Adapting to History: The Parthenon and the Euro

The atmosphere on the hills of the Acropolis after the Sunday elections has an immemorial flavour, scented with a certain resignation.  Grape vines cascade over the restaurants of Minissikleous street with tempting promise.  The bouzouki players gather with ease and lazy moves to strum a few tunes as the calamari fries and the octopi cook.  Cold white wine in carafes find their way to colorful tables, and silver haired restaurant owners with streaks of mischief gather customers with an almost pimp-like relish.  Stray cats purr and rest in the baking sun and are shooed off in the fear that they might infect the scene.

In the shadow of the sacred rock, where the Goddess Athena was given a sanctuary that would have made delighted any divinity (she did, after all, win that affection over Poseidon), Athenians are indifferent about the political quandary their country finds themselves.  Parties in the relaxed atmosphere of the rocky hill slopes continue to take place with a pleasantness that would resist revolution.

This might be the pleasure before the fall, the ecstasy before the demise – the parties drum into late night Athens with intense conviction; and the cafes remain full near midnight.  Unemployment is stratospherically high amongst the young, but the young are constantly at play.

Doom is elsewhere, and here, the family business is the only thing that matters.  Divorce rates are some of the lowest in Europe; family bonds are firm, though being affected by the economic crisis.  The cushion, however, is a strong one.

From the Acropolis itself, one can glance down to the site which houses the Temple of Olympian Zeus, peeking, as it were, through Hadrian’s Arch.  Had the temple attained the form as envisaged in the 6th century BC, it would have been one of the most astonishing holy sites of antiquity. But, as is the nature of big finance and big projects, in whatever century, that was not to be.  Its ruins were forged, as it were, in real time.  The bill for its construction was never paid, and it was left to the Roman emperor Hadrian to do some rescue work in the 2nd century AD.

Charting a pathway across the Acropolis and the residential site of Plaka, one is struck by both the other worldliness of the Parthenon as it gazes with its Periclean durability, and its astonishing adaptability.  Whatever happens in Brussels, Berlin or Washington, indeed, whatever happens amongst the scrapping politicians in Greece’s parliament, Greece will adapt.  History has given them no choice.

The story of the Parthenon itself might well be an excellent narrative for Greek survival, with or without the euro.  It has survived admiration of Rome, the invasion of the Goths, the crippling efforts of the Crusades and the Ottomans (having served as both a Church and a mosque), a Venetian shell that hit it in 1687 when it was a munitions site, earthquakes, acid rain and, remarkably, the efforts of the British.

Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, remains the most distinguished plunderer of the Acropolis.  Populist Greek politicians will point their tiring fingers in the direction of German banksters who made hay while the financial sun was shining, but Greece’s culture vultures have one clear target in their sights: the Elgin marbles.

Lord Elgin seems to offer a fascinatingly contemporary template for the Greek crisis.  He did, after all, seduce the Ottoman authorities of the period who were only too happy for him to make off with a good percentage of the sculptures of the Parthenon.  Both the Erechtheion and Propylaea were also victims.  The looting was subsequently validated by British parliamentary action in 1816.  State-backed thieving has been a laudable act since Francis Drake’s savaging of the Spaniards, and Lord Elgin was filling rather capacious shoes.

The newly built Acropolis Museum eagerly awaits the return of Elgin’s vandalizing handiwork, a partially empty space that craves to be filled.  In the meantime, the Greek authorities have been happily endeavoring to vandalise the Athenian legacy by undertaking their own restoration projects that had led to the removal of the Temple of Athena Nike.  Culture, it seems, is all too often the pretext for managed destruction and theft.

As the music strumming continues like a faint heartbeat, the sense is that Greece, whose civilizational cradle may have been ransacked, filled and re-plundered at stages of its history, will plod along in the shadow of the grapes.  The soldiers of Syntagma Square will still march with strained ceremonial comedy in pompom shoes.

The euro, if it already has not moved into the stage of inevitable demise and dismantling, is now beyond the Greeks. But every day living, and the Parthenon’s own existence, is not.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.