We have just spent twelve days on holiday in Greece, and enjoyed the experience a lot. We swam in the Mediterranean and enjoyed the sunshine, but it was the history of the country that made the trip memorable. We visited Knossos in Crete, a major archaeological site of the 3,500 year old Minoan civilization, once believed to a matter of legend but now known to be an influential precursor of Greek and Roman culture. The country is full of reminders of the political and cultural forces that have, ever since, shaped the life of Europe – Greek, Roman, Venetian, Ottoman, British.
In Piraeus, the port of Athens, a museum celebrates Greece’s maritime heritage. Prominent on display is an account of the country’s naval victory over the Persians at Salamis in 500BC – a decisive encounter which brought to an end the ambitions of the greatest empire the world had ever seen to expand westwards across the Mediterranean Sea. Athens had already been ravaged by the Persians, whose vast army and navy looked fair set to obliterate the small city states of Greece, but Salamis, like the Battle of Britain centuries later, proved a turning point.
Without the survival of Athens and its early democratic ideals, Europe, and the world, would have been a very different place. There would have been no place for the great Athenian philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, nor the rich cultural heritage represented by the Parthenon and the plays of Euripedes and Sophocles. Homer’s Ilead and Odyssey would probably have disappeared. Even more significantly, the idea of democratic government – rule by the people – would surely never have developed as it did.
We flew out of Athens on the 20th September, the day of the Greek General Election. Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza Party won most seats, and they now have to work out how to survive in the Eurozone as part of a European Union. We asked our taxi driver on the way to the airport who he wanted to win. His reply was not surprising, if rather disappointing. He didn’t really care, he said, because politicians were all liars and the result wouldn’t make any difference to him, whoever won.
Disillusionment with politics and with democracy (both Greek words and ideas, of course) is widespread, not only in Greece The reasons are complex, but we must not allow our society and world to be shaped by undemocratic, unaccountable forces over which the majority of people have no control. Democracy today has got to look very different from that which operated in Athens in the 5th century BC, but we have to try and find a way of making it work, at a continental and global level as well as at a national and local one.
The Persian Emperors Darius and Xerxes believed that they could rule the world well. Their glory, wealth and power enthralled their subjects as well as their enemies. But at Salamis they were not enough. Let’s hope we have the resolve and confidence to counteract the glory of today’s commercial and other undemocratic powers. Let’s get stuck in to the messy, but vitally important, business of politics, at whatever level we can. .