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Herodes Atticus: Olympic facilitator

Who holds the key to Athens’s Olympics ring? The best, if unlikely, answer could well be someone associated with neither the 2004 preparatory effort nor modern Greece at all, but who effortlessly spans the ages: Herodes Atticus, ancient Greece’s last great benefactor and modern Greece’s first public technician. You can hardly travel in central Athens, listen to the nightly news, or buy a summer concert ticket without hearing his name. The presidential palace and prime ministerial offices are both on the stately avenue named after him, while «Rigillis Street,» named for his wife, is local vernacular for the main opposition party headquarters nearby. Cultural Olympiad events and the annual Athens Festival grace the odeon at the foot of the famed Acropolis which he built in his deceased wife’s honor, but which bears his name. And his piece de resistance, the stadium in downtown Athens he rebuilt in marble and which has been renovated just once since, will test the skills of archers and welcome the tired legs of marathoners racing from near his ancestral home on Attica’s northeastern coast. Were it not for his second-century-AD stadium works (and Ernst Ziller’s timely excavations in 1869-70), Athens may not have been able to rush the inaugural 1896 Games into place in time, fall-back candidate Budapest would have been the first host, and Hungary instead of Greece might now be gearing up to hold them again. History works in strange ways. And yet, by an odd twist of fate, the same man who lay the groundwork for Athens as an Olympic city nearly two millennia ago is now hindering it from realizing its destiny. Games builders have had to tip-toe around the scattered remains of his ancestral home at Marathon (not to mention the disputed ancient battlefield site and some bronze-age dwellings), in constructing the controversial canoe and kayak facility at Schinias. Even right downtown, the Athens tram network has been disrupted by ancient finds dating to his era. The facilitator has become a nuisance. Add to this a second oddity; for all his historical prominence, he remains for most an enigmatic figure who has largely slipped through the historical cracks. Apart from the odeon, few can identify his main projects, much less his significance, or even know he was Greek at all – though not surprisingly, given his full, and fully Romanized, name of Lucius Vibullius Hipparchus Tiberius Claudius Atticus Herodes. The 1,900th anniversary of his birth passed unnoticed last year. His life was a mix of public munificence and private agony, partly self-generated. His physical and cultural legacy spreads far and wide. Excavations continue at his Villa Cephisia, in a leafy suburb of the capital. He endowed Olympia, Thermopylae, and Corinth with waterworks and theaters. He rebuilt the stadium at Delphi. Even areas outside Greece hailed him for his patronage, although he had failed, in his own eyes, because he was unable to cut the Corinth Canal. He’s everywhere, yet ever elusive. A human chain Herodes Atticus (101-177 AD) stands as a veritable human bridge between the country’s great historical sites and epochs. Among other places, he is identified with Marathon, where he was born, Athens, where he lived, and Olympia, which he endowed and where he and his wife were honored. Archaeologists recently discovered probable funerary steles from the famous 490 BC Battle of Marathon against Persian invaders in the ruins of his villa at Kato Doliana in the Peloponnese. This indicates that he was, quite self-consciously, also a connecting point between the «Golden Age» of fifth-century classical Greece (Marathon victor Miltiades was said to be an ancestor) and the «Silver Age» that flowered anew, but equally briefly, under the benevolent rule of philhellene Roman emperors some 700 years later. Even philosophically, he’s a bridge linking Greek and Roman thought as part of the so-called Second Sophistic. Perhaps his very omnipresence and transitional role make it difficult to pin him down, nor does it help that his writings have not survived to our day. We’re stuck with often gossipy second-hand sources, with all the gaps that implies. That Herodes Atticus was highly influential while alive and widely mourned after he died is beyond dispute. Whether he was appreciated in his own time is, however, a more dubious proposition, as scurrilous rumors dogged him most of his life, even as he built an almost irritatingly virtuous public persona. He was, after all, the quintessential child of privilege living in a privileged age, with riches, brains and connections in spades. While born Greek, he served as a Roman consul (and was the son of another) as Greece was lavished with attention from the Antonine rulers of Rome at its peak, with whom Herodes enjoyed a personal connection that he occasionally overstepped if not abused. If, as Edward Gibbon believed, the Antonine Age was the best possible time in which to live, Herodes Atticus embodied it as civic benefactor, superstar orator, noted philosopher, modernizing traditionalist, and doting father to his clan, including three adopted sons, one an African black known as the «little Topaz.» He was also a bon vivant, chairing a wine society devoted to Dionysus, and, at his Villa Cephisia was a first-class entertainer of visiting Romans seeking out Greek culture (the Roman poet Aulus Gellius wrote his «Noctes Atticae» [Attic Nights] while staying there). Following the Caesarean civil wars, the ancient world was largely at peace and had become genuinely international; Greece, now merely the province of Achaea, was ruled from Rome, while Rome itself was ruled by Spaniards, the emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) and his adopted son, Hadrian (117-138 AD). The latter was a lifelong philhellene who completed the Temple of Olympian Zeus (700 years in the making) and built a library and aqueducts for the city. One of these was uncovered during preliminary work on the Olympic Village and, in a classic case of turning necessity into virtue, will form the Village’s centerpiece when unveiled in 2004. If Hadrian looked to the east for enlightenment, Herodes Atticus was shrewd enough to maximize his privileged ties with the new power to the west, playing his cards both ways like a good sophist should. While undoubtedly useful for his worldly ambitions and outlet for his energies (he even procured Greek artworks for Cicero), this tie became immortalized in literature – again, little known to us – when Hadrian’s successor, Antonius, invited Herodes to Rome to tutor the future philosopher-emperor, Marcus Aurelius. The latter’s book «Meditations,» a cultural standard on stoicism for the ages, surely owes a debt of allegiance to this Greek philosopher who was seconded to Rome’s imperial court. Apart from teaching perhaps the wisest of all the Roman leaders, Herodes also found time to marry Appia Apeilia Rigilla, a patrician Roman. They became the ultimate power couple of the era, determined to advance the best of combined Roman and Greek traditions. The Gate of Eternal Harmony at Marathon was one of the more obvious, if cloying, reminders of their partnership. Not everybody’s favorite It was perhaps inevitable that Herodes was also widely resented in his time, while his behavior alienated others. His breeding, lofty access, and pretensions – there were said to be 17 statues of him in Attica alone, and others at Olympia – rankled in a society with a long history of ostracizing (in the sense of physically banishing) self-important leaders and noted for its growing gap between rich and poor. He thrived as a banker and estate-holder at a time when a mere 3,000 aristocratic families controlled most of the economic and political power in Greece. His razor-sharp tongue didn’t help his popularity either. Herodes was proof of the old adage that it takes wealth to make wealth. Plutarch, roughly a Herodes contemporary and a priest as well as an historian, himself fretted over this growing economic gap and consequent societal stagnation. The scholars A.R. and Mary Burn wrote that his feverish attempts at restoration seemed «as though trying to compensate in stone for the social vacuum which his class had created.» Herodes Atticus’s accumulated and growing holdings arguably contributed to the city’s socioeconomic decline even as he adorned its public face. Perhaps the «Silver Age» was as hollow as it was short; certainly it lacked the artistic brilliance of classical Greece. Nor did proximity to power necessarily boost his personal relations. Hadrian’s relative goodwill toward the elder Atticus – who was chief priest for the cult of Hadrian’s adoptive father, the deified Emperor Trajan – did not always extend to his witty and apparently cocky son. Some of this comes down from Margeurite Yourcenar’s memorable (though fictionalized) self-portrait of Hadrian, who spoke of the young Herodes’s growing vanity as «mildly ridiculous.» It got worse; Hadrian found the adult Herodes to represent all the new qualities of «mediocrity of mind… matched almost everywhere by shocking selfishness and dishonesty,» using as an example Herodes’s squandering of public funds for acqueduct-building «in shameful fashion,» and when called to account «sent back the insolent reply that he was rich enough to cover all deficits; such wealth was itself a scandal.» He quarreled with Emperor Antonius. Rumors abounded that he treated his slaves harshly, and that he even ordered the beating of his pregnant wife, resulting in her death in around 160 AD, but he was acquitted of murder charges. Grief monuments can be especially fraught; the odeon, once covered in cedar, was his last major project.