Greece - From Athens To Thebes
( Originally Published 1913 )
No ordinary student, looking at the map of Attica and Boeotia, can realise the profound and complete separation between these two countries. Except at the very northern extremity, where the fortified town of Oropus guarded an easy boundary, all the frontier consists not merely of steep mountains, but of parallel and intersecting ridges and gorges, which contain indeed a few alpine valleys, such as that of Oenoe, but which are, as a rule, wild and barren, easily defensible by a few against many, and totally unfit for the site of any considerable town, or any advanced culture. As I before stated, the traveller can go by rail past Dekelea, or he can go most directly by Phyle, the fort which Thrasybulus seized, when he desired to reconquer Athens with his democratic exiles. The historians usually tell us `that he seized and fortified Phyle' ; a statement which the present aspect of it seems to render very doubtful indeed. It is quite impossible that the great hill-fort of the very finest Attic building, which is still remaining, and admired by all, could have been 'knocked up' by Thrasybulus and his exiles. The careful construction and the great extent of the building compel us to suppose it the work of a rich state, and of a deliberate plan of fortification. It seems very unlikely, for these reasons, that it was built after the days of Thrasybulus, or that so important a point of attack should have been left unguarded in the greater days of Athens. I am therefore convinced that the fort, being built long before, and being, in fact, one of the well-known fortified demes through Attica, had been to some extent dismantled, or allowed to fall into decay, at the end of the Peloponnesian War, but that its solid structure required very little labour for the exiles to render it strong and easily defensible.
This is one of the numerous instances in which a single glance at the locality sets right an historical statement that has eluded suspicion for ages. The fort of Phyle, like that of Eleutherae, of which I shall speak, and like those of Messene and of Orchomenus, is built of very perfect ashlar masonry, and laid together without a particle of rubble or cement, but so well fitted as to be able to resist the wear of ages better than almost any other building. I was informed by M. Emile Burnouf, that in the case of a fort at Megara, which I did not see, there are even polygonal blocks, of which the irregular and varying angles are fitted with such precision that it is difficult, as in the case of the Parthenon, to detect the joinings of the stones. The blocks are by no means so colossal in these buildings as in the great ruins about Mycenae ; but the fitting is closer,, and the sites on which we find them very lofty, and with precipitous ascents. This style of building is specially mentioned by Thucydides (i. 93) as being employed in the building of the walls of the Peiraeus in the days of Themistocles, apparently in contrast to the rude and hurried construction of the city walls. But he speaks of the great stones being not only cut square, but fastened with clamps of iron soldered with lead. I am not aware that any traces of this are found in the remaining hill-forts. The walls of the Peiræus have, unfortunately, long since almost totally disappeared.
The way from Athens to Phyle leads north-west through the rich fields of the old deme of Acharnæ ; and we wonder at first why they should be so noted as charcoal-burners. But as we approach Mount Parnes, we find that the valley is bounded by tracts of hillside fit for nothing but pine forest. A vast deal of wooding still remains ; it is clear that these forests were the largest and most convenient to supply Athens with firewood or charcoal. As usual there are many glens and river-courses through the rugged country through which we ascend—here and there a village, in one secluded nook a little monastery, hidden from the world, if not from its cares. There is the usual Greek vegetation beside the path ; not perhaps luxuriant to our Northern eyes, but full of colours of its own—the glowing anemone, the blood-red poppy, the delicate cistus on a rocky surface, with foliage rather grey and silvery than green. The pine-trees sound, as the breeze sweeps up the valleys, and lavish their strong fragrance through the air.
There is something inexpressibly bracing in this solitude, if solitude it can be called, where the forest speaks to the eye and ear, and fills the imagination with the mystery of its myriad forms. Now and then, too, the peculiar cadence of those bells which hardly varies throughout all the lands of the South, tells you that a flock of goats, or goat-like sheep, is near, attended by solemn, silent children, whose eyes seem to have no expression beyond that of vague wonder in their gaze.
At last we see high over us the giant fort of Phyle —set upon a natural precipice, which defends it amply for half its circuit. The point of occupation was well chosen, for while within sight of Athens, and near enough to afford a sure refuge to those who could escape by night and fly to the mountain, its distance (some fifteen miles) and the steep and rugged ascent made it impossible for weak and aged people to crowd into it and mar the efficiency of its garrison. With the increase of his force Thrasybulus began successful raids into the plain, then a rapid movement to Piraeus; ultimately, as may be read in any history, he accomplished the liberation of his native city.
We did not pass into Boeotia by way of Phyle, preferring to take the longer route through Eleusis. But no sooner had we left Eleusis than we began to ascend into the rough country, which is the preface to the wild mountain passes of Cithæron. It is, indeed, very difficult to find where one range of mountains begins and another ends, anywhere throughout Greece. There is generally one high peak, which marks a whole chain or system of mountains, and after this the system is called ; but all closer specification seems lost, on account of the immense number of ridges and points which crowd upon the view in several directions. Thus the chain of Parnes, after throwing out a spur towards the south-west, which divides the Athenian and the Thriasian plains, sweeps round the former in a sort of amphitheatre, and joins the system of Cithæron (Kfthëron), which extends almost parallel with Parnes. A simple look at a good map explains these things by supplementing mere description. But it should be specially remembered, that all the region where a plain is not expressly named is made up of broken mountain ridges and rocky defiles, so that it may fairly be called an alpine country. A fellow-traveller, who had just been in Norway, was perpetually struck with its resemblance to the Norwegian highlands.
I will only mention one other fact which illustrates the consequent isolation of the valleys. We have a river Kephissus in the plain of Athens. As soon as we cross the pass of Daphne we have another Kephissus in the Thriasian plain. Within a day's journey, or nearly so, we have another Kephissus, losing itself in the lake Copais, not far from Orchomenus. It reminds an Irishman of the numerous Blackwaters in Ireland. This repetition of the, same name shows how little intercourse people have with neighbouring lands, how little they travel, and why there is no danger of con-fusion in these oft-repeated names. Such a fact, trifling as it is, illustrates very powerfully the isolation which the Greek mountains produce.
I fear that most travellers will not be persuaded by me to avoid the train, and will insist on going to Thebes by that vulgar conveyance. It will take them, not over Cithaeron, but up into North Attica, to the high ground between Parnes and Pentelicus, and then past the lovely rich woods of Tatoi, the king's country seat, to the neighbourhood of the ancient Oropos. Tatoi is identified with the old Dekelea, from which King Agis, at the end of the Peloponnesian War, made his constant raids into the farms of Attica, and contributed largely to the ending of the long struggle. It was well known that he had established this fort, the true eyesore of Attica, at the advice of that traitorous person, Alcibiades, whose many vices could not destroy his intellectual force and his social charms. But he was only fit to be a tyrant, not the citizen of a free state, and his genius was the bane of his country. When we approach the junction of the line which leads to Chalcis, we see the blue strait; and the great mountains of Eubœa not far off, and we long for time to cross over and visit that still wild and lonely country. The idyll of Dion Chrysostom, which I have told in another book, comes into our thoughts, and we wonder whether there are still to be found in these wild glens hunters living with their families in purity and peace. The line to Thebes turns west and passes near Tanagra, of recent years so famous for the terra-cotta figurines found in its Necropolis.
Those who desire a more characteristic journey will rather go by road—not by the diligence, which refuses to stop when the traveller would gladly pause to study the life of a new country, but in a carriage, as we travelled it years ago.
There is a good road from Athens to Thebes—a very unusual thing in Greece—and we were able to drive with four horses, after a fashion which would have seemed very splendid in old days. Strange to say, the old Greek fashion of driving four horses abreast, two being yoked to the pole, and two out-riggers, or as they were called, has disappeared from Greece, whereas it still survives in Southern Italy. On the other hand, the Greeks are more daring drivers than the Italians, being indeed braver in all respects, and, when a road is to be had, a very fast pace is generally maintained.
As usual, the country was covered with brushwood, and with numbers of old gnarled fir-trees, which bore everywhere upon their stems the great wounds of the hatchet, made to extract the resin for the flavouring of wine. Rare flocks of goats, with their peculiar, dull, tinkling bells—bells which have the same make and tone all through Calabria, through Sicily, and through Greece—were the only sign of human occupation or of population. And when you look for houses, there is nothing in the shape of wall or roof, save an occasional station, where, but a few years since, soldiers were living, to keep the road safe from bandits. At last we came upon the camp of some Vlach shepherds—a thing reminding one far more of a gipsy camp than anything else—a few dark-brown skins falling over a horizontal, set upon two upright poles, so as to form a gable-shaped tent, of which the entrance looked so absolutely black as to form quite a patch in the landscape. There is mere room for lying in these tents by night ; and, I suppose, in the summer weather most of these wild shepherds will not con-descend even to this shelter.
After some hours' drive, we reached a grassy dell, shaded by large plane - trees, where a lonely little public-house—if I may so call it—of this construction invited us to stop for watering the horses, and inspecting more closely the owner. There was the usual supply found in such places—red and white wine in small casks, excellent fresh water, and lucumia, or Turkish delight. Not only had the owner his belt full of knives and pistols, but there was hanging up in a sort of rack a most picturesque collection of swords and guns—all made in Turkish fashion, with ornamented handles and stocks, and looking as if they might be more dangerous to the sportsman than to his game. While we were being served by this wild looking man.
After leaving this resting-place, about eleven in the morning, we did not see a village, or even a single house, till we had crossed Cithaeron, after six in the evening, and descried the modern hamlet of Plataea on the slopes to our left. But once or twice through the day a string of four or five mules, with bright, richly striped rugs over their wooden saddles, and men dressed still more brightly sitting lady-fashion on them, were threading their way along the winding road. The tinkling of the mules' bells and the wild Turkish chaunts of the men were a welcome break in the uniform stillness of the journey. The way becomes gradually wilder and steeper, though often descending to cross a shady valley, which opens to the right and left, in a long narrow vista, and shows blue border fort of Attica, and yet says not a word about Eleutheræ, which is really the border, the great fort, and the key to the passes of Cithæron. The first solution which suggests itself is, that the modern Greeks have given the wrong names to these places, and that byOenoe Thucydides really means the place now known as Eleutheræ? Most decidedly, if the fort which is now there existed at the opening of the Peloponnesian War, he cannot possibly have over-looked it in his military history of the campaign. And yet it seems certain that we must place the building of this fort at the epoch of Athens's greatness, when Attic influence was paramount in Bœotia, and when the Athenians could, at their leisure, and without hindrance, construct this fort, which commands the passes into Attica, before they diverge into various valleys, about the region of the so-called OEnoe.
For, starting from Thebes, the slope of Cithæron is a single unbroken ascent up to the ridge, through which, nearly over the village of Platæa, there is a cut that naturally indicates the pass. But when the traveller has ascended from Thebes to this point he finds a steep descent into a mountainous and broken region, where he must presently choose between a gorge to the right or to the left, and must wander about zigzag among mountains, so as to find his way towards Athens. And although I did not examine all the passes, it was perfectly obvious that, as soon as the first defile was left behind, an invader could find various ways of eluding the defenders of Attica, and penetrating into the Thriasian plain, or, by Phyle, into that of Athens. Accordingly, the Athenians chose a position of remarkable strength, just inside the last crowning ascent, where all the Attic ways converge to pass the crest of the mountain into Platma. Here a huge rock, interposing between the mountains on each side, strives, as it were, to bar the path, which accordingly divides like a torrent bed, and passes on either side, close under the walls of the fort which occupies the top of the rock. From this point the summit of the pass is about two or three miles distant, and easily visible, so that an outpost there, commanding a view of the whole Theban plain, could signal any approach to the fort with ample notice.
The position of the fort at Phyle, above described, is very similar. It lies within a mile of the top of the pass, on the Attic side, within sight of Athens, and yet near enough to receive the scouts from the top, and resist all sudden attack. No force could invade Attica without leaving a large force to besiege or mask it.
Looking backward into Attica, the whole mountainous tract of Œnoe is visible ; and, though we cannot now tell the points actually selected, there is no difficulty in finding several which could easily pass the signal from Eleutherae to Daphne, and thence to Athens. We know that fire signals were commonly used among the Greeks from the days of Aeschylus to those of Polybius, and we can here see an instance where news could be telegraphed some thirty miles over a very difficult country in a few moments. Meanwhile, as succours might be some time in arriving, the fort was of such size and strength as to hold a large garrison, and stop any army which could not afford to mask it, with a considerable force.
The site was, of course, an old one, and the name Eleutherae, if correctly applied to this fort, points to a time when some mountain tribe maintained its in-dependence here against the governments on either side in the plain, whence the place was called the Free place, or Liberties (as we have the term in Dublin). There is further evidence of this in a small irregular fort which still exists almost in the centre of the larger and later enclosure. This older fort is of polygonal masonry, very inferior to the other, and has almost fallen into ruins, while the later walls and towers are in many places perfect. The outer wall follows the nature of the position, the principle being to find everywhere an abrupt descent from the fortification, so that an assault must be very difficult. On the north side, where the rock is precipitous, the wall runs along in a right line ; whereas on the south side, over the modern road, it dips down the hill, and makes a semicircular sweep, so as to crown the steepest part of a gentler ascent. Thus the whole enclosure is of a half-moon shape. But, while the straight wall is almost intact, the curved side has in many places fallen to pieces. The building is the most perfect I have ever seen of the kind, made of square hewn stones, evidently quarried on the rock itself. The preserved wall is about 200 yards long, six and a half feet wide, and apparently not more than ten or twelve feet high ; but, at intervals of twenty-five or thirty yards, there are seven towers twice as deep as the wall, while the path along the battlement goes right through them. Each tower has a doorway on the outside of it, and close beside this there is also a doorway in the wall, somewhat larger. These door-ways, made by a huge lintel, about seven and a half feet long, laid over an aperture in the building, with its edges very smoothly and carefully cut, are for the most part absolutely perfect. As I could see no sign of doorposts or bolts,—a feature still noticeable in all temple gates,—it is evident that wooden doors and doorposts were fitted into these doorways—a dangerous form of defence, were not the entrances strongly protected by the towers close beside them and over them. There were staircases, leading from the top of the wall outwards, beside some of the towers. The whole fort is of such a size as to hold not merely a garrison, but also the flocks and herds of the neighbouring shepherds, in case of a sudden and dangerous invasion ; and this, no doubt, was the primary intention of all the older forts in Greece and elsewhere.
The day was, as usual, very hot and fine, and the hills were of that beautiful purple blue which Leighton so well reproduced in the backgrounds of his Greek pictures ; but a soft breeze brought occasional clouds across the sun, and varied the landscape with darker hues. Above us on each side were the noble crags of Cithaeron, with their grey rocks and their gnarled fir-trees. Far below, a bright mountain stream was rushing beside the pass into Attica ; around us were the great walls of the old Greeks, laid together with that symmetry, that beauty, and that strength which mark all their work. The massive towers are now defending a barren rock ; the enclosure which had seen so many days of war and rapine was lying open and deserted ; the whole population was gone long centuries ago. There is still liberty there, and there is peace—but the liberty and the peace of solitude.
A short drive from Eleutherae brought us to the top of the pass, and we suddenly came upon one of those views in Greece which leave us in doubt whether the instruction they give us, or the delight, is the greater. The whole plain of Thebes, and, beyond the intervening ridge, the plain of Orchomenus, with its shining lake, were spread out before us. The sites of all the famous towns were easily recognisable. Plata only was straight beneath us, on the slopes of the mountain, and as yet hidden by them. The plan of all Bœotia unfolded itself with great distinctness—two considerable plains, separated by a low ridge, and surrounded on all sides by chains of mountains. On the north there are the rocky hills which hem in Lake Copais from the Eubœan strait, and which nature had pierced before the days of history, aided by Minyan engineers were tunnelled drains, which drew water from thousands of acres of the richest land. On the east, where we stood, was the gloomy Cithæron—the home of awful mythical crimes, and of wild Bacchanalian orgies, the theme of many a splendid poem and many a striking tragedy. To the south lay the pointed peaks of Helicon—a mountain (or mountain chain) full of sweetness and light, with many silver streams coursing down its sides to water the Bœotian plains, and with its dells, the home of the Muses ever since they inspired the bard of Ascra —the home, too, of Eros, who, long after the reality of the faith had decayed, was honoured in Thespiae by the crowds of visitors who went up to see Praxiteles's famous statue of the god. This Helicon separates Boeotia from the southern sea, but does not close up completely with Cithæron, leaving way for an army coming from the isthmus, where Leuctra stood to guard the entrance. Over against us, to the west, lay, piled against one another, the dark wild mountains of Phocis, with the giant Parnassus raising its snow-clad shoulders above the rest. But, in the far distance, the snowy Korax of Aetolia stood out in rivalry, and showed us that Parnassus is but the advance-guard of the wild country, which even in Greece proved too rugged a nurse for culture.
We made our descent at full gallop down the windings of the road—a most risky drive ; but the coachman was daring and impatient, and we felt, in spite of the danger, that peculiar delight which accompanies the excitement of going at headlong pace. We had previously an even more perilous experience in coming down the steep and tortuous descent from the Laurium mines to Ergasteria in the train, where the sharp turns were apparently full of serious risk. Above our heads were wheeling great vultures—huge birds, almost black, with lean, featherless heads—which added to the wildness of the scene. During this rapid journey, we came upon the site of Platæa, marked by a modern village of the name, on our left, and below us we saw the winding Asopus, and the great scene of the most momentous of all Greek battles—the battle of Platæa. This little town is situated much higher up the mountain than I had thought, and a glance showed us its invaluable position as an outpost of Athenian power towards Bœotia. With the top of the pass within an hour's walk, the Platæans could, from their streets, see every movement over the Theban plain: they could see an invasion from the south coming up by Leuctra; they could see troops marching northward towards Tanagra and Oenophyta. They could even see into the Theban Cadmea, which lay far below them, and then telegraph from the top of the pass to Eleutheræ, and from thence to Athens. We can, therefore, understand at once Platæa's importance to Athens, and why the Athenians built a strong fortified post on their very frontier, within easy reach of it.
All the site of the great battle is well marked and well known—the fountain Gargaphia, the so-called island, and the Asopus, flowing lazily in a deep-cut sedgy channel, in most places far too deep to ford. Over our heads were still circling the great black vultures ; but, as we neared the plain, we flushed a large black-and-white eagle, which we had not seen in Attica. There is some cultivation between Plata and Thebes, but strangely alternating with wilderness. We were told that the people have plenty of spare land, and, not caring to labour for its artificial improvement, they till a piece of ground once, and then let it lie fallow for a season or two. The natural richness of the Bœotian soil thus supplies them with ample crops. But we wondered to think how impossible it seems even in these rich and favoured plains to induce a fuller population.
The question of the depopulation of Greece is no new one—it is not due to the Slav inroads—it is not due to Turkish misrule. As soon as the political liberties of Greece vanished, so that the national talent found no scope in local government—as soon as the riches of Asia were opened to Greek enterprise—the population diminished with wonderful rapidity. All the later Greek historians and travellers are agreed about the fact. 'The whole of Greece could not put in the field,' says one, 'as many soldiers as came of old from a single city.' ' Of all the famous cities of Bœotia,' says another, ' but two — Thespiæ and Tanagra—now remain.' The rest are mostly de-scribed as ruins. No doubt, every young enterprising fellow went off to Asia as a soldier or a merchant ; and this taste for emigrating has remained strong in the race till the present day, when most of the business of Constantinople, of Smyrna, and of Alexandria is in the hands of Greeks. But, in addition to this, the race itself seems at a certain period to have become less prolific ; and this, too, is a remarkable feature lasting to our own time. In the several hospitable houses in which I was entertained through the country I sought in vain for children, The young married ladies had their mothers to keep them company, and this was a common habit ; the daughter does not willingly separate from her mother. But, whether by curious coincidence or not, the absence of children in these seven or eight houses was very remarkable. I have been since assured that this was an accident, and that large families are very common in Greece. The statistics show a considerable increase of population of late years.
The evening saw us entering into Thebes—the town of all others which retains the smallest vestiges of antiquity. Even the site of the Cadmea is not easily distinguishable. Two or three hillocks in and about the town are all equally insignificant, and all equally suitable, one should think, for a fortress. The discovery of the old foundations of the walls has, however, determined the matter, and settled the site to be that of the highest part of the present town. Its strength, which was celebrated, must have been altogether due to artificial fortification, for though the old city was in a deeper valley to the north-west, yet from the other side there can never have been any ascent steep enough to be a natural rampart. The old city was, no doubt, always more renowned for eating and drinking than for art or architecture,' and its momentary supremacy under Epaminondas was too busy and too short a season to be employed in such pursuits. But, besides all this, and besides all the ruin of Alexander's fury, the place has been visited several times with the most destructive earth-quakes, from the last of which (in 1852) it had not recovered when I first saw it. There were still through the streets houses torn open, and walls shaken down ; there were gaps made by ruins, and half-restored shops.
The antiquities of Thebes consist of a few in-scribed slabs and fragments which are (as usual) collected in a dark outhouse, where it is not easy to make them out. I was not at the trouble of reading these inscriptions, for in this department the antiquaries of the University of Athens are really very zealous and competent, and I doubt whether any inscription now discovered fails to come into the Greek papers within a few months. From these they of course pass into the Corpus Inscriptionum Græcarum, a collection daily increasing, and periodically re-edited.
I may observe that, not only for manners and customs, but even for history, these undeniable and seldom suspicious sources are rapidly becoming our surest and even fullest authority.
In the opinion of the inhabitants, by far the most important thing about the town is the tomb of their Evangelist, S. Luke, which is situated in a chapel close by. The stone is polished and worn with the feet and lips of pilgrims, and all such homes of long devotion are in themselves interesting ; but the visitor may well wonder that the Evangelist should have his tomb established in a place so absolutely decayed and depopulated as was the region of Thebes, even in his day. The tombs of the early preachers and missionaries are more likely to be in the thickest of thorough-fares, amid the noise and strife of men. But here the Evangelist was confused with a later local saint of the same name.
Thebes is remarkable for its excellent supply of water. Apart from the fountain Dirke, several other great springs rise in the higher ground close to it, and are led by old Greek conduits of marble to the town. One of these springs was large enough to allow us to bathe—a most refreshing change after the long and hot carriage drive, especially in the ice-cold water, as it came from its deep hiding-place. We returned at eight in the evening to dine with our excellent host —a host provided for us by telegraph from Athens—where we had ample opportunity of noticing some of the peculiarities of modern Greek life.
The general elections were at the moment pending. M. Boulgaris had just échoue, as the French say ; and the King, after a crisis in which a rupture of the Constitution had been expected, decided to try a constitutional experiment, and called to office M. Trikoupi, an advanced Radical in those days, and strongly opposed to the Government. But M. Trikoupi was a highly educated and reasonable man, well acquainted with England and English politics, and apparently anxious to govern by strictly constitutional means. He since proved himself, by his able and vigorous administration, one of the most remarkable statesmen in Europe, and the main cause of the progress of his country. His defeat in 1890 was therefore a national misfortune. Our new friend at Thebes was then the Radical candidate, and was at the very time of our arrival canvassing his constituency. Every idle fellow in the town seemed to think it his duty to come up into his drawing room, in which we were resting, and sit down to encourage and advise him. No hint that he was engaged in entertaining strangers had the smallest effect : noisy politics were inflicted upon us till the welcome announcement of dinner, to which, for a wonder, his constituents did not follow him. He told me that though all the country was strongly in favour of M. Trikoupi, yet he could hardly count upon a majority with certainty, for he had determined to let the elections follow their own course, and not control them with soldiers. In this most constitutional country, with its freedom, as usual, closely imitated from England, soldiers stood, at least up to the summer of 1875, round the booths, and hustled out any one who did not come to vote for the Ministerial candidate. M. Trikoupi refused to take this traditional precaution, and, as the result showed, lost his sure majority.
But when I was there, and before the actual elections had taken place, the Radical party were very confident. They were not only to come in triumphant, but their first act was to be the arraigning of the late Prime Minister, M. Boulgaris, for violating the Constitution, and his condemnation to hard labour, with confiscation of his property. I used to plead the poor man's case earnestly with these hot-headed politicians, by way of amusement, and was highly edified by their arguments. The ladies, as usual, were by far the fiercest, and were ready, like their goddess of old, to eat the flesh of their enemies raw. I used to ask them whether it would not be quite out of taste if Mr. Disraeli, then in power, were to prosecute Mr. Gladstone for violating the Constitution in his Irish Church Act, and have him condemned to hard labour. The cases, they replied, were quite different. No Englishman could ever attain, or even understand, the rascality of the late Greek Minister. Feeling that there might be some force in this argument, I changed ground, and asked them were they not afraid that if he were persecuted in so violent a way he might, instead of occupying the Opposition benches, betake himself to occupy the mountain passes, and, by robbing a few English travellers, so discredit the new Government as to be worse and more dangerous in opposition than in power. No, they said, he will not do that ; he is too rich. But, said I, if you confiscate his property, he will be poor. True, they replied ; but still he will not be able to do it : he is too old. It seemed as if the idea that he might be too respectable never crossed their minds.' What was my surprise to hear within six months that this dreadful culprit had come into power again at the head of a considerable majority !
We were afterwards informed by a sarcastic observer that many of the Greek politicians are paupers, `who will not dig, and to beg they are ashamed'; and so they sit about the cafés of Athens on the look-out for one of the 10,000 places which have been devised for the patronage of the Ministry. But, as there are some 30,000 expectants, it follows that the 20,000 disappointed are always at work seeking to turn out the 10,000. Hence a crisis every three months ; hence a Greek ambassador could hardly reach his destination before he was recalled ; hence, too, the exodus of all thrifty and hard-working men to Smyrna, to Alexandria, or to Manchester, where their energies were not wasted in perpetual political squabbling. The greatest misconduct with which a man in office could be charged was the holding of it for any length of time ; the whole public then join against him, and cry out that it is high time for him, after so long an innings, to make way for some one else. It was not till M. Trikoupi established his ascendency that this ridiculous condition of things ceased. Whether in office or in opposition, he had a policy, and retained the confidence of foreign powers.
I had added, in the first edition of this book, some further observations on the apparent absurdity of introducing the British Constitution, or some parody of it, into every new state which is rescued from barbarism or from despotism. I am not the least disposed to retract what I then said generally, but it is common justice to the Greeks to say that later events made us hope that they were among the few nations where such an experiment might succeed.
When the dangerous crisis of the Turco-Russian war supervened, instead of rushing to arms, as they were advised by some fanatical English politicians, they set about to reform their Ministry ; and, feeling the danger of perpetually changing the men at the helm, they insisted on the heads of the four principal parties forming a coalition, under the nominal leadership of M. Canaris. This great political move, one of the most remarkable of our day, was attempted, as far as I can make out, owing to the deliberate pressure of the country, and from a solid interest in its welfare. Even though temporary, it was an earnest that the Greeks were learning national politics, and that a liberal constitution was not wasted upon them. There are many far more developed and important nations in Europe, which would not be capable of such a sacrifice of party interests and party ambition.
We left Thebes, very glad that we had seen it, but not very curious to see it again. Its site makes it obviously the natural capital of the rich plain around it ; and we can also see at once how the larger and richer plain of Orchomenus is separated from it by a distinct saddle of rising ground, and was naturally, in old times, the seat of a separate power. But the separation between the two districts, which is not even so steep or well marked as the easy pass of Daphne between Athens and Eleusis, makes it also clear that the owners of either plain would certainly cast the eye of desire upon the possessions of their neighbours, and so at an early epoch Orchomenus was subdued. For many reasons this may have been a disaster to Greece. The Minyae of Orchomenus, as people called the old nobles who settled there in prehistoric days, were a great and rich society, building forts and treasure-houses, and celebrated, even in Homer's day, for wealth and splendour.
But, perhaps owing to this very luxury, they were subdued by the inartistic, vulgar Thebans, who, during centuries of power and importance, never rose to greatness save through the transcendent genius of Pindar and of Epaminondas. When people came from a distance to see art in Bœotia, they came to little Thespiae, in the southern hills, where the Eros of Praxiteles was the pride of the citizens. Tanagra, too, by the terra-cottas of which I have spoken (above, p. 55), shows taste and refinement ; and we still look with sympathy upon the strangely modern fashions of these graceful and elegant figures. At Thebes, so far as I know, no trace of fine arts has yet been discovered. The great substructure of the Cadmea, the solid marble water-pipes of their conduits, a few inscriptions —that is all. It corroborates what we find in the middle and new comedy of the Greeks, that Thebes was a place ,for eating and drinking, a place for other coarse material comforts—but no place for real culture or for art. Even their great poet, Pindar, a poet in whom most critics find all the highest qualities of genius—loftiness, daring, originality—even this great man—no doubt from the accidents of his age—worked by the job, and bargained for the payment of his noblest odes.
Thus, even in Pindar, there is something to remind us of his Theban vulgarity ; and it is, therefore, all the more wonderful, and all the more freely to be confessed, that in Epaminondas we find not a single flaw or failing, and that he stands out as the noblest of all the great men whom Greece ever produced. It were possible to maintain that he was also the greatest, but this is a matter of opinion and of argument. Certain it is that his influence made Thebes, for the moment, not only the leader in Greek politics, but the leader in Greek society. Those of his friends whom we know seem not only patriots, but gentlemen—they cultivated with him music and eloquence, nor did they despise philosophy. So true is it, that in this wonderful peninsula genius seemed possible every-where, and that from the least cultivated and most vulgar town might arise a man to make all the world about him admire and tremble.
I will make but one more remark about this plain of Bœotia. There is no part of Greece so sadly famed for all the battles with which its soil was stained. The ancients called it Mars' Orchestra, or exercising ground ; and even now, when all the old life is gone, and when not a hovel remains to mark the site of once well-built towns, we may indeed ask why were these towns celebrated ? Simply because in old Greek history their names served to specify a scene of slaughter, where a campaign, or it may be an empire, was lost or won. Plataea, Leuctra, Haliartus, Coronea, Chæronea, Delium, Oenophyta, Tanagra — these are in history the landmarks of battles, and landmarks of nothing more. Thebes is mainly the nurse of the warriors who fought in these battles, and but little else. So, then, we cannot compare Boeotia to the rich plains of Lombardy—they, too, in their day, ay, and in our own day, Mars' Orchestra—for here literature and art have given fame to cities, while the battles fought around their walls have been forgotten by the world.
I confess we saw nothing of the foggy atmosphere so often brought up against the climate of Bœotia. And yet it was then, of course, more foggy than it had been of old, for then the lake Copais was partially drained, whereas in 1875 the old tunnels, cut, or rather enlarged, by the Minyæ, were choked, and thousands of acres of the richest land covered with marsh and lake. It was M. Trikoupi who promoted the plan of a French Company to drain the lake more completely than even the old Catabothra had done, and, at the cost of less than one million sterling, to bring into permanent cultivation some thousands of acres—in fact, the largest and richest plain in all Greece. I asked him where he meant to find a population to till it, seeing that the present land was about ten times more than sufficient for the inhabitants. He told me that some Greek colonists, who had settled in the north, under the Turks or Servians (I forget which), were desirous of returning to enjoy the sweets of Hellenic liberty. It was proposed to give them the reclaimed tract. I objected that if these good people reasoned from analogy, they would be slow to trust their fortunes to their old fellow-countrymen. So long as they were indigent they would be unmolested, —cantabit vacuus coram latrone viator,—but as soon as they prospered, or were supposed to prosper, we might have the affair of Laurium repeated. The natives might be up in arms against the strangers who had come to plunder the land of the wealth intended by nature for others. The Greek Parliament might be persuaded to make retrospective laws and restrictions, and probably all the more active and impatient spirits would leave a country where prosperity implied persecution, and where people only awake to the value of their possessions after they have sold them to others.
What happened since illustrates the views which I then urged. When the drainage works, completed in 1887, had uncovered rich tracts, the Government laid claim to every acre of it, and endeavoured to fence off the old riparian proprietors. They on their side disputed the new boundaries, and claimed what the Government professed to have uncovered. But ultimately the Government were able to let the tract —some 6o,000 acres—to a company worked by Englishmen, and in London.
I think jealousy no accidental feature, but one specially engrained in the texture of Greek human nature from the earliest times. Nothing can be a more striking or cogent proof of this than the way in which Herodotus sets down jealousy as one of the attributes of the Deity. For the Deities of all nations being conceptions formed after the analogy of human nature around them, there can be no doubt that the honest historian put it down as a necessary factor in the course and constitution of nature. We can only understand Greek history by keeping these things perpetually in mind, and even now it explains the apparent anomaly, how a nation so essentially democratic—who recognise no nobility and no distinctions of rank--can be satisfied with a king of foreign race. They told me themselves, over and over again, that the simple reason was this : no Greek could tolerate another set over him, so that even such an office as President of a Greek Republic would be intolerable, if held by one of themselves. And this same feeling in old times is the real reason of the deadly hate manifested against the most moderate and humane despots.
However able, however kindly, however great such a despot might be ; however the state might prosper under him, one thing in him was intolerable—he had no natural right to be superior to his fellows. I will not deny the existence of political enthusiasm, and of real patriotism among Greek tyrannicides, but I am quite sure that the universal sympathy of the nation with them was based upon this deep-seated feeling.
It is said that, in another curious respect, the old and modern Greeks are very similar—I mean the form which bribery takes in their political struggles. It has been already observed and discussed by Freeman, how, among the old Greeks, it was the politician who was bribed, and not the constituents ; whereas among us in England, the leading politicians are above suspicion, while the constituents are often corruptible enough. Our Theban friend told me that in modern Greece the ancient form of bribery was still in fashion ; and that, except in Hydra and one other place—probably, if I remember rightly, Athens—the bribing of constituents was unknown ; while the taking of bribes by Ministers was alleged not to be very uncommon. A few years ago, men of sufficient importance to be Cabinet Ministers were openly brought into court, and indicted for the sale of three archbishoprics, those of Patras and Corinth among the number. There is no doubt that this public charge points to a sort of bribery likely to take place in any real democracy, when the men at the head of affairs are not men of great wealth and noble birth, but often ordinary, or even needy persons, selected by ballot, or popular vote, to fill for a very short time a very influential office.