The Two Towers (of the Winds)

In my last piece I considered what some pieces of Roman period architectural sculpture that copied sculpture from the Athenian Parthenon might tells us about how the Greeks living under the Empire thought about that Classical temple. For this, and my next piece, I’ve been inspired by an 18th century building in Oxford that copies architectural sculpture from one of the most familiar monuments of Roman Athens.

The Radcliffe Observatory

Every day just before I arrive at my office – I usually write there in the morning and head to the library in the afternoon for new research – I pass by the Radcliffe Observatory, an elegant octagonal tower in neoclassical style that would probably have become more familiar as an Oxford landmark if it wasn’t located a good ten minute’s walk to the north of the city centre and away from most of the old colleges. It is now rather tucked away behind the swish new, glass-fronted maths building in the so-called Radcliffe observatory quarter, an area currently under redevelopment by the university. Some of you might recognize the building because it featured prominently in a recent episode of the detective series Lewis (or so I’ve been told. Don’t tell me who did it, I haven’t seen it yet!). For some reason the Gibson building, where I actually have my desk hasn’t yet featured in Morse or either of its spin offs.

The Gibson Building
The Gibson Building

The Radcliffe Observatory functioned as an observatory from its opening in 1773 to 1934, when it was taken over by the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research. It became a part of Green College in 1979. That college merged in 2007 with Templeton College to create Green-Templeton college to which the building now belongs. It now houses the dining room and common room of the college. I’m hoping to get the chance to see the building from the inside at some point.

The first glimpse I ever caught of the building was when I visited Oxford some years ago and went on a highly enjoyable open-top bus tour. I don’t remember the audio guide saying anything about the observatory but in the distance, above the rooftops, I recognized it immediately as a copy of one of my favourite of the surviving monuments of ancient Athens, the enigmatic Tower of the Winds.

The Tower of the Winds stands near the eastern entrance of the so-called Roman Agora and is one of the best preserved of all ancient buildings in Greece. The design of the building is, at least in terms of the buildings that survive from antiquity, unique – both in terms of its architecture and its function. The fact that there is nothing to compare it with means that it is very difficult to date on stylistic grounds. We also don’t know who paid for it though scholars sometimes assume it must have been a gift to the city by some Hellenistic king or wealthy Roman. We do, however, know that it was already standing by the mid 1st century BC because it is mentioned briefly in a work written at that time by the Roman author Varro. The Augustan period architect Vitruvius (slightly later) also discusses the building. From these two literary references and from studying the building itself we do at least have a good idea what it was used for – it was a kind of public clock and weather station.

The Tower of the Winds
The Tower of the Winds

The ancient authors don’t actually call the building the “Tower of the Winds” – that name has been given to the building in modern times (there’s also no reason to assume that the term Varro uses to refer to the building, “horologium”, or “horologion” in Greek, must be what the Athenians knew it as, as some scholars do. The word describes what the building was, a timepiece, and isn’t necessarily an actual name for it). The reason for the modern name is that the tops of the eight faces of the building are decorated in high relief with representations of the eight directional winds, shown as flying men wearing clothing and carrying objects appropriate to where they come from. Boreas, the cold north wind, for example wears warm clothes and is blowing a horn to symbolize the ferocious gusts coming from that direction and Kaikias (“Badness”), the north-eastern wind, is carrying a shield full of hailstones. Now that I’ve seen the Radcliffe observatory up close it is clear that the building isn’t really a copy of the Tower of the Winds at all but it’s octagonal shape and its decoration with copies of the distinctive relief figures is enough to immediately evoke the Athenian building. But the issue of copying is one of the things I want to talk about next time. Here I’d like to focus more on the Tower of the Winds itself.

Apelliotes, the southeast wind, carrying fruit (left - Athens; right - Oxford)
Apelliotes, the southeast wind, carrying fruit (left – Tower of the Winds, Athens; right – Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford)

The Tower of the Winds was equipped with sundials on all eight of its faces, the lines of which can still be seen today. There’s been some debate in the scholarly literature about whether these sundials belonged to the original building or were added later. Lines scratched on stone are sadly impossible to date scientifically but I’m inclined to accept they were part of the original building. Vitruvius tells us the name of the building’s architect – Andronikos of Kyrrhos (a place in Macedonia). Varro also says it was built by a man from Kyrrhos. This Andronikos doesn’t appear in any other literary sources but he must be the same Andronikos of Kyrrhos attested in an inscription from the island polis of Tenos as installing a sundial in that city. Considering that the only two facts we have about this man are that (a) he built a sundial somewhere and (b) he built the Tower of the Winds, it seems to me rather likely that the sundials on the Tower of the Winds were also part of his design and nowadays most scholars seem to accept that they were.

Sundial on the Tower of the Winds
Sundial on the Tower of the Winds

The Tower was also equipped with a water clock, which would have allowed people to tell the time on a cloudy day. It would be going too far to say that water clocks were common in antiquity but they are known elsewhere. The simplest kind were those used back in Classical Athens for timing law court speeches and which simply consisted of vases with holes near the base that could contain enough water to time a particular type of speech. More complex public examples are known but the one in the Tower of the Winds seems to have been one of the most elaborate.

Water tank at the rear of the Tower of the Winds
Water tank at the rear of the Tower of the Winds

A tank on the outside of the building was fed by water from a spring from the Acropolis. The tank then filled a basin within the building, probably using a system of valves to regulate the pressure and to ensure the inflow speed was constant. Cuttings on the floor of the inside of the building suggest there must have been some kind of mechanism of moving parts which was presumably activated by a float rising in the basin. Some scholars have suggested that there may even have been moving statues – there are some references to such things existing elsewhere in antiquity – but unfortunately we will never know for sure. It seems clear, however, that people would have been able to enter the building and somehow, from the position of the mechanism, know what time it was.

Although the Tower of the Winds is a fascinating structure in so many ways I have particular affection for the building because it featured in a particularly important argument in my PhD thesis, which was about the changing use of Greek agoras in Hellenistic and Roman times. The argument has to do with what the Tower suggests about the area in which it stood.

The general consensus among scholars is that the “Roman Agora”, constructed with funds donated to the city of Athens by Julius Caesar and the first Roman Emperor Augustus, in some way came to replace the old Classical Agora which lay some eighty meters to the west of it. The idea is that the creation of the new building, which was almost certainly a commercial market, meant that the old agora, which had been the heart of the city for over half a millennium, now lost its function as a marketplace. This is generally accepted as a sign of the lamentable decline of the old agora, the vibrant public square where people had gathered to discuss philosophy and politics, while buying their vegetables and fish, in the golden days of the 5th Century democracy.

The Roman Agora at Athens with the Tower of the Winds in the background
The Roman Agora at Athens with the Tower of the Winds in the background

This idea that the new complex took over some of the functions of the Classical Agora is reinforced by the very name “Roman Agora”. It suggests that the old square had been the agora in pre-Roman times, while the market of Caesar and Augustus was the agora in Roman times. In my time spent in Athens I’ve heard people, and not only tourists but also students and scholars, talk about the two squares in this way. In truth the two agoras continued to exist alongside each other and the Classical Agora remained the more important of the two. Although we can assume that there wasn’t much need for a food market in the old square, there isn’t even any direct evidence that all forms of trading there came to an end.

The reason the Tower of the Winds is relevant to this issue has to do with timing. The market building was probably opened in sometime between 10 and 2 BC but Varro mentions the Tower of the Winds around 50 BC. He doesn’t give any indication that it is a new building. Construction on the Roman Agora might have begun that early – it probably took a long time to complete because of the troubled time of the Roman Civil wars but the important point is that the Tower of the Winds clearly predates the market building and possibly by quite some time. A case has been made by Hermann Kienast – a strong case in my opinion, for reasons that I won’t go into here – that the Tower of the Winds was constructed in the mid second century BC which would mean that it was over a century older than the Roman Agora.

The presence of a monumental clock suggests that this area was already an area of public space before the Roman Agora was built. It is more than likely that there was already a marketplace here because a desire to regulate trading hours would explain the need for a public clock. Furthermore, the only food shops that have ever been excavated on the Classical Agora, were on the very southeast edge of the square alongside a road that stretched toward where the Roman Agora would later be built. Curiously the idea that there was a marketplace here before the Roman Agora was built has actually been fairly widely accepted – and even by the same scholars who also hold that the Roman Agora took trade away from the old square. That makes very little sense to me. My argument is that all the Roman Agora did was provide more splendid premises for an activity that was already taking place on the same spot. This means that we cannot simply point the finger at Caesar and Augustus and give Rome the blame for putting an end to the old agora functioning as a marketplace. This at least puts a dent in the interpretation that public life in the city of Athens must have declined under Roman rule and calls into question how easy it is to draw conclusions about civic vitality from looking at monumental building programmes.

But lets return to the Tower of the Winds itself. As I already mentioned, as well as being a clock Vitruvius and Varro both describe how it also functioned as a monumental weather vane. There was a pointer on the roof that turned in the direction that the winds were blowing so that the relief figures were not only decorative but also served a practical function. Varro says that somehow the direction of the wind was also indicated inside the building, though no appropriate hole in the roof has been found. The vane, presumably made of bronze and sadly long since lost, had the form, so Vitruvius tells us, of a Triton, the half-man/half fish, son of Poseidon, who we encountered last time serving as an architectural support on the Roman odeion on the Classical Agora. Was this perhaps one more connection that people were meant to make when they saw that building in the second century AD?

I’ll return to that question next time when I want to think a bit more about what it meant in our more recent history when buildings and monuments made references to antiquity. I also want to consider how the ways that we “read” such architecture today can help with, or perhaps even get in the way of, how we think about the changing meaning of monuments in ancient times. I’ll be looking at the Radcliffe Observatory in a bit more detail and I’ll also be considering another monument I pass every day on my way to work, a statue that stands (by chance or design?) within a stone’s throw of the observatory. A statue of – yes, you guessed it – the merman Triton.


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