I have embarked on a three-year project which involves spending my time reading ancient Greek speeches and thinking about long-gone ancient Greek gods, so when I tell people I am off to Greece for two weeks, they assume I am going there to ‘do research’, ‘for work’, whatever that may be. I tell them, slightly embarrassed, that actually I am going on holiday. I am just travelling, hiking around for a bit.
I have been to Greece many times, and have travelled the well-trodden route of the country’s unforgettable and unimaginably affecting ancient sites, from Athens, via Delphi, Olympia, Corinth and Mycenae to Sparta. My PhD looks at political and legal speeches written in Athens in the fourth century BCE, and examines the religious discourse found in these. It is a study based on texts. Texts which are preserved in books and manuscripts and papyrus rolls not in Greece anymore, but dotted around libraries and archives around the world. I am not an archaeologist, nor an art historian. As such, I don’t have a particular, pressing need to go to Greece for my study.
I love Greece, the modern country as well as the old. So it makes sense to me that now I am finally taking a holiday, I choose to go there. But I go there with the deliberate purpose not to think about the place too much. I don’t plan to do any work. I take none of my little green books, or my pocket-sized Loeb editions of the speeches of the Attic orators, with me. On my trip I travel south from the northern city of Thessaloniki, through the province of Macedonia. I only spend long enough in Athens – the city whose past I study – to board a ferry to Crete. I tell myself that this is simply a holiday, a chance to take a break.
And it is.
But then the reality of the place hits me. The physicality of it. I walk up Mount Olympos, leave the world staring at my back. The lower slopes are covered in leaves – oaks, cedars and red-barked strawberry trees – obscuring the path ahead. According to Pausanias, writing in the second century, lions roamed these hills. Luckily for me they have long gone. Ascending the mountain I climb back in time. A third of the way up, a Christian monastery dating from the 16th century stands empty and abandoned, its walls exposed to the winds which carry the smell and feel of Aegean salt from the nearby rocky sea. Below the ruins, a cave displays marks of occupancy – it is where saint Dionysos, in whose name the monastery was founded, is said to have lived. The bacchic god of wine becomes the hermit in the cave. Nearer the top, Homer’s Mount Olympos emerges. Just as the poet describes, the air is clear and cloudless, its whiteness radiant as it stretches out over the peaks. The ancient gods, Zeus and co., have had to learn to share their home.
Back in front of my laptop, faced with the whiteness of a screen, some of the unyielding presence of the mountain carries over into the words I read, the invective of Demosthenes, the appeals to piety of Lykourgos and all the other orators. The words of their speeches appear a bit more grounded to me now, the winding sentences they form are as unchanging and unshakeable as the trees of Olympos. And just as palpably real.
Rebecca Van Hove is a third year PhD student in the Classics department at King’s College London. Her research looks at religion and society in ancient Greece, focusing on the notion of religious authority in political and legal speeches from classical Athens.