Life, well-lived

Death in the ancient world was pretty elaborate, too. 

Before we started to explore the gilded world of the Mycenaeans, we started our morning walking around the Agora of Athens. From 800 BC till the barbarians got to it in 267 AD, this was the heart of the city’s commercial, political, and social life.

One could shop in the now-reconstructed Stoa of Attalos – an early mall. Its relief from the sun is as welcome today as it must have been in the second century BC. What was then shops is now a museum of artifacts of the area from 3200 BC up to Roman times. See how early toilet-training was done, along with hair combing. Write your neighbor’s name down on a pottery remnant and see if you could get him ostracized from Athens for ten years in an annual vote from which no one was immune! Admire the statues of prominent citizens – the ones who haven’t been ostracized yet. (Should we bring back that practice?)

The Agora is mainly ruins now. But it used to hold all the governing bodies of the city, and was a center for political discussion. Athenians took an active interest in their government, and were very likely to hold a public office as part of a mandated participation system.

Want to think about weighty matters of philosophy and existence. Watch Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle stroll by, debating with their followers. The was also the place where Diogenes, homeless, roamed around with his lighted lamp during the middle of the day looking for an honest man. And if that isn’t enough, you can visit the precise spot where a group of Athenians invented the concept of democracy.

It all happened in the Agora, which sits below the Acropolis.

Slightly elevated over the Agora is the Temple of Hephaistos, one of the best preserved of all Greek temples. It is small, about half the size of the Parthenon and just a couple of years older, with lovely views.

Our big stop of the day was the National Archaeological Museum, where they keep the real treasures. It is home to examples of every Greek civilization, stretching from 7,000 BC to 500 AD.

We started with artifacts from the Cycladic Islands older than the Pyramids, from around 2,500 BC, plus wall paintings from what is now called the island of Santorini. Gorgeous. And may I just add that this museum offered us our first ride in a marble-floored elevator? We are officially spoiled.

Then the stunning Mycenaean treasures appear. When Heinrich Schliemann excavated Troy in the 19th century, he was determined to find the site of the Greeks who had conquered Troy. He excavated Mycenae and was convinced that the gold trove he found in a tomb site represented the burial goods and death mask of Agamemnon – see top picture.

There is a suspicion in some circles that he added the mustache on the mask to flatter the king of Prussia, but who knows. It is known, however, that the mask and all the splendid finds of the tomb long pre-date the battle of Troy of about1250 BC, so attribution to Agamemnon is inaccurate.

So what? The gold of Mycenae is fabulous, as are the frescoes, the clay tablets in Linear B, the oldest written Greek language, and the pottery finds. I’ll take any of them.

The next collection of Greek statues show the human representation in their stiff early days, which became more naturalistic through the ages.

My absolute favorites are the bronzes which were found in 1928 in a shipwreck from ancient times. Very few Greek bronzes remain, which is one reason these are special. The other is that they are outstanding creations, which really take your breath away. The first is either Zeus or Poseidon, depending on whether you think he was about to throw a thunderbolt or a trident. The second is a young boy, known as the Artemision Jockey, astride the most magnificent horse. Just imagine the missing reins and the whip.

Thanks to a contemporary reproduction, we do have an idea of what the 40-foot gold and ivory statue of Athena in the Parthenon looked like. What a knockout she must have been.

Other treasures fill this museum, which must require a lifetime to explore properly. Here is a smorgasbord (don’t know what Greeks would call it) of the other things which caught our eyes.

Don’s Food Corner

We were filled to the brim with astonishing historic sights and were gorging ourselves on art treasures (the photos here give only a hint of their breathtaking scope) so we gave little thought to food today.  We went to the cafe in the museum, grabbed a bit of pizza and a bit of Greek salad, and ran right back to the galleries.

You can take an Alka Seltzer when you’ve had too much to eat, but what do you take when you’ve seen too much in one day? I can’t believe we ate the whole thing.

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