Greeks today might ask: What would Pericles do?
Greek opinion is divided over the government’s plan to offer the Parthenon and other heritage sites as film and photo backdrops to raise revenue during its current economic crisis. “This is sacrilege!” one Greek tour guide protested. But others thought that, humbling though the measure might be, it was at least better than begging for foreign bailouts.
For some Greeks, the debate may have evoked a sense of déjà vu. Pericles, the great Athenian statesman, also proposed raiding the Parthenon to meet a shortfall, nearly 2,500 years ago — challenging the boundaries not just of good taste but of religious taboo.
The Parthenon has always been a symbol of Athenian pride, but when first built in the mid-5th century BC, it was also a monument to Athenian wealth. Within it was housed the state treasury and a hoard of gold and silver vessels, the sacred property of Athena. A colossal statue of that goddess, decked with ivory skin and gold-leaf armor, dazzled visitors with a display of Athens’ massive fiscal surplus.
To exploit such holy relics was, ordinarily, a heinous crime, and “temple robber” was about the worst thing an ancient Greek could be called. Yet financial crises have a way of redefining what is sacred and what is profane, as modern Europe has learned. So too do long wars, which often lead to financial crises — as did the war Athens and Sparta began in 431 BC, the heyday of Pericles.
Pericles proposed, as that war loomed, that if Athens exhausted its funds, it could melt down and coin Athena’s treasure or pawn the gold and ivory on the statue of the goddess. In modern terms, this was as extreme as using the Parthenon not just as a film set but as a five-star hotel. The pious must have howled in protest, but Thucydides, the historian who recorded the episode, presents it matter of factly as just another example of Pericles’ sound common sense.
Thucydides even notes that Pericles, while overseeing the Parthenon’s construction, had thought to make the statue’s gold and ivory plates detachable. If this is so — no trace of the statue or its precious covering survives — then the canny statesman had a sharp eye for what we would call liquidity. Pericles only committed capital to the Acropolis after making sure that the city, in a pinch, could get it back again.
Pericles softened his proposals by vowing that whatever Athens took from the Parthenon it would replace, presumably when the war was won. But as that war became a desperate slugfest, long after Pericles’ death, the “loan” turned into a gift. Faced with ruin and imminent defeat, Athens helped itself to the temple hoard and never restored it — though it did pay a small rate of interest. Athena, evidently, was a more lenient creditor than modernGreece’sbondholders.
Surprising though Pericles’ statue-stripping scheme might be, it is surpassed in audacity by another plan, also recorded by Thucydides. Advisors from Corinth allegedly told the Spartans to fund their war effort with Greece’smost sacred gold, the treasures of Olympia and Delphi. Corinth was famous in antiquity for sharp business practice, but the reverent Spartans raised no objection to the plan. The two holiest shrines in Hellas were, under this proposal, to be used in effect as ATMs (though the cash withdrawn was, in theory at least, to be paid back).
Delphi is one of the heritage sites that modern Greece will promote as sets for ads and films. Purists may be appalled to see bathing suits modeled and soft drinks guzzled in front of Apollo’s oracle. But they can take comfort in the thought that the Delphic priests themselves were among history’s savviest salesmen. They happily took cash in exchange for favorable prophecies. Lacking an army, they spread legends suggesting that the gods would bring disaster on any who raided their shrine. The tactic worked — until it didn’t. Much of Delphi’s treasure ended up coined to hire soldiers, after a neighboring city-state seized the site in the 4th century BC.
Pericles would no doubt admire modern Greeks for using cherished relics to bootstrap themselves out of crisis. So would Thucydides, Pericles’ great fan and chronicler. Both men were modernists and pragmatists, willing to regard even a sacred shrine as a revenue stream. In tough times, they understood, a brave nation does what must be done — even if that means shaking down the gods.
James Romm is a professor of classics at Bard College and author of “Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire.”
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