Late Antique Athens

In The Elgin Marbles I emphasised that by the middle Byzantine period Athens was a small provincial town about whom several writers complained - the last Orthodox Archbishop was disapointed when he preached a sermon about the Battle of Marathon, and nodoby understood him.

Adrian Murdoch recently highlighted this letter 136 by Synesius, written at the end of the fourth century. The Philosophical Schools were still open, and the Parthenon a temple, but the town's decline is clear in his disgust. I changed one phrased in the translation: "Decorated Porch" may be a literal translation, but the Painted Stoa is a famous building in Athens, and one which has clearly lost its paintings by the time of this letter. We tend to be taught about the death of Hypathia, so it seems almost odd to read about her still alive.

I hope that I may profit as much as you desire from my residence at Athens. It seems to me that I have already grown more than a palm and a finger's length in wisdom, and I can give you at once a proof of the progress I have made. Well, it is from Anagyrus that I am writing to you; and I have visited Sphettus, Thria, Cephisia, and Phalerum. May the blasted captain who brought me here rot in Hell! Athens has no longer anything sublime except the country's famous names! Just like a victim burnt in the sacrificial fire, there remains nothing but the skin to help us to reconstruct a creature that was once alive – so ever since philosophy left these precints, there is nothing for the tourist to admit except the Academy, the Lyceum, and by Zeus, the Painted Stoa which has given its name to the philosophy of Chrysippus. This is no longer Decorated, for the proconsul has taken away the panels on which Polygnotus of Thasos has displayed his skill.

To-day Egypt has received and cherishes the fruitful wisdom of Hypatia. Athens was aforetime the dwelling-place of the wise: to-day the bee-keepers alone bring it honour. Such is the case of that pair of sophists in Plutarch who draw the young people to the lecture room-- not by the fame of their eloquence, but by the pots of honey from Hymettus. (source)

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