Zakynthos: Island Utopia.
The Ecotopia 2121 Project takes a strange and winding voyage across the seas -- zigzagging slowly around one hundred cities across the seven continents of the globe. Here, now, we reach yet another utopian city of the future: Zakynthos, the capital of the Greek island of the same name.
by Alan Marshall and Nanthawan Kaenkaew
Zakynthos was the first place in the entire world to become an independent democracy, as written into its legal system some twenty-five hundred years ago. It kept this form of social organization intact for the remarkable period of six and a half centuries.
Today Zakynthos, situated in the sunny Ionian Sea, is famous as a tourist island, well-known for its seven thousand kinds of flowers and its nineteenth-century literary heritage. Both Dionysius Solomos, the national poet of Greece, and Ugo Fuscolo, the national poet of Italy, were born in Zakynthos and wrote their most famous works here.
Two millennia ago, though, Zakynthos was famous for something else: its tar. The great city-states of Greece, such as Athens and Sparta, would send their naval vessels to Zakynthos and beg to visit Lake Kerion on the island to extract the tar and smear it all over their warships. The tar acted insulate and preserve the ships, making them faster and more resistant to rot.
But because Zakynthos was both independent and democratic, there were certain public protocols that all the Greek commanders had to adhere to before they got their hands on what they had come seeking. Leocrites, for example, the Athens navy commander, and his lieutenant, Mippus, might well have had to attend a public seminar in the city’s vast amphitheater so as to take questions from the entire interested populace of the city. It would go something like as follows...
In front of twenty thousand people, Leocrites randomly picked out a little clay shard from a large ceramic pot with one person’s name etched on it. The official pot attendant, himself randomly selected the day before, then announced the name for all to hear: “The first shard is that of Lasus! Please, Lasus, stand to ask Commander Leocrites your question.”
Up in row H, in the north section, Lasus stood up, flicking his pastel blue tunic into place. The Zakynthons all looked over at him in anticipation of his question. “My question is this: why have you come here?”
Leocrites stood up and yelled loudly, “We have come here to warn you that you will be attacked!”
To this, Lieutenant Mippus added, “And we have come here to ask you if we can have some lake tar.”
“What for?” asked Lasus again.
“No, no,” said the pot official aloud. “We’ve taken your one question.” He pushed his hand into the pot to randomly pick out another clay shard. “Okay, the next shard belongs to Ogoros!”
“That’s me!” yelled out a Zakynthon in the last row wearing a pastel yellow tunic. “So, who’s going to attack us? Is it you?”
“No!” said Commander Leocrites, annoyed by the confusion. He then tried to explain that all they really wanted was the tar, but he didn’t get very far.
“Yes, yes! That’s enough,” interrupted the pot official again. “Only one answer per question, please. Otherwise it becomes unfair,” he said wagging a finger at the commander. The commander was about to finish his point, but the pot official had sunk his hand into the pot and selected another shard. “Nicandos!” he announced.
A barefooted Zakynthon, dressed in a disheveled pastel pink tunic, stood up in the stands not far behind the commander, gazed into the distance, and, unsure of himself, belched out his question. “Umm, do you have mountains in Athens?”
“Yes,” said Commander Leocrites slowly with a quizical look plastered on his face, “of course!”
“Who cares about mountains?” said his lieutenant sharply. “We’ve come to tell you—“
But he was cut off by the pot official, once more chiding that they had a lot to get through and a 'yes or no' answer would have to do for that particular question. The official reached down deep, one foot, two feet, three feet into the pot, and came out with a new shard and a new name. “Pallados!”
“Do your mountains go up or down?” came the question from Pallados. The lieutenant rolled his eyes.
“What are you talking about?” replied Commander Leocrites.
“Do they go up or down?” asked the Zakynthon from his seat in the amphitheater.
“Well . . .” said Leocrites, a little bewildered. “Up!”
“Up?” repeated the Zakynthon in astonishment, and the whole crowd appeared to echo his surprise.
“Yes! Up!” said the lieutenant forcefully. “The same way you’ll be smashed when the Spartans arrive! Listen...”
“You are respectfully reminded,” interrupted the pot official, “to answer only the question specifically addressed to you. Due democratic process must be adhered to.” He then scooped up another shard. “Okay. Polyprax!”
Polyprax was an elder Zakynthon wearing a pastel orange tunic and he stood up very slowly with the help of those around him. “In case you didn’t know,” he said loudly and slowly, “our mountains go down. Sometimes. Usually. Especially when you’re standing on top of them. So it’s quite exciting for us to hear about your mountains that go up.”
“Ask your question please, Polyprax,” said the pot official impatiently.
“Yes, okay,” answered the old man. But when he spoke again, he admitted he had forgotten it. “Um. . . Just a second . . . Let me think . . . Ummm . . .”
Lieutenant Mippus frowned at the slowness of the proceedings. Suddenly he stepped in front of the pot official and spoke aloud to warn the Zakynthons that they might soon be attacked by a fleet of crazy, heavily armed Spartans.
“Does that answer your question, Mr. Polyprax?”added the pot official. The old Zakynthon responded that he hadn’t yet asked his question.
At this point, the official just reached for another shard of clay, saying, “Well, we have to move on—maybe next time.”
“What next time?” yelled the old Zakynthon angrily. “There’s twenty thousand of us here.What are the chances that I’ll get picked again?” The pot official interrupted, telling the old Zakynthon that he should have been more careful with his question. “Here’s my question, then,” said Polyprax, not giving up. “Who made you the pot official?”
At this, the entire stadium became tense, all eyes focusing on the official. The official indignantly waved his hand and announced that the question had not been authorized.
“Puh—you’ve become a pot tyrant!” said the old Zakynthon to the laughter and cheers of many in the crowd. Some of those nearest him started yelling out: “Pot tyrant! Pot tyrant! Pot tyrant!”
“Listen,” Lieutenant Mippus started up again. “We just wanted to warn you! Now, may we collect some lake tar, please?”
“No, no, no, Lieutenant!” said the pot official, one hand flapping around violently and
the other banging the pot. “You must wait before you can ask your questions. Now, where was I?”
“When will the attack begin?” yelled out an unknown Zakynthon from among the masses. The indignant pot official demanded to know who had asked the question without his permission.
“It was me, Agoren!”
“Did I pull out your name?” asked the pot official as he fussed about with the clay shards in his hands.
“Shuddup about the pot names for a minute!” yelled out Agoren before proceeding to warn all present that they had better listen to the Athenians to find out more about the imminent attack. The official, though, began loudly rattling off various rules of the democratic process.
“Damn the rules!” yelled Agoren excitedly. “What are we going to do?!” “Yeah, what are we going to do?” shouted more Zakynthons in the rows nearby. Soon the whole east stand was on its feet yelling the same question in chorus. Another bunch of Zakynthons in the north section then started yelling for them to shut up and let the pot official do his job.
Amid the growing cacophony, the pot official screamed aloud the next name. “Larsus!”
“Hey—he’s already had a question,” yelled various Zakynthons from around the amphitheater.
“That was Lasus, not Larsus, you morons!” yelled another group.
One Zakynthon then lurched into the air and crowd-surfed down to the center of the amphitheater, rushed to the pot, and kicked it over. It smashed to pieces, scattering thousands of clay shards on the ground.
Cheers and jeers erupted in anarchic symphony. Amid the chaos, Commander Leocrites shook his head and whispered to his lieutenant that they best leave to go find the tar for themselves.
What does this story of Zakynthos tell us? That democracy is slow? That democracy is clumsy? That democracy is too much talking and not enough action? Maybe, but Zakynthos’s democracy lasted longer than any other in the world, and Lake Kerion is still surrounded by seven thousand flowers. What’s good for Zakynthos in 500 BC might also be good for Zakynthos in 2121.
Oh, and the Spartans never did invade the island.
For more about Zakynthos in the future -- as well as many of the 100 other cities of the project, read the Ecotopia 2121 book.