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

Get to the top: The most idyllic hills of Athens

Athens is full of hills! They offer spectacular views of the city and the surrounding area  and 3 of them are actually archaeological sites of major importance!

So, here’s  seven of the most historical and beautiful hills of Athens:

Lycabettus

A favorite for both locals and tourists. Towering 300 meters (almost 1000 ft)  above Athens it offers a unique panoramic view of a large part of the whole region of Attica. Hey… You can even see a couple of islands in the distance. The hike uphill is give or take 25′, but if you feel a bit lazy to walk all the way to the top, you can always use the Lycabettus Funicular. A hint for aspiring photographers: Owning  a telephoto zoom lens to capture the city from above, is ideal.

Areopagus

The big piece of rock rock that stands out on the north-east side of the Acropolis. Areios Pagos in ancient Greek means the Rock of Ares and  is well known to Christians all over the world as this is where Apostle Paul stood to address the Athenians back in 60 AD. Climbing up the slippery steps gets you in a position where you are directly above the Agora (Forum) of Athens. During the day it’s full of tourists that were up or just came down from the Acropolis. During the night it’s full of high-school kids enjoying a warm night under the stars with a six-pack and a guitar. Sounds a bit like a movie? The city lights look pretty cool from up there and it’s only 10′ away from Monastiraki square so many friends and couples find their way up there after sunset.

Hill of Pnyx

That was one the most important hill for the ancient Athenians (second to importance only to the Acropolis maybe) because this is where the body of citizens used to meet to discuss, vote and decide about affairs of the State. This is where direct democracy was actually happening. That was the first real (open-air) parliament. You can actually stand where Democracy was born! Some really important decisions -that influenced the history of the West- were taken there. You also have a solemn and imposing view of the Acropolis herself from up there.

Philopapus Hill

Yes. This is my personal favorite. You’re going to thank me for making you go up there… All photographs you’ve seen of the Acropolis on postcards, magazines, documentaries etc. they’ve been shot from the top of this hill. You get to the top and you have in front of you the perfect view of the Acropolis. It really is an unforgettable sight. Strike a pose for some of the most classic shots of your holidays. If you turn your back, the Saronic gulf spreads in front of you and the sun sets in the Aegean sea. What a view!

Lofos Strefi

If you’re looking for a location off the beaten track, you should be heading towards the bohemian, urban neighborhood of Exarchia and a hike up to the hill of Strefi. Frequented mostly by leftist, locals, anarchists and curious or bored students, the whole area is full of bars, small tavernas, rock-joints, a few junkies and too many bookstores. Exarchia lies on the gentle slopes of the hill of Strefi. A hike up there will offer you a much different view of Athens and the other six hills of this list.

Ardettos Hill

This is probably the shortest hill of Athens, quiet and full of pine trees. It’s famous for the highly impressive Panathenaic stadium that is built on the slope of that hill and the tiny hill of Agra. The biggest (and actually the only) marble stadium in the world. Home of the first modern Olympic games back in 1896.

The Acropolis

As everyone knows, the most important hill of Athens was and always be her acropolis. This word means citadel, fortress. Almost all cities had one. The acropolis of Athens is famous for one main reason: because of the Parthenon. This huge temple dedicated to Athena that the Athenians decided to construct entirely out of marble and what many scholars have described as the symbol of Western Civilization.