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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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The First Sights in Athens













Page 4

The Streets and House Fronts of Athens


    Progress is slower near the Market Place because of the extreme narrowness of the streets. They are only fifteen feet wide or even less,—intolerable alleys a later age would call them,—and dirty to boot. Sometimes they are muddy, more often extremely dusty. Worse still, they are contaminated by great accumulations of filth; for the city is without an efficient sewer system or regular scavengers. Even as the crowd elbows along, a house door will frequently open, an ill-favored slave boy show his head, and with the yell, "Out of the way!" slap a bucket of dirty water into the street. There are many things to offend the nose as well as the eyes of men of a later race. It is fortunate indeed that the Athenians are otherwise a healthy folk, or they would seem liable to perpetual pestilence; even so, great plagues have in past years harried the city.[3]

    The first entrance to Athens will thus bring to a stranger, full of the city's fame and expectant of meeting objects of beauty at every turn, almost instant disappointment. The narrow, dirty, ill-paved streets are also very crooked. One can readily be lost in a labyrinth of filthy little lanes the moment one quits the few main thoroughfares. High over head, to be sure, the red crags of the Acropolis may be towering, crowned with the red, gold, and white tinted marble of the temples, but all around seems only monotonous squalor. The houses seem one continuous series of blank walls; mostly of one, occasionally of two stories, and with flat roofs. These walls are usually spread over with some dirty gray or perhaps yellow stucco. For most houses, the only break in the street walls are the simple doors, all jealously barred and admitting no glance within. There are usually no street windows, if the house is only one story high. If it has two stories, a few narrow slits above the way may hint that here are the apartments for the slaves or women. There are no street numbers. There are often no street names. "So-and-so lives in such-and-such a quarter, near the Temple of Heracles;" that will enable you to find a householder, after a few tactful questions from the neighbors; and after all, Athens is a relatively small city[4] (as great cities are reckoned), very closely built, and her regular denizens do not feel the need of a directory.

    So the crowd elbows its way onward: now thinning, now gaining, but the main stream always working towards the Market Place.


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