There are lots of businesses in our hometown that include the name “Violet Crown.” I was eating pizza near the Violet Crown Social Club early this week with my friend C-Lee and we started wondering where the name originated. So she consulted The Oracle and we learned some interesting history about our fair Austin from The Maester (my new name for Wikipedia).* Austin is called the Violet Crown as a nod to Athens, Greece. You may be wondering what a Violet Crown has to do with Athens. You may also be wondering how Austin was linked to Athens. I certainly did.
Once upon a time, a long long time ago, there several poets in Ancient Greece who waxed romantic about their beloved Athens. Their collection of work was known as the nine lyric poems about Athens. (Because eight was not enough, despite my 1970s upbringing). One of these poets was Pindar, from Thebes, and he made reference to Athens and a violet crown. In one of Pindar’s lyric poems he wrote, “City of light, with thy violet crown, beloved of the poets, thou art the bulwark of Greece.”
As luck would have it, Pindar’s poems are the best preserved of the nine lyric poems. That’s why we know he wrote about a violet crown. And as some will tell, his poems were also the most wonderful.
Of the nine lyric poets, Pindar is by far the greatest, in virtue of his inspired magnificence, the beauty of his thoughts and figures, the rich exuberance of his language and matter, and his rolling flood of eloquence, characteristics which, as Horace rightly held, make him inimitable.” — Quintilian
I don’t know about you, but I am not going to argue with Quintilian.
Oh! I almost forgot to tell you! A violet crown happens when the sky turns purple at the horizon during sunrise or sunset. It’s quite beautiful, and the purple is layered with pinks and oranges. This atmospheric phenomenon is also called the Belt of Venus. I couldn’t find a good story on WHY this is called the Belt of Venus, but I can imagine. Picture these hues blended and draped around her waist. What’s above the belt are her bosom clouds and her heavenly face. What’s below is her earthy goddess goodness. Me-ow!
The violet crown is not unique to Athens, but apparently it is common there because of low humidity and a lot of dust. So, Pindar penned it, and Athens took it as a moniker to become the City of the Violet Crown.**
But what does this have to do with Austin, TX?
Well, in 1883, Austin became home to the University of Texas, the second university to open in the state.*** Being proud (and rightly so) of this “crowning” achievement, rumor has it some residents began to call Austin the “Athens of the South.” In case your history is a little rusty, Athens was home to one of the oldest known universities in human history,§ the Platonic Academy which was founded by…<cue Jeopardy! music>…c’mon, you know this…Plato!
In the early 1890s, a few authors referenced the violet crown to describe Austin. One was an author who appeared to be describing the Belt of Venus as he saw it one morning. Another author actually referred to Austin as the City of the Violet Crown. Whether he was referring to the sunrise or sunset isn’t clear, but it seems to me he was making reference to the Athens connection because he used “City of…”
Here, a famous (or infamous, depending who you talk to)☨ Austin resident enters the story. O’Henry lived in Austin from 1884 to 1895. He had a full life in Austin; he was involved in the arts and had several “good” jobs in the city. In his last years in Austin, he wrote this about his then home:
The drawing-rooms of one of the most magnificent private residences in Austin are ablaze of lights. Carriages line the streets in front, and from gate to doorway is spread a velvet carpet, on which the delicate feet of the guests may tread. The occasion is the entrée into society of one of the fairest buds in the City of the Violet Crown.” — Chapter Two in Tictocq: The Great French Detective, In Austin, O. Henry
Sounds pretty swanky, huh? And sort of Pindar-y with the romantic waxing. [Hmm…that sounds painful.] Or was it? Was O’Henry using lyric phrasing to praise his lyrical town? He was a well-known satirist, after all. There are some who believe he was referencing Pindar with a smirk, to lampoon Austin’s over-enthusiastic pretense of a cultural, educational connection to ancient Athens. Oh, O’Henry. How could you? Or did you? Another mystery for the Great French Detective in Austin!
It was fun to learn about this. What do you know about your city and its various pseudonyms? We’d love to hear your stories!
* Your welcome, Game of Thrones fans!
** I found one account that referenced a King Ion, claiming that ion = violet and that’s how Athens got the name, but I couldn’t corroborate this story with another site. Besides, it’s kind of boring. A city named after a king. Pthhhht.
*** Though UT Austin was the second university to open in Texas, it was legislated to be the “main” institution in the University of Texas system. This system was supposed to absorb the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (which later became Texas A&M University), but that never happened. Texas A&M opened in 1871. The Texas Constitution of 1876 called for the creation of UT Austin, a “university of the first class.” Ouch. Five years after A&M opened, the legislature said the state needed a “first class” institute of higher education. For those of you who know the UT Austin – Texas A&M rivalry (which is not limited to sports), the politics behind it go waaayyy back.
§ It looks like the oldest school was in China, and started in 1045 B.C.
☨ O’Henry was federally indicted for embezzling money from the First Nation Bank of Austin in 1896. He fled the country for a year to avoid triail, and was sentenced to jail time when he returned. He served a year and four months before he was released on “good behavior.”