Magazine article The Spectator

High Life

Magazine article The Spectator

High Life

Article excerpt

It is very still as I sit down to write, the atmosphere heavy and oppressive. They say time flies, but less so if one looks backwards. One thousand years before Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Emperor Justinian was embarrassed to discover that his Greek subjects were not paying their taxes. Cheating officialdom has become a trademark of modern Greece, and is often attributed by philhellenes to the 400-year Turkish occupation, and subsequent Greek resistance. Not necessarily, says famed historian Taki. Byzantium's government officials closely resemble Greek government agents of the present day. Two thirds of the revenues extorted from the taxpayers during Byzantium's heyday never reached the Treasury. Deals were struck between collectors and taxpayers, and we know the rest.

Justinian swore he would overcome the problem but never managed it.

Two thousand years later history repeats itself. The Greek elections will decide absolutely nothing. In Greece things are never black or white. There will be a hell of a lot of rhetoric from those who have been shooting their mouths off for far too long, but that's about it. As the French say, plus ca change!

Even at the time of Pericles, the golden period of Athens, there was much too much talk.

Ironically, the peril to democracy back then was the power of the spoken word. At times it drove out reason. The temperamental versatility of the Athenians was their greatest danger, just as it remains today. Segments of the population are urged first one way then another, and any continuity is rendered impossible. The volatility of the Greek character, among many links modern Greeks have with their glorious past, is another factor. The highly individualistic Greek is too self-seeking to submit easily to the dictates of others. His unruliness makes for a bad citizen but has helped him survive centuries of oppression and to rise above adversity, economic or otherwise.

Plato himself saw this as a danger. In the ty seems only to pass into excess of slavery'.

The great scholar Taki could not put it better. The Greeks had no Renaissance but the thread of their classical past was woven into the oriental web of Byzantium. That's what the great Kazantzakis meant when he spoke about the double-born soul of Greece, the eastern and western side. The modern Greek fawns over his superiors - his eastern soul - and torments his inferiors, yet he will gladly die for his personal honour, his western conscience.

Pericles understood the Greek better than anyone. He realised the Greek's passion for equality, which was greatly strengthened by the failure of Persian tyranny and the success of Athens under democracy. …

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