How to cover two civilisations in three days

I promised to take James, our ancient historian, to the Acropolis before he finished his degree

Share

Three times ancient Greece has loomed large in my life. First, for O-level where every lesson began with our history teacher, ancient Mrs Owens, laboriously drawing a map of the Peloponnese, home of Agamemnon and Leonidas, on the blackboard with a scratchy piece of chalk. Still, she must have been an inspiration because, three years later, I hitchhiked to Greece with a friend to see the Parthenon, Thermopylae and Epidaurus for myself.

Three times ancient Greece has loomed large in my life. First, for O-level where every lesson began with our history teacher, ancient Mrs Owens, laboriously drawing a map of the Peloponnese, home of Agamemnon and Leonidas, on the blackboard with a scratchy piece of chalk. Still, she must have been an inspiration because, three years later, I hitchhiked to Greece with a friend to see the Parthenon, Thermopylae and Epidaurus for myself.

The driver who gave us a lift back to Athens from Delphi asked if we knew anyone in London who might want to work as an au pair in his family and teach his kids English. I will, said my friend Jill who wasn't planning to go to university. Hang on, I interrupted. I can't hitchhike home on my own. Of course you can, Susan. Don't be a wimp, she said.

Decades later, the horrors of that journey back to England, compared to which Euripides sounds like The Simpsons, still haunts me with the Golden Age of Thermistocles, Pericles, Thucydides and Plato illogically mixed up in the nightmare. With any luck, these past four days in Greece have exorcised all that baggage for ever.

Three years ago, I promised to take James, the ancient historian of the family, to the Acropolis before he finished his degree. His finals are next month, so unless I agreed to Plan B, ie buying a road map, hiring a motorbike and doing it ourselves, I'd have to shift. You can get guided "Glories of Ancient Greece" coach tours, but they take a week minimum and cost around £800 excluding airfare. And in any case, I was bluntly informed, a week on a bus with a whole lot of wrinklies didn't sound like much fun. Come on Mum, cheap hotels, a map and a bike - you know it makes sense.

As a last resort, I rang the British School in Athens. As a matter of fact, said its director Dr James Whitley, a group of classics teachers from the UK was coming out on a study tour after Easter. We could come to the opening lecture and evening reception and see if any of the excursions might be of interest to us.

Dr Whitley's opening address was a revelation. I was going to say an eye-opener, but the gist of his text was pretty much the opposite. If we wanted to get true value from a study of Ancient Greek art and artefacts, he said, we should leave aesthetics out of it and avoid using the plethora of abstract terms such as poetic realism and mellifluous lyricism that people so often use to describe classical statues, friezes and pots.

Forget how beautiful the object may or may not be, urged Dr Whitley. We don't have the same aesthetic criteria as the Ancient Greeks anyway. Just ask why it's there and what it's for. He then proceeded to use a whole lot of terms like methodological philistinism and social agencies which sounded pretty abstract to me, but then I am not a student of antiquity, aesthetic or otherwise.

There were predictably passionate pro-aesthetic responses from the audience, but if J Keats himself had put up his hand and pleaded that a thing of beauty was surely a joy for ever, Dr Whitley's iron resolution would not have been shaken.

I admire his stand. History of art has become so woolly, so dumbed down, so much the domain of yahs and hoorays that if the baby does have to be thrown out with the bath water at this critical point, at least we start with a clean bath.

We spent our first day with the teachers. Our Greek guide, tall, cigar-smoking, big shades and a hand-knitted waistcoat, looked more like a mafioso than someone who's been supervising the Parthenon renovations for the past 20 years.

Our group had its own resident guides, Professor Nick Fisher and Dr Gillian Shepherd from Cardiff and Birmingham University respectively, both dauntingly knowledgeable but friendly and good fun. They'd make a great television double act and not before time. I'm fed up with celebrity historians - give us new blood and some decent ancient historians, please.

If we waited a bit before going into the Erechtheion, we'd miss three huge parties of school children, suggested Dr Shepherd. Good thinking; let's avoid the children at all costs, agreed the teachers.

The next day we took the bus to Nafplio in the Peloponnese, first capital of liberated Greece and often described as the most elegant town on the mainland, thanks to the Venetian occupation. That's not why we went. It was the only place we could hire a motorbike. When you've got only three days to cover two civilisations, it makes sense.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Teacher

£100 - £130 per day + Excellent rates of pay, Free CPD: Randstad Education Sou...

Supply Teachers Required

£100 - £130 per day + Excellent rates of Pay, Excellent CPD : Randstad Educati...

NQT and Experienced Primary Teachers Urgently required

£90 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: NQT and Experienced Primary Teac...

Year 1 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day + Excellent rates of pay, Free CPD: Randstad Education Sou...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Israeli President Shimon Peres (L) stands next British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) as he signs the guestbook during a welcoming ceremony at the presidential compound in Jerusalem on March 12, 2014.  

The truth about the UK's powerful Jewish lobbies

Mira Bar Hillel
 

In Sickness and in Health: It’s been lonely in bed without my sleep soulmate

Rebecca Armstrong
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor