Days of Hellenic Pleasure

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Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Mt. Parnassos is embracing the sanctuary. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Prologue

I spent June 2023 in Hellas and modern Greece. This is the same country, but with somewhat different civilizations. The difference is in religion. Ancient Greeks were pious towards several gods, which they had invented and gave human form. Eros was the most powerful of those gods, which were forces in the natural world and the Cosmos. Modern Greeks were forced out of those gods and into a one god religion, Christianity.

Ancient Greece, Hellas, is the home of the Argonauts, Homer, the Olympics, Delphi, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, the Parthenon, democracy, Hippocrates, Herodotos, Thucydides, science, Alexander the Great, Euclid, Aristarchos of Samos, Archimedes, the Mouseion (University) and the Library of Alexandria, Hipparchos and the Antikythera Mechanism computer of genius, the astronomer Ptolemy, and the physician Galen.

Modern Greece is a country made Christian by force in the fourth to sixth centuries. The result in 2023 is a country saddled with a $ 400 billion foreign debt, which, among other bad things like forcing the country into poverty, accelerated tourism to become the largest “industry” of modern Greece. These dire conditions basically have installed foreigners to rule the country.

Modern Greeks, however, are waking up to these forces of occupation, struggling to embrace their ancestors and become masters of their ancient home.

Nostos – desire to return home

I face similar problems in returning home. Like my “first cousin” Odysseus, I have spent my life trying to come back home to Ithaca-Cephalonia.

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Temple of the 9th century BCE in Skala, Cephalonia. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

The cyclops Polyphemos, Laestrygonian cannibals, awesome Sirens, and the loss of the cattle of the Sun god Helios, have been raising storms, making my return journey sporadic and uncertain.

Tour of Hellas

My June 2023 visit, however, was exceptional. Georgia Nomikos, a Greek American president of Pan Logos Foundation, invited me to a 10-day tour of Hellas. The modest ambition of Nomikos is to spread Hellenic culture among American students. My role was to talk to those students about ancient Greek history and civilization. The students attended a school known as The Socratic Experience.

Once in Athens, some 20 students, a few parents, a tourist guide, Nomikos, and I, started our exploration of the ruins and treasures of Hellas. We started our ambitious goal by walking the tourist-flooded path to the Acropolis. Some 15 to 20 thousand tourists from all over the world pay their respects to the Parthenon every day.

The icon of the Parthenon

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The Parthenon. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

Once on the sacred ground of the Parthenon, we stared intensely at the ruined temple of Athena Parthenos, the virgin daughter of Zeus and Metis, goddess of intelligence. The Athenians built that masterpiece of architecture and art to honor their protector, Athena, goddess of arts, craftsmanship, and war, the goddess that gave them the olive tree. They celebrated the birthday of Athena every four years by sponsoring the Panathenaea, an Olympics-like athletic and cultural competition.

But what about the origins of the Parthenon? The temple replaced the one the Persians burned in 490 BCE. The Athenians rebuilt the Parthenon to tell the rest of the Greeks and foreigners they valued freedom. But the Parthenon was more than a national emblem. Alexander Tzonis, professor of architectural theory at the University of Technology, Delft, Holland, connects the building of the Parthenon to the advancement of science. Tzonis reports that the change that took place in Greece between the eighth and fifth centuries BCE was epoch-making:

“Greece produced a new way of constructing and construing the world, which was unprecedented in its systematic rigor and embedded with new disciplinary institutions. There was no place for falsehood or accident in this system,” he wrote.[1]

Polytheism, natural philosophy, and advanced craftsmanship culminated in an extremely sophisticated form of sculpture, architecture, and city planning of the classical age. Poleis (city-states) filled with thousands of statues and dozens of great temples, including the Parthenon in Athens. How the Greeks constructed the Parthenon has yet to be understood, much less surpassed. Building the Parthenon was, first of all, a massive public works project.

Ploutarchos has something to say about the Parthenon. He lived from about 46 to 120 in our era. He was a Greek polymath, philosopher, prolific writer, and priest of Apollo. He wrote almost six centuries after the Athenians built the Parthenon. He left a few clues of what and who made the Parthenon possible.

He reported that the materials used for the construction of the Parthenon included marble, bronze, ivory, gold, ebony, and cypress wood. The technicians who shaped these materials to form the Parthenon included carpenters, molders, bronzesmiths, stonecutters, dyers, gold and ivory experts, painters, embroiderers, and embossers. Add to these rope makers, weavers, leather workers, road builders, and miners. Then there were sailors and pilots who carried the marble by land and sea and trainers and drivers of yoked animals that did other indispensable work. All in all, some 200 craftsmen and 50 sculptors did the lion’s share in the building of the Parthenon. We still use the tools they used.

Ploutarchos also says that the builders of the Parthenon tried to outdo themselves in the beauty of their handiwork, which was inimitable in its perfection and grandeur. Ploutarchos was equally effusive in his praises of Pericles under whose leadership and administration the Parthenon came into being. The works of Pericles, he said, were done “in a short time for all time.”

Each one of those works was so fresh, vigorous, and beautiful that, according to Ploutarchos, it was at once ancient; in fact, each work like the Parthenon looked as if “untouched by time. The ever-green breath of an ageless soul was infused into the works of Pericles.”[2]

William Martin Leake, a British traveler and philhellene, visited Athens in the 1810s. In 1821, he published his study, The Topography of Athens, in which he praised the “magnificent” Parthenon, “which, by its united excellences of materials, design, and decorations, was the most perfect ever executed.”[3]

Another philhellene, the French philosopher Ernest Renan, visited the Acropolis in 1865 and, like Ploutarchos, fell in love with the beauty and sacredness of the Parthenon. He saw the ideal crystallized in Pentelic marble. He admitted that “Greece had created science, art, philosophy, and civilization; but the scale failed me. When I saw the Acropolis, I have had the revelation of the divine.” In addition, Renan equated the beauty of the Parthenon with “absolute honesty,” reason, and the respect Greeks had towards their gods. He said the hours he spent on the Acropolis were “hours of prayer” to Athena Pallas.[4]

I felt like Renan. Each time I visit the Parthenon, I sense Athena nearby. I pray to her to give me strength and wisdom. The Athenians created the temple as a permanent reminder of their connection to the daughter of Zeus, an expression of beauty, craftsmanship and perfection. Now in June 2023, I stood alone, surrounded by large number of tourists — and the students searching for understanding. Renovations withing the temple also distracted from the beauty and perfection of the temple. In addition, I noticed the cement pathways over the sacred ground of the Parthenon — for the convenience of the tourists. This increased my anxieties over the failure of modern Greek authorities in appreciating the Parthenon and protecting it from additional insults.

We left the Parthenon for the Acropolis Museum that houses all that the American archaeologists have dug up on the Acropolis and the surrounding area.

The thought that modern Greek archaeologists have given up their sole responsibilities to foreigners is disturbing. I am grateful American (and other foreign) archaeologists are excavating Greece for ancient treasures. But I still feel unease. Greeks should be doing most archaeological excavations and research. After all, Greece is their country.

More monuments and treasures

After the Parthenon, we visited ancient Corinth, Epidauros, Mycenae, Olympia, Delphi, and the temple of Poseidon at Sounion in Attica. Olympia was the home of the Olympics, an athletic and national festival in honor of Zeus. Greeks from mainland Hellas and the Mediterranean attended the glorious 10-day games to see their greatest athletes compete but, also, to get reacquainted — every four years.

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The palaestra school at Olympia. This was a wrestling ground and a school for sciences and the humanities. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

The temple of Poseidon at Sounion in Attica was another exceptional archaeological site. The temple looks over the Aegean Sea. This was a strategic and beautiful location for honoring Poseidon, the god of the seas, horses and earthquakes.

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The Temple of Poseidon, Sounion, Attica, Athens. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

These archaeological sites illustrate thousands of years of Greek history, from the Bronze Age, 3,100 – 1,000 BCE, to the Roman conquest in 146 BCE, and the Christianization and destruction of Hellas in the fourth century and after. One is stunned by the museum treasures in gold, silver and bronze that survived the centuries-long Roman looting of the country, the Christian onslaught and violent conversion of the Greek polytheists to Christians, the devastations of barbarian invasions, and the occupation of the country by Mongol Turks for about 400 years.

Delphi – the center of the world

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The Treasury of Athens at Delphi. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

Of all archaeological sites in Greece, Delphi is probably the most beautiful. Apollo is the landlord and god of his sanctuary right on Mt. Parnassos. Here was an oracle that advised Greeks and foreigners for a thousand years. Walking among the Delphi ruins on mount Parnassos is unforgettable. Even the surviving ruins all over the mountain mirror the magnificent originals: the temple of Apollo, the theater, the stadium, the treasuries. The beauty of the mountain and its trees and vegetation added to the attractiveness of the architecture of the buildings and the sacredness of the entire terrestrial home of Apollo.

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Fragment of a marble column at Delphi. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

One embraces the magical views of large olive groves far below Parnassos. The mountain theater brings to mind the performances of the tragedies of Aeschylos, Sophocles, and Euripides as well as the comedies of Aristophanes. The stadium recreates the cheers of the spectators of naked runners. The broken columns of the temple of Apollo reminds us of the solemnity and piety of the Greeks for Apollo, the god of light, music, and prophesy. The treasuries of Athens and other poleis (city-states) show the power of the Delphi oracle. It was PanHellenic and global. No polis would embark on creating a settlement outside of Hellas without the approval of Apollo at Delphi. Foreign rulers brought gold and silver to Delphi for seeking the advice of Apollo.

The Charioteer, a bronze statue of a young man leading a chariot, 470 BCE, captures the beauty, the craftsmanship and the smile and pride of victory — at Delphi. The handsome statue is at the Delphi Museum. You look at the bronze face of the Charioteer and you smile with him. You immediately know this Charioteer had just won an Olympic victory.

Ceramic art

To bring all the insights we gained from visiting museums and archaeological sites to some real context, we visited the Ceramics Workshop of Vasiles Goumas. The workshop is located in an impoverished neighborhood of Athens. The debt crisis was evident everywhere. Houses half done, buildings needing repairs. Yet the energy and talent of Goumas alone uplifted the neighborhood. This man is a master potter who used the materials and technology of ancient Greek potters. Within minutes, Goumas working with his fingers and the potters’ wheel, would shape a beautiful vase that reminded me of vases I had seen in museums. I thought this craftsman had just come out of ancient Greece. His imitation of Hellenic pottery shined the grace and skills of his ancient profession.

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A round plate depicting Kerberos, the 3-headed dog Herakles brought from Hades to Mycenae. The inscription (Μῆνιν ἂειδε [θεά], Goddess sing of the anger of Achilles) comes from the first like of the first book of the Iliad of Homer. Plate from the workshop of Goumas. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

Epilogue

The smile of the Charioteer and the talent of Goumas also crowned the hopes of Georgia Nomikos, that, perhaps, her bet may be paying off. I asked the students to tell me what impressed them the most. They said history was everywhere in Greece. Having breakfast from the seventh-floor restaurant of the Royal Olympic Hotel at the center of Athens, they saw the Parthenon and the remaining columns of the Temple of Zeus. Such an icon of beauty and perfection would probably stay with them.

NOTES

1. Alexander Tzonis and Phoebe Giannisi, Classical Greek Architecture: The Construction of the Modern (Paris: Flammarion, 2004) 184.

2. Ploutarchos, Pericles 12.6–7–13.1–3, tr. Bernadotte Perrin (Loeb, 1967).

3. William Martin Leake, The Topography of Athens, second edition, 2 vols (London: J. Rodwell, 1841) I, 334.

4. Ernest Renan, Prayer on the Acropolis, tr. from the French by Xenophon Dantis (Athens: Dionysios Petsalis, 1962) 15–26. See also the French text of Renan and its translation into Greek by Rigos Kappatos, Prayer on the Acropolis (Athens: Ekate, 2015).

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.