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The Tholos of Delphi
The Tholos of Delphi

Taking the Long View in Ancient Athens

Alec Russell

A trip guided by archaeologists brings to life the ancient stories of the Greek capital — and their enduring relevance.

On a crisp spring afternoon my 16-year-old son Ned and I left the Acropolis, strode through the Agora, and headed down the remains of the Panathenaic Way towards Piraeus and beyond in the footsteps of so many legendary Athenians. Every now and then modernity intervened: a railway track has long since sliced off a sliver of the Agora; a few hawkers lined the upper reaches of the ancient road. But as we neared the 2,400-year-old gate leading through the still imposing walls of classical Athens the subsequent centuries disappeared — as did other tourists — and we found ourselves in a tussocky park brimming with cats, wild flowers, and the marble remnants of a monumental past.

We were in the Kerameikos, the ancient Athenian cemetery, one of the world’s great archaeological sites. It was all but deserted; our only encounter was with a tortoise enjoying the spring sun. In short it was the perfect setting for our guide to entice us back two-and-a-half millennia and remind us of the eternal relevance of Athenian history and art.

We had come to the Greek capital for a five-day immersion in classical Athens. I studied classics at university. Ned is thinking of doing the same. From our first encounter, it was clear to me that if anyone was going to make the case for a revival of classics it was Heinrich Hall, our guide. A tweed-jacketed German archaeologist, he had a Homeric love of storytelling, an Irish lilt — courtesy of studying at University College, Dublin — and an infectious enthusiasm for all things Athenian.

For a happy hour or so in the Kerameikos, we followed him and his impassioned Greek colleague, Nota Karamaouna, around the old walls and listened to their stories. In the late afternoon sun, amid clouds of butterflies, they brought the ruins to life. We heard of eras of ostentation and competitive grave carvings, and eras of austerity — the boom-and-bust cycles of the ancient world. We heard of the legendary lawgiver Solon, the original annuller of debts. Most of all we heard of the man who commissioned the walls: the wily Themistocles, one of that golden generation of warrior politicians of the fifth century BC, whose populist trajectory makes his story as pertinent as ever.

Themistocles presided over one of the great turning points in global history, the defeat of the Persian grand fleet off Salamis, an island just west of Athens. Several times on our trip, when climbing Athens’ hills, we could easily see it across a few miles of Homer’s wine-dark sea and imagine the clash of hundreds of triremes as the fate of the west hung in the balance. To achieve his victory the silver-tongued Themistocles had to persuade his fellow citizens to abandon their city to Xerxes’ oncoming army and put their faith in their fledgling navy — no easy rhetorical feat. Later he needed all his wiles to ensure that Athens was able to rebuild the walls destroyed by the Persians, stymieing other Greek city states, notably Sparta, who were wary of Athens’ desire to refortify. The remains of his walls pop up under the heart of modern Athens. One section was on display in the basement of our hotel. Yet even as we marvelled, we were reminded of his fate. He was undone by the very radical democratic forces that had served him so well.

In the heart of the old agora, just across from the Kerameikos, is a mound of nearly 2,500-year-old pottery shards. They are ostraka, or ostracism voting tablets, and many bear the name Themistocles. In classical Athens’ heyday, each year citizens could call for an ostracism — the formal measure to ban someone from the city for a decade. Two months later all they had to do was tell a scribe on the appointed day and he would scrawl the name in question on an ostrakon. It was of course open to abuse. Voters as now were swayed by rhetoric and half-truths — and the influence of donors with deep pockets. Less than a decade after his triumph at Salamis, Themistocles was ostracised. He lived out his last years in exile in style — in the Persian Empire.

Our last port of call in the Kerameikos was a magnificent marble relief depicting a young Athenian aristocrat on a horse rearing over a cringing enemy soldier. It was erected in the early fourth century BC, by the family of one Dexileos, overlooking the gate leading to the Sacred Way out of the old city.

As we gazed up at it, the intent of the sculptor’s sponsors seemed simple. Heinrich demurred. The imagery was stylised propaganda. Dexileos was actually buried in a communal tomb after falling in battle. The carving was intended not just to immortalise the man as victor not vanquished, but also was meant to cast his aristocratic family as a lynchpin of the democratic order — important, in an era when cavalrymen had staged coups.

“Fake news?” I asked Ned.

The tomb of Dexileos at Kerameikos, Athens
The tomb of Dexileos at Kerameikos, Athens

That evening he and I repaired to the rooftop bar of our hotel, the Electra Metropolis, and looked out over Athens towards the Parthenon, barely half a mile away. The hotel is physically embedded in Athens’ history, not just via the section of Themistocles’ wall in its foundations, but also the 16th-century church which is part of a side wall. In the late 20th century the hotel was the Ministry of Education and Culture. Lucky officials, I thought, as I gazed at the fabled pillars of the Parthenon, glowing pink in the evening sun. Every evening Ned and I would head up to the terrace for a game of cards — and fresh artistic inspiration. Then we would head off to dinner with Heinrich and Nota to a range of restaurants — Cretan, Peloponnesian and more, preceded on one occasion by a wine-tasting including the finest Spartan reds.

We were in Athens even as the IMF and EU officials were trying to negotiate the latest phase of the Greek bailout. One evening Ned and I walked down to Syntagma Square to watch hundreds of communists and unionists march noisily to the government headquarters protesting against the terms. The profusion of nihilist graffiti on public buildings also signalled the stresses of recent times. But we were enveloped in the past, not the present. We climbed the Pnyx, the hillock where male Athenian citizens gathered to vote, making it a key site in the development of democracy. We took the less travelled path to the Parthenon, snaking round the cliff face of the Acropolis, revelling in the damp air of the unfrequented caves of Zeus, Apollo and Pan. We sat in the theatre where Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides had their first nights. We stood in silence by the Parthenon, stunned by its sheer beauty and scale. We debated long and hard the rightful place of the Elgin Marbles — and in the elegant cool of the Acropolis Mus

eum I found myself wavering and veering to the Greek position. We agonised over which was the most soulful exhibit in the many extraordinary museums we visited. I voted for the 3,500-year-old “spring fresco” from Akrotiri, a Bronze Age settlement, with birds and lilies dancing in the wind — but it was a close call.

One morning we drove out of the city on the coast road past the rows of ships that clog the straits of Salamis. After skirting the hilltop where Herodotus says the Persian King Xerxes sat to watch his fleet win the anticipated mother of all victories, we came to Eleusis. This was the centre of a legendary mystery cult, frequented in its heyday by just about anyone who counted. Now it’s an acre or so of old columns, ruined temples and a vast theatre cut into the hillside. As we neared the stone seats, several hundred Greek schoolchildren chanted and sang, an echo of the rituals all those years ago. We sat and listened before crossing a ridge of low hills to the plain of Marathon.

Ned Russell with guides Heinrich Hall and Nota Karamaouna
Ned Russell with guides Heinrich Hall and Nota Karamaouna

Marathon is best known now of course for having inspired the epic long-distance race of the modern era Olympics; 26 miles is the rough distance to Athens. It was, as at Salamis 10 years later, an existential encounter for the west. It was here that a well-drilled citizen army of Athenians and their allies — including the tragedian Aeschylus — overcame a far larger Persian force. John Stuart Mill famously opined that Marathon was more important as an event in British history than the Battle of Hastings.

At this time of year it is a simple meadow ablaze with purple and yellow flowers. In the centre is a grassy mound marking the supposed grave of the Greek casualties. We sat and listened as Heinrich and Nota recreated the feats of the hoplites, the Greek citizen-soldiers. Then, possibly in the steps of the routed Persians, we retired to a beach restaurant a few miles away. There we ate red mullet and octopus as the sea lapped at our feet. There was a brisk wind and quite a swell, a reminder of the peril faced by the triremes — and by the refugees fleeing Syria even now.

On our last day after a dawn breakfast gazing again at the Parthenon, we drove high up into the hills to the oracle at Delphi. It is an astonishingly imposing setting, looking out over a valley of olive groves, winding down to the Gulf of Corinth. The monuments lining the entrance testify to the rivalries of the city states. We sat beside an old treasury as our guides wove their magic one last time, explaining how Delphi was a giant Greek information trading centre and the priestesses of the oracle brilliantly hedged their bets. There was just time for the Delphi museum, which we had almost to ourselves. There in pride of place, alone, stood a legendary bronze statue of a young charioteer, reaching out with one hand across the centuries.

The Electra Metropolis hotel
The Electra Metropolis hotel

We cannot of course live off the classics alone as other generations liked to believe. But neither can we live off coding alone. Boris Johnson, Britain’s grandiloquent foreign secretary, was once something of a rarity in peppering speeches with references to Pericles and the Peloponnesian war. Now such allusions are rather more frequent. There is something epic about recent events that seems to encourage reflection on the classical past. In a debate I took part in recently about the fallout of fake news I found myself quizzed — wrongly, I believed — about parallels between Trump’s voters and the radical democrats of classical Athens. Even the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, turned to the classics when speaking to visiting dignitaries, warning that America and China should strive to avoid “the Thucydides trap — destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers”. Xi was referring to the Athenian historian’s account of the cause of the Peloponnesian war, which he blamed on “the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta”.

Shortly after my return I read in the New Yorker the account of an American’s late infatuation with the Odyssey. The author, a college classics professor, describes how his ailing 81-year-old father opted to attend and noisily participate in his classes on Homer’s epic. They even headed off on an “Odyssey” cruise together in the Aegean. The author balances a mild filial exasperation with deep affection; soon after the trip his father weakened and died. I found myself wishing I had had the nous to plot a similar trip with my father before he died at the age of 81.

Then I realised that I had just done something just as magical: only in my case the classicist had been the father and the occasionally exasperated but deeply affectionate companion had been the son.

Alec Russell is editor of FT Weekend, and was a guest of British Airways and Peter Sommer Travels, which offers expert-led gulet cruises and land-based tours in Croatia, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Turkey and the UK. Heinrich Hall and Nota Karamaouna will lead the next “Exploring Athens” tour from October 7-14, from £2,650 per person. BA flies up to four times daily from London to Athens.

The Financial Times, MAY 11, 2017


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