A Day In Old Athens
by William Stearns Davis
Places of General Resort.--The market is thinning after a busy day; the swarms of farmer-hucksters with their weary asses are trudging homeward; the schoolrooms are emptying; the dicasteries or the Ecclesia, as the case may be, have adjourned. Even the slave artisans in the factories are allowed to slacken work. The sun, a ball of glowing fire, is slowly sinking to westward over the slopes of Aegaleos; the rock of the Acropolis is glowing as if in flame; intense purple tints are creeping over all the landscape. The day is waning, and all Athenians who can possibly find leisure are heading towards the suburbs for a walk, a talk, and refreshment of soul and body at the several Gymnasia.
Besides various establishments and small "wrestling schools" for the boys, there are three great public Gymnasia at Athens,--the Lyceum to the east of the town; the Cynosarges[*] to the southward; and last, but at all least, the Academy. This is the handsomest, the most famous, the most characteristic. We shall do well to visit it.
[*]The Cynosarges was the only one of these freely opened to such Athenians as had non-Athenian mothers. The other two were reserved for the strictly "full citizens."
The Road to the Academy
We go out toward the northwest of the city, plunging soon into a labyrinth of garden walls, fragrant with the fruit and blossoms within, wander amid dark olive groves where the solemn leaves of the sacred trees are talking sweetly; and presently mount a knoll by some suburban farm buildings, then look back to find that slight as is the elevation, here is a view of marvelous beauty across the city, the Acropolis, and the guardian mountains. From the rustling ivy coverts come the melodious notes of birds. We are glad to learn that this is the suburb of Colonus, the home of Sophocles the tragedian, and here is the very spot made famous in the renowned chorus of his "idipous at Colonus." It is too early, of course, to enjoy the nightingale which the poet asserts sings often amid the branches, but the scene is one of marvelous charm. We are not come, however, to admire Colonus. The numerous strollers indicate our direction. Turning a little to the south, we see, embowered amid the olive groves which line the unseen stream of the Cephissos, a wall, and once beyond it find ourselves in a kind of spacious park combined with an athletic establishment. This is the Academy,--founded by Hipparchus, son of Peisistratus the tyrant, but given its real embellishments and beauty by Cimon, the son of Militiades the victor of Marathon.
The Academy is worthy of the visit. The park itself is covered with olive trees and more graceful plane trees. The grass beneath us is soft and delightful to the bare foot (and nearly everybody, we observe, has taken off his sandals). There are marble and bronze statues skillfully distributed amid the shrubbery--shy nymphs, peeping fauns, bold satyrs. Yonder is a spouting fountain surmounted by a noble Poseidon with his trident; above the next fountain rides the ocean car of Amphitrite. Presently we come to a series of low buildings. Entering, we find them laid out in a quadrangle with porticoes on every side, somewhat like the promenades around the Agora. Inside the promenades open a series of ample rooms for the use of professional athletes during stormy weather, and for the inevitable bathing and anointing with oil which will follow all exercise. This great square court formed by the "gymnasium" proper is swarming with interesting humanity, but we pass it hastily in order to depart by an exit on the inner side and discover a second more conventionally laid out park. Here to right and to left are short stretches of soft sand divided into convenient sections for wrestling, for quoit hurling, for javelin casting, and for jumping; but a loud shout and cheering soon draw us onward. At the end of this park we find the stadium; a great oval track, 600 feet (a "stadium") for the half circuit, with benches and all the paraphernalia for a foot race. The first contest have just ended. The races are standing, panting after their exertions, but their friends are talking vehemently. Out in the sand, near the statue of Hermes (the patron god of gymnasia) is a dignified and self-conscious looking man in a purple edged chiton—the gymnasiarch, the official manager of the Academy. While he waits to organize a second race we can study the visitors and habitues of the gymnasium.
The Social Atmosphere and Human Types at the Academy.--
What the Pnyx is to the political life of Athens, this the Academy and the other great gymnasia are to its social and intellectual as well as its physical life. Here in daily intercourse, whether in friendly contest of speed or brawn, or in the more valuable contest of wits, the youth of Athens complete their education after escaping from the rod of the schoolmaster. Here they have daily lessons on the mottoes, which (did such a thing exist) should be blazoned on the coat of arms of Greece, as the summing up of all Hellenic wisdom:--
Precept, example, and experience teach these truths at the gymnasia of Athens. Indeed, on days when the Ecclesia is not in session, when no war is raging, and they are not busy with a lawsuit, many Athenians will spend almost the whole day at the Academy. For whatever are your interests, here you are likely to find something to engross you.
It must be confessed that not everybody at the Academy comes here for physical or mental improvement. We see a little group squatting and gesticulating earnestly under an old olive tree--they are obviously busy, not with philosophic theory, but with dice. Again, two young men pass us presenting a curious spectacle. They are handsomely dressed and over handsomely scented, but each carries carefully under each arm a small cock; and from time to time they are halted by fiends who admire the birds. Clearly these worthies' main interests are in cockfighting; and they are giving their favorites "air and exercise" before the deadly battle, on which there is much betting, a the supper party that night. Also the shouting and rumbling from a distance tells of the chariot course, where the sons of the more wealthy or pretentious families are lessening their patrimonies by training a "two" or a "four" to contend at the Isthmian games or at Olympia.
Philosophers and Cultivated Men at the Gymnasia
All these things are true, and Athens makes full display here of the usual crop of knaves or fools. Nevertheless this element is in the minority. Here a little earlier or a little later than our visit (for just now he is in Sicily) one could see Plato himself—walking under the shade trees and expounding to a little trailing host of eager-eyed disciples the fundamental theories of his ideal Commonwealth. Here are scores of serious bearded faces, and heads sprinkled with gray, moving to and fro in small groups, discussing in melodious Attic the philosophy, the poetry, the oration, which has been partly considered in the Agora this morning, and which will be further discussed at the symposium to-night. Everything is entirely informal. Even white-haired gentlemen do not hesitate to cast off chiton and himation and spring around nimbly upon the sands, to "try their distance" with the quoits, or show the young men that they have not forgotten accuracy with the javelin, or even, against men of their own age, to test their sinews in a mild wrestling bout. It is undignified for an old man to attempt feats beyond his advanced years. No one expects any great proficiency from most of those present. It is enough to attempt gracefully, and to laugh merrily if you do not succeed. Everywhere there is the greatest good nature, and even frolicking, but very little of the really boisterous.
The Beautiful Youths at the Academy
Yet the majority of the visitors to the Academy have an interest that is not entirely summed up in proper athletics, or in the baser sports, or in philosophy. Every now and then a little whisper runs among the groups of strollers or athlete "There he goes!--a new one! How beautiful!"--and there is a general turning of heads.
A youth goes by, his body quite stripped, and delicately bronzed by constant exposure to the sun. His limbs are graceful, but vigorous and straight, his chest is magnificently curved. He lifts his head modestly, yet with a proud and easy carriage. His hair is dark blonde; his profile very "Greek"--nose and forehead joining in unbroken straight line. A little crowd is following him; a more favored comrade, a stalwart, bearded man, walks at his side. No need of questioning now whence the sculptors of Athens get their inspiration. This happy youth, just out of the schoolroom, and now to be enrolled as an armed ephebus, will be the model soon for some immortal bronze or marble. Fortunate is he, if his humility is not ruined by all the admiration and flattery; if he can remember the injunctions touching "modesty," which master and father have repeated so long; if he can remember the precept that true beauty of body can go only with true beauty of soul. Now at least is his day of hidden or conscious pride. All Athens is commending him. He is the reigning toast, like the "belle" of a later age. Not the groundlings only, but the poets, rhetoricians, philosophers, will gaze after him, seek an introduction, compliment him delicately, give themselves the pleasure of making him blush deliciously, and go back to their august problems unconsciously stimulated and refreshed by this vision of "the godlike."[*]
[*]For pertinent commentary on the effect of meeting a beautiful youth upon very grave men, see, e.g., Plato's "Charmides" (esp. 158 a) and "Lysis" (esp. 206 d). Or better still in Xenophon's "Symposium" (I.9), where we hear of the beautiful youth Autolycus, "even as a bright light at night draws every eye, so by HIS beauty drew on him the gaze of all the company [at the banquet]. Not a man was present who did not feel his emotions stirred by the sight of him."
The Greek Worship of Manly Beauty
The Greek worship of the beautiful masculine form is something which the later world will never understand. In this worship there is too often a coarseness, a sensual dross, over which a veil is wisely cast. but the great fact of this worship remains: to the vast majority of Greeks "beauty" does not imply a delicate maid clad in snowy drapery; it implies a perfectly shaped, bronzed, and developed youth, standing forth in his undraped manhood for some hard athletic battle. The ideal possess the national life, and effects the entire Greek civilization. Not beauty in innocent weakness, but beauty in resourceful strength--before this beauty men bow down.[*]
[*]Plato ("Republic," p. 402) gives the view of enlightened Greek opinion when he states "There can be no fairer spectacle than that of a man who combines the possession of MORAL beauty in his soul, with OUTWARD beauty of body, corresponding and harmonizing with the former, because the same great pattern enters into both." It is this masculine type of beauty, whether summed up in a physical form or translated by imagery into the realm of the spirit, that Isocrates (a very good mouthpieces for average enlightened opinion) praises in language which strains even his facile rhetoric. "[Beauty] is the first of all things in majesty, honor, and divineness. Nothing devoid of beauty is prized; the admiration of virtue itself comes to this, that of all manifestations of life, virtue is the most beautiful. The supremacy of beauty over all things can be seen in our own disposition toward it, and toward them. Other things we merely seek to attain as we need them, but beautiful things inspire us with love, LOVE which is as much stronger than WISH as its object is better. To the beautiful alone, as to the gods, we are never tired of doing homage; delighting to be their slaves rather than to be the rulers of others."
Could we put to all the heterogeneous crowd in the wide gymnasium the question, "What things do you desire most?" the answer "To be physically beautiful" (not "handsome" merely, but "beautiful") would come among the first wishes. There is a little song, very popular and very Greek. It tells most of the story.
The best of gifts to mortal man is health;
The next the bloom of beauty's matchless flower;
The third is blameless and unfraudful wealth;
The fourth with friends to spend youths' joyous hour.[*]
[*]Translation by Milman. The exact date of this Greek poem is uncertain, but its spirit is entirely true to that of Athens in the time of this sketch.
Health and physical beauty thus go before wealth and the passions of friendship,--a true Greek estimate!
The Detestation of Old Age
Again, we are quick to learn that this "beauty" is the beauty of youth. It is useless to talk to an Athenian of a "beautiful old age." Old age is an evil to be borne with dignity, with resignation if needs be, to be fought against by every kind of bodily exercise; but to take satisfaction in it?--impossible. It means a diminishing of those keen powers of physical and intellectual enjoyment which are so much to every normal Athenian. It means becoming feeble, and worse than feeble, ridiculous. The physician's art has not advanced so far as to prevent the frequent loss of sight and hearing in even moderate age. No hope of a future renewal of noble youth in a happier world gilds the just man's sunset. Old age must, like the untimely passing of loved ones, be endured in becoming silence, as one of the fixed inevitables; but it is gloomy work to pretend to find it cheerful. Only the young can find life truly happy. Euripides in "The Mad Heracles" speaks for all his race:--
Tell me not of the Asian tyrant,
Or of palaces plenished with gold;
For such bliss I am not an aspirant,
If YOUTH I might only behold:--
Youth that maketh prosperity higher,
And ever adversity lighter.[*]
[*]Mahaffy, translator. Another very characteristic lament for the passing of youth is left us by the early elegiac poet Mimnermus.
The Greeks unite Moral and Physical Beauty
But here at the Academy, this spirit of beautiful youth, and the "joy of life," is everywhere dominant. All around us are the beautiful bodies of young men engaged in every kind of graceful exercise. When we question, we are told that current belief is that in a great majority of instances there is a development and a symmetry of mind corresponding to the glory of the body. It is contrary to all the prevalent notions of the reign of "divine harmony" to have it otherwise. The gods abhor all gross contradictions! Even now men will argue over a strange breach of this rule;--why did heaven suffer Socrates to have so beautiful a soul set in so ugly a body?--Inscrutable are the ways of Zeus!
However, we have generalized and wandered enough. The Academy is a place of superabounding activities. Let us try to comprehend some of them.
The Usual Gymnastic Sports and their Objects
Despite all the training in polite conversation which young men are supposed to receive at the gymnasium, the object of the latter is after all to form places of athletic exercise. The Athenians are without most of these elaborate field games such as later ages will call "baseball" and "football"; although, once learned, they could surely excel in these prodigiously. They have a simple "catch" with balls, but it hardly rises above the level of a children's pastime. The reasons for these omissions are probably, first, because so much time is devoted to the "palestra" exercises; secondly, because military training eats up about all the time not needed for pure gymnastics.
The "palestra" exercises, taught first at the boys' training establishments and later continued at the great gymnasia, are nearly all of the nature of latter-day "field sports." They do not depend on the costly apparatus of the twentieth century athletic halls; and they accomplish their ends with extremely simple means. The aim of the instructor is really twofold--to give his pupils a body fit and apt for war (and we have seen that to be a citizen usually implies being a hoplite), and to develop a body beautiful to the eye and efficient for civil life. The naturally beautiful youth can be made more beautiful; the naturally homely youth can be made at least passable under the care of a skilful gymnastic teacher.
Professional Athletes: the Pancration
Athletics, then, are a means to an end and should not be tainted with professionalism. True, as we wander about the Academy we see heavy and over brawny individuals whose "beauty" consists in flattened noses, mutilated ears, and mouths lacking many teeth, and who are taking their way to the remote quarter where boxing is permitted. Here they will wind hard bull's hide thongs around their hands and wrists, and pummel one another brutally, often indeed (if in a set contest) to the very risk of life. These men are obviously professional athletes who, after appearing with some success at the "Nemea," are in training for the impending "Pythia" at Delphi. A large crowd of youths of the less select kind follows and cheers them; but the better public opinion frowns on them. They are denounced by the philosophers. Their lives no less than their bodies "are not beautiful"--i.e. they offend against the spirit of harmony inherent in every Greek. Still less are they in genteel favor when, the preliminary boxing round being finished, they put off their boxing thongs and join in the fierce "Pancration," a not unskillful combination of boxing with wrestling, in which it is not suffered to strike with the knotted fist, but in which, nevertheless, a terrible blow can be given with the bent fingers. Kicking, hitting, catching, tripping, they strive together mid the "Euge! Euge!--Bravo! Bravo!" of their admirers until one is beaten down hopelessly upon the sand, and the contest ends without harm. Had it been a real Pancration, however, it would have been desperate business, for it is quite permissible to twist an opponent's wrist, and even to break his fingers, to make him give up the contest. Therefore it is not surprising that the Pancration, even more than boxing, is usually reserved for professional athletes.
But near at hand is a more pleasing contest. Youths of the ephebus age are practicing leaping. They have no springboard, no leaping pole, but only a pair of curved metal dumb-bells to aid them. One after another their lithe brown bodies, shining with the fresh olive oil, come forward on a lightning
run up the little mound of earth, then fly gracefully out across the soft sands. There is much shouting and good-natured rivalry. As each lad leaps, an eager attendant marks his distance with a line drawn by the pickaxe. The lines gradually extend ever farther from the mound. The rivalry is keen. Finally, there is one leap that far exceeds the rest.[*] A merry crowd swarms around the blushing victor. A grave middle-aged man takes the ivy crown from his head, and puts it upon the happy youth. "Your father will take joy in you," he says as the knot breaks up.
[*]If the data of the ancients are to be believed, the Greeks achieved records in leaping far beyond those of any modern athletes, but it is impossible to rely on data of this kind.
Close by the leapers is another stretch of yellow sand reserved for the quoit throwers. The contestants here are slightly older,--stalwart young men who seem, as they fling the heavy bronze discus, to be reaching out eagerly into the fullness of life and fortune before them. Very graceful are the attitudes. Here it was the sculptor Miron saw his "Discobolus" which he immortalized and gave to all the later world; "stooping down to take aim, his body turned in the direction of the hand which holds the quoit, one knee slightly bent as though he meant to vary the posture and to rise with the throw."[*] The caster, however, does not make his attempt standing. He takes a short run, and then the whole of his splendid body seems to spring together with the cast.
[*]The quotation is from Lucian (Roman Imperial period).
Casting the javelin
The range of the quoit hurlers in turn seems very great, but we cannot delay to await the issue. Still elsewhere in the Academy they are hurling the javelin. Here is a real martial exercise, and patriotism as well as natural athletic spirit urges young men to excel. the long light lances are being whirled at a distant target with remarkable accuracy; and well they may, for every contestant has the vision of some hour when he may stand on the poop of a trireme and hear the dread call, "All hands repel boarders," or need all his darts to break up the rush of a pursuing band of hoplites.
The real crowds, however, are around the wrestlers and the racers. Wrestling in its less brutal form is in great favor. It brings into play all the muscles of a man; it tests his resources both of mind and body finely. It is excellent for a youth and it fights away old age. The Greek language is full of words and allusions taken from the wrestler's art. The palestras for the boys are called "the wrestling school" par excellence. It is no wonder that now the ring on the sands is a dense one and constantly growing. Two skilful amateurs will wrestle. One—a speedy rumor tells us--is, earlier and later in the day, a rising comic poet; the other is not infrequently heard on the Bema. Just at present, however, they have forgotten anapests and oratory. A crowd of cheering, jesting friends thrusts them on. Forth they stand, two handsome, powerful men, well oiled for suppleness, but also sprinkled with fine sand to make it possible to get a fair grip in the contest.
For a moment they wag their sharp black beards at each other defiantly, and poise and edge around. Then the poet, more daring, rushes in, and instantly the two have grappled--each clutching the other's left wrist in his right hand. The struggle that follows is hot and even, until a lucky thrust from the orator's foot lands the poet in a sprawling heap; whence he rises with a ferocious grin and renews the contest. The second time they both fall together. "A tie!" calls the long-gowned friend who acts as umpire, with an officious flourish of his cane.
The third time the poet catches the orator trickily under the thigh, and fairly tears him to the ground; but at the fourth meeting the orator slips his arm in decisive grip about his opponent's wrist and with a might wrench upsets him.
"Two casts out of three, and victory!"
Everybody laughs good-naturedly. The poet and the orator go away arm in arm to the bathing house, there to have another good oiling and rubbing down by their slaves, after removing the heavily caked sand from their skin with the stirgils. Of course, had it been a real contest in the "greater games," the outcome might have been more serious for the rules allow one to twist a wrist, to thrust an arm or foot into the foeman's belly, or (when things are desperate) to dash your forehead--bull fashion--against your opponent's brow, in the hope that his skull will prove weaker than yours.
The continued noise from the stadium indicates that the races are still running; and we find time to go thither. The simple running match, a straight-away dash of 600 feet, seems to have been the original contest at the Olympic games ere these were developed into a famous and complicated festival; and the runner still is counted among the favorites of Greek athletics. As we sit upon the convenient benches around the academy stadium we see at once that the track is far from being a hard, well-rolled "cinder path"; on the contrary, it is of soft sand into which the naked foot sinks if planted too firmly, and upon it the most adept "hard-track" runner would at first pant and flounder helplessly. The Greeks have several kinds of foot races, but none that are very short. The shortest is the simple "stadium" (600 feet), a straight hard dash down one side of the long oval; then there is the "double course" ("diaulos") down one side and back; the "horse race"--twice clear around (2400 feet); and lastly the hard-testing "long course" ("dolichos") which may very in length according to arrangement,--seven, twelve, twenty, or even twenty-four stadia, we are told; and it is the last (about three miles) that is one of the most difficult contests at Olympia.
At this moment a part of four hale and hearty men still in the young prime are about to compete in the "double race." They come forward all rubbed with the glistening oil, and crouch at the starting point behind the red cord held by two attendants. The gymnasiarch stands watchfully by, swinging his cane to smite painfully whoever, in over eagerness, breaks away before the signal. All is ready; at his nod the rope falls. The four fly away together, pressing their elbows close to their sides, and going over the soft sands with long rhythmic leaps, rather than with the usual rapid running motion. A fierce race it is, amid much exhortation from friends and shouting. At length, as so often--when speeding back towards the stretched cord,--the rearmost runner suddenly gathers amazing speed, and, flying with prodigious leaps ahead of his rivals, is easily the victor. His friends are at once about him, and we hear the busy tongues advising, "You must surely race at the Pythia; the Olympia; etc."
This simple race over, a second quickly follows: five heavy, powerful men this time, but they are to run in full hoplite's armor—the ponderous shield, helmet, cuirass, and greaves. This is the exacting "Armor Race" ("Hoplitodromos"), and safe only for experienced soldiers or professional athletes.[*] Indeed, the Greeks take all their foot races seriously, and there are plenty of instances when the victor has sped up to the goal, and then dropped dead before the applauding stadium. There are no stop watches in the Academy; we do not know the records of the present or of more famous runners; yet one may be certain that the "time" made, considering the very soft sand, has been exceedingly fast.
[*]It was training in races like these which enabled the Athenians at Marathon to "charge the Persians on the run" (Miltiades' orders), all armored though they were, and so get quickly through the terrible zone of the Persian arrow fire.
The Pentathlon: the Honors paid to Great Athletes
We have now seen average specimens of all the usual athletic sports of the Greeks. Any good authority will tell us, however, that a truly capable athlete will not try to specialize so much in any one kind of contest that he cannot do justice to the others. As an all around well-trained man he will try to excel in the "Pentathlon," the "five contests." Herein he will successfully join in running, javelin casting, quoit throwing, leaping, and wrestling.[*] As the contest proceeds the weaker athletes will be eliminated; only the two fittest will be left for the final trial of strength and skill. Fortunate indeed is "he who overcometh" in the Pentathlon. It is the crown of athletic victories, involving, as it does, no scanty prowess both of body and mind. The victor in the Pentathlon at one of the great Pan-Hellenic games (Olympian, Pythian, Isthmian, or Nemean) or even in the local Attic contest at the Panathenea is a marked man around Athens or any other Greek city. Poets celebrate him; youths dog his heels and try to imitate him; his kinsfolk take on airs; very likely he is rewarded as a public benefactor by the government. But there is abundant honor for one who has triumphedin ANY of the great contests; and even as we go out we see people pointing to a bent old man and saying, "Yes; he won the quoit hurling at the Nema when Ithycles was archon."[+]
[*]The exact order of these contests, and the rules of elimination as the games proceeded, are uncertain--perhaps they varied with time and place.
[+]This would make it 398 B.C. The Athenians dated their years by the name of their "first Archon" ("Archon eponymos").
...The Academy is already thinning. The beautiful youths and their admiring "lovers" have gone homeward. The last race has been run. We must hasten if we would not be late to some select symposium. The birds are more melodious than ever around Colonus; the red and golden glow upon the Acropolis is beginning to fade; the night is sowing the stars; and through the light air of a glorious evening we speed back to the city.
Medieval Greece / Byzantine Empire