Monday, August 15, 2011

Byron’s ‘The Curse of Minerva’ and The Parthenon Over Time

The Curse of Minerva was penned by George Gordon, Lord Byron on March 17th, 1811 in Athens. The poem was a satire about the “Elgin Marbles” or antiquities raped and taken from the Acropolis in Athens and shipped to England. Byron never intended to publish this poem, but a copy was stolen and printed without his permission. Thankfully.

Throughout history, Athens has been one of the most important and influential cities of the western world. When introducing Greek myth to my students (before I start showing naked Botticelli’s) I often talk about the 100,000 Greek words used in the English language, over 40 thousand of them in science and medicine (hello… ‘logy’), how America was originally, or I guess still is, a Republic (Thank you, Plato), and how everything we have from drama to democracy comes from conversations in the Polis (you’re welcome Hawai 5-0). So what happened to this great building, the Acropolis? Why does it stand in ruins to this day?
“Slow sinks, more lovely ere his face be run, along Morea’s hills the setting sun…” -Byron

At the peak of Greek civilization, during the 70-year Golden Age in the fifth century B.C., before the Spartans (yes, those guys with the abs, damn you Gerard Butler…) came in and kicked butt during the Peloponnesian War, Greece made great strides in architecture, literature, math, science, philosophy, and medicine (and boy-buggering… but that was only one time during Greek Pledge week at college, okay?)
“On old Aegina’s rock and Hydra’s isle, the god of gladness shed his parting smile…” -Byron

During the Golden Age, history gave witness to tragic masterpieces of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (Think Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola) while Aristophanes (Think Twain, Think Stewart) satirized contemporary ideals with… words? Yes! Hippocrates took oaths in medicine, and virtuous men like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle debated the fundamental questions of knowledge, death, and where to get great deep pan pizza (seriously, look it up). Even Herodotus challenged the assumptions that human beings, not gods, governed our lives (Don’t bother googling contemporaries, they don’t make ‘em like him anymore).
“When, Athens! Here thy wisest look’d his last…” -Byron

So what happened, huh? Well, as Byron said… basically a lot.
Back in 3,000 B.C. okay…. (Think like…. Methuselah and the Bible people…) The Acropolis Rock was just a big old eye-sore the Greeks were trying to pawn off all Brooklyn Bridge style on local hicks fresh off the boat from Egypt.
“How watch’d they better sons his farewell ray, that closed their murder’d sage’s latest day!” -Byron

But then between 432 B.C. and 330 B.C. the Acropolis, which was a series of temples and statues to Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and war, was constructed in absolute splendor. White marble. Red backgrounds with gold trim. Exquisite carvings and etchings of daily Greek life. Schools. Shrines. Places devoted to beauty. All stood on this rock.
“Gloom o’er the lovely land he seem’d to pour, the land where Pheobus never frown’d before.” -Byron

But nothing beautiful ever lasts. In 267 A.D. Heruli Barbarians occupied the lovely Acropolis and burned it to a stony heap. Then in 360 A.D., Emperor Julian went all Bob Villa on the place and tried to have it re-built.
“Who lived and died as none can live or die. But, lo! … the queen of night asserts her silent reign…” -Byron

This lasted until in 438 A.D., when a bunch of Christians all hoped up on Jesus Juice and Pat Robertson propaganda, sacked the temple and destroyed all the nude sculptors. I guess the logic was, if we can’t see naked boobies, you can’t either. This lead to the Acropolis having its ceiling being torn off and a large cross being erected on top. In 550 A.D. the place was christened, St. Sophia Church (Sophia being a Greek name meaning ‘wisdom’ by the way…) AND… in 1206 occupied under Frankish domination and renamed the ‘Notre-Dame of Athens.’
“Mourns o’er the difference of now and then; exclaims ‘These Greeks indeed were proper men!’”-Byron

Now… in 1456 A.D., here come the Turks, and you know how these guys are… it’s all swinging scimitars and asking questions later over little coffees and hookah pipes, and they lasted until the Venetians came in 1687 and… well…they blew the Acropolis up with gun powder (Thanks, China!) At this point, the Acropolis was virtually destroyed.
“Now should they burst on thy devoted coast, go ask thy bosom who deserve them most.” -Byron

But not quite yet… in 1802 (that reminds me of a phone number) this douchey British Ambassador came in and gutted the Acropolis of her final treasures, the very marble etchings and walls herself, stealing 75 different depictions lacing her fine walls.
“The law of heaven and earth is life for life, and she who raised, in vain regrets, the strife.” -Byron

So “Thar She Blows” today… Athena’s Temple is one gutted, ripped to shreds, barely standing piece of living history. I love you Acropolis. I love you Parthenon. You are one of my favorite places in the world. You’re like a good ‘ole gall that gets better with age despite the mileage. You will be standing long after I am gone, and I will sing your praises till the end.

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