Athens By Moonlight: Mark Twain Tours Ancient Greece in The Innocents Abroad

Each year we are proud to publish a series of essays conceived, written, and edited by members of the Mark Twain Circle of America, which, since 1986, has been the primary member organization devoted to the study of Twain’s “work, life, and times.” Naturally, the Twain Circle and the Center For Mark Twain Studies are frequent and enthusiastic collaborators on numerous fronts, but we want to emphasize that the essays in this series are created without any input from CMTS, which functions solely as the venue for publication. Through these essays we get a peak at the vibrance of Twain Studies scholarship, but also the diversity of perspectives.

Special thanks on this occasion goes to Kerry Driscoll, Associate Editor at the Mark Twain Papers & Project and Professor Emerita at University of St. Joseph, who acted as editor for this series of three essays, which we will be publishing over the next six weeks.

from page 341 of Innocents Abroad

Late in the summer of 1867, the Quaker City, a steamship loaded with American tourists, was anchored in the blue waters of the Saronic Gulf and in sight of Athens, Greece. Its deck buzzed with anxious passengers under a quarantine imposed in the port of Piraeus by Greek authorities who were fearful of cholera. The mood on deck was dark. Athens, the cradle of western civilization, was tantalizingly close but unattainable.

Unwilling to endure a lengthy wait (eleven days!), the decision was made to resupply the vessel and then move eastward the next day, leaving the Hellenistic dreams of the passengers unrealized. In the meantime, they would gather on deck and try to “see” as much of Athens as possible “with books, and maps, and glasses,” as Twain put it.[1] It was a noble but sad effort. The only way to really see Athens would be to steal away from the ship on a small boat under cover of darkness; head for shore; and walk at least five miles (one-way) over unfamiliar terrain populated with possibly hostile locals and too many dogs to count. In other words, the only way to see Athens was to break quarantine, risking arrest and imprisonment. Who would be that reckless?

Mark Twain, of course.

We should be thankful that he took such a bold risk, despite its obnoxious arrogance (I should add here that there is no evidence that Twain or any of the three shipmates who shared his journey wore masks at any time during the incursion).[2] The narrative segment that resulted from that night-time adventure appears in Chapter 32 of The Innocents Abroad (1869). In this especially compelling part of the narrative, Twain evokes the audacious fun of their enterprise and the ardor that propelled their efforts in the long hike to and from the Acropolis. While Twain’s descriptions of the men’s movement across the dark landscape is light-hearted and energetic, once they achieve their goal and arrive at the Acropolis, his writing dramatically shifts, capturing the serene, almost unearthly beauty of the ancient monument by moonlight. In this passage, he both adheres to well-established tropes of American travel writing in Greece and also produces one of the best narrative encounters of Athens in the nineteenth century. All would have been absent without his decision to jump ship.

What made Athens worth it?

The main thing we should note in this context is that no American on board the Quaker City or on board any tourist vessel approaching Athens in Twain’s lifetime travelled around the Mediterranean to tour nineteenth-century Greece. More accurately, they did so to tour ancient Greece. The Hellenistic associations primarily from the 4th century B.C. defined it as the birthplace of democracy. As Philip Sherrard in his The Pursuit of Greece (1966) summarizes, “Greece was the most sacred of all countries, the land of gods and heroes, the land which had given birth to our civilization, to liberty, enlightenment, democracy, the arts, the sciences, rationalism, and to everything else of value.”[3] Americans have often taken that narrative very seriously.

Modern Greece, on the other hand, in the touristic mindset, was a rather unfortunate geographical location that too often intruded upon a dream-tour of antiquity. Such time-frame conflicts are standard in numerous locations around the globe. Any place held in high esteem for historical accomplishments carries a similar burden. But Greece (read Athens) is special. One passage from a traveler a decade before Twain’s travels can provide a fair representation of the disinterest tourists on the whole had for any current Athens. Samuel Fiske in his Mr. Dunn Browne’s Experiences in Foreign Parts makes this observation: “Modern Athens ought to be removed. It is a very clean, bright, well-built, regular, enterprising town, therefore one wouldn’t really wish to see it destroyed, but it certainly ought to be removed. It is dreadfully in the way of ancient Athens and seriously injures the effect of the old ruins.”[4] Though Fiske has an ironic tone, his evocation of a pervasive sentiment is spot on.

In this context, the primary focal point of the touristic imagination, more specifically, has always been the Acropolis, a synecdoche of Athenian cultural and political achievements in its classical era. Among the many structures upon that hill, the Parthenon reigned supreme and served as the primary structural icon. According to Eleana Yalouri, “the Parthenon was not just a sacred site but it also stood for the dominant position of Athens in the ancient Greek world.”[5] The same applies in the nineteenth century and, for that matter, to this day. The structures upon the Acropolis and the associations they suggest have long captivated American tourists, especially with their connections to democratic ideals. Twain was no exception.

from page 349 of Innocents Abroad

For dominant American sensibilities at the time of the Quaker City excursion, the United States represented the essence of ancient Greece to the modern world. In short, America was eager to proclaim itself heir to the aesthetic beauty and political aspirations grown from that Grecian (Athenian) cradle. American interest was first stoked during its own revolutionary fervor in the last quarter of the 18th century and that reasserted itself years later in response to the Grecian war of independence in the 1820s, as a Hellenic ideal seemed ready to re-emerge in Greece. By the 1860s, much of the hope for a substantive Grecian return to greatness had subsided, yet the Acropolis for Americans remained holy ground.[6]

And there it was, in view from the deck of the Quaker City. Many of the excursionists spent the afternoon trying to see renowned sites in the city from their so-close-but-yet-so-far-away perch. Twain explains the expectations of his fellow tourists as they approach Athens, noting their “wild excitement … [for] the most renowned of cities!” and that “Agamemnon, Achilles, and a thousand other heroes of the Past were marching in ghostly procession through our fancies.” Signaling with the exclamation point that he is ready to show his romantic chops, Twain is ready to set up his bold escape from quarantine. He writes,

We arrived, and entered the ancient harbor of the Piræus at last. We dropped anchor within half a mile of the village. Away off, across the undulating Plain of Attica, could be seen a little square-topped hill with a something on it, which our glasses soon discovered to be the ruined edifices of the citadel of the Athenians, and most prominent among them loomed the venerable Parthenon. So exquisitely clear and pure is this wonderful atmosphere that every column of the noble structure was discernible through the telescope, and even the smaller ruins about it assumed some semblance of shape. This at a distance of five or six miles. In the valley, near the Acropolis, (the square-topped hill before spoken of,) Athens itself could be vaguely made out with an ordinary lorgnette. Every body was anxious to get ashore and visit these classic localities as quickly as possible. No land we had yet seen had aroused such universal interest among the passengers.

from The Innocents Abroad, 340

As Twain makes clear, echoing virtually every tourist in Athens, everyone was eager to be surrounded by “classic localities.” And that is exactly what Twain was able to secure in his overnight act of subversion.

Touring the Acropolis under cover of night proved ideal for Twain and his friends. Walking amongst the fallen statues on the Acropolis, Twain created the ideal canvas for his literary paintings of a classical scene. In short, the journey to the Acropolis was performed in a manner that made the erasure of contemporary Athens quite easy. Most of Athens was asleep and thus out of frame, so to speak, and the luminosity of the scene was provided only by the moon.


Twain is able to weave a narrative, like no other portion of The Innocents Abroad, in that it offers readers what most would consider an ideal tour of Athens, an immersion into the dream of antiquity with barely any intrusion upon it by the glaring contrasts of the nineteenth century. Once he brings readers to the Acropolis, the present disappears, and antiquity rises from the mists of imagination to shine in the moonlight. The passage merits quoting at length:

As we wandered thoughtfully down the marble-paved length of this stately temple, the scene about us was strangely impressive. Here and there, in lavish profusion, were gleaming white statues of men and women, propped against blocks of marble, some of them armless, some without legs, others headless–but all looking mournful in the moonlight, and startlingly human! They rose up and confronted the midnight intruder on every side–they stared at him with stony eyes from unlooked-for nooks and recesses; they peered at him over fragmentary heaps far down the desolate corridors; they barred his way in the midst of the broad forum, and solemnly pointed with handless arms the way from the sacred fane; and through the roofless temple the moon looked down, and banded the floor and darkened the scattered fragments and broken statues with the slanting shadows of the columns.

What a world of ruined sculpture was about us! … The place seemed alive with ghosts. I half expected to see the Athenian heroes of twenty centuries ago glide out of the shadows and steal into the old temple they knew so well and regarded with such boundless pride.

from The Innocents Abroad, 346-347

This passage is in no way ironic. Rather, it is an intimate and referent homage to ancient Greece which many considered an idyll for a nineteenth-century American dream. Before leaving the place of such renowned achievement, Twain provides his own summary image of Athens and its legacy:

The full moon was riding high in the cloudless heavens, now. We sauntered carelessly and unthinkingly to the edge of the lofty battlements of the citadel, and looked down–a vision!  And such a vision! Athens by moonlight! The prophet that thought the splendors of the New Jerusalem were revealed to him, surely saw this instead! It lay in the level plain right under our feet–all spread abroad like a picture–and we looked down upon it as we might have looked from a balloon. We saw no semblance of a street, but every house, every window, every clinging vine, every projection, was as distinct and sharply marked as if the time were noon-day; and yet there was no glare, no glitter, nothing harsh or repulsive–the noiseless city was flooded with the mellowest light that ever streamed from the moon, and seemed like some living creature wrapped in peaceful slumber.

from The Innocents Abroad, 347-348
from page 352 of Innocents Abroad

Twain situates his readers upon the hill with a comfortable perspective of the entire city with all evidence of modern Athenian life removed. There is no present within a frame defined solely by the past, the blemishes of modernity hidden by darkness and distance. Twain celebrates not Athens but his image of Athens, a vision of “Athens by moonlight.” The picture is perfect, with all its detail miraculously “distinct and sharply marked” but without a corresponding “glare.” By the light of a silvery moon, Twain sees nothing “harsh” or “repulsive,” nothing to mar an idealized tour of ancient Athens. This closing panoramic view is both comprehensive and intimate. No tourist, or reader, could ask for more.

For readers of The Innocents Abroad, the narrative moments on the Acropolis seem well worth Twain’s risky behavior. He was able to secure a tour of the Acropolis that few people have ever enjoyed or even dared to dream of. Twain had the literary skill to create such imagery out of whole cloth, but the special appeal of his Athens by moonlight is that everything rings true even when it is couched in a pervasive dreaminess. Amid the ghosts of antiquity that infuse the stones and marble of the Parthenon resides not only the often troubled but forever vital history of Greece but also the aspirations of the American tourist. Twain, like so many of his contemporaries, longed to be immersed in the shadowy grandeurs of a mythical past, all the more precious when it reflected an American present. Mark Twain was an American in Athens who got exactly what he wanted.

Jeffrey Melton is Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama. He is author of Mark Twain, Travel
Books, and Tourism: The Tide of a Great Popular Movement
(U. Alabama, 2002) and co-editor of Mark Twain on the Move: A Travel Reader (U. Alabama, 2009). He has published articles on Mark Twain, humor, and travel writing in Studies in American Humor, South Atlantic Review, Studies in Travel Writing, and the Mark Twain Journal, among others. As a friend of CMTS, he contributed to our sesquicentennial celebrations of both The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It. He has contributed essays to Mark Twain in Context (Cambridge UP, 2019), Mark Twain’s Geographical Imagination (Cambridge Scholars, 2009), and A Companion to Mark Twain (Wiley, 2006). He is past President of the American Humor Studies Association and co-founder of the Society for American Travel Writing.

[1] Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869, New York: Oxford UP, 1996), 340. All references are to this facsimile text of the first edition.

[2] His companions were Dr. Abraham Jackson—age 40 (the “Is he dead?” guy with the monocle); Colonel William Denny (a former Confederate officer from Virginia)—age 44; and Dr. George Bright Birch—age 42.

[3]Philip Sherrard, The Pursuit of Greece: An Anthology (New York: Walker, 1966), 1.

[4] [Samuel Wheelock Fiske], Mr Dunn Browne’s Experiences in Foreign Parts (Boston: J. P. Jewett, 1857), 203.

[5] Eleana Yalouri, The Acropolis: Global Fame, Local Claim (Oxford: Berg, 2001), 30.

[6] Yalouri, 148. For more substantive discussions of the political and cultural appropriation of ancient Greece in the United States, see: Paths from Ancient Greece, edited by Carol G. Thomas (New York: E. J. Brill, 1988) and Thomas Jefferson, The Classical World, and Early America, edited by Peter J. Onuf and Nicholas Cole (Charlottesville: University of Virginia P, 2011).