Magazine article The Spectator

High Life: Taki

Magazine article The Spectator

High Life: Taki

Article excerpt

Athens

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. …

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