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.

Did the Athenians have the best tax system ever?

Imagine a system of taxation where only the rich contribute, while middle and lower class citizens don’t have to pay any taxes. On top of that, imagine that in this system, the rich love to pay their taxes and they sometimes compete who’s going to pay more!

Lysicrates monument choragic

Choragic monument of Lysicrates (335-334 BCE)

Sounds crazy? The monument of Lysicratres in Athens, stands as a solid proof that this crazy idea was once a reality! It was erected by a very wealthy citizen of Athens (Lysicrates) 24 centuries ago and he was a sponsor of musical performances at the theater of Dionysus. One of those performances got him the award of first prize.

The way citizens were taxed in ancient Athens was genius! Whenever Athens was in need of cash, the state didn’t have to draw funds from the public treasury. The rich were called upon and they acted as sponsors. This is what the Athenians called ‘choregia’ or as we know it today: sponsorship.

This financial contribution rather than being enforced by the state it was seen as a voluntary gesture that showed that rich citizens did care about their fellow citizens. It showed that the rich were true citizens (polites) and not private citizens (idiotes). And that’s the level of awesomeness that the Athenian democracy reached.

Lysicrates mon 4

I read books. I know stuff.

How wonderfully passionate are the many ways that Socrates and Plato try to convince us that the only safe way that leads us to happiness, is education. Plato dreamed of public libraries, public lectures, education being a basic element of a free city-state.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau says: “If you wish to know what is meant by public education, read Plato’s Republic. Those who merely judge books by their titles take this for a treatise on politics, but it is the finest treatise on education ever written.” [Emile, or On Education (1762)]

No wonder why the great Cicero was seen most times with a book in hand.

CICERO (1)

 

*Literal translation is, of course: “If you have a garden in your library, nothing will be lacking.” [Epistulae ad familiares 9.4]