In 490 B.C., the brand-new democracy at Athens faced its first existential challenge: a vast Persian army intent on crushing the Greek city-state for supporting the enemies of the Persian Emperor Darius the Great.
The Athenian army and its allies numbered perhaps 10,000 men; the invading Persian forces, the sources tell us, numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Despite being outnumbered, the Greeks attacked the Persians on the plain of Marathon, about 26 miles from Athens. It was a rout. After a pitched battle, Darius' army was crushed and the Persian invasion thwarted.
Today, 2,500 years later, an angry horde is succeeding where the Persian army failed: Greece's public-sector unions are rioting in the streets and sacking the capital in protest of the government's desperate attempts to save the nation from fiscal collapse, a collapse that is certain if things don't change -- soon. Greece's elected leaders know it. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has proposed an austerity budget that would reduce public spending by 12 billion euros ($15 billion) over the next two years, including cuts to welfare as well as public workers' salaries and pensions. Although projected to temporarily prolong the country's financial pain, it is hoped the austerity eventually will right the ship and produce a budget surplus, Greece's first in 10 years.
The thought of more hardship has people literally rioting in the streets. Two of Greece's largest public unions, representing half of the nation's labor force, mobilized more than 50,000 teachers, air traffic controllers and other public-sector workers in their third 24-hour strike this year, bringing Greek life to a crashing halt. The unions vehemently oppose the austerity. In the place of budget reductions, they think Greece should default on a portion of its debt and take from the rich the money it needs to avoid bankruptcy. As Sotires Martalis, an Athenian high school teacher who was on the National Council of the Public Employees Union Federation, said of the unions: "Their main idea is 'We don't pay for your crisis, not even one euro. Take the money from the rich.' "
Americans should take heed. Here, the dangers of collective bargaining in the public sector are often treated as academic concerns, but on the Aegean Sea, they are life-threatening -- literally. The Greek economy is in utter turmoil. Public debt is expected to balloon to 179.3 percent of gross domestic product in 2013, Greece's sixth year of recession. A broke nation means broke, and broken, citizens. A fifth of the Greek workforce is unemployed, giving rise to the "new homeless" -- educated Greek citizens who can't afford to put a roof over their heads. Homelessness has risen a sharp 25 percent since the onset of the economic crisis, an unacknowledged humanitarian tragedy.
Homelessness is not the only thing on the rise. Between 2007 and 2009, when the worst of the economic crisis hit, the suicide rate of Greek citizens rose by 24 percent. The Washington Post reports on the gruesome, pan-European trend:
"So many people have been killing themselves and leaving behind notes citing financial hardship that European media outlets have a special name for them: 'economic suicides.' Surveys are also showing increased signs of mental stress: a jump in the use of anti-depressants and illicit drugs, a rise in depression and anxiety among workers worried about salary cuts or being laid off, and an increase in the use of sick leave due to psychological problems."
Things have gotten so bad that Greeks quite literally are abandoning the future. As the Daily Beast reports, more than 1,200 Greek children have been abandoned in the past year alone. A 2-year-old named Natasha was left at a day care center with a note pinned to her clothes that read, "I will not be coming to pick up Natasha today because I cannot afford to feed her. Please take good care of her. I'm sorry."
How ashamed the victors of the Battle of Marathon would be of their descendents. The beautiful waters of the Aegean are no longer wine red, as Homer put it in his epic poem, but now the bright scarlet of debt, debt that threatens to wash away the legacy of those long-ago Greeks: Western civilization.