OLBIA AND THE NEOGREEKS
There are several instances in the venerable Greek history where Greeks, through various vicissitudes or concatenations of circumstance, became cut off from their roots. Cavafy, in his prescient poem Ποσειδωνιάται, referred to the Poseidonians in Southern Italy, originally colonists from Sybaris, who over a long period of time, assimilated with their Latin neighbours and gradually had nothing to show for their Hellenism other than their names and a few archaic traditions. The town of Samo in Calabria is another example - colonized, as its name suggests, by islanders from Samos. The inhabitants of Samo may no little of the substance of their heritage but nonetheless, preserve as their founding myth, their Samian origin, even here in the Antipodes. About a decade ago, their club here in Melbourne made contact with the Samian brotherhood, as they were curious to discern the manner and circumstance of their forebears. The ensuing meeting was a happy one, though the interpolation of a thousand years of diverse history renders any attempt to find common ground based on common ancestry difficult. In contrast, the Pontians on the Black Sea retained ancient Greek dances and linguistic forms, making them seem outlandish and foreign to other Greeks, including that Peloponnesian MP who had the temerity to suggest in the 1920's that they be segregated from other Greeks through the forcible wearing of yellow arm bands.
Another example of Samo is the case of Olbia, except that its drama was played out much earlier. Olbia Pontica, (which is to be distinguished from its twin colony in Sardinia, also called Olbia), today is called Nikolayev and belongs to the Ukraine, was founded on the upper Black Sea shores by intrepid Greek settlers from Miletus in the sixth century BC. Their colony grew into a large city, with walls and impressive square towers, at first a trading post and harbour dealing mostly in fish and then as the grain trade developed and the region became the granary of Greece, the capital of an immense farming region. During the 5th century BC, when Olbia was visited by Herodotus, it minted distinctive cast bronze money in the shape of leaping dolphins, said to have originated from sacrificial tokens used in the Temple of Apollo. It has been speculated that early Greek religion, especially the Orphic Mysteries, was heavily influenced by Central Asian shamanistic practices. A large number of Orphic graffiti unearthed in Olbia seems to testify that the colony was one major point of contact - especailly with the native Scythians, an Iranian people, who inhabited the hinterland of the Crimea at that time.
The native Scythians, destabilized by the migrating Sarmatians, (Sauromatai or 'lizard-eyes' as the Greeks called tem) began to raid the city and the grain supply became erratic. Despite having being seized by the Scythians, the Greek presence in Olbia remained predominant until 63 BC when an army of Dacians and Getae captured Olbia and destroyed the city. The population fell drastically and though a brief recovery occurred under the Romans, it was stormed again by the Huns in 370. After that, the ruins were abandoned to the abrasive caress of eternity.
Olbia nonetheless, is fascinating because of the visit of Stoic philosopher Dio Chrysostom of Prousa in 95AD and this was one of the rare occasions on which we actually have recorded through a primary source, the condition of a declining Greek city. 'Borysthenitica' therefore is not only a detailed account, but an extraodinary cinema reel or home movie preserved from the Hellenistic world. Dio came to Olbia at a bad time. After the Getae had destroyed the place in 63BC much of the trade to Greece came to a standstill and most of the city was yet to be rebuilt. Olbia had not lost contact with the Greek world, but the Olbians had an aggrieved feeling that their city had lost the fame and importance it once had. And they were obsessed with remaining Hellenes. 'Those that come here' one citizen complained to Dio, 'are nominally Greeks but actually more barbarous than ourselves...but you would appear to have been sent to us by Achilles himself.."
This was a ghost town, with ghosts in it. Dio found himself in a time warp. The Olbians were determined to impress him with their Hellenism, much as we do visitors from Greece, but it was an archaic and obsolete version of Hellenism that they clung too. In addition, they appeared to Dio to be as much Scythian as Hellenic. His definition of ethnicity had nothing to do with genetics and descent but with the clothes, customs and language. The Olbians wore Scythian clothes and the Greek they spoke was barely intelligible.
Walking through the town, Dio met a young man by the name of Callistratus on horseback and started a conversation. Callistratus seemed straight out of a museum. He was wearing 'barbarian' trousers and a cape, but on seeing Dio, he alighted from his horse and covered his arms, observing the old Greek rule that it was bad manners to show bare arms in public. Like other Olbians, he knew Homer by heart and was immensely proud of this, however poor his spoken Greek was. But Dio was even more fascinated to discover that Callistratus was gay. He boasted that he was already famous in the city for his courage in battle, interest in philosophy, his beauty and because he had many lovers. Dio saw this not as a statement of sexual orientation but as a wonderful survival from a bygone age. Here, in the time of the Roman Empire, flourished still the ancient Athenian veneration for homosexual love as the supreme intellectual experience. The Olbians supposed that in the world beyond the sea, homosexuality was still in fashion.
At this stage, Dio, being a stranger and overtly 'Greek' was being swamped by other Olbians who believing that all Greeks ever did when they met each other was to discuss philosophy, begged him to discuss Plato with them. In the manner reminiscent of the 'older' Greeks, they all sat down outside the portico of the temple of Zeus to hold their debate. As the older men sat down, Dio noticed that they all wore beards, at a time when shaving had been the fashion in Greece for half a century. Dio was touched by the 'real Greekness' which he found surviving at Olbia. It appeared to him that they were more Greek than the Greeks in many respects.
Dio's picture of Olbia is one of periphery viewed from the centre. It shows how customs, fashions and artifacts travel outwards from the centre like rings on a pond until they reach the periphery and finally vanish. It is just before this moment of final disappearance that the 'central' intellectual suddenly bursts into lament: out there, they still have sound values, nurturing families, authentic folklore, which must be preserved at all costs before they are lost for ever. Sounds familiar? How many visiting Greeks have told us we are more Greek than the Greeks while laughing smugly at the statues of Alexander on our coffee tables? Better still, in the midst of our confusion over whether we should preserve or discard customs and thought patterns that derive from a rural existence that is no longer extant in its place of origin, who remembers Consul-General George Veis' 'New Alexandria' here in Melbourne of a decade ago? Enough said. Happy oblivion.