Why Athens of the North?
Edinburgh gave itself the title ‘Athens of the North’ to express its growing importance and sense of achievement.
Throughout the 1700s the architecture of ancient Rome had been the inspiration for designing buildings. British architects such as Robert Adam would go on a grand tour of Italy as a part of their education, drawing inspiration from the ancient ruins they visited.
In 1755 British travellers brought back with them sketches of ancient ruins in Athens, such as the Parthenon and the Acropolis. The fashion for this style of classical architecture grew, and ancient Greek styles came to influence everything from hair-dressing to tea sets.
Edinburgh had started to built its New Town in the 1770s, but there were few grand public buildings, and as the confidence of the city grew so did calls for suitable monuments to show its achievements.
In 1822 the Edinburgh artist Hugh William Williams held an exhibition of his watercolours of Athens displayed alongside views of Edinburgh, inviting visitors to see the likeness in the setting of the two cities. The idea caught the popular imagination and soon everyone was using the phrase ‘Modern Athens’ to describe the city.