Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Ancient Ecclesia: What's Old is New Again.

Has Greek history come full circle?

Today while reading about the protests in Greece (in which demonstrators have been gathering outside Athens' parliment building to protest austerity measures meant to stave off Greek insolvency), I came across this:

Every night [in Syntagma Square], the "people's assembly" gathers and decides, by a show of hands, what will be discussed. A volunteer and rotating "coordinating committee" then gives anybody who wants to speak a slip of paper with a number on it. Speakers speak for two minutes in the order numbers are drawn. The assembled then vote, with results quickly put up on a website.

What's startling about these organized meetings in Syntagma Square is that this is almost exactly what the Athenians used to do 2,500 years ago. Back then the men of the city (no women, slaves or non-citizens were allowed) would gather every week in an open space to discuss anything that affected their polis. The rotating "coordinating commitee" of today was then known as the Boule, a group of 500 citizens who set the agenda for the public assembly. The gathering place for this assembly--then known as the Ecclesia--was held on the Pynx, a rocky outcrop below the Acropolis. As with the protestors in Athens today, anybody in the Ecclesia could speak their mind on any topic, though instead of being given a number they would be given a wreath known as the Speaker's Wreath. After the speeches were finished, each item on the agenda would be voted on by a show of hands and the results posted in some sort of public forum (or at least the results were heard about from people hanging about around the market place).

Have the protestors in Syntagma Square taken a page from their ancestor's political playbook? It sure looks like it, and the ancient Ecclesia is not the only thing that they've taken their cues from. According to the same article, a group known as the "300" is collecting signatures to hold a referendum on the 110 billion euro bailout that saved Greece from bankruptcy last year in exchange for austerity. The "300" of course are named after the legendary Spartans who held their own against the massive Persian army at the battle of Thermopylae.

Although it's hard to say where Greece will go in the future, it's clear that modern Greeks are being influenced by their ancient past. I just hope that whatever happens in Greece, the result is a peaceful resolution that will be fair to everyone.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Themistocles & Aeschylus

Did Themistocles (mastermind of the Ancient Athenian navy) and Aeschylus (playwright extraordinaire) know each other? The answer is a probable...yes!

Aeschylus was born around 525 BCE, while Themistocles was born between 525 and 520 BCE. They both fought at Marathon, both fought at Salamis (in fact Themistocles was the architect of this famous battle) and both achieved ever-lasting fame in their lifetimes. But is there any evidence that they knew each other personally? And if so, were they friends?

The odds of them having crossed paths is more than likely considering they were in the same battles and probably ran with similar crowds. Yet there's scance evidence of direct contact...except for a small (if suspiciously belated) clue. According to the 21 Letters of Themistocles, one of his friends was named Aeschylus! Here is the letter as translated by Patricia A. Rosenmeyer:

To Aeschylus

After leaving Athens and arriving in Delphi, I decided that, if the Athenians allowed it, I would settle down to live there. On the way I bumped into some friends of mine from Argos: Nicias and Meleager, as well as Eucrates, who had recently spent time in Athens. They stood around asking me questions, and when they learned about my ostracism, they immediately grew angry and blamed the Athenians in particular. When they realized I was planning on settling in Delphi, they stopped accusing the Athenians and began reporoaching me, saying they would be insulted if I didn't accept them as suitable people to share my bad luck. They also pointed out that my father Neocles had lived for a long time in Argos, and that I shouldn't dishonor the memory of his love for Argos and his Argive friends. They also went so far as to praise the Athenians for making me pay an approriate penalty. Finally they urged me to honor them with more than just an accidental encounter, and not to insult the good luck of our meeting up. Then again they pointed to the example of Neocles, saying how appropriate it would be for me to live in the same city and home as my father once had. So, Aeschylus, they convinced me and took me to Argos. Now that I've stopped fleeing and landed in Argos, I'm suffering greatly because I won't agree to rule the Argives. They want to force me to rule, and claim that I'm acting unjustly towards them if I don't assume power. But I'm perfectly happy not being considered to be a great man, and not just because I've already been hurt, by that reputation, but also because it's enough for me to have benefited from those things when I had to.

It is also supposed by some that Aeschylus' The Persians and its mention of Salamis was the playwright's way of reminding the Athenians that they owened Themistocles a debt. (Though according to some sources, Themistocles already financed a play called The Phoenissae,which also happens to celebrate the Battle of Salamis and in fact predates The Persians. )

In any case, Aeschylus and Themistocles were certainly aware of each other, and the playwright is going to be a part of my novel for sure!