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Mahaffy’s Rambles in Greece
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This welcome reprint of the 1876 first edition of Rambles & Studies in Greece comes with a fine introduction and commentary by Brian Arkins. J. P. Mahaffy (1839–1919), classicist, philhellene, and later Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, had been hired to accompany a Cambridge undergraduate on a tour of Greece in 1875; the book was the written result. At a time when middle-class tourism was emerging under the management of Thomas Cook and the tutelage of Baedeker and Murray, Greece remained an alien destination. In 1870 a party of British and Italian travelers had been murdered by bandits. Mahaffy comes on the fatal spot in Attica and queries Byron’s picture of brigands as noble savages. Roads were poor, railways few, and mountain ranges challenging. Mosquitoes were a constant problem, the resinous wine undrinkable. Yet Mahaffy not only endured but enjoyed the experience. On the way to Delphi he rode from eight in the morning until twilight through scenes “which gave us each moment some new delight.” On the road from Thebes to Lebadea, the fauna and flora delighted him: “great fields of sedge and rushes, giant reeds, and marsh plants unknown in colder countries, mark each river-course” and “all manner of insect life … [and] amphibia haunt the sites of ancient culture.”

Sites of ancient culture were, of course, what drew Mahaffy to Greece. He knew that an exact knowledge of Greek architecture and sculpture had come late and that much remained to be understood. Nicholas Revett and James Stuart published The Antiquities of Athens from 1762 onwards, and by 1812 Lord Elgin had transported half of the Parthenon’s surviving sculptures to London, where, from 1816, they were on display at the British Museum. A Greek Revival ensued. Not far from the British Museum, St. Pancras Parish Church, built in 1819–1822, copied the octagonal Tower of the Winds (in Athens) in its tower and the Erechtheum in its two flanking tribunes, whose entablatures were supported by caryatids. After the War of Greek Independence from the Ottoman Empire (1821–1829), English, French and German archaeologists flocked to Greece. Still, in 1875, as Arkins points out, independent Greece did not possess many of the Aegean isles nor much of northern Greece; Mahaffy thought it “monstrous that the obvious claims of the Greeks to hold Constantinople, and the islands of the Levant, should be overlooked.”

Of the Greece that remained, Mahaffy covered a good deal, visiting archaeological and historical sites in Athens and Attica (notably the Acropolis and Marathon), journeying to Eleusis, Thebes and Delphi, and exploring the cities of the Peloponnesus, including Corinth, Mycenae, Tiryns, and Argos. His pedagogy had an agenda: to teach the greatness of Greek civilization. For him, as for Byron, Greece was “the tomb of ancient glory—the home of ancient wisdom—the mother of science, of art, of philosophy, of politics—the champion of liberty—the envy of the Persian and the Roman—the teacher, even still, of modern Europe.” No voyage to Greece could be called complete, he believed, that did not include a visit to the shrine of Delphi: “The oracle is long silent, the priestess forgotten, the temple … destroyed; and yet the grand utterances of that noble shrine are not forgotten…. For they have contributed their part … to the general advancement of the world, and to the emancipation of man … from superstition, into the true liberty of a good and enlightened conscience.” Mahaffy’s claim to be responsible for Oscar Wilde’s change “from Popery to Paganism” is credible; Wilde had been Mahaffy’s pupil, corrected the proofs of Rambles & Studies in Greece, and accompanied him on a trip to Greece in 1877.

Mahaffy writes three detailed chapters on Athens. Philhellene though he was, he deplored the vandalism everywhere evident. Seeing a “young gentleman” firing bullets at an old carved marble in the Theatre of Dionysus, and appealing in vain to a custodian to stop the desecration, he dislodged stones onto the vandal, who fled the scene. Witnessing neglect even on the Acropolis, he writes that “Lord Elgin had luckily carried off a good portion of the [Parthenon’s] incomparable friezes to England.” It is interesting to follow Mahaffy’s...


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