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Athens in Pieces: We Know Socrates’ Fate. What’s Ours?

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20.03.2019

This is the sixth installment in an eight-part philosophical tour of the ancient city by the author. The entire series can be found here.

ATHENS — Since we began our little tour I have tried to take you to some of the less obvious sites around the ancient city, often at the periphery. But now I want to head right to the center of it: the Agora. This was a large public square, humming with human activity — shopping, gossip, dramatic performances, military and religious processions — and surrounded on all sides by buildings, including many of the key institutions of Athenian democracy.

Excavations since the 1930s have uncovered the Agora, an open green area, about 30 acres sloping down northwest from the rock of the Acropolis. What I most like about it is its feeling of space, the sense of absence that triggers the imagination and allows one to conjure the ruined city in the mind’s eye.

The reason for coming here on this particular day was entirely selfish: It was my birthday and I wanted to return to my favorite site in Athens and visit the ruins of the house of the source of my name: Simon the Cobbler. He also pretended to be a philosopher of sorts.

We arrived close to the entrance to the Agora as it opened. A railway line, built in 1891, bisects the northern edge of the site, emitting a low, pleasant rumble (not the anxiety-inducing squeal of the New York subway). The train line covers the remains of the Altar of the Twelve Gods and runs right alongside the Stoa of Attalos, rebuilt in the 1950s, which houses the small and rather lovely Agora Museum. With standard Athenian counterpoint, colonnades of bright white columns abut garish trackside graffiti. The contradictions reach further back: King Attalos of Pergamon was a student of the philosopher Carneades in the second century B.C. and the presumably grateful alumnus gave his university town the gift of a shopping mall, with 42 shops in the stoa rented out by the city. Everything was for sale in the Agora.

It was time for a birthday breakfast: Greek yogurt and a big stack of American-style pancakes soaked with honey. A very drunken Englishman (this was about 9 a.m.) sat just ahead of us, smoking a cigarette, and holding onto it with some difficulty. He turned around to look at us for a good long while and said to me, “You’re serious, aren’t you?” Hardly, I thought. He then started into a series of incoherent anti-German, pro-Brexit rants to no one in particular. The waiters seemed puzzled, but tolerated him nonetheless. Sometimes, I do miss England.

A group of about 100 schoolchildren were talking wildly over one another and waiting at the entrance for their bewildered teachers to buy them tickets. We slipped by them and into the site. We were standing on the Panathenaic way, the ancient processional path that led through the Agora and up to the Acropolis.

Early morning rain had given way to cool sunshine. Some trees were just beginning to blossom, and I buried my nose into flowers that........

© The New York Times