Ancient wonders of Greece explored by Perse classics students
10 Mar 2020
Perse classics students enjoyed a half-term trip to Greece, visiting many ancient wonders of historical interest.
They began their trip on the Peloponnese coast at Tolon and visited the Corinth Canal and the ancient sites of Epidauros and Mycenae. The students enjoyed a game of bulldog in the Nemea stadium and saw the remains of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. The final port of call was Athens, where they visited the Acropolis and the National Archaeological Museum.
Nicholas Romanos (Lower Sixth) summed up his thoughts on visiting Athens through an imagined dialogue between the classical philosopher Socrates and an ancient Athenian below.
An Encomium of Athens
Scene – The Areopagus
Ath: Is not the view from here splendid, O Socrates? Before us stands our Acropolis, the sanctuary of bright-eyed Athena, the sacred olive, Phidias’ finest sculpture; surely whoever looks out from here cannot help but admire the glory of Athens?
Soc: Be careful of your words, my friend. Even Pericles is mortal and soon these stones will stand no more.
Ath: Must we, then ‘look to the end of all things’? Is ‘none truly happy among the living’?
Soc: That, you must tell me. If Solon said so then quite possibly it is right, for Solon is said to be a wise man.
Ath: But surely you can agree that the glory of a city lives on in its remains?
Soc: But you must tell me what you mean by ‘glory’, for I know only a vague definition of the word. Do you not agree that we must first understand what we mean if we want to proceed?
Soc: Then what do you mean by the word?
Ath: Fame amongst men, of course.
Soc: On account of their deeds?
Ath: Could it be any different?
Soc: But do you mean to say that glory is fame among men on account of any deed, or only honourable ones? To give an example, would you say that the fame of Oedipus is glorious?
Soc: How about that of Paris, an adulterer?
Ath: Just as little as Oedipus.
Soc: Then we are agreed, I think, that glory is only fame on account of honourable deeds?
Ath: So it would seem.
Soc: So, if we are to call the ruins of the Acropolis (since that will likely be the state of all our buildings in the many years to come) truly a marker of the glory of Athens, we must first confirm that they will be a symbol of fame among men, on account of the honourable deeds of the city.
Ath: That does follow from what we have said.
Soc: So tell me, then, how the Acropolis came to be built. Was it on account of honourable deeds of the city of Athens?
Ath: Of course.
Soc: And what were they?
Ath: They are almost innumerable, wise Socrates. By Athenian hoplites the Persians were defeated on the plain of Marathon in the archonship of Phaenippus. With Athenian ships the Persians were defeated ten years later in the straits of Salamis. And our cherished rule of the people could have emerged in no other city. We Athenians are known for our fairness and obedience to the law – in such a way our city has prospered and each has been rewarded according to his merit. Even the lowly-born Themistocles could rise to fame and honour; even the son of a stonemason could become a revered figure. And also in our leisure we are unsurpassed. There are no poets in all of Hellas praised liked those of Athens. After all, who could be more tragic than Aeschylus and Sophocles? And who more ingenious than Euripides or witty than Aristophanes? (There is a man who can judge even a sophist to a minutely accurate decree.) And in all physical contests we excel in reputation throughout the Mediterranean. Even, I say, even our meanest and most common drinking cups and bowls will be admired in millennia to come.
Soc: What a strange idea you have of Athens! I find much of what you have said difficult to believe. And besides, only a fool would be so base and obsessed with material goods as to praise our Attic vases. Wise men concern themselves not with this realm of material things, but with the eternal soul, and the pursuit of knowledge. For it is only through knowledge that a man is virtuous, and only through virtue that he is happy. But we were talking of honourable deeds. It seems to me that the deeds that our Acropolis proclaims are not honourable in the slightest.
Ath: But surely, since all gods are perfect in virtue, a sanctuary must be honourable?
Soc: On the contrary. Here is your mistake: the sanctuary is, of course, honourable for the god (since, as you say, gods can only be honourable), by virtue of its result; but the sanctuary is only honourable for the men who built it by virtue of its cause. So how, we must ask, was your revered temple of Athena Parthenos built?
Ath: By masons, of course.
Soc: And were they paid?
Soc: So, where did the money come from?
Ath: From the tribute of our allies, of course.
Soc: Correct me if I am mistaken, but I thought that the alliance with our allies was to defend them against the Persians.
Ath: So it was.
Soc: And that they were all to contribute men or funds to that common cause.
Ath: Quite so.
Soc: So the money they contributed for defence against the Persians was used in a building, which – as you have yourself admitted – intended to proclaim the ‘glory of Athens’. (For, as we have said, since it was constructed by men and then dedicated to the god, the origin of the construction decides whether it is honourable to men, and its use honourable to the god.)
Ath: I fear I must agree.
Soc: To come at it from another direction, if you gave money to me with the understanding that I would use it to buy you a chariot, and I instead bought myself a krater of wine, would we not call that theft?
Ath: I expect we would.
Soc: It must be the same here, as the money was used for a purpose other than that originally expressed. And so, if based on theft, it must be dishonourable to men.
Ath: Socrates, you overwhelm me. I did not mean that at all, but somehow you have forced me into a position where I can only agree.
Soc: It is not I, who have forced you, my friend, but reason. Socrates is easy to refute. But if their sanctuary was built by dishonourable means, it is reasonable to expect that even the gods would be dissatisfied with it! And if the deeds were not honourable, the fame on their account can hardly be called glorious. That we have already agreed.
Ath: But surely what remains of these stones when we are dead and gone must impart something to those who come to see them.
Soc: This will be a place not easily ignored, I grant you that. And whether our city was honourable or dishonourable, there have been some noble few, who, striving for wisdom and beauty, could say to the spirits that judge our souls, ‘Grant me safe passage to the Elysian Fields, for I have lived a life of knowledge and virtue’. Such are the happiest of men, and if Athens is remembered in many years to come, it must surely be on their account.
Ath: If what you say is right, Socrates, these men shall do more for the glory of Athens than all our statesmen and marbles combined! In fact, they deserve free meals for the rest of their life, they have been such great benefactors to the state.
Soc: Would you take the same line even if there had been no greater nuisance to the Athenians than those same individuals?
Ath: Not only that, but I would swear it by this sacred Rock of Ares, and the equitable courts of our ancestors.
Socrates is silent for a while.
Soc: I shall let you into a secret, my Athenian friend. There is no place I would chose to die other than Athens. However foolish the citizens, however arrogant the politicians, however much I be spurned, Socrates could have lived nowhere but here. And as you sacrifice a cock to Asclepius, tell the god these words: ‘A small cave and a flask of hemlock will be enough for Socrates; Socrates will die in peace, not at all fearing death, if only he die in Athens.’