All posts by George Kokkos

Born in Athens, George studied Ancient History and Archaeology in Britain and in Greece. A history buff that specialises in the development of the Athenian Democracy.

Stoa of Attalos

The Stoa of Attalos is the only example of a fully restored ancient shopping arcade. It was built by and named after Attalos II, King of Pergamon, as a gift to the city that gave him his higher education.

It’s an impressive two-storey building, 116 m x 19.4 m (381 ft x 63 ft 8 in), with a Doric colonnade on the ground floor, and an Ionic colonnade on the upper floor. There were 21 shops at the back of both floors. Today it houses the museum of the Ancient Agora, and part of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Stoas were really important for the ancient Greeks and the Romans as it was there that they used to meet, walk, shop and do business. It was completely destroyed in 267 AD by a savage tribe, the Herulians but in the 1950s, thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation, the Stoa of Attalos, using the original materials found on site, was fully reconstructed on the original foundations!

This reconstructed ancient building is also of great significance for modern European history as on 16 April 2003 the ceremony of the signing of the 2003 Treaty of Accession of ten new countries to the European Union was conducted there.

STOA OF ATTALOSs2

Influencing the vote

Our democracies today are representative. We elect politicians, politicians govern us. In Ancient Athens, you were ruling yourself.

Participation was seen as a fundamental element of Democracy. Athenians that behaved as ‘private citizens’ were seen through a negative eye and actually the Greek word for private citizen is “idiotes”, which is where the word ‘idiot’ comes from!

Assembly

 

Plato wrote that ‘one of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.’

It was a direct, in-your-face democracy.

So, what affected the vote of a citizen, really mattered…

vote influence

The Nine Muses

Have you ever wondered where does the word ‘museum’ come from? No? Ok… I’ll tell you anyway: It’s connected with the Muses! The Nine Muses were deities who ruled over the arts and sciences and gave humans the necessary inspiration for creation.

According to Hesiod, Zeus slept with the young and beautiful Mnemosyne. Mnemosyne (the Greek word for ‘memory’) held a special importance in ancient times, when there were still no written records and manuscripts, so poets had to carry their work in their memory.

The offspring of the love affair between Zeus and Mnemosyne? The Nine Muses. God Apollo took them under his protection and when the Muses grew up they showed their tendency to the Arts. An epithet of Apollo was ‘Mousagetes’, meaning ‘leading the Muses’ and those young deities soon decided to dedicate their lives to the Arts:

1. Calliope : Epic poetry
2. Clio : History
3. Euterpe : Lyric poetry and flutes
4. Erato : Love poems
5. Melpomene : Tragedy
6. Polyhymnia : Sacred hymns
7. Terpsichore : Dance
8. Thalia : Comedy and pastoral poetry
9. Urania : Astronomy

Ancient writers, as early as Homer, appeal to the Muses at the beginning of their work. Homer appeals to the Muses both in the Iliad and Odyssey and until today, the Muses are symbols of inspiration and artistic creation. In the Ancient Graeco-Roman world, authors, statesmen, artists, philosophers they all believed they were successful because one or more of the nine Muses were guiding them.

Every learning institute with respect for itself had an altar to honor the Muses. The Ptolemies in Egypt dedicated the famous Library of Alexandria to the Muses. The word “museum” literally means a shrine dedicated to the Muses and you must have guessed by now the origins of the word “music”, too.
In modern times we tend to call someone who inspires an artist “a muse”!

9 Muses
The famous ‘Dance of Apollo and the Muses’ by the Italian architect and painter, Baldassare Tommaso Peruzzi.

What makes us moral? (The Euthyphro Dilemma)

In a lesser known book of Plato, we find Socrates in the Athenian Agora coming across Euthypro – a soothsayer he knew well – and the two men engage in a short conversation just outside the Royal Stoa. After sharing their news, the two men engage in an argument about morality.

Their conversation ended abruptly after Euthyphro felt a bit cornered and found an excuse to leave Socrates with the promise to finish their discussion some other time. Well… Can you blame him? It’s not just that Socrates wouldn’t let go easily… It’s also that the challenge Euthyphro was facing was a difficult one and remains so up until today.

Socrates asks Euthyphro whether something is moral because God commands it, or does God command it because it is moral? This simple question of Socrates has exercised tremendous influence in the history and study of morality.

The Royal Stoa was where the King Archon had his office. He was the official responsible (among others) for religious matters

The Euthyphro dilemma is technically an argument against the divine command theory, aimed at disproving God’s existence by raising an issue of morality. This isn’t of course explicitly declared by Socrates but I’m sure people like Epicurus would smile and nod when reading this part of the book. On the other hand, some religious people reject it as a ‘false dichotomy’ (google that) but this is actually up until today a persisting problem which also applies to meta-ethics.

Relax… We’re not going to embark on this now. I’m going to focus on an interesting detail that is somewhat irrelevant: the place that this conversation took place. Would you believe that we can pinpoint today the spot that Socrates was hanging out when he met Euthyphro?

Remains of the Royal Stoa today, outlined with red

 

Let’s see how the dialogue starts…


Euthyphro: Why have you left the Lyceum, Socrates? and what are you doing in the Royal Stoa? Surely you cannot be concerned in a suit before the King Archon, like myself?

Socrates: Not in a suit, Euthyphro; impeachment is the word which the Athenians use.

Euthyphro: What! I suppose that someone has been prosecuting you, for I cannot believe that you are the prosecutor of another.

Socrates: Certainly not.

Euthyphro: Then someone else has been prosecuting you?

Socrates: Yes.

Euthyphro: And who is he?

Socrates: A young man who is little known, Euthyphro; and I hardly know him: his name is Meletus, and he is of the deme of Pitthis. Perhaps you may remember his appearance; he has a beak, and long straight hair, and a beard which is ill grown.

Euthyphro: No, I do not remember him, Socrates. But what is the charge which he brings against you?

……………..

The conversation goes on. So, as we read, this dialogue takes place just outside the ‘Royal Stoa’ (Basileios Stoa). Guess what. -This stoa was excavated by American archaeologists and the traces of the building are there today! The first steps of the stoa have been unearthed.

Few passers-by today notice that quiet corner next to the busy Adrianou street but -unknowingly- countless people have had their drinks next to those same steps that Socrates was sitting, waiting for his turn outside the Royal Stoa.

The Flight of Icarus

Stories told in Greek Mythology are just that: stories. They’re not parables. You can read it or hear it and then you draw your own conclusions. Maybe even change your mind later.  You may conclude that the moral of a myth applies well to your own concerns but this may not be the case for someone else. The reader / listener is never presented with a ‘moral lesson’ at the end. The story ends. Period. You understand and see the myth through your own eyes.

The story of Daedalus and Icarus is still super-famous because they were the first humans that managed to fly! Not by using magic or through the grace of God. They did it through their human ingenuity.

Pre-WW2 stamp issued to fund the Greek Air Force

Icarus is considered to be even more famous than his father today, even though it was Icarus that perished. This seems a bit odd… Well, people since the ancient times, interpreted Icarus’ death as caused entirely by his own hubris.

For most people the moral of this story can be summarized in just 3 words:

Obey the rules.

That’s it. Simple. If you don’t, this will lead to your demise.

The vast majority of people from Plutarch to the latest YouTube creator believe that the story of Icarus teaches us one or all of the following:

  • Listen to your parents or you will fail
  • Respect the Gods or you will be punished
  • Restrain yourself or you will perish
  • Hear the warnings or you will die

At first glance, this meaning seems to make sense.

Some others believe that’s just the surface of the myth.

Delving deeper, I see Icarus as a symbol for people of action… Adventurers dare,  they impulsively rush into the unknown. They go further and higher where everybody else thinks is foolish to do so. That is the spirit of great explorers.

Imagine if James Cook said… “Nah… I’d rather not do this. Sailing into the unknown is not such a good idea.” It wasn’t. But he sailed anyway! Roald Amundsen could have said “On second thoughts the Antarctic is way too cold. Humans can’t live there anyway, so screw this… I’m stayin’ home” Well guess what: he didn’t.

It’s this characteristic that only a tiny percentage of the population possesses. Not to heed warnings of danger and to follow temptation, even if you know that you may perish. To chase dreams and achieve the impossible. Yes, we can learn by the mistake of Icarus and at the same time be inspired by his daring legendary flight.

Athens’ Royal Gardens

Did you know that most ornamental plants of the National Gardens come from Genova, Italy?

King Ludwig I of Bavaria
King Ludwig I of Bavaria

When King Ludwig of Bavaria came to Athens to visit his son (King Otto), he was surprised by the complete lack of green areas in the little town of Athens!
Queen Amalia, consort of King Otto, worked tirelessly to lay out and complete the Royal Gardens. With the help of the great Bavarian architect Friedrich von Gartner, the gardens start to take shape. The aim was to find plants that could flourish on the ancient, relatively dry soil of Attica.

Friedrich von Gaertner
Friedrich von Gaertner

In autumn 1839, the Greek sail ship ‘Phoenix’ sailed from the port of Genova, heading straight to the port of Peiraeus. The ship carried 15,000 ornamental plants!Royal Gardens palm

Royal Gardens flowers Thousands of flowers, trees and seedlings from Genovese gardens were brought to Athens and the Bavarian gardener Schmarat, with the help of the Prussian gardener Friedrich Schmidt, gathered more local plants and flowers from the south part of Attica (Sounion). Their vision was to create the most beautiful gardens at the south of Europe.

Queen Amalia planted herself seeds of palm trees that in 1842 she brought from the United States (a genus of palms native to the southwestern US). Most of them still stand tall today!

Cicero’s end: why did he just ‘let go’?

HOW EMOTIONS CAN DECIDE THE COURSE OF HISTORICAL EVENTS

The inglorious end of Cicero had always been a stain in the pages of Roman political history. He met his end out in the Italian countryside (near modern-day Gaeta), slaughtered by Roman sword.  Marc Antony saw the return of the proscription as an opportunity to eliminate his most powerful enemy. In the end, he had Cicero’s hands cut off and nailed on the rostra (the speakers’ platform) at the Forum. A symbolic but utterly barbaric act. Such was the end of the last honest defender of the Roman Republic and her democratic principles.

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marcus Antonius
Marcus Antonius

Escape or surrender?

The tragic events of that winter of 43 BC have been discussed quite thoroughly over the centuries. But there’s one detail that is overlooked:

-Oddly enough, most scholars ignore the fact that Cicero had the option to escape but in the end he didn’t. He could actually have saved himself by resisting arrest. Still, it was his decision to stay, even though he was in the act of fleeing! He offered himself to be put to death. -Why?

This appears to have been a spur-of-the-moment decision… Cicero knew that Antony was coming after him and he planned his escape beforehand. So it’s easy to understand that his aim was to continue his political struggle, defending the Republic.

Arch of Septimus Severus
Part of the Roman Forum. On the right of the Arch of Septimus Severus, is where the Rostra was located.

Sadness and grief

What made him change his mind and decided to give up after he was tracked? The most obvious answer is that he felt (for different reasons) so disappointed that he decided to give up. His bad psychological state can only be explained if we take into account an -otherwise neglected detail of Roman history of the period: the unexpected death of Cicero’s daughter, Tullia. Just a year earlier, in the winter of 47–46 B.C.E. he went through a painful divorce with his wife, Terentia. He re-married but his new wife was pathologically jealous of Tullia, a reality that saddened Cicero even more. The loss of his daughter in the following summer, was an event too tragic for him to cope with.

He was so grief-stricken that he couldn’t find comfort in anything. His two most favorite things in the world- books and friends- failed to provide him with any consolation. He tried very hard. His friends were worried. They tried to help as best as they could. Cicero threw himself into a sea of philosophy and books. Yet, nothing could ease the pain in his heart. His childhood friend, Titus Pomponius Atticus, tried to comfort him the best he could by inviting Cicero to his estate that included a huge library. All was in vain. Cicero declared, “my sorrow defeats all consolation”.

Cicero - Palace of Justice, Rome
Cicero – Palace of Justice, Rome

A moment’s decision?

The loss of his only daughter, his dear Tulliola as he liked to call her, made him care less and less about all the other things that he was passionate in the past. It’s easy to understand why he decided to finally give up. His whole perception of life had changed. For him, it made no sense to resist being arrested and to survive. ‘What’s the point?’ he must have asked himself when Antony’s executioner found him. His life had little purpose now, that’s why he ordered his servants not to resist and he let himself to be put to death.

His life had recently lost all meaning. How do we know? Cicero himself tells us in one simple phrase. He wrote to Atticus: “I have lost the one thing that bound me to life”.

Maybe this explains everything.

G. Kokkos