(Athʹens) [Of (Belonging to) Athena].
The modern capital of Greece, and its most prominent city in ancient times. It is located toward the southern end of the Plain of Attica, about 8 km (5 mi) from the Aegean Sea, being served by its neighboring seaport Piraeus, with which it was connected in pre-Christian times by long, nearly parallel walls. Its geographic location contributed much to its greatness in history. The mountains surrounding the city provided a natural defense, and the mountain passes were sufficiently far away to avoid the possibility of a surprise land attack. It was also far enough from the sea to be safe from an invading fleet, yet its three natural harbors in neighboring Piraeus were readily accessible from the city.
Cultural and Religious Center. Although Athens enjoyed some military fame as the capital of a small empire and as a strong naval power in the fifth century B.C.E., it was distinguished primarily as the center of Greek learning, literature, and art. It became a university city filled with professors, lecturers, and philosophers, being the home of such famous philosophers as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Four schools of philosophy were established there, the Platonic, Peripatetic, Epicurean, and Stoic (Ac 17:18), and these were attended by students from throughout the empire in Roman times.
Athens was also a very religious city, provoking the apostle Paul’s comment that Athenians “seem to be more given to the fear of the deities than others are.” (Ac 17:22) According to the historian Josephus, the Athenians were ‘the most pious of the Greeks.’ (Against Apion, II, 130 ) The State controlled religion and encouraged it by paying for public sacrifices, rites, and processions in honor of the gods. Idols were to be found in temples, in public squares, and on the streets, and people regularly prayed to the gods before engaging in their intellectual feasts or symposiums, political assemblies, and athletic contests. In order not to offend any of the gods, the Athenians even built altars “To an Unknown God,” to which fact Paul refers in Acts 17:23. Second-century geographer Pausanias confirms this, explaining that while he was traveling along the road from Phaleron Bay harbor to Athens (perhaps traversed by Paul on his arrival) he noticed “altars of the gods named Unknown, and of heroes.”—Description of Greece, Attica, I, 4.
Early History. The city grew up around the Acropolis, an oblong hill about 150 m (500 ft) high, which rises sheer on three sides. (PICTURE, Vol. 2, p. 749) During the seventh century B.C.E. it was ruled by a hereditary nobility or aristocracy known as the Eupatridae, who had a monopoly of the political power and also had control of the Areopagus, the chief criminal court at the time. During the early part of the sixth century B.C.E., however, a legislator named Solon made constitutional reforms that improved the lot of the poor and laid the foundation for a democratic government. However, it was democracy for only the free citizens of the land, as a large section of the population was made up of slaves.
Following victories over the Persians in the fifth century B.C.E., Athens became the capital of a small empire, controlling most of the coastal areas around the Aegean Sea and extending its trade and influence from Italy and Sicily in the W to Cyprus and Syria in the E. The city became the cultural leader of the ancient world, enjoying brilliant achievements in literature and art. At this time many beautiful public buildings and temples were erected, including the Parthenon (the temple of Athena) and the Erechtheum, the ruins of which can still be seen atop the Acropolis in modern Athens. The Parthenon was considered the principal architectural monument of ancient pagan religion and was ornamented by a 12-m (40 ft) gold and ivory statue of Athena.
This material beauty, however, did not produce true spiritual uplift for the Athenians, for the gods and goddesses honored by it were themselves depicted in Greek mythology as practicing every immoral and criminal act known to humans. Thus, in Paul’s day, the Greek philosopher Apollonius criticized the Athenians for their orgiastic dances at the Festival of Dionysus (Bacchus) and for their enthusiasm for the shedding of human blood at the gladiatorial contests.
The Athenian Empire dissolved after its defeat by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian wars at the end of the fifth century B.C.E., but its conquerors showed consideration to the city on account of its culture and did not totally ruin it. It was conquered by the Romans in 86 B.C.E. and was stripped of its trade and commerce; so, by the time Jesus and the early Christians came on the Palestinian scene, Athens’ importance lay primarily in its universities and schools of philosophy.
Paul’s Activity in Athens. In about 50 C.E. the apostle Paul visited Athens on his second missionary tour. He had left Silas and Timothy behind in Beroea with instructions to follow as soon as possible. (Ac 17:13-15) While waiting for them, he became irritated at the many false gods of the city and so began to reason with the people, both in the Jewish synagogue and in the marketplace. (Ac 17:16, 17) In recent years this marketplace, or agora, to the NW of the Acropolis has been fully excavated by the American School of Classical Studies. The agora was evidently not only a location for transacting business but also a place to debate and conduct civic affairs. The inquisitive attitude of the Athenians described in the account at Acts 17:18-21 is reflected in the criticism by Demosthenes of his fellow Athenians for their love of moving around the marketplace continually inquiring, “What news?”
While in the marketplace Paul was accosted by Stoic and Epicurean philosophers and was viewed suspiciously as being “a publisher of foreign deities.” (Ac 17:18) There were many sorts of religion in the Roman Empire, but Greek and Roman law prohibited the introduction of strange gods and new religious customs, especially when these were in opposition to the native religion. Paul evidently encountered difficulty due to religious intolerance in the Romanized city of Philippi. (Ac 16:19-24) The inhabitants of Athens proved to be more skeptical and tolerant than the Philippians, but they were still evidently concerned about how this new teaching might affect the security of the state. Paul was taken to the Areopagus, but whether he spoke before the court known as the Areopagus cannot be definitely stated. Some say that in Paul’s day the court itself was no longer meeting on the hill but in the agora.
Paul’s eloquent testimony before these learned men of Athens is a lesson in tact and discernment. He showed that, instead of preaching about a new deity, he was preaching about the very Creator of heaven and earth, and he tactfully made reference to the “Unknown God,” whose altar he had seen, and he even quoted from Phænomena by Aratus, a Cilician poet, and from Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes. (Ac 17:22-31) Although the majority ridiculed him, some Athenians, including Areopagus Judge Dionysius and a woman named Damaris, became believers.—Ac 17:32-34.
It is possible that Timothy joined Paul at Athens and was then sent back to Thessalonica; but it appears more likely that Paul sent word to him at Beroea to make this trip, thus leaving Paul without companions in Athens. The expression “we” at 1 Thessalonians 3:1, 2 appears to be used in the editorial sense by Paul as applying simply to himself. (Compare 1Th 2:18; 3:6.) If such was the case, then Paul departed alone from Athens, going on to Corinth, where Silas and Timothy eventually rejoined him. (Ac 18:5) It is likely that Paul revisited Athens on his third missionary tour (55 or 56 C.E.), since the record states that he spent three months in Greece at that time.—Ac 20:2, 3.
[Picture on page 211]
Modern-day Athens with its prominent hill known as Lycabettus