant colours, and rendered still more dazzling by the transparent clearness of the Athenian atmosphere. It was surrounded with walls, and the surface seems to have been divided into terraces communicating with one another by steps. The only approach to it was from the Agora on its western side at the top of a magnificent flight of marble steps, 70 feet broad, stood the Propylaea, constructed under the auspices of Pericles, and which served as a suitable entrance to the exquisite works within. The Propylaea were themselves one of the masterpieces of Athenian art. They were entirely of Pentelic marble, and covered the whole of the western end of the Acropolis, having a breadth of 168 feet. The central portion of them consisted of two porticoes, of which the western one faced the city, and the eastern one the interior of the Acropolis, each consisting of a front of six fluted Doric columns. This central part of the building was 58 feet in breadth, but the remaining breadth of the rock at this point was covered by two wings, which projected 26 feet in front of the western portico. Each of these wings was in the form of a Doric temple. The northern one, or that on the left of a person ascending the Acropolis, was called the PINACOTHECA, from its walls being covered with paintings. The southern wing consisted only of a porch or open gallery. Immediately before its western front stood the little temple of Nike Apteros already mentioned.
On passing through the Propylaea all the glories of the Acropolis became visible. The chief building was the Parthenon (I.E. House of the Virgin), the most perfect production of Grecian architecture. It derived its name from its being the temple of Athena Parthenos, or Athena the Virgin, the invincible goddess of war. It was also called HECATOMPEDON, from its breadth of 100 feet. It was built under the administration of Pericles, and was completed in B.C. 438. The Parthenon stood on the highest part of the Acropolis near its centre, and probably occupied the site of an earlier temple destroyed by the Persians. It was entirely of Pentelic marble, on a rustic basement of ordinary limestone, and its architecture, which was of the Doric order, was of the purest kind. Its dimensions were about 228 feet in length, 101 feet in breadth, and 66 feet in height to the top of the pediment. It consisted of a cella, surrounded by a peristyle. The cella was divided into two chambers of unequal size, the eastern one of which was about 98 feet long, and the western one about 43 feet. The ceiling of both these chambers was supported by rows of columns. The whole building was adorned with the most exquisite sculptures, executed by various artists under the direction of Phidias. These consisted of, 1. The sculptures in the tympana of the pediments (I.E. the inner portion of the triangular gable ends of the roof above the two porticoes), each of which was filled with about 24 colossal figures. The group in the eastern or principal front represented the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus, and the western the contest between Athena and Poseidon (Neptune) for the land of Attica. 2. The metopes between the triglyphs in the frieze of the entablature (I.E. the upper of the two portions into which the space between the columns and the roof is divided) were filled with sculptures in high relief, representing a variety of subjects relating to Athena herself, or to the indigenous heroes of Attica. Each tablet was 4 feet 3 inches square. Those on the south side related to the battle of the Athenians with the Centaurs. One of the metopes is figured below. 3. The frieze which ran along outside the wall of the cella, and within the external columns which surround the building, at the same height and parallel with the metopes, was sculptured with a representation of the Panathenaic festival in very low relief. This frieze was 3 feet 4 inches in height, and 520 feet in length. A small portion of the frieze is also figured below. A large number of the slabs of the frieze, together with sixteen metopes from the south side, and several of the statues of the pediments, were brought to England by Lord Elgin, of whom they were purchased by the nation and deposited in the British Museum.