I am walking on a wide pedestrian road beneath the Acropolis within 200 meters of the remaining Themistoclean wall and the ancient cemetery to eminent Athenians. One side is lined with splendid neoclassical houses, none of them abandoned but most of them shuttered and locked up. This is the area where once upon a time Pericles, Themistocles and Alcibiades — to name three — trod, orated and debated non-stop. Back in those good old days we Athenians ruled supreme. Reason, logic and restraint placed us at the head of the queue, and genius also helped. I am climbing to the Pnyx, where Themistocles rallied his fellow citizens to defy the Persian juggernaut, and, except for a couple of stray dogs, I am alone with my hangover. I walk between the hill of the Nymphs and that of the Muses, where Cimon, father of Miltiades, victor at the Battle of Marathon, is buried, and I visit a small Byzantine church where my parents were married.
It’s all great and very moving stuff, a long way from the present mess. Miltiades’ son, also named Cimon, was the handsomest man in Athens. Although he was a great womaniser and seducer, he always remained loyal to his wife. I believe that both Cimon and Miltiades himself were at one time exiled by the Athenians, ever eagle-eyed for anyone who got too big for their breeches. But only our in-house expert on things ancient, Peter Jones, can tell us for certain. Those must have been the days: Miltiades won Marathon, the biggest battle ever and one that J.S. Mill said made Western civilisation possible. Yet a few years later he was exiled by his fellow citizens for something trivial. The battle took place in 490 BC, and the British historian Tom Holland perfectly describes the way lightly armed Athenian hoplites — made up of upper-class men and land-owning gentry — jogged towards the heavily laden disembarking Persians, then sprinted the last few hundred yards before slaughtering the enemy, turning the Bay of Marathon’s azure waters a bright red. Every time I’m near these sacred sights I think of those hoplites sprinting down to the sea and smashing into a much larger slave army that had never been told to beware the fury of free men when their freedom was in peril. It moves me like nothing else. Two thousand years later, an American writer put the following words into a boxer’s mouth, ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall’, but he could have been describing what happened at the Battle of Marathon. (As well as at the naval Battle of Salamis ten years later.)
There is a radical new idea going around that tells us that most occurrences of the past are of equal interest. In other words, an important event that saved thousands of lives or provided lessons that transcended time is the same as an event as trivial as some ugly American feminist back in the 1960s burning her bra. A society that cannot distinguish between the important and the trivial is bound to have such icons as the Hiltons and the Kardashians, not to mention the ghastly Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand.
But back to the Ancient Greeks. Just imagine what the world would be like had they not existed. I’ll tell you exactly. It would be the way life is under Isis in northern Syria and western Iraq. Superstition, fear and violence and repression of women would be the order of the day, with reason, logic and restraint considered capital offences. Mind you, our leaders have done their best to let the powers of darkness in while forcing those of us who love freedom to shut up. Even in America, where freedom of speech is still allowed, free Americans have been enslaved by a more insidious enemy than jihad, that of the consumer society. Humans were not created to line up in department stores looking for bargains, but to stride through open spaces as I did last week on hallowed ground.
I went to Athens for my friend Aleko Goulandris’ 88th birthday. This time we were a small group, the Greek royal family, the Queen Mother of Spain, Aliki Goulandris, the birthday boy’s daughters and grandchildren and poor little me. The first night I got truly wrecked as I had started to party on the private jet that took three of us to Athens from Berne. I stayed up until 5 a.m. and then trained all day in the foothills of the Acropolis getting ready for the birthday party that night. Another late one was immediately followed by a third, and by then I was feeling not unlike a Persian invader that had just got off a ship in the Bay of Marathon. I flew back to Gstaad and I’ve been a good boy since.
The good news is that I saw childhood friends and relived in my mind heroic Greek times. The bad is that the present clowns in power in Athens are enlisting ‘casual’ tax spies among tourists and other Greeks to pose as customers on behalf of the tax authorities while wired for sound and video to catch tax cheats. Where Alcibiades once walked, ‘casual’ tax inspectors will now try to entrap poor pistachio-sellers, and that leather-wearing, bald joke figure of a finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, had the gall to send this plan to the head of the Eurogroup. As someone said, it would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.