When in Athens… do as the Romans

Revisiting a museum or an archaeological site is very much like re-reading a well-loved book. Each time I notice – or read – something new. When I first visited Athens, I was seventeen. I was on a tour of Greece with school – our ‘voyage de rhéto’, which took place at Easter time. (The final year of secondary school in Belgium is called ‘la rhétorique’, because this is when one is supposed to learn the rhetorical arts, in preparation for university education.) That trip took us to Athens, Corinth, Mycenae, Epidaurus, Olympus, Delphi, and the Meteora. Epidaurus and Delphi were particular favourite of mine.

On that trip, the things I noticed in Athens would have looked a bit like the photos below. (They would not have been exactly those, as I did not visit the temple of Olympian Zeus then or the monument of Philopappos then). Basically, they would have been monumental buildings and statues. These are the things guides usually point to on organised tours.

A good guide would have told us that the temple of Hadrian and the monument of Philopappos were built at a time when Athens was under Roman rule, but I doubt this would have really registered. Then, I thought of Greeks and Romans as separate entities. Today, the Romans seemed to be everywhere in Athens: Hadrian’s gate; Hadrian’s library; a second century monument to a Roman citizen named Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos (high up on the hill of the Muses); Roman baths with their distinctive brickwork; a bronze statue of Augustus in the archaeological museum of Athens.

Big Boy T, quite naturally, did wonder what the Romans were doing at Athens, which led to some rather awkward discussions about empires. School and – perhaps even more prominently nowadays – ‘Horrible Histories’ (a wonderful kids’ programme) teaches children to think of historical periods as clearly distinct: awful Egyptians; groovy Greeks; rotten Romans; cut-throat Celts; measly middle ages; terrible Tudors; gorgeous Georgians; vile Victorians; and troublesome twentieth-century. The reality is of course much messier, although realising that does take quite a while.

Today, I also noticed many small details I would not have noticed when I was seventeen: a large storage jar buried in the ground in front of the library of Hadrian; old columns used as hypocausts in Roman baths; parts of monumental columns used in walls of an early-Byzantine church; the hat (a Thessalian hat I believe) on a little baby represented on a tombstone in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens; the lock of hair on a Roman copy of an Ephesian Artemis; and the detail on a stone himation (coat), probably part of a monumental statue.

Perhaps I notice these  things because I have now studied the Greeks and Romans for quite a while. It is only normal that my knowledge should deepen, and re-focus itself on smaller details. But I believe there is more: our understanding of history is necessarily conditioned by our own history. Some people might call this bias; I don’t see it like that. I think there is no such thing as an objective past. What there is is the sum of the thousands upon thousands of readings and subjective interpretations of that past that have accumulated over the years.

Having children certainly influences the way I see the little baby with his pointy hat on a tombstone. I note the desire to cover the bald(ish) head of an infant. I also feel sadness, as I know that this baby either died in infancy or lost his mother then. As a Belgian, I know that I have a different perception of ’empires’ to most British people (whether they think the British Empire was a good thing or not), and that makes me appreciate Roman Athens in a different light. Having moved away from my native Belgium, I do understand that ethnicity (I dislike the word, but that is the one historians use) is a complex thing, and that one can they belong to several different places. That makes me understand the name ‘Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos’ (both typically Roman and typically Greek, with the regal ‘Antiochus Epiphanes’ thrown in the mix) that little bit differently.

Yes, today, Athens seemed to me very much like a Roman city. Perhaps tomorrow it will seem other again.

Note 1: no artefact was hurt in the making of this blog. For some reason, one can photograph objects in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Note 2: this relates to what we did on Saturday 4th April. I could  not post this earlier because of very poor internet connection in our hotel (I could not upload photographs).



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