Chapter XIX. Country Life Around Athens

169. Importance of his Farm to an Athenian. - We have followed the doings of a typical Athenian during his ordinary activities around the city, but for the average gentleman an excursion outside the town is indispensable at least every two or three days, and perhaps every day. He must visit his farm; for his wealth and income are probably tied up there, rather than in any unaristocratic commercial and manufacturing enterprises. Homer's "royal" heroes are not ashamed to be skilful at following the plow[*]: and no Athenian feels that he is contaminating himself by "trade" when he supervises the breeding of sheep or the raising of onions. We will therefore follow in the tracks of certain well-to-do citizens, when we turn toward the Itonian gate sometime during the morning, while the Agora is still in a busy hum, even if thus we are curtailing our hypothetical visits to the Peireus or to the bankers.

[*]See Odysseus's boasts, "Odyssey," XVIII. 360 et passim. The gentility of farming is emphasized by a hundred precepts from Hesiod.

170. The Country by the Ilissus: the Greeks and Natural Beauty. - Our companions are on horseback (a token of tolerable wealth in Athens), but the beasts amble along not too rapidly for nimble grooms to run behind, each ready to aid his respective master. Once outside the gate the regular road swings down to the south towards Phalerum; we, however, are in no great haste and desire to see as much as possible. The farms we are seeking lie well north of the city, but we can make a delightful circuit by skirting the city walls with the eastern shadow of the Acropolis behind us, and going at first northeast, along the groves and leafy avenues which line the thin stream of the Ilissus,[*] the second "river" of Athens.

[*]The Ilissus, unlike its sturdier rival, the Cephisus, ran dry during the summer heats; but there was enough water along its bed to create a dense vegetation.

Before us through the trees came tantalizing glimpses of the open country running away towards shaggy gray Hymettus. Left to itself the land would be mostly arid and seared brown by the summer sun; but everywhere the friendly work of man is visible. One can count the little green oblong patches, stretching even up the mountain side, marked with gleaming white farm buildings or sometimes with little temples and chapels sacred to the rural gods. Once or twice also we notice a plot of land which seems one tangled waste of trees and shrubbery. This is a sacred "temenos," an inviolate grove, set apart to some god; and within the fences of the compound no mortal dare set foot under pain of direful sacrilege and pollution.

Following a kind of bridle path, however, we are soon amid the groves of olive and other trees, while the horses plod their slow way beside the brook. Not a few citizens going or coming from Athens meet us, for this is really one of the parks and breathing spaces of the closely built city. The Athenians and Greeks in general live in a land of such natural beauty that they take this loveliness as a matter of course. Very seldom do their poets indulge in deliberate descriptions of "beautiful landscapes"; but none the less the fair things of nature have penetrated deeply into their souls. The constant allusions in Homer and the other masters of song to the great storm waves, the deep shades of the forest, the crystal books, the pleasant rest for wanderers under the shade trees, the plains bright with spring flowers, the ivy twining above a grave, the lamenting nightingale, the chirping cicada, tell their own story; men seldom describe at length what is become warp and woof of their inmost lives. The mere fact that the Greeks dwell CONSTANTLY in such a beautiful land, and have learned to love it so intensely, makes frequent and set descriptions thereto seem trivial.

171. Plato's Description of the Walk by the Ilissus. - Nevertheless occasionally this inborn love of the glorious outer world must find its expression, and it is of these very groves along he Ilissus that we have one of the few "nature pieces" in Athenian literature. As the plodding steeds take their way let us recall our Plato - his "Phoedrus," written probably not many years before this our visit.

Socrates is walking with Phedrus outside the walls, and urges the latter: "Let us go to the Ilissus and sit down in some quiet spot." "I am fortunate," answers Phedrus, "in not having my sandals on, and, as you never have any, we may go along the brook and cool our feet. This is the easiest way, and at midday is anything but unpleasant." He adds that they will go on to the tallest plane tree in the distance, "where are shade and gentle breezes, and grass whereon we may either sit or lie.... The little stream is delightfully clear and bright. I can fancy there might well be maidens playing near [according to the local myth of Boreas's rape of Orithyia]." And so at last they come to the place, when Socrates says: "Yes indeed, a fair and shady resting place it is, full of summer sounds and scents. There is the lofty and spreading plane tree, and the agnus castus, high and clustering in the fullest blossom and the greatest fragrance, and the stream which flows beneath the plane tree is deliciously cool to the feet. Judging by the ornaments and images [set] about, this must be a spot sacred to Achelous and the Nymphs; moreover there is a sweet breeze and the grasshoppers are chirruping; and the greatest charm of all is the grass like a pillow, gently sloping to the head."[*]

[*]Jewett, translator; slightly altered.