The History of Nashville: Athens of the South

Exterior of the parthenon in Nashville

TripSavvy / Jackson Vance

Today's Nashville, Tennessee, is famous for its music. But before there was the Johnny Cash Museum, Nashville was known as the "Athens of the South." It was famous for its brains, not singing voice. 

By the 1850s, Nashville had already earned the nickname of the “Athens of the South” by having established numerous higher education institutions; it was the first American southern city to establish a public school system. By the end of the century, Nashville would see Fisk University, St. Cecilia Academy, Montgomery Bell Academy, Meharry Medical College, Belmont University, and Vanderbilt University all open their doors.

At the time, Nashville was known to be one of the most refined and educated cities of the south, filled with wealth and culture. Nashville had several theaters, as well as plenty of elegant accommodations, and it was a vibrant, expanding town. Nashville's state capital building was completed in 1859. 

How the Civil War Changed Nashville

That would all come to a complete halt with the Civil War, beginning in 1861. The war devastated Nashville and its residents well into 1865. Tennessee was divided between Confederates (West Tennessee) and Unionists (mostly in the east). The middle region of the state wasn't as universally passionate about its support of either side, which led to a highly divided and communities. Neighbors fought neighbors.

Following the war, Nashville had to begin rebuilding everything that had been slowed or destroyed. The city experienced growth once again with the completion of Jubilee Hall in 1876, General Hospital in 1890, The Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892, a new state prison in 1898 and finally the Union Station opening in 1900.

Nashville's Parthenon

Adding to Nashville's image as the Athens of the South is the city's replica of the Parthenon, built in 1897, as part of the Centennial Exposition, celebrating Tennessee's 100 years. It was rebuilt in the 1920s.

This is the world's only full-scale replica of the Parthenon, and it remains a popular visitor destination. Inside, you can even find remakes of special "Elgin Marbles," which were part of the original Greek Parthenon. Another popular feature is the replica of a famous Athena statue. Inside the building, you will also find a collection of more than 60 different American paintings, plus rotating exhibits. Request a guided tour by reservation. 

Other Historical Moments

In transportation, Nashville would see the arrival of trains in 1859 and mule-drawn streetcars in 1865, only to have them replaced by electric trolleys in 1889. Then, in 1896, the first automobile was driven in Nashville.

Nashville would also see its first professional baseball game at Athletic Field in 1885 and its first football game following in 1890.

As far as utilities, Nashville received the world's first airmail, delivered by balloon in 1877. Telephones appeared that same year, and five years later, in 1882, Nashville got its first electric light.

In the latter part of the 19th century, Nashville began commemorating two major celebrations: Nashville’s Centennial in 1880, followed by the Centennial Exposition in 1897.

Was this page helpful?