Chronicle of Freud's visit to Athens


Once a year, Freud used to set out on a journey of several weeks either on the Italian countryside or the Mediterranean coast. On one of these journeys, he visited Athens for the first and only time in September 1904, accompanied by his 10-years-younger brother, Alexander. In August 1904, Alexander had only one week off from his professional obligations, so they decided to travel to Trieste and from there they planned to sail to Corfu for a few days (Simmons, 2006). Information about this trip can be found in the letters Freud wrote to C. Jung (1909), to R. Rolan (1936),  from the postcards he sent from Greece to his wife Martha as well as from bibliographical reports.

At the beginning of August, the two brothers, departed from Grats on a private train compartment, which cost only two Crowns, and headed for Trieste (Kivland, 2008). Upon their arrival, they met up with a local businessman, who was an acquaintance of Alexander. He prevented them from visiting Corfu due to a heat wave and suggested that they visit Athens instead, as Lloyds performed regular and convenient routes there. At first, they were troubled and very skeptical about this destination change. However, after the Greek Consul reassured them about their travel documents, they booked their trip to Athens without a second thought, as soon as the Lloyds’ ticket office opened.


On the deck of the ship, Freud recognized Dörpfeld, a professor of Classical Archeology who worked alongside Schliemann in Troy’s excavations. Freud looked at the professor with admiration however he avoided talking to him because he was embarrassed. Freud’s passion for archeology is widely known and he often referred to psychoanalysis as the archeology of the soul. Freud was also a passionate collector and possessed more than 2,500 objects of ancient civilizations.


Lloyds’ scheduled route from Brindisi to Constantinople included stops at Patras, Corfu and Piraeus. On August 29th 1904, the Freud brothers embarked on the steamer “Uranus” from Trieste. They had a three-hour stop at Corfu and then headed for Piraeus, avoiding the Isthmus of Corinth, thus sailing around the Peloponnese. At noon of September 3rd 1904, they arrived in Athens where they stayed for three days. On September 6th, they departed by train to Corinth, the city where Oedipus grew up, and from there they continued to Patras. At 10pm, on the same evening they left for Trieste following the same route back.

When they arrived in Athens on the 3rd of September, they lodged on the first floor of the Athena Hotel, in room 31. They visited Thissio, had coffee and then walked up to the Acropolis. While there, a heavy rain forced them to find shelter in the entrance hall of the museum and because it was closed they enjoyed the view from the rock. Freud writes to his wife, Martha, “I wore my best shirt and went up the hill of the Acropolis for two hours on September 3rd and for the whole day on September 4th“. Freud is excited by the view from the Acropolis and writes to his student and friend Marie Bonaparte that “the Acropolis columns with their amber colour, are the finest I have ever seen in my life” (Freud, 1936).


Freud’s experience on the Acropolis was so intense that it often recurred in his thoughts, but he managed to write about it only after many years. Initially, he confided about the incident in a letter to C. Jung on April 16th 1909. Eventually, 32 years later and merely three years before his death on September 23rd 1939, he extensively described what he experienced in a letter he sent to his friend, French writer Romain Roland. This letter was sent as a gift to Roland on the occasion of his 70th birthday and was titled “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis” (Freud, 1936).


During his visit to the Acropolis, Freud experienced an intense psychical situation that he called “disturbance of memory “. It was as if he could not believe that this monument, for which he had read so much from an early age, actually existed. In particular, he exclaimed, “So all this really does exist, just as we learnt at school!” He wrote that “the Acropolis surpasses everything I have seen or imagined” and continues by saying that “Alex is sitting on the marble throne which definitely belonged to an Athenian Lord, next to a Pheidian horse. The view from the Acropolis Castle is also wonderful “(Freud, 1936).


Through this letter, Freud attempts to make a self-analysis and refers to the journey to Athens as an object of desire combined with guilt. From an early age he dreamed of traveling abroad and escaping the narrow limits, constraints and poverty of the family environment in which he grew up. At the same time, he felt guilty, because the trip to Athens meant that he had overcome his father, a trader without high school education and without the slightest interest in those places. Thus, for Freud, the rise to the Acropolis was the confirmation that he had exceeded his father, something that a son was not allowed to do.

The time frame of Freud’s visit in 1904

At this point, it is worth mentioning that in the period before and shortly after Freud’s visit to Athens, a series of very important events had taken place in his life. In 1900, the “Interpretation of Dreams”, which he regarded as the work of his life, was published and had received negative criticism that characterized it as unscientific and esoteric. From 1901-1905, he published four more important works, namely, “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life”, “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”, “The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious”, and “Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria”. In his personal life, his father died in October 1896, his very important friendship with the Otolaryngologist W. Fliess came to an end, and he had already embarked on his self-analysis journey.

The time frame of the letter in 1936

Freud wrote this letter to Roland in 1936 merely three years before his death on 23rd September 1939, amidst intense personal and political events. More specifically, by the early 1930s the intention to integrate Austria into Germany had been made clear, while the rise of Hitler to power in 1933, enabled a Nazi-style party to grow strong in the country. Freud’s close environment was trying to persuade him to immigrate to England, but he refused until 1938, when he no longer had another alternative. In his personal life, his beloved mother died in 1930 while a heart attack caused him to quit smoking despite being a heavy cigar smoker. At the same time, he was diagnosed with jaw cancer in 1919 and between 1923 and 1938 he had undergone about twenty-five jaw surgeries. In 1933 his correspondence with Einstein contemplated the miseries of the war, and the Nazis burned some of his books because of his Jewish background. In 1934, the 13th International Psychoanalytic Congress took place in Lucerne, while many German psychoanalysts had already been forced to immigrate. During this troubled period, Freud had already written the largest part of his work, he continued his efforts to solidify psychoanalysis, and in 1935 he was elected Member of the British Royal Society of Medicine.