Leesfragment: Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation

29 juli 2020 , door Roderick Beaton

Nu met 20% zomerkorting: de beste non-fictie van Penguin in pocket. Bijvoorbeeld Roderick Beatons Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation. Tijd voor een fragment.

'The best history of Greece around... Beautifully written and packed with insights about the culture and the people. I will be dipping into this book for the rest of my life.' — Victoria Hislop

We think we know ancient Greece, the civilisation that shares the same name and gave us just about everything that defines 'western' culture today, in the arts, sciences, social sciences and politics. Yet, as Greece has been brought under repeated scrutiny during the financial crises that have convulsed the country since 2010, worldwide coverage has revealed just how poorly we grasp the modern nation. This book sets out to understand the modern Greeks on their own terms.

How did Greece come to be so powerfully attached to the legacy of the ancients in the first place, and then define an identity for themselves that is at once Greek and modern? This book reveals the remarkable achievement, during the last 300 years, of building a modern nation on, sometimes literally, the ruins of a vanished civilisation. This is the story of the Greek nation-state but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, of the collective identity that goes with it. It is not only a history of events and high politics, it is also a history of culture, of the arts, of people and of ideas.



The Nation and its Ancestors

Who are the Greeks? What shared experiences, collective memories, aspirations and achievements have shaped a worldwide population of some fifteen million people today? Most of these live in the southeast corner of Europe in two member states of the European Union, Greece and Cyprus, while communities can also be found in all the earth’s inhabited continents and are known as the ‘Greek diaspora’.
There have been many books asking the question, who were the Greeks? That is a question that has preoccupied western European thinkers ever since the Renaissance, when scholars and travellers began to rediscover the literary, philosophical, political and scientific achievements of the civilization that had flourished in the same corner of Europe between three thousand and two thousand years ago. It is an important question, because just about everything that defi nes ‘European’ or ‘Western’ culture today, in the arts, sciences, social sciences and politics, has been built upon foundations laid down by the makers of that ancient civilization, whom we also know as ‘Greeks’.
Those long-dead Greeks play a part in this story too, but it is not their story. This book begins and ends with the Greek people of today. It explores the ways in which today’s Greeks have become who they are, the dilemmas they and generations before them have faced, and the choices that have shaped them subsequently. Above all, this book is about the evolving process of collective identity. In the case of Greeks over the last two centuries, it makes sense to call that identity a national one, since this has been the period that witnessed the creation and consolidation of the Greek nation state. So let us begin with the nation.
Opinions are divided on just what constitutes a nation. Since the late twentieth century an influential trend in historical thinking has redefined the nation as by definition a modern phenomenon, a product of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. According to this view, you cannot have a nation without modern ideas of the self-governing state in which most of its citizens voluntarily participate. Others have revived the older counterargument: that communities based upon more or less ‘ethnic’ lines have always existed in human society — in which case, why should not these, too, be called nations?
The case of the Greek nation polarizes opinion even more than most. According to the first de nition, the Greek nation as we know it today, based upon a geographical homeland, shared institutions and participatory democracy, was brought into being by a revolution against the rule of the Ottoman Turks in the 1820s. On the other hand, the Greek language enjoys a continuous recorded history that can be traced back in the geographical area of today’s Greece for more than three thousand years. Is not the story of the Greek nation, then, every bit as old?
Either perspective is valid. But the story I have set out to tell in this book is the story of Greece as a modern nation. I have chosen, therefore, to understand the term in its narrower, more rigorous sense, and so to begin the narrative with the century that led up to that nation’s birth.
Another choice has been to imagine this modern nation as though it were a living person, the subject of a biography. The life of a nation and the lives of individuals present fascinating, perhaps even illuminating, analogies — notably the ideas that bind a nation together are more often than not themselves based on organic metaphors. Let us then suspend disbelief and concede — hypothetically, experimentally — that the Greek nation ‘born’ out of revolution in the 1820s shares some of the characteristics of a human subject. We can trace the history of that subject just as a biography teases out the life and career of an individual.
A nation, just like an individual, has distant ancestors and a more immediately traceable genealogy, or family tree. In the life of nations, Greece, born in this sense in the early nineteenth century, must be considered still a youngster. And there is one characteristic of biography, as a genre, that in this case we can happily escape. A nation in the fullness of time may evolve into something else, but there is no reason to expect the story to end in death. All will surely agree on this in the case of Greece. No obituary is to be expected. The biographer is spared the dubious benefit of looking back on a life complete and ended. Think of this book, in this respect at least, as more like a ‘celebrity’ biography that leaves its subject still in the prime of life and fame. The story does not end with the end of the book.
But rst, we need to begin at the beginning, with ancestors, and the complex inheritance that issues from them.

Ancestors: Ancient Hellenes and Medieval Romans

None of us knows who our most distant ancestors were. If all modern humans are descended from groups that began to migrate out of Africa more than fifty thousand years ago, then the Greeks must be no exception. Future advances in genetics may reveal to what extent those who speak the Greek language today share genetic material with the builders of the ‘classical’ civilization of antiquity. In terms of understanding the history of the Greeks in modern times, it really doesn’t matter. History on the scale of a few millennia is shaped by such things as environment, actions, events and ideas, not evolutionary biology. What is at stake here is not the literal, biological ancestry of the individuals who make up a population — even if those are the terms in which it is most often expressed — but rather the ‘ancestry’, in a partly metaphorical sense, of a nation, a state or that complex phenomenon that we call a culture. It is doubtful whether ancient Greek civilization can properly be called a nation, and it certainly was never a state. Nevertheless, Greeks experience a sense of kinship with those they call ‘our ancient ancestors’. The phrase has become something of a cliché in recent decades, and is widely acknowledged as such. Even so, it sums up a great deal of what continues to de ne the Greek nation in the modern world.
This sense of kinship was articulated in its most nuanced form by the poet George Seferis, in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963: ‘I do not say that we are of the same blood [as the ancient Greeks] — because I have a horror of racial theories — but we still live in the same country and we see the same mountains ending in the sea.’ Seferis also laid stress on the continuity of language: the words for ‘light of the sun’, he pointed out, are almost unchanged from the equivalent words used by Homer almost three thousand years ago. Like most of his generation, Seferis had experienced the horrors unleashed upon the world by the racist dogma of the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. It is an af nity that he asserts, based upon landscape and the language in which humans have engaged with it over time — an affinity deeply felt, but not a dogma, and not built upon genetic assumptions.
It is not only Greeks who share this perception. How often in the years following the financial crisis that began in 2010 have the cartoonists of the world’s media drawn upon classical stereotypes and images in order to give visual expression to the sorry state of a once-great civilization? Images of ancient temples with their gleaming marble riven with cracks, of a euro coin as a badly thrown discus causing havoc, have gained a place in the popular imagination in countries far removed from Greece, often with an edge that is critical, if not downright hostile. Among Greeks themselves, it is the same sense of af nity that lends such passion to calls for the return of the ‘Elgin Marbles’, or Sculptures of the Parthenon, removed from the Acropolis of Athens by Lord Elgin in the first years of the nineteenth century and since 1817 exhibited in the British Museum in London. These creations by craftsmen of extraordinary skill and imagination who have been dead for two and a half millennia have come to be imagined in their turn, in the memorable words of the film star and popular singer, and later Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri, as ‘our pride . . . our aspirations and our name . . . the essence of Greekness’.
This is not something that can be denied, or simply wished away. Some have argued that the gene pool of the ancient Greeks cannot possibly have survived successive migrations and invasions over the centuries. Others dismiss an obsession with ancestors as a way of avoiding the facts of history. But this is to miss the point. We are talking about a sense of kinship, a perception, not a set of facts that can be objectively veri ed. The sense of af nity with the ancients is itself a historical fact, to be understood and explained. How it came to exist at all, and then to exercise such an enduring hold, is an essential part of the story of how Greece became modern, which is the story of this book.

So used are we, today, to thinking of ‘modern Greece’ as an offshoot of ancient Greece, it can be hard to realize that for many of the centuries separating classical antiquity from ourselves no such sense of af nity existed among Greek speakers. The people we call ‘ancient Greeks’ did not call themselves that. The names ‘Greek’ and ‘Greece’ derive from Latin: Graecus and Graecia. It was the Romans, as they conquered most of ‘Graecia’ in the second century BCE, who made these names famous. Ancient Greeks called themselves ‘Hellenes’ — the word is almost identical in English and Greek. The lands where Hellenes lived were collectively called Hellas. The same names, in their modern form, are standard in Greek today: the people are Ellines (with the stress on the first syllable), the country is either Ellas (the older form) or Ellada. So what has changed?
The answer is: a great deal. By the fourth century CE, those populations of the eastern Mediterranean hinterlands that spoke and wrote in Greek had been living for hundreds of years under the rule of Rome. When Christianity was adopted as the of cial religion of the Roman Empire during that century, the use of the term ‘Hellenes’ in Greek came to be reserved for those Greeks who had died too soon to benefit from the new religion, and could therefore not help being pagans. Before long, and by extension, ‘Hellene’ came to mean just ‘pagan’, that is, anyone who was not a Christian. Throughout the Christian Middle Ages, that remained the primary meaning of the word in Greek. With the spread of secular ideas in the eighteenth century, ‘Hellene’ became predominantly an antiquarian term: the ‘Hellenes’ were the ancient Greeks, whereas living speakers of the Greek language had centuries ago found a different name for themselves. It was a conscious choice, taken during the First National Assembly of the Provisional Greek Government in January 1822, to revive the ancient names: ‘Hellenes’ for the citizens of the new state that was then fighting for its independence, ‘Hellas’ for the state itself.



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