A Civilization of Fragile Images

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Olympeion: temple of the Olympian Zeus near the Acropolis of Athens. It took several centuries for the construction of the temple. The Roman Emperor Hadrian finished it in 131-132. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.

Unless one visits Hellas / Greece and sees the ruins of ancient temples, theaters, and stadia, it is difficult to understand the magnificence of the country more than 2,500 years ago. Museums (in Greece and other Western countries) remain the depositories of mere fractions of the treasures that used to be all over ancient Greece.

Decline and fall of ancient Greece

The main reasons for the decline and fall of Greece include the civil conflict, Peloponnesian War, in the last quarter of the fifth century BCE, the failure of Alexander the Great and his successors to grasp the danger from Rome, the Roman occupation of Greece in 146 BCE, and the decision of the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century to outlaw ancient Greek and Roman polytheism in favor of Christianity.

The triumph of Christianity sealed the fate of Hellas. No more Olympics, shutting down of oracles like that in Delphi, abandoning democracy, universities, and theater. Anti-Hellenic fanaticism exploded in late fourth century with the burning of libraries, including the jewel of the Alexandrian Age, the Library of Alexandria, which easily had half a million books in its collections.

The Greeks who resisted such violence disappeared, like Hypatia in 415. She was teaching Hellenic philosophy and science in Alexandria. Monks working for the bishop tore her to pieces. These crimes were part and parcel of the systematic destruction of the altars and temples of the gods.

Churches replaced the ruined temples. In fact, most churches were built on the foundations of temples.

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Church facing the temple of Nike on the Acropolis. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.

The Parthenon did not escape the mission and wrath of the new political order. The temple of Athena was light and Enlightenment. It was the masterpiece of Greek civilization. The Christians nevertheless made it a church and, when the Moslems took over the country in 1453, the Christian Parthenon became a Moslem Mosque Parthenon. As if this abuse of the sacred temple of virgin Athena was not enough, Venetians bombed it in the seventeenth century.

 

Ruins and darkness covered Greece until 1821 when the Greeks defeated their Turkish oppressors and Greece became an independent country.

Archaeology in occupied Greece

Political independence brought archaeology to Greece. The “great” European powers, England, France, and Russia, and eventually Germany and the United States, speeded up their looting of the treasures hidden among the ruins and soil of the Greek temples. In fact, England, France, Germany, and America established archaeological schools in Athens and divided the country among themselves.

The British never wanted an independent Greece. In the early nineteenth century, one of its looters, Lord Elgin, cut off the heart of Parthenon. This was the frieze of the temple showing the Panathenaea, Athenians’ athletic and cultural celebration of their divine protector, goddess Athena. The stolen Parthenon treasures are still in the British Museum and the British government refuses to return them to Greece.

Yet the British have a thriving archaeology school in Athens since 1886. Its archaeologists have been all over Greece: In the Aegean, the islands of Cyclades, Kea, Chios, and Melos; in the Ionian islands of Cythera, Ithaca; the two large islands of Euboea and Crete; and in the mainland, Central Greece, Macedonia, and Argolis and Sparta in Peloponnesos.

The United States has been digging the grounds of the Acropolis and the agora below the Acropolis, including the agora of ancient Corinth.

The Germans took over Olympia. They also have left their fingerprints in the choice archaeological history of the Ionian islands of Leukas and Ithaca, as well as Thebes, Orchomenos, Eleusis, Sparta, Argolis, and Kerameikos.

France established her foothold in Greece in 1846. This prize of being first in the ripe archaeology of Greece have paid rich dividends. The oracle of Apollo at Delphi in Central Greece has been the pride of French archaeologists. They have been excavating it for a century and a half. They know its history. French archaeologists have also left their mark in Macedonia, the Aegean island of Thasos and Samothrake, Delos, Cyclades, Crete, and Cyprus.

Greek archaeologists are trying monitoring these foreigners excavating the ancient Greek centers of civilization. However, Greece never had enough archaeologists and, like other scientists and bureaucrats, are underpaid. How are they to deal with much better paid and probable better equipped foreign archaeologists?

In addition to the large actors (US, UK, Germany, and France), there are Italians, Danish, Belgians, Irish, Australians, Polish, Norwegians, and Finnish digging in Greece. It’s practically impossible for Greek archaeologists to know what these dozens of foreigners do.

But there’s also a big political problem and a crisis sinking Greek archaeology and Greece. Since 2010, the country has been going through another fourth crusade. All the wealth of the country (including archaeological wealth) is under the control of the debt institutions of the European Union (EU) and the United States (International Monetary Fund, IMF). Under these dark-age conditions, Greek archaeologists become invisible.

The Greek Ministry of Culture, taking its orders from the new proconsuls of the IMF-EU, has been lending Greek treasures to foreign agents or countries for up to 50 years. This is the equivalent of trading Greece’s past for quick payments to lenders. And 50 years is a very long time. Who is going to be around in 50 years to make certain the Greek treasures are repatriated?

EU and IMF are slave masters. They have been enforcing an “austerity” of hunger and destitution in Greece. Under this foreign occupation, Greek archaeological treasures risk looting and disappearance from the country.

All the money Greek museums earn from the millions of visiting tourists go straight to Brussels and IMF.

End the protection for stolen Greek treasures

But there’s another foreign-inspired insult to Greek treasures shown in British, French, German, American or Russian museums and those of Greece. Foreigners have the audacity saying they own what they stole from Greece. And they have codified this theft into the international copyright law.

Writers like me who wish to reproduce an image of a Greek amphora kept, for instance, in a German museum must obtain a written permission from the very authorities responsible for the theft of that amphora.

I faced this offensive reality in writing my book on the Antikythera Mechanism. I had chosen about 200 illustrations but ended using about twenty. Greek museums follow the restrictive practices of the British Museum and the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

I certainly would like to see the return to Greece of all Greek treasures stolen from the country.

No more looting of Greek culture

Independent Greece should be independent enough to bring the looting and abuse of its archaeological treasures to an end. Start by renegotiating the rules governing the foreign archaeological schools in Athens. Their archaeologists may be decent human beings who don’t steal Greek treasures, though no one can speak about this with any certainty.

The foreign archaeological schools in Athens could become great assets to both Greece and Europe and America. They possess deep knowledge of Greek history and have valuable archaeological libraries. Foreign archaeologists have the opportunity to defend Greek civilization, thus reviving the nineteenth-century Philhellenism that was a powerful force in liberating both Greece and Europe from ignorance and hubris.

The new rules governing foreign archaeologists in Greece should be explicit that unless Greek archaeologists work together with their foreign archaeologists colleagues, those foreigners cannot work in Greece. And since EU-IMF impoverish the country, foreign governments wishing to maintain their archaeologists in Greece must fund the training and salaries of the Greek archaeologists.

No more orders from foreigners

Greece must terminate its subservience to EU-IMF. Stop debt payments and, if necessary, go back to the Greek drachma. Needless to say, any compromise the IMF-EU brought upon Greek archaeological treasures should be rectified immediately. No more lending of Greek archaeological treasures for more than five years.

Taking these steps requires courage. This courage and patriotism come from practicing Athenian direct democracy, not the model of representative-monarchical “democracy” modern Greece borrowed from the West. So, the Greeks have to undo lots of bad Western habits.

Peacemakers

They can declare their neutrality in the Ukraine war. Become the intermediary between Ukraine and Russia. The Greeks had centuries of intimate contact with both Russians and Ukrainians. Their first epic, Argonautika, was about the expedition of Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece in Colchis, the Greeks’ Far East, today’s Georgia.

Free the images of Hellenic treasures

Time has come for Greece to reclaim its leading role in Western civilization. Teach the Euro-Americans a thing or two about the virtues of Hellenic culture.

Take to the international court foreign museums and private art collectors trading or displaying Greek archaeological treasures.

Make all the images of Greek archaeological treasures free to all writers and artists using them for educational purposes. Demand the reform or abolition of the copyright law on the ownership of Greek archaeological images.

Tell foreign scholars, who make a living by trading in fashionable multiculturalism at the expense of the integrity of Homer and other Hellenic thinkers, they are no longer welcomed to Greece.

The wisdom of Emperor Julian

Emperor Julian, 361-363, had the right advice to those teachers of Greek who feared the Greek gods in Homer. He ordered them quit or he forbade them from teaching Greek. But those scholars who loved Homer, could go on teaching Greek (The Letters of Julian 422.36).

It was inconceivable that a teacher reading Homer to students would hate the religion of Homer who more than any other Greek thinker embedded religion in his poems, so much so that to separate them (the Greek gods from the epic stories) would render the poems meaningless. Julian said you could not do that and be a teacher — unless the teacher had other purposes in mind, using Greek culture against itself, and mastering the grammatical architecture of Greek as a dead language removed from the ideas and civilization that gave it birth (Against the Galilaeans 39a-358e).

 

Similarly, modern scholars writing books against the Greeks don’t deserve respect or recognition or positions from which to corrupt students with pseudo theories they spawn against Homer or Plato or Aristotle.

The life-giving legacy of Greece

We need the ancient Greeks now more than ever before. We are engulfed by war, annihilating nuclear weapons, and a dark-age threatening climate chaos – all anthropogenic.

J. C. Stobart, British scholar and author of the extremely insightful and riveting book, The Glory that was Greece, had it right (1964 edition, pages 1, 3):

“[A]ll Western civilization has Greece for its mother and nurse… unless we know something about her [Hellas] our knowledge of the past must be built upon sand…. our art and literature has absorbed and assimilated what Greece had to teach… our roots are so entwined with the soil of Greek culture that we can never lose taste of it as long as books are read, and pictures painted. We are in fact, living on the legacy of Greece,” he wrote.

 

 

 

 

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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