The Parthenon’s Ever-Changing Veneer

The ruins of the Parthenon crown the modern city of Athens with a hazy ambiguity. To the world outside of Athens, the stunning monument identifies the birthplace of Western civilization, reflecting its founding ideals and embodying absolute perfection. It bestows upon the city a unique dignity, gracing the horizon with elegance and grandeur. You can read such perceptions clearly on the faces of tourists, as they gaze upon the magnificent structure and delightedly snap photographs. But to the generations of people that have called the city home, the meaning of the monument is constantly changing.

Only the eyes of the beholder can determine the significance

Only the eyes of the beholder can determine the significance

Completed in 438 BC, the Parthenon has carried countless implications over the past two and a half millennia. Today, as the Greek economy implodes upon itself, irony drips from the cliffs of the majestic Acropolis onto the dilapidated stalls of the Monastiraki. To some, the Parthenon stands as a painful reminder of the glorious past, evoking the stories of cultural imperialism and regional domination that ushered the city to its present state. As the breathtaking remains of what was once the most revered city, the monument mocks its home’s current condition. It exposes the gap between the city’s triumphant beginnings and its contemporary humility, pointing to its society’s declining standards and values. It taunts the ugly, industrial city with reminders of what once was, but may never be again.

To others, even the Parthenon itself is no longer beautiful. Instead, it is a literal representation of the desolation that characterizes today’s city. The ruins have been called “colorless skeletons,” reflecting the country’s bitter history. The temple has been described as the “dismembered corpse” that forces us to acknowledge the city’s bygone days.

The Greek media often correlates the solid marble with the political immobility and indifference of the governing elite. Some Athenians write the structure off as “a tool in the hands of fascism,” recalling the nationalistic rhetoric of former military dictatorships. They refuse to forget how the authoritarian leaders manipulated and exploited the structure’s patriotic implications in their efforts to control the consciousness of the people.

Still others shake their heads at the commercial and touristic exploitation of the Parthenon. Perhaps the modern age has degraded the monument with its endless reproductions and replications. After all, many a tourist leaves the city with his very own bubble-wrapped Parthenon nestling in his suitcase.

Even so, some Athenians view the crumbling structure as a reflection of the city’s astounding strength and endurance. As the distinguished scholar Liana Giannakopoulou famously wrote, “Dismembered through it may be, it discloses its power more intensely when it is the barer. A heroic, triumphant energy reveals itself in those very ruins.” In other words, the Parthenon reflects the immortal beauty of the Greek spirit and its unique ability to transcend time.

Even to the ancients, this structure conveyed a variety of contradicting meanings. Its construction was initially opposed by Thucydides and his supporters because it was funded with reserves that had been entrusted to Athens by its Delian League allies. Transferring the treasury from Delos to Athens and using the funds to support such a building project was seen to be a gross abuse of power. On the other hand, Pericles and his supporters believed the city was entitled to these reserves after leading the tremendous Greek victory over the Persians. He claimed that the monument would rightfully immortalize the city’s power and strength, while creating jobs for the people and thus fairly dispersing the spoils of war.

Because the people ultimately voted in favor of the Parthenon’s construction, electing the architects and sculptor as well, the monument came to reflect a new era of civilian power and democratic government. Moreover, the daily wages that were paid out over the course of ten years to the 1,000 people who aided in the construction project empowered the populace in an entirely unprecedented way. Even so, as the traditional aristocracy lost its footing and new actors emerged, this redistribution of power was seen by many to be politically dangerous.

But most importantly, the building’s construction marked a new era of peace. The beginning of construction commemorated the end of the Athenians’ vow to leave the ruins as an eternal reminder of the Persian’s burning of the Acropolis. To those within Athens, this new construction project sparked an architectural revival.

To those outside of the city, however, the construction of the Parthenon was nothing unusual. Pheidias, the sculptor of the Parthenon’s cult-statue of Athena, had just completed the magnificent statue of Zeus at Olympia. Similarly, Iktinos, one of the architects, came to work on the Parthenon after designing the temple of Apollo in Arkadia, while Kallikrates, the other architect, would later design the Nike temple on the Acropolis. The structure inherited every one of its aesthetic refinements from earlier buildings. Even its amazing “entasis,” the gradual swelling of the columns intended to counterbalance the impression of concavity, was nothing new. The slight curve within every one of the monument’s horizontal lines gave it an elasticity that had been experimented with many times before. Many saw the Parthenon’s functions as merely practical: it was to serve as the Delian League’s treasury, and as a shelter for the cult-statue.

The building came to take on many other functions as the centuries progressed. It was converted into an Orthodox church in the fifth century AD and, because many of the classical artistic themes were deemed to be unbefitting, many of its sculptures and metopes were defaced. With the conquest of Greece during the Crusades, the Parthenon became a Catholic church. In the 15th century, Greece was overtaken by the Ottoman empire and the structure became a mosque with a minaret attached to it. Because the Ottomans then used the structure as a powder keg during their war with the Venetians, the Parthenon exploded in 1687. The Ottomans then built a new, smaller mosque amidst the destruction.

After so many phases of foreign occupation, the Greeks no longer associated these antiquities with their native culture. Instead, the Parthenon came to symbolize domination from the outside and brutal oppression. In fact, Greek folklore propagated the belief that supernatural spirits dwelt within the marble, many of which were human beings that had been petrified by magicians. While the Greeks were afraid to approach these ruins, foreigners flocked to them.

From 1802 to 1812, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, bribed local Ottoman authorities into permitting the removal of about half of the Parthenon frieze, fifteen metopes, and seventeen pedimental fragments, in addition to a caryatid and a column from the Erechtheion. He used these antiquities to decorate his mansion in Scotland and then later sold them to the British Museum in an attempt to repay his escalating debt. The introduction of the marbles to the public scene radically influenced the aesthetic taste of the British aristocracy, provoking a dramatic Greek revival.

In response to this shift in the Western artistic perception, Greece rediscovered its ancestral heritage, giving rise to what scholars call the “imagined community of the Hellenic nation.” The Greeks created a new national narrative, remolding their folklore to demonstrate a continuity between themselves and the ancients and devoting themselves to the study, collection, and systematic care of these antiquities. The Parthenon marbles taken by Lord Elgin have become metaphors for the five million people who live outside the borders of Greece, but still consider themselves Greek. Like the marbles, these immigrants have experienced the heartbreak of living in exile, separated from relatives and homeland. The spectacular ruins reflect the profound pride in a rich cultural heritage that no economic crisis could ever uproot.

When you glimpse this elegant interruption to the city’s modern skyline, the strength and perseverance of the Greek people seem unmistakable. In the early 1900s, the Greek government set out on a program to “purify” the Greek language, returning it to its classical roots and calling this new version katharevousa. Much of the population opposed these measures, and instead championed the naturally developing demotic version of the language. Those who opposed katharevousa connected the living version of the language with the ruined Parthenon, claiming that the supposed imperfection brings authenticity. In restoring either the language or the Parthenon, the government would degrade the freedom and grace that comes with withstanding the test of time. The crumbling Parthenon, like the evolving demotic language, embodies the tested resilience of the Greek spirit.



Filed under Melanie Graf, Student Blogs

2011 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog. Read on for more information on who visited, commented on, and enjoyed the Hellenic Legacy blog. Thanks first and foremost to our wonderful student bloggers, Catherine, Christina, and Melanie! And thanks to the parents, relatives, friends, ACG students, and Greek America Foundation fans who read and commented on this blog. Stay tuned for more fun posts and commentary on life in Greece in 2012!

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,400 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 57 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Before we knew it, Christmas was just around the corner. To get us in the Christmas spirit, the Study Abroad Program provided us with decorations that we used to decorate the lobby of our apartment building. Also, all of the study abroad students got together for a pot luck dinner. We finished it off with a Christmas classic movie, Home Alone.

I can’t believe my study abroad experience has come to an end. Time truly flies when you’re having fun. My study aboard experience far exceeded my expectations. I never expected that I would become so close with other study abroad students and consider Athens a home away from home. I also became close with my family that lives in Greece. In the near future, they are hoping to travel to the States to visit me and my family. While I was in Athens, I had the opportunity to travel throughout Greece with the study abroad program and to travel outside of the country with my friends. I spent Halloween in Copenhagen, Denmark, No Day (a Greek holiday) in Barcelona, Spain, and Thanksgiving in Venice and Rome, Italy. It definitely wasn’t a bad way to spend my holidays. These trips gave me the opportunity to learn more about European cultures. I enjoyed being able to experience firsthand the diverse cultures of Denmark, Spain, and Italy. Even though I had the time of my life traveling, it was always nice to return “home” to Greece. Whenever I got on a plane bound for Athens, my friends and I always felt like we were traveling home.

Leaving Greece and all my new friends was not an easy task. Maybe one day I will be able to again visit the wonderful country that I was able to call home for four months. During my walk to the taxi with my roommate early Saturday, December 17, I could not grasp the idea that I was leaving Greece and returning home to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Even as I boarded the plane in Athens, I felt like my final destination was going to be elsewhere in Europe, not the United States. It didn’t hit me until I reached my parents in the Savannah, Georgia airport that my study abroad experience was over and that it was time to return back to reality.

Despite the fact that it was hard to leave Greece, it was nice to return home with my family. There is no place like home. It is wonderful to be home surrounded by family for the holidays. I was able to share my experience with my family by bringing them back souvenirs and showing them the pictures I had taken while abroad. I will forever cherish my experience abroad.

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The bone I’d like to pick with Greece: Where have all the dances gone?

Every college campus has its local hang-out place. Aside from the fact that this place probably offers the cheapest food around, it is also the place that stays open after everything else has closed, serving irresistibly greasy foods. For those returning to Boston College from a night out on the town, Roggie’s is the primary destination. Slender girls dressed to the nines will order two slices of pizza with a side order of garlic bread. By the end of the evening, Roggie’s is the place to be, as kids line up at the counter hollering orders. As the final destination for such a large portion of the student body, the name of the place alone evokes hilarious memories of epic nights out. And it is this very place that, every other month or so, morphs into a Greek glendi.

BC students dancing the zeimbekiko at Roggie's

The BC Hellenic Society rents out the bottom floor and members take turns plugging their ipods, replete with Greek playlists, into the sound system. As the evening progresses, students holding pizza slices and scarfing down cheesy bread follow the strange music down to our dance floor. Pretty soon, they find themselves kneeling beside us, hooting and hollering for the zeimbekiko dancer, someone they probably recognize from class. They dance gleefully to the familiar pop beat of Anna Vissi and Sakis Rouvas songs, though they can’t understand the lyrics. Then, they stand off to the side and clap along as we lock shoulders and try the complicated Bulgarian version of the hasapiko serviko.

I am one of those girls that can barely walk in heels, but the shooting pain in my feet would somehow disappear as they’d watch us dance. In the basement of Roggie’s, stomping out the traditional village dances, I felt so proud to be Greek. Despite the wafting smells of fried food, our traditions were still so dignified and impressive.

While some of us at BC grew up dancing the intricate pentozali and ikariotiko at church festivals, the rest of us learned them in the evenings after class. I invited two Greek-American friends over to my dorm to teach them the steps one evening during freshman year, and before long, my roommates had joined in. Then, the girls next door. We YouTubed traditional Greek songs late into the night, dancing until we were too exhausted to stand any longer. By the time I was a sophomore, we had organized a Hellenic Dance Troupe and would meet weekly in some secluded classroom to teach each other dances. Pushing all the desks to a back corner, we would create a makeshift dance floor and, whoever had remembered his ipod speaker dock would plug it in. The hour that would then unfold was usually the highlight of my week. We each became Zorba, as our problems would dissipate in the face of the slow crescendo.

Greek dancing does not require much coordination or athletic ability. Once you learn a dance, you realize you are soon able to do it without thinking. Your legs become programmed to move as they’re supposed to move and you become one with the bouzouki melody. Your mind inevitably rises above your usual problems and concerns and you find yourself in a place where nothing but the steps and the beat seem relevant. If you had forgotten to wear sneakers, you would probably take off your shoes and dance barefoot. In the moments where we were all perfectly synchronized, perfectly integrated and melded together, we didn’t feel so different from the proud Greek village people.

But now that I am in Greece, I have found that these dances have somehow been forgotten. I spent August 15th, a major Greek Orthodox holiday commemorating the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, in a remote mountain village where a friend from Athens still has very tangible roots. Their panegyri involved a lively band, delectable food, plenty of ouzo and rakomelo, but very little dancing. Every so often, the band would play a song that could pass for a hasapiko or one of the soustes, and I’d look around desperately to see if anyone was getting up, but no one would budge. Occasionally, a handful of villagers would stand up and join hands– and I’d come bounding over– but what would follow was little more than a glorified walk. At Greek school, we would dance our folk dances, remembering the proud Soulioti women who danced off the cliff side in an effort to avoid capture by the Turks, but it seems that these noble dances have become a thing of the past.

In the bouzoukia, the chic nightclubs of Athens, Greek music artists take turns on stage, first singing a repertoire of their own songs and then switching over to well-known traditional ones. As the night progresses and the tsipouro flows freely, some of the Greeks will make their way onto the stage to dance. Delighted, I usually follow them up there. But it’s always this same glorified walk, something like a trot, involving no wild leaps, no complicated figoures. You can rarely even find a kalamatiano. I never return to my table glistening with sweat, like I used to in Boston, fully energized and completely out of breath.

At the rembetadika, taverna-like venues where they play more traditional music, it’s pretty much the same thing. The band will play a perky song and people will get up to do their usual trot. I taught a study abroad friend my favorite dance, the pentozali, a name that translates roughly to “five crazy steps,” and we’d get up and dance it whenever the music seemed suitable, but no one would join in. I cannot understand it. In this increasingly globalized age, have the Greeks forgotten their folk dances? Maybe these traditions have been lost in the generational turnover. Or has this new generation just lost interest in such customs, deeming them to be archaic and tiresome? To be fair, we certainly don’t square dance anymore in the States. We would never rush to the dance floor to do a waltz. Or perhaps the economic crisis, with its harrowing austerity measures, has taken a toll on the vibrant Greek cultural consciousness?

I wasn’t homesick on the Fourth of July, as a treated myself to a hot dog and pictured the fireworks over Playland amusement park. Though I perused facebook album after facebook album of my friends dressed up in their goofy costumes, I was not homesick on Halloween. I wasn’t even homesick on Thanksgiving, when I skyped with my parents as they pulled the turkey out of the oven. But I am acutely homesick anytime the bouzouki player launches into a ikariotiko and no one leaps from his seat, as everyone would back home. I yearn to dance, but have no one to dance with. As I prepared for my year here, I had imagined the plethora of new dances I would learn and bring back home with me to show off and teach. But now I worry I might forget some of my skills over their year of disuse.

Me, with my mother and my grandmother, dancing the "sailor's dance"

Positioned between my mother and grandmother, I used to dance at church dances until I could dance no more. We would whistle and whoop for the leader of the line, cheering for friends across the dance floor and beckoning for those still seated to latch on. One year, my mom tore her meniscus as we danced the Bulgarian hasapiko serviko, which resulted in weeks on the couch with an elevated knee, but she cannot contain herself when she hears the music. We scamper onto the dance floor, alongside our friends and relatives, and let our feet take over. The music is in our blood, speaking to the core of our beings and rendering us irreversibly bound to the rhythm. Contagious and addicting, there is no abandoning it. It is always the band, fully spent and exhausted, that concedes the dance and announces it’s time to go. Maintenance begins cleaning up the discarded bottles and cans, flashing the lights for last call. It is then and only then that we stop dancing, reluctantly leaving the dance floor behind us with the sounds of Greece echoing in our heads, as we dream of the next excuse to dance again.

This post also appeared on as a part of my series “Musing in Athens.”


Filed under Melanie Graf

Traveling Through Greece

The Study Abroad Program has kept us very busy this month. During the middle of October, the Study Abroad Program provided a Greek cooking class for all of us to learn how to make some of the traditional cuisines that we have been eating for the last two months. I have grown up around Greek food and I have had the opportunity to cook some Greek dishes, but I have wanted to learn more. We learned a variety of different Greek dishes, such as tyropitas (philo and cheese), traditional Greek salad, souvlaki, and mousaka. The best part of the class was the fact that we were allowed to eat all the food we made when we were done. It was the perfect way to end the class.

Towards the end of October, we had our second excursion. This one was to Nafplio and to Nemea. Nafplio is a city located in the Peloponnese and was once the capital of Greece. We started off with a tour of one of the three castles in the old city. Then, we ended the tour at a museum , where we learned about the history of Kombolói (also known as worry beads). Kombolói are commonly seen in the hands of males throughout Greece. The beads are played with to ease stress. Then, we had lunch together at a local traditional Greek tavern with absolutely delicious foods. We were then allowed to explore Nafplio on our own until it was time for us to hop on the bus again in order to travel to Nemea. The drive to Nemea was a curvy one with breathtaking views. Unlike Athens, Nemea has luscious landscapes that you can stare at for hours. At Nemea, we visited one of the many wineries. We began with a tour and ended with a wine tasting. We not only got to try locally made wines but we also learned how to properly taste wine.

Last weekend, three study abroad people and I went on a hiking trip to the Vouraikos Gorge. The gorge is about a three hour drive from Athens that was led by the Outdoor Activity Club at Deree. We, along with other Deree students, followed the train tracks for 8 miles around the gorge. It was definitely the perfect time of the year to go the Vouraikos Gorge because the fall leaves made the beautiful views ten times more gorgeous. Also, we could not have asked for better weather. It was a sunny and chilly day which is perfect for hiking.

Last Thursday, I went on a field trip with my History of Ancient Greece class to the Acropolis Museum, the Acropolis, the Agora, and the Agora Museum. On the way to the Acropolis Museum, my friend and I were talking about how we could not get over the fact that we were going on a field trip to see THE ACROPOLIS. Normally we go on field trips to the aquarium or to some local museum not to one of the most famous ruins in the world. It definitely made a difference to actually see the ruins we are learning about in our class in person. You are able to gain a different perspective that you would not be able to by just sitting in a classroom.

I cannot believe that I have been in Greece for about three months. I cannot even bear to think about how I am leaving in one month. The other study abroad kids and I have become like a family and consider R1 (our residence) a home away from home. It is going to be hard to part from all of them in December. Luckily for us we still have a whole month left to make more memories together.


Filed under Christina Macropoulos

The Other Side of Athens

To most who arrive in Athens, the city resembles something between a complex of industrial factories, and the dodgy areas of Detroit. Smokestacks shooting out dark clouds pepper the skyline, above the endless maze of concrete and cement. It is a claustrophobic monstrosity, with street after street of wearisome grayish-white buildings and sidewalks. At night, when the shops close up and the chain shields come down in front of the entrances, you walk down the vacant streets wishing you had brought along your mace.

The ground level of the building facades are coated with colorful graffiti and wallpapered with posters promoting the various upcoming strikes. Whether it’s scribbled on or painted in elaborate bubble letters, the graffiti is almost always in English, as if the artists want to ensure that all who lay eyes on their work will comprehend its message. But the content often seems random and nonsensical, given that large portions of it have been lost to the graffiti encroaching from all sides. On my way to work, I walk under an overpass with “SOCRATES” written in bold blue spray paint and spend the rest of my walk guessing at the missing part.

Perhaps half of the graffiti in Athens bears a political message, while the other half further propagates the ruthless war between the city’s soccer teams. Signifying Panathinaikos’ fan section, “ΘΗΡΑ 13” is probably the most common phrase you will see spray painted across the concrete. But often, you will see the green Panathinaikos writing crossed out by red Olympiakos font with “ΘΗΡΑ 7!!!” now written wildly across it. While some may rightfully regard graffiti as art, others look at the scrawling warily, knowing that young hoodlums lurk in the shadows, waiting to vandalize once the street empties out.

On the surface, Athens is saturated with negative aspects. The rule of thumb for returning tourists is usually to waste as little time in Athens as possible. They try to arrange direct transportation from the airport to the ports, scheduling their ferry rides to the beautiful islands as close as possible to the time that they land. And in this way, Athens is always shortchanged. It is brushed off as dirty, monotonous, cramped, and constricted. The tourist never gets to see its redeeming aspects.

I’m not trying to say that you have to put on your rose-colored glasses and see the smokestack as a blossoming lily; I just mean the city is replete with treasures that you’ll never see if you don’t spend enough time in it. I could approach this claim from a variety of different angles, but for now, I will focus on the green land that punctures the image of Athens that most foreigners have.

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For starters, there is a park called Alsos Veikou in the neighborhood of Galatsi that arguably puts Central Park to shame. For example, is there anywhere in Central Park where you can find bushes of wild oregano growing? Can you pick zucchini and corn from the plants that line the walking paths? No, there is no skating rink and no Belvedere castle, but if you walk to the gazebos at the top, you will find a view that takes your breath away. And there will be no skyscrapers to block the brilliant sunset.

You won’t find a Boathouse Cafe, but you will certainly find a few quaint little cafés tucked amidst the wildlife. They have backgammon boards you can borrow and are known for their heavenly waffles with ice cream. As indicated by the bleachers continuously lined with ardent fans, the park’s main attraction is probably the soccer field. Even if the field is currently featuring a scrimmage between eight-year-olds, you will find a comical superabundance of fathers hooting and hollering from the sidelines.

You can make your way to the basketball and tennis courts, or the jungle gym, and witness a kind of parenting that you will never see in the States. There are no babysitters hovering below the children as they swing from the monkey bars and no mothers following their toddlers around to blow their noses and wipe their drool. Instead, you will see a horde of children running wild, while the parents sit off to the side chatting or playing or cards. And it might be 10:00 pm.

It is all much more natural. There is no carousel, no marionette theater, and no zoo, but there is certainly a cat under every other park bench or café table. And once, while I was jogging through the wooded trails, a gigantic tortoise lumbered into my path. Actually, this has happened more than once. I was running the paths around Lykavittos, zoned out and blasting my ipod, when I almost sent a tortoise soaring from the cliffside.

The Lykavittos mountainside is another site that is often overlooked. Every tourist guide features the magnificent viewpoint from the top of the mountain, with its charming white chapel and fancy dinner restaurant, but tourists rarely consider bypassing the funicular ride. The funicular takes you from chic Kolonaki, directly through the mountain, to this perfect vantage point, drastically decreasing the amount of calories you would have to expend otherwise.

Of course, you could find the staircase that takes you straight up, but it’s not exactly a piece of cake. Instead, you could go for a beautiful stroll that winds around the mountainside. You might not make it all the way to the top, but you are guaranteed to find breathtaking views in every direction you look. Even the base of the mountain is considerably higher than the majority of the city. Moreover, you will be snapping pictures alongside pine trees and cypress trees, rather than being elbowed and shoved by your fellow globetrotters clamoring to take pictures as well.

My favorite thing about meandering through the Lykavittos paths is that you notice a drastic change in vegetation. You start off amidst thick evergreens and then, as you make your way to the other side of the mountain where the sun beats down all day, you find yourself surrounded by prickly cactuses and the occasional palm tree. You are transported from the Swiss Alps to the Sahara and back again as you loop around the mountain. You can choose whether you’d like to sit on a bench and perfect your tan, or read your book in the quiet shade with a soft pine-scented breeze. As you weave through the trees, you will be amazed by how quiet Athens suddenly becomes and how sweet the air can be.

Same thing goes for Kaisariani. Though it’s only a suburb of Athens, you will feel as if you’re trekking through the remote wilderness as you make your way through the tree-covered walking trails. You expect to see nymphs flitting between the cypresses. The entrance to Kaisariani reminds me of the Boston Commons. The cobblestone path and stone buildings bear a strange resemblance to the transition from Newbury Street to the Commons green. But of course, the stone buildings on Newbury are not monasteries from the 11th century, like the one that stands at the entrance to Kaisariani.  They contain neither icons from the Byzantine Empire, nor 14th-century frescos. And you will be hard-pressed to find a miraculous spring of water that promises strength and fertility anywhere on the Boston Commons grounds.

The parks of Athens only scratch the surface of the unique things this city has to offer. Where else in the world can you be strolling down a high-end shopping street and find a beautiful Byzantine church sprouting from the middle of the road? Where else in the world can you glimpse a structure as elegant and dignified as the Parthenon in the distance, as you make your way across the city? While the nondescript buildings that characterize modernity might be a dime a dozen as you travel the globe, where else can you find anything like the Acropolis peeking its majestic profile between buildings?

This post also appeared on as a part of my series “Musing in Athens.”


Filed under Melanie Graf

Is the economic crisis partially rooted in “philotimo”?

Look up the Greek word philotimo and you will find one of the longest entries in your dictionary. Ask a Greek what he means by philotimo and you will see this dictionary  entry personified. The individual you have chosen to ask will most likely embark upon a lengthy oration, emphatically waving his hands to illustrate his points. He will probably endeavor to elucidate this term via a series of personal examples. A taxi driver returning the iPhone lodged between the seat cushions, or a street vendor tracking down the customer who had given him a fifty instead of a five. There’s probably the story of the breathtaking young wife who never dreamed of straying from her marriage vows, even while her husband was away at war. Or you might get the one about the brother who would bring fresh flowers once a week to his sister’s bedside.

Philotimo is a term that simply does not translate into English. You will find yourself engaging in a Charades-like conversation, as you exclaim words like “integrity!” and “self-esteem!” and “honor!” You will run out of guesses before long, and your Greek counterpart will grow frustrated of shaking his head. Apparently, English will somehow never do justice to the implicit meaning of philotimo.

How does philotimo translate?

I came across an article written almost half a century ago, containing a definition that resonates strangely today. According to distinguished scholar Admantia Pollis, philotimo involves the idea of the individual as an integral part of a pre-existing organic system. It entails the fundamental understanding that the greater entity to which an individual belongs– whether that be his network of extended family, his neighborhood community, or his church community– demands certain behavior of him. Rather than aspire to fulfill his own desires and aspirations, the individual should strive to fulfill his role within this group. In other words, according to this particular definition, philotimo is a view of self that repudiates individual autonomy, demanding instead a steadfast devotion to the group.

Perhaps today’s crisis is partially rooted in this intrinsic cultural understanding. Grounded in the underlying assumption that one must look out for one’s own, Greek political culture is riddled with patronage systems and clientelism. Kinship systems often remain perfectly intact as they transpose themselves into the business world or the political realm. In fact, the professional world is replete with obvious examples of this. Diaplekomena symferonta, or interlinked interests, is the term scholars use to refer to the opaque links between powerful private firms and the leading political parties.

My “Charades teammate” (i.e., Greek counterpart) raises his eyebrows, while simultaneously tilting back his head a tad. Though he clicks his tongue only softly, this combination of gestures indicates a very resounding “no.” I have found that when I present this theory of mine to Greeks, they quickly become offended and aggravated. As I trace this cultural value through to its political manifestations and economic implications, I am told that I misconstrue its meaning. Or rather, I twist and convolute it until it becomes no longer recognizable. Philotimo connotes something honest, innocent, and pure, but I corrupt and contort it until it turns into something else.

But is it really that different? Traditional associations might no longer be as prevalent today as they once were, but new associations have come to take their place. To a large extent, unions have replaced the classic social networks of church communities and extended families. Transcribed from the mountain villages to the bustling city of Athens, these new associations adhere to Pollis’ description of philotimo: individuals will still seek to play their role within the greater whole.

And the problem is that this “greater whole” does not refer to the country, but to a person’s immediate group. If the average Greek aimed to fulfill his role within the country, perhaps the current crisis could have been largely averted. But it is difficult to have faith in a government that does not represent your interests and does not produce results. As your tax dollars magically make their way into other people’s pockets, it is difficult to have faith in a system that does not produce dividends. Overrun with corruption and clientelism, neither the government nor the system is worthy of the people’s faith and support.

As a result, these voluntary associations consolidate, becoming stronger and more resistant. Abandoning nationalism, the people fall back on their sense of philotimo. They come to rely on their immediate group, turning to it for assistance and support. Perhaps this partially explains the prevalence of tax evasion: if you cannot subscribe to a greater good, and your loyalty lays instead with your immediate network, you will not hesitate to  exploit the loopholes in the system.

In fact, the idea of philotimo is fundamentally undemocratic. The group determines political participation. Your political stance becomes a collective issue, rather than an issue of individual choice and personal responsibility. Philotimo thus gives rise to the conflict mentality that is so acute in Greek political culture. Compromise and trade-offs are simply impossibilities since each group believes its interests to be exclusive and fixed. In Greece, the harmonizing or aggregation of group interests is basically impossible. The multi-party system dissolves into inter-group rivalry and fragmentation, making policymaking impossible and creating the political statism that characterizes the Greek system. The political scene is perceived as a zero-sum game, characterized by a high degree of mistrust and uncertainty. The idea of a government that exists to represent and serve the people is lost. Instead, a person’s immediate association garners his unyielding allegiance and support.

In other words, philotimo is the idea that a father would do whatever it takes to see that his daughter attends the best frontistirio, receiving the highest quality private tutoring that Athens can offer. Or your policeman cousin will pull whatever strings necessary to get you out of those expensive parking tickets. Or your neighbor, who works at the pharmacy, will ensure that all your prescriptions are free of charge. Your neighborhood mechanic will declare that your car damages were twice as expensive as they actually were, so that insurance will unknowingly cover the total cost. Greeks will defend the interests of their immediate groups for all they are worth. Philotimo is honor and integrity in the sense that they are fiercely loyal to their voluntary associations.

“Yes!” my Charades teammate exclaims. “That’s exactly it!” In the States, we could call a lot of this corruption. But that’s probably because we wistfully wish we could get away with it too. It’d be nice to have some philotimo magic dust to help us through the daily grind.


Filed under Melanie Graf