Saturday, January 15, 2011


“True, conscious honour is to feel no sin, he's armed without that's innocent within; be this thy screen, and this thy wall of brass."
Alexander Pope.

Greece has had in its history, three great walls. The first, were the Long Walls of Athens, so called as they provided a long, protective corridor down to Piraeus. They were a key element of Athenian strategy, since they provided the city with a constant link to the sea and prevented it from being besieged by land alone. These walls were constructed in the fifth century BC, after the original walls of Athens had been destroyed by the Persians during the occupations of Attica in 480 and 479 BC.
After the removal of the Persian forces subsequent to the battle of Plataea, the Athenians were free to reoccupy their land and begin rebuilding their city. Early in the process of rebuilding, construction was started on new walls around the city proper. This project drew opposition from the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies, who had been alarmed by the recent increase in the power of Athens. Spartan envoys urged the Athenians not to go through with the construction, arguing that a walled Athens would be a useful base for an invading army, and that the defenses of the isthmus of Corinth would provide a sufficient shield against invaders. Despite these concerns the envoys did not strongly protest and did in fact give advice to the builders. The Athenians disregarded the arguments, fully aware that leaving their city unwalled would place them utterly at the mercy of the insidious Peloponnesians and Thucydides, in his account of these events, describes a series of complex machinations by the wily Themistocles by which he distracted and delayed the Spartans until the walls had been built up to such a height as to be defensible. In the early 450s BC, fighting began between Athens and various Peloponnesian allies of Sparta. In the midst of this fighting, Athens had begun construction of two more walls between 462 BC and 458 BC, one running from the city to the old port at Phalerum, the other to the newer port at Piraeus. These new walls, the Long Walls, ensured that Athens would never be cut off from supplies as long as she controlled the sea. Eventually, they were pulled down by the Spartans in 404 BC after Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian Wars and rebuilt again, paradoxically with Persian support during the Corinthian War, only to be stormed and partly pulled down by the Roman Sulla, in the course of his sack of Athens during the Mithridatic Wars.
The Hexamilion, on the other hand stands at the end of a long series of attempts to fortify the Isthmus of Corinth stretching back to perhaps the Mycenaean period. Many of the Peloponnesian cities, including Sparta, as mentioned previously, wanted to pull back and fortify the Isthmus instead of making a stand at Thermopylae when Xerxes invaded in 480 BC, though as Herodotus comments, this would have been of limited value without control of the sea, and which, as the Diatribist opines, is indicative of selfish Hellenic parochialism at its most odious.
The actual Hexamilion Wall across the Ismthus was constructed in the period between 408 and 450, in the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II, during the time of the great barbarian incursions into the Roman Empire. The Wall included towers, sea bastions, and at minimum one fortress, containing two gates of which the northern gate functioned as the formal entrance to the Peloponnesus. The wall was constructed with a rubble and mortar core faced with squared stones. It is not certain how long it took to complete, but the importance given to the task is apparent from the scale of the construction; the Hexamilion is the largest archaeological structure in Greece. Every structure in the region was cannibalized for stone for the effort, either being incorporated into the wall directly, as was the temple of Poseidon at Ismthia, or being burned into lime, as was the sanctuary of Hera at Perahora. In 1415, the Byzantine emperor Manual II personally supervised repairs over a period of forty days, envisioning that the walls would be a last stand against the relentless Ottoman advance and indeedt he wall was breached by them in 1423. Despot of Morea Constantine Palaiologos restored the wall again in 1444, but the Turks breached it again in 1446. After the Ottoman conquest of the Peloponnese in 1460, the wall was abandoned. Nonetheless, it never succeeded in fulfilling the function for which it was constructed, unless it acted as a deterrent.
The third great walls of Hellenism are those of Constantinople. With numerous additions and modifications during their history, they were the last great fortification system of antiquity and one of the most complex and elaborate systems ever built. When well manned, the walls were almost impregnable for any medieval besieger, saving the city, and the Byzantine Empire with it, during sieges from various other nations for one thousand years. The advent of gunpowder siege cannons rendered the fortifications vulnerable, leading to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans on 29 May 1453 after a prolonged siege.
The moral then, to any prospective Grecian wall builders is that eventually, they can and will be breached. Greek walls, built to exclude others, whether they be other Greeks, or other nations have never been able to exclude them or keep them out for very long. Indeed, the secret to the Greek people’s amazing survival given the extent of the vicissitudes of fate and concatenation of circumstances that have befallen it over its lengthy sojourn through history, has been its ability to absorb and assimilate external influences, adding further variety and vibrancy to its cultural discourse. To this effect, the nations that have found a home and haven in Greece are innumerable, from Thracians and Illyrians, to Celts, Romans and Goths, Bulgarians and other Slavs, to Albanians, Vlachs, Armenians and Turks. With the notable exception of those settled at the behest of conquering armies, most of these peoples were refugees, fleeing wars and catastrophe elsewhere.
Undoubtedly, the collapse of the Communist bloc and the upheavals of war in the Middle East and the Balkans has created a second ‘movement of peoples’ as vast in its complexity as that which caused the barbarians incursions into Europe and hastened the decline of the Roman Empire. Greece, owing to its geographical position, has borne the brunt of this movement, having being swamped with hundreds of thousands of refugees. Unlike the draconian in comparison Australian policies to such illegal border crossers, Greek policy is much more humane and compassionate, permitting refugees in practice, to live and work among Greeks, until such time as they are able to obtain a visa elsewhere – given that the majority of border crossers view Greece as a stepping stone to a better place and not a final destination. The benign treatment of these individuals can have unexpected results, turning them inadvertently into ambassadors for Greece’s good name. Here in Melbourne, there reside not a few citizens of Middle Eastern extraction, who sing Greece’s praises and of the generosity and compassion of its people, because in Greece, they found, albeit temporarily, a second home. A good many of these speak Greek quite well, and among them can even be found priests and bishops, fleeing persecution in their home countries.
The building of a wall along the border with Turkey in order to stem the flow of refugees and illegal immigrants represents a failure of the human spirit and of the inclusionist, global, European humanistic ideal. It is not enough to argue that cash-strapped Greece is at the end of its tether and cannot absorb further peoples, when its population density is so low. In fact, the Greek border is also the border of Europe, something that Western Europe has difficulty in comprehending and there exists no co-ordinated European policy of reception, absorption and processing of these poor, peripatetic peoples.
Where walls are erected, they signify a failure. The Chinese Great Wall failed to stop the incursion of the Mongols. The Berlin Wall ultimately failed in keeping a people apart. The Wall of Shame in the West Bank, turning Palestinian habitations into ghettoes, marks the failure of racial and religious discriminatory conceptions of statehood. The Greek Wall in turn, will not stem the tide of refugees forever, especially the significant amounts entering the country by sea.
Refugees and illegal immigrants must not be portrayed as barbarians at the gates, threatening Greek life as we know it. Greek society is more at risk of disruption by bourgeois, well-fed and spoiled anarchists than persecuted people who wanted to rebuild their shattered lives. Such refugees have seen terrible things in their home countries. Along their journey to freedom, they have endured terrible hardships and dangers, which have only stiffened their resolve to survive and enjoy a quiet life. The least one can do, is to co-ordinate a pan-European policy to receive them and help them on their way.
It was Mervyn Peake, author of the Gormenghast trilogy, an epic about a vast but crumbling self absorbed city and mouldering civilization that enjoyed total isolation from outside world, who perhaps provides the most apt simile with Europe today. And it is in his words that we may find the inspiration to assist people to find their freedom and ourselves to retain our humanity: “Each day I live in a glass room unless I break it with the thrusting of my senses and pass through the splintered walls to the great landscape.”
First published in NKEE on 15 January 2011