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Saturday, April 09, 2005

BEING THERE

"O bright and violet-crowned and famed in song,
bulwark of Greece, famous Athens, divine city!" Pindar, 518-438 B.C. Fragment 76

I spent all of yesterday in the Agora of ancient Athens. Not in person, though I've strolled those age-old footpaths many times. I was there in my mind, time-travelling back to 319 BC

Inside the marble-pillared Bouleuterion, below the steep rock cliffs of the Acropolis, the Archon had called an assembly of the Senate. The elected senators, all dressed in their white robes of office had come to petition the Governor on behalf of the citizens.

Phokion, governor of the City, was a respected general and there was a burst of applause as the tall, lean man rose to take his place on the speaker's platform. He was loved for his terse, severe demeanour, an honourable man and a wise administrator who made concessions to please the people. His policies were always aimed at preserving a state of peace.

I will never forget the first time I set foot in the Agora. It was on my first trip to Athens in 1978. I had arrived by train from the north during the previous night, and went to a small hotel, the Tempi on Aeolou St. near Hadrian's Library. I had no idea of my surroundings. So early in the morning I stepped out on the street and said "Feet, take me where you want me to be." I walked down Aeolou, turned the corner past the ruins of the Roman agora, and kept walking toward Monistiraki. A left-hand turn, and there I was in the ancient Agora!

I remember suddenly looking around and it was as if I could see everything exactly as it had been in the past, one of those rare deja vu moments of having been there before. The feeling was so strong that I burst into tears. As I explored the pathways, the stoas, the ruined temples and public buildings of old, and walked on the smooth big stones of the Panatheanic Way, I was transported back in time. I've been to the Agora many, many times since then and I always get that same feeling of being in a familiar place, 'feeling' the spirits of the people of ancient Athens, imagining the hustle and bustle of the public life back in those times.

There isn't much left of the Bouleuterion, only the foundation stones, but still I can visualize what it must have been like that day Phokion addressed the Senate.

Even though the Council Hall was cold on this damp spring morning, as usual Phokion wore no cloak and stood barefooted on the stone platform to address them. He looked drab as a beggar in his well-darned grey homespun tunic.

"Athenians, Friends, we have gathered here because some of you are seeking to close the Macedonian's garrison at Munychia. I can not agree to this."

There was a rumble of voices and many of the senators exchanged looks of scandal and dismay. He held up his hand to silence them. "I know you have all felt humiliated by the presence of this garrison and demand it be disbanded. In the first place, it was established by Antipater when political agitators, led by Demosthenes, instigated an insurrection after Alexander's death. I know you see it as a threat to your civil liberties. But I have found the Macedonians no threat to our freedom. Their garrison has not harmed us in any way. Menyllus, the garrison commander, is a fair-minded man and a friend. We Athenians must learn to tolerate outsiders and live with these changes in power. In fact, there is no other choice."

The Senate House eruped in loud jeers as the senators shouted to be heard and raised their fists demanding Athenian justice.

"We are tired of bowing ot Macedonian oppression. We want freedom for our city!"

(It has occured to me that there is some similarity in the Athenian's plea to certain situations in today's world.)

I leave the Council House and make my way through the bustling avenue where Phokion faced a throng of protesters.

Always self-assured and dignified, he was never so afraid of his citizens that he retained an escort of armed guards. As usual, people stepped aside to let him pass, though he hard clearly their angry complaints and today, there was an absence of applause.

"They can try to make me act against my wishes," he said curtly to Demades. "But they shall never make me speak against my own judgements. They are lucky to have a general like me -- one who knows them so well. Otherwise, they would have been ruined long ago."

He is walking with his friend Demades, leader of the propertied Democrats who had risen to power by serving the interests of the Macedonian Regent, Antipater, but he was a politician who usually agreed with the people's demands.

The two men came out from the bustling streets of the agora and strolled through the quiet pine groves of the Hill of the Nymphs until they came to a cobbled roadway leading to a cluster of modest houses. There, in a dusty old olive grove, stood the house of Phokion, not a splendid villa like those inhabited by the elite Athenian aristocracy, but a simple, unpretentious dwelling made of stone and mud-bricks, the walls decorated with plates of bronze bearing inscriptions of honours bestowed and battles won.

Later, Demades goes to Macedonian to plead for removal of the garrison and he is brutally assassinated by Kassandros, the Regent's son.

Segue to the Agora six months later. Kassandros has replaced the garrison commander Menyllus, friend of Phokion, with his own man. There is civil unrest and rioting in Athens. The new Regent, Polyperchon, has sent a decree to Athens promising to return their democracy, allowing the poor landless exiles to return, but still refusing to disband the Macedonian garrison.

Phokion: "Our city has lived in peace and prosperity these past years since Philip and Alexander reigned. Alexander respected us for our intellectual achievements, and Antipater was a fair and just Regent, a friend to us. As much as we resisited and hated the Macedonian dominance, Antipater's placement of the garrison here has kept the city peaceful. I fear if we accept back these renegades and demagogues, Athens will fall once again into decline."

Later, as he is discussing peaceful terms with the new garrison commander, he says:
"Just a stone's throw away from here is where Socrates met his fate. I expect, if they have their way, I'll be served the same bitter cup."

These are familiar paths to me. I have visited the supposed site of Socrate's prison on many occasions. The site is not well marked, and lies just at the foot of the Hill of Nymphs. There are some fragments of floor mosaics, a few foundation stones, of the villa where the philosopher was said to have lived his final hours. Evidently excavations at the site revealed several small vials the size used to contain the deadly hemlock.

Phokion's statement is in fact a foreshadowing of his own doom at the hands of the dissatisfied citizens.

The Council dispersed. Phokion found himself walking beside Deryllus (one of the generals)
Neither men spoke, both were grim-faced. Finally Deryllus said, "Out f respect for you, Sir, I will stand by whatever decision you make."

The sky was brilliant blue, the sun dazzling. Phokion shaded his eyes and look back toward the Acropolis. "The gods will decide."
Deryllus raised a brow. "Is that a prophecy?"
"A feeling in my bones," Phokion said. "I know my countrymen."

It was a good day for writing yesterday and I became so entrenched in that other time that in the evening when I went out to a party at my friend the Babylonian's house, I was still very much back in the Agora. And so I will return again tomorrow, and for the coming week, while I dabble in Athenian/Macedonian politics and seal the fate of Phokion.

It's important to paint a picture with words of the settings in your story so that the reader can imagine being there. I'm fortunate to have such a deep connection with Greece, to have spent so much time living below the Acropolis, walking nearly every day in the Agora and venturing north to Macedonia to walk in Alexander's footsteps. I am grateful to have had these experiences and opportunities and thrilled that soon I will be back there, strolling those cobbled pathways where the citzens of Athens, senators and philosophers once walked.

"Fix your eyes on the greatness of Athens as you have it before you day by day, fall in love with her, and when you feel her great, remember that the greatness was won by men with courage, with knowlege of their duty, and with a sense of honour in action..." Thucydides 460-400 BC

8 comments:

Sam said...

Whaaaa!!!!! I want to go to Greece!
Sounds lovely. I remember how much I adored Rome. Even my husband loved it, and he insisted on going to visit the colliseum every day! lol. We'd be walking, and he'd say, "Isn't the colliseum over that way?" And we'd have to go back and take a look at it. He couldn't get over the coliseum. The rest was OK (to him) although he stood a long while on the edge of the circus Maximus and his eyes sort of got cloudy, as if he were imagining a chariot race around the spina, the circus intact, the banners waving, and the crowd cheering itself hoarse.
I liked the ancient parts of Rome best too - and didn't mind going back to the colliseum every day, lol.

Scott Oden said...

Great excerpts, Wynn! I guess we're going to have to lash you to your desk and make you write faster! We'll do it, too. Fans of ancient fiction are a rabid lot -- don't tease us this way ;)

Hopefully, I can visit Greece and Asia Minor soon. I'd love to see where I've been writing about.

Wynn Bexton said...

Part of what eggs me on are these kinds of positive responses I get to my blogs. I appreciate it when people read and comment. You know how we writers need those pats on the back! I'm pretty focused right now, Scott, and hopefully will manage to get through this next part without bogging down. Classes start this week, but my days are free, so I will continue trying to keep to my daily writing schedule. Thanks again for the encouragement!

Sam said...

Yes, pats on the back are nice. Most writers work ini solitary confinement and a little recognition for the time spent at the keyboard is welcome.
But it isn't Everything.
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The New York Times Best selling list is what I'm aiming for.

LOL!

Sam said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Wynn Bexton said...

Best Seller, YES! But meanwhile I am planning the huge celebration party for when I finish this sucker!

Suburban Hen said...

I hope that my travels to the UK reach me in the same way that Greece reaches you.

Wynn Bexton said...

Hi Bo-peep, I'm sure you will get the same thrill out of traveling Britain. I love it there myself and go there often (next trip May 24).