The Plaka was once the heart of modern Athens, first Ottoman Athens and then the Athens built largely by German kings and queens and their philhellenic architects. It was ruined by the work of brilliant American archaeologists who tore out the heart of the neighborhood in digging up the ancient agora and by corrupt politicians who encouraged the displacement of the residents by as cynical a set of junk merchants as has ever afflicted a tourist shrine. It is almost as bad as the streets around the Vatican.
The name origin of the name “Plaka” is disputed. The most obvious derivation, from modern Greek πλάκα (ancient πλάξ) meaning flat land or slab, which would be similar to plaza and piazza from Greek πλατεία, a broad place. Inevitably the Albanians, who claim to have invented everything, though they can barely hold on to the few shreds of culture they have borrowed from others, claim it is from some Albanian word for old.
Cutting through the center of the Plaka, first North/South then veering to the West, is Odos Adrianou, Hadrian Street. Adrianou begins inconspicuously on near the Themistoclean wall, parallels the even more frightening Odos Byronos (Vironos or Byron Street) and cuts West along the north side of the Agora. A wise man will buy nothing and eat nothing on either Adrianou or Byronos. On the other hand, it is nice to sit and have coffee or drink wine overlooking the Agora, and the pleasantest place along that strip is probably Attalos, which has a view of the Stoa of Attalos, reconstructed from the ground up to serve as the Museum of the Agora. I had drunk coffee one morning and eating a bit of my wife’s very good baklavas (why do Greeks always transliterate their words in the accusative form, as in baklava, I wonder? Because that is the case in which people ask for them?)
In January, even the Plaka belongs to the locals, and Attalos fills up with Greeks drinking coffee or eating lunch. The next afternoon, after our tour of the Plaka, I was sitting with my wife and the entire group—spread out at different tables—when Father Barbour pointed out a nicely dressed older man and his wife. They had eaten, it appeared, some fish, drunk a little wine—“ligo krasi,” as the Pimsleur tapes repeat ad infinitum—and were blinking contentedly at the sun. “You know it’s not a bad place when there are so many dignified bourgeois men in a place like this,” commented Father Barbour. A few minutes later, the man got up, came over to our table, and introduced himself. “I taught 20 years at Villanova and always say hello to Americans.” This could not be literally true, since Athens is flooded with American tourists for 8 months out of the year. Professor Athinaios, as he turned out to be, had assumed, not entirely incorrectly, that ours was an academic, and when I read his card I noted that he was the president of the Hellenic Foundation, whose website I had consulted. Small world.
As we leave the restaurant to make our way around the west side of the Acropolis on Odos Hagiou Paulou (Agiou Pavlou, that is, St. Paul Street), Aaron Wolf is stopped by a TV crew doing man-on-the-street interviews about God and sin. Here is Aaron’s transcript:
[Reporter] Do you believe in God?
[Aaron] Yes, I do.
[R] How you conceive of Him?
[A] As Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as He is revealed in Holy Scripture
[R] Ah, yes, OK. Well, what do you think . . . is it good for a man to try to be perfect?
[A] Yes, because God requires it of us. He gave us His Law in the Bible. But only one Man was perfect . . . one Man was able to be perfectly good.
[R] And who was that?
[A] Jesus Christ, God in human flesh. He did what we could not do—for us.
[R] Ah, OK, so Jesus. Jesus Christ.
[A] Yes. Do you believe? Do you believe in Him?
[A] I’m sorry.
[R] What is your . . . how do you say [struggles through some non-English words] . . . what is your sins?
[A] Oh, I’m not sure I’m ready to list them on television. I guess I should say, there are Ten Commandments, and I’m sure I’ve broken every one, if I really think about it. But that is why God sent His Son into the world, to pay for all of our transgressions against His Law.
[R] Ah, OK, yes . . . but . . . so . . . what is your biggest sins?
[A] Like I said, um, I . . .
[R] I mean, what is the biggest sins a man can do?
[A] I would have to say unbelief. That is the greatest sin, from which all others stem. Not believing in the Christ Whom God sent. That is unforgivable.
[R] Great! Oh, thank you velly much. Thank you for you time.
[A] No, thank you.
Our group starts to applaud. She stops them.
[R] Wait! Let me turn the camera. Do that again! For the camera!
Our next morning we spend up on the hills west of the Acropolis. I love these hills, because there is hardly ever anyone there. It is a lovely walk up to the monument of Philopappus, from which there are views of the glories of ancient Athens and the socialist-capitalist excrescence that is the late 20th century city.
You can also trace the lines of two ancient demes and the foundations of the houses. I point out the traditional location of a tomb of Miltiades, the hero of Marathon. Buried with him were, it was said, other kinsmen such as Thucydides, son of Olorus. This was the historian, whose father’s name betrays the Thracian connection of the prominent members of the Philaid clan, whose leaders—Miltiades, Cimon, Thucydides son of Melesias—were leaders in war and peace who spent their own money on their demesmen and did not stoop to the demagoguery of Pericles who spent the money of the people and their tribute-paying allies in order to bribe the lower classes. Nearly every reputable modern historian of the period takes it for granted that Thucydides was an apologist for the popular dictator Pericles. They ignore his very clear family connections with the other side—or puzzle over the historian’s betrayal of family and clan—and his severe criticisms of Pericles. They called it democracy, he summed up, when it was really the rule of one man.
On the Pnyx, where the Athenian assembly met, I deliver a sermon entitled “The Federal Republic of Athens,” explaining that in trying to understand Greek political thought one has to begin with political reality. There was no Athenian “state,” only a polis—the commonwealth made up of the members, the polities. There was no real permanent government, but councilors and officers either chosen annually by lot or, as in the case of the generals, elected. This government had almost nothing to do with the private life of the household. It did charge tolls, regulate markets, decide on and conduct war and peace, but it had nothing to do with rearing of children or education (it is the same word in Greek!). There were no social policies, and marriage was only a concern insofar as it affected citizenship and inheritance.
There was not even a unified theory of sovereignty, such as the Romans implied with their word imperium, and even the law lacked the majesty and power of Roman or English law. The Greeks did not even have a good word for what we call law, because the nearest approximation, Nomos, refers both to written laws and customs handed down from time immemorial. While they paid great reverence to their nomoi, many of these customs were simply the way things were done. In a court of law, the decrees of the Athenian Assembly were rarely applied strictly. Far more important was the notion of equity or fairness, which might require a rather liberal interpretation. In any event, the jury had the power to ignore the law entirely, if strict construction seemed unfair.
The legal and judicial structure in Athens was so undeveloped that sometimes it seems to disappear. For many very serious crimes, including murder, there was no public prosecutor. It was up to the victim’s kinfolk to prosecute the killer, and there was no police force to round up suspects. What kind of a state has no state police? Today’s Greece is a considerable state, with as many socialist programs as ever Marx or the Myrdals dreamed of, but there is still a refreshing indifference to government edicts. I have never been able to endure much cigarette smoke, but in the puritanical EU today the so many cigarettes lit up in Greek restaurants and bars is the sweet smell of freedom, and I am tempted to thank the smokers for reminding me of another and far better world. A bit more alarming is the Greek indifference to parking regulations, traffic laws, and speed signs. If you were to mention the smoking law to a Greek, he would shrug his shoulders and wave the cigarette in the air in a gesture that says, “What can you do? It’s the way we are?” I have been almost run off mountain roads, where the speed is marked 50 clicks per hour (30 mph) by men in German cars going 80-100. In Athenian law, a written law or edict had no more force than traditional opinion, and if the letter of the law might seem to cheat two nice boys of their uncle’s legacy, then the law be damned, argue the boys. Kinship counts for more.
After the Pnyx we proceed to the Areopagus, where I give a little diatribe against the reforms of Ephialtes that led in the direction of mass democracy. The Areopagus was a court made up of ex-magistrates who acted as something of a Supreme Court, and Ephialtes’ attack on the court was intended to diminish the gravity of this important obstacle to the madness of the popular will. That, I have always argued, is the real point of Aeschylus’ Eumenides—the necessity of such a court and the necessity of revenge even within a civilized society.
When I have finished, Aaron points to the plaque, commemorating the visit of an itinerant preacher in the first century A.D. He reads the entire passage of Acts, which makes it clear that the Areopagus—the Hill of Ares—is the Mars Hill where St. Paul revealed the true identity of The Unknown God.
The Chief did not make this first morning. I offered the ancient wisdom about howling with the wolves and soaring with the eagles, but it seemed to make little impression. There is, in fact, more to our Winter Schools than guided walks and lectures. We have many meals together—though we also cut people loose for at least one meal a day—and the students are happy to see old friends or make new ones. The life of the party was usually provided by two Rockfordians, my friends whose identities I shall disguise under the nicknames Jimmer and Mr. Shipp. Either one is enough to make any party, especially with a bottle of Jameson’s in hand. Putting such men together with the Chief and Mark Atkins is a little like the combination of gunpowder, fuse, and match. Remarkably, everyone behaves like grownups, and they never—well hardly ever—give me cause for concern.
I am exaggerating of course, though inevitably we may eat and drink more than we do at home. But then, only the guides and speakers are working. This is probably the first year when only one student (other than our son) missed a session, and he—Stephen Heiner—was managing his business back home.
Ancient Athenians, even though they watered their wine, whooped it up a good deal, as writers as diverse as Aristophanes and Plato reveal. They liked a little music with their wine and conversation, and modern Athenians are no different. The Plaka is filled with tacky music halls serving mediocre food and offering loud music and staged dancing. The prime target may be tourists, but Greeks seem to love this sort of thing, and when we take the group to Neos Rigas, the only other patrons are a couple of tables of locals. Inevitably the performers entice the most gullible customers into joining them on stage. Shipp was particularly lively in a monkey-see/monkey-do dance routine that was part Zorba and part Abbot and Costello. Whatever the performer did or said, the victim had to repeat. My Greek is not good enough to make out what was said, but the gag was almost certainly of the kind boys learn before they are ten. “Go ask your mother what s—t means” or “whatever I say, you say ‘rubber mountains.’” I tried to blackmail Shipp into a large donation to The Rockford Institute, but the man is shameless.
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