Eternal Land of the Golden Fleecing

Greeks have been fiddling the books ever since Agamemnon. Where else do you find such private generosity and public irresponsibility?

EU Europe Features
Natural assets: The history of Monemvasia is a reminder that Greeks were once "not ignorant of the love of freedom"

To reach “Homer’s Tomb”, you now drive across the Cycladic island of Ios along a good road, paved with euros, to the rugged north shore. When we first landed, 50 years ago, there was not a single wheeled vehicle. “Homer’s Tum” — as it was then advertised on a rusty placard on the quayside — was accessible only by donkey or, if you were in a hurry, by mule. It took at least two hours, side-saddle, and there wasn’t much to see when you got there. Now — embellished with a dinky stone surround — the poet’s modest mausoleum lies on the crest of a steep hillock overlooking the choppy channel of wine-dark sea that takes the smaller ferries to Pholegandros and Anafi, the least visited of the Cyclades.  

On Ios a few months ago, ours was the only vehicle in Homer’s car park. The summer had gone out of Greece’s year, which is when I like it best. According to scholarly opinion, Homer was actually a succession of peripatetic bards who, between the 8th and the 6th century BCE, compiled and polished the undying stories of war, travel and ambition which lie at the root of European literature. Never mind the scholars, the myth of a single blind genius retains its charm. Bending to the north wind (which was given divine status in 480 BCE, after it had blown the Persian fleet on to the rocks), I trekked up to his solitary resting place.

Musing there an hour or less, I wondered what Homer’s travelling man, Odysseus, might say about the pickle in which today’s Hellenes have managed, and mismanaged, to land themselves. Odysseus was a reluctant hero. He went to Troy only because he had failed to dodge the column. An oracle had warned him that the war would take ten years to win and that it would take him another ten to get back to Ithaka, a green island, over to the West, nothing like the Cyclades. He was also told that he wouldn’t end up a drachma the richer. The original meaning of “drachma” was whatever you can grab with one hand. Euros are what the powerful have, for years, been grabbing with two.

Without Odysseus, the war might never have ended. Who else among the loutish leaders could have thought up the idea of the wooden horse — a Greek gift stuffed with Special Forces? Even after the towers of Troy had been toppled, he had to use all his cunning to make it back safely to the faithful Penelope. Not that he was in that much of a hurry: the delicious Calypso, with her secret charms, made sure he dawdled a while (on Malta’s Gozo, they say) before he had to be going.  And once he did return, so the Cretan poet Nikos Kazantzakis claimed, the cunning hero couldn’t stand domesticity for long. In his 33,333-line sequel to The Odyssey, the author of Zorba the Greek depicted the wandering Greek setting sail again in search of Calypso II, the sequel.

The present economic crisis in Greece would not have surprised the goddess Athene’s champion scoundrel. Odysseus’s commanding officer at Troy, Agamemnon, was as shameless as any modern Greek politico in diverting the spoils into his own coffers. How else was Mycenae a golden city? Go there early on a sunny morning and it still is; even if, as happened to us, the men who guard the ruins are on strike (the Greek word for it, apergia, away-from-workness, is a lot more honest than “industrial action”). Anyone who loves Hellas, and especially Greek literature, ancient and modern, should know better than to imagine that those in high places have ever been reluctant to do a spot of golden fleecing. Barbarians were there to be fooled, and so were other Greeks, if you could put your thumb on them.

Today’s Hellas was willed into unity only in 1821, when — inspired by Lord Byron’s dream that Greece might yet be free — northern European Philhellenes funded its rebellion against the Ottomans. The liberated Hellenes promptly reneged on the loan. Greece specialises in old, old stories. In 1831, the first president of the new state, Ioannis Kapodistridas, was assassinated, in the then capital of Nafplion, when he tried to make the brigands of the Mani into proper, tax-paying citizens. A year later, Otto of Bavaria, a Roman Catholic, was imposed on Orthodox Christian Greeks as their king by a northern European consortium of the peevish and the well-intentioned. No more welcome and no more able to put their house in harmonious order than today’s Empress of Europe, Angela Merkel, Otto abdicated after the Greeks hinted that they had had enough of him by trying to kill his queen. 

According to the economists who run our modern oracles (their predictions are no better than those in ancient Delphi), Greece is a debtor state whose inhabitants must agree to suffer, indefinitely, for their alleged extravagance. No one whom I know on Ios would accept that he had got rich by any means but hard work. It’s true that, for years, none of them paid taxes if they could possibly avoid it, but nor did a single member, Left or Right, of the Greek parliament.  Where else in Europe do you find people so privately generous and so publicly irresponsible? Greece is a land of rascals and poets, notable, in one way or another, for their unbalanced books. The theatre on Ios is named after the poet Odysseas Elytis, the Nobel laureate of 1979, who sang of the Cyclades and hated the colonels who hijacked Greece, with the connivance of the West, for seven increasingly cruel years. The sad, if seldom acknowledged, paradox is that the disgraced Papadopoulos and his fellow tyrants did more to improve basic living conditions in provincial Greece than any “democratic” government.  

Elytis said, “All my ideas turn out looking like islands.” Poets are sprinkled, like the islands so many of them came from, all across the eastern Mediterranean. The first stop after Ios on the way to Piraeus is Paros, home to Archilochos (the sergeant-major), soldier and egotistic poet of the mid-7th century BC. Now fat from tourism, Paros — famous for the best marble in classical times — offered only a scratchy living in Archilochos’s day. He died fighting, for money, on Thassos, the bristle-backed island in the far north of the Aegean which he said looked like a donkey on heat. His work bristles too. He was the man who said, “The fox has many tricks, the hedgehog only one; but it’s a beauty.” Archilochos was a hedgehog whose trick was writing barbed, immortal verses. He could make poetry out of failures of all kinds: in bed and on the battlefield. He actually boasted about throwing away his shield (he could always get another one, he said).

Greece is regarded by the screen-scanning number-crunchers who sprout and spout in Brussels as a little country with small prospect of ever emerging from debt. What else can you expect when geek meets Greek? When you are there, the country is boundlessly rich. There are always places and islands you have yet to see, or see again. For me, the southern Peloponnese is among them. We rented a car in Piraeus and headed for the “the island of Pelops” along the great euro-funded highway which has gashed a wide, easy way — too easy, some say — down to the fertile valley of the Eurotas, where Sparta’s helots — fellow Greeks whom the Spartans had enslaved — did the work which left their masters free to develop their martial art. 

The Spartans became a by-word, among their admirers (from Plato to English schoolmasters), for austerity and self-discipline. In fact, despite their bleak diet, their kings had an insatiable appetite for gold. Their city — in reality an unwalled collection of villages — lacked anything to rival the Athenian Parthenon, but its rulers had richly-lined pockets. The story is that they had to import their national poet, Tyrtaeus, from Athens, but it is, of course, only Athenians who say so. Trust a Greek not to trust another Greek. Today, you can buy a good picnic (hot or cold) at the supermarket, which the old Spartans would have considered dangerous for morale. The best ghosts in the area are a few miles from the old city, in Mistra, the Byzantine bishopric stacked on the flank of the Taygetus mountains. Its sad ruined choirs and dilapidated houses make up a sort of vertical Pompeii, stepping up towards the Venetian fort high above the abandoned city. Higher still, on the horizon, are the hideous wind-turbines which look as though they are trying to lift the Taygetus range into the blue heavens.  

The Peloponnese is just the place to ponder on lost supremacies: Turks, Venetians, Franks, Albanians (not to mention Germans) have come and seen and been evicted. The greatest modern poet with Peloponnesian connections was Yiannis Ritsos, who died in 1998. He might have won the Nobel Prize if he had not been a communist. He was also an aristocrat whose home was Monemvasia, on the Aegean flank of the Mani. It is a great hump of rock which seems to be shrugging off the houses that cling to its southern flank. Nowadays, what was, in its great days, an island can be reached across a narrow causeway from the mainland. You park outside the thick walls and go through a tight gatehouse to reach the pinched and elongated main street, now named after Yanni Ritsos. Monemvasia means simply “only one way in”. Like the eurozone, there is no known way out of it.  

The cliffs that rise above the city seemed, in the sunset, to be streaked with blood. Slavs, Greeks, Turks, Venetians, Normans and Albanians fought and died for mastery of the Kastron, the impregnable — now abandoned — upper city. Monemvasia does its best to seem to belong to one more welcome-matted souvenirville, but the city’s history — like that of so many in Greece — is one of rise and fall, massacre and betrayal. Monemvasia has no ancient history and no recorded inhabitants until the 6th century AD. It then became a sanctuary for refugees from Sparta, which had been overrun by invaders from the north. The first church, in the lower city, was dedicated to Christos Elkomenos (Christ-in-chains). Later Monemvasiots made a rich success of their bleak bastion. By the 12th century, it was a tempting target for the Normans, under Roger II, who cruised into its waters after they had colonised (and beautified) Sicily. Roger’s fleet “encountered men who were not ignorant of the love of freedom” and was beaten off. 

Monemvasia became too prosperous for its own good. Walking from end to end of today’s lower city, past ruined houses, it is hard to imagine that the place once harboured a fleet big enough to dominate large areas of the Mediterranean, all the way to the Pillars of Heracles and that other burly rock, Gibraltar. The elegant central square bears witness, like the fortress on the island’s roof, to the long presence of Venetian governors. Although the Turks were a perennial threat, they took Monemvasia only after the Venetians were forced to concede the lease as a result of  losing a distant battle.There were two great sieges, one of the Greeks by the Turks, in 1539, and one the other way round, in 1821.

It’s a good test of stamina to climb up the long rocky way to the ruined Venetian battlements and the dilapidated Byzantine church on the peak of the island. There are no great treasures in Monemvasia. It is the treasure. You need to bring your imagination to refill the place with the swirl of medieval life and to see the city’s ships setting off for Cythera and Crete, just over the horizon, and Constantine Cavafy’s Alexandria, just over the next one. Or you can just sit up there and listen to Ritsos, who plaits ancient and modern into dramatic monologues. In a wittier world, Greece would be required to repay its debts in poetry. It would almost certainly then claim itself to be owed debts that can never be repaid.  Kai einai sosto: and it’s true!