The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Laura Aitken-Burt
Is there a site from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
The Athenian acropolis.
When did you first come across this site?
The Parthenon is definitely the icon of Athens as a city and, as the modern capital of Greece, it harks back to the thousands of years of history in the country. I would have seen it in encyclopaedias of the world growing up and on TV documentaries but my true love for it came when I was deciding to study Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at university, despite never having studied anything classical before. Something about this monument made me want to find out more about the civilisation that made it and I felt disappointed that I hadn’t been taught about it at school. It’s sparked my lifelong passion – including for wider access to classics education!
I first saw the acropolis in real life back in 2011 when I was 19 on the British School at Athens Undergraduate Summer School. I took over 3000 photos(!) on that trip – I was so over-excited to be able to see all these ancient monuments up close for the first time and we even had special access to go inside the Parthenon! I knew that moment was going to be one of the best of my life – it’s hard to replicate that sense of first time joy at seeing something that had inspired you so much for so many years.
[The moment I first saw the Parthenon in 2011 – look at that gleeful smile and nerdy sketchbook at hand!]
Can you tell me a bit about the site and its context?
The archaeological evidence of Neolithic tombs around the acropolis shows us that the first inhabitants arrived in Athens in around 4000BC. It’s one of the oldest named cities in the world that has been continuously inhabited. It certainly was an important Mycenaean city from 1400BC onwards as cuttings in the rock show there was a palace on the acropolis and there is a well cut through the middle of the rock. Pottery evidence tells us it was one of the leading centres of trade in the Archaic period from 900BC onwards.
But the acropolis became what it’s famous for today during the 5th century BC. During the Persian Wars in 480BC, the Persian king Xerxes ordered the buildings on the acropolis to be burnt to the ground in revenge for the role Athens had played in burning down temples in Sardis during the Ionian Revolt in 499BC. After several decades where the acropolis lay in ruins and Athens gained increasingly dominant control of the Delian League alliance, the Athenian general Pericles persuaded the democratic assembly to start a huge new building programme to display the wealth and glory of the city-state for generations to come.
What is it about this site that appeals to you most?
There’s something so captivating about the fact that the capital of a modern city is still focused around the geographical formation of the acropolis rock, just as in ancient times. I used to live in Athens and I just found it incredible to look out from so many different viewpoints and still see the monuments there, just as they have stood for thousands of years. It gives me a sense of stability and contentment that they will endure for a thousand years more, long after I am gone, and people will look to them with the same sense of wonder I do. One of my favourite walks in Athens is strolling around the Filopappos Hill, named after a 1st century Roman magistrate whose tomb has one of the best viewpoints of the acropolis. It’s so quiet up there, the sounds of the modern city fall away and you can look to the acropolis, the mountains and the distant outlines of islands in the Aegean and feel like you are seeing the same view as someone thousands of years before.
The Parthenon itself I just find fascinating – such a huge monument in such a visible spot. It’s like we can still feel the power of ancient Athens over us when we look at it. For me, it is one of those sites that just can’t help but inspire. The size, the grandeur, the engineering it took to build it. The attention to detail, the commissioning of such complex artwork. I guess when I look at it, it reminds me of all the happy memories I have made in the city of Athens too over the years.
[Photo taken as I stood inside the Parthenon, between its central entrance columns on the East side]
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I love going for walks in the local neighbourhood and taking time to notice details of architecture and think about different time periods within the local area and all the people who would have walked past the same buildings.
I’m dangerous in a second hand bookshop where I will inevitably spend both many hours and a fortune for my own bookshelf!
I’ve also been debating whether to get a games console so that I can enjoy ancient Greece even more vividly by playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey during lockdown!
Laura Aitken-Burt is an archaeologist and historical consultant. She studied at the University of Oxford and has worked across a wide range of archaeological & historical periods, though her specialist fields include Greek, Hellenistic & Roman History as well as Egyptian & Near Eastern studies and later 18th/19th century colonial reception and travel writing. Her work has included excavations across Europe, tour guiding around archaeological sites, presenting and researching for TV documentaries and podcasts, writing articles, copyediting books, and compiling educational resources for school children. She currently teaches History and Politics in London and tries to input classical references at every given opportunity! You can find her on Twitter @labhistorical.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.