A 2,000-year-old Weather Station

Most archaeological sites in Athens are ruins of temples, commercial, or public buildings. But the strange, ancient structure that stands in Athens’ Roman Agora, had a scientific purpose. Today, let’s talk about the exceptional and unique Tower of the Winds.

When it was constructed at the end of the 2nd century BCE, it included sundials, a weather vane, and even a water clock. We can presume that this 8-sided tower was effectively the first known meteorological station in the world.

Tower of the Winds (Athens, Roman Agora, ca. 50 BCE)

A marvel of science and engineering

The Tower of the Winds was a concept conceived and created by a brilliant scientist and astronomer, Andronicus of Cyrrhus. The tower was made almost entirely out of white marble, quarried from Penteli mountain. The same type of marble was used to create the Parthenon. The use of Pentelic marble is rare to find in any structures other than temples.

Built to measure time, the tower is also known as horologion, meaning timepiece. The interior of the structure contained a complicated internal metal mechanism. That metal mechanism called clepsydra, was technically a water clock. The clepsydra was driven by water flowing down from a subterranean spring under the Acropolis. This mechanism was essential for use on cloudy days or at night when the sundials of the tower were ineffective. The spring, situated on the north slope of the Acropolis, remained unknown for centuries, up until a few years ago when archaeologists located and excavated the ancient spring. To everyone’s surprise, water still flows from the same spot!

Plan of ‘Horologion’

Indicating the cardinal directions (N-S-E-W)

On the top part of the Tower of the Winds, beneath the friezes, are eight vertical sundials where the shadow was cast on hour lines. Those lines, while faint, are still visible today. The building was originally topped with a bronze weather vane depicting Triton his hand pointing in the direction from which the wind was blowing. Triton was god of the seas and oceans -as were his parents: Poseidon and Amphitrite.

Triton was placed on top so it would rotate with the wind. As the wind was blowing, the pointing rod would be positioned directly over the sculpted god, identifying the direction of that wind.

Each of the eight sides of the Tower of the Winds faces a point on the compass.
Four sides to the cardinal points of the compass (north, south, east and west) and four sides to the primary inter-cardinal points (north-east, south-east, south-west, north-west).

Each of those sides depict each of the 8 ancient Greek wind gods, giving the tower its name. The leader of the 8 wind gods was Aeolus (the main god of the wind). Those 8 gods (called Anemoi in Greek) were:

  • Boreas (north)
  • Caicias (northeast)
  • Eurus (east)
  • Apeliotes (southeast)
  • Notus (south)
  • Lips (southwest)
  • Zephyrus (west)
  • Skeiron (northwest)
Three out of the eight winds (drawing by Stewart and Revett)

Fun fact: It is from this model of the Tower of the Winds in Athens, that the custom of placing weather vanes on steeples as wind indicators, is derived (at least in the West).

Architectural influence

The ‘Tower of the Winds’ was constructed in such a stylish and elegant manner, that it inspired many Western architects over the centuries. Buildings that are based on the design of the Tower can be found scattered all over Europe -especially in England. My personal favorite example of a building inspired by the Tower of the Winds, stands in Oxford. It really is worth visiting the old Oxford Radcliffe Observatory building. The prominent octagonal tower on top of the Observatory is a wonderful scaled up version of the original tower in Athens.

Old Radcliffe Observatory building, Oxford.

7 Rules Of Public Speaking In Ancient Athens

The ancient Athenians were particularly proud that their city officially secured the most basic component of freedom of expression: the right to freedom of speech. The value in the freedom of speech was in the manner in which you addressed your audience. It is that combination of freedom and respect that was -and always should be- a vital element of democracy… Any lack of respect towards the audience was considered non-democratic by the Athenians. An Athenian citizen was expected to display a morally acceptable behavior towards his fellow citizen.

Without civility, Democracy does not work
Ancient Athenian politician Pericles delivering a speech at Pnyx. Painting by German history painter Philipp von Foltz (1852)

Freedom of speech was the constitutional right of all citizens- be they rich or poor, nobles or peasants, powerful or powerless. All male Athenians that had completed their military service were granted the right to address the Public Assembly -also known as Ecclesia. The Ecclesia was considered to be the most important body of Athenian democracy. The person that addressed it was regarded as sacred, and the speaker’s rights were protected by Law. The President of the Assembly, also known as Proedros, had the power to inflict penalties to anyone that interrupted the speaker. An Athenian citizen was expected to show politeness and courtesy in behavior and speech.

The speaker had to follow certain rules. Aeschines (an Athenian politician and orator of the 4th c. BCE) provided us with valuable information on this subject: If the speaker didn’t follow seven basic rules, they could be punished.

 Rules of Public Speaking in the Athenian Senate and Assembly
  1. Do keep to the subject being discussed.
  2. Do treat each subject separately.
  3. Do not address the same subject twice in the same day.
  4. Do not be insulting and invective towards a fellow citizen.
  5. Do avoid slandering a fellow citizen.
  6. Do not interrupt the proceedings by standing up or shouting or speaking on anything that is not in order.
  7. Do not lay hands on the presiding officers or interfere with their duties.

Aeschines, Against Timarchus [35]

Model of the Old Bouleuterion, ca. 500 BCE Model by Petros Demetriades and Kostas Papoulias, Athens, Agora Museum.

The Board of Presidents were authorized to impose a fine of up to 50 drachmas* to anyone who violated the above rules. The President also demanded any citizen in violation of the rules to step down from the speaker’s podium.

(*Note: A drachma was equivalent to a day’s salary… So 50 drachmas was a lot of money at that time.)

Wow… How times have changed since then! Don’t you think we’re missing some common sense with a healthy dose of good manners, today? Which of those rules do you believe we need the most? Given the social media age that we now live in, I believe #4 is the one we need more today!

Demosthenes (384-322 BCE) Vatican Museum

Wagner and Aeschylus

“In any serious investigation of the essence of our art of the day, we cannot make one step forward without being brought face to face with its intimate connection with the art of ancient Greece. For, in point of fact, our modern art is but one link in the artistic development of the whole of Europe; and this development found its starting point with the Greeks”.

 Thus wrote Richard Wagner in his essay ‘Art And Revolution’ (Die Kunst und die Revolution), published in 1849. Interestingly enough, Wagner’s work was influenced on many levels by Aeschylus. Let’s see how:

Axial Age (Achsenzeit)

The period of ancient history from about the 8th to the 3rd century BCE, is when humans began to conceive and develop theologies of religion and philosophy. The famous German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers called this period of unprecedented religious and philosophical creativity “The Axial Age”.

Those thinkers that emerged from this “Axial Age” included Classical Greek dramatists and philosophers,  Lao Tze, the Buddha, the Upanishads, Confucius and Hebrew prophets. Aeschylus belongs to this group of thinkers. His theater plays, never ceased to have a profound influence not only to ancient thinkers but also to intellectuals of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Aeschylus: the innovator

Did you know that Aeschylus introduced the concept of trilogies? Think of “Lord Of The Rings”, “Star Wars” or any other set of three theater plays or movies that are connected and can be seen either as a single movie or as three individual movies.

He introduced ‘stochasmos’ and ‘logos’, transforming the plot into a vehicle to explore other concepts and ideas! (The term ‘stochasmos’ can be translated in English as ‘conjecture’. while the Latin term is ‘status coniecturalis’.)

Aeschylus (523-456 BCE)

Influence on Wagner

One of the most loyal fans of Aeschylus was Richard Wagner. On the last day of his life, the great German composer and theatre director said of Aeschylus, ‘my admiration for him never ceases to grow’.

Wagner records in his autobiography, “Mein Leben“, that he then:

‘for the first time . . . mastered Aeschylus with real feeling and understanding’,

and goes on to say that the impact on him of the Orestes trilogy was so great that:

‘I could see the Oresteia with my mind’s eye, as though it were actually being performed; and its effect on me was indescribable.

Nothing could equal the sublime emotion with which the Agamemnon inspired me, and to the last word of the Eumenides I remained in an atmosphere so far removed from the present day that I have never since been really able to reconcile myself with modern literature.

My ideas about the whole significance of the drama and of the theater were, without a doubt, molded by these impressions’ …(!)