In the pilot of my favorite childhood cartoon, “The Mighty Hercules,” the Demigod defeats his friend Theseus (slayer of the Minotaur and founder of Athens) in a foot race and a wrestling match.
As a reward, he asks Zeus to send him to defend humans against evil and injustice. His father reminds him he’d become a mere mortal on Earth—unless he wears a magic ring endowed with His Thunder.
From ancient mythology, the story trickled down through literature, music and film to the classically-animated television series that entertained my childhood’s Sunday mornings—and perhaps catalyzed my sexual awakening.
We owe Greece so much: democracy, philosophy, politics and tragedy, to name just a few. Its influence is so pervasive that when I finally reached “the cradle of civilization,” I experienced deja vu.
And a feeling that time stands still, particularly at the Acropolis, home of legendary ruins like the Odeon of Herodes Atticus.
The Roman senator built the musical venue in 161 AD to memorialize his wife, whom he allegedly killed in one of the first episodes of domestic violence.
The Slavic invasion of 267 AD destroyed it. It wasn’t until 1950 that the city restored it and used it to host the Athens Festival and performances by the likes of Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, Nana Mouskouri and Luciano Pavarotti.
The nearby Ancient Agora of Athens was the center of political, commercial, religious and social activity for free-born citizens.
Destroyed by the Persian invasion of 480 BC and rebuilt by Pericles, the building has witnessed history’s most infamous episodes, like Socrates’ death sentence for impiety in 399 BC.
Although the Agora kept its function through the early Roman period, the Germanic Heruli destroyed it in 267 CE.
In 1931, the American School of Classical Studies started restoration with a grant from the Greek government, the Marshall Plan and the Rockefeller Foundation.
A larger-than-life, headless statue of the Roman Emperor Hadrian also basks in the timeless light of the Agora.
The sculpture wears a chest plate featuring Athena standing on top of a she-wolf that feeds Romulus and Remus.
The scene represents the founding of Rome and Hadrian’s vision of Greece as the cultural capital of the empire.
Hadrian, emperor from 117 to 138 AD, encouraged military might and personally supervised numerous buildings in virtually every corner of the empire (including Rome’s Pantheon).
He’s also famous for his relationship with Greek youth Antinous, to whom he memorialized with the founding of a city—Antinopolis—after his untimely death by drowning in Egypt.
To the west of the Acropolis, Athens erected The Arch of Hadrian in the 2nd century AD to honor the Roman emperor’s visit.
An inscription on the western side of the gate reads, “This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus.” On the eastern side, “This is the city of Hadrian, not of Theseus.”
Scholars think it means the arch dividing the city between “old Athens” and “new Athens.”
The adjacent Temple of Zeus (photo featured) was one of the largest in all of Greece, probably constructed around 470 BC.
Sculptures of the early Classical style, including a chariot race between Pelops and Oenomaus, adorned it.
The most magnificent of them was Phidias’ 42-foot golden statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World.
The monument represented the god seated on an elaborate throne. Sadly, an earthquake of biblical proportions destroyed it around the 5th century CE.
A ten-minute walk away, The Panathenaic Stadium stands on the site of an ancient racecourse.
Lykurgus built it in 338 BC for the Panathenaic Games, where nude male athletes competed in track and athletics.
Under the reign of Emperor Hadrian, Herodes Atticus rebuilt it in marble as a 50 thousand-seat sports arena.
The advent of Christianity and a ban on pagan events around the 4th century AD rendered it obsolete and eventually abandoned.
In the late 1800s, benefactor Evangelos Zappas, encouraged by French aristocrat and founder of the 1894 International Olympic Conference, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, sponsored the Zappas Olympics, the precursor to the first modern Olympic Games.
Like most European capitals, Athens empties in the summer. That’s why we hopped on the ferry to the quaint island of Hydra, a nearby oasis with no roads, cars or bikes—but with plenty of charm, water taxis and donkeys.
What Hydra lacks in size, it makes for in popular culture relevance.
After Sophia Loren played a “wild Greek island girl” in her 1957 English film debut “Boy on a Dolphin,” shot on the island, celebrities, writers and aristocrats flocked.
Even First Lady Jackie Kennedy made it!
Following Jackie O’s Greek summer journey of ’61, we went to Mykonos next, where I found the most spectacular sunsets on Earth—and scores of men with Herculean proportions.
Mykonos is, according to mythology, the site of Gigantomachy, or the battle between the Olympian gods and the Giants.
The epic face-off symbolizes the struggle between the cosmic order and the forces of chaos.
Enter Hercules, who—thanks to his status as a Demigod—could defeat and kill the Giants, whose dead bodies became the mass of rocks that form the island.