IN DOWNTOWN ATHENS, it sometimes appears as though the promontory of the Acropolis and its temples is actually Athens itself. All the other buildings bow below it, modern afterthoughts cloaked as a craggy basin. With this perspective, even Athenians don’t live in Athens. They live transfixed on a past that is so momentous, the cult of Athena is still more palpable than the future of Greece.
We ascend the foot-polished stones where ancient Greeks coalesced to form the first democracy. Pantelis – perhaps like many Athenians – is part-museum docent, always pointing up and down at things, never shunting his role as a historian of ancient Greece. He struggles to comprehend his own country every day: “I get a feeling when I am around these rocks; every time I am around these rocks I get a feeling. I, I cannot describe it.”
This is a feeling many of us understand, something only a handful of locations in the world can arouse. There is a difference between the spectacle-gazing and inquisitive historicism of Pantelis, and the loutish pride and citizen-sponsored terrorism of Golden Dawn. Standing where we were, one realizes something subtle, but something imbedded in the rock: Athenians have always had a powerful sense of self-awareness and importance. Indeed, Golden Dawn has a weapon that the Nazis did not: the most glorified nationalistic state in history of Western civilization.
Alongside democracy, Ancient Athens had a reputation for statism and militarized nationalism. Strong defenses and a country-over-kin ethnocentrism were virtues. Historian Clifford H. Moore wrote, “The Athenian nationalism of that time was never surpassed by any ancient state.” People forget this part of the city’s history. Hellenism brought race consciousness on an imperial scale. Golden Dawn’s propaganda cocktail is twice as potent when desperate Greeks – “happy” or not – have been inculcated with an admiration for all things Athenian, and after Alexander of Macedon, all things Greek.
There is a new myth pulsing down streets near Syntagma. That anarchy is better than austerity. Political Balkanization is stifling Golden Dawns dusky decent. Back on Pantelis’s terrace, we leave our ouzo to look for source of the chanting. I can’t understand a word of the Anarchists. The voices are bundled tightly together, paroxysm echoing in every direction. Something held it together – a rhyme? “So much history in a small place that it produces all these stories,” Pantelis remarks, himself, in awe. I go down to collect one of the small flyers scattered about like ruffled plumage. It’s double sided. I asked Pantelis what it means. “Smash the state’s attempt for suppositional stability,” and “Armed battle to destroy state and capital.” I’m told it’s a difficult translation. Another shot of ouzo.
In Pericles’ Funeral oration, Thucydides recalls him saying, “Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.” We are one of these “future ages,” and – as predicted – the distinguished pro-Athens speech continues to resonate. So long as Greek nationalism stays in awe of democracy and liberalism, and does not mount to destroy it, there will yet be life for Greece.