(Athʹens) [likely named after the mythical Greek goddess Athena, corresponding to the Roman Minerva].
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 four and a half miles (7 kilometers) 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 geographical 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 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 (Acts 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.” (Acts 17:22) In fact, according to the Greek writer Hesiod of the eighth century B.C.E., the ancient Greeks had upward of 30,000 deities. 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, 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.”
The origin of the city is shrouded in uncertainty, although archaeology indicates that it has been inhabited since very early times. The city grew up around the Acropolis, an oblong hill about 500 feet (152 meters) high, which rises sheer on three sides. 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. His principles of government were implemented by Cleisthenes toward the end of the century when he divided the state of Attica into artificial tribes and formed a council of 500, with 50 representatives elected from each tribe. Thus Athens became the center of the first state to experiment with a democratic form of government. It may be noted, however, that it was democracy for only the free citizens of the land, as a large section of the population was made up of slaves.
As the fifth century B.C.E. began, the Athenians came into conflict with the then ruling world power by joining the Ionians in revolt against Persia. This caused Persian King Darius (Hystaspis) to organize a campaign against Greece, resulting in his being defeated at Marathon in 490 B.C.E., chiefly by the Athenians. In 480 B.C.E. Athens had to be evacuated and abandoned to the Persian king Xerxes, but an Athenian naval victory at Salamis soon forced him to withdraw his troops.
FROM THE IMPERIAL PERIOD TO CONTROL BY ROME
A period of great prosperity followed as a result of these victories, during which time 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. Under the able leadership of Pericles, the city became the cultural leader of the ancient world, enjoying brilliant achievements in literature and art. It was at this time too that 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 thirty-foot (9.14-meter) 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. Even when Macedonian Kings Philip and Alexander controlled the city during the fourth century B.C.E., they treated it with favor and permitted it to continue as the home of democracy and philosophy. It was conquered by the Romans in 86 B.C.E. and stripped of its trade and commerce and 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. Its fame as a university city surpassed that of its two major rivals, Tarsus and Alexandria. Many of Rome’s prominent men traveled to Athens to study in her schools, and the city was allowed virtual autonomy.
PAUL’S ACTIVITY IN ATHENS
It was in this condition that the apostle Paul found the city in about 50 C.E. when he visited it on his second missionary tour. He had left Silas and Timothy behind in Beroea with instructions to follow as soon as possible. (Acts 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. (Acts 17:16, 17) In recent years this marketplace or agora to the N 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.” (Acts 17:18) This was a serious matter under Roman law, which provided that ‘no person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods unless they be publicly allowed.’ Paul likely knew this law, having perhaps encountered difficulty with it in the Romanized city of Philippi. (Acts 16:19-24) He was taken to the Areopagus, but whether this means the hill of that name or 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, rather than a new deity, he was preaching about the very Creator of heaven and earth who does not dwell in temples of human construction, and tactfully made reference to the “Unknown God,” whose altar he had seen, and even quoted from the works of Aratus, a Cilician poet, and from the Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes. (Acts 17:22-31) Although the majority ridiculed him, some Athenians, including Areopagus judge Dionysius and a woman named Damaris, became believers. (Acts 17:32-34) Whether a Christian congregation was formed in Athens at that time is not stated in the account.
It is possible that Timothy joined Paul at Athens and then was 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 1 Thessalonians 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. (Acts 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.—Acts 20:2, 3.
Athens continued to enjoy fame as a cultural center long after Paul’s day. Emperor Hadrian did final work on the building of the massive temple of Zeus known as the Olympieion in 129 C.E., a task begun by Pisistratus in the sixth century B.C.E. and rebuilt by Antiochus IV between 174 and 164 B.C.E. This temple, 318 feet (96.9 meters) long and 132 feet (40.2 meters) wide, was the largest in Greece and one of the largest in the world. Its ruins can still be seen to the SE of the Acropolis. Hadrian also began the construction of an aqueduct, still in use in Athens today.
In 529 C.E., however, Emperor Justinian forbade the study and teaching of philosophy in Athens and thus ended the glory of the ancient city. After this it sank into insignificance as a provincial town during the Byzantine period, when the Parthenon and the Erechtheum were converted into churches of Christendom. Over 250 years of Latin rule followed, after which the Moslem Turks controlled it for 375 years. The Parthenon was now transformed into a mosque. When the last Turkish stronghold was captured by the Greeks in 1833, Athens was chosen as the capital of the newly formed kingdom of Greece. Since then, from a mere village of less than 5,000 inhabitants in 1834, Athens has developed rapidly into a thriving, modern city of over 600,000 inhabitants with a metropolitan area population of over 1,800,000.
[Picture on page 159]
Modern-day Athens, showing the Parthenon on the Acropolis and, beyond it, the hill known as Lykavittos