The Archaeology of Atheism in Ancient Athens

Locating the Garden of Epicurus

In this blog post, Prof. Tim Whitmarsh explores the evidence for the location of the Garden of Epicurus, arguing that its physical position was an expression of Epicureans’ “atheistic” views about death. Whitmarsh is the author of the recently published book Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (Knopf, 2015).—Ed.


 
The archaeology of atheism is not always easy. In the ancient Mediterranean world, atheism was an idea, rather than an ideology or an institution; it left few physical traces. The same may in fact be true today: the archaeologists of 4000 C.E. will find plenty of mosques, synagogues, churches and temples, but unless they happen on a miraculously preserved copy of The God Delusion, or the relics of the headquarters of the Secular Coalition for America (complete with entrance plaque), nothing in the material-cultural record will tell them about the role of atheism in society.

epicurus

Marble portrait of Epicurus, now on display at the British Museum. Photo: Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

But as so often, if we change the angle of vision a little, then things begin to sharpen up in new ways. In this brief piece I want to try to locate Epicurus’s Garden in ancient Athens, not just geographically, but also symbolically. What did it matter where the Garden was? And did that position have anything to do with his ideas about religion?

Epicureans, though often called atheists (atheoi) by their contemporaries, were not quite atheists in our terms. Epicurus, who came to Athens from the island of Samos in the late fourth century B.C.E., was absolutely insistent that you would have to be “mad” to propose a philosophical system without gods. In the eyes of many, however, that was exactly what he did. He was a radical physicalist who thought there is nothing in nature that is not either matter or void. He taught that death is the end of us; after that we dissolve into atoms that will afterward be reconstituted in other forms. The gods are also made of matter and void, and they exist outside our world, having no constructive influence on it. Prayer, ritual and god-fearing have no effect on anything (except perhaps upon the person enacting them). These were the reasons why people associated the Epicureans with atheism (a more flexible term in antiquity than it is now).

The hub of Epicureanism was his famous “Garden.” The Garden was not really a “school” like Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum: it was more a physical manifestation of the ideal of tranquil serenity at which his philosophy aimed, devoted both to enabling friendship between people of all backgrounds (including some women and slaves), and to the commemoration of Epicurus himself. For most in antiquity, this place embodied Epicureanism more than anywhere else on earth.
 


 
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We don’t know exactly where the Garden lay, but we do know along which stretch of road it was located. The Roman thinker and politician Cicero, writing in the first half of the first century B.C.E., mentions passing it on a stroll from the Dipylon to Plato’s Academy. The Dipylon was a huge, fortified gate in the north-west corner of the massive city walls built in the 470s (in the aftermath of the Persian invasions). Plato’s school was attached to, and got its name from, one of the city’s three main gymnasia. The Academy lay about a mile outside of the city walls, as one traveled northwest along the road known as the Dromos. This is roughly the route of modern Plateon Street (nothing to do with Plato), which then becomes Monastiriou. Inside the city walls, in the other direction, the Dromos led to the Agora, Athens’ commercial and civic district (a point to which I’ll return at the end).

athens-dipylon

The Dipylon. Photo: Tim Whitmarsh.

athens-map

Map of ancient Athens.

Some modern Athenians believe the site of the Garden was at the point where the Leoforos Athinon (“Athens Highway”) crosses the ancient Dromos, via a monstrous overpass. That is as may be. There is, pleasingly, a little park there, but it’s unlikely nowadays to stir Epicurean feelings of tranquility.

leoforos-athinon

The Leoforos Athinon overpass. Photo: Tim Whitmarsh.

But the precise location doesn’t matter much. What is important is that we can now begin to think about the significance of the location in terms of its wider coordinates in the ancient city. Space is not just physical: it has emotional and cognitive associations too, and these matter deeply to its “users.” Let’s try to reconstruct the “journey of the imagination” that might have been taken by an ancient visitor to the Epicurean Garden, walking out through the Dipylon and along the Dromos.

The most important point is that this was a world of the dead. The Ceramic Quarter (Kerameikos), where the Dipylon was located, was not just an attractive residential district, but also the city’s burial ground; many of the graves have been excavated (the €8 entry fee for the archaeological site is money well spent). But in fact the tombs were not limited to the Dipylon area; they lined the full mile-long stretch of the Dromos. The ancient road is now largely buried beneath the residential district of modern Colonus, but what archaeology remains confirms the report of the ancient travel-writer Pausanias, that the entire length of the road was “full of sanctuaries of the gods, and graves of heroes and of men” (1.29). At any point on that road, then, most of your companions were buried. What does this mean for visitors to the Epicurean Garden?

To answer this question, we have to think first about Plato’s Academy. Visitors to the Garden will surely have known that the city’s most famous philosophical school lay at the end of the Dromos; the position of the Garden earlier on the road might be read as a symbolic attempt to “hijack” the Platonic topography. The Academy was founded in the 380s, some 80 years earlier than the Garden. For Plato, the soul was more important than the body; in fact, the aim of the philosophical life was to shuck off the constraints of the material body (its appetites and desires) and focus instead on that spark of divine fire that animates us. Death actually liberates the soul from the clogging body, releasing it into a state of greater philosophical purity. The location of the Academy at the end of the Dromos, then, became a metaphor for transcendence of the material body. Death is not the end, but the route to true philosophy.

plato-academy

Buildings to the east of the Academy gymnasium: perhaps Plato’s school? Photo: Tim Whitmarsh.

Death played a major, but very different, role in Epicurean philosophy. One of his central tenets is that the constituent parts of everything are matter and void. There is no spirit, and so no survival after death—and, just as importantly, no possibility of judgment in the afterlife. For Epicureans this was a great source of comfort. This life is the only one we have, so there is no need to worry about pleasing or appeasing gods. That the Garden was located in a space thick with material relics of the fragility of human life is surely no accident. Unlike the Academy—indeed, standing in direct competition with it—the Garden fostered, in its position as well as its tenets, the idea that nothing survives death except material relics themselves.

If the journey to the Garden offered itself as a symbolic narrative of any kind, it expressed a journey away from the stressful concerns of city life, embodied in the Agora, the commercial and administrative center of the city that marked the start of the Dromos. Epicurus’s own house was in the Melite region, south of the Agora (and marked on the map above). His own daily commute to work would have taken him past buyers and sellers squabbling over wares and prices, and civic officials lecturing about rules and regulations. The route along the Dromos would have seen these melt away into the world of tombs. That, for Epicurus, was the true meaning of tranquillity: leaving behind the petty concerns of civic life, and accepting the materiality and mortality of the human frame.
 


 
tim-whitmarshTim Whitmarsh is the A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. He works on all areas of Greek literature and culture, specializing particularly in the world of the Greeks under the Roman Empire. He is the author of Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (Knopf, 2015).
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Athenian Acropolis: Antiquity’s high holy place by Harrison Eiteljorg, II

Solomon, Socrates and Aristotle by Theodore Feder

The Oracle of Delphi—Was She Really Stoned? by Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and John R. Hale

Stoa Poikile Excavations in the Athenian Agora

The Greeks Go to Washington
 


 

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  • Tom says

    This sounds closer to Deism. I reject the idea that God gave us morality and a conscience and an ability to ponder ideas greater than simple physical survival – only for us all to die and then never more awake. That which shatters atheism and deism is the fact that God’s only begotten Son came to this Earth in the form of human flesh in order to reconcile us to God and grant us eternal life.


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