ATHENS: APOSTLE PAUL PREACHES TO PHILOSOPHERS
Site of a Synagogue and the Agora, where Paul discussed philosophy with Athenian philosophers
Location of the Areopagus, a law court of the Athenians, where Paul praised Greeks for their attention to searching for God
Here Paul gave his famous speech concerning the altar to an Unknown God, where he argues that the Unknown God whom the Greeks were worshiping was the God of the Bible
Paul was taken to Athens from Berea, after escaping angry crowds in that city (Acts 17:13-15). After speaking in the synagogue of the city, he then went to the Agora and spoke for several days with Greek philosophers (Acts 17:16-18). He was then taken to the Areopagus, the most prestigious Court for the Athenians. It was here that he gave his famous speech referencing the altar to the Unknown God, where he preached the Gospel (Acts 17:19-31). Receiving a mixed reaction, he stayed in Athens for several more days. Some people believed, including Dionysius the Areopagite, a leading member of the council (Acts 17:32-34). Although there is no record of a church created at that time and no known letter written later by Paul to the Athenians, this episode shows the ability of Paul to be culturally relevant and to speak not only to Jews but also to Greeks.
Although its Acropolis was inhabited during Neolithic and Mycenaean times, Athens began to grow in power during the Archaic period (the eighth through sixth centuries BC). Under influential leaders, such as Solon and Peisistratus, Athens unified its power in Attica (the area surrounding the city). It soon became a cultural center for all of Greece, with its advances in theater, music, architecture, laws, and politics. Having repulsed the attacks of the Persians in 490 and 480 (although the Persians sacked Athens and destroyed much of the city), Athens became the center of a political and military empire over much of the Aegean. At the head of the Delian League, Athens amassed a great fortune, through which it built up great monuments, such as the Parthenon. After its defeat against Sparta in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, Athens see-sawed back and forth between democracy and oligarchy, until it ultimately succumbed to the Macedonians. In 86 BC, Athens was sacked by the Roman Sulla, and many major structures suffered damage. Although still an educational center, with many of the great Romans coming to Athens to study philosophy, the city was no longer a political power. Receiving a boost from Greek-loving Roman emperors in the second century AD, Athens was sacked again in the late third century, and the schools of philosophy were closed by the emperor Justinian in the early sixth century. During the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Athens was a backwater. It, however, was chosen to be the capital city of the new nation of Greece in 1833, gradually becoming the major center it is today, with approximately a third of the country (four out of twelve million) as part of its population.
Many important sites in Athens are centered on two adjoining locations: the Acropolis and the Agora. The Acropolis, a rock outcrop 300 feet above the rest of the city, is entered through the Propylaia, a monumental gateway built in the late fifth century BC. The two wings of the Propylaia consist of the Pinakotheke, an ancient painting gallery, and the Temple of Athena Nike, dedicated to the patron goddess of the city in her guise of the goddess of Victory. Within the Acropolis itself, two buildings dominate the scene. The smaller of the buildings, the Erechtheion, is an oddly shaped temple dedicated to Athena and Poseidon completed in the first decade of the fourth century BC. Built on two levels, the Erechtheion’s most notable features are the large ornate north door and the southern porch with Caryatids (columns in the form of female figures). The larger building, the Parthenon, was completed in only nine years (447-438 BC) under the leadership of the famous statesman Pericles and the craftsmanship of the sculptor Pheidias. Built of high quality Pentelic marble, the temple was laid out eight columns wide and seventeen columns long, all in the Doric order (the simplest and most monumental of the column types). Within the temple itself was the statue of Athena, nearly forty feet high, made of gold and ivory. The statue is no longer extant, although a small ancient model is currently in the National Archaeological Museum. Much of the building was damaged in 1687, when it was bombed by the Venetians while being used by the Ottoman Turks to hold gunpowder. The restoration of the monument, begun in the nineteenth century, will continue for several years.
On the way down to the Agora, one passes the Areopagus, or Mars Hill. Originally the location for the murder court of Athens, it became famous in the New Testament as the location of Paul’s speech to an Unknown God (Acts 17). The Agora, located to the west of the Acropolis, was the commercial and political center of the city. Sitting above the Agora to the west is the Temple of Hephaestus, built in the mid-5th century BC. It is one of the best preserved temples in Greece, due to its conversion to a church in the seventh century AD and its use well into the nineteenth century. The western side of the Agora contained many important administrative buildings (as did the northern side, but many of these are encroached upon by modern buildings and the Athens Metro). The Tholos, a circular building, served as the headquarters for the prytany (Council officers). The Bouleuterion to the north was the Council Chamber, which prepared voting material for the larger Assembly (consisting of Athenian males who wished to vote). Nearby is the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes, on which were erected the ten statues of the ten heroes from which Athenian tribes were named, functioning as a notice-board for Athenian news. Across from these structures on the east side stands the Stoa of Attalus, named after the King of Pergamon who built it in the second century BC. Restored and reconstructed in the twentieth century to its original form, the Stoa now contains the modern Museum.