There were still 15,000 dogs left for the Athenian authorities to poison, and the ones evading capture at that point had quite sensibly taken to befriending tourists; befriending and defending, as though to give might be to receive. This largely manifested in ferocious barking and threatening circling whenever locals passed near our group in their course of their daily business. The dogs would growl and the Athenians would yell back, the jaws would snap a warning and the arms would snap defiance in return. And while the dogs were intent for us to progress unmolested at the hands of these disinterested passers-by, they themselves seemed capable of quickly turning upon us if their role as honor guard were to go unappreciated. And so we let them maintain a generous perimeter, and we kept our comments about their enormous testicles to ourselves. We threw them the occasional salami slice, purloined from the hotel breakfast buffet. We stifled our complaints as they ranged freely over ancient ruins, tongues drooping, while we often remained behind roped boundaries under the unsmiling gaze of a man with a whistle.
By what arcane census the Athenian authorities had arrived at the number of stray dogs plaguing the streets, I do not know. But it was clear that, in that winter of 2003, considerable civic resources were being channelled toward two particular areas: the removal of these large and unattractive strays from the thoroughfares and marketplaces of Athens, and the installation of informative displays and archaeological exhibits (and even a working archaeological dig) into new and improved subway stations. The Olympic committee could soon relax in the knowledge that visitors might travel from Syntagma to Keramikos, from Attiki to Monastiraki, immersed in the city’s glorious history and then emerge into its modern day without finding it gone, literally, to the dogs.
We were there as academic tourists, students of Classics. It was, for many of us, the last course of our university lives. We were spending three weeks visiting more than 60 archaeological sites and places of historic interest, divvying amongst ourselves the responsibility of giving presentations at each stop. We had prepared for this trip specifically, but were also drawing on our grasp of Greek art, history, and literature from the previous years’ study. Steeped in such geekery, we referred to the apparent leader of the dog gang (whichever dog gang it happened to be, at whatever site we happened to find ourselves) as Argos, so-named for the protagonists’ respective dogs in both our Greek and Latin textbooks (‘The lazy slave sleeps under the tree, but the brave dog chases the wolf’). Philippos’ Argos in the Greek book, and Quintus’ Argus in the Latin variation, were both a nod to ‘the’ Argos, that faithful companion whom we knew so well from having diligently pored over Homer’s Odyssey. But, in the assemblage of mangy animals that formed our regular vanguards, it was hard to see any semblance with their most famous of ancestors.
Homer’s Argos was, like everyone else on Ithaca, waiting for Odysseus to return from the war at Troy. But while, for others, Odysseus’ absence was an impetus to action (find Odysseus! ogle his wife! host the suitors!), for Argos, no Master meant no anything else either. No more chasing cats amongst the olive trees. No more stealing joints of beef and squirreling them away behind the swineherd’s hut. Twenty years of it. Of doing no more than simply watching and waiting.
Growling. That was one of the activities in which Argos allowed himself to indulge while he watched and waited. He devoted much time to growling at those suitors who approached day in and day out, up the pitted track that was hell on their filigreed sandals. The house was bloated with these parasites. Even from his dusty and forlorn little patch of the yard, Argos could hear their grasping guile and gulping glee-making in the great hall of glorious Odysseus. He could see it even—falling like a dollop of lard to quiver and fester in the daylight. And at the center of these leeches, these lushes, these eyelash-flutterers: Penelope, the Master’s own wife. Argos would hear her cry at night but, with each new dawn, she would return to the great hall to receive the suitors and resume her weaving. Weaving wool, weaving words…weaving plots?
But worse still than Penelope’s behaviour, in Argos’ opinion, was Telemachos’. Chasing news of his father like that, bunking down in other great houses, seeking aid, seeking wisdom and direction. The hours that young Telemachos had sat in the dust next to Argos, telling him of these plans. I will do this, he would say, and I will go there, and I will know and discover and succeed. Him, Telemachos, all the time. Argos had told him with his eyes: trust the Master. Who was the son to make his father’s story all about himself? (Admittedly, Argos had to concede to himself, Telemachos had spent all twenty years of his life with only his mother’s self-involvement as a model.)
So Argos stayed his true course, while others received flattery, or ate and drank up all that belonged to a better man, or consoled themselves with their own harebrained adventures. He watched and waited for the Master’s return, knowing that the Master would indeed return eventually. (Would anyone else even notice, he wondered? Or, if they did, would they be pleased?) And on that coming day, Argos could look the Master fairly in the eye. I could not guard all that is yours, but I have growled faithfully at everyone and everything that has come against it.
The lazy slave sleeps under the tree, but the brave dog chases the wolf.
At some juncture in Greece’s history, the steadfast Argos who growled at strangers had become the disenfranchised mutt who threatened the citizenry. And yes, the point at which the citizenry decided to start killing the mutts might seem the obvious juncture. But the disservice had begun before that. The dog population had gotten so out of hand because of a law that was supposed to be one of compassion: in Greece it is illegal to have animals put down. For the Christmas puppy, first greeted with excited squeals of adoration and then increasingly resented and neglected as the vet and food bills accumulate, this law meant that he often ended up dumped, usually without having been neutered. And so membership in these roving dog gangs continued to rise, with more and more dogs born or cast into homelessness in the cradle of Western Civilisation. And their loyalty had switched, as loyalty can, to their own pathetic survival.
In the opinion of the Classical Athenian, poisoning was a particularly cowardly form of attack, relegated to use by women or, like the bow and arrow, by Eastern barbarians. It was also often the tool of the jailor, denying the prisoner a warrior’s death; we think most famously of Socrates, sentenced to poisoning by hemlock. Death by mass poisoning, therefore, was the sentence imposed on Athens’ dissident dog population, for the crime of being unwanted, unsociable, and unable to curb their own rampant numbers. Officials in Beijing and Sochi (the epitome of Eastern barbarians, to the Classical mode of thinking) would follow the Athenians’ lead, poisoning their own stray dogs in the lead-up to the summer Games of 2008 and the winter Games of 2014. In both cases, this policy would be a PR disaster. The Russians drew particular criticism (even with their part in the Ukraine crisis competing for damning air-time), due in no small part to those athletes who took it upon themselves to comment publicly or even adopt a stray for their own. The human equivalent has been scrutinised too: with South Africa’s relocation of shanty towns in the build-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and in Brazil as armed forces moved into the favelas ahead of Rio’s 2014 hosting of that same event. With each of these situations compounding the previous, questions are asked in the media about how the international attention of a major sporting event propels a host nation to a cosmetic quick-fix without addressing the causes of these socio-economic problems.
A bit like how we killed the cat before my wedding, my sister points out as we discuss this; well yes, but we both know that he was old and extremely unwell, and that he deserved a quiet and private send-off before a distressing horde of relatives descended. It was a respect he was afforded by our country’s pet ownership regulations.
As our group ate dinner together one night in the Plaka, in Athens, our waiter told us with a great thumping of his arms that, “Greece was most famous country in world. Olympics to make great famous again.” It was a sentiment that we encountered often as we talked to hoteliers, kebab vendors, and bus drivers. The Games were returning to their birthplace, and the Greeks–and, with them, the world–felt the sense of occasion, of momentousness. The 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney had closed with an image of Grecian maidens promenading the Olympic flame about temple ruins that, while corny, was certainly affecting. For the Greeks themselves, it was a return to the days in which they were strongest and most proud. It was a homecoming for the nation as well as the flame. They were holding their heads up, a welcome distraction from looking down at their emptying pockets. But those pockets were emptying nonetheless. Athens’ Olympics brought pride, and joy, and unity, but also accelerated a process that would lead Greece to infamy, to rioting, to austerity, and to despair.
Alight with fervor,Greece spent twice what she had originally budgeted on the 2004 Olympic Games. The cost was €9 billion, at a time when national debt already well exceeded the Eurozone limits. Indeed, in 2005, Greece would win the dubious crown of becoming the first member state to be placed under fiscal monitoring by the European Commission, the first stray dog. In 2013, Greece’s national debt represented approximately 175% of GDP. Youth unemployment now sits at more than 50%. Those with university degrees seek work in Sweden, in England, in Germany. The downward-slide to full-blown economic crisis cannot solely be attributed to the 2004 Games, but its related expenditure certainly helped make that slide good and greasy. With unchecked spending and unsustainable borrowing spiraling out of control, the Christmas puppy had not only bitten off too much, it had thoroughly chewed it.
Many of the Athenian Olympic venues themselves had followed the same pattern of decline. The drained kayaking course lies curled up like some great concrete oesophagus, and the Aquatic Centre is a sunken grave, dry and disused. The outdoor stands of the kayaking course are stark and empty, like a poor imitation of one of the country’s great Classical amphitheaters. The softball stadium, hockey turf, and beach volleyball arena gather no crowds, but only graffiti, weeds, and regret. And had those 15,000 stray dogs avoided the purges, even they would probably not be making use of these facilities, for they are always where the people are, for better or worse.
Back in the Plaka, an old Greek man at a table next to us had been listening in, sagely looping his worry beads around and around his fingers. As our enthusiastic waiter wandered back to the kitchen, the old man asked us about ourselves. We told him all about our study trip, and he listened with a slow nod. “But why,” he asks, “why would you want to study our history? History is war and death.”
The wise man sleeps under the tree, but the curious students chase the wolf.
In 430 B.C., Athens was facing off against Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Greek unity, which had so valiantly won the day against the Persians some twenty years previous, had rapidly disintegrated into bitter in-fighting and out-muscling. In the midst of these horrors, a lethal plague broke out in Athens. The great historian Thucydides tells us that the plague came to Athens by way of its harbor, the Piraeus, whose citizens claimed that the Peloponnesians had poisoned their wells. (Tarred with the same brush of women and barbarians here, the Peloponnesians were the ‘other’ in the scenario and therefore liable to stoop to such acts.) Himself a survivor of the outbreak, Thucydides recounts the many terrible symptoms of this disease that was ripping through the people of Athens, noting that birds and dogs were also susceptible. Birds, because they will feast on the bodies, but the symptoms were most clearly seen in dogs, ‘because they live with man.’ Man’s best friend, Thucydides is saying. And however bad the lot of man, so too the lot of his humble companion. For better or worse.
In a different time, and a different conflict, Kanellos is another survivor and witness—perhaps not in the true Thucydidean mold, but of a more humble type. A stray dog of Athens, profiled in a photographic essay by The Guardian in 2010, he had been seen joining in all the riots and protests in Syntagma Square or in the streets or at the university, “unfazed even by water cannon.” And while the newspaper noted that the dog was routinely with the protestors, this seemed less a political statement than a reflection of which faction was dropping the more bread crusts and milk bottles. Perhaps after years of siding with the tourists, this poor creature found himself at a loss when the tourists no longer came and the locals drew sides against each other. No more champions, no clear enemy. Perhaps he was just waiting to see who would be the hero of the hour. Waiting, and watching, and living with man in his time of plague.
At Olympia, our group staged a piggyback race in the ancient stadium while our professors watched from the officials’ platform. Even when containing our clowning, the stadium was blank and quiet, thoughtful and forgotten in the tourist off-season. The stretch of hard-packed earth is edged by a channel of 5th century stone, but its clean lines and the simple sweep at one end make the stadium seem modern. The grass that gently slopes away is reminiscent of a high school playing field on a Sunday afternoon. With our raincoats wrapped around our fists, we then mocked our way through a few boxing bouts in the training area, among amputated columns that were mossy in the December damp. But Olympia was, above all, a religious sanctuary. We gathered at the limestone rubble that was the great Doric temple to Olympian Zeus, where a lone reconstructed column now points a mighty finger to the sky. Inside it had housed the massive cult statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the world, and the sculpted panels of its exterior had recounted the great labors of Heracles. In the great triangular pediment at each end of the temple had been an exquisite sculptural arrangement, now displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia: at the eastern end, Zeus presided over the chariot race between Oinomaos and Pelops, and at the western end, Apollo oversaw the battle of the Lapiths and the centaurs. Poised and commanding, Zeus and Apollo stood serene at each pinnacle of the temple. Amid the action and the aggression, competition and the quest for glory, the gods were characterised by their towering silence. True power is marked by its stillness.
The mighty man sits calmy under the tree, but the weakened man chases the wolf.
By the time Odysseus finally returned to Ithaca, Argos was aged and infirm, lying neglected and lice-ridden in a dungheap, but watching as keenly as his clouded eyes would allow. Odysseus approached in disguise, cloaked in mystery by the goddess Athena, that he might overthrow the suitors who had infested his household. Nobody recognised the stranger. Nobody except Argos. With his feeble limbs quaking beneath him, he lifted himself to greet his beloved Master, as he had waited so long to do. But Odysseus could not risk revealing his true self. After all those years and after all that he had suffered, he had to regain his household, his name, his place in the world, no matter what the cost. And so, with a tear falling from his eye, Odysseus passed by his faithful companion without acknowledging him. Argos lay back down in his own filth and passed quietly from life.
Liesl Nunns graduated from the University of Oxford in 2011 with a doctorate in Classical languages and literature, before returning to her native New Zealand to be closer to the faces and spaces that feel like home. She writes and co-edits a literary e-journal called Headland, and works in arts administration. Her work has appeared in Southerly, Hawai'i Review, Terrain.org, 94 Creations, and Hippocampus Magazine.