“While the courts just as in previous eras have been run by the three orders, those political factions still rule them: they give and take what they may, giving the innocent the runaround and heaping honors on their own. Neither crime nor shame nor public disgrace disqualifies them from office. They rob, despoil whomever they please. And finally, as if the city has been sacked, they rely on their own lust and excess instead of the laws.
And for me this would only be a source of limited grief if, in their typical fashion, they were pursuing a victory born from excellence. But the laziest of people whose total strength and excellence come from their tongue are arrogantly administering a tyranny gained through luck and from another person! For what treason or civil discord has obliterated so many families? Who whose spirit was ever so hasty and extreme in victory?”
Iudicia tametsi, sicut antea, tribus ordinibus tradita sunt, tamen idem illi factiosi regunt, dant, adimunt quae lubet, innocentis circumveniunt, suos ad honorem extollunt. Non facinus, non probrum aut flagitium obstat, quo minus magistratus capiant. Quos commodum est trahunt, rapiunt; postremo tamquam urbe capta libidine ac licentia sua pro legibus utuntur.
Ac me quidem mediocris dolor angeret, si virtute partam victoriam more suo per servitium exercerent. Sed homines inertissimi, quorum omnis vis virtusque in lingua sita est, forte atque alterius socordia dominationem oblatam insolentes agitant. Nam quae seditio aut dissensio civilis tot tam illustris familias ab stirpe evertit? Aut quorum umquam in victoria animus tam praeceps tamque inmoderatus fuit?
Since we are engaging in an exercise in show trials and re-defining the meaning of words:
“Many terrible things happened to the cities during the revolution, as it always has been and always will be, as long as human nature is the same, although it sometimes takes a harsher or more mild form as the changes arise in different cities. During peace and times of abundance, cities and individual citizens have better ideas since they do not experience the compulsion of scarcity. But war, in depriving them of their daily needs, is a forceful teacher, and makes the character of most people equal to their present conditions.
Thus, the cities were in states of revolution and the places where it developed later pursued greater excess in their innovations from hearing of its coming beforehand—in both the cleverness of their attempts and the inappropriateness of their retributions.
The regular meaning of words changed to fit the state of affairs. Insane risk was now bravery for an ally; careful forethought was cowardice; moderation was considered an excuse for being unmanly; circumspection was an unwillingness to commit; heedless attacks was termed manly behavior, and self-defense was a bland excuse for conspiracy.
The one seeking extreme action was considered trustworthy; anyone who spoke against him was suspicious. If you were a successful conspirator, you were smart; you were clever if you discovered a conspiracy. But if you made provisions against either situation, you risked dividing your party and living in fear of your opponents. It was simply the same whether you stopped someone from doing wrong or you discovered a new opportunity for wrongdoing.”
“The Khelônophagoi live underneath turtle shells that are big enough to sail in too. Some of them, because a lot of seaweed is cast onto the shore and makes piles as high as hills, dig into them and live inside. They dispose of corpses as food for fish by allowing them to be drawn away in the high tides.
Three islands are situated in a row: they are named Turtle Island, Seal Island, and Hawk Island. The whole shoreline has palm-trees, olive trees, and laurels and this is not just in the straits but on the outside too. There is a certain Philip’s island, facing which, above the coastline, is a hunting preserve for elephants which is called Pythangelos’ Hunting Ground.
Next to this is Arsinoê which has a city and harbor and beyond these, to Deirê above which is another hunting preserve for elephants. The land right above Deirê is rich in aromatics: the first part part produces myrrh—and it is the land of the Fish-Eaters and Meat-Eaters—and it also produces persea and the Egyptian sykamin. Beyond this land is Likha, another hunting ground for elephants. Frequently there are pools of rain water in the region and when these dry, the elephants dig with their tusks and teeth and uncover water.
On that coast, there are two enormous lakes extending up as far as the Pytholaian headland. One of them has salt water and they call it a sea; the other is fresh and contains both hippopotamuses and crocodiles. It also has papyrus on its shores. People also find the Ibis around this lake. Starting near the Pytholaus, the people who live there have unblemished bodies….”
This poem moves from praising the victory of Hiero’s horses at Olympos to the tale of Croesus’ reaction to the sacking of Sardis. In this version of the tale, he prepares to sacrifice his family on a pyre. The story is, well, a bit horrifying.
Bacchylides, Victory Odes 3.1-60
“Kleio, sweetness-giver, sing of Demeter
Who rules rich-grained Sicily, and also
Her purple-crowned daughter, and the swift
Olympic-racing horses of Hiero.
For they rushed with overwhelming Victory
And Glory alongside the broad-eddying
Alpheos where they made the blessed son of Deinomenes
A master of the crowns.
And the people shouted out:
“Oh, thrice-blessed man
Who obtained from Zeus
The widest-ruling power of all the Greeks
And knows not to hide his towered health
With black-cloaked shadow.
The temples overflow with sacrificial feasts
And the streets overflow with hospitality.
And god shines too in glancing light
From the tall-wrought tripods which were set up
In front of the temple where the Delphians
Take care of the greatest grove of Apollo
Alongside the waters of Kastalia—let someone
Glory in god, in god—this is the best of the blessings.
For once there was a time when
Even though the Sardians were sacked by the Persian army
Because Zeus had brought to an end
The judgment which was fated,
The leader of the horse-taming
Lydians, Kroisos, golden-sworded
Apollo protected. For Kroisos,
When he had come to that lamentable, unhoped for day
Was not about to wait for slavery any more. But he
Had a pyre built up in front of his bronze-walled yard.
There he climbed up with his dear wife
And his well-tressed daughters who were
Mourning uncontrollably. Then he raised his hands
Up to the high sky above
And he shouted: “Powerful god
Where is divine gratitude now?
Where is Leto’s son the lord?
Alyattes’ halls are falling down.
[what of the] myriad [gifts I gave you?]
[What trust can mortals give to gods?]
[Look now, the enemy has sacked my] city,
And the gold-eddying Paktôlos runs red
With blood and women are shamefully dragged away
From the well-built halls.
What was hated before is now dear. Dying is the sweetest thing.”
So much he said, and he ordered his light-stepping attendant
To Set fire to the wooden home. Then the girls were crying out
And they were throwing their hands to their
Mother. For mortals most hateful death
Is the one we see coming.
But as the shining strength
Of the terrible fire was leaping forth
Zeus sent over a dark-covering cloud
To extinguish the yellow flame.
Nothing is unbelievable when divine care
Makes it. Then Delian-born Apollo
Carried the old man to the Hyperboreans
And settled him there with his thin-ankled daughters
Because of his piety, because he sent to sacred Pytho
Gifts greatest of all the mortals.
Diodoros, Excerpta de virtutibus et vitiis 305.19–27 [=BNJ 87 F 108]
“There was another rebellion of fugitive slaves and a resistance of some renown. For a certain Cleon, a Cilician from the area near Tauros, was accustomed since childhood to a life of robbery. When he became a shepherd in Sicily, there was no end to his attacks on travelers and his constant murders. Once he heard of Eunous’ success and the achievement of his rebellion, he created his own revolt and convinced many nearby to join his madness. They took over the city of Akragas and all of the land nearby.”
“Sertorius, when he noticed that the uprising among the indigenous people was overwhelming, turned nasty to his allies: he accused some and had them killed; others he threw into prison; but he liquidated the wealth of the richest men. Even though he acquired a great deal of gold and silver this way, he did not put any of it into the public treasury for the war effort, instead he hoarded it for himself. He didn’t use it to pay the soldiers either or even share some of it with his commanders.
When it came to capital cases, he did not consult the council or advisers, but had hearings in private and gave judgments after serving as the solitary judge. He did not consider his commanders worthy of invitations to his banquets and demonstrated no beneficence to his friends. As he was generally driven mad by the worsening state of his own rule, he acted tyrannically toward everyone: he was hated by the people and conspired against by his friends.”
“Oh! citizens of Argos, do you hear what he says? You dare to compare yourself to Themistocles, who found our city half empty and left it full to overflowing, who one day gave us the Piraeus for dinner, and added fresh fish to all our usual meals. You, on the contrary, you, who compare yourself with Themistocles, have only sought to reduce our city in size, to shut it within its walls, to chant oracles to us. And Themistocles goes into exile, while you gorge yourself on the most excellent fare”
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.93.3-5
“Themistocles likewise persuaded them to build up the rest of Piraeus, for it was begun in the year that he himself was archon of Athens, because he conceived the place both beautiful, in that it had three natural havens, and, also that, since the Athenians were now seamen, it would very much advance the enlargement of their power. For he was indeed the first man that dared tell them that they ought to take upon them the command of the sea, and then immediately helped them in the obtaining it. By his counsel also it was that they built the wall of that breadth about Piraeus which can now be seen.”
The journey begins at Omonoia Square, one of the most recognizable landmarks of modern Athens, built in the 19th century after the birth of the modern Greek state, and also iconic to the turbulent history of the country: Included in the initial urban plan of Athens (1833), it’s been renamed many times, as many as it has been renovated, rebuilt, destroyed and remade. A witness to the city’s modernization, once the site of the neoclassical architecture that has characterized central Athens (the body politic’s desire to mimic a grandiose past), it was once regarded as an icon of multiculturalism, in the same way that it is now despised for the same reason.
The rather derelict area is now traditionally known as a gray area for foreign workers, low cost retail (and drugs) and most recently, a site of contestation of European identities with the refugee tents going up in the area, making inescapably visible the plight of human rights and the failure of international law to protect those who need it most. As the square watched the refugees of the Asia Minor arrive in Athens from the port of Piraeus to rebuild their lives in Greece, it has now watched refugees from imperialist wars in the Middle East flock into Europe, but with little hope to rebuild anything.
Yet this image of Omonoia Square with the tents (just a stone’s throw from the Greek parliament), has a tendency to fade quickly. In a kind of white flight that saw the wealthy abandon the city center as it became progressively impoverished—a situation that paradoxically gave it its multicultural character. But a recent change of government has put forward plans for the reclamation of the city center by investor capital. Will the square be cleaned from its intangible history of migrations?
It remains to be seen. But it is significant that here we begin the journey towards “Piraeus/Heterotopia”, a participatory theater project by Japanese artist Akira Takayama that took place in 2017 (as a part of the Fast Forward Festival, organized by the Onassis Cultural Center), and is now dormant but latent since I was able to “awaken” it, during a visit to Athens in May. The project consists basically of an unusual walking tour of the port area, armed with a smartphone app and a map, with several stops selected based on the hidden (or at least not apparent right now) history of the area, unlocking a speculative oral history: At every stop, visitors listen to a story (it’s necessary to reach the spot physically to unlock the sound audio in the app) written by commissioned writers from different countries.
The story being told ‘might’ have happened there, and it’s written based on detail research of the history and possible connotations associated with the specific spot. Here we introduce the idea of a para-fiction: It’s both true and fictional. Starting with Ancient Greece, all the way to the current refugee crisis and the Asia Minor catastrophe in between, “Heterotopia” highlights the important role of this area as a space of transition, overturning the current European idea of migration from a state of exception, to an essential aspect of human history.
This “strange land”, is for Takayama an ‘heterotopia’ following from Foucault’s use of the term, as a space of otherness that is larger than the sum of its parts. The urban and economic history of modern Athens has been nothing but strange combination of randomness and neglect, so that the port with its privileged location stands far beyond the metropolitan heart of Athens (centered around the Acropolis), and is not necessarily part of the self-image of Athens today, but it reappears in this project as an epicenter of mobility and demographic change. In what follows, I will stay loyal to the spirit of the project, leaving the oral stories alone, for they need to be experienced in person (the app is still functional and it is possible to do the walking tour).
I will focus on a few spots in the project, attempting to unmask the presence of the past – classical and otherwise, and make it present. At a time of infinite powerlessness before our current condition, with the global erosion of the liberal democratic project, these places of ‘otherness’, at the borders of European capitals (and particularly for Athens, an alleged monument to the Western tradition), remind us of the porousness of history, and therefore, of the tragic but nonetheless pluralistic experiences that have shaped the birth of modern polities.
The arrival in Piraeus is a continuation of the fragile multiculturalism of Omonoia (something that truly stands out in a country like Greece, built along the lines of 19th century ethno-states and largely self-identifying as white, by association with the classical past of Europe), with wares being sold in many languages and crowds of tourists rushing to catch the ferries to the Greek islands. As we know from ancient writers, particularly Thucydides, Piraeus was developed in the 5th century BCE under the statesman Themistocles, who in 493 BCE initiated the works of a fort in Piraeus, and in 483 BCE, the Athenian fleet left their order port in Phaleron, and relocated to Piraeus, a move that would be decisive in the battle of Salamis.
Phaleron, the old harbor, now the district of Palaio Faliro, is also the site of fascinating history: One of the most important archaeological findings of recent years was the mass grave in Faliro Delta, furnishing valuable information—and many new questions—about a rather obscure period of Greek history, the 7th century BCE. The find was the subject of another Japanese artist’s work, when Hikaru Fujii presented his video/performance work “The Primary Fact”, once again at the Onassis Cultural Center’s Fast Forward in 2018, that I wrote about.
The archaeological site was revealed during the construction of a complex for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, now housing the national library and the national opera, highlighting the hybrid situation of Greece where these long-established shipping families such as Onassis and Niarchos act as a kind of para-state; not unlike the rule of the oligarchs, mentioned by Plato in the opening portion of his “Seventh Letter”. But returning to Piraeus, its story is long and complicated: Athens and Piraeus were connected through a pathway between the two walled cities (the Themistoclean Walls were completed in 471 BCE), but it declined after being destroyed by the Romans. What follows for Piraeus is a long dormant period during Byzantine and Ottoman rule, and later revival when Athens was designated the Greek capital under Bavarian Otto I.
To what degree was the revival of Piraeus part of the European antiquarianism regarding Greece? It would be difficult to answer. The current station building goes back to 1920s, a period of intense conflict in Greece with their loss in the war against the new Turkish republic, along the way forfeiting claim to the historical Greek Smyrna, and receiving thousands of Greek refugees from the Asia Minor, reluctantly welcomed into a country still very poor and largely undeveloped. It was from Piraeus that Greek migrants left to pursue the American dream, and it was also from there that the Nazis occupied Greece.
Different generations of migrants have settled in the area temporarily before moving on (during the research for Heterotopia, Takayama and his team also spoke with refugees from Syria in the refugee camp of the Piraeus port), but postclassical history seems to capture little of the imagination in Greek historiography, where the only path to connect a grandiose classical past with the birth of the modern republic, is the silencing of everything else. In this way, Greeks both reconnect with the European tradition and lay claim to their ‘whiteness’ (opposed to the people of the former multicultural Near East), and replace complexity with a traditional nation state.