One Day 'Philosophy Tour' in Athens
Walking together around the Agora, the Acropolis, and the ancient theatre of Dionysus
You might have just one day (or half a day) free in Athens, and feel like exploring the ancient city a little further in a ‘philosophical’ manner.
Therefore, we present to you a special and unique one-day tour in Athens under the guidance of Prof. Effimia Karakantza. This is how she would present the tour herself :
The Ancient Agora
“… Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actually ability which the man possesses…” Pericles speaking in Thucydides Histories II.37.
There is one very good reason why you should visit the ancient Agora. This is where the heart of the political life of ancient Athens beat; important buildings that housed the city-state’s administration still stand (albeit in ruins). The Bouleuterion (where the 500 members of the Council gathered), the Prytaneion (meeting place of the 50 members of the phyle that held power for 1/10th of the year in strict rotation), the Law Courts (all citizens could serve as members of the courts and were selected by lot on the very day of the trial), the ruins of the State Prison whose most famous prisoner was (alas!) Socrates. To my mind, however, one very modest ‘ruin’ needs to be thoroughly explored, and this is the Pedestal of the Monument of the Ten Eponymous Heroes of the ten Athenian tribes, the testament to the extensive Cleistheneian reforms which underpinned Athen’s radical and participatory democratic system.
We will sit under a tree and I will explain to you the transition from Aristocracy (via Tyranny) to Democracy focusing on the very sophisticated and revolutionary reforms of the (aristocrat) Cleisthenes at the end of the 6th c. BCE (508 BCE) following the Athenian Revolution. A ‘hot’ issue of our times is whether there are any lessons to be learnt from the Athenian political system, which are likely to be applicable to modern democracies.
Aesthetics, Religious and Civic Life
“… Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft…” Pericles speaking in Thucydides Histories II.40.
Everybody knows about the Acropolis of Athens and the architectural and sculptural masterpieces, which can be seen in situ and in the Acropolis Museum, right opposite the ‘Sacred Rock’. And indeed it is a sheer delight just strolling around the monuments. However, we can appreciate better what we see, if we understand the religious, mythical, and civic undercurrents shaping the ideology, culture and ethos of the time. We should bear in mind that religious beliefs and rituals were not dissociated from civic life; on the contrary, participation in great religious celebrations organized and funded by the state and wealthy Athenians (a direct tax system on the rich for the benefit of the entire polis) was an essential element in the participants’ civic identity.
While admiring the aesthetics of the place, we shall be talking about the intermingling of the religious with the civic in the long impressive procession of the Great Panathenaia, the great four yearly festival celebrating the patron goddess Athena. The lively procession of the citizens of Athens (including women, maiden, children and slaves) carrying the newly woven peplos for their beloved goddess, along with animals for a lavish sacrifice, is depicted on the beautiful frieze now in the British and the Acropolis Museums. The idea of civic identity is also embedded in the narrative foundation myths of Athens, which are part of the sculpted decoration of the temples. What it is to be an Athenian, that is what is the new perception of ‘Athens’ and ‘Athenian’ is tellingly demonstrated in the Acropolis. Pericles’ Funeral Oration preserved in Thucydides bears (textual) witness to these new abstract concepts (the source of the extracts in this text).
The Theater of Dionysus
“When our work is over, we are in a position to enjoy all kinds of recreation for our spirits.” Pericles speaking in Thucydides Histories II.38.
Whosoever has seen Oedipus Rex, or Antigone, or Medea, or the Oresteia in a modern production anywhere in the world will feel that much more profoundly moved when you step into the actual theater where those plays were originally performed. Masked and costumed male actors gave highly stylized performances of the exquisite plays that still shape the way modern people think of themselves. Even if you have not seen Oedipus Rex, you know about the Oedipus complex; you may not have seen Antigone, but you instinctively think about her when you hear of an unjust political decision and the resistance it arouses. Medea, Clytemnestra, and Agamemnon – they were all engaged in conflicts that spilt the blood of kith and kin; Medea killed her children to avenge herself on an unfaithful husband; Clytemnestra killed her husband for sacrificing their daughter for the sake of the war against Troy. The protagonists thought on what existence meant, faced dilemmas, and made momentous decisions that ever since have been called ‘tragic.’
Sitting in the ancient stones of the theater I can explain how the dramatic genre originated, was transformed and evolved so as to have the dramatic performances of the 5th c. BCE. We shall also be talking about the Great Dionysia, the yearly festival of the dramatic contests, the plays, the actors, the sponsors, the ideology, the prizes. Perhaps, we can read a small extract from a play … Like the following:
Antigone to Creon (Antigone by Sophocles, lines 450- 468)
It was not God’s proclamation. That final justice
That rules the world below makes no such laws.
Your edict, King, was strong,
But all your strength is weakness itself against
The immortal unrecorded laws of God.
They are not merely now: they were, and shall be,
Operative for ever, beyond man utterly.
I knew I must die, even without your decree:
I am only mortal. And if I must die
Now, before it is my time to die,
Surely this is no hardship: can anyone
Living, as I live, with evil all about me,
Think death less than a friend? This death of mine
Is of no importance; but if had left my brother
Lying in death unburied, I should have suffered.
Now I do not.
(transl. by Dudley Fitts & Robert Fitzgerald, The Oedipus Cycle. An English Version, Mariner Books, Boston / New York, 1977 )
Our lecturer, Efimia D. Karakantza is a Tenured Assistant Professor of Ancient Greek Literature at the University of Patras, Greece, where she has taught since 2007. Her degrees are from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (BA in Classics 1986) and Reading University (PhD in Classics 1993). She is a Fellow in Ancient Greek Literature of the Center for Hellenic Studies, University of Harvard, for which she directs the Kyklos Project.
Jocasta Classical Reception, Greece
Antigone goes to School