Ancient Athens for Modern Readers

THERE were many ancient manuals describing Athens, her local traditions and her monuments. Of them all, one only, and that by no means the best, has descended to us. It nearly fills the first book in the description of Greece by Pausanias, “the traveler.” This work is based on an extended tour through Greek lands in the time of the Antonines, supplemented by liberal but somewhat uncritical use of good earlier accounts, and of classic Greek literature generally. The reëditing of Pausanias, in the light of recent excavations and discoveries, is probably the most important task remaining in the whole domain of classical studies. It is well known that the Germans who excavated Olympia were guided, almost at every step, by Pausanias’ detailed accounts of temples and monuments standing in his time. Whoever shall have the glory of laying bare what may yet remain of the Delphic sanctuary will be almost equally dependent upon every word of the much-abused Periegete.

His first book, however, is decidedly the least satisfactory of the entire ten, being overloaded with tiresome historical and biographical digressions, and no less remarkable for tantalizing omissions just where the reader is most eager for full information. There is also a striking lack of literary form and scientific observation of details, which is much less painfully felt in later books. Still, even for Athens, in the absence of Polemon’s famous work, and of the other competent guides which have perished, Pausanias must without doubt always furnish the chief clue. Any descriptive work on Athens for scholars and students will naturally take the form of a more or less literal version of his Attika, supplemented by an account of the buildings and ruins now visible, and their identification so far as may be possible. Even the guidebooks for the ordinary tourist, like the excellent German and English Baedeker for Greece in general, and the still more exhaustive French Guide Joanne for Athens alone, have necessarily depended to a large extent upon the information afforded by this ancient traveler. The best work on Athens in English for classical students has been, until recently, the rather heavy and unimaginative book of Dr. Thomas Dyer. There can be no doubt that his work, and indeed all others upon Athens, must be considered as superseded, to a great extent, at any rate for the moment, by the scholarly volume of two English ladies, which has been published this year.1

The dual nature of this work goes much deeper than title and authorship. Mrs. Verrall’s task, indeed, though not altogether easy, was comparatively small and definitely limited. It has apparently been executed in a perfectly satisfactory manner.

Miss Harrison, the real authoress, is best known, and prefers to be known, as a special student of mythology. She has, in fact, like so many before her, discovered a key which explains some famous myths most neatly and ingeniously ; and she is in danger of carrying its use too far. Her theory is, in a word, that the discordant or irrelevant additions to a simpler earlier myth were usually suggested by, and were invented to account for, some traditional rite, whose real origin and purport were no longer known to the classic priest or worshiper, — though they may be rediscovered by keener modern eyes. Her preliminary essay of one hundred and fifty-six pages, discussing the principal Attic legends, is offered merely as “prolegomena to a more systematic study.” It is interesting, certainly, and full of suggestion ; and neither this dissertation itself, nor the numerous digressions into the same field throughout the body of the volume, can fairly be criticised as prolix.

Yet undoubtedly it is true that most students will turn eagerly to this volume, not for a new theory upon the origin and growth of myths, but rather for a full and authoritative statement concerning the excavations and the brilliant discoveries of the last few years within the limits of Athens. And while such readers will find here a great wealth of information on these subjects, they will often feel that they are having to stem a strong cross-current in the effort to reach what they seek. Indeed, Miss Harrison avows at once, in title and preface, that her own first and heartiest interest is aroused rather by myth and ritual than by the visible remains of antiquity.

In one important instance, at least, we think we have good ground for discontent on this account. Perhaps the most surprising and widely known discovery of recent years was the “ find ” of some twenty archaic female figures in Parian marble, to the northwest of the Erechtheion, during the excavations upon the Acropolis in May, 1886. Mr. Russell Sturgis has just published a valuable essay on the coloring of Greek statues,2 which is almost wholly illustrated from these precious discoveries; and Professor Alfred Emerson, in his review of the progress in classical archæology during the last decade,3 properly devotes three pages out of fortyseven to " the greatest archæological event of this epoch.”

Miss Harrison summarily decides that these figures cannot be statues of the goddess Athene herself, as they lack her essential attributes. This decision — which is by no means undisputed — seemingly destroys all interest in them on the part of our authoress in her chief character as mythographer. At any rate, we get no word as to their number, size, or material; no description of them collectively, nor of any one singly. Hardly a half page, in a volume of eight hundred pages, is given to the subject; and of Miss Harrison’s two hundred and fifty illustrations, one, of the smallest, is devoted to one of these statues, — because it may possibly resemble an old priestess, who is casually mentioned by Pausanias !

On the whole, we think Miss Harrison would have laid us under still greater obligations if she had decided to publish two distinct works, — one setting forth her theories on ritual and myth, the other devoted to the topography and monuments of Athens ; and some such bisection will, we imagine, actually force itself upon the authoress, if she undertakes a revision of the present volume.

It is no discourtesy to these ladies, nor any disparagement of their work, to say that the element in this book which makes it indispensable to all students, even the most advanced, of Athenian topography is not contributed by either of them. Miss Harrison states most frankly her obligations to and dependence upon Dr. Dörpfeld. Any writer on the same subject at this time should feel compelled to acknowledge an equally heavy debt to this most remarkable archæologist. Entering the archæological field with the training and the tastes of an architect rather than of the traditional classical philologist, his almost infallible acuteness and insight have thrown a fresh light on nearly every vexed problem of Attic topography. It is a most happy chance that has developed such a genius during these last years, which have been so full of fruitful excavations and important discoveries. But the brilliant German scholar displays another characteristic of true genius in the prodigality, the utter lack of selfishness or jealousy, with which he imparts his ideas to all his fellow-workers and disciples.

There are many subjects in which Miss Harrison puts forth revolutionary theories, and sustains them by ingenious proof, or by calling attention to remains hitherto unnoticed. In all or nearly all these cases, not only has she been Dr. Dörpfeld’s pupil, but he has revised and completed her work, both in manuscript and in the proof-sheets. It is not easy to mention another archæologist, living or dead, who would thus cheerfully permit the first publication of many among his own most notable discoveries by another hand, and in a foreign language. Perhaps this generous example may be hardly less helpful to the scholars of the world than the technical results of Dörpfeld’s studies, great as these are.

Of course some of the illustrious German’s most revolutionary views are already well known, through his own essays in learned periodicals, or from the publication of them by others. In particular, Dörpfeld’s famous thesis — that the Greek theatres in the fifth century B. C. had no stage whatever higher than the level of the orchestra — divides the scholarly world at the present moment into two hostile camps. Yet even in these cases he has enriched Miss Harrison’s pages at every turn with the latest results of his investigations. In other matters, such as the new location of the Athenian market-place and of the buildings known to have been near it, the views here set forth, as well as the evidence by which they are defended, will be new to nearly all readers.

There really is only one point of any importance in the entire book at which the authoress ventures, though not without serious misgiving, to part company with her Mentor. Even this is a literary rather than a topographical question, namely, whether a certain passage of Pausanias is to be understood as referring to the Erechtheion, or to the “ old temple ” of Athena on the Acropolis, — the existence of such a temple having been demonstrated, and its remains identified, by Dr. Dörpfeld, some years ago.

This is, however, only one, though the most striking, example of the diligent and judicious effort made by the authoress to record the latest results attained by the most eminent special investigators in their several fields. In the explanation of the figures in the pediments of the Parthenon, for instance, full acknowledgment is made to our own director, Dr. Waldstein, for his “severe and studied application ” of the true method to be followed in the interpretation of such sculptures. American readers will be gratified also by the hearty praise accorded to Professor J. R. Wheeler’s essay on the Dionysiac theatre, written while its author was a member of the American School. Miss Harrison remarks, “The whole account is the best existing in English.” Every such word is a welcome reminder that the new generation of American students have found their way to the sources, and that the second-hand scholarship of the past will satisfy us no more.

There are certain defects in this volume, to which we are the more fully justified in calling attention because the abundance and freshness of its information make it a necessity to every student of the subject. To begin with, the least important, or the most pedantic, of our grievances, Greek words, even quite familiar ones, are very inaccurately accented. Perhaps we have no right to demand exactness in this nicety from our English cousins so long as they ignore, in pronouncing Greek, the very accents which they print and write. In fact, their best known writer on Greek composition, after the twenty-fifth exercise of his book for beginners in that delightful art, makes a first allusion to “accents, to which the learner had better not attend at present ” ! Miss Harrison and her proof-reader seem, at times, to be docile pupils of Professor Sidgwick. There are, indeed, too many other indications of haste or insufficient pains in final revision. The English text also abounds in printer’s mistakes, and erroneous or insufficient references occur to baffle the conscientious student. These blemishes will, we trust, be effaced in a second edition, and no doubt Miss Harrison would fully appreciate any corrections by her readers. The work is of a kind which makes perfection in such matters almost unattainable, save by the aid of many co-workers.

The translations of the poetical quotations are chiefly credited to D. S. MacColl, and are executed with a freedom which makes them unsafe to accept as equivalents of the Greek. The present writer deliberately believes that the use of rhyme in translation from the classic poets inevitably brings with it so many modern associations and such constant temptation to stray away from one’s text that it can be approved only in great artists like Fitzgerald, from whom we gladly accept something equally beautiful with the original, however diverse from it. This conviction is certainly not shaken by such rollicking jingles as, —

“ In a myrtle bough shall my sword be hid.
So Harmodios and Ariatogeiton did,
When, on the day of the offering,
They slew Hipparchus the tyrant, king.”

There is a great wealth of illustrations throughout the book. Many of these, especially the drawings from vasepaintings not elsewhere accessible, are extremely helpful. It would, perhaps, be ungrateful to complain of the injury many of them have suffered in the processes of reproduction and reduction. Yet in some cases, especially where views of confused ruins are presented, very little can be distinguished, even by those readers who are familiar with the objects illustrated. Students will, in many cases, wish to supplement this book by a collection of photographs, — such, for instance, as the admirable series of the (English) Hellenic Society.

We venture to hope that in a subsequent edition the notes will be either set at the foot of each page, or else at least collected in one place at the end of the volume, instead of being massed at five irregular intervals in the body of the work, reminding us of the depots of provisions, etc., on the great Persian highways.

Miss Harrison tells us most frankly at the outset that her own competence, at first hand, is confined to the realm of the myths. We have repeatedly expressed our gratitude for the diligence and good judgment with which she follows the best guides in other fields. Of course no student will, in every case, agree with her choice of an authority or with her own conclusions. We must protest here, however, in particular, against her apparent acceptance of the modern Greek pronunciation as the nearest practicable approach to the ancient utterance. The classical orthography was at least approximately rational. The three vowels and four diphthongs to which the modern Romaic gives one value, ēē, were written originally for the express purpose of representing seven distinct sounds.

There are, naturally, many portions of this work which show distinctly its real character as in great part a compilation. This is, perhaps, nowhere so evident as in the historical explanations, which have a somewhat perfunctory character. There is one long paragraph (page 60) which we have read repeatedly, and can make nothing of on any other theory than the utterly incredible one that Miss Harrison supposes Ægina and Salamis to be alternative names for the same island! But enough, and too much, already, of this thankless carping over details. The few things which the critic cannot approve inevitably demand far more space than he can occupy in expressing his appreciation of the many that have instructed and delighted him.

In closing these remarks on a book that, by its character and its very authorship, is peculiarly significant of the great and encouraging changes which classical studies are now undergoing, we wish to express our most hearty enjoyment of one characteristic not common to the great mass of archæological publications. Miss Harrison is, happily, not one of that race of scholars who regard the mere accumulation of accurate knowledge as an all-sufficient end in itself. This volume contains frequent and successful appeals to the imaginative faculty. Everywhere the authoress shows that sensitiveness to the beautiful elements in nature and art which is, we trust, to be more effectively stimulated as women come to their rightful share in the studies and in the creative work of men. One of the most delightful digressions of the book is the description of the little river Ilissos, included in which is the famous bit of dialogue from Plato’s Phaidros. We venture to quote here in full, however, a paragraph from the preface, which illustrates most happily the spirit of the entire work : —

“ The task before me is touched with inevitable sadness. The record we have to read is the record of what we have lost. That loss, but for Pausanias, we should never have realized. He, and he only, gives us the real live picture of what the art of ancient Athens was. Even the well-furnished classical scholar pictures the Acropolis as a stately hill approached by the Propylæa, crowned by the austere beauty of the Parthenon, and adds to his picture perhaps the remembrance of some manner of Erechtheion, a vision of colorless marble, of awe, restraint, severe selection. Only Pausanias tells him of the color and life, the realism, the quaintness, the forest of votive statues, the gold, the ivory, the bronze, the paintings on the walls, the golden lamps, the brazen palm-tree, the strange old Hermes hidden in myrtle leaves, the ancient stone on which Silenus sat, the smoke-grimed images of Athene, Diitrephes all pierced with arrows, Kleoitas with his silver nails, the heroes peeping from the Trojan horse, Anacreon singing in his cups : all these, if we would picture the truth, and not our own imaginations, we must learn of, and learn of from Pausanias.

“ But if the record of our loss is a sad one, it has its meed of sober joy ; it is the record also of what — if it be even a little — in these latter days we have re found.”

  1. Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens. Being a Translation of a Portion of the Attica of Pausanias by MARGARET DE G. VERRALL; ; with Introductory Essay and Archæological Commentary by JANE E. HARRISON. London and New York : Macmillan & Co. 1890.
  2. Harper’s Magazine, September, 1890, pages 535-550.
  3. Archæological Institute of America, Tenth Annual Report, Appendix.