Stories about the Olive, part III: Thales on Wall Street

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The olive, as we have seen, can be a blessing and a curse. The decades spent investing and waiting for the trees to mature can reward you with liquid gold, precious and civilising, or they can render you hostage to a protection racket. Uncertainty is heaped on uncertainty: the trees cannot be counted to produce a good harvest every year, and when they do, you have to join the queue with your neighbours for a slot at an olive press before they start to rot.

Where there is uncertainty, there is room for speculation, and in this unlikely but culturally rich nexus, the classicist meets the financial engineer.

In his Politics, Aristotle wrote what is believed to be the first description of a financial derivative. Describing a number of “methods that have brought success in business to certain individuals”,  he wrote of a scheme devised by the philosopher Thales of Miletus (c. 624-546 BC):

Thales, so the story goes, because of his poverty was taunted with the uselessness of philosophy; but from his knowledge of astronomy he had observed while it was still winter that there was going to be a large crop of olives, so he raised a small sum of money and paid round deposits for the whole of the olive-presses in Miletus and Chios, which he hired at a low rent as nobody was running him up; and when the season arrived, there was a sudden demand for a number of presses at the same time, and by letting them out on what terms he liked he realized a large sum of money, so proving that it is easy for philosophers to be rich if they choose, but this is not what they care about.

In other words, Thales made a small downpayment to secure the use of the presses when demand was low, and cashed in during peak season. He capitalised on his unique insight on the weather to corner the market in olive presses. Aristotle’s telling has the quality of an archetypal moral fable – “it is easy for philosophers to be rich if the choose, but this is not what they care about” – that readers can easily recognise in modern popular narratives of the financial crisis, like Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, the story of the oddball traders who saw the credit crunch coming.

The economy of Aristotle’s description does not allow us to determine whether Thales invented the future or the option, a technical distinction which would have made the difference between him losing his shirt or just his deposit, had he been proven wrong in his prediction. But that distinction is not essential to the story as it is told. Thales, the philosopher speculator, the first hedge fund manager, driven by the intellectual challenge rather than by the profit motive, may have invented the fruit of good or evil: an instrument for managing the risk of unpredictable harvests, or a tool for the enrichment of the ‘enlightened’ few at the expense of the many. A tale as old as the olive groves.

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Stories about the Olive, part III: Thales on Wall Street

Stories about the Olive, part I: Civilisation or curse?

 

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This is not so much a story about the olive tree and its fruits, as it is a story about the stories we tell ourselves, about where we came from and how we got where we are today, in which the olive happens to be a central character.

In the archaeology of Greece, the time when olive trees began to be systematically exploited by humans is seen as a pivotal moment in the region’s development, at least as important a transition as the beginning of agriculture which took place several millennia earlier. The first to credit the olive with a “civilising” influence was a British archaeologist, Colin Renfrew, who wrote a hugely influential study called The Emergence in Civilisation in 1972. In it, he made the first attempt to provide a comprehensive explanation for the emergence of the Minoan and Myceneaean societies in the Bronze Age. It was an ambitious project, taking the reader from the scattered agricultural hamlets of the Neolithic period to the first “palaces” of the Bronze Age, with their sophisticated visual culture, monumental architecture and complex economy – for the most part without the aid of historical records, as are we essentially talking about prehistory.

For Renfrew, the olive was part of what he called “the Mediterranean triad”, along with the vine and wheat, the essential components of civilised life in the region, continuing though the Classical period to the present day. Influenced by the “new” or “scientific” archaeology which grew out of the anthropological tradition in the United States, Renfrew was one of the first to study the “mundane” aspects of past life such as agriculture and social relations, as opposed to the classically-inspired focus on kings and battles that had prevailed until then. On the olive front, he had very little archaeological evidence to go on – a few stray pips and branches here and there, preserved almost accidentally in an era when botanical remains were neither systematically sought nor retained for study. He did observe, however that the parts of Greece where Late Bronze Age “palaces” appeared coincided with the best conditions for olive cultivation.

Renfrew’s essential thesis was this: the olive and the vine were both a step up from the existing cereal-based cultivation because they enabled their cultivators to produce high-value storable products, oil and wine. He noted that a key feature of the Late Bronze Age “palaces” was the presence of large liquid storage facilities. These were administered using a form of proto-writing, an early accounting system, which recorded inflows and outflows of goods including oil and wine on behalf of a ruler and a number of deities. Working backwards, he reasoned that the rulers of the “palaces”, the first of their kind, derived their power from this “redistributing” activity. He called the first rulers “chiefs”, following the models of social evolution influential at the time, which envisioned a universal development path from “tribal” societies to “chiefdoms” and “states”. They became “chiefs”, according to his account, because the new crops, and the high-value surplus production they generated, required a higher level of organisation to administer.

“The redistribution of goods, which is organized and controlled by the chief himself, . . . is, of course, exactly the function fulfilled by the palaces of Minoan-Mycenaean civilization, taking in and storing the produce from the very different fields, orchards, and pastures which are found, even in a small area, in south Greece.”

This was a benevolent managerial elite, taking on the task of redistributing the newfound bounty of the earth to the surrounding communities. They rewarded themselves with the accoutrements of “wealth”, defined as the “the ownership of desirable transferrable goods”, which they took to their graves in the form of marble statuettes and weapons and ornaments made of metal. It is impossible to overstate how influential this model of social evolution was, for the archaeology of Greece and of Europe more generally. For the first time it provided a narrative that wasn’t a “just so story” about the inexorable march of progress or an illustrated foundation myth for a modern nation-state. Yet within a decade it was lampooned by one of its critics in a published debate as a vision of “a benevolent squirearchy bent on agricultural improvement, a little modest trade, and the advancement of the deserving poor”.

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Reconstructing the olive.

A much darker vision was offered in a 1981 article by Antonio Gilman, an American archaeologist researching Spanish prehistory. Gilman also believed that arboriculture, including exploitation of the olive and the vine, was a key technological development in the emergence of complex societies in the region (“civilisation” already being regarded with suspicion as too value-laden a term). However, he saw its importance in very different terms from the enabling role envisioned by Renfrew. The key difference it brought was “capital intensification”, the need for upfront investment:

“Tree crops […] present radically new technical requirements. Vine cuttings do not yield fruit until three years after they have been planted but produce for generations thereafter. Olives do not yield fruit for ten to fifteen years after planting, come into full production some twenty years later, and continue to give fruit for centuries. In the meantime, the trees must be pruned, the ground around them plowed. In other words, the farmer must invest a lot of work before he (or his heir) receives a return. Mediterranean polyculture constitutes a capital-intensification of subsistence.”

This produced a power shift in those early egalitarian societies, from those who lived hand-to-mouth, to those who were able offer protection against the destruction of their livelihoods:

“The investments of labor to insure future production would have to be defended. But the value of these same assets would dampen the potential for social fission, so that it would be difficult to check the aspirations of those to whom the defense had been entrusted. In the face of a protector whose exactions seem excessive, the household’s choices are limited: it may abandon the asset for which it sought protection; it may find another protector (who may prove no less self-aggrandizing than his predecessor); or it may submit to the excessive exactions. Over the long term, these options consistently favor the protectors. In the end there would have arisen a permanent ruling class.”

Rather than being benevolent managers, Gilman’s first “chiefs” are “protectors”, and the olive rather than being a blessing is a form of bondage. This is in effect a Mafia society.

Indeed, in more recent years, historians studying documents from nineteenth century Italy have proposed a very similar model for the emergence of the modern Cosa Nostra, as a protection racket preying on the citrus groves of Sicily. One group of documents that has been extensively studied is the account of a Dr Galati of Palermo, whose story takes place in the 1870s, and offers a vivid illustration of how an orchard-based protection network might work:

“In 1872 Galati came to inherit a pristine four-hectare lemon grove only a ten-minute walk from Palermo. However, all was not well inside its walls. Its previous owner, the doctor’s brother-in-law, had died of a heart attack following a series of threatening letters. Some time before he died, he learned that the sender of these letters was a warden on his own grove, Benedetto Carollo, who had dictated them to someone who was literate. He said that he swaggered around the grove making wild threats against Galati and it was well known that he creamed at least twenty per cent off the sale price. He even stole coal for the steam engine. Eventually lemons started to go missing from the grove. Orders couldn’t be met and the grove got a bad reputation. Carollo was trying to ruin the grove so as to buy it himself. Galati sacked him and hired a replacement.

Some ‘good friends’ of Carollo’s came around and advised that Galati should take him back, but Galati refused.

At approximately 10pm on 2 July, 1874, Carollo’s replacement was shot several times. The hitmen had built a platform behind a stone wall so as to shoot him in a winding back lane. This method became a staple of early Mafia hits. The police were called and they tactfully ignored Galati’s convictions that it was Carollo, arresting instead two men who had no connection with the victim and then promptly releasing them. He received a series of threatening letters, seven in all, which said it was a disgrace for a ‘man of honour’, such as Carollo, to be fired. Eventually he was forced to flee the country after a series of attempts on his life…

Even at this early point the Mafia has corrupted the local government. When Galati asked for his seven threatening letters back, he only got six. The seventh and most explicit had been strangely mislaid.”

The idea that our “civilisation” might come at a price, that perhaps the elegant prehistoric artefacts that we admire in museum cases, the Cycladic marble figurines and the golden drinking sets of Troy, may have been financed by the blood and toil of an emerging serf class at the hands of a proto-Mafia, is a radically different view of prehistory. It may be one that more people would identify with at this present time of increasing wealth inequality, but it is not the one that prevails.

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A token of civilisation or the loot of a proto-Mafia?

Can we determine with certainty which version is right? Both of these contrasting visions of the past were based on near-identical data sets (though Gilman’s was more geographically extensive, including evidence from the western Mediterranean), and neither of them did the data violence to fit their story. In the years following their advancement, academic priorities have been directed towards testing hypotheses through further gathering of evidence, following the scientific method. In the course of this inquiry, the discipline first questioned and then apparently affirmed the evidence for olive exploitation in the critical periods of the Early and Middle Bronze age. But the narratives put forward to account for the evidence have changed only at the margins. That is probably because such big questions, touching on intangibles such as human intentionality, hover on the very margins of empirical proof or refutation.

What accounts for the different views? It might help the reader to know, by way of context, that Colin Renfrew was awarded a life peerage in 1991 and now sits in Conservative benches of the House of Lords as Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, while Antonio Gilman wrote the entry on “Marxist archaeology” in the 2001 International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. It shouldn’t come as a shock that their perspectives on what drives human history differ. Archaeologists are in a constant debate amongst themselves about how to interpret the past, and their views can be quite heavily informed by their beliefs and their present circumstances – much more than the general public would know from the media reporting of their findings. While this inner turmoil is largely hidden from public view, the dawning realisation has led to a “loss of nerve” in the discipline, almost an existential anxiety, which makes the majority of its practitioners shy away from the Big Questions because they feel they can’t provide proper, definitive, incontrovertible answers (or because they fear that their research will only be funded on that promise). This is a shame. Acknowledging that present-day politics can shape our view of the past is not a negative as long as it leads to productive inquiry by framing hypotheses that can be tested. Humans are storytelling animals, stories are how we make sense of the world, and perhaps it isn’t so bad to admit that the evidence allows for more than one definitive version of the story. I am not for a moment suggesting that people should be encouraged to select their preferred version of the past from an infinite relativist superstore (Ideas’R’Us?), or that we always have to chose between such stark opposites. Rather, just being aware that alternatives exist and that some questions remain open would enrich our understanding of the past and our appreciation of the present.

That, at any rate, is something to consider the next time you pop an olive in your mouth with your aperitif, or drizzle some extra virgin on your salad.

IMAGES: Ancient olive tree in Crete, from ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com; 3D rendering of the Monumental Olive Tree of Vouves, said to be the oldest olive tree in the world, after Maravelakis et al.; display of Early Cycladic figurines at the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens.

Stories about the Olive, part I: Civilisation or curse?

Imitation ‘Greek’ statues flooding the market, consumer organisations warn

Consumer organisations are warning buyers against an influx of counterfeit goods from the Far East. Customs police, acting on a tip-off from Interpol, recently cracked down on a massive fake goods operation, which specialised in trafficking ornamental sculptures into Europe and marketing them as ‘Greek’.

The life-size terracotta statues were originally described by their Chinese promoters as “[potentially] inspired by Greek sculptures and art”, however ruthless European middlemen have taken it one step further, claiming to “imagine that a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals.” Experts warn consumers to beware of false advertising, and to be sceptical of the hype in the popular media. “These products claiming to be ‘Greek’ are not only smaller and of lesser artistic merit, they are also made of inferior materials,” cautions Pheidias, who owns a garden centre specialising in architectural ornaments on the Marathon road. “For example, a genuine caryatid is 100% solid Pentelic marble, guaranteed to hold up a temple pediment for centuries. These copies are terracotta, they will crumble instantly and injure someone. They would never pass European safety tests.”

The counterfeiters appear to be exploiting on the sky-rocketing demand for so-called caryatids in Greece, where state-sponsored British looting has resulted in a scarcity of the monumental female statues. “They think that if they slap the word ‘Greek’ on them we’ll be fooled,” said Mrs Toula, a bargain-hunter rifling through a stall of ‘Superbry’ and ‘Abidas’ sportswear at the local outdoor market. Recently, a campaign by German supermarket chain Lidl to promote Greek products backfired, when nationalists complained about the alleged desecration of the Greek flag on the marketing logo.

The terracotta statues are believed to have been mass-produced in a giant manufacturing plant in China’s Shaanxi province, while traffickers working for the operation are recently thought to have been identified from their skeletal remains as far afield as London.

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The alleged “Chinese caryatid factory”, Xi’an, China.

Others, however, argue that the Chinese statues should be appreciated on their own merits, regardless of whether the Greeks had a hand in making them.”I have a deep respect for the cultures of the East, mused Isodoros, a 25-year-old DJ/mixologist, as he polished the battery-operated ‘lucky cat’ on the reclaimed zinc bar of his Monastiraki speakeasy. “I think it is because I have always been a spiritual person. At the end of the day, we are all one big cosmic civilisation.”

Asked to comment on the controversy, Professor Killjoy, holder of the Nitpicker chair of Archaeology at the University of Pedantry told us: “It is the job of professional archaeologists to determine whether this is a case of cultural diffusion or independent invention. More study is required to shed light on this question, which will necessitate extensive international travel, many media appearances and a small army of postdocs to cover one’s teaching duties. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a research grant to apply for.”

Imitation ‘Greek’ statues flooding the market, consumer organisations warn

The Zea Conspiracy

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I recently tried to take a break from the snark, cynicism and political intrigue that normally fuel this blog by sketching out a proposal for an essay combining two of my other interests: ancient stuff and food. A whimsical yet informative look at the revival of ancient foods, I thought, a good news story about rediscovering the past in the crisis, peppered with incidental historical detail and toothsome gastronomic tips.

But would “they” let me? The hell they would!

When I say “they” I am referring not to the voices in my head, but to my tirelessly inventive friends, the conspiracy theorists. I had forgotten Rule Number One: no topic, no matter how benign or obscure, is conspiracy-proof. Especially in Greece.

If you have visited a Greek health food shop recently, or any of the new generation of “traditional” delis, you will have been struck by the incredible array of dried pasta, a lot of it made in Greece from various obscure rustic grains. And if you happen to have read any literature on the origins of agriculture, some of these grains will sound familiar: δίκοκκο σιτάρι (Triticum dicoccum); spelt (Triticum spelta) often labelled by its German name, dinkel; and the more classical-sounding “Zea”. A veritable cornucopia of archaeobotanical samples seems to have taken over the shelves overnight, despite the hefty price tag that many of them command.

I was curious as to what had spurred this new market, particularly given that it coincides with a dramatic contraction in the average household’s spending power. So, naively I typed “ζέα καλλιέργεια” (“zea cultivation”) into Google. I was expecting to find official web pages from the Ministry of Agriculture about subsidy schemes, perhaps some farming publications discussing yield and soil types, and maybe a few food blogs of the “knit your own yoghurt” variety.

Instead I was confronted by a whole slew of articles with titles like “Zea, a well-made fairytale”, “What is zea and why it was banned in Greece”, “Bread from ZEA flour – READ the WHOLE TRUTH”. The random capitalisation signals it loud and clear: there is a TRUTH about zea that THEY don’t want you to know. The comments sections played host to some fairly disturbing flame wars, too – easily a match for an anti-vaccine bulletin board or a bitcoin forum.  So much passion and anger for a humble little grain!

Without much effort, I traced the source of the conspiracy stories. “The Historic Swindle” (Ο ΙΣΤΟΡΙΚΟΣ ΕΜΠΑΙΓΜΟΣ) by one General George G. Aïfantes, published in 2010 in archaïzing katharevousa Greek (the linguistic affectation of choice of the reactionary), now sadly out of print, is a classic of its genre. To cut a long and meandering story short, the book is an explication of how the great world powers conspired to destroy Greece over a century ago, with clearly telegraphed topical parallels to more recent events.

I will let the author explain in his words, translated verbatim below for the extensive passages quoted on various websites like this one (epilepsy warning!), with the original punctuation:

«Οί αρχαίοι δέν έτρωγαν ψωμί άπό σιτάρι. Τό σιτάρι τό είχαν ώς τροφή τών ζώων καί τό (ονόμαζαν πυρρό. Έτρωγαν μόνον ψωμί άπό Ζειά ή Κριθάρι καί έν ανάγκη μόνον από κριθάρι ανάμεικτο με Σιτάρι. Ό Μέγας Αλέξανδρος έτρεφε την στρατιάν του μόνο μέ Ζειά, διά νά είναι οι άνδρες του υγιείς και πνευματικά ανεπτυγμένοι. Αν οι αρχαίοι Έλληνες έτρωγαν ψωμί άπό σιτάρι δέν θά είχαν τόσο ύψηλήν πνευματικήν άνάπτυξιν.»

“The ancients did not eat bread from wheat. Wheat they used as animal feed and they named it πυρρό. They ate only bread from Zeia or barley, and only in emergencies from barley mixed with Wheat. Alexander the Great fed his army only on Zeia, in order that his men be healthy and mentally developed. Had the ancient Greeks eaten bread from wheat they would not have such a high level of intellectual development.”

«Μόλις οι κοσμοκράτορες έδιάβασαν αυτήν τήν έκθεσιν τής επιτροπής, δίδουν εντολή το 1928 νά αναιρεθή αμέσως ή καλλιέργεια Ζειά στην Ελλάδα, και μόνον στην Ελλάδα. Διά νά μειώσουν μέ το σιτάρι τήν πνευματικήν άνάπτυξιν των Ελλήνων, μειώνοντας τήν άντίληψίν τους και οργανώνοντας ταπεινήν έκπαίδευσιν των παιδιών τους καί διδάσκοντας τις πολιτικές τους εις τά σχολεία και πολιτικοποιούντες τα εις τά κόμματα που αυτοί ελέγχουν απόλυτα, για νά ποδηγετήσουν πλήρως εις πρώτον χρόνον τους Έλληνας. Ενώ τώρα αναμειγνύοντας τους μέ αλλοδαπούς, θέλουν νά τους εξαφανίσουν τελείως.»

“As soon as the world rulers read this report of the committee, they issued an order in 1928 to cease immediately the cultivation of Zeia in Greece, and in Greece only. So as to reduce with wheat the intellectual development of the Greeks, reducing their understanding and organising debased education for their children and teaching them their politics in the schools and organising them into political parties that they controlled absolutely, so as to control the Greeks in the shortest time. Whereas now mixing them with foreigners, they want to eradicate them completely.”

«Ναι άλλα πώς θά τό επιτύχουν αυτό;Αμέσως δίδουν έντολήν είς τόν τέκνον των τον Βενιζέλο νά έπιστρέψη στην Ελλάδα καί νά εξαφάνιση τήν Ζειά. Οπότε βλέπουμε τόν Βενιζέλο νά έπιστρέφη στην Ελλάδα μετά άπό 8 χρόνια αυτοε­ξορίας του, νά άνασκουμπώνεται και νά ορμά σάν λέων κατά τής Ζειάς. Μέσα σέ 60 χρόνια μόνον ήλλοίωσαν τήν πνευματικήν ύπεροχήν του σκέπτεσθαι τών Ελλήνων, τους έκαναν αδιάφορους, άβουλους, μέ μετρίαν αντίληψιν και φιλάσθενους καί τώρα μέ τους αλλοδαπούς επιδιώκουν τόν πλήρη εξαφανισμό τής φυλής των, ένώ συγχρόνως ξοδεύουν δισεκατομμύρια δολλάρια οι φιλεύσπλαχνοι διά νά μην εξαφανισθούν οί οχιές, κόμπρες, πάντα καί άλλα ζώα καί ερπετά.»

“Yes but how will they achieve this? Immediately they issue an order to their child Venizelos to return to Greece and eradicate Zeia. So we see Venizelos returning to Greece after 8 years’ self-exile, rolling up his sleeves and setting upon Zeia like a lion. Within a mere 60 years they corrupted the intellectual superiority of Greek thought, they made Greeks indifferent, timid, with mediocre understanding and sickly and now with the foreigners they are intending the complete eradication of their race, while simultaneously the benevolent are spending billions of dollars to prevent the disappearance of vipers, cobras and all other animals and reptiles.”

«Προς το τέλος του 1928 ο “Εθνάρχης” μας Βενιζέλος, προφανώς μετά από κάποια εντολή, με της Αμύνης τα Παιδιά, τυφλά εις τον νουν και την κρίσιν και διψασμένα το πώς να ευχαριστήσουν καλλίτερα τον αρχηγόν των εκήρυξαν τον πόλεμον κατά της Ζειάς και εφορμήσαντες ακαταμάχητοι, ενίκησαν νίκην λαμπράν και εις βραχύτατον χρόνον 4 ετών δεν υπήρχε εις την Ελλάδα ούτε ένα σπυρί Ζειάς για σπόρο. Είπαν εις τον λαό ότι η Ζειά είναι ζωοτροφή, δι αυτό τα λεξικά την γράφουν έκτοτε ζωοτροφή και ότι είναι βλαβερή στην υγεία. Αυτό το πρόβαλαν έντονα τα Μ.Μ.Ε. και σε 4 χρόνια εξηφανίσθη η Ζειά.»

Towards the end of 1928 our “Ethnarch” [sic] Venizelos, clearly acting on instruction, with his “boys in Defence” [an ironic reference to a pro-Venizelos anti-royalist song of the time], blind of mind and judgement and thirsting for how to best please their leader declared war on Zeia and charging forth invincible, won a glorious battle and in a brief 4 years there was not left in Greece a single grain of Zeia for planting. They told the people that Zeia is animal feed, and for this reasons since that time the dictionaries have it as animal feed and write that it is harmful to health. This was promoted strenuously in the Mass Media, and within 4 years Zeia had disappeared.”

The General goes on to say that Venizelos also expunged any reference of Zea from Greek dictionaries, and that his friends made a killing importing wheat into Greece on the back of the Zea ban. But that is not all. He also gives a vivid description of how gluten is used by “the establishment” to breed compliant slaves to the system. “Here comes the science!” as Jennifer Aniston used to say in the those shampoo ads – look away now if you know anything about molecular biology:

«Η γλουτένη του σιταριού καταστρέφει την υγείαν, το πνεύμα, την μεγαλοφυίαν, τον πολιτισμόν της ανθρωπότητος, διότι ως ισχυρή κόλλα επικολλάται εις τα τοιχώματα όλων των αγγείων πού διέρχεται, πεπτικούς σωλήνες, έντερα, φλέβες, αρτηρίες κ.λπ. Ένεκα τούτου παρακωλύει την σωστήν πέψιν, τις κενώσεις και την κυκλοφορίαν του αίματος, με τις αντίστοιχες επιβαρύνσεις εις την υγείαν.» 

“Wheat gluten destroys the health, the spirit, the genius and civilisation of mankind, because as a strong glue it fixes itself to the walls of all vessels that it passes through, digestive tracts, guts, veins, arteries etc. Because of this it prevents proper digestion, excretion, blood circulation, with the corresponding detriments to health.”

«Εις τον εγκέφαλον ως πρωτεΐνη στηρίξεως κολλά ισχυρά τις πρωτεΐνες της μνήμης με αποτέλεσμα, ότι παραστάσεις και ιδέες εβίωσεν το παιδί εις την ηλικίαν 3-7 ετών, οσο λανθασμένες και αν είναι, οσο πιο δυνατές και ξεκάθαρες αποδείξεις περί πλάνης του και αν του παρουσιάσεις αργότερα, δεν πρόκειται ως ενήλικας να απορρίψη τις αποθηκευμένες μνήμες και δοξασίες του, περί θεού, πολιτικής, κ.λπ.»

“In the brain as a structural protein it fixes solidly the proteins of memory with the result that, whatever attestations and ideas the child experienced at the age of 3-7 years, however mistaken they may be, however powerful and clear proof of their fallacy you present later, it will not as an adult reject its stored memories and beliefs about god, politics, etc.”

«Δι’ αυτό ακριβώς οι θρησκείες, οι Δικτάτορες, οι έξουσιασταί μας με διάφορα τεχνάσματα και ωραία λόγια προσπαθούν να ποδηγετήσουν τα παιδιά απο μικρή ηλικία και εσοφίστηκαν τα κατηχητικά και τις πολιτικές νεολαίες. Οι Δικτάτορες και οι τραπεζίτες εισήγαγον την πολιτικήν εις τα σχολεία με πρόφασιν, δήθεν, την προπαρασκευήν ενήμερων πολιτών, ενώ στην ουσία εκπαιδεύουν τυφλούς δούλους του τραπεζικού συστήματος.»

“This is exactly why religions, Dictators, our masters with various ploys and beautiful words attempt to manipulate our children from a young age, and devised Sunday schools and political youth movements. The Dictators and banker introduced politics into schools with the pretext of, ostensibly, producing informed citizens, but in reality they are training blind slaves of the banking system.”

«Όποιος απο εσάς πιστεύει εις την ανεξάρτητον σκέψιν των ανθρώπων, ας αγωνισθή δια την κατάργησιν του συνδικαλισμού εις ολα τα σχολεία, πλην των πανεπιστημίων. Επομένως η γλουτένη του σιταριού είναι και η τροχοπέδη της εξελίξεως και του πολιτισμού. Ταυτοχρόνως, τροχοπεδεί και την ελευθέραν σκέψιν και πνευματικήν άνοδον του άνθρωπου και τον καθιστά δούλον του ιερατείου, του κατεστημένου, διότι αγωνίζεται και θυσιάζεται δια αξίας που του ενέπνευσαν τα οργανωμένα συμφέροντα και όχι η φύσις. Είναι όλοι οι αγώνες του εναντίον των φυσικών νόμων. Αντίθετα η πρωτεΐνη στηρίξεως της Ζειάς (πληθυντικός Ζειαΐ) διασπάται απο τα ένζυμα και αφομοιώνεται σαν καλή τροφή απο τον οργανισμό.»

“Whoever among you believes in the independent thought of people, must struggle for the abolition of unionisation in all schools, with the exception of universities. Therefore wheat gluten is a brake on development and civilisation. Simultaneously it acts as a brake on the free thought and spiritual elevation of man and makes him a slave to the priesthood, to the establishment, because he fights and sacrifices himself for values that were inspired in him by organised interests and not by nature. All of his struggles are against the laws of nature. In contrast, the structural protein of Zeia (plural Zeiai) is broken up by the enzymes and absorbed as a good food by the body.”

No doubt the General found an eager readership in the intersection between those the 75 percent of our countrymen who apparently believe that the financial crisis was engineered by conspiracy against Greece by outside forces, the one in three who are convinced that “we are being sprayed”, and the uncounted hypochondriacs who buy water purification kits off TV informercials while speed-dialling the astrology hotline. The Zea conspiracy certainly found traction on the Greek fringe nationalist internet and its affiliated TV stations, where the General appeared regularly as a pundit. For what could be more patriotic than reviving the (alleged) food of Alexander’s troops that was (allegedly) banned by the Great Powers, and that (supposedly) boosts not just your bodily functions but also your IQ so that you can make Greece great again?

crop_duster_in_the_imperial_valley_-_nara_-_549072

The critics are equally vehement: Zea is a scam invented by profiteering farmers. It isn’t certified, and much of it is probably imported from Germany, fraudulently “Hellenised”, and inflated in price. It is nothing but the latest snake-oil put on the market to rip off gullible Greeks. It is bringing in GMOs by the back door. All references to zea attributed to ancient texts are invented or distorted. We are being sold grain that our ancestors barely saw fit for animal feed.

After consuming this rich fare, going back to writing about how “comeback grains” do offer some modest health benefits “as part of a balanced diet”, and how they may give farmers a new income stream, feels like swapping a big juicy double gyro wrap “with everything” for a virtuous bowl of all-organic, 100% vegan, gluten-free gruel. It’s a tough call. But at the end of the day, there is no sinister Zea abolition act in the parliamentary record, just the first modern food testing and standardisation regime, introduced in Greece 1928 (no matter how you choose to label it when you upload it to the internet). Nor does the accumulated knowledge of classical literature and archaeology support the General’s assertions that a crop called “Zea” was a staple of the ancient Greek diet and that wheat was not. As for the “science”, it belongs firmly in inverted commas along with Grain Brain, Wheat Belly and whatever other tome your orthorexic friend is is beating you about the head with this week. Eating whole grains will give you a healthier gut, and you may actually like the taste, but it won’t transform you into Pythagoras or Alexander the Great overnight. It certainly won’t restore Smyrna to Greece, or bring back the monarchy. “Buying Greek” may help local farmers, but it won’t make anyone rich, and it won’t end the financial crisis. All of the grains labelled “Zea” are ancestral wheat varieties that contain some gluten. But gluten isn’t poison for most people, nor is it part of a sinister government plot to keep us fat’n’stupid – and if it is, it is doomed. Your honour, I present as evidence millennia of bread-eating western progress, improved well-being and increasing lifespans.

To give credit where credit’s due, neither the obsession with food purity nor the anxiety over government control are uniquely Greek. “Survival seed banks” guaranteeing non-GMO, non-hybrid, “open pollinated”, “patriot” seeds untouched by government, the WTO and big agribusiness, packed in bomb-proof containers, are now a cottage industry in the US, competing for the custom of “preppers” making their plans for the end of days. To the question “Are governments attempting to stop citizens from growing their own food?” the answer for some is always “yes, the U.S. government now claims the power to simply march onto your farm with guns drawn and demand all your crops, seeds, livestock and farm equipment.”

texas-ready-the-treasury

Thankfully we’re not there (yet)!

IMAGES: The Goddess Demeter with her Eleusinian attributes, wheat, serpents and poppies (go on, ask me about the poppies!) via patheos.com; crop duster by Charles O’Rear via Wikipedia.org; emergency seed bank via texasready.net.

 

The Zea Conspiracy

Monumental evidence of wealth-destroying “tournaments of value” in the Middle Anthropocene

Abstract

This paper puts forward a new interpretation for the monumental earthworks recorded across the continental masses of the planet Earth, dating to the Middle Anthropocene period. This study seeks to refute previous interpretations in favour of a new theory, namely that these monumental structures represent the material remains of symbolically charged ritual events which can be seen as an expression of societal stress in a period of rapid transitions and environmental decline.

canoekayak
A well-preserved earthwork of the early 3rd millennium AD, with elaborate ditch-and-bank features, usage unknown (Athens).

Introduction

Monumental constructions and earthworks have been documented on the outskirts of a number of large conurbations dating to the Middle Anthropocene period (late 2nd/early 3rd millennium AD) in widely separated parts of continental Earth. The mystery surrounding these structures has been enhanced by the paucity of the contemporary documentary record due to the Great Solar Storms of the mid-3rd millennium AD, which erased most of the predominantly digital records of the period, leaving only fragmentary texts from which to reconstruct the contemporary literary, political and economic milieu.

The monuments have in common a massive scale but show a variety of shapes and functional forms. Some are simply banks of spectator seating arranged amphitheatrically around flat areas and circuits of varying shapes and dimensions; others contain trenches and water-filled lustral basins of unknown purpose; the most puzzling ones include elaborate curvilinear ditch-and-bank earthworks, combined with mysterious mounds (see above). They were often located on the margins of existing habitations, after the land was extensively cleared, perhaps in a ritual purging, removing all traces of previous activity.

swimmingpool
Abandoned lustral basin, usage unknown. It is believed that the chair is a later intrusion. (Athens).

Stylistically, the structures are defined by a collection of common traits which has come to be known as the “International Startchitect Koiné”: exaggerated monumentality, the use of rare materials and elaborate construction techniques, the labour-intensity of the construction, the dominance of form over function are all features of this universal style, which becomes more elaborate as the period progresses. The structures could accommodate several thousand people and are believed to have taken years to construct using imported labour that may have been drawn from lower castes, forced or indentured, and there is some evidence to suggest that the grizzly custom of human foundation sacrifice was practiced to secure the buildings’ foundations. Mysteriously, most of the structures appear to have been put to very limited use, as attested by the unusually light wear patterns in their furnishings.

aquaticcentre
Artist’s impression of a ritual structure in the “International Starchitect Style”, housing several lustral basins of unknown usage (London).

The function of the monuments has puzzled archaeologists and the fascinated the general public for generations. Earlier scholars posited that such structures were the remnants of extra-terrestrial civilisations, so alien did they appear within the human landscape. However, through recently published cross-cultural studies with our extra-terrestrial colleagues we are now able to discount these rather fanciful theories. The argument that the monuments are “visible from outer space” is in our view an ex post fact rationalisation reflecting an Earth-centric bias in the scholarship of the time. Another interpretation suggested that they were defensive structures; however, evidence of damage by artillery fire and mass burials has been shown to post-date the initial phase of their use. We use the fragmentary documentary evidence in conjunction with the archaeological remains to propose a radically different interpretation that does not require the presence of alien visitors, but rather explains the extraordinary structures in the context of complex ideations and value systems of contemporary societies, as they sought to respond to increased global interaction, social pressures and rapid climatic change.

Towards an alternative interpretation

Previous scholarly attempts to explain the purpose of these structures have tended to focus on functionalist interpretations, for example that they were defensive in nature, or that they were initiated with the aim of mobilising labour for productive purposes, on the model of Amish barn-raisings. We have found very little evidence to support such theories. Instead, we would argue that the immense mobilisation of labour and resources for ephemeral or even single-use purposes have more in common with the types of practices that anthropologists refer to as “total prestations” or “tournaments of value”, systems of gift-giving with political, religious, kinship and economic implications. These are are marked by the competitive exchange of gifts, in which gift-givers seek to out-give their competitors so as to capture important political, kinship and religious roles. Examples of this include the “potlatches” of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada, during which chieftains competed to distribute gifts such as blankets, animal skins and ritual instruments, and enhanced their social standing by ritually destroying them in large bonfires. In contrast with western industrial economies, status in these societies was achieved in such events not by accumulating wealth, but by giving it away or destroying it in a conspicuous manner.

image
Artist’s impression of Middle Anthropocene ritual. The female priestess (?) is thought to be lighting a torch to be used for the conspicuous destruction of wealth through incineration (a ritual known as “The Burning of the the Money”).

It may be seen as a paradox that such “primitive” practices could be found in “advanced” human societies. It is useful to bring to bear here the documentary record, which, though fragmentary, offers glimpses into a sophisticated ideational construct surrounding these mysterious material remains. Studies have shown that the official religion of the Middle Anthropocene centred on the dogma of “economic rationality”, which at the height of the construction of these buildings had entered the phase known as “late capitalism”. Within this value system, the driving force was the individual’s (or group’s) maximisation of material wealth by the most efficient means. This appears to be borne out by meticulous administrative documentation relating to the preparation and building of the structures. In these documents, the priestly castes frequently invoke religious terms such as “cost/benefit” and “economic impact analysis” in order to present the projects in an “economically sound” light.

At the same time, a seemingly contradictory body of evidence associates the very same projects with metaphysical concepts such as “regeneration”, “sustainability” and “legacy” – a clear nod to the mystical Dionysiac concept of death and rebirth. It is clear from the literature that this belief system viewed the structures as part of a cosmogonic ritual aimed at summoning up “world peace”. An apocryphal text known as the “Olympic Spirit” exhorts participants “to build a peaceful and better world […] to promote tolerance and understanding in these increasingly troubled times in which we live, to make our world a more peaceful place”.

Despite being mutually contradictory and internally inconsistent, these belief systems seem to have coexisted in tandem for over a century, and were surprisingly resilient to critique. We have, for example, ample contemporary evidence of criticism that the structures and the rituals associated with them did not in fact deliver the promised economic salvation but instead guaranteed balance sheet damnation, while others pointed out that there was no correlation between the rituals and world peace, or that the events resulted in debt, displacement, and militarisation of public space” and some accused the elders entrusted with organising them of corruption. It is thought that such criticism was regarded as heretical and its exponents punished severely, but the fate of the critics is not recorded.

wenlockmandeville
Wenlock and Mandeville, the Cyclopean guardians of London.

 

Little is known about what actually took place within the monumental structures. From the associated waste dumps it is clear that ritual feasting played a great part in the activities. With time, the paraphernalia associated with consumption became increasingly formalised, and ritual vessels more often than not bear the mysterious “Golden Arches of Consecration”. It is also known that those attending the rituals partook of a beverage served in a distinctive steatopygous glass vessel, whose recipe was closely guarded in a temple vault – perhaps an aphrodisiac or a fertility elixir. Each ritual site seems to have been presided over by a distinct monstrous deity or anthropomorphic animal spirit (above), clearly intended to induce a holy terror in the participants. Some claim to have found evidence of athletic contests, however we believe that such evidence is too scant to merit consideration here.

A car driven by a student of a driving school slowly moves around the carpark in front of the deserted 2008 Beijing Olympics venue for the cycling competition in central Beijing
A “sacred ruin”, venerated by later generations; note the preservation of empty space around the monument (Beijing).

The resilience of the belief system that fuelled these “tournaments of value” is further evidenced by the respect with which the monuments were often treated after their initial construction. Although subsequent generations appear to have forgotten the original purpose of the structures, they often venerated them as sacred ruins by preserving them intact and allowing the land around them to lie fallow. It is likely that only the more prosperous hosts that were able to do this, while others were forced to adapt and reuse the structures as their circumstances dictated. Occasionally, the structures were put to temporary use, as is evidenced in Phase VIIb of the Hellenikon Rhomboid Structure which appears to have been repurposed as a temporary habitation site during the “great migration” of the early 21st century AD (below).

 

baseball
Artist’s rendering of Phase VIIb of the Hellenikon Rhomboid Structure, showing densely packed temporary habitation structures.

An ancient precedent?

Recently, scholars have suggested that the structures and and the rituals associated with them find a direct antecedent in religious festivals dating two and a half millennia earlier, and have adopted the term “Olympic” to describe them, alluding to the largest of these earlier festivals. However, despite sharing many features with these earlier practices, the long hiatus between the two sets of events leads us to posit that we are in fact dealing with a Hobsbawmian “invented tradition”: by adopting self-consciously archaising practices, emergent elites seek to legitimise their status by demonstrating their continuity with a quasi-mythical past.

It is suggested here that such practices arose as a way of bolstering a fragile global hierarchy and establishing social cohesion in an era when a rise in the overall living standards on the planet was accompanied by increased competition for resources and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change. Testing this hypothesis, however, is beyond the scope of the current paper.

Further documentation of the mysterious structures and their history of re-use here, as artillery defences and as a prison.

Further reading on the future archaeology of the Middle Anthropocene: “Our Piece of Paradise: Patterns of Coastal Habitation…”


IMAGES: Athens 2004 canoe/kayak venue by Milos Bicanski; Athens 2004 training pool by Associated Press; London 2012 Aquatics Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects; Wenlock and Mandeville, the London 2012 Olympic Mascots via Rainbow Productions; Beijing 2008 velodrome by REUTERS/David Gray; Athens 2004 baseball stadium by Jai Mexis & Partners via This American Life.

Monumental evidence of wealth-destroying “tournaments of value” in the Middle Anthropocene

Yesterday’s news today: a parrot’s digest of Greek headlines we’ve seen before

With an eventful few weeks at the opposite corner of the continent (and now closer to home), there has been a certain comfort in returning to slow news days in Greece. So much so, that Aunt Cassandra thought for a moment that she had mistakenly picked up a newspaper from several years ago, before remembering that her magnificent Amazonian Parrot, Orfeas, unfailingly gets a fresh cage lining of yesterday’s news before it has time to linger. In fact, even Orfeas has noticed that over the years certain headlines in the paper reappear with unfailing regularity. Orfeas thinks his own species’ reputation for repetition is grossly overstated. His own nuanced rendition of the “Vissi d’arte” aria from Tosca has been deemed “better than Callas” by the most demanding members of AC’s opera circle, while his deft impression of an angry Rottweiler is the envy of AC’s security-obsessed friends. But, ever the good sport, he was able with a ruffle of his feathers and a few theatrical hops around his cage to help us compile a whole newspaper out of the repeat clippings. And here it is, yesterday’s news today, for tomorrow’s prescient reader.

PERSONAL FINANCE

Minister warns: “Absolutely no extensions to tax filing deadline.” By now even the most isolated tribes in the depths of the Orfeas’s ancestral rainforest know that the Greek state faces enormous challenges collecting tax – though not quite as enormous as is sometimes portrayed. Filing deadline extensions are a regular summer sport, and hard pronouncements such as this are only made to be broken. With the cosmic cyclicality of druids gathering for the summer solstice, tardy taxpayers watch the news to see how far they can push it against the deadline (or indeed, whether they need to bother at all if it happens to be an election year). This year’s deadline has already been extended once. Last summer Orfeas counted three extensions without even trying, taking the original deadline of the end of June to the end of August. Because capital controls, you might protest? No. Because. Every. Year. And if it isn’t planned, it is virtually guaranteed that the state-of-the-art-circa-1995 electronic filing system Taxis will collapse under the weight of last-minute submissions, requiring (you guessed it) a filing extension.

CULTURE

Temporary_Elgin_Room_at_the_Museum_in_1819

“New initiative sparks hopes of return of Parthenon Marbles to Greece.” Ever since the Ambassador Lord Elgin returned to Blighty with a particularly ostentatious collection of souvenirs in his luggage, the campaign to repatriate “the marbles” has been ongoing, simultaneously delivering a steady supply of mental illness-related gags in the Anglophone media, even among those who should know better (Stephen Fry: “It’s time we lost our marbles”). This time, a group of backbench MPs in the British Parliament is supporting an initiative to return the sculptures on the 200th anniversary of the Act of Parliament which granted them to the British Museum. Less than two years ago, it was the photogenic and recently wed Amal Clooney to the rescue, channeling Jackie O and figureheading a legal team invited by then PM Antonis Samaras to advise the Greek government on the matter. Every so often a new initiative arises, taking patriotic Greeks and philhellenes on an emotional rollercoaster, only to have their hopes dashed once again against the intransigence of the British government. In this case, one senses the initiative is particularly poorly timed. Unless, that is, the sculptures can be worked into some kind of Machiavellian EU hostage exchange deal.

JUSTICE

xeiropedes

“Corruption trial postponed indefinitely.” Oh, how we punch the air whenever an arrest is made in an anti-corruption investigation! Finally, someone will be brought to justice for the mess the country is in! We look forward with barely concealed schadenfreude to seeing the erstwhile politician/businessman/big lawyer lamogio do the “perp walk” to the police van with only a limp overcoat to cover their handcuffs. And if that counted as justice, we would be sitting pretty. However in Greece actual justice in the formal sense is closely synonymous with “the tall grass”, as we have had cause to relate previously. This week, two trials relating to the Siemens scandal have been (yes) postponed indefinitely: one, because foreign defendants were not provided with timely translations of the charges; the other, because the presiding judge passed away and there is no provision to replace him. High profile cases like the Golden Dawn trial are not immune to this affliction either. Another measure of the speed of Greek justice is provided by the recently reported final ruling by Greece’s Supreme Administrative Court, ordering the Greek state to pay € 700,000 compensation for two city buses burned by rioters. The events in question took place in 1996-7.

SOCIETY

Muslims living in Greece perform Eid al-Fitr morning prayers in Athens

“Greece one step closer to its first licensed mosque.” Take a classic NIMBY issue and add the involvement of the Orthodox Church, and you have a formula for legal appeals to infinity. The building of the first modern mosque was first planned in 1880. In more recent times it was approved by Parliament in 2000, and again in 2006 and 2011, and close to €1 million in funds have been earmarked for it for some time. A variant of this headline can be generated simply by replacing “mosque” with crematorium. We won’t hold our breath.

POLITICS

vote

“Governing party proposes change to electoral system.” Greece’s electoral system is not spelled out in the country’s Constitution. As a result, it is rare for two consecutive elections to be held under the exact same system, as governing parties with enough parliamentary support have the ability to bring legislation that tailors the system for the next round of elections in their favour. The current system awards the first party a generous 50-seat bonus in the 300-seat parliament. The new proposal put forward by Syriza aims to change this to proportional representation, which is presented as a long-standing commitment of the Left. Last time a similar system was proposed in 1989 it was rejected by, er, the parties of the Left. Passing it this time would depend on the support of Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.

ENTERTAINMENT

Scorpions

“Scorpions live in Athens!” The nation’s favourite superannuated German hair band, this time back as part of their 50th anniversary tour (has it really been ONLY 50 years?). Crisis or no crisis, and no matter how many Hitler moustaches are painted on Angela Merkel, or Nazi armbands photoshopped on Wolfgang Schäuble, there is a certain portion of the Greek public who will not fail to pack out a venue to hold a cigarette lighter aloft to “Wind of Change”. Rock on, ja!

TRAVEL

nauagio

“Greek beach ranked among top 25 in the world.” Rankings on Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor are great for our national morale, because we can all take credit for a natural wonder that foreigners acknowledge as superior. Though I suppose some credit is due for not allowing an unlicensed construction of some description to be slapped on it.

BONUS GIFT

Amazon-Parrot

… and of course, just like the old days, the paper comes with a free CD courtesy of Orfeas himself: “Viiisiii d’ar-te, viiisiii d’amooo-re…”

 

Yesterday’s news today: a parrot’s digest of Greek headlines we’ve seen before

Plato: “Too much democracy” to blame for Brexit

schoolofathens

A lost Platonic dialogue has shed light on the puzzling historical episode known as ΒΡΕΞΙΤ, in which the citizens of the city-state Athens in the European south, known to many today as the “cradle of democracy”, voted in favour of withdrawing from the Hellenic world. Extracts of the dialogue attributed to the Classical philosopher Plato (circa 428-348 BC) were found among the crumpled newspaper cushioning a “Macedonian” gold wreath reportedly found under a pensioner’s bed in Somerset, which recently sold at auction for £14,000 (at the time equivalent to just over $20,000, now worth approximately a couple of good laying chickens of no specific breed, and rapidly depreciating). The authenticity of the wreath has been questioned, however the Plato fragment is said to “bear all the hallmarks” of a lost work. Extracts are published for the first time below:

“Some have said that it was a mistake to give a voice to the people on matters of serious consequence, because they lack the judgement to make correct decisions. This is not my quarrel. To the contrary, I hold that it is good and just for well-born Athenians to resolve their petty disputes and pursue to their personal ambitions by calling on the unenlightened hoi polloi to take on the burden of responsibility. For in addition to removing from the wise the labour of having to do the “hard shit”, this allows for the flourishing of the art of demagoguery [lit. that of leading the people], which will be counted as one of the great gifts of this glorious city of ours to the world.

In future generations, true followers for my  political vision will rightly make this primitive practice of consulting the people directly obsolete, such that they will need to invent new names for it in their own tongue, and exercise it only in exceptional circumstances. For now, we call it “democracy”.

My quarrel with our system of democracy is that for too long we have been too soft on our women, our slaves and our metics [resident aliens], so that they no longer know their place, while the rightful citizens of Athens, male and Athenian born, feel threatened in their own polis.

For too long we have delegated decisions on serious matters of state to untransparent and undemocratic processes like the Oracle of Delphi and the machinations of the faceless priesthood in the distant Delian League.

For too long we have allowed the riches of our silver mines to be used to undertake foolish wars and build costly temples, roads and bridges in foreign lands, in cities which arrogantly refuse to pay us our rightful tribute.

The citizens who have cast their vote for ΒΡΕΞΙΤ have simply acknowledged that they need to be led by decent chaps (καλὸς κἀγαθός types), fine graduates of my Academy, classical scholars with the wisdom to make this city great again, and never to be enticed by delusions of empire into disastrous and costly foreign expeditions, like their predecessors.

I believe that those in favour of ΒΡΕΞΙΤ are right to propose an Antipodean-style points system for metics, combined with a Hyperborean trading model. I also hold that it would be a mistake to put a limit on the number of slaves. Slaves and metics, along with the unpaid labour of women, are what make it possible for our citizens to keep their fingernails clean by not engaging in manual labour, and to devote themselves directly to matters of state, in between travelling to support the Athenian sporting prowess in their noble defeats in the numerous Panhellenic Games.”

AGMA_Ostrakon_Cimon

“Those citizens who etched “Metics Go Home” on the metope of the Temple of Xenios Zeus [Hospitable Zeus, patron of hospitality and guests and avenger of wrongs done to strangers] were merely adapting the customary and legitimate practice of ostracism writ large, voting to expel those who have abused our hospitality, without trial or debate.”

Greek PM and referendum veteran Alexis Tsipras welcomed the discovery by stating, “I have always said that Athens has a lot to teach the world about democracy.”


For more nuanced discussions of the fallacy of the “too much democracy” argument in response to the UK’s EU referendum, we direct you to Matt Taibi’s article about Brexit in Rolling Stone Magazine. More on the uses and abuses of Plato in contemporary political analysis can be found in the recent debate about the ascendancy of Donal Trump an others in the Los Angeles Review of Books. For a direct insight into the realities of the first democracy, red in tooth and claw, you can read our earlier post on the evidence of lynchings and mass executions in the early days of Athens. It is not clear which campaign, Brexit or Bremain, Plato would actually side with. Being the original reactionary, he would probably be happy with either, given that they were both led by what we would now call “elites”. I suspect he would have a soft spot for Boris Johnson given his veneration for the Classics.

IMAGES: “The School of Athens” by Raphael; Ostrakon (voting sherd) bearing the name of Kimon, son of Miltiades, a fifth century BC Athenian general, victor of the Battle of Salamis and commander of the Delian League forces, who was exiled (ostracised) from Athens for ten years (via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.5).

Plato: “Too much democracy” to blame for Brexit