Saturday, September 03, 2011


This week's diatribe is brought to you by the collective insecurity of the Greek people, who not content with feeling proud of their ancestor's multitude of achievements over the years, still feel the need to prove that either a) the Greeks do it better, or b) that they invented it along time ago and it was 'stolen' from them. Heading the list of stolen goods is one light bulb, fitting into the socket of civilization (τα φώτα του πολιτισμού). Poor misguided Greeks. Our light bulbs have been improved upon and replaced years ago. Think Neon.
Nevertheless, and while in my intellectual paranoia I feel the hordes of angry ultraneoplatonists sweep their chlamys (this by the way is an article of clothing, not an ancient STD) across their shoulders and converge upon my personage in an angry but dignified (as befits a Platonist) droves and subject me to the extreme form of punishment, a never-ending Socratic symposium (I am still prone to recurring third year classics nightmares that entail wading through Plato's Symposium ad nauseum) I caveat all that has been said above by proudly stating that I have been able to find an instance where a) the Greeks did it better, b) they invented it and c) no one has really been able to improve on it.
Pausanias, a doctor in Asia Minor who devoted ten to twenty years to traveling in mainland Greece during and after the reign of Hadrian, in the golden age of the Roman Empire, in about the second century is the case in point. During this time, this remarkable gentleman embarked upon a project which would have world wide consequence. He wrote a detailed account of every Greek city and sanctuary he visited along with a brief introductory history of the places he was visiting and a record of the local prevailing customs and beliefs. In short, Pausanias wrote the first Lonely Planet travel guide.
As a guide, it is remarkably detailed and thoroughly engrossing. With an eye for detail, Pausanias describes, not only which are the noteworthy sites to visit in each area, but also what makes them significant. Comments such as "Look out for the painting of Perseus slaying Medusa on the left portico of the temple of Athena" grant the prose a freshness and directness that is to be envied, even today. Commentary too, often takes a gossipy tone, as if Pausanias is conversing with an old friend and telling him inside information on the side. "Beyond is a statue of Lysimachos.this Lysimachos was a Macedonian from Alexander's bodyguard.." What ensues is a detailed gossip session about Lysimachos and his sordid associates. Thoroughly decent stuff. The insights he provides on the local customs and beliefs are just as refreshing if somewhat opinionated: "The territory of Corinth is part of the Argive territory which took its name from Korinthos. I never knew anyone maintain with such enthusiasm that Korinthos is a son of Zeus, except that most Corinthians say so." What we learn from Pausanias' encyclopaedic dip into ancient Greek anthropology, is that Greek religion and customs were not so rational, orderly and philosophical as some scholars would have us believe. In some parts, they are downright tribal and at any rate do not follow an established canon of 12 gods and a finite theology that ceased its development after the passage f the classical era. Pausanias traces for example, the creation of the native God of Oropos, Amphiaraos: "The Oropians were the first to believe him to be a god, but since then all of Greece has come to think him one." From the modern perspective, of note is the evident obsession of the Greeks as recorded by the great man, with erecting shrines and sanctuaries throughout their lands, in direct parallel to the modern Greeks dotting the landscape with small προσκυνήματα and churches dedicated to almost every saint under the sun. Then as now, the need for divine protection reigned supreme. This is no moreso evident than in the prose of Pausanias himself. While capable of entertaining a sophisticated and philosophical solution of religious difficulties, he comes across as deeply religious and moralistic. We are taken by him on a journey whose unspoken purpose seems to have been the investigation of the collapse of the ancient religion and its consequences. It is for this reason that he generally prefers the old to the new, the sacred to the profane. He concentrates primarily on classical Greek art rather than contemporary art, and prefers temples, images of the gods and altars to public buildings and statues of politicians. Some of the iconic buildings of the ancient world, such as the Stoa of King Attalus in the Athens Agora, or the exedra of Herod Atticus at Olympia, do not even rate a mention.
Pausanias chose his moment to write well. He wrote in Greek for educated Romans and sparked in them an interest and admiration for Greece. While Nero had looted Greece for treasures and Corinth had been reduced by Rome, every important monument of Greek antiquity was still standing in his time and his ten books that make up the Guide are invaluable to the archaeologist and historian alike. Notwithstanding Pausanias' considerable talents and in a paean to seeming futility, his work was a failure, enjoying no popularity immediately after his lifetime. Indeed, the first mention or quote we have of the work, is in the writings of Stephanus of Byzantium in the sixth century, with only a few obscure allusions to it to follow in the Middle Ages. That Pausanias' masterwork survived is a stroke of historical luck. All surviving copies seem to stem from a copy originating in the library of Archbishop Arethas of Caesarea. Indeed, the first mention or quote we have of the work, is in the writings of Stephanus of Byzantium in the sixth century, with only a few obscure allusions to it to follow in the Middle Ages. As a result, humanity came perilously close to losing the text altogether, with the only manuscripts of Pausanias being three 15th century copies, abounding in errors and lacunae, copied from a prototype that was owned by Florentine humanist Niccolo Niccoli, only to be acquired by the San Marco library in Venice in 1500, after which time, it disappeared. It is posited that this manuscript was first acquired by Cyriaco of Ancona in the fifteenth century who brought knowledge of Pausanias to the west. Since then, Pausanias' descriptions, though often sketchy and selective, have been thoroughly used for the location and identification of ancient sites and it is often the case that scholars who believed him to be mistaken on specific points have been proved wrong. The first use of Pausanias to identify ancient sites may be awarded to our very own George Gemistos Plethon, who Cyriaco visited at Mystra. Notwithstanding Pausanias' considerable talents and in a paean to seeming futility, his work was a failure, enjoying no popularity during his lifetime..
It is also interesting to attempt to deduce the multitude of written sources that Pausanias would have consulted while writing his Guide and which are no longer extant. His variations in prose style tend to point to the use of many of these. After all, the Guide is well researched. He consulted the sacred officials and city guides of each city, he worked in great libraries and it is owing to him that the large proportion of non-Homeric epic Greek poetry survive today.
Devoted to the idea of Greek liberty, Pausanias ended his days as an avid birdwatcher and traveler. His Guide remains a classic and it is said that it owes its genesis to his early pursuits. An expert on Homer as a young man, the malice and obstinancy of scholars in that field caused him to abandon it for travel writing. And what a boon to humanity that this was so.
For those of you planning to planning or having left our shores for more vernal climates in the motherland, you would do well to take a copy of Pausanias with you. For those meagre bits of marble left.


First published at NKEE on Saturday 3 September 2011