During his lecture on Athens at the Legatum Institute (see p. 22), Boris Johnson placed great emphasis on Athens’ development of Piraeus harbour in the 5th century BC. Did he have an analogy with a pet project in mind?
It was the statesman Themistocles who ‘had been the first to propose that the Athenians should take to the sea’, and in 493 BC began to turn Piraeus with its three harbours into a military facility, replacing the old harbour at Phalerum. With Persian attack from the sea in mind, he built dockyards, mooring sheds and fortifications.
This move had momentous political consequences for the poor. In 508 BC, Cleisthenes’ democratic reforms had handed power to decide political issues to the people’s Assembly. Since rowers, unlike hoplite fighters, did not need expensive armour, they came from the poorer classes — and they were now Athens’ main fighting force, giving them serious political clout.
Boris Island does not have such motivating forces. But in time Piraeus did develop superb commercial facilities so that ‘the products of the whole world flow into us… and we enjoy them just as naturally as we do our own’ (Pericles). All human life was there: statesmen, kings, tourists and even gods (!), merchants, ship-owners, bankers and accountants thronged the area alongside sailors, fishermen, porters and others looking to make a living or a deal.
One Thrasyllus even went down there every day holding a register, in the belief that he owned the ships and was set to make a meaty profit from them. His brother arrived and sent him off to the doctor. Cured, Thrasyllus commented he had never been happier than watching his ships come in.
For ships read ‘planes’: surely a rewarding way for Boris to pass his years of retirement.
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On 18 September at City Hall, the Mayor hosts a fund-raiser for Classics for All. See www.classicsforall.org.uk
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