Ever through air clear shining brightly
As on wings uplifted, pacing lightly.
5. The Mountains of Attica.—The third great element, besides the sea and the atmosphere of Athens, was the mountains. One after another the bold hills reared themselves, cutting short all the plainlands and making the farmsteads often a matter of slopes and terraces. Against the radiant heavens these mountains stood out boldly, clearly; revealing all the little gashes and seams left from that long-forgotten day when they were flung forth from the bowels of the earth. None of these mountains was very high: Hymettus, the greatest, was only about 3500 feet; but rising as they often did from a close proximity to the sea, and not from a dwarfing table-land, even the lower hills uplifted themselves with proud majesty.
These hills were of innumerable tints according to their rocks, the hue of the neighboring sea, and the hour of the day. In spring they would be clothed in verdant green, which would vanish before the summer heats, leaving them rosy brown or gray. But whatever the fundamental tone, it was always brilliant; for the Athenians lived in a land where blue sky, blue sea, and the massive rock blent together into such a galaxy of shifting color, that, in comparison, the lighting of almost any northern or western landscape would seem feeble and tame. The Athenians absorbed natural beauty with their native air.
6. The Sunlight in Athens.—The Athenian loved sunshine, and Helios the Sun God was gracious to his prayers. In the Athens of to-day it is reckoned that the year averages 179 days in which the sun is not concealed by clouds one instant; and 157 days more when the sun is not hidden more than half an hour[*]. Ancient Athens was surely not more cloudy. Nevertheless, despite this constant sunshine and a southern latitude, Athens was stricken relatively seldom with semitropical heat. The sea was a good friend, bringing tempering breezes. In the short winter there might be a little frost, a little snow, and a fair supply of rain. For the rest of the year, one golden day was wont to succeed another, with the sun and the sea breeze in ever friendly rivalry.
[*]The reason for these many clear days is probably because when the moist west and southwest winds come in contact with the dry, heated air of the Attic plain, they are at once volatilized and dispersed, not condensed (as in northern lands); therefore the day resolves itself into brilliant sunshine.
The climate saved the Athenians from being obliged to wage a stern warfare with nature as did the northern peoples. Their life and civilization could be one developed essentially “in the open air”; while, on the other hand, the bracing sea breeze saved them from that enervating lethargy which has ruined so many southern folk. The scanty soil forced them to struggle hard to win a living; unless they yielded to the constant beckoning of the ocean, and sought food, adventure, wealth, and a great empire across the seas.