Birthplace of Democracy

Around 508 BCE, democracy as a form of government first began in Athens, Greece.

Early Democracy

A couple of effective early democratic processes were called ‘Ostracism’ and ‘Kleroteria’; a shame they are not in use today. 😁

Ostracism was a unique type of voting intended as a means of protecting the city against anyone aspiring to have absolute power. The result of the ostracism vote was valid only if there was a quorum of 6000 present. Each voter scratched or painted on a broken piece of pottery the name of the man he thought most undesirable. The candidate with the greatest number of votes against him was obliged to leave Athens for 10 years.

Pottery Voting Pieces

Kleroteria were allotment machines made from slabs of wood or stone that stood at the entrance to every court in the 5th to 2nd centuries BCE. Carved into the face of each slab were columns of narrow slots aligned in horizontal rows. Into the slots were inserted the bronze tickets (pinakia) carried by citizens who were eligible for jury service. The pinakia would be engraved with the citizen’s name, his township and his father’s name. On the left side of the machine there was a metal tube at the top where a number of black or white bronze balls would be poured into the tube in random order. Turning a crank would release the balls one by one and depending on whether a white or a black ball emerged, citizens represented by the entire horizontal row of pinakia were accepted or rejected for jury service that day.

A Kleroteria

Panathenaic Stadium

Athens is called the Birthplace of Democracy, but Greece is also the home of the Olympics or Olympic Games. Olympia is a small town on the Peloponnese peninsula near Athens, famous for its archaeological site where the ancient Olympic Games were once held. (Olympia is not to be confused with Mount Olympus in northern Greece, where the Twelve Olympian Gods were believed to live.) The ancient games were held in Olympia from the 8th century BCE to the 4th century CE. Because the games were associated with worshipping Zeus, a Pagan god, the Christian Roman Empire, in an attempt to rid all pagan beliefs and festivals banned them in 393 CE.

Nearly a millennium and a half later, a French Baron is credited with founding the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894 and resurrecting the Olympic Games. The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896.

1896 Olympic Poster

The Panathenaic Stadium is a multi-purpose stadium and one of Athens main historic attractions. It is the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble.

A simple racecourse was the site used to host the Panathenaic Games from 566 BCE to the 3rd century CE. It too was a religious and athletic festival celebrated every 4 years in honour of the goddess Athena.

Tiers of stone benches were arranged around the track for a few privileged guests but many spectators may have also perched themselves on the slopes of the ravine.

The stadium was rebuilt in marble in 144 CE and had a capacity of 50,000 seats. After the rise of Christianity in the 4th century CE it was abandoned. In 1869 the stadium was excavated and brought back to life.

The Zappas Olympics, an early attempt to revive the ancient Olympic Games were held at the stadium in 1870 and 1875. 20 years later, in 1894, once the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had formed, it was an easy decision to choose Athens and the Panathenaic Stadium as the host of the First Olympiad. At the opening ceremony in 1896, the stadium was filled with 80,000 spectators.

Panathenaic Stadium

There is a small museum inside that we enjoyed being able to see the official posters and unique Olympic torches used for each Olympiad held since 1896.

Olympic Torches

Having competed in field and sports competitions ourselves and been awarded medals, it was especially poignant to stand in this stadium where the first modern Olympic Games began and Olympian dreams continue to this day. Sometimes we are surprised at the unexpected emotions that rise up within us as we travel. There have been more than a few places we visit that resonate with us and standing in this historical Olympic arena was one.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a war memorial, dedicated to Greek soldiers killed during war. It is located in Syntagma Square, the main square in Athens, which is in front of the Old Royal Palace. The tomb is guarded by the Evzones of the Presidential Guard.

The Presidential Guard is a ceremonial infantry unit that is classified as the last unit of Evzones in the Hellenic Army. The Evzones have become symbols of bravery and courage for the Greek people. Every soldier guards for one hour, 3 times in total every 48 hours. Throughout these 60 minutes, they must stand in perfect stillness until it is time to switch with another guard. Perfect stillness means the soldiers must not make any face or eye movements which includes no blinking. During the changing of the guard, they work in pairs so they can perfectly coordinate their moves. The steps required during the change are carried out in incredibly slow motion, as a precaution of the soldiers blood circulation after 60 minutes of complete immobility. And it’s great for taking pictures 🙂

The soldiers of the Presidential Guard are selected according to height, physical condition, psychological well-being, character and morality. They go through a severe training program, where they are trained to keep their body and mind still, before becoming a part of this honorary unit.

Every hour on the hour visitors can witness the changing of the guards. Throughout the year, each Sunday and on national Holidays the guards wear the full Evzone costume. We stopped to watch this interesting ceremony a couple of times as we passed through Syntagma square. The slow motion movements were so unusual until we learned the reason it was necessary. In Budapest last summer we also were are hand to watch the changing of the guard. Each country has slightly different customs that are always interesting to watch.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

First Cemetery of Athens

The First Cemetery of Athens is the official cemetery of the City of Athens and the first to be built after the Greeks won their independence in 1929. It opened in 1837 and soon became a favored cemetery for Greeks and foreigners.

First Cemetery of Athens

We saw gravesites, beneath the huge pines and cypresses ranging from the simple to the sublime. There are 3 churches in the cemetery, the main one being Church of Saint Theodore at the entrance.

First Cemetery of Athens


When talking about the history of Athens we wanted to include Hadrian’s significant influence and contributions to this Greek city.

Hadrian, born Publius Aelius Hadrianus was a Roman emperor from 117 to 138 CE and a philhellene – a lover of Greece and Greek culture. During his reign as Emperor he spent more than half his time away from Rome where he visited almost every province in the Roman Empire. Hadrian was not known as a military man, rather a creator and a builder. In Rome, he rebuilt the Pantheon and built the large Temple of Venus and the magnificent Castle of the Holy Angel also called Hadrian’s Mausoleum with its famous underground passage that connects it directly to the Vatican. In Egypt, he rebuilt the Serapeum of Alexandria. Hadrian spent the winter of 122/123 at Tarraco, Spain, where he restored the Temple of Augustus.

He built the Hadrian wall which marked the northern limit of Roman Britain, a gate in southern Turkey and a gate in Jordan.

Hadrian’s Gate or Arch

In Greece, Hadrian wanted to make Athens the cultural capital of the Empire, so he ordered the construction of many temples here.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus for example had numerous builders over a period of 5 centuries but it was Hadrian who ensured the project was finally completed. Hadrian dedicated it in 130 CE and erected a statue of Zeus as well as one of himself inside.

We walked beneath the Arch of Hadrian also called Hadrian’s Gate. The arch was built by the Athenians to honor the Roman Emperor for his many contributions to the city. There were two inscriptions on the arch, facing in opposite directions. The inscription on the south east side, facing the Acropolis, reads “This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus”. On the northwest side, facing the tall pillars of the Temple of Zeus, it reads “This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus.”

Hadrian’s Gate

Hadrian’s Library

Hadrian loved both Roman and Greek literature. He wrote poetry himself and was very familiar with the Greek philosophers. In 132 CE he had the library built on the north side of the Acropolis. The building had one entrance, a high surrounding wall with an inner courtyard surrounded by columns and a decorative pool in the center. The library was on one side where rolls of papyrus “books” were kept and on the opposite side had lecture halls in the corners with reading rooms in between.

The library was badly damaged by an invasion in 267 CE. During Byzantine times, 3 churches were added to the site and we were able to walk amongst the ruins of them all.

Hadrian’s Library

The Tower of the Winds

At the ruins of the Roman Agora our favorite site was an ancient 39 foot (12 meter) high octagonal tower with the wonderful name ‘Tower of the Winds’. It was designed by an astronomer in the 1st century BCE and served as a weather vane, water clock, compass and sundial. On each side of the octagon there are carved reliefs of figures floating on air representing a compass direction; in ancient Greece they were called the 8 winds. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, referred to them as: Aparctias (N), Caecias (NE), Apeliotes (E), Eurus (SE), Notos (S), Lips (SW), Zephyrus (W) and Argestes (NW).

The Tower of the Winds

You may already know that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are called the fathers of Western philosophy, Hippocrates – the father of Western medicine, Homer, (The Iliad and The Odyssey) and Herodotus (The Histories), the first historians and Thespis, the first recorded actor (the reason actors and actresses today are called Thespians).

We also learned the ancient Greeks were inventors. Did you know they invented the first analog computer? (see our blog – Cradle of Western Civilization) The also invented the alarm clock, the astrolabe – used to identify stars and planets, a vending machine – used to dispense Holy water when a coin was inserted into the machine, central heating, plumbing, the shower, the steam engine, the first spiral staircase discovered was found in a Greek city founded in 654 BCE, the odometer, lighthouse, anchor, watermill and automatic doors.

One restaurant owner we talked with said the Greeks also invented cheesecake. And according to the blog writer, Greeker than the Greeks, this is the oldest known Greek cheesecake recipe, written in 230 CE. It was fed to athletes of the ancient Olympic Games to give them strength before their competition.

“Pound the cheese until it is smooth, mix it in a brass pan with honey and spring wheat flour, heat the cheesecake in one mass, allow to cool, and then serve.”

It sounds good, especially if you use Greek honey. We are not sure why or how it is different, but Greek honey, like Greek yogurt, is the best we have tasted anywhere.

The more places we visit in Greece, the more we are reminded what an incredible country this was and still is.

Follow your dreams; they know the way – by Kobi Yamada

Yamas from these Athenians,

Ted and Julia

View our First Cemetery of Athens photo gallery here

View our Panathenaic Stadium photo gallery here

View our Rest of Athens, Athens photo gallery here

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