Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation
University of Chicago Press, 2019, $35, 488 pp.
The Greek revolt against the Ottomans was supposed to start on March 25, 1821, but the Maniots had different ideas.
The Mani is the middle finger of land that extends out from the southern Peloponnese, terminating at Cape Tainaron, the southernmost point of mainland Europe. It looks like the surface of the moon, and even today many of its inhabitants dwell in their traditional castle-houses, forbidding piles of rock which rise from the rock of the landscape like geological formations. It was one of the last regions of Europe to be Christianized, after distant Britain.
The Maniots rose up more than a week ahead of schedule, led by their ruthless warlord Petrobey Mavromichalis, whose name means “Black Michael.” The rest of Greece followed suit.
In his sweeping, sympathetic history of modern Greece, which ought immediately to become the standard history of the modern nation, Roderick Beaton describes how factions soon emerged among the rebellious Greeks. On one side were warlords like Mavromichalis, who represented the old, lawless kind of freedom; on the other were educated men who looked to Europe for a model of centralized order for their fledgling nation.
Once the revolution had been won, it was Ioannis Kapodistrias, the erstwhile Foreign Minister of Russia, who assumed the task of governing Greece. Being a veteran of czarist administration, he took a somewhat autocratic approach to the task, locking up Mavromichalis over a tax dispute. In retaliation the old warlord’s son and brother shot Kapodistrias dead, plunging Greece into chaos until the imposition of monarchy by the Great Powers.
Comparisons were made at the time between Kapodistrias’s assassins and Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the lovers who killed the last of the Peisistratid tyrants in ancient Athens, opening the way for the world’s first democracy. The question of whether the Greeks were willing to give up their old freedom for a new kind of order did not die with Kapodistrias. Nor was this tragic classical parallel to be the last of its kind.
It is easy to laugh, and many do, at the idea that modern Greece, with its financial woes and only partially merited reputation for tax evasion, is in any meaningful sense an inheritor of the classical Greeks—those builders of the Parthenon, originators of tragedy, rhetoric, philosophy. But part of the tragedy of modern Greece is that it was the Great Powers who, having inhaled the heady vapors of philhellenism during the early decades of the 19th century, intervened against the Ottomans to guarantee the victory of the Greek rebels—in keeping with the theory that modern Greece, freed from the Ottoman yoke, would take up the mantle of its ancient predecessor.
Western Europe, as it is prone to do, soon became bored of this theory. Before the dust had even settled from the Greek Revolution, an Austrian named Fallmerayer was writing that the modern Greeks were not descended from the ancients at all, but rather from Slavic invaders. In due course his view was discredited, and thankfully we have grown less credulous of arguments that tie national identity so obsessively to a bloodline (especially when they come from the mouths of Austrians). But the disillusionment with the idea of modern Greece as characteristically of a piece with the ancients remained. Since the end of the Second World War, Europe has been understandably allergic to ethnic narratives about ancient legacies.
This is heartbreaking for the Greeks, who never lost this idea of their national history—an idea which the Great Powers affirmed all those years ago during Greece’s war of independence. See, as an example, the longstanding dispute over the name of the former Yugoslav country now called North Macedonia. Europe found Greece’s refusal to accept the name “Macedonia” baffling. Who cared what this insignificant country wanted to call itself? To the Greeks, however, the question was existential: Are we the carriers of an ancient legacy, or not? To allow this other nation, this bunch of non-Greek-speakers, to stake a competing claim to Alexander the Great would be to strike at the very heart of the idea of Greece. Of course they opposed it with all their strength.
For those of us who are not Greek, the question remains open: Is there a characteristic “Greekness”—not a racial lineage; we are best advised to avoid that fever swamp—that has survived from the classical period intact through the long years of Roman domination, Byzantine rule, medieval chaos, and Ottoman tyranny? Beaton notes that the only cultural institution to survive intact from the dawn of antiquity to the modern day is the Greek language. The language was enough for the ancients—a barbarian, after all, was simply someone who did not speak Greek—and it should be enough for us. No one who has been greeted on a city street with the word chairete, the very same greeting as you will find in the dialogues of Plato, can deny the Greeks their Greekness.
One bewitching figure in Beaton’s history is Rigas Velestinlis, the grandfather of the Greek Revolution who was executed in Vienna in 1797 for plotting to free Greece from Ottoman rule. In his 1793 book New Civil Government, Rigas imagined a Greek identity not defined by genetic inheritance but “shared culture and a shared geographic space, as well as voluntary commitment.” In Rigas’s vision, a Greek is simply “someone who speaks either modern or ancient Greek, and aids Greece, even if he lives in the Antipodes (because the Hellenic yeast has spread into both hemispheres).”
This lofty, generous sense of the Greek nation was pliable enough to accommodate not just the future citizens of the Greek state diaspora but also their sympathizers abroad, the philhellenes and classicists, as well as the members of the Greek diaspora—those followers in the footsteps of Herodotus.
But it never caught on. The vision of the Greek nation that has prevailed over much of the course of its history was a different one, that suggested by the “Grand Idea.” The idea was a Greek state for ethnic Greeks, or rather for all of them. This required either expanding the borders of Greece to include the Greeks initially outside it—or, less optimistically, uprooting those Greeks and relocating them to within the borders of the Greek state.
This Grand Idea brought modern Greece its most ringing accomplishments and its most bitter sorrows. The victories came in the form of Thessaly, taken from the Ottomans in 1881; Macedonia and Crete, claimed after the first Balkan War; and part of Thrace, after the second.
Then came 1922. The classical parallels to modern Greek history always present themselves most insistently when the Greeks are in the direst of straits, and the Greco-Turkish War is no exception. In talks after the end of the First World War Eleftherios Venizelos, the cunning Greek Prime Minister and standard-bearer for the Grand Idea, had secured great swaths of the Ottoman Empire for Greece—on paper. But when the newly reconstituted Turks began to fight back, the Greeks had to go and get the territory themselves. Venizelos lost the election and the faction that was against territorial expansion took power.
Just like the Athenians in Sicily some 2,500 years earlier, the war hawk who had set an invasion into motion—Alcibiades for the Athenians, Venizelos for the Greeks—was out of power before he could lead it. Like the Athenians, the invasion of Anatolia went ahead anyway, led by men who were dead set against it but could not abandon it without committing political suicide. And like the Athenians, the invasion was a disaster. What had begun so promisingly for the Greeks, with the Turks falling back across the Anatolian hinterland, ended with the great Ionian city of Smyrna in flames, its Greek inhabitants fleeing for their lives before the Turkish advance.
The population exchanges between the Greeks and Turks after the war accomplished the Grand Idea in a melancholy fashion, with the Greeks of Asia Minor reduced to refugees in the suburbs of Athens and its port, the Piraeus. The generals held responsible for the failure of the expedition were tried and six of them executed—another classical touch. (After the Battle of Arginusae in 406 B.C.E., six Athenian generals were jointly tried and executed for failing to pick up the survivors from sunk Athenian warships.)
It is not, of course, entirely the Greeks’ fault that so many bids for the greater glory of the Greeks in Greece ended badly for the Greeks outside Greece. There is also the zero-sum brutality of competing national projects, and before that, the viciousness of a dying empire to blame—for the reprisals against the Phanariot Greeks in the Ottoman Empire after the start of the Greek Revolution, for the ouster of the Black Sea Greeks after Lausanne, for the exodus of most of what remained of the Greeks of Istanbul, when the Cyprus conflict motivated Turkish attacks on them in 1955. But there is something undeniably dangerous about Grand Idea–style nationalism, about a national self-understanding that sees any sizable quantity of members of the national group abroad as a kind of threat, or at least a sign that the national process of self-becoming is incomplete.
The picture looks much different now, of course. There are few Greeks left on the Black Sea or in Istanbul, but now there are British Greeks, American Greeks, Australian Greeks. The Hellenic yeast has indeed spread even into the Antipodes, as Rigas had it. There are also new figures in Greece, refugees and immigrants. The flexibility of Greekness is being tested again. There are men like Samuel Akinola, an actor born in Greece to Kenyan and Nigerian migrant parents, but who is not a citizen. As Schumpeter says, it is up to every nation to define itself, and so must Greece—but it is hard not to feel a pang for men like Akinola, who speak Greek as fluently as anyone, but who remain metics in their native land.
Since independence from the Ottomans, the Greek nation was supposed to be ancient, but it was also supposed to be modern and European. The European project of domesticating the Greeks, which in one form involved envisioning ancient Greece as the forerunner to modern Europe, also involved the political and cultural assimilation of modern Greece into Europe. The warlords, Petrobey and his ilk, were supposed to be confined to the pages of novels, to be replaced with the rule of law.
The warlords are gone, but the project is still incomplete, and may ever be. Greek accession to the European Union brought with it money and works, the euro and the yoke of European central monetary policy. The Greeks are not yet willing to give up their old freedom, not quite, and they have suffered for it. Wondering why Alexis Tsipras went to the people in 2015 to reject the bailout conditions Greece had been offered by the “troika” of European banking authorities, only to accept a worse set of conditions just ten days later, Beaton suggests that the hundred-billion-euro toll to the Greek economy caused by Tsipras’s reluctance to accept the terms on offer was simply the cost required to convince all the Greeks that—like Athens before Macedon—there really were no alternatives to submission.
Greek freedom, then, is not a liberal kind of freedom, though it has become more so. It is older than that, and it has never been codified. All that can be said for sure is that it has something to do with Petrobey Mavromichalis, warrior-king of the Mani, that desolate land where the people live in castles, where Europe ends and the dark blue of the Aegean stretches unbroken to the African coast.