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Greece » Sterea » Attica » Athens » Athens History » Athens under the Romans (146 b.C.-330 A.D.)
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Athens under the Romans (146 b.C.-330 A.D.)

In 146 b.C. the Roman general Mommius Lucius beat the united Greek army, at Corinth, which he destroyed; this victory signaled the Roman occupation of entire Greece. Formally, Athens maintained its independence and was one of Rome’s allies, but in fact it wasn’t but a satellite town. Several of the democratic institutions of Athens underwent changes in this period: one of them was the election by lot of many officials of the Athenian state.

During the entire period of Roman occupation the Athenians sought to throw off the yoke of Romans. In 88 b.C. they took part to the conflict between Rome and Mithridates, the king of Pontos, but they were at the wrong side. Helping Mithridates, under the command of two philosophers, Athenion and then Aristion, they opposed to Romans and banished all Athenian friends of Rome. As a result, Sulla arrived in Athens at the head of a strong troop; he besieged the city and conquered it. Both the city and the country suffered extensive damages during the siege and after they were occupied; many public and private buildings were set to fire and collapsed. It is in this occasion that Kerameikos, until then the official cemetery of Athens was abandoned and a large part of the walls of the city demolished. A lot of artworks were removed and transported to Rome; a good number of anti-Roman citizens were killed and the library of Aristotle was lost for ever.
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After the collapse of the city by Sulla the Athenians sold the island of Salamina, so that they earn some money to survive. However, the city recovered and life soon returned to its normal way. A lot of eminent Romans continued to visit the city either as visitors, or for studies, or even for permanent residence; among them is the wealthy trader Titus Pomponius, nicknamed Atticus, because of his donations to Athens. Many governors and princes, most of them from the Orient, had restored the damaged buildings of the city or founded new ones. In 51 b.C., Cicero, the famous Roman orator had restored the house of the philosopher Epicurus; a bit later Pompey had restored a large part of Piraeus. During the conflict between Julius Cesar and Pompey the Athenians sided with Pompey, but fortunately, the victor Julius Cesar not only did he not cause any damage to the town, but, on the contrary he constructed the Roman Agora, which he did not have the time to complete, as he was assassinated soon after. His assassins, Cassius and Brutus, took refuge in Athens, but were beaten by Octavian, who celebrated his victory with a triumph and games in Athens.

Marcus Antonius was another lover of Athens, where he chose to stay for a long time with his wife Octavia, the sister of Octavian. After he was definitely defeated by Octavian at Action in 31 b.C. this latter revenged Athens by removing the island of Aegina and Eretria which belong to the city up to this time. However, later on he gave back some of the islands and he accomplished the forum, known as Roman Agora, which became the central market of the city for more than 2000 years, until the first years of Independence. In 15 b.C., Agrippa constructed the Odeon and Andronicus Kyristos from Syria, the Orologion (“clock”), better known as the Tower of the Winds. By mid 1st century A.D. it was built the temple of Nemessis at Ramnous, which was dedicated to the wife of Augustus.

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During the reign of Claudius and Nero several things were renovated and developed; among them the Dionysus’ Theater below Acropolis. It is in this period that Apostle Paul visited Athens and spoke to the Athenians from Pnyka, preaching for the “Unknown God”, a sermon that impressed people; some of them believed in the new religion: Damaris and Publius, who died martyrs and Dionysius, the so-called Areopagites who became the first bishop of Athens and the protector saint of the city.

In 114 A.D., under Emperor Trajan, Julius Claudius Philopappos from Asia Minor, constructed a monument at the top of the hill opposite Acropolis, remnants of which still survive; the hill has ever since been named after him. A bit later, the philhellene Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) became emperor; Hadrian loved and respected a lot Athens, this city of Letters and Arts and offered a lot to it. Honoring and thanking him, the Athenians gave his name to one of their “phylae” (tribes) and initiated him to the Eleusinian Mysteries; they also elected him as an archon and worshipped him as god, a bit inferior than Olympian Zeus. From one visit to another the emperor designed and put into practice an extensive plan of reconstruction of the city; many buildings were restored and a lot were built. It was also established a new suburb, called Handrianoupolis (“the town of Hadrian”), close to the actual Zappion and the National Garden. The old city was connected to the new one via a new gate, which is still called “the Hadrian’s Gate”. The gate had two inscriptions, one on each face; on the side facing the old city it was written “here is Athens, the city of Theseus”, where as on the other side it was written that from there started Hadrian’s city, not the city of Theseus. During the times of Hadrian it was also accomplished the huge temple of Olympian Zeus; the temple stood incomplete for some 650 years, since Peisistratos had founded it. Hadrian decorated the temple with a monumental statue of Zeus, made of gold and ivory, a copy of the original work of Phidias that stood at Olympia. He also founded a Library, which housed some 200.000 rolls of parchment and papyri, a Gymnasium and the Panhellenion for the new games the “Panhellenia” which he established; the place where the Panhellenion was situated has not been identified so far.

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One of the most important works with which Hadrian endowed Athens was the Hadrian’s aqueduct which brought water from the mountain of Pendeli to Lycabettus, where it was stored in a cistern, constructed also in the times of Hadrian. The aqueduct resisted time, was repaired several times and was in use even in the 19th century.

Hadran’s successor, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, completed all the works left unfinished by Hadrian and founded new ones; Antoninus’ successors did the same; his dynasty had taken Greek education, they all loved the city and visited it quite often. Herod Atticus, the famous benefactor of Athens was contemporary to Antoninus. Herod was the wealthiest Athenian ever and he came from Marathon. The local legends stated that he had made his fortune thanks to an ancient treasure of gold coins he had found while repairing his father’s house. Herod had studied in Rome and, although Greek, he had taken many public offices. After his father’s death he returned back to Athens and he addressed himself to enrich the city and decorate it with many private and public buildings, a lot of which still survive today.

One of the most important works he financed was that he surfaced the entire Panathenaic Stadium with marble; he also connected the stadium to the city, constructing a nice stone bridge at river Ilissos. Another precious gift to Athens was the well known Odeon which still bears his name; Herod constructed it in honor of his wife Regilla, who had recently died. The Odeon of Herod Atticus, also known as Herodion, not only still survives, but it has been renovated and houses cultural events of international range. Even the private houses of Herod in Athens, Kifissia and Marathon were famous in his times; traces of some of them are still preserved, especially their mosaic decoration.

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The knowledge we have today for the ancient monuments of Athens is due to the reference provided by the Roman traveler Pausanias, who visited Athens between 160 and 170 A.D. Pausanias described in detail every monument not only of the city of Athens but of entire Attica.

The Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211) had also been in Athens as a student and showed his respect to the city in various ways. However, during the reign of his successor Caracalla all privileges of the city were taken back, as according to the Roman law he enacted, all free men living in the territory of the Roman empire, had become Roman citizens; thus, they had to pay their taxes directly to Rome and not to their home town as it happened till then. A bit later, Emperor Decius (249-261) launched the fierce persecutions of Christians, during which the bishop of Athens Leonides and seven women of his flock died martyrs.

Under Emperor Valerianus, a part of the Themistoclean wall was repaired and extended to protect the new part of Hadrian’s city, possibly because of the raids of barbarian tribes descending from the North. In 267 the Heruli, a tribe of German origin departed from the Black Sea, invaded Attica and destroyed Athens; only the Acropolis survived, thanks to its strong fortification. The Agora suffered the most considerable damages; almost nothing remained intact. The invaders were repulsed only when a part of the Roman army came in assistance.

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After that, the city was reduced to the area below Acropolis, where today are the quarters of Plaka and Monastiraki, which was protected by the Roman wall, the so-called “Valerian wall”. Although destroyed and reduced, Athens did not lose its glory of a cultural and intellectual center; on the contrary, its fame increased and crowds of wealthy people and aristocrats from every place of the empire sent their offspring to the city to study. A lot of professors made a fortune from the fees their students paid to them and constructed luxurious houses at the southern part of Acropolis, in the area known today as Makrygianni. Finally, in early 4th century many Athenians have become Christians; the Mediolanum Edict (313 A.D.), according religious tolerance, allowed them to practice Christianity without restrictions and fear.

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