Greek Treasures: ancient and modern

I just came across this opinion piece in the LA times of 26th February by James Romm, a scholar I admire greatly.


Portrait bust of Pericles (Roman copy). Inscribed: 'Pericles son of Xanthippus, Athenian'

But here he offers an example of  highly emotional rhetoric which is historically unjustified. At the same time, his article is a great example of how ancient history is used in the debate about the state of modern Greece and its finances.

The article comments on the plans in cash-strapped Greece today to make money from its ancient sites, for example by hiring them out as film sets, and then makes a connection to a few incidents in antiquity, when states took temple treasures to make up for budget shortfalls.

Romm’s Exhibit A is the Athenian statesman Pericles, who, in Thucydides’ Histories (2.13.3-5) gives the Athenians an overview of their position at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. He includes a quick audit of the cash reserves of Athens:

… there were still six thousand talents of coined silver in the Acropolis, out of nine thousand seven hundred that had once been there, from which the money had been taken for the porch of the Acropolis, the other public buildings, and for Potidaea.  This did not include the uncoined gold and silver in public and private offerings, the sacred vessels for the processions and games, the Median spoils, and similar resources to the amount of five hundred talents.  To this he added the treasures of the other temples.These were by no means inconsiderable, and might fairly be used. Nay, if they were ever absolutely driven to it, they might take even the gold ornaments of Athena herself; for the statue contained forty talents of pure gold and it was all removable.This might be used for self-preservation, and must every penny of it be restored.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon - temple, treasury or bank?

Is this temple robbery, a sacrilege, as Romm maintains?  There are two interesting facts one should remember about the Parthenon: firstly, it was apparently never used as a conventional sacred building. It contained a giant gold-and-ivory statue of Athena,  but the sacred image of the goddess was housed elsewhere, probably in the Erechtheion. And secondly, like many temples in antiquity, the Parthenon served as the treasury of Athens and could also take on the function of a bank. Temples did not invest funds, but they were seen as the most secure place to deposit treasures, public and often also private, for safekeeping.

Reconstruction: Athena Parthenos statue

Reconstruction of the gold-and-ivory statue of Athena in the Parthenon

One can see that Thucydides (Pericles?) imposes a kind of hierarchy on the temple treasures: the coined precious metals come first, then public offerings, private offerings and spoils of war dedicated to the goddess,  and finally treasures in other temples, too. The goddess herself, in form of her statue, is the lender of last resort, giving away, so to speak, her own golden clothes to save her city. Was this sacrilege? The sums listed here are large, but Athens had to finance a large fleet which required hundreds of talents every year. Their income at this point was good, drawing on tributes from allied states (also called ‘subjects’ by the Athenians themselves). It is not clear that at this point they  expected to reach such a point of financial desperation, although Thucydides may well have written this passage with Athens’ final defeat in mind.

Was it sacrilege to take these treasures? Pericles was clearly making a bold suggestion – but the case is not as clear-cut as Romm is suggesting. Modern Greece can hardly take its archaeological treasures to the bank – but in ancient Greece, the difference between a city-state’s savings and the treasures of its gods was not as clear-cut as Romm would have us believe. Athena – this particular Athena – was the protectress of Athens, and in the end, it was ultimately an argument between the Athenians and their goddess whether the temple treasures or the survival of the city would be more precious to her. Pericles suggestion was not as heinous a crime as Romm wants to make it out, even though stripping the goddess herself was an extreme measure which they probably never took (though we can’t be entirely sure). 

The situation was, of course, quite different when states proposed to raid international sanctuaries (such as Olympia or Delphi), or when an army helped itself to temple treasures as they moved through other states’ territories.

What is interesting in Romm’s article is that he seems to accuse Thucydides (and by extention, Pericles) of being far too pragmatic: how could somebody who was Greek, Athenian even, contemplate to use such cultural treasures for expenses in war?

As so often, we see a contrast between the pragmatic reality of fifth-century Greece, a tough world of politics war and, yes, sublime cultural achievement on one hand, and later constructions of that period in history on the other. Greeks under Roman rule looking back to the good old days of freedom moved the cultural achievements centre-stage, and this image was enthusiastically taken up by western Europeans re-discovering the country under Ottoman rule, imposing an idealised view to cope with their disappointment that what they found hardly resembled the Hellas of old.

I am not proposing that modern Greece should be as tough as Pericles in using its ancient treasures to deal with its financial problems – but its worth being careful with its history, too.

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5 Responses to Greek Treasures: ancient and modern

  1. Many thanks for this – we’ve both been prompted to comment on the article, but have come at it from quite different directions. The one point on which I’d disagree is that I don’t think Romm is for a moment suggesting that Thucydides and Pericles were too pragmatic; on the contrary, I think he’s offering them as examples to contemporary Greeks of how they should respond to crisis.

  2. Maria Pretzler says:

    Thanks for linking your post – I really enjoyed reading it.

    I guess you are right about his ultimate message, which makes it even more interesting that his underlying assumptions about ancient Greeks are rather idealised (so that Thucydides can then be shown as the brutal exception).

    One interesting aspect of this is that he brushes over the difference between ‘raiding’ your own treasury and the sanctuaries of other states, and of course, the robbing of panhellenic sanctuaries. I would not accuse James Romm of this, but with more superficial commentators, it’s often an implicit sense of a unified Grece which gets in the way of seeing te differences.

  3. Eric Aitchison says:

    I note that on the Pericles’ statue the A has a bent cross piece.

    How widespread was the normal usage of the bent cross piece writing of A?

    From searching GREEK ALPHABET I can never find a bent cross A except on statues.

    Was its use just ornamental?

  4. Eric Aitchison says:

    Can you please advise when the letter “A” began to be written with a bent cross piece?

    I can only find depictions on statues of the late period, after 400 BC.


  5. Maria Pretzler says:

    I assume that you are referring to the picture of the bust -this is a Roman copy (as my caption says), and the inscription is Greek of the Roman Imperial period, where this feature is common (also note the larger Y at the end of the second line). I can’t tell you when exactly this feature was introduced, but it’s definitely not classical.

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