And in their efforts to nourish their minds, the Athenians built the world’s first global city. Master shipbuilders and sailors, they journeyed to Egypt, Mesopotamia, and beyond, bringing back the alphabet from the Phoenicians, medicine and sculpture from the Egyptians, mathematics from the Babylonians, literature from the Sumerians. The Athenians felt no shame in their intellectual pilfering. Of course, they took those borrowed ideas and put their own stamp on them—or, as Plato put it (with more than a touch of hubris): “What the Greeks borrow from foreigners, they perfect.”
Athens also welcomed foreigners themselves. They lived in profoundly insecure times, but rather than walling themselves off from the outside world like the Spartans, the Athenians allowed outsiders to roam the city freely even during wartime, often to the city’s benefit. (Some of the best-known sophists, for example, were foreign-born.)
It was part of what made Athens Athens—openness to foreign goods, new ideas, and, perhaps most importantly, odd people and strange ideas.
The city had more than its fair share of prominent homegrown eccentrics. Hippodamus, the father of urban planning, was known for his long hair, expensive jewelry, and cheap clothing, which he never changed, winter or summer. Athenians mocked Hippodamus for his eccentricities, yet they still assigned him the vital job of building their port city, Piraeus. The writer Diogenes, who regularly ridiculed the famous and powerful, lived in a wine barrel; the philosopher Cratylus, determined never to contradict himself, communicated only through simple gestures.
Then there was that greatest of Athenian oddballs, Socrates. Never before or since have a man and a city been so perfectly matched. Eccentric, barefoot, and stubborn, Socrates occupied that precarious position that all geniuses do, perched between insider and outsider. He was far enough from the mainstream to see the world through fresh eyes, yet close enough to it that his insights resonated. Socrates loved Athens and would never consider living—or dying—anywhere else. After being charged with impiety and “corrupting the youth,” he was given the choice between leaving Athens and execution. He chose the latter.
Socrates is remembered as a great philosopher, but he was first and foremost a conversationalist, pioneering conversation as a means of intellectual exploration. One of his favorite pastimes, like many Athenians, was the symposium—literally “to drink together”—where entertainment, according to the historian Robert Flacelière, consisted of “anything from good talk and intellectual puzzle games to music, dancing girls, and similar titillations.” At these gatherings, food was served, but that was almost beside the point. The Athenians were not foodies—most people, no matter their social stature, were satisfied with a hunk of bread, onions, and a small handful of olives. Overall, their caloric intake was remarkably low. Aristophanes, the satirist, credited the meager Athenian diet with keeping their bodies lean and their minds sharp.