Thessaloniki, an important city in northern Greece, has had somewhat of a Cinderella existence. History records that up until the Turkish conquest the city was a very important one and the fact that St Paul wrote two letters to the Christian church there indicates that this importance goes back well into antiquity. Now, however, it seems that the fairy godmother may have arrived and Thessaloniki may be well on its way to a permanent position on any tourist’s list.
Vassiliki Misailides, a Greek archaeologist, recently announced the discovery of an ancient cemetary a few kilometres outside the city that contains about a thousand tombs. Initial excavations last year revealed copper ingots, gold jewellery and iron daggers buried with the dear departed. These objects are now being studied by experts at the archaeological museum in Thessaloniki.
Interesting and valuable though these finds are, they are unlikely to cause the rapid pounding of the heart in your average tourist that is the accompaniment to an opening of the purse strings. Instead the city fathers are pinning their hopes to a rather curious building that has recently been uncovered beneath the city’s Roman forum.
The building is circular in form and was built around a rather large furnace which provided hot water for as many as twenty-five small baths as well as a large swimming pool. (There was a second swimming pool, but details of the plumbing make it plain that this one was not heated.) There was a large dining room – dining rooms were measured by the number of couches that could be accommodated – and a grand hall whose contents made its purpose abundantly plain to the startled eyes of the archaeologists.
Early in the six-month long excavation the archaeologists uncovered dozens of clay drama masks, which rather puzzled them, for there was no theatre nearby. In Greek drama the characters wore immobile masks of the type that now stand as a symbol for the theatre.
The shape of the mask indicated whether the character was comic or tragic and was a useful way of disguising the fact that the troupe consisted of three actors doulbing or even tripling or quadrupling up on their parts. A second convention, long adhered to by the theatre, was that all parts, even female roles, were played by men or young boys.
Subsequent discoveries, however, made it abundantly clear that this second convention was not adhered to in Thessaloniki. Scattered across the floor was a profusion of what D Polyxeni Valeni, leader of the archaeological team, described as “sex toys”. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately for the reputation of a family magazine – the sources do not describe the nature of these objects, but as Dr Valeni enthused, “The ancients clearly knew how to have fun!”
Of course the ancient Greeks were not encumbered with overmuch puritanism. Courtesans held a recognised place in society and some were honoured with monuments or commemorated themselves by ostentatious offerings to the gods. Even philosophers approved the principle that you had a wife for the production od legitimate children but resorted to a courtesan for pleasure. Mind you, ancient authors also indicate that such women caused as much marital unhappiness as they do today, even if wives were more downtrodden and couldn’t divorce their erring husbands as readily as they might now.
Still, given the important role that all things sexual play in our society, the good people of Thessaloniki are looking forward to seeing hordes of tourists beatng a path to their doors in order to view these latest discoveries. Which all goes to prove, I suppose, that in regard to human nature, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
It is interesting that Paul had to write to the Christian church in Thessaloniki, warning them, “For this is the will of God, . . . that you should abstain from sexual immorality.” He cannot have been ignorant of this very prominent house of doubtful reputation.
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