A Week in 1870s Athens

A Week in 1870s Athens 1773 1766 REVICTO

Blackwood’s Magazine dedicated nineteen pages to the description of ‘A Week in Athens’ in its September 1880 issue. The author of the piece was George A. Macmillan, one of the founding members a year previously of the British Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies who had first visited Greece in the spring of 1877 having prepared himself by reading and by visits to the British Museum. It is this trip that the article describes, a memorable journey that Macmillan later wrote laid the foundation of his keen interest in Greek archaeology.

Macmillan’s narrative is prefaced with John Milton’s lines from Paradise Regained, Book IV and by the end of it he invites everyone to go to Athens to see a city aspiring to become the ‘centre of attraction and a meeting place for savants of all lands’ like Rome was at the beginning of the century.

Where on the Ægean shore a city stands
Built nobly, pure the air and light the soil,
Athens, the eye of Greece, mother of arts
And eloquence, native to famous wits
Or hospitable, in her sweet recess,
City or surburban, studious walks and shades.

The author of the piece naturally had an intense interest in Ancient Greece and saw in several young boys in Aegina heads and faces of the type familiar from old Greek sculpture:

Three or four of these young fellows, with their large eyes, low foreheads, finely-cut profiles, and luxuriant heads of hair, might have sat as models for the Pan-Athenaic procession with which Phidias adorned the frieze of the Parthenon. Our hostess, too, a comely woman of forty, with two beautiful children, had a face and figure cast in true Attic mould.

Macmillan offers readers a minute description of the Acropolis and the surrounding area, also noting that, sadly, the Parthenon’s wonderful frieze ‘born beneath the deep-blue of an Athenian sky, has at length found shelter in the gloom of a Bloomsbury basement.’ Three short trips to the olive groves of Kolonos, the plain of Marathon and the tomb of Themistocles at Piraeus complete the week in Athens which the author sums up as follows:

Had our expectations been realised? Could we feel that the dreams of past ten years had not been mere illusions to be dispelled at first sight of reality? Would the name of Athens still have the same indescribable charm for us, or would familiarity have deadened its magic influence? To such questions I can, for my own part, looking back across an interval of three years, emphatically answer, No! In some points, of course, the place was not exactly as we had imagined it, – when did imagination, unaided, ever call up a true picture either of nature or of man? But in no respect did Athens fall short of my ideal, while fresh and quite unimagined charms revealed themselves. Among these not the least was the quality of the atmosphere, its extraordinary radiance and delicacy, which seems to give poetry to objects in themselves neither striking nor picturesque.

It is the colours that strike Macmillan most deeply, the rich orange tone of such buildings as the Parthenon and the Propylaea, the blue sky adding colour to the marble buildings and the picturesque Mount Lycabettus. He confesses having spoken very little of the modern town, due to a lack of space to do so, even though he notes that ‘it is bright and attractive, and daily becoming more so as the number of travellers, usually of the more cultivated kind, increases. The people are most courteous and kindly, and to travellers  eager to learn about the antiquities, the professors of the university and other learned men are both able and willing to render assistance.’

‘Go to Athens,’ he concludes, ‘Go, then! in the spring if you can, or in the autumn, or at Christmas; but go – at whatever time – go to Athens!’


George A. Macmillan. “A Week in Athens.” Blackwood’s Magazine 128 (September 1880), 329-348.

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