It was a big, fat, Greek celebration. Greek Week, in fact. All centered around the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and its Gennadius Library.
There was a Monday night dinner at a private club, for the inaugural Thalia Potamianos lecture series for the Gennadius Library. Then on Tuesday, at the lecture itself, MOMA Director Dr. Glenn Lowry introduced Oxford Professor Dr. Peter Frankopan at St Bartholomew’s Church, and a private reception followed.
Then, the lead in to the gala: On Wednesday, tours of the Morgan Library, the St. Nicholas National Shrine at the World Trade Center, and a dinner at Thalassa Restaurant. On Thursday, Dietrich von Bothmer scholar Alan Shapiro walked a small group through the Metropolitan Museum’s Greek and Roman Galleries. And that night was the big gala at Gotham Hall, honoring Classical Greek and Roman historian Dr. Edward E. Cohen, co-chaired by his sons Jonathan and Daniel Cohen.
Diplomats, Oxford Scholars, art world luminaries, titled royalty and the like filled this Philhellenism fest. Among those who showed up during the week:
Glenn and Susan Chambers Lowry, Jeff Koons and Justine Wheeler-Koons, John Curran and Rachael Feinstein, Vera and Donald Blinken, Daisy Soros, Sally Quinn, Eleanora Kennedy, Dame Jillian Sackler D.B.E., Marife Hernandez, Jamee Gregory, Tony Bechara, The Honorable. Andrew J. Jacovides, Noreen Buckfire, Robert L. Pounder, PhD, Juliàn Zugazagoitia, Caroline Weber, Elizabeth von Habsburg, Ambassador Catherine Boura, Candace Beinecke, Ann Nitze, Ambassador Gerard Araud Nicholas Nassim Taleb, PhD, Ambassador Alvaro de Soto, The Honorable. Andrew J. Jacovides, Ambassador Gerard Araud, Candace Beinecke, Carlos A. Picòn, PhD, Ambassador Alvaro de Soto, Liz Anne Potamianos, H. E. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, Andreas Zombanakis, Library Director Dr. Maria Georgopoulou and American School Executive Director George T. Orfanakos.
“All very great friends of ours that we know well,” Helen Potamianos Philon told me. Her field is Islamic Art and she has her own foundation in India. Helen has lived the life of a diplomat’s wife, with husband Alexander Philon, former Greek Ambassador to the United States.
I chatted with her at a dinner hosted by her husband and son, Phokion Potamianos, an Overseer of the Gennadius Library. Phokion had created the annual lecture series in honor of her mother, his grandmother. This dinner was for speakers Lowry, Frankopan and Library Director Dr. Maria Georgopoulou.
Who was Thalia Potamianos? Helen had no idea growing up. Thalia, a doctor, was gone long hours, leaving her older sister and a nanny with her daughters. Thalia was living under the radar, helping the poor, persecuted, and the resistance, during World War II.
Two years after Thalia’s death, when Helen was 19, a karmic encounter in a coffee shop in the underprivileged port town of Piraeus brought the family secret to light. Helen was there helping with a friend’s documentary. Hearing her last name, the owners asked, “Who is Thalia Potamianos to you?” “My mother,” she replied, “How do you know about her?” “All these people here were treated by your mother for free,” they replied, and took her to a street named Thalia Potamianos. Only then, did Helen’s aunt tell her.
Thalia had administered to this poor community from an office, in their homes and hospitals. She organized food drives. She brought pumps into their basements during the rainy season. In her own home, she hid an English resistance fighter and two Jewish families, practically across the street from a Gestapo office, working in front of the window, to divert their attention. Eventually, her husband had to flee for his life to Egypt, and she delivered her hidden houseguests to safety.
“She was amazing,” Helen, a chic, petite woman, with kind eyes, told me. “When you are a child, you don’t recognize these things. I often think you bring up your children thinking you give them the best you can. But, years later, children realize what they have lost not getting to know a parent for who they were, rather than who they imagined they were.”
I did not feel the same wistfulness speaking to Phokion. Things sounded more clear cut for him. His grandmother was a heroine who had died before he was born. He was memorializing her.
“I grew up with a strong sense of service,” he told me. “My grandmother’s sister talked a lot about her sacrifice, the idea that you had to support the underdog and their communities, to give them a chance in a society that didn’t appreciate the hurdles they faced. Their two brothers fought against the Germans: with the British in North Africa, in Sicily, and then, back in Greece again.”
Their return inspired Thalia to help other veterans. “A lot of men came back with PTSD, often to uneducated and underprivileged families, with their uniforms and nothing else,” Potamianos continued. “Their homes had been taken over and destroyed. Their wives had fled to the mountains. It was a pretty rough and tumble life. So, she set up a series of philanthropic programs to help dress, educate and give them work.” She also organized centers for dispossessed families and orphaned children.
“My grandmother was born in Constantinople,” Potamianos continued. She came to Greece when she was eight. “In a time when there were very few women and almost no immigrant women going to university, she finished as a bio chemist at a very senior level. Before the war, she developed a whole treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, focused on how the digestive system works, which we still have today.
“In a way, she was an immigrant in her own nation, but she felt being Greek was defined as how she viewed the world and not necessarily by the village in which she was born.”
So it could be said of Gala Honoree Dr. Edward E. Cohen, an economic historian specializing in Classical Athens and Imperial Rome, business entrepreneur, American School alumnus, and a fascinating dessert companion. “There are all kinds of lessons you can learn in the study of ancient Athenian economy,” he told me, “lessons, which helped them out of their more recent troubles. Even when they were in their misery, when the Germans and others would give them no relief, they still were enjoying life, and helping one another. When people couldn’t afford it, restaurants which had charged $100 for a meal, had fixed plates at five dollars. They had enormous ability to improvise and adjust. Therefore, they were able to get out of their troubles.”
Cohen’s first book on Greece was Ancient Athenian Maritime Courts; Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective; The Athenian Nation; his second: Athenian Prostitution: The Business of Sex. His next book will be called Roman Inequality: Affluent Slaves, Business Women, Legal Fictions.
Why bankers and prostitutes? Because there is voluminous source material on each.
“The traditional view of Athenian prostitution is that they held them in contempt,” Cohen told me. “But, that’s a misunderstanding. The Athenians held all commerce in contempt.”
“This was Athens, high culture of the western world. The only business that was reasonably acceptable to an Athenian citizen, that is, a man, was farming, providing that you didn’t do any of the work yourself. You had slaves do it. Culture, reading, writing, politics and the military were acceptable activities. Business was left to slaves and women. Male citizens didn’t dirty themselves with commerce. Yet, Athens was the entrepreneurial trading center of the eastern Mediterranean, a cash economy with a tremendous amount of business activity coming from all of the worlds of its time.
“How can you be the commercial center of the world if you despise business? Somebody else comes in to fill the gap, just as, in this country, immigrants disproportionately make business run. Maybe people get jealous about that. But, I digress. So, the wealthiest bankers were of slave background. Women would have to own the banks and run it through slaves. If a banker died, he would leave his bank and his wife to his chief slave. They got married. He got his freedom. She owned the bank.”
What about the slaves who didn’t inherit wives? “The most handsome and the wealthiest citizens married best and had the most sex,” Cohen continued. “The slaves were out in the cold. But, they could buy it. The brothels were legal, pervasive and affordable.” It was a binary society; both women and young men were for sale.
“There’s a story that Solon the founder of Athenian democracy was also the founder of the state brothels, which were the most democratic. The legal system did not recognize slaves as having rights. But, money talks. If your owner is out there making speeches to the assembly, while you are running the banking, your boss might well come to you and say, ‘Listen buddy could you give me a little more money? I think you’re taking all of it.’ There was a system called apophora which formalized these transactions.
“Athens had what AOC could only dream of: progressive taxation. A handful of the wealthiest people paid all the taxes. Mayor Adams says that in New York City one percent of one percent pay the bulk of the taxes, but in Athens that small group paid all the taxes.
“If you were willing to exchange your property, you could give that obligation away. So, people wanted to hide, not flaunt their wealth. The basic business of the banks was expediting the disappearance of your wealth. They operated in an alternative black market economy.”
They didn’t even have to leave the country to hide their money. How civilized is that!?
Cohen takes exception to the old adage, “those who can’t do, teach.” “An economic historian must do business to understand the intellectual processes by which businessmen make their decisions,” he told me. “I was giving a lecture in Europe once and explained that from Karl Marx’s classic studies came Das Capitale. ‘But, I believe if he had had some practical business experience, millions would be alive today.’ I Iooked around, and thought I’m probably the only non-Marxist in this room! At that moment, the chairman interrupted me, ‘Surely you’re not implying that Marx’s words are behind some of today’s murderous activities!?’ ‘Oh no,’ I replied. ‘Not at all.’ And I lived to see another day!”
Like the Gennadius Library at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, there was a lot to unpack during Greek Week. I learned the cradle of civilization’s economy thrived on war, sex, commerce and black market type banks. Privileged men pursued higher callings and immigrants fueled international commerce. The courts favored the wealthy, but the sex trade was open to all.
That, and more, is no longer “Greek to me.”