Millions of tourists from all over the world are visiting Greece every year. This pilgrimage started about two millennia ago when the Romans run the Mediterranean.
In 146 BCE, a Roman army wiped out Corinth as a lesson to the rest of the Greek poleis. Faced with overwhelming Roman forces of occupation, the Greeks in mainland Greece learned to live with minimum of democracy, indeed, with foreigners telling them what to do. This humiliating existence lasted for several centuries until the Eastern Roman empire became thoroughly Greek sometime after the sixth century of our common era.
The Romans and the Greeks lived next to each other for centuries. In fact, Greek philosophy flourished in southern Italy, which was Greek. The Romans called it Magna Graecia, Greater Greece. The Romans borrowed their alphabet, religion, and technology from the Greeks. Then when the opportunity arrived, they conquered Greece.
Despite the conquest, the Romans never lost their admiration for Greek culture. They were the first tourists visiting the temples and other archaeological treasures of Greece. They were also the first foreigners who started asking questions about their Greek contemporaries. What happened to their genius?
Tourists in modern times keep asking the same questions. They visit the fabulous and mind-opening Greek museums and necessarily wonder why Greece in 2016, for example, is in such a deplorable state.
How could the descendants of Greek poets, philosophers and scientists who, literally, invented philosophy and modern-like science and technology (and our way of life) are asleep at the wheel?
The ancestors of modern Greeks were great thinkers: Poets: Homer, Hesiodos, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes; natural philosophers: Thales, Pythagoras, Anaximander, Empedokles, Herakleitos, Parmenides, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Theophrastos; historians: Herodotos and Thucydides; scientists and engineers: Hippocrates, Eudoxos, Euclid, Aristarchos of Samos, Apollonios of Perge, Archimedes, Ktesibios, Philon of Byzantium, Hipparchos, Poseidonios, Geminos, Heron of Alexandria and Ptolemy (and dozens of other polymaths).
Given these extraordinary beginnings, why have the Greeks of our time fallen so low of relying on humiliating aid from people their ancestors called barbarians? What happened to their pride, self-reliance, ingenuity and democracy?
These questions are not academic, though some professors may be asking in the privacy of their writings.
But to do justice to modern Greeks, no modern poet, philosopher, scientist or engineer from any modern country can compare to the ancient Greek thinkers. Aristotle, for example, invented science. Archimedes set the foundations of mathematical physics and engineering. And Greek scientists and engineers in the second century BCE created the world's first computer (Antikythera Mechanism) with advanced science and technology.
Greek history is millennia long and complicated. And it's not easy to be objective. I sympathize with Greek historians like Polybios, Strabo, and Athenaios who reported on Greece and Rome while living under Roman rule. They saw occupied Greece through Roman eyes.
Greece in 2016 is theoretically free. And I live under American rule.
I also studied Greek history in the United States. Do I see Greece through American eyes? I don't think so.
The huge contrast between museum Greeks of more than two millennia ago and the living Greeks of 2016 is a result of massive changes. Ancient Greeks accomplished so much so soon in an environment they believed in, the political life of the polis and the Greek state of the Alexandrian era. They had built both of them. They were independent. Even a tiny fraction of their writings surviving today sufficed to wake up the Europeans from the millennial slumber of the dark ages. That awakening is known as the Renaissance of the fifteenth century.
Christianity brought on the dark ages to Europe in the fourth century by shutting down the light of ancient Greece. Greeks paid a tremendous price from the Christianization of their country. They lived though genocide and witnessed the destruction of their intellectual and material culture.
Christian Greece suffered even more from other Christian states and, finally, from the appalling Turkish occupation.
Christian Greece became independent in 1828.
Modern Greeks carry with them the double inheritance of ancient Greece and Christianity. Those Greeks who know Greek history reject the Christian background and seek inspiration from the likes of Homer, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle and Archimedes. Then they face our times, inundated by fragments of truth and massive propaganda about everything, including the inheritance we have from ancient Greece.
The Greek politicians of our time are largely educated in the US. But the politicians running Greece in 2016 are the product of the Greek civil war of the 1940s and cold war. They absorbed the communist propaganda but wear blue jeans. So they are destroying Greece for selfish and unpatriotic reasons.
However, the fake Greek politicians are not alone. They are doing the bidding of the powerful consortium of European and American banks that insist they must have their pound of flesh for the bad loans they made to corrupt Greek governments.
So the tourists look at the ancient Greek treasures with admiration and nostalgia, food for thought for the rest of their lives. These treasures, and the surviving works of Homer and Aristotle, for example, are the future for modern Greeks and the rest of us. If only we had the courage to take them seriously.
I don't mean the biology of Aristotle and the engineering of the Greek computer are superior to our biology and computers. No. But Aristotle brings to his work virtues we must have to avoid our biology becoming biological warfare. Aristotle studied animals because, he said, they bring out the truth of nature and they are beautiful. UNESCO is celebrating in 2016 the 2,400 anniversary of his birth.
The Greek computer also brought the heavens and the Earth together for the common good.
The Greeks wrote and built things for beauty, truth, and the public good, virtues they brought down to Earth from their studies of the heavens.
The struggle of modern Greeks, trying to understand who they are, should be our struggle. Their classical inheritance is ours, too.