20 October 2021

Only two Centuries of Greece?

Greece celebrates this year the bicentenary of her recovery of independance. I wish her well. So much in my life  ... since the age of twelve ... has been taken up with that scintillating civilisation. 

But every time I see Greece 'iconically' represented by pictures of the Athenian Acropolis, I groan. Or wince.

One very obvious reason for this is that Athens is not Greece. Classical Hellas was divided between very many poleis ... city-states ... independent and, very frequently, murderously at war with each other. The Acropolis in Athens is, quite simply, not some symbol of the majesty of Hellas; but an assertion of the polis of Athens.

But there is more to matters than that.

It was not until the Age of Lord Byron that the Greeks were taught by post-Christian Western European intellectuals that their glory, and the marker and symbol of their identity, ought to be found in pre-Christian Antiquity, or rather in the idiosyncratic reconstruction of Classical Greece favoured by the 'Enlightenment'. From the Advent of Christianity down to the Ottoman invasion, Hellenic identity had, on the contrary, been identical with Byzantine Christianity (that admirable civilisation which renamed Aphrodisias Stauroupolis and converted thousands of temples into churches). Until the Turks made the Parthenon a mosque and then an arsenal, it had for many centuries (more centuries than it served the pagan cults of glaukopis Athene and Mahomet) been a Church dedicated to the true Queen of Heaven, the Virgin Theotokos. Much of its statuary was defaced by the Christian Greeks themselves because of its pagan nature, especially at the East end, where a liturgical apse needed to be constructed. I would willingly contribute to a fund to restore the Parthenon so that it could again be used for the Divine Liturgy of S John Chrysostom.

But that would probably be pointless. There would be no congregation to worship there. The Acropolis Hill, until it was deliberately stripped bare, was a Levantine maze of little streets and alleys; of buildings Frankish and Ottoman and Greek; of homes and bazaars and churches. The 'iconic' scene so often now thrust before us, of a lonely arid rock, scraped nearly bare, with some damaged stonework atop, like an open mouth upon which some manic dentist has declared nuclear war,  is a ghastly symbol of a culture which clutches at a colourless 'Antiquity' of ruins, and despises the human, not to mention the true Divine which was the glory of Hellenism when it was faithful to Christ and His Mother. 

The present scene is 'iconic' only of the 'Enlightenment' preference for nostalgic memories of a long-lost pagan religious culture and a matching contempt for Christendom. This is the same preference, indeed, as was demonstrated in that infamous draft European Constitution which did a very Olympic long-jump from Ancient Greece and Rome to the 'Enlightenment', consigning the intervening centuries of Christendom to contemptuous oblivion. 

In the 1890s, the then Greek Director of Antiquities showed himself to have been brainwashed by exactly this anti-Christian spirit: he proudly proclaimed that the Acropolis had finally been 'cleansed' of all 'barbaric' encroachments. Nearly two millennia of Greek History and culture written off as 'barbarism'! What a Greek! Who needs Turks when you've got Greeks like that!

I don't think I would want to visit the Parthenon today, even for free, even if it were entirely cleared of the heaving masses of tourists simply for my own solitary pleasure and convenience.

Dear Readers: just for one pointless but magical moment, imagine what it would have been like to pant uphill and then to turn a corner in some narrow and grubby little street and, suddenly, to see a partial view of the Parthenon, majestical, rearing up in front of you; and to hear, from inside, the sound of a great-chested deacon intoning the ektene.


Atticus said...

For a thousand long years, a basilica
Perched atop the Acropolis hillock-a;
Both the pagan and moor
Bowed down there for far fewer –
To think otherwise makes one a pillock-a.

Sue Sims said...

Your analysis is equally applicable to Rome and Latin. Learning Latin at school - many years ago now - I was taught (though rarely explicitly) that the language and its literature reached its apogee in - roughly - the 1st century BC, with Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Livy (we had to do a lot of Livy) and so on. After that, the language started deteriorating: by the 3rd century AD, there was absolutely nothing worth reading, and the language itself was becoming corrupt. Once in a long while, 'church Latin' might be mentioned: the teacher would use the intonation of one referring to rotten fish.

I realised many years later that this attitude (which hasn't disappeared by any means) is rather like deciding that the English language and its literature reached its peak around 900 AD, so that Beowulf, The Dream of the Rood and The Battle of Maldon are the touchstones against which all later literature must be measured and found wanting; or possibly in the hundred years between 1570 and 1670, with all literature and language development after that being mere vulgarisation.

However, I have to disagree with you slightly (is this a first?). In this country at least, I don't think we can simply blame the Enlightenment: that attitude to Latin can be faintly detected during the Renaissance. While the term mediaeval, with its patronising implication that the centuries between the fall of Rome and the wonders of modernity Just Don't Count, doesn't appear till the early 19th century, medium aevum is first recorded in 1604 and that dismissive attitude continued, possibly exacerbated by the Protestant assumption that anything Catholic was contemptible. The Enlightenment picked up that ball and ran with it.

frjustin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ioannis said...

Q. Quid est veritas?
A. Est vir qui adest

Sue Sims said...

Fr Hunwicke: since the original comment was made on what's now an old-ish thread, my reaction may be better off not being posted: I'll leave it up to you!

Fr Justin: I've read the piece you link to and my initial reaction - that Davis Carlton, the writer, while doubtless what journalists call 'a devout Catholic', rather bent over backwards to avoid pointing out that Christianity was, ahem, Jewish in origin - was confirmed in the comments, which are full of 'ethnically white' (their phrase) neopagans declaring Christianity to be a weak, effete, evil religion that burnt pagans who wouldn't convert. Someone calling him (or possibly her)self 'Odinia' then commented: "It looks are though Opperman* is about as Jewish a name as Cohen. You are racially Jewish, are you not David [sic]" This clearly offended Mr Carlton, who replied: "No. Opperman is a name of German Lutheran extraction. I am a Christian and I am morally and politically opposed to Judaism and Zionism." His quotation from Chesterton is also taken out of context, of course (the context being the entire essay in Heretics).

As far as I can see, the website is a nest of people who despise black people and detest Jews (though they also don't believe that Jews are Jews). Better to keep away from it entirely.

*I'm not sure why 'Odinia' is asking about the name Opperman, since it doesn't appear anywhere in the article or comments.

frjustin said...

Sue Sims: I am most grateful for your response, and agree entirely with your comments. If I had read any of the comments on the Davis Carlton link, I would never have posted it. I shall delete it forthwith!

Sue Sims said...

Fr Justin: Thank you for your gracious reaction. As a Catholic who was born and raised Jewish, I'm perhaps over-sensitive to that sort of website!