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Athens and Rome - Two Ancient Cities

Athens and Rome

Two ancient cities have a lot more in common than we knew

By Lilliam Larsen

Modern Athens in background of Theater in foregroundAthens is known as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy.  Rome conquered Greece and then adopted its architecture of domes and arches to build some of the most impressive aqueducts and buildings still standing today.  A recent visit to both cities during our Mediterranean cruise highlighted their similarities and their differences.

The authors in front of the ParthenonA visit to Athens is not complete without a visit to the Parthenon. Construction of this Greek temple, which has dominated the city skyline for thousands of years and was built in honor of the goddess Athena, began in 447 BC and was completed in 10 years.  It is most definitely the most important building of Classical Greece and one of the world's greatest cultural monuments. Extensive restorations are under way to insure the stability and authenticity of these fabulous ruins. The difficulty of the restorations themselves is a testament to the workmanship and knowledge of the original architects and builders, who did not have the type of equipment used in modern times.

What most people may not realize is that the Parthenon was built on top of an even older temple of Athena, destroyed approximately 40 years before the current building rose. As many of the significant historical buildings of its time, the Parthenon has lived several lives – as a treasury, as a Christian church and as a mosque and military fort during the Ottoman Turk conquest. It was during this period when some of the original marble sculptures – called the Elgin Marbles – were removed and purchased by the British Museum.
Acropolis site of the Parthenon
Today, these impressive statues are a subject of controversy between Greece and Britain, as Greece would like them returned.

This ancient site is suited only for visitors who are in good physical shape. You can only get there by slowly climbing several hundred feet of rough and often slippery stones to the flat hill top. Climbing towards the top is impressive in itself; a massive stone wall from an even more ancient fort still remains supporting the hillsides.  Once you pass the entry gate, you are guided on a path that goes through the massive walls of the Temple of Athena Nike. Visitors are monitored closely by local curators who make sure that nobody steps out of the path and into areas that are still being restored. Once at the top, several other ancient buildings that formed part of the Acropolis have also been restored and provide a magnificent experience.

Athens3
For example, the Erechtheum designed and built by Phidias who was also employed to build the Parthenon. Among the most unique aspect of this building is the famous "Porch of the Maidens", with six draped female figures (called caryatids) as supporting columns, each sculpted different from the rest and engineered in such a way that their slenderest part, the neck, is capable of supporting the weight of the roof while remaining graceful and feminine. However, the statues at the ruins are replicas; the originals are in the new Acropolis Museum.

Even when there are crowds, like during our visit, you can find a quiet spot to admire the architecture and magnitude of each building in detail.  The view of Athens from the top is spectacular, and if you look over the walls towards the bottom of the old fort walls you can see even more ruins, including the Theater of Dionysus which is still used today for concerts.

Even a two-hour visit to the Acropolis didn't seem enough to absorb the history of that place. We left with a sense of awe of the amazing culture and knowledge that created such a magnificent site for eternity.

Rome

ColosseumInside
Rome2What the Parthenon is to Athens, the Colosseum is to Rome. On our short stop in Calcavecchia (the port city near Rome) we chose to take a "drive-by" tour of the major highlights. There's no way a visitor to Rome can say they were there without seeing this medieval Colosseum. The massive elliptical amphitheater was built in just 8 years in the center of the city and is the largest ever built in the Roman Empire. It is considered one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering. It could seat approximately 50,000 spectators, about the same as some football stadiums today. The Colosseum's size and the gladiatorial combats it hosted are an excellent example of Roman history, its conquests, and its influence in the Mediterranean and subsequently the fall of the Empire.

Certain areas of the exterior have been fully renovated and cleaned, showing a remarkable difference and beautiful carvings and decorations.  As is usual in Europe, car exhaust and other pollutants have unfortunately contributed to the deterioration of many of the most ancient buildings and statues which are often located in the middle of the cities. This is something that could not be foreseen several thousand years ago.

CircusMaximusVisitors are allowed to walk through certain areas of the Colosseum's interior, but we didn't have time on this visit. We only had enough time to drive by some of the major highlights, which included the Arch of Constantine located adjacent to the Colosseum, and the impressive remains of the Circus Maximus where the famous chariot races occurred.  We also had a little time to walk through St. Peter's Square in the Vatican City. There were two maps in the square depicting the various areas of
Vatican in St Peters Square
the plaza, unfortunately, one map was totally vandalized and the other was nearly washed out by time. Other places we wished we could have seen were the Catacombs and the Pantheon. But we have to leave something for the next time!

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