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Athens in Pieces: The Tragedy of Democracy

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ATHENS — Our next location is a mere 100 steps from where I’m writing these essays. I pass it every day on my way to and from the library. It is the Monument of Lysicrates, built around 334 B.C.E., just about the time Aristotle returned to Athens to found his Lyceum. I always pause there, take in the view and watch the many seemingly well-fed and contented cats scattered around the place. If you let your eyes drift up from the monument, your vision is seized by the vast sacred rock of the Acropolis. It is skin-pinchingly sublime.

Indeed, New Yorkers might experience a feeling of déjà vu or double vision with this monument because you can find not one, but two copies of it atop the San Remo apartment building on Central Park West, just north of the Dakota, where John Lennon lived and died. The monument was also widely copied elsewhere.

The original Monument of Lysicrates is composed of a 9.5-foot-square limestone foundation topped with a 13-foot-high cylindrical edifice. There are six Corinthian columns, thought to be the earliest surviving examples of that style, made from marble from Mount Pentelicus, about 15 miles northeast of Athens. These support a sculpture divided into three bands that carry an inscription commemorating Lysicrates — a wealthy patron of the arts of whom little else is known — and a frieze depicting the adventures of the god Dionysus and some pirates whom he transformed into dolphins. The god sits caressing a panther as some satyrs serve him wine, while others, with torches and clubs, drive the pirates into the sea.

Above is a shallow dome which is the base for three rather mutilated scrolls in the shape of acanthus leaves that stand about three feet high. This was designed to hold a large bronze trophy or “tripod,” which has long since disappeared. To my eyes, what remains resembles a rather lovely, large broken flower vase.

What does this all mean? And why is it important?

The monument is a trophy to commemorate Lysicrates’ triumph in the dramatic contest, or agon, of the world’s first theater festival: The City or Great Dionysia, first established in Athens deep in the sixth century B.C.E. As with theater and opera today, there was patronage of the arts in classical Athens. To be asked to perform a tragedy was, in ancient Greek, to be granted a chorus. Tragedians were sponsored by a choregos, a chorus bringer, a wealthy or important Athenian citizen, who would recruit choristers and pay for everything: This was Lysicrates.

We do not know how tragic poets and........

© The New York Times