“Cincinnati is no mean city,” one of my Greek professors used to say when he wanted to illustrate the use of litotes.  I lived not too far north of Cincinnati for three years and spent a good deal of time in what was and is one of the few cities of the Midwest to survive the depredations of suburban sprawl and urban renewal.  Built on seven hills rising up from the Ohio River, Cincinnati inevitably invites comparison with another city—this one, on the Tiber.  The hills of Rome have often served to push apart the sections of the city into distinct neighborhoods, and a modern Roman from the artificial hill of Testaccio—a poor neighborhood built over a trash dump of potsherd and debris—will still claim to be the truest of Romans.

Rome on the Ohio has also been a collection of strong-minded neighborhoods.  At a cocktail party, I once asked a lady where she was from.


“But I thought you were a native,” I said in some confusion, though I ought to have recalled that Chilton Williamson’s adopted state shares a name with a Cincinnati neighborhood.

Most vast conurbations are, in fact, divided into sections in which some semblance of village localism is maintained within the urban context of Florence or London.  Neighborhood rivalries, even when they turn violent, are a healthy expression of man’s devotion to a particular place, though I do not know if Chesterton’s beloved Notting Hill is ready for secession.

Conflicts between rival clans and competing quarters were as much a feature of medieval Italy as were the wars waged between the cities of Tuscany.  Like most Tuscan towns, Siena was notorious for the rivalry and lethal brawls among its contrade.  The violence was eventually sublimated into the (now) semiannual horse race, the Palio delle Contrade.  Though the Palio may seem like a phony spectacle concocted to attract tourists, jockeys and drummers of the neighborhoods take it as seriously as a medieval tourney, and, all over town, people proudly fly the symbolic banners of their section.  When my daughter spent a term in Siena, it was a matter of usually friendly controversy in her host family that the husband and wife came from different contrade.

Although no match for Rome or even London, Cincinnati is a real place with its own traditions of good music and food (the gift of German settlers) and nicer manners than is common north of the Ohio.  (The city was also settled by Virginians.)  Cincinnati is home to a decent symphony orchestra and a music festival that takes advantage of the city’s excellent church choirs.  The school of music at the University of Cincinnati is almost as well known as the university’s program in classical archeology.

It was the bust of Carl Blegen I saw this morning that set me to thinking of Cincinnati.  The bust was set up in front of the little museum in Chora (which, in modern Greek, means merely “village”), where the many artifacts from Nestor’s Palace are housed.  Blegen was the University of Cincinnati archeologist who led the American team that excavated the site not far from the modern town of Pylos, perched at the entrance to Navarino Bay, where, in 1829, the fleets of France, Britain, and Russia destroyed the Turkish fleet and sealed the doom of the Ottoman Empire’s 350 years of misrule in Greece.

Excavations are expensive, and UC’s work at Pylos was financed by Mrs. William Taft Semple, whose fortune came from Procter & Gamble.  What inspired philanthropy, to unearth a Bronze Age palace complex that had been visited by Telemachus in search of his lost father, Odysseus, while, at the same time, putting Cincinnati and its university squarely on the map—not just of Ohio or of the United States, but of the civilized world!  I cannot think of another pairing of “sister cities” that has done so much good.

Modern Pylos is a pleasant town of some 2,000 souls, where the locals sit in the park drinking iced coffee, watching the ships pass by.  This morning, there were two small naval vessels and two black submarines floating on the surface like exhausted whales.  This afternoon, a container ship is drifting past my balcony, and there is only a freighter, painted pond-slime green, tied up to the dock where yesterday, about 5:30, I watched a navy ship unload a squad of armed sailors who marched to the park, where they were joined by a military band and a bevy of local beauties dressed in folk costumes.  As the band played, in turn, the “Marseillaise,” “God Save the Queen,” and the Russian and Greek anthems, the respective national flags were taken down and entrusted to the young ladies.  Then, to the accompaniment of a crisp tune, the sailors marched back to the ship, followed by the girls gravely carrying the outspread flags.  They parted at the waterfront, as the sailors marched onto the ship and the girls turned the corner and disappeared with their symbolic tributes to the victors of Navarino.

If I had a boat, I might sail up the coast toward Odysseus’ island of Ithaca that lies across from the Echidnae Islands, where Don John of Austria and the Venetians (including a few ships from Kotor) battered the Turkish fleet that had sailed out from Naupactus, known in the West as Lepanto.  Between the Echidnae and Naupactus lies another great scene of battle, Missolonghi, where Lord Byron found the death he had been seeking.  Skeptic and rationalist that he was, Byron dreamed that Greece—and England—might be free, and, although he was as weary a world traveler as his Childe Harold and Don Juan, he gave his treasure and his life helping the Greek subjects win their nationhood.  Now, the leader of Greece’s “conservative” party, Prime Minister Karamanlis, supports the Turks’ reentry into Europe.  Though public opinion is solidly against admission of Turkey into the European Union, only the tiny Orthodox People’s Party (see Makis Voridis’s “Letter From Turkey” in this issue) has had the courage to speak out.

The Turks and the equally pernicious European Union seem very far away here in Bronze Age Pylos, which was the political, military, and economic hub of the Western Peloponnesus.  The Linear B tablets that have survived tell the tale of an elaborate bureaucratic economy.  It all came to smash about 1200 B.C., when the hilltop palace was destroyed by fire, an early victim (probably) of the rough Dorian Greeks, whose invasion put a full stop to the high civilization of Mycenae.  Nestor’s grandson, so it appears, led his people eventually to Athens, whence they launched their colonizing expedition to Ionia.

The remnants of the palace dug up by Blegen’s team, along with the remains of nearby tombs and settlements uncovered by Spirydon Marinatos (whose bust has been erected on the other side of the entrance), give evidence of an advanced culture whose aristocrats demanded their comforts.  In the wake of the collapse, the Greeks, falling to a stage of development lower than anything they had known for centuries, were forced back into the habits of militant self-reliance that would later give rise to the farmer-soldiers who defended the Greek cities of the sixth and fifth centuries.  Much the same happened in the Latin West when our own savage ancestors set upon the body of the Roman world and, with tooth and claw, dismembered and devoured the great work of time, forcing Britain and Gaul into a lower standard of living than the Greeks enjoyed during the dark age that followed the collapse of the Mycenaean citadels.  And yet then, too, in the early Middle Ages, Western man fell back on his ultimate natural resources: a brave man’s strong right arm, loyalty to kith and kin, and faith in God (or, as in the Greek case, gods).

There are no great iron laws of history, and nothing could be more futile (or more tedious) than the attempts made by Hegel, Toynbee, and William McNeil to reduce the experiences of billions of diverse human beings down to such petty formulas as a single individual can devise to fit his small intelligence.  Nonetheless, human nature has its tendencies, and, much like a stream of water, they can be channeled, dammed, or diverted; but, when the levees are neglected or the dam breaks, when a civilization overextends itself and sucks the vitality from the very sources of its power and legitimacy—from families, clans, villages, and religion—the force of gravity will always draw water back to a natural course, and the human heart back to the things that nourish it.

Wise old Nestor, as he never tired of reminding the whippersnappers in the army, had seen several generations of men command and go before heeding Agamemnon’s call to muster his men for the catastrophic expedition against Troy.  And when Agamemnon, following the bad advice of a lying dream, sends his soldiers rushing to the ships, Nestor (Iliad II 362-68) advises him, once the men have been quieted down, to

separate the men into tribes and brotherhood [that is, clans] so that brotherhood may help brotherhood, and the tribes help tribes . . . Then you will know who of the leaders and which of the peoples are cowards, and which is brave, for they (the tribes and clans) will be fighting on their own account.

In other words, the army of diverse Achaeans has not been forged into a fighting unit, and Agamemnon has to rely on their more elementary loyalty to tribe and clan.

Nation-states today remain an unpleasant necessity as a bulwark against globalization.  Some of them, like Britain and Spain, were forged in the crucible of historical struggles; others, such as Brazil and the old United States, are the products of successful secession movements.  Too many—Germany, Italy, the United States post-1865, and most of the states of Central Europe—are little more than lava flows that spilled out of the volcano of the French Revolution and hardened into lines on a map.  These artificial constructions may serve to halt the juggernaut rushing toward world government, but they can rarely command our unthinking allegiance.

In defiance of all the powerful agencies of globalization—mass schooling, mass media, mass culture—historic identities survive in Europe and North America, as anyone traveling from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the Mississippi Delta is made aware.  Sicilians are still Sicilians, not yet the generic Italians that government schools and RAI broadcasts are trying to fabricate.

What of the Greeks?  I simply do not know enough to say.  Ancient Greece was fractured into regions and dialects within which principalities smaller than Rockford fought one another with a gusto usually reserved for athletic contests.  Much of this healthy parochialism survived both the Macedonian conquest and the Roman Empire, which preserved local autonomies and even recognized the independence of some dozen free Laconian cities.  The people of the Mani peninsula (the second finger from the right sticking south from the Peloponnesus) never lost their sense of place, and, although fighters from the Mani played a very prominent part in the struggle for Greek independence, they were the first victims of a Greek state that repudiated its past and adopted the latest Paris fashions.  The poor Maniotes went from being nominal and defiant subjects of the sultan to becoming obedient subjects of the brand-new government.

Modern Greeks, like modern Americans, are being taught to despise their cultural heritage and to enrich their imaginations on alien cultures; at the same time, we are all told to give our hearts to a transnational state and global mass culture that will someday encompass the world.

For Greeks, America is a potent symbol of the global anticivilization they are being encouraged to join.  In Chapel Hill, I shared a house with a Greek tavern keeper from Larissa named Miltiades Polyzos, whose visa identified him (much to his annoyance) as Mel Polison.  Mel loved his adopted country.  Her very uniformity enthralled him.  “I can travel from North Carolina all the way to California,” he told me, “and eat in the same chain restaurants, stay in the same motels, and hear the same American talked by the same Americans.  In Greece, I can’t drive over a mountain without finding a foreign country.”

That was 30 years ago, and Greeks have undergone the same artificial process of nationalization that has been imposed on all authentic peoples.  What unified the ancient Greeks, who squandered so much of their energies on efforts to destroy one another, was a common language (albeit one that existed in several families of dialects), a common religion (that took a unique form in every locality), and a common culture that was solidified in the great pan-Hellenic games held at Olympia, Delphi, and elsewhere.  This tension between local patriotism and an international religious civilization was maintained under the Roman Empire and in the Middle Ages, and our task today—as it has always been—is to maintain the heritage of Christendom at the same time we are fortifying our own backyard.