The history of Athens and its many monuments is endlessly exciting for visitors and you don’t need to be in the city itself to get a taste of its glorious past. Wander around London, admire a few buildings, have a short visit to the British Museum and then finish your day with a trip to the cinema and you will feel like you’ve been to transported to ancient Greece. So here are 10 points of call for experiencing your very own “Athens day” in London.
1. Clay tablets With Linear B
Get to grips with the language of ancient Greece by discovering the clay tablets inscribed with Linear B. These clay tablets are inscribed with the earlist form of the Greek language (linear B).Tablets in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford describe the business and administrative side of palace life, and examples in the British Museum record the number of sheep at Phaistos. Interestingly, some of these tablets describe the offering of oil to deities. So that’s why we’re running out of the stuff!
The tablets were only a small part of archives found in the Palace of Knossos on Crete. The fire which destroyed Knossos baked the clay hard and this disaster preserved these tablets. This is probably one of the few time where people are actually pleased that there was a fire, as without all the heat the tablets probably wouldn’t have survived!
2: The Parthenon Metopes
Not only are these metopes in the British Museum carved with illustrations of a vicious fight between centaurs and lapiths but when we look at them we can see exactly what the ancient Greeks thought of their culture and how they wanted foreigners to view it. When we look at the eye-gouging and hair pulling we are meant to identify the human forms (lapiths) with the Greeks and the Centaurs with the enemies of the Greeks/barbarians, so of course in these sculptures the lapiths have to beat the centaurs!
3: The Caryatid from the Erectheion
This sculpture of a maiden is one of six which act as pillars supporting the roof of the Erectheion on the Acropolis (the others are now in the new Acropolis Museum in Athens). The caryatid wears a simple robe called a peplos and the robe follows the lines of her body so you can see that one of her legs is bent, almost as if she’s getting a bit tired of holding the weight of the roof!
4. Block from the west frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis
Only fragments of the frieze which ran around the temple remain, and this fragment displays Greeks fighting Greeks. The story seems to be centred around a warrior in the centre who has fallen to the ground and is surrounded by his comrades fighting it out with spears and swords.
5. St Pancras’ New Church in London
St Pancras is one of the most famous Greek revival buildings. St Pancras was begun in 1819 and was built to imitate the Erectheion of the Acropolis in Athens. It even has caryatids like those of the Erectheion, although those of St Pancras are on the North and South of the building and guard the crypt of the church. It also has a propylon and portico in what is called the Ionic style.
6. Amphora Portraying Achilleus Killing Penthesilea (the Amazon Queen)
This vase is from about 540-530 BC and is in the black figure style. The black figure style is easy to remember as you just have to look at the vase and see if the figures portrayed are black and if they are then it’s most likely from the BF period. This vase shows these two warriors fighting: Achilleus is clearly the winner as his spear is stuck firmly in Penthesilea’s throat whilst hers is only grazing his chest! In later versions of the story Achilleus and Penthesilea were supposed to have fallen in love just before her moment of death and are sometimes portrayed gazing lovingly into each others eyes as he kills her. In fact, this scene is often described as one of the most erotic depictions of murder!
7. Stop for a Break Outside the British Museum
After all this artefact-spotting, you’ll probably want to sit down and take a break – Athens-style of course. London is full of Greek restaurants, but for real authenticity, you can’t beat the entrance to the British Museum.
Not only does the BM house one of the largest collections of ancient Greek antiquities outside of Greece itself but it is also built to remind visitors of the power, greatness and glory of ancient Greece. It’s an incredibly impressive building that only becomes more impressive when you set foot inside – the ceiling of the Weston Hall is covered with designs which are like those from classical Greek buildings.
At the south entrance the BM has columns and a pediment which emulates Classical Greek architecture. It’s the perfect place to grab a pic-nic snack and contemplate your next move.
8. Central Scene of East Frieze of the Parthenon
This chunk of relief sculpture is from the East frieze of the Parthenon. At first glance, this scene looks a little odd because it seems to be dominated by people folding a cloth. So what’s so special about this material? The theory is that this cloth was Athena’s sacred robe. During the Panathenaic festival this special robe was carried through the streets of Athens on a custom-made cart, much like a modern-day parade.
9. Colossal Marble Head of Asklepios
This head is absolutely enormous and its worth seeing just so you can imagine how big the whole body must have been when it was all together. Asklepios was one of the ancient Greek gods and was associated with healing people and medicine. In fact, on some pharmacies nowadays you see a picture of what looks like a walking stick covered in snakes and this is the rod that Asklepios is often pictured carrying around.
10. Take in a Movie, or a Play
A trip to any theatre or cinema is a great way to experience ancient Greece. You only need to step inside, sit down and marvel at how the sound carries to every part of the room and how everyone (no matter where you’re sitting) can see the screen/stage.
The ancient Greeks built many amphitheatres to show their plays and some of them, like the one at Epidauros, are still in use. Nowadays, theatres and cinemas use the very same technology that the Greeks used to make sure that everyone can see and hear all of the action as it happens! With any luck, you might catch a re-run of Spartacus.
If you have any Athenian hotspots to add to our list, please add your suggestions in the comments below.