Forever and a day ago, I remember the grainy photo my day had of himself perched upon a rock with the Parthenon in the background, a proud memory of his days traveling the world selling curb and gutter machines after World War II.
Later in civics, history, and world civilization classes from junior high through high school that image would be reinforced by associations with Athens as the birthplace of democracy, the wellspring of western civilization.
Later in life, a career in managing public markets refocused my interest a bit further down the Athenian Way to the Agora, where the real work of democracy took place. The range of activities there was breath taking; beyond the trading of goods, there was discourse between people and philosophers like Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato, legislative assemblies of citizens, and the administration of many civic tasks including law courts, mints, and prisons.
Make no mistake though, the view of the Parthenon from the Agora is impressive. It inspired Athenians, gave them a unifying mission, a sense of purpose greater than themselves. It set the framework for the flowering of classical Athens.
Athens’ classical era began in 510 BCE as it began to leverage its democratic vibrancy to become the leader of the Delian League, a consortium of Greek cities numbering 150 – 300 depending upon which historian you believe.
Together, these cities defeated the Persians in the Battle of Salamis, an enormous naval battle that turned the war with Persia in Greece’s favor. Athens then consolidated its leadership position within the league by moving its capital from the island of Delos to Athens and by adopting a common currency that was minted in Athens.
Soon after, Pericles, the most prominent leader during Athens’ democratic era, began an extensive building campaign on the Acropolis including the Parthenon, a new temple to honor Athena to replace the one destroyed by the Persians.
Here the value of empire was key. Without the support of its allies and their tributes there would be no Parthenon. Ironic then, that the current Greek financial crisis is in large part due to its status as a member of a common currency in which it has not the power it did in the fourth century BCE.
Athens democratic experiment was fragile and short-lived. While hardly universal, it encouraged the direct participation of as many as 50,000 of its residents. There was always a battle with oligarchs who used their power to game the system in their favor, despite the ability of the assembly to ostracize such behavior by a simple vote (Adios Koch Brothers). Eventually it became impossible to reconcile the needs of a messy democracy with a burgeoning empire. The oligarchs and empire won and Athenian democracy was lost.
The Parthenon was completed in 438 BCE and 100 years later Athens was conquered again, this time by Phillip of Macedonia. Fortunately, Phillip and his son Alexander were great admirers of Athens. But subsequent conquests would turn the Parthenon into a Catholic Church, then a mosque, and then a ruin destroyed when the Venetians fought the Ottomans for control of this sacred place.
For Americans, the Parthenon’s history suggests that while you can use the proceeds realized as the power behind a common currency to build impressive aircraft carriers, you might pay more attention to the messiness of democracy, keep the oligarchs in check, limit the empire, and make sure when your prized defense systems are overtaken by the next technology they don’t get used in ways never imagined.