During our time in Athens, I explained to a number of Greeks that, as a history teacher, Athens was a pretty special place to me. I had always wanted to come here. I spent a lot of time sitting around pondering the history of democracy.
Here I can be seen at what’s left of the Theater of Dionysus looking out at the stage where western theater was born. Sophocles and Aristophanes scripted plays that were performed here. As one historian put it, the Greek dramas don’t tell us much about daily life but they give us insight into the spirit of the people. Art. It’s not overrated.
Down the street is this much larger complex built for concerts and recently renovated for use during the Olympics.
I also thought a lot about the benefits and excesses of Democracy. In other countries we’ve visited we’ve seen grand ruins that served only the rulers of an empire. In Greece, the monuments are almost all public buildings. But Democracies are far from perfect. Here is the jail where Socrates awaited his death. Athens had recently lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta. They had lost standing as a major power and they were angry about it. And angry nations can do crazy things. Like kill the founder of Western philosophy. Maybe the most rational man of all time.
Of course, the most enduring symbol of Athens is the Parthenon. Unfortunately, the front is currently under renovation.
But the back still looks pretty cool. Notice how it seems to swell as it rises instead of tapering like most tall things? That impressive feeling it gives off? That’s not an accident. There are a series of optical refinements to create the sense of an enhanced perfection. The corner columns are wider than the others. The horizontal line across the top is actually slightly curved. And each pillar is sculpted to bulge slightly in the middle. Geometry. Finding real world application since 438BC.
The Parthenon was meant to display the might of Athens and project the superiority of its democratic system. But the heart of its democracy is tucked on the side of a park, hidden from most tourist maps. Here is the assembly where the property owning men of Athens would meet to debate and vote on the laws they would live under. Early in the Peloponnesian War Pericles stood on the orator’s platform on the right and gave one of the most thorough defenses of Democracy ever argued. He talked about how, in Athens, the power was in the hands of the many and that there was equal justice for all. He spoke of how a man was judged for his merit and not by his birth. Anyone could rise from poverty to greatness. He talked about the benefits of being an open society eager to learn from the world. He bragged that this was a city where citizens could trust one another and did good because of civic duty. I stood in this spot for a while, as I do, and thought about how hubris led to the decline of Athens. I dwelled how long the world went without a Democracy before the American Revolution. Democracy is delicate, not to be taken for granted. I think, in America, we may be forgetting that.
There’s slightly more recent history in Greece too. Like this hill where Elizabeth is standing near the acropolis. This is where St. Paul gave his first sermon and essentially launched Christianity as an up-and-comer religion. A few days before this we stood here and watched New Year’s Eve fireworks above the acropolis. That was pretty cool…
Even if you’re not interested in history, there’s still plenty to do in Athens. The gyros are awesome (much better than in Turkey). The ouzo is delicious. And there are so many great hills for sunset, you could hike a different one every night of the week.
The islands get all the buzz for traveling Greece, and I’m sure they’re great. But Athens is pretty cool too, especially for anyone interested in emotionally connecting with the foundations of western civilization.
For more reflections, specifically about American democracy, you can check out this post about my reflections after running around the National Mall in DC.
Also, this in descript case at a museum is one of the coolest things we saw in Greece. It’s crazy these things still exist. Conspiracy, Betrayal. War… For full context you may wan to check out this documentary.