The tiny Greek island beloved by Athenians

Hydra is where well-heeled Athenians go for weekend breaks. It’s what Long Island is to New Yorkers, or Île de Ré to Parisians. For, while Corfu is a 12-hour ferry ride away and Santorini six, Hydra can be reached in as little as 1hr20 on the regular scheduled boats out of Athens. And – unless you own your own yacht – there’s no other way to get there: there’s no air or heliport, there aren’t even any cars. We tacked a day trip to Hydra onto a weekend city break that was otherwise full of the classical antiquity you’d associate with Athens. Greece’s capital has, in the Acropolis and sister sites, arguably the

What kind of empire is China building?

As Britain’s small fleet, headed by HMS Queen Elizabeth, cruises towards the South China Sea, there remains a question over the nature of China’s geopolitical ambitions. When Xi Jinping came to power in 2013 it was assumed that China would follow the relatively unthreatening path begun by Deng Xiaoping. But Xi was intent on following a different agenda. Xi’s brutal clampdown on corruption showed that there was a new sheriff in town. High profile politburo members were imprisoned. Such was the scale that Qincheng Prison began to run out of cells. Expensive wristwatches suddenly disappeared from the arms of modestly paid bureaucrats. The West applauded. Xi’s reform of China’s state

Why I’m moving to England

Gstaad It is not exactly a stop all the clocks occasion, let alone cut off the telephone, but I’ve finally come to a decision. My looking-at-cows time is over. I am going to leave good old Helvetia and find somewhere nice in the green and ‘unpleasant land’ I read about in Charles Moore’s Notes last week. (Corinne Fowler, what a halfwit; now, according to her, the British countryside is racist.) Easier said than done. The reason I want to move is that I’ve had it. For the first time in my life I’m bored with my surroundings. Sixty-two years is a long time, but then Gstaad isn’t the charming little

How the Athenians would have handled the Lords

Arguments about the purpose or indeed very existence of anything resembling the House of Lords would have struck classical democratic Athenians as bizarre. But its Areopagus might prompt thought. This body had been in existence long before Cleisthenes invented radical democracy in 508 bc. It was made up of the wealthy aristocratic elite from whom alone the main state officials (archons) could be drawn. Their term of office completed, they joined the Areopagus for life. This body was the state’s legal guardian. The democratic reformer Solon (594 bc) slightly broadened its membership, and removed some of its political powers. Cleisthenes, whose reforms turned the Athenian people meeting in assembly into

I love Greece and the Greeks but they have destroyed Athens

Athens This ancient city without tourists reminds me of the Athens I once knew and loved, but for the hideous 1960s modern buildings that have defaced its beauty like plastic surgery gone wrong. Walking around the Old Royal Palace and the National Gardens I point out some old beauties to the wife on Herod Atticus and King George II streets. They are the chic addresses of friends, now mostly gone forever, and I include number 13 Herod Atticus, where in six weeks the greatest classic since the Iliad was written by the famous scholar Taki back in 1974. (My publisher and dear friend Tom Stacey made close to a billion

The history of Thebes is as mysterious as its Sphinx

The Spartans were not the only Greeks to die at Thermopylae. On the fateful final morning of the battle, when Leonidas, knowing that the pass had been sold, ordered the vast majority of the contingents stationed at the Hot Gates to retreat and live to fight another day, two detachments stayed behind to join the 300 in their heroic last stand against Xerxes. Both these detachments came from Boeotia, the fertile plain which stretched directly south of Thermopylae and extended as far as the frontier with Athens. One of these two detachments came from Thespiae, a small but famously cussed city in central Boeotia: 700 hoplites who, alongside the Spartans,

Coronavirus and the lessons of the Athenian plague

The plague that struck Athens in the summer of 430 bc was a killer: it lasted for two years, returned after a year, and carried off a third of Athens’ manpower, including Pericles. From the historian Thucydides’ famous description, the plague — he caught it but recovered — bore certain resemblances to Covid-19 (allowing for differences in severity), but also invites reflection. He is the first Greek to mention two common illness-related phenomena: contagion — he says that, because of their exposure, there was a high death-rate among doctors and among those with the courage and sense of duty to try to care for the sick — and some immunity

Ancient Athens would have been horrified by Trump’s impeachment

An impeachment trial is overseen by Congress and Senate, who both make the law and (in this case) sit in judgment on it, ignoring the modern legal principle of the separation of powers. Athenians would have been shocked, not because they believed in the separation of powers (their citizens too made the law in assembly and sat in judgment in the law courts) but because in democratic Athens it was citizens that decided verdicts, and in randomly selected and therefore unpredictable juries. By contrast, two elected oligarchic cabals decide impeachment trials, usually making acquittal a foregone conclusion. Athenians would have been appalled: what was even remotely democratic about that? Statistics