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Letter from Greece

Thomas Moore


Before the advent of the sovereign debt crisis, tourism in Greece was so healthy that visitors to Sparta even went out to the theatre. It mattered little that the city had been quietly reduced to a Peloponnesian backwater, little that it was as politically irrelevant as it was geographically inaccessible, and little that the locals spoke no English. Travellers still went there to spend money. Add that to the list of differences between 2012 and the 1st century B.C., when the new theatre in Sparta attracted tourists from all over the Roman world to watch plays and hear (at least partly) apocryphal stories about Spartan military life in the Classical period. Today the remains of Classical Sparta are appropriately laconic when they speak at all (as Thucydides warned [1]). But the sight of a decently preserved, well-excavated empty Roman theatre provides a poignant reminder not only that today’s economic straits render modern theatres more desolate than were their ancient counterparts, but also that financial instability profoundly affects material heritage. Robert Fisk of The Independent has recently suggested [2] that the violence in Syria is at least as devastating to world heritage as it is to current civilian populations. His warning is salutary, but violence and looting aren’t the only problems.

Not only are the processes of excavation, preservation, and restoration at risk, but access also has challenges to meet. Here’s another story about economics from the ancient world. In 61 B.C. Cicero’s friend Atticus had a bad day. In a letter [3] of the same year Cicero alludes to a debt owed to his friend by the Greek city Sicyon for an earlier loan. Add Sicyon’s bankruptcy in 61 to the list of similarities between 2012 and the 1st century B.C. Today the archaeological site of Sicyon struggles to stay open on the weekends. A man named Christos opens the gates alone on Sundays. He says he goes to the extra effort so that people can visit the site on this day. Sicyon is in the middle of nowhere, its archaeological remains are interesting only to the specialist. In a year in which the trickle of visitors to the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens has become stagnant, I can’t imagine heavy traffic in Sicyon on a Sunday. But it’s inspiring that people like Christos still wait in the heat to welcome visitors.

It’s not as gloomy as all that, though. The ongoing restoration project of the Parthenon has so far been largely successful, and if it weren’t for the stupidity of human beings would be doing better still. Like the restoration projects of the temple at Bassae and the sanctuary at Epidauros, the Parthenon venture receives much of its funding from the EU. At Epidauros, if you look hard enough, you can find a guiltily half-hidden EU sign mentioning the 3 million euros poured into the project. Funding for most of these projects is provided on the condition of a speedy completion, and a deadline is usually stipulated. It’s ironic that less time and money would have been needed were it not for earlier human mistakes. Much of the work at these sites involves reversing earlier restoration attempts, as the iron and steel clamps, which cause cracking in the ancient marble, are being gradually replaced by titanium supports. These improvements are working well; however, even the modern architects at these ancient sites seem cautious to the point of insecurity, an attitude reflected in the riders of the current projects which allow today’s changes to be altered by tomorrow’s advances. Not only is this cautionary approach needed, but it also implies that nothing ever stays the same and that we shouldn’t be arrogant enough to assume it will. We shouldn’t let civil unrest and economic crisis impede the modern innovation and progress which will preserve our ancient heritage.

Thomas Moore studies classics at St Hugh’s College.