Where to go if You’re Interested in Ancient Wisdom
Where to go if You’re Interested in Ancient Wisdom
Athens, the capital of Greece, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. It also happens to be the home of western philosophy. Yet most tourists are unaware of the significance that certain locations in the city have for the history of philosophy.
Friends, and strangers, who share my love of history, often ask me what locations they should visit there.
I am originally from Scotland, emigrated to Canada about eight years ago, but recently became a permanent resident of Greece. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring Athens, doing research for various books on philosophy. (My graphic novel, Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, depicts scenes in the Ancient Agora and Delphi.) Friends, and strangers, who share my love of history, often ask me what locations they should visit there. So I finally decided to write this short guide to Athens for fans of ancient philosophy.
One thing worth clarifying at the outset is that ancient Greece ended up becoming part of the Roman world. In 146 BC, Greece was conquered by the Roman Republic, becoming a client state and later a province of what eventually became known as the Roman Empire. Later, under the Ottoman Empire, Greece was still referred to as the “Roman nation”. Many of the archeological ruins and museum exhibits in Athens actually date not from the classical period of Pericles and Socrates, et al., but from Roman era, particularly the rule of Emperor Hadrian.
The Academy was one of three large gymnasia or recreational grounds in ancient Athens. It is believed to be named after a legendary hero. It contained a large grove of trees, wrestling and boxing schools, and probably running tracks, where youths would exercise naked. Older men would also gather to give speeches and discuss politics and philosophy. Socrates is believed to have discussed philosophy, walking in the grounds of the Academy. However, it is most famous for being the location where his student, Plato, later founded his school of philosophy, which became known as the “Academy” after the park in which it was located.
This was the first major institute of higher education in Western history, the forerunner of all subsequent colleges and universities. Now every “academy” is named after Plato’s original school. We know that Plato had a house in the grounds of the park, and taught here, although it’s not certain that he taught in a building, as philosophers often lectured while walking in the open air. There would have been shrines here, to Apollo and other gods, as well as libraries.
When you walk in Plato’s Academy Park you’re walking where Plato once walked, discussing philosophy, and where his body was eventually laid to rest.
It’s often forgotten that Plato’s tomb was also located in the grounds of this park, although no trace of it remains today. When you walk in Plato’s Academy Park you’re walking where Plato once walked, discussing philosophy, and where his body was eventually laid to rest. I’ve often wondered if a memorial could be built in the park reinstating the original epitaphs from Plato’s tomb in ancient Greek, which several ancient sources attest. Diogenes Laertius, for example, quotes them as saying:
Here lies the god-like man Aristocles [Plato’s birth name], eminent among men for temperance and the justice of his character. And he, if ever anyone, had the fullest meed of praise for wisdom, and was too great for envy.
And we’re told it was accompanied, perhaps on another part of the tomb by the following:
Earth in her bosom here hides Plato’s body, but his soul hath its immortal station with the blest, Ariston’s son, whom every good man, even if he dwell afar off, honours because he discerned the divine life.
Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, later studied philosophy here for many years, under Plato’s successors. When the Roman dictator, Sulla, besieged Athens in 87 BC, his troops sacked the buildings of the Academy and cut down its trees for timber. Roughly a decade later, Cicero, the celebrated Roman orator and statesman, visited the Academy, and describes it being completely empty. It’s worth quoting what he says in full:
When we reached the walks of the Academy, which are so deservedly famous, we had them entirely to ourselves, as we had hoped. Thereupon Piso [Cicero’s companion] remarked: “Whether it is a natural instinct or a mere illusion, I can’t say; but one’s emotions are more strongly aroused by seeing the places that tradition records to have been the favourite resort of men of note in former days, than by hearing about their deeds or reading their writings. My own feelings at the present moment are a case in point. I am reminded of Plato, the first philosopher, so we are told, that made a practice of holding discussions in this place; and indeed the garden close at hand yonder not only recalls his memory but seems to bring the actual man before my eyes.” — Cicero, De Finibus
Today the Academy survives as a large public park called Akadimia Platonos (Plato’s Academy). It is located in one of the poorer suburbs of Athens, about 20 minutes walk from the Acropolis, and the centre of the modern city. Few tourists visit the Akadimia Platonos Park but it’s popular with locals who walk their dogs, jog, and bring their children to play there. You can see the ruins of several buildings from classical antiquity, including the foundations of the palaestra or wrestling school, and a peristyle building, which could perhaps have been connected with Plato’s school. There is a statue of Plato in the nearby square, close to which there is also a small digital museum commemorating Plato’s philosophy.
When I visited Plato’s Academy Park, it surprised me that there wasn’t already an international conference centre nearby. Who wouldn’t want to attend a conference or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy? I started talking to my friends and colleagues about this idea and before I knew it we’d set up a nonprofit organization, registered in Greece, called The Plato’s Academy Centre, with the aim of making this dream come true. It’s still in its infancy but we’ve already created a flourishing online community as the first phase of our project to bring philosophy back to the grounds of Plato’s Academy.
The Lyceum was one of the other gymnasia of ancient Athens. It’s most famous as the location chosen by Aristotle, one of Plato’s students, for his own philosophy school. However, before his time, other intellectuals taught there. According to one story, Protagoras, the first and most famous of the Sophists, had his controversial book On the Gods read here, which appears to have been an early statement of agnosticism.
As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life. — Protagoras, On the Gods
After Aristotle’s time, we’re told that Chrysippus, the third head (scholarch) of the Stoic School lectured here for a while.
Today, the Lyceum is a beautiful garden, which contains the ruins of a palaestra, or wrestling school. There’s a ticket office, where you must pay for entry, so the site is protected from vandals, and well looked after. It is located in Kolonaki, one of the most affluent suburbs of Athens, beside the National Gardens of Athens, and about 20 minutes walk from the Acropolis, and centre of the city.
The Acropolis and Parthenon
You can’t miss the Acropolis, the huge rock at the centre of Athens, where the Parthenon, or temple of Athena Parthenos (the virgin), the patron goddess of Athens, overlooks the city. It was originally a primitive hill fort, which evolved over the centuries into a stunning temple complex, symbolizing the height of Athens’ power.
Ancient philosophers, such as Plato and the Stoics, often refer to the notion of contemplating mortal events as though seen from high above. This perspective would have been familiar to ancient Athenians as the view from atop the Acropolis, looking down on the agora, where most of the business of the city took place, far below. This is the perspective of Athena, the view from above, looking over Athens.
This is a fine saying of Plato: That he who is discoursing about men should look also at earthly things as if he viewed them from some higher place. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.48
Marcus goes on to describe looking down on events of daily life, in agoras, or city centres like the Ancient Agora of Athens. In another passage, he actually mentions an acropolis:
The mind which is free from violent passions is an acropolis, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for refuge and in the future be unassailable. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.48
Today, the Acropolis is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Athens, located in the very centre of the city. There are many locations around the city from which it can be viewed in all its glory, such as at the top of nearby Mount Lycabettus. You can also buy a ticket to enter the grounds and climb up the Acropolis to visit the Parthenon.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus
There are also a number of important archeological ruins on the slopes of the Acropolis. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is an impressive ancient theatre, still in use today for musical performances. The Foo Fighters, for instance, recorded a concert here in 2017, and Bill Murray recently released a documentary of his musical show here. Herodes Atticus was a wealthy Greek orator, and a family friend of Marcus Aurelius. He grew up in the same household, at Rome, as Marcus’ mother.
Herodes was the leading figure in a movement known as the Second Sophistic, during his lifetime, the most pre-eminent Sophist, and effectively a billionaire philanthropist, responsible for several major buildings. However, he was hated by the Athenians, and frequently embroiled in controversy, e.g., being accused at one point of kicking to death his pregnant wife. During another trial, he lost his temper with Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and lunged toward him, risking being cut down by the praetorian prefect.
Marcus does not seem to have had a high opinion of Herodes. Although, he lists mosts of his main teachers in the first book of the Meditations, praising their virtues, he never mentions Herodes, despite the fact he as a family friend, and undoubtedly the most famous intellectual involved in Marcus’ education. Ignoring Herodes Atticus, Marcus instead praises a humble, unnamed slave, who looked after him and tutored him, as a small boy, in his grandfather’s household.
The Theatre of Dionysus
Near the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, lies the older Theatre of Dionysus, where many plays were performed, including The Clouds of Aristophanes. The Clouds ridiculed Socrates, during his lifetime, and helped fuel the gossip that led to the philosopher’s trial and execution. According to one story, some visitors from another Greek city were puzzled by the portrayal of this controversial figure on stage and asked who this man was. Socrates happened to be sitting near them in the audience and smiling, introduced himself to the whole audience, showing that he was completely unfazed by the harsh satire of him being performed on stage.
The Theatre was later restored under the Roman Empire, and sculptures from this era still stand there depicting crouching Silenos figures, which arguably bear a resemblance to earlier depictions of Socrates.
The Areopagus is a famous rock outcrop at the foot of the Acropolis, which served as a meeting place for political councils. It is also the location of a famous New Testament episode, called the Areopagus Sermon. Curiously, in this passage, from the Acts of the Apostles, we’re actually told that St. Paul spoke to an audience of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers here, and quoted lines from the ancient Greek poet Aratus, a student of Zeno of Citium, and possibly himself a Stoic philosopher.
The Ancient Agora of Athens
The Agora, meaning marketplace or city-centre, of ancient Athens was at the foot of the Acropolis. Socrates became associated with the agora as he chose to spend most of his time in the shops here, discussing philosophy with strangers, and his circle of friends. It is also believed that the trial of Socrates took place in the agora and that he was imprisoned and executed here.
Today the Ancient Agora is one of the most important tourist attractions in Athens, next to the Acropolis. There is a ticket booth and you pay for entry. The grounds are full of impressive archeological ruins, including the prominent temple of Hephaestus, patron god of blacksmiths, and other tradesmen. Overlooking the Ancient Agora is a large building called the Stoa of Attalos, which is actually a modern reconstruction of an ancient Greek stoa, or colonnade, two stories tall, which houses the Museum of the Ancient Agora. This is a small museum but it contains many pieces of sculpture unearthed in the grounds of the agora, including a stunning bust of Emperor Antoninus Pius, the adoptive father of Marcus Aurelius.
According to legend, Socrates spent much of his time in the shop of a cobbler called Simon. After Socrates died, Simon wrote the first Socratic dialogues, although his works are all lost today. This seemed like a fanciful myth, as Socrates was well-known for going around barefoot and placing him in a shoemaker’s shop seems deliberately ironic. However, archeologists recently unearthed cobblers nails in the ruins of a shop and, to their astonishment, nearby they also found the broken base of a kylix, or wine cup, which clearly has the name SIMON scratched upon it. This ceramic fragment can be seen exhibited in the Museum of the Ancient Agora today, and it arguably proves that Simon the Cobbler was a real person after all. Another surprising find, also exhibited in the Museum of the Ancient Agora, was a small statuette, which appears to be of Socrates himself, and was found in the ruins of the state prison, where we believe he was executed. It is as though the Athenians later felt remorse for having killed him and set up a shrine commemorating Socrates in the place where he was put to death.
The Stoa Poikile
The Stoa Poikile, or Painted Porch, was a colonnade on the edge of the Ancient Agora, facing toward the Acropolis. This is an important location because the Stoic school, which met there for centuries, was named after the Stoa Poikile. The Stoics set up their school, in other words, in the agora, among the hubbub of the city centre, where Socrates had once discussed philosophy. This perhaps marked a return to the “street philosophy” of Socrates, after Plato and Aristotle had retreated to teach in gymnasia outside the city walls.
The Stoa Poikile got its name because its wall displayed four huge paintings depicting historical and mythological battles. In a sense, it housed a small art gallery. During the life of Socrates, Athens was defeated in the Peloponnesian War, and the victors, Sparta, placed the city under the control of a military junta, called the Thirty Tyrants. The Thirty rounded up 1,400 immigrants and Democrats, seized their assets, and reputedly executed them at this location. If true, the Stoics must have realized their school met at the scene of one of the darkest incidents in Athenian history, where thousands of citizens had been summarily executed under the orders of a group of political tyrants.
Today, the ruins are in an area closed to the public, although visible through a fence. Part of the foundations of the Stoa Poikile are exposed, although the is hidden underneath adjacent buildings. Although once part of the Ancient Agora, the archeological site is separated from the rest by a train track and it is surrounded by shop and cafes on three sides. The American School for Classical Studies in Athens (ASCSA), the largest foreign archeological institute in Athens, has recently acquired some of the adjacent properties, which means they can be demolished, allowing archeologists access to the ruins underneath.
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi
Delphi was a nearby city, based around an ancient Temple to Apollo, which housed the famous Pythia, or priestess of Apollo, also known as the Delphic Oracle. The oracle was the source of many famous pronouncements. Perhaps most famously, for philosophers, it was the Delphic Oracle who pronounced that no man was wiser than Socrates, when consulted by his childhood friend, Chaerephon. In the Apology of Plato, which portrays Socrates’ defence speech during his trial, this incident features prominently. Socrates claims that he was forced to begin questioning others to try to prove that they had more wisdom than him, and show the oracle must be mistaken. That was the origin of his trademark Socratic Method, or the “question and answer” approach to doing philosophy. Socrates, effectively, says that the god Apollo, speaking through his oracle, assigned him the philosophical mission, which led to his trial.
The oracle also played an important role in the origin of Stoicism. Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school, was not an Athenian citizen but a Phoenician dye merchant, from Cyprus, who had been shipwrecked at the port of Piraeus, neighbouring ancient Athens. He traded a precious dye called Tyrian purple, made from the fermented innards of the murex sea snail. Zeno consulted the Delphic Oracle who pronounced, in typically cryptic fashion, that he should “take on the colour of dead men”. He was puzzled by this at first but eventually took it to mean that instead of dying fancy clothes purple, with dead sea snails, he should transform his own character, by dying his mind with the wisdom of dead philosophers, from previous generations. The philosopher Zeno appears to have been most impressed with was Socrates.
The famous maxims Know thyself and Nothing in Excess inscribed at the temple entrance became motifs in Greek philosophy…
Apollo was the patron god of the arts and, in a sense, this included philosophy. The Delphic Oracle was associated with hundreds of short maxims (typically two words each), which inspired many ancient philosophers. The famous maxims Know thyself and Nothing in Excess inscribed at the temple entrance became motifs in Greek philosophy, most notably in the Socratic dialogues. Several ancient sources also claim that the pre socratic philosopher, Pythagoras, was taught ethical philosophy by one of the priestesses of Apollo.
Today, Delphi is about two hours’ drive from Athens. It is one of the most astounding and beautiful archeological sites in the entire world, and definitely worth a visit. There is a small museum located in the grounds surrounding of the Temple of Apollo, which contains some stunning exhibits.
The Temple of Demeter at Eleusis
Eleusis was also a neighbouring city, located near Athens. It was the home of the Temple of Demeter, where the main religious cult of the Greek world, the Eleusinian mystery religion, was based.
During the First Marcomannic War, while the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was busy writing the notes that survive today as the Meditations, a tribe of nomadic Sarmatian horsemen called the Costoboci, rode all the way from their home (modern-day Romania) through the Balkans, to Eleusis, where they sacked the Temple of Demeter. Marcus swore an oath around this time that after the war he would travel to Greece, in order to be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries there. He was true to his word and visited Athens and Eleusis in 175 CE. Marcus had the temple complex rebuilt and fortified, and a bust of him, was erected over the main gate, surrounded by poppy flowers, a traditional symbol of the goddess Demeter. That statue still survives today, and can be seen among the ruins at Eleusis. (Although recently it’s head has fallen off, or perhaps been removed for repairs!)
Today, Eleusis, known as Elefsina in modern Greek, is a small town about an hour’s drive from Athens. It is a poor industrial region, lacking the splendor of Delphi. However, the ruins of the Eleusinian temple complex are quite extensive, spanning a small hill, which overlooks the nearby gulf. There is a small archeological museum at Elefsina, although I’ve never visited it because it was closed for several years, at the time when I visited.
What is Missing?
I mentioned there were three main gymnasia in ancient Athens. You can still visit the ruins of the Academy and Lyceum but the third, of the Cynosarges, or “White Dog”, nothing remains, and we’re not even certain of its location. The Cynosarges was where poorer citizens, and foreign immigrants, exercised and socialized, outside the city walls. It contained a shrine dedicated to the god Hercules. Socrates’ student, Antisthenes, a forerunner of the Cynic school, used to teach here, and it may later have become associated with Cynicism — there’s an obvious similarity between the name of the gymnasia (“White Dog”) and the school (Cynic means “Dog”). There is a modern suburb called Cynosarges but it’s unknown whether this actually corresponds to the location of the original gymnasium.
You also won’t find anything remaining of the famous Garden of Epicurus, a private, walled garden located outside the city walls. It’s exact location is unknown but it was said to lie somewhere between Plato’s Academy and the Dipylon or main gate in the city walls of Athens.
You may also stumble across a small cave in the slopes of Philopappos Hill, signposted as “The Prison of Socrates”. This is based on folklore and whatever purpose the cave originally served, there’s no evidence to suggest it was actually the prison of Socrates. Indeed, it is believed that Socrates was held in the state prison located in the middle of the Ancient Agora, the ruined foundations of which still exist today.
Let me know in the comments if you think I’ve missed anything, and I’ll be happy to update the article. I’ve only dealt with the locations of archeological ruins here and haven’t mentioned various other museums, which contain exhibits of interest to students of philosophy. The two best museums in Athens, in my opinion, are the Acropolis Museum and National Archeological Museum. The Benaki Museum and Numismatic Museum are also worth visiting, as is the Museum of Cycladic Art, although it relates to an earlier period in Greek history.
I hope you get a chance to visit Athens and see some of these amazing historical locations, especially the Acropolis, Agora, and nearby Delphi and Eleusis. If you’re interested in bringing philosophy back to Plato’s Academy Park, check out our Plato’s Academy Centre nonprofit startup, particularly the page explaining ways you can support the project.