In some places they measure the past in millennia. In Athens, history emerges every time you dig a hole.
This year Greece marks the 2,500th anniversary of the battle of Plataea. Less celebrated than the engagements a year earlier at Thermopylae and Salamis but more decisive in its outcome, it marks the end of the Persian attempt at dominance and the beginning of fifty immortal years for Athens, before the death of Pericles and the hubris of the Peloponnesian war.
The funerary dedication to the Persian wars endures in marble fragments in the agora:
The glory of these men’s excellence shines always . . .
For, both on foot [and on the swift sailing ships] . . . , so that all Greece might not see a day of slavery.
Then, theirs was a heart stronger than adamant, when they set their spear before the gates … by the sea, not to burn … the town, when by force the Persians were turned back …
. . . both on foot and . . . on the island . . . having thrown . . .
For a wall in front of . . . of Pallas . . .
but they occupy the most fertile cape of the calf-nourishing mainland, to whom all-flourishing happiness comes.
A visitor returning to Athens after many years will find a recognisably European city, with tangible evidence of a shared culture of prosperity, and occasional pockets of squalor and open-air drug use as a reminder of Greece’s rocky and still-unfinished journey.
Raw numbers, like the continuing decline in the dreadful unemployment rate, suggest an economy which has stabilised and started to improve after the trauma of the 2008 debt catastrophe; one which has coped better than might have been expected with the Covid pandemic.
You can now make the case that EU intervention – enforcing more sensible economic policies and providing a generous debt restructuring – helped resolve internal disagreements that could not otherwise have been achieved by a deeply-divided Greek polity. Like its cities, the Greek economy is becoming both more focused and more international, integrated into the larger European economic unit. This provides a sounder basis for prosperity than the previous – fiscally unsustainable – Greek model.
But it does mean that Greece seems less Greek. Opinion is divided – as always in Greece – on whether this is a good thing or not.
Younger monuments can be found in the Pedion Areos park. Such as Pallas Athena and the lion, commemorating the British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought eighty years ago in the forlorn hope that was the Battle of Greece, before evacuating from Porto Rafti to Crete to fight again.
While graffiti marks the marble slab with the coat of arms, the stump of a torn New Zealand ensign flutters.
The glory of these men’s excellence shines always . . . so that all Greece might not see a day of slavery.