A classicist in Berlin


For me, the soundtrack for my first visit to Berlin will always be Seven Nation Army. This track was blaring from the speakers on the late night taxi ride from Alexanderplatz to Friedrichshain and in so many ways it proved to be an appropriate choice. Just like the song, Berlin is edgy, energetic, youthful and defiant, well worn but still irresistible. It is not exactly the city that you would expect to appeal to a quiet classical scholar but for me, Berlin turned out to be full of riches. I embraced the vibe, hired a bike and pedalled from one end of the city to the other (well, from Friedrichshain to Charlottenburg at least). I discovered a city that simultaneously tracks man’s potential for great tragedy and great beauty. For the classicist in particular, Berlin is a treasure trove.

At the Pergamonmuseum, I couldn’t help but feel Greek and Roman civilization put in its proper place by the monumental and stunning Ishtar gate. The strutting lions against a turquoise backdrop leave a deep impression of Babylonian civilization, refusing to be intimidated or forgotten.

At the Neues Museum, Nefertiti gazes out from her designated chamber room surveying everyone that passes with the cool gaze of timeless and unmatcheable Egyptian beauty. The architecture of the Neues is itself a marvelous take on Greco-Roman influences, with carefully illuminated niches, palace-sized doorways and catacomb-like passages.

For anyone else who has visited Miletus in Turkey, Berlin holds the rest of the story. The Market Gate is splendid, a fusion of Greek and Roman features and it testifies to the long-ago importance of this trading town. The model is also exceedingly helpful, clearly showing the ancient harbour and the layout of the original town.

Amidst all of this sits Orpheus, calmly plucking at his lyre as animals of all types frolic around him. I have seen pictures of this floor mosaic many times, but there is nothing like seeing it in person and imagining it as the talking piece at a wealthy Roman’s dinner party.

Outside the museums, the busy city abounds with neo-Classical features. There are the obvious references: the Brandenburg gate (with a helmeted Athena tucked inside, grasping her shield and spear), the temple facades of the Reichstag and the magnificent Konzerthaus, and the gleaming golden Nike atop the Victory Column.

There are also unexpected (but no less delightful) references, such as Atlas holding up the world on the roof of the Museum für Kommunikation; a gilded Fortune dancing in the wind on the dome of Schloss Charlottenburg; and statues of naked male youths peeping out from wooded groves in the grounds of the baroque palace gardens.

Berlin is a delight and a must see for the classicist. As I settle in with a coffee and a slice of Kirschenmichel, I know I’ll be back for a longer stay. Only next time, I will remember to pack tattoo stickers, leather pants and a vape!


Image: Athena inside the Brandenburger Tor (S. Pertsinidis, 2018)