lessons on luck and character

In Spetses, as elsewhere in Greece, you feel the density of history. Great events flow through small places and mark the landscape, as you can see by walking through the town. They also mark our perception. They can speed up the pace of time. And they can tell us about ourselves. Here are the two lessons I’ve learnt, on how luck works and on how we define ourselves.

Petros Haritatos


We will look at Spetses through a telescope. And then through a microscope.
The long view, through the telescope, shows us how chance can shape the world.
The close view, through the microscope, shows us how we can shape ourselves.

Spetses on how luck works

Take your telescope and stand on the moon in the year 1700. You can see hundreds of ordinary communities close to the sea: small fishing boats, fields, vineyards, orchards, small houses. Some are on islands. One of them is Spetses. Nothing sets it apart.

Look again in the year 1800. Spetses stands out, a noisy busy town. The harbour is full of big sailing ships. The windmills are spinning away to grind flour, to feed the sailors on these ships. Hundreds of men are sawing and hammering, building new boats in the shipyards. Spetses has become a rich and powerful shipping centre.

Now take your telescope again in 1900. What happened? Nothing is moving, silence everywhere. You see sunken ships rotting away in the empty harbour. You see hundreds of abandoned houses with roofs that have caved in. Was there a plague, was there an earthquake?

What you see through the telescope is how chance can shape the world. Chance. Τύχη (ty/che) in Greek. Spetses is an example of how a society can go from insignificance to prosperity, and then from prosperity to decline. Let us see how this happens.

Shipping (the rise)

Spetses, around the year 1700. Nobody can foretell the chance events, the chain of coincidences, that will bring wealth and power to this island. Here they are.

First, in 1715 the Turks capture the Venetian sea-forts of Monemvasia and Nauplion, not far from Spetses. Lots of people are forced to leave. Among them are shipbuilders. Some will settle in Spetses. They know how to build big ships for long journeys.

Then comes a second coincidence. The rich landowners in the Peloponnese, opposite Spetses, make a discovery. They have been selling their wheat, wine and olive oil to French merchants who arrive with their ships. They discover that what they sell at 100, the merchants resell at 300 in Marseille and Genoa. So they go to Spetses and ask: can we give you money to build ships? And can you sail them to France and Italy? The answer was yes.

On the sea voyages, the Maltese and Barbary pirates attack these ships. The shipbuilders redesign them to be swifter, and to carry cannons for defence. The captains and the sailors were traders; they must learn to be warriors. This is the third coincidence. Spetses now has swift sailing ships doing long-distance trade and also armed for war.

The fourth coincidence produces great wealth. Russia forces Turkey to open up the Black Sea. The shipowners of Spetses now carry the wheat of Russia and Romania to the ports of Western Europe. The wealthy shipowners build their grand mansions on Spetses. You can visit that of Hadji-Yiannis Mexis, which is now the Spetses Museum. Also that of Bouboulina, who lost two husbands to the pirates. Soon after the year 1800, a new war brings new opportunities. The British are blockading Napoleon on the European continent. The ships of Spetses run the blockade to deliver wheat and make enormous fortunes.

Spetses becomes a wealthy and powerful place. Chance has done its job. First it brought knowledge, how to build big ships. Then, the capital to build and sail them. Then, the weapons. Then, the huge profits. The result is an armed fleet with thousands of sailors, who know how to fight. Until then, Spetses was merely rich and strong. Now it becomes heroic and famous. The Greek Revolution begins in 1821 and the shipowners join it.

Wealth. Fame. Then poverty. The wealth disappears, only the fame remains. How did this happen?

Shipping (the decline)

We have seen which events drive the rise of Spetses, how each one adds to the other. So how did the decline happen?

In the spring of 1853 the ships sailed off to the Black Sea, as they did every year, to load their cargoes of wheat. But the Crimean war had started. The ships return empty to Spetses. The sailors riot, demanding work or else, bread.

Let us stop and think: was this event a good or a bad one?

A war creates huge business opportunities. After all, this is how Spetses had become so rich in the first place. But why did the shipowners not find other cargoes, other suppliers, other customers? There was plenty of business available for shipping; why did they not go after it? The answer is, they could not see it; and even if they saw it, they could not grasp it.

What caused this blindness, this paralysis? The shipowners of 1853 were the third generation of the great shipping families, whose mansions you can see on the sea-front. Their grandfathers, the first generation, who built the fortunes, were hands-on leaders. Their world was unpredictable. Each one learnt to be many things: a captain, a navigator, a multilingual trader, a soldier, a leader of men. When their sons and nephews were 7 or 8 years old, they took them on their voyages, to sharpen their minds and toughen their bodies. But after the Revolution, we had a Greek State. There was less chaos, life became more predictable. The mothers said, why should our children go and live like sailors? We will send them to school and university. Their businesses were on «automatic pilot», running themselves. So when the Crimean war upset their routine, the third generation could not adapt. They had money, ships and crews. But they had not learnt how to seize chances. This one was seized by other shipping islands which started much later, like Chios. For them, the Crimean war was a golden opportunity.

Chance makes things happen. We see that exactly the same chance, can be bad luck for one, and good luck for the other. But we do not like this symmetry. Fortunately, Chance is a discreet lady: when things go badly, she accepts to be blamed. We’ve had bad luck. She is also a modest lady: when things go well, she lets us take the credit. We’ve made good decisions – of course.


So how did Spetses become prosperous again? What role did chance play?

Take again your telescope around 1900. You can see the birds which migrate between Africa and Europe. Spetses is on their flight path, a convenient hunting area. It is easy to reach, thanks to the steamship, by the hunters who come from Athens. Another visitor arrives from America, a wealthy tobacco tycoon who had emigrated as a poor boy, about 30 years earlier. He is Sotirios Anargyros and he sees a golden opportunity in his birthplace. He builds the Poseidonion Hotel, similar to the grand hotels on the Riviera. To the rich hunters of the 1920’s, it offers luxury: hot baths, a restaurant with music and a verandah to smoke your cigar and watch the sunset. The hunters bring their wives and daughters, who can do something very modern: mixed bathing. The Victorian age of segregated bathing is ending; the roaring 20’s bring a new freedom and the Poseidonion is the place to be. It becomes the emblem of a new industry, tourism, and it starts to revive the economy of Spetses. The hotel is opposite the statue of Bouboulina. These are the two symbols of Spetses: a heroic shipowner, and tourism.

The Poseidonion becomes a landmark for Greece. Then, in 1958 a shipping tycoon, Stavros Niarchos buys Spetsopoula – small Spetses – a small island of just off Spetses, after his mirror and rival Aristotle Onassis had bought Skorpios in the Ionian Sea. Both men want to be famous and Niarchos puts Spetses in the public eye.

And then around the 1970’s Spetses takes a new turn, thanks to a new invention: charter flights for people on a small budget. Floods of young tourists arrive at many Greek islands, under the slogan of «sun, sea and sex». The people of Spetses rent out their spare rooms, their houses, and build new apartments. In the tourist market, where the Poseidonion was the high end, they cover the low end. Today, most visitors come from Athens and cover the middle part of the market.

Now we can step back with our telescope and ask ourselves: how much of this is the result of a plan, of deliberate choices? And how much is due to chance, to events which force themselves upon us?


Spetses on how we define ourselves

We have seen the long picture, how chance shapes the world. Let us now look at the close view: how people shape their existence.

Let’s look at Spetses through the microscope and see what happens at the level of ordinary people. They are tossed about by history, they live, they die; and some leave behind their stories. These stories reveal our values, the way we see the universe, and our place within it.

We will cover three themes. First, how we seek distinction, how we choose to say «look at me». Second, how we face our mortality. Third, how we relate with other people.

Distinction (our first theme)

The stories of Spetses show us two ways to distinction.

One way is by spending money.

Sotirios Anargyros, the poor boy who emigrated from Spetses, returns from America a millionaire and spends his fortune to change the face of his island. He plants a forest and builds a mansion, a hotel and a school.

The shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos and his 12 celebrity guests kill 3947 birds in one day’s hunt, setting a world record.

Papatheodorou builds a huge church, Agia Trias (Holy Trinity) up on the hillside, and is so proud of his work that he compares it to the Mausoleum, one of the ‘seven wonders of the world’.

The shipping magnate Goudis builds himself a tomb shaped like a pyramid, to stand out among the dead.

The less fortunate can choose to wear expensive clothes and shoes.

Another way to distinction is to spend yourself.

A woman, Bouboulina, leads her men to war. A painting, in the Bouboulina Museum, shows her standing up against the Turkish cannons while the men crouch to protect themselves.

A sea battle is raging off the coast of Spetses and both sides are equally strong. A strong-headed fisherman, Cosmas Barbatsis, fills a rowing boat with explosives and heads for the Turkish admiral ship.

The Germans have rounded up the men of Spetses and are about to execute them as a reprisal for the killing of two soldiers. Agnes Katramadou shakes with fear as she walks towards the German officer, to explain why he must let them go. And he does.

Mortality (our second theme)

Some people refuse to accept that they are mortal. A good way to block out this knowledge is to live in the present, in a permanent «now». To oppose the passage of time. To deny its effects on your face and body.

Others accept their mortality, and here are three stories about it.

The first (from the 1960’s) is about the last inhabitant of Spetsopoula, Dimitris Petroutsis whom everybody called Xynos (Sour, because he drank any kind of wine). The shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos has bought this small island off Spetses and wants to convert it into a game reserve for his celebrity guests. He must therefore expel Xynos. They meet, like Alexander the Great met with Diogenes the Cynic and the drunkard dismisses the magnate with a poem:

Ο ουρανός κι η θάλασσα έχουν το ίδιο χρώμα,
Ο Νίαρχος και ο Ξυνός θα μπουν στο ίδιο χώμα.

The sky and the sea have the same hue
The same soil awaits Xynos, and Niarchos too

Before they met, one was powerful and the other was weak. Nobody ever spoke back to Niarchos. After Xynos spoke, they were equals. Niarchos let him stay. (By the way, this shows the power of an idea: something mental produces a physical result; mind moves people).

The second story (from the late 19th century) is about Spahis the pirate and Akakios the monk. Spahis ambushes Akakios by the cemetery, because he had refused to hide some stolen goods. Spahis lifts his gun and says, prepare to die. Akakios shows the cemetery further down and says, you do not scare me; I today, you tomorrow; there is where we all end. Spahis repents and puts down his gun. There is a pebble mosaic on the roadside that shows their story.

The third story is a tradition, a rite that happens every 1st of September in the bay of Agios Mamas. Schoolchildren of all ages make small boats from pieces of wood or plastic. They decorate them with tinsel, flags and flowers. These boats are candle-holders. As dusk falls, the children light the candles and let the boats float away on the sea. For hours, you can see the tiny flickering flames as they disappear in the darkness. This image of our transience, is delivered not by old people, but by children.

Relationships (our third theme)

How do we relate with other people? In the stories of Spetses, we can see three ways: submission, autonomy and dependence.

Submission has long been the most common relationship. First, submission of Greeks to Turks, which lasted four centuries. Then, inside the traditional Greek society, submission to father and husband. A women must keep asking for permission.

At the same time, we see the refusal to submit. What drives people to reject submission? The Revolution of 1821 – in which Spetses played a major role – is not the first one for Greeks; it is the one that succeeds. To produce such a social earthquake it takes violence, backed by enormous energy. The energy is produced by ideas: ideas about «who» we should be, opposed to what we are. Look at the Spetses flag of and you will see these ideas. On a personal level, it is such ideas about oneself that drive a strong person like Bouboulina.

Another form of relationship is autonomy. This is the modern ideal, based on freedom and self-determination. Sotirios Anargyros returns to Spetses in 1899 a wealthy man, and builds a mansion which deliberately ignores the traditional Spetses style of architecture. To affirm that he is self-sufficient, he names it after the ancient Egyptian goddess Neith, who is both male and female and who was generated by her own self. He forbids his wife to see her mother and when she does, he throws her out. He needs nobody and owes to no one. What a bitter thing to want!

Dependence, as a relationship, is based on balance, on giving and taking. Before the Revolution, Bouboulina asks the Sultan’s mother to help her protect her property from the local Turkish rulers. Years later, during the Revolution, she returns the favour. The Greeks are besieging the Turks in Tripolis, and the Sultan’s mother is worried about the Turkish women there. Bouboulina takes them under her protection. A favour creates an obligation: I can depend on you and you can depend on me.

You can also ask someone powerful, a Saint. Save me, says the captain who is foundering on the rocks, and I will build you a chapel. This happened on the feast day of Agios Mamas and this is why there is a chapel there by the rocks, with that name.

A parent asks the Saints Anargyroi, the penniless healing Saints, to save their child. The child that lives will be baptized with their name, and this is why we have so many men called Anargyros and women called Argyro. Pray to Saint Paraskevi if you have eye problems, to Saint Fanourios if you have lost an object. If you dress properly and go inside a church to light a candle, don’t forget to look at the ex-votos on the church icons. Here you see the result of dependence and intercession: the thanks given for saving limbs, hearts, houses, jobs.


How can you connect the themes that we have looked at? You choose your own pattern, your own way for putting them together. This is what it means to shape your existence, to define yourself. Here is an example:

One pattern is: deny mortality – seek autonomy – define yourself by consuming.

Another pattern is: accept your transience – accept dependence – spend your person.

These patterns are two different ways to shape yourself.
Two ways to exist in the world.
Two different philosophies of life.
One is barbarian, the other is civilized.
They are both here with us.