Saturday, May 30, 2020


“Lord and Master of my Life..” is how the Lenten prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian, commences. It is not perhaps not entirely coincidental that Archbishop Makarios has chosen to publish a book of meditations focused around this prayer and adopting its first phrase as his title, during the global Coronavirus pandemic, for Saint Ephraim is said to have perished while attending to the needs of plague victims.

Saint Ephraim, an ethnic Assyrian monk, is fittingly referred to in Syriac as “Kenara d’ Rukha”, the Harp of the Spirit and every syllable of his mellifluous writings, is a hymn of joy, a paean of praise, a lyric laudation of God. Take for example his Epiphany Hymn: “Glory to Thee from Thy flock on the day of Thy manifestation./He has renewed the heavens, because the foolish ones had adored all the stars / He has renewed the earth which had lost its vigour through Adam / A new creation was made by His spittle / And He Who is all-powerful made straight both bodies and mind.”

A most prolific writer,  the church historian Sozomen maintains that Saint Ephraim, throughout his life, wrote over three million lines.  As he wrote in Syriac, a form of Aramaic, he was able to meld the traditions of Rabbinic Judaism with Greek science and philosophy, combining these with his native Mesopotamian tradition of mystery symbolism. The complex and diverse forms of his poetry, of which over four hundred examples survive, constitute a foundation of the musical and hymnographic traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Syriac Orthodox and the Assyrian Church of the East. His homilies, known as ‘memre,’  are written in seven-syllable verse, often divided into two parts of three and four syllables.

Through the medium of such poetry, the Saint celebrates Church feasts, expounds a Scriptural narrative or takes up a spiritual or edifying theme. More remarkable, are his teaching hymns, known as ‘madrase,’ meaning instructions and, in modern Syriac, ‘schools,’ which employ over fifty different metrical schemes and which consist of a traditional tune identified by its opening line and antiphons, which it is believed, were originally sung in response by women, to the tune of the lyre. Some of the hymns are acrostic, where each strophe begins with a different letter of the alphabet,  drawing from the tradition of metrical verses in the Bible and on other occasions, the first letters of a number of verses form a given word. This enabled Saint Ephraim to ‘sign’ his hymns, and this is a form that has profoundly influenced Greek poets from the time of Ephraim right up until Greek Nobel laureate, Odysseas Elytis in his masterpiece, “Axion Esti.”

Thus, with regards to his poetic genius, fervour of feeling, breadth of inspiration and linguistic dexterity, the Saint is arguably a master of the form and a teacher to all those who followed, such as the great melodist Saint Romanos.
Arresting imagery, sharp metaphors and similes, bold comparisons, antitheses, coining of successful maxims, and vivid dramatization characterise his style and further his aim of providing his listeners, steeped in a culture of poetry, with a solid theological grounding that would inoculate them against contemporary prevalent errors in doctrine, or as the Saint himself put it in his ‘Hymns against Heresies, so that his flock would not be:  "tossed to and fro and carried around with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness and deceitful wiles."

Saint Ephraim’s Lenten prayer, considered to be the most succinct summation of the spirit of Great Lent, was without a doubt, composed by the Saint, with the above in mind. At weekday services during Great Lent, the prayer is prescribed for each of the canonical hours and at the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. Surviving only in Greek translation, it  loses none of its devotional Syriac heritage,  but is engagingly as simple as it is deep in meaning:

“O Lord and Master of my life, grant me not a spirit of sloth, curiosity, love of power, and idle talk.
But give to me, your servant, a spirit of sober-mindedness, humility, patience, and love.
Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother, since you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen.”

Archbishop Makarios, in his “Lord and Master of my life,” analyses and deconstructs each phrase of Saint Ephraim’s prayer, in a collection of homilies which as he states, constitute “Reflections on Spiritual Alertness.” The publication of such a work is timely. Our current state of isolation, or lockdown, invites the introspection that Saint Ephraim deems so necessary. To acquire the perspicacity to identify the flaws in oneself, to analyse these and seek to address them requires not only humility, but a good deal of spiritual quietude. Despite the fact the Church calendar still celebrates the Easter period, the unique sense of time in the Orthodox tradition is not linear. Rather it conflates past, present and future so that every time is the time of the Resurrection and conversely, every time is also Lenten. As such, in these times, Archbishop Makarios indirectly identifies Saint Ephraim’s Lenten prayer as particularly pertinent. As he states in his book, maintaining the joyousness of spirit of Saint Ephraim: “Great Lent is… a period of joy… because actually we return to life. During this time, each of us aims to be spiritually reborn by renouncing whatever is… decayed in order to truly live and experience the boundlessness of spiritual life, in all is depth and intensity..”

In Archbishop Makarios’ view, this is likely because in parallel with the government-imposed state of isolation and lockdown, mankind has also self-isolated and locked itself down, away from its creator. For him, Saint Ephraim’s prayer is an ideal way to address the cacophony of narcissism which pervades and afflicts the modern world. It offers, for those who would take it, a pathway of emancipation from a state of utter subjugation, a lifting of distancing restrictions imposed upon the movement of the soul: “…being distant from God and being personally isolated not only does not bring joy and fulfillment, but life becomes desperately confined and burdened. That is why the autonomous and egotistical person, the one who makes himself godlike and worships himself, ends up living without freedom.”

Significantly, Archbishop Makarios devotes a chapter of his book in examination of Saint Ephraim’s prayer to be granted a spirit free from περιέργεια, as is stated in the original form of the prayer, literally translating the term as “curiosity,” whereas other translators have traditionally employed the term “meddling,” in English. His choice of term is significant, for in adopting a word derived from the Latin curiosus, signifying a quality related to inquisitive thinking such as exploration, investigation, and learning, evident by observation, he achieves equivalency with the original Greek term which signifies an “inquiry around matters.” What follows is a timely and nuanced critique of the “Information Age,” where all are inundated by a deluge of information, images, fake news and stimuli cascading from various media and are often rendered powerless to objectively assess their veracity or relevance. It is the suspension of one’s critical faculties in the face of such an onslaught that is of paramount concern. As Archbishop Makarios explains, Saint Ephraim does not condemn a spirit of inquiry or a love of learning. Instead: “When the information which accumulates in the person’s mind is not in order and is not checked then more information one has, the more confusion it brings… Contemporary man becomes…side-racked and disoriented.” The result in the Archbishop’s view: an inability to feel empathy, an incapacity to love.

Archbishop Makarios perceptively links a spirit of sloth and curiosity with a love of power, an insidious form of egotism and narcissism that undermines the very fabric of society and erodes its underlying moral principles, in his next homily. According to him, this is a pathology of loss of sense of self and self-control: “Our ego becomes the absolute centre of our life and it controls our judgment in all matters… This…may be seen through our indifference, neglect, lack of interest, care and respect towards our neighbour.” Returning to his subtle, understated parallel with our current situation, the Archbishop views isolation not as a physical state, but rather as a spiritual one, with its own consequences: “Isolation is not so much about the place as it is about the heart, the expression of an inner state of being…No one is as empty as the one who is full of his own self.”

Considering Saint Ephraim’s injunction against idle talk, Archbishop Makarios is careful to point out the power of the word in the Orthodox tradition. After all, as the Gospel of John tells us, “In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Acquiring the discernment to know when to speak and when to remain silent, in the Archbishop’s view, is a key step in a person’s transformation: ”through…love.” Mastery over the spoken word is important because at the end of Saint Ephraim’s prayer, the supplicant will be called upon to proclaim that God is “blessed to the ages of ages. Amen.”

Unlike sundry social commentators, Archbishop Makarios not only exposes some of the major flaws and fractures in modern society, but through Saint Ephraim’s prayer, also suggests solutions that can be implemented at an individual level. According to him, the quest and attainment of a spirit of sober-mindedness, humility, patience, and love, an ability to see one’s own faults and not to judge one’s brother, elements that he closely examines in turn, are intrinsic to the fulfilment of one’s personhood, and facilitate a “struggle, not for ourselves but in order to be united with everyone.”

The culmination of Saint Ephraim’s prayer, in Archbishop’s Makarios view, is the offering of thanksgiving, an experience of the Resurrection and Pentecost. In his exposition, he expertly draws once more upon the central motif of current events, to confound and completely invert conventional understanding of isolation and distancing, revealing the paradox within: “Whoever journeys towards God wants to be separated from everyone and to remain alone with God, but although he is separated, he remains united with everything, with the whole of creation.”

Written in an easily comprehensible, crisp and engaging style and eschewing rhetorical flourishes and superfluous adornments, Archbishop Makarios’ recently published moving and incisive meditation on Saint Ephraim’s prayer is ably translated into English by Anna Dimitriou and Angeliki Georgiou. Expressing a critique of the world in all times and articulating the Orthodox Church’s unique world view forms part of the Church’s salvific mission, as it understands it, and in the age of self-help manuals and mindfulness, the Archbishop reaches back to the early days of the Church in order to offer, not to impose, an ancient means to rec-connect with ourselves and others, gently and assumedly reminding us, as Saint Ephraim did our ancestors through countless generations, that even in our purported state of isolation, we are never alone:
“The prayer of Saint Ephraim summarises, in a unique and wonderful way, whatever is spiritually needed for us to reach spiritual fulfillment and so it recommends a rule whereby we can assess our struggle during this period and for our entire time that we are in this world.”

“Lord and Master of my life” by Archbishop Makarios is available at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Bookshop at Axion Esti Monastery, Northcote.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 May 2020

Saturday, May 23, 2020


«Οὕτως ἄνωθεν Ἑλληνικοῦ τε φρονήματος ἔμπλεως ἦν καὶ τὴν ἐλευθερίαν ἔτίμα.»
“Thus long our city had a Greek mentality and honoured liberty.”
Bessarion: Panegyric to Trebizond.
Jibes about Pontian magnate Ivan Savvidis’ Russian provenance by modern Greeks raises even the most skeptical Pontian’s ire. Since their arrival in Greece in the aftermath of the Genocide, Pontic Greeks have justifiably been sensitive to mainland Greeks calling their Hellenicity into question. Yet this phenomenon, appears to predate Ottoman subjugation and finds its roots in late Byzantine times, where a fragmented Greek world, struggling for survival and the maintenance of a cohesive narrative, sought to define itself according to its ethnic characteristics, in the process defying stereotypes as to what actually comprises a Greek.

Inhabiting the furthest reaches of that world, in the region known to Greeks as Pontus, was the Empire of Trebizond, a state ruled by the Komnenos family ever since the capture of Constantinople in 1204. Unlike much of mainland Greece, the Empire of Trebizond, ruled from the city of Trapezounta, was a multi-lingual, polyethnic polity, with extensive cultural ties to Armenia, Georgia and the East. At a time when the Greek world was asserting a Greek identity through intellectuals such as George Gemistos Plethon, who in the Byzantine stronghold of Mystra, advocated the creation of a pagan state according to Plato’s Republic, Trebizond, concerned primarily with defending itself from onslaughts from the East, was an eastern Mediterranean state, incomprehensible without an understanding of the culture and language of the peoples that lived within it, and around it. It is this perceived polarity between the Hellenic (supposedly pure) and the Hellenistic, that gave rise to a remarkable intertextual discussion between the aforementioned Plethon and his student, Basilios Bessarion, one of the most famous Pontic Greeks in history, who would go on to become a celebrated cardinal and disseminator of Greek letters in the West. In his “Encomium to Trebizond”, a work penned by Bessarion in praise of his home city, in the manner and style of the classical panegyrists, Bessarion refutes Plethon’s contentions in speeches he had made to the rulers of Byzantine Mystra, and asserts the Hellenic nature of his beloved homeland. All the while, we gaze in awe as we see how Hellenism is constructed and negotiated.

Bessarion’s “Encomium to Trebizond” appears to have been written during the reign some time during the reign of the ruler Alexios IV Grand Comnenos (1417–1429) at a time when Bessarion, a noted scholar, classicist and diplomat was working for the Trapezuntine emperors. Written in archaizing, erudite and often obscure Greek, it appear to be a direct response to two speeches made by George Gemistos Plethon to Theodore and Emmanuel Palaiologos, the despots of Mystra, outlining his political views and proposals for a future state.
Plethon’s views are arresting, in that they appear to prefigure some of the prejudices of the modern Greeks. He begins his speech for example, claiming that the Peloponnese is the true homeland of the Greeks, thus excluding inhabitants of the broader Greek world from his narrow definition of Hellenism:
“We, those who you lead and rule, we are Greeks by race as both our speech and traditional education testifies. It is not possible to find a land more appropriate and suited to Greeks than the Peloponnese, the land bordering Europe and its outlying islands. It seems that the Greeks have always inhabited this area as far as men remember.”

Plethon lived near Sparta and consciously used ancient Sparta as the model for his ideal state. Taking the polar opposite, Bessarion, asserts Trebizond’s Ionian (and by inference Athenian origin), referring to his city’s foundation as a colony of Miletus in the 6th century BC:
“If one has to say the oldest things first, this city boasts an Athenian origin for its people and Athens as its founder, the tutor of the Greeks and mother of culture, the teacher of this most beautiful language. The people of Sinope colonised Trebizond. Sinope had been colonised, under the aegis of Athens, by Miletus, the most powerful city of Asia, the pride of the Ionians. Miletus used to lead this maritime Greece, not only because it was once powerful, as is known, but one may add, with such grandeur.”
Bessarion for all his affectations at erudition, is being cheeky. He knows full well that Mystra, Plethon’s town, had been established by the Latin crusaders in the thirteenth century, and was a parvenu, in respect of its questionable Hellenic credentials. This is a calculated jibe to raise Plethon’s ire. Having fired his first broadshot across Plethon’s bows, Bessarion spends a great deal of time discussing the history of Miletus and Sinope, driving home the Greekness of the origins of Trebizond. Having completed this task, Bessarion proceeds, without directly referring to Plethon, to deconstruct his arguments. Where Plethon excoriates trade and commerce, and celebrates agriculture. Bessarion extols the advantages of trade, exchange and the sea:
“By itself our city is no less robust than any other in terms of what it produces and grows, but by accepting their products it has become the world’s common storehouse and workshop, a sea of bounties, as they say… Even the name of the Black Sea [Euxeinos Pontos] attests to its great benevolence and accessibility and in a word, highlights everything that is good about it. The mere mention of its name is enough to impart courage..”

Bessarion goes on, in his quest to establish his city’s Hellenic nature, to subvert Plethon’s love of Plato, claiming that Trebizond’s composite and complex economy, rather than departing from, actually conforms to the Platonic ideal:
“The cities mostly or entirely satisfied with nothing more than land alone and goods from there, soon have less than most, since they are deprived of the goods from the sea. Even Plato praises and admires the ambidextrous and praises the one who is naturally so. He suggests that those who are not so by nature should practice in order to better be able to use one and both hands completely. Surely, and this is our case, would we not admire, cherish and truly consider them happy those who hold the entire sea and the land as one hand and one limb of the body rather than someone who would mostly use one part of the world?”
Rather than feel self-conscious in the face of Plethon’s conception of the Greeks as a people who isolate their ontology from others and shy away from cultural intercourse in order to maintain their purity, Bessarion in his Encomium, celebrates multiculturalism, articulating an alternate form of Hellenism, syncretic and accessible to all:
“We intermingle with all foreign peoples, we interact with all races. There are no cities or minds of men about which we do not know… We become wiser and better than them because we collect what is best from everywhere, selecting what is useful and trading in every kind of knowledge.”
Both Plethon and Bessarion, in articulating their version of the Hellenic discourse, are reacting to the looming existential crisis affecting the narrative: the unstoppable incursion of the Turks into the Empire. Plethon believed the only way to arrest his world’s inevitable fall was to revert to the martial valour, austerity and ideology of the ancient Spartans. Bessarion on the other hand in his Encomium, maintains that the Trapezuntines, by nature of their geography, trade, alliances, good governance and history are best suited to withstand the Turkish onslaught, for they have successfully fought to preserve their freedom since the city’s foundation, this being the essence of being Greek:
“Consequently, it was Greek people, who spoke the Greek language and tongue, honoured freedom and strove for equality, who lived their all on their own, in the midst of the barbarians who encircled them in large numbers….Our ancestors… demonstrated immediately that they were Greeks, a race which obeys no master, is no one’s slave and is alone free in mind and in body…they yielded nothing in terms of pride, dignity, and nobility of spirit and did not do anything unworthy of their ancestry ad reputation as Greeks.”

Plethon’s appeal to the Peloponnese’s antiquity did not assist the Byzantines to resist the Ottomans. Advising his student Constantine, who went on to become the last Emperor to fortify the peninsula at the Isthmus of Cornith by means of the Hexamilion Wall, he lived to see that Wall blasted by Sultan Murad’s artillery. Surviving the Fall of Constantinople for a year, he died before his homeland of Mystra was conquered by the Ottomans in 1461.
Bessarion caught up with Plethon at the Council of Florence, convened to bring about Union between the Orthodox and Catholic churches in the late 1430s. Faithful to his conviction of survival being maintained as a result of alliances, commerce and social equality, Bessarion supported the Union for pragmatic reasons and was appointed a cardinal by the Pope. He remained in Italy, setting up an academy to teach Greek philosophy and humanities that was instrumental in disseminating ancient Greek literature in the West and at one stage, was also considered a candidate for the Papacy. Trebizond, the city he so loved, and whose existence he saw as the epitome of Hellenism and survival, was unable to resist Ottoman subjugation, falling in the same year as Mystra, 1461, signifying a draw between master and student. The debate between alternate versions of Hellenism and the course its narrative should take however, continues within the Greek discourse, unabated.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 May 2020

Saturday, May 16, 2020


Generally speaking, court appearances, which form a significant proportion of the daily tasks of the legal practitioner, are the bane of my existence. Just as I have recurring nightmares of sitting my Year 12 Maths exam having not attended a single class all year (which is how my conscience pulps my memory and reconstitutes it in order to accuse me, for I never did miss a maths lesson; rather, having not understood anything that transpired therein, have no abiding memories of them), so too do I have recurring nightmares of standing at the bar table, hands trembling, summoning the spirit of Dennis Denuto as I attempt to marshal the various disparate legal arguments in my head, under the cool and steely gaze of the adjudicator.
For the Greeks of old, justice was not an abstract concept but rather a physical being, the Titaness Themis. Moses Finlay remarked of the name, as used by Homer: “Themis is untranslatable. A gift of the gods and a mark of civilized existence, sometimes it means right custom, proper procedure, social order, and sometimes merely the will of the gods (as revealed by an omen for example) with little of the idea of right.” That is exactly how, on certain days, I feel about civil procedure, that abstruse conglomeration of arcane Anglos-Saxon rituals that enforce gentlemanly conduct in the courtroom, prescribing whose turn it is to bat, whose to bowl, and who is guilty of placing their leg before the wicket even before court is in session.
Themis is traditionally depicted bearing a sword, not to decapitate transgressors of the law, nor to cow law abiding citizens to further obedience, nor even to cut the cost of legal proceedings but rather, to cut fiction from fact. The Greek Themis wears no blindfold because such tasks require a good deal of perception. When she is disregarded, or afforded disrespect, the Greek personification of Justice calls upon Nemesis to bring forth just and wrathful retribution. When, on the other hand, she if given due deference, she is placid and benign, being described as “she of the lovely cheeks,” a compliment that must be prefaced by a lengthy introduction and supported by copious judicial authorities if it is to be extended to a modern day Magistrate, especially given that one does not necessarily seek to summon Nemesis upon oneself, in the form of the Legal Services Board Disciplinary Tribunal.
That Justice is gendered says much for the natural order of things. Even more profound is how the female divine being was appropriated and suppressed by the Greek patriarchy. Themis was the first consort of Zeus. Not only was she just and wise, she was also prescient, standing by Zeus’ throne and affording him sage advice as he went about impregnating nubile partners. Themis was able to advise Zeus that any children born of his coupling with the Titaness Metis, would grow to be more powerful than him and overthrow him. Zeus promptly turned himself into a fly and swallowed Metis, a rather ironic act considering that in the form of Zeus Apomyios, or Zeus Shoo-flyer, he was worshipped as a fly repellent by the Elians. Zeus promptly developed as large a migraine as I am usually afflicted with the night before a case, and it was only when he struck his head with a hammer, releasing a fully armed and ferocious Athena, complete with war-cry, that he obtained relief. I too feel relief when unleashing a particularly potent argument upon my learned colleagues, though most often this is only semi-armed and as far as war-cries go, a mere whimper.
Rituals abound even prior to entering court. For example, going through the metal detector in the court foyer just before the lockdown saw Themis bar her chambers to the entire profession, my passage was greeted by a multitude of beepings.

- Take off your belt, the titanic middle aged security guard ordered.
-I’m not wearing one I responded.
She leaned forward, extended a muscular hand and grabbing the rim of my pants she affirmed:
- Must be your zipper.
- I don’t know how to remove my zipper, I responded.
She began to glide a portable metal detector deftly over my person and stopped when she heard a beep, when she reached my wrists.
Sighing, she began to pat me down vigorously.
- I think my cuff links are to blame, I ventured.
Grabbing my wrist tightly, she tugged up at my sleeve asking:
- Give us a look.
Taking a peek, she emitted guttural sounds of approbation, exclaiming:
- Oh, oh , oh, these are amazing. They are so gorgeous. I absolutely adore them. Hey Bec, come and have a look at these!
A giantess, lurking behind the detector, lurched over.
- Check out these killer cufflinks. I bet I could get matching earrings.
-Ugh, the giantess answering to the name of Bec exclaimed and lumbered away.
All the while my wrist was getting sore as my cuff link was fondled again and again.
- What kind of stone is that? the lady asked.
- Dunno, I think it’s glass, I informed her.
- Is it your birthstone? she persisted. It’s fantastic.
- Where did you get them from?
-My wife got them for me, I answered.
-Oh she said sharply and dropped my hand with a sudden movement.
Slowly I walked into the court room, wishing that people would engage with me for the beauty of my wit and the rapier sharp quality of my advocacy rather than the beauty of my fashion accessories.
Then there are the days when one walks into a courtroom and prepares to bowl over the judge with eloquence that would make Demosthenes stutter.
- Your Honour, I appear for the defendant.
- Yes, Mr Kalimniou. Am I saying that right?
- Your Honour is the personification of diction. I appear for the defendant and seek leave to…
- Kalimniou, that’s Greek isn’t it?
- Yes, your Honour. I seek leave to file this…
- Cypriot?
- I’m sorry, your Honour?
- Is your name Cypriot?
- No your Honour. I seek leave to file this affidavit out of time..
- Are you from Asia Minor?
- Your Honour?
- There were lots of Greeks in Asia Minor prior to 1922. Are you from Asia Minor?
- Your Honour, I was born in Melbourne.
- No before that.
- I have no memory of where I was before that time your Honour. If I could draw your Honour’s attention to….
- Because you know that Constantinople belongs to Greece.
- Your Honour?
- Don’t you agree? That Constantinople belongs to Greece.
- I….
- Well it was a Greek city. It was taken by the Turks.
- That was a very long time ago your Honour.
- Well it is Greek. They should give it back. Constantinople belongs to Greece.
- Is your Honour minded to making a ruling on this point?
- Believe me, if I could I would….
And of course there are the days, where adjourning to opposing Counsel’s chambers to conduct negotiations while the court is adjourned for lunch, one exclaims: “What a magnificent view. I can see Saint Patrick’s Cathedral from up here,” only to be met with the response: “That’s not a Greek church.” My riposte, as I choke on my spanakopita, is met with stony silence: “Neither are you, but I can still see you.”
These days, court appearances are made by telephone, video or perilously for all those who pride themselves on their ability to elegantly phrase an argument, by written submission, with sub-headings, key sentences and numbered paragraphs. While one does not miss the chest-puffing, peacock strutting counsel striding into court trailed by anxious solicitors carting trolleys of files, or the existential strainings of legal practitioners unburdening their interlocutory applications upon the court lavatories, Themis, the great goddess is sorely missed. As the oracular voice of the Earth, and indeed, some of the judgments of her judicial descendants are as cryptic as the oracles of Delphi, which she founded, direct contact with her is needed in order to instruct us mortals in the primal laws of justice and morality, such as the precepts of piety, the rules of hospitality, good governance, conduct of assembly and the downloading of monitory apps. As the poet Pindar observed: “For in matters of many a purport, veering on every wind that flows, fitly to make due disposition with an upright mind is hard indeed.” Legal viagra if there ever was some.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 May 2020

Saturday, May 09, 2020


In 1816, a Select Committee of Inquiry of the British House of Commons was called upon to deliberate as to whether it would be expedient for Parliament to purchase the Parthenon Marbles from Lord Elgin. The reason why an inquiry was considered necessary was because even back then, serious misgivings were being expressed with regards to the manner in which the Parthenon Marbles came to be in Lord Elgin’s possession, the government not wanting to be seen to be appropriating stolen goods. Lord Aberdeen for instance, expressed the opinion that “he did not think that a private individual could have accomplished the removal of the remains which Lord Elgin obtained” whereas Doctor Hunt reported to the Committee that: “a British subject not in the Situation of an Ambassador could not have been able to obtain from the Turkish Government a firman of such extensive powers.”

Eventually, by means of reasoning widely considered to have been flawed, by leading jurists today, it was determined that Lord Elgin’s appropriation of the Parthenon Marbles was legal and they vainly await repatriation to the present day. Rewind the clock almost two thousand years and a similar proceeding took place against Verres, the Roman governor of Sicily, who, during his governorship, plundered the Greek cities of that island, of their most precious and revered works of art.
Even back then, public opinion considered such spoliation to be morally reprehensible. Verres’ prosecutor, the great Cicero, commented on the psychological effect the plundering of cultural and religious artefacts had on those who they belonged to, emphasizing this loss as being of greater importance than any political or public utility associated with their public display in Rome. His oration eerily reflects the effect of the removal of the Parthenon Marbles from the Acropolis, on the Greek people: “You Verres will plead that your statues and pictures have adorned the city and the forum of the people of Rome… a decoration splendid to the eye, but painful and melancholy to the heart and mind: I looked at the brilliant show that was made by your thefts, bythe robbing of our provinces, by the spoliation of our friends and allies… a large number of persons from Asia and Greece, who happened at the time to be serving on deputations, beheld in our forum the revered image of their gods that had been carried away from their own sanctuaries and recognizing as well the other statues and works of art, some here, some there – would stand gazing at them with weeping eyes… objects wrenched from our allies by criminals and robbers.”
As was the case with the Select Committee of Inquiry into Lord Elgin’s deeds, the Romans too were concerned with the manner in which the cultural heritage of the Greeks of Sicily was purloined by Verres. Lord Elgin’s spurious assertion that he obtained legal permission from the Ottomans was eventually accepted by the Committee. Verres’ assertion, that he paid money for some of the statues and therefore, his ‘purchase’ was legal, was not accepted by Cicero, as this took place under duress and with the Roman governor exercising undue influence. As such, his act of appropriation was a breach of trust: “You, under the presence of purchase which you put forward, in reality seized and took away these things by force, through fear, by your power and authority, from that man, whom, along with the rest of our allies in that country, the Roman people had entrusted not only to your power, but also to your upright exercise of it.”
The concept of ethical purchasing thus was considered to be an important one to the Romans and the British two millennia later, a comparison being drawn by the Select Committee between the manner of acquisition of the Parthenon Marbles as compared to the Phygalian Marbles from the temple of Bassae. Cicero comments on the propriety of appropriating articles from a home in which an official is staying as a guest: “But it certainly was not right that the statue of Apollo should have been taken away from Lyso of Lilybaeum, a most eminent man, with whom you had been staying as a guest. But you will say that you bought it—I know that—for six hundred sesterces. So I suppose: I know it, I say; I will produce the accounts; and yet that ought not to have been done.”
During the deliberations of the Select Committee, the committee members were concerned about the effect of the removal of the Parthenon Marbles upon the Athenian populace asking: “Did it appear to create any sensation either among the principal persons or the inhabitants of Athens?” William Hamilton who was present with Lord Elgin, disingenuously responded by stating: “No unpleasant sensation whatever, they seemed rather to feel it as a means of bringing foreigners into the country and of having money spent amongst them.” This seems to be the only reference to the emotions of the populace and no further follow up questions were asked in order to ascertain how Hamilton formed his opinion and who he spoke to. Cicero, on the other hand was much more sensitive to the effect Verres’ rapacity had on its victims: “What weepings of women, what lamentations do you suppose took place over these things? things which may perhaps seem insignificant to you, but which excite great and bitter indignation, especially among women, who grieve when those things are torn from their hands which they have been accustomed to use in religious ceremonies, which they have received from their ancestors, and which have always been in their family.”
Though going through the motions, the British Select Committee failed to thoroughly investigate both the manner in which the Parthenon Marbles were removed and the effect on Britain’s reputation if such a removal were to be condoned by the purchase of the Marbles from Lord Elgin. For Cicero, however, the lasting damage to Rome’s reputation caused by Verres’ rapacity as at the forefront of his mind, especially when some of his victims were Hellenistic royalty: “How do you suppose the news of this exploit of yours will be received in the dominions of other kings, and in the most distant countries of the world, when they hear that a king has been insulted by a praetor of the Roman people in his province? that a guest of the Roman people has been plundered? a friend and ally of the Roman people insultingly driven out? Know that your name and that of the Roman people will be an object of hatred and detestation to foreign nations. If this unheard-of insolence of Verres is to pass unpunished, all men will think, especially as the reputation of our men for avarice and covetousness has been very extensively spread, that this is not his crime only, but that of those who have approved of it.”
According to human rights lawyer and Parthenon Marbles activist Geoffrey Roberston, Cicero’s speech introduces the idea that art is not just property but rather, has special properties “because of its continuing significance to the people from whom it has been wrested, and a cultural value because of its religious or political context or connotation, or through the historical memories it evokes.”
Verres absconded from Rome after being prosecuted and as a result, his estate was ordered to pay compensation to the victims of his crimes. He spent the rest of his days in another Greek colony, Marseilles, where, fittingly, he was proscribed by Mark Antony, apparently for refusing to surrender some art treasures that Antony coveted for himself. Lord Elgin, vindicated by the Select Committee, did not abscond. Instead, his theft was legitimated by Parliament and its main beneficiary, the British Museum. Yet even today, the words of Cicero highlight  the injustices of colonialism and imperialism, even if by his own admission, his more humane and sensitive approach to the cultural significance of art, serves to further cement the rule of the imperial and colonial power of his day: “In truth, the Greeks delight to a marvellous degree in those things, which we despise. And therefore our ancestors willingly allowed those things to remain in numbers among the allies, in order that they might be as splendid and as flourishing as possible under our dominion; and among those nations whom they rendered taxable or tributary, still they left these things, in order that they who take delight in those things which to us seem insignificant, might have them as pleasures and consolations in slavery. What do you think that the Rhegians, who now are Roman citizens, would take to allow that marble Venus to be taken from them? … What would the Thespians take to lose the statue of Cupid, the only object for which any one ever goes to see Thespiae? It would be a long business and an unnecessary one, to mention what is worth going to see among all the different nations in all Asia and Greece; but that is the reason why I am enumerating these things, because I wish you to consider that an incredible indignation must be the feeling of those men from whose cities these things are carried away.”

First publoshed in NKEE on Saturday 9 May 2020

Saturday, May 02, 2020


“When I look at my photographs today, I feel like an archaeologist might feel when she or he has uncovered some carefully wrought object from the past that illuminates precious relics from the past that illuminates the history and mores and life and ethos of a long ago era. The photos feel to me like precious relics.”
So wrote photographer Robert Mc Cabe in 2018 of his 1955 photographs of a long ago vanished way of life in Mykonos. Those photos, a masterpiece of chiaroscuro, record a frugal, self-reliant, impoverished but intensely dignified community of islanders going about their daily routine, fishing, shopping, conversing, worshipping and celebrating together. The austere nature of the landscape and the stark contrasts between light and dark give insight into a land and time of absolutes: life and death,  sea and land, happiness and despair. The landscape emerges as a primordial and perennial backdrop, upon which people will seasonally appear and then disappear; the photographer reduces, through the crucible of his lens, all of the things that he sees, to their fundamental elements. Statuesque and reminiscent of classical reliefs in the way they pose and carry themselves, the Greeks in McCabe’s photographs form a mythological narrative all of their own and speak to us, even in their supposedly ephemeral nature, over half a century later, of immortality.
“As I look back on this body of work…I am struck by something I hadn’t fully appreciated during the years I was capturing these images. Photography, like the other arts, teaches us to see, not just to look…. The faces I have captured here are of steely resilience, of a people who have tightened their belts, who are sticking together and who are toughing it out.”
Photographer Krasnostein’s album of photographs “A Resilient Spirit: Greek Life During the Lost Decade” recently published by the Hellenic Museum, purports to capture life in the decade in which Greece endured the Financial Crisis. Yet if it were not for title, looking at the photographs, one would struggle to see much in the way of difference, between McCabe’s 1955 portrayals, and those of Krasnostein, half a century later.
Like McCabe, Krasnostein chooses to publish in black and white, the gradations of light and shade giving a gritty edge to his work. Yet while in McCabe’s time colour photography was not widespread, in Krasnostein’s twenty first century, the era of the digital camera, the digital phone and the pixel triumphant, what possible reason could there be in producing photographs that to all intents and purposes look as if they were taken generations ago? Is the artist being anachronistic? Is he enmeshed in his own stylistic stereotype? Or is it the case that Krasnostein instead, is displaying mastery of the genre, in understanding that in the simplicity of a monochromatic image, structure and spatial relationships take precedence, engaging the eyes and drawing the view within? 
Similarly, if one compares the themes of Krasnostein’s work to those of McCabe, remarkable parallels emerge. Like McCabe, Krasnostein’s tableaux are organized around social events, working life, sea, sun, the old, the young and worship. Again, is Krasnostein merely arranging his compositions according to some predetermined prevailing thematic clichés pertaining to Greece and its heritage that verge on the orientalistic? Are we compelled to decode the same bas relief of western imposed classical mythology again and again and again? How is it possible that decades later, in different places and time, the same sort of images recur?
In his introduction to Krasnostein’s album, writer Arnold Zable remarks: “The Greece we both know has risen to the challenge over and again. When we take the longer view, we see that the country has backbone. Its people know how to ride out the crises, and survive with their souls intact.” This observation is key in understanding both Krasnostein’s stylistic and thematic approach to his compositions.
In 1955, when McCabe took his photographs, Mykonos was still recovering from the catastrophic economic and social effects of the Second World War. Yet what emerges from his monochrome images is not a gratuitous chronicle of suffering, but rather, a narrative of stoicism and survival. Krasnostein shares McCabe’s artistic vocabulary. The timeless, romantic, nostalgic look of his black-and-white portraits is anything but a cliché. In hearkening back to an early time, Krasnostein is expertly but unobtrusively, asserting a remarkable narrative of continuity. He comments: “I have taken thousands of photos of Greece and they are all in colour, which is how I see and feel Greece. There is no blue like the Greek blue! But the images for my book just demanded to be in black and white.” We may be in the twenty first century but the tools that have seen the Greeks weather the recent financial crisis not only exist in the past, and it is here that the almost indistinguishable scenes of worship on Mykonos in 1955 (McCabe) and in modern day Lefkada, another island (Krasnostein) but, rather, run through the entire Greek discourse through its inception.
“What happened to the caiques, those magnificent wooden boats that flourished in Mykonos and whose roots went back millennia? You will see them in these photographs but you will not sεe them on the island anymore.” McCabe laments. Yet one will see vessels of similar description populating Krasnostein’s album, denoting the continued relevance not only of the craft, but also of its vital element, the sea. The faces of the elderly women McCabe immortalizes are not the same faces as those captured by Krasnostein. Though separated by half a century, their frowns and furrows form a common alphabet of confined pain and contained hope, forming a perpetual prescription for perseverance. In inadvertent dialogue with Mc Cabe, (for as the artist admits: “I was not aware of McCabe’s work but looking at his photos, he and I, I think shared an interest in the same things,”) Krasnostein’s austere but sensitive images achieve the almost impossible: a foray into the four dimensions,  incorporating depth and time, as a means of contextualizing the modern Greek experience so that it can be seen within the corpus of its own tradition. Far from being stereotypical or culturally appropriating, his is a revolutionary and highly accurate depiction of the many layers of history and social memory encoded within each evocative image.

Despite the similarities between the two artists’ works, on page 87 of Krasnostein’s album there exists an arresting and powerful image. In McCabe’s work, people are generally depicted in action. Even when they are stationary, they are invariably engrossed in some task. The background may be stark and bleak, but a sense of movement and progress prevails and much of Krasnostein’s work echoes this. When we get to his photograph of a bearded man standing alone in Syntagma, however, we would do well to pause. On the opposite page, another solitary figure stands, the expressionless guard of Syntagma, a symbol of endurance and strength given that the soldier remains there motionless, in perpetual vigil, not even relaxing the expression on his face. On the wall behind him are inscribed the names of places where Greeks have fought heroic battles to ensure their own survival. A sleeping dog lies at the steps some distance away. He is secure in the knowledge of his continued existence. Juxtaposed against the evzone’s light foustanella, the black-clad man’s gaze is anything but reassuring. He has come, quite literally to the end of the road, the bright tessellated pavement butting up distinctly against the dark river of asphalt. Everything has stopped. The man looks up at the sky and there is a look of complete confusion and ambivalence in his face. Where to from here? No other image in the album conveys such a feeling of insecurity. And yet, in his subtle way, in the predictable pattern of the pavement tiles, in the steely, unwavering gaze of the evzone and the writing on the wall, in the blind faith of the quadruped at his feet, the answer is everywhere. Just turn your head, connect and engage.

David Krasnostein’s paean to the enduring relevance and dignity of the Greek people, “A Resilient Spirit,” was to be launched at the Hellenic Museum in April. It is possibly fitting that the intervention of the coronavirus pandemic has postponed the launch, for Greece and indeed all of humanity, is now embarked on another major quest for survival, one which will inevitably cause us to question the dross with which we surround ourselves as a comfortable bourgeois society and confront those elements that are inimical to our vitality. Now, we are placed in a unique position to critique the folly of a consumerist society that values the novel without drawing lessons from and discarding the experience of the old. More than ever, the fundamentals encapsulated by Krasnostein’s images provide us with much needed inspiration to endure our trials, taking as our example, the constant, unwavering hardiness and strength of the Greek people. And we take comfort and courage in the message that Krasnostein conveys: We will get through this, all of us. As Arnold Zable writes of Krasnostein’s Greece:  “ It is a country where people understand that at the heart of life there must be humanity. Conversation. A longing for communion.”  The Greeks, through Krasnostein, have shown us the way.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 2 May 2020