Chapter I. The Physical Setting of Athens.
5. The Mountains of Attica. - The third great element, besides the sea and the atmosphere of Athens, was the mountains. One after another the bold hills reared themselves, cutting short all the plainlands and making the farmsteads often a matter of slopes and terraces. Against the radiant heavens these mountains stood out boldly, clearly; revealing all the little gashes and seams left from that long-forgotten day when they were flung forth from the bowels of the earth. None of these mountains was very high: Hymettus, the greatest, was only about 3500 feet; but rising as they often did from a close proximity to the sea, and not from a dwarfing table-land, even the lower hills uplifted themselves with proud majesty.
These hills were of innumerable tints according to their rocks, the hue of the neighboring sea, and the hour of the day. In spring they would be clothed in verdant green, which would vanish before the summer heats, leaving them rosy brown or gray. But whatever the fundamental tone, it was always brilliant; for the Athenians lived in a land where blue sky, blue sea, and the massive rock blent together into such a galaxy of shifting color, that, in comparison, the lighting of almost any northern or western landscape would seem feeble and tame. The Athenians absorbed natural beauty with their native air.
6. The Sunlight in Athens. - The Athenian loved sunshine, and Helios the Sun God was gracious to his prayers. In the Athens of to-day it is reckoned that the year averages 179 days in which the sun is not concealed by clouds one instant; and 157 days more when the sun is not hidden more than half an hour[*]. Ancient Athens was surely not more cloudy. Nevertheless, despite this constant sunshine and a southern latitude, Athens was stricken relatively seldom with semitropical heat. The sea was a good friend, bringing tempering breezes. In the short winter there might be a little frost, a little snow, and a fair supply of rain. For the rest of the year, one golden day was wont to succeed another, with the sun and the sea breeze in ever friendly rivalry.
[*]The reason for these many clear days is probably because when the moist west and southwest winds come in contact with the dry, heated air of the Attic plain, they are at once volatilized and dispersed, not condensed (as in northern lands); therefore the day resolves itself into brilliant sunshine.
The climate saved the Athenians from being obliged to wage a stern warfare with nature as did the northern peoples. Their life and civilization could be one developed essentially "in the open air"; while, on the other hand, the bracing sea breeze saved them from that enervating lethargy which has ruined so many southern folk. The scanty soil forced them to struggle hard to win a living; unless they yielded to the constant beckoning of the ocean, and sought food, adventure, wealth, and a great empire across the seas.
7. The Topography of the City of Athens. - So much for the land of Attica in general; but what of the setting of the city of Athens itself? The city lay in a plain, somewhat in the south central part of Attica, and about four miles back from the sea. A number of mountains came together to form an irregular rectangle with the Saronic Gulf upon the south. To the east of Athens stretched the long gnarled ridge of Hymettus, the wildest and grayest mountain in Attica, the home of bees and goatherds, and (if there be faith in pious legend) of innumerable nymphs and satyrs. To the west ran the lower, browner mountains, Aegaleos, across which a road (the "Sacred Way") wound through an easy pass towards Eleusis, the only sizable town in Attica, outside of Athens and its harbors. To the rear of the plain rose a noble pyramid, less jagged than Hymettus, more lordly than Aegaleos; its summits were fretted with a white which turned to clear rose color under the sunset. This was Pentelicus, from the veins whereof came the lustrous marble for the master sculptor. Closer at hand, nearer the center of the plain, rose a small and very isolated hill, - Lycabettus, whose peaked summit looked down upon the roofs of Athens. And last, but never least, about one mile southwest of Lycabettus, upreared a natural monument of much greater frame, - not a hill, but a colossal rock. Its shape was that of an irregular oval; it was about 1000 feet long, 500 feet wide, and its level summit stood 350 feet above the plain. This steep, tawny rock, flung by the Titans, one might dream, into the midst of the Attic plain, formed one of the most famous sites in the world, for it was the Acropolis of Athens. Its full significance, however, must be explained later. From the Acropolis and a few lesser hills close by, the land sloped gently down towards the harbors and the Saronic Bay.
These were the great features of the outward setting of Athens. One might add to them the long belt of dark green olive groves winding down the westward side of the plain, where the Cephisus (which along among Attic rivulets did not run dry in summer) ran down to the sea. There was also a shorter olive belt west of the city, where the weaker Ilissus crept, before it lost itself amid the thirsty fields.
Sea, rock, and sky, then, joined together around Athens as around almost no other city in the world. The landscape itself was adjusted to the eye with marvelous harmony. The colors and contours formed one glorious model for the sculptor and the painter, one perpetual inspiration for the poet. Even if Athens had never been the seat of a famous race, she would have won fame as being situated in one of the most beautiful localities in the world. Rightly, therefore, did its dwellers boast of their city as the "Violet-crowned" (Iostephanos).