It often proves difficult to talk about modern Greece. Not just because of the relentless stream of news coming at us this past decade in relation to the crisis; but also because Greece, both its ancestry and its more recent passions, can mean quite different things to different people. It’s a history universally revered in its ancient glory, commonly ignored in its millennium-spanning Byzantine imperial expression and often maligned in its modern incarnation as a nation state.
Small in both geographical and financial terms, the Hellenic Republic has attracted more attention than is perhaps justified, often for all the wrong reasons. But do we truly understand Greece beyond the headlines? And let’s be honest, does it matter if we do or not?
For Roderick Beaton, professor of modern Greek and Byzantine history, language and literature at King’s College, who has held the Koraes Chair since 1988, the answer is straightforward: ‘I believe — indeed with a passion — that Greece and the modern history of the Greek nation matter far beyond the bounds of the worldwide Greek community’, as he states early on in Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation.
In reality, a lot of the questions that Beaton sets out to settle are not clear in Greek minds, let alone outside the country. The continuity of the language and culture; the heavy heritage of ancient Greece; its survival on the edges of the Ottoman empire and inside what Beaton calls ‘the Orthodox commonwealth’; the birth of the Greek state in strife and blood in the 19th century, and ultimately its relationship with the outside world, as it finds its footing among crumbling empires and rising nationhoods all around it, and the very essence of what it means to be Greek — these are questions that still linger and have no easy answers.
‘We are talking about a sense of kinship, a perception, not a sense of facts that can be objectively verified,’ Beaton says. His book avoids vulgar questions of genetics and pedantry over Byzantium, instead broadening its scope and building on the understanding that if we are to talk about Greece as it is today we have to talk about a history that often took place far away from where the state is now located.
Beaton highlights that Athens only became the capital of Greece in 1834 and that the very idea of a Greek state involved in its inception people who didn’t call themselves Greek either. The process in which the ‘Greek nation’ is born takes place abroad, in the capitals of Europe, and the visions for it were inspired by, and in their turn became inspiration for, the revolutions that were happening everywhere in the West at the time.
The author takes special care to present the duality of the Greek soul, differentiating between ‘Hellene’, an outwards facing identity associated with classical times, and ‘Romios’, the citizen of the Eastern Roman empire (as the Byzantine empire was actually called), in which the poet Kostis Palamas ‘detected something poetically and musically charged’ and which Beaton observes is ‘an understanding tacitly shared and appreciated by insiders’.
This duality still holds true. The heroic narrative of Byron’s Greece is quickly succeeded by civil strife and division that seem to be consistent characteristics of Greek nation-building to this day.
Beaton does a fantastic job of capturing both the spirit of the time and the individual triumphs and failures of those who played a major role in the crucial years that followed the revolution. The war for independence is placed with clarity and purpose in the context of its times and the monumental changes it brought.
Those events also marked the beginning of a century of outside meddling in the workings of the newborn state, which resulted in a string of civil wars and dictatorships that end with the bloody civil war that followed the second world war and the 1967 dictatorship, whose effects the country is still feeling.
It is in these later chapters that Beaton’s otherwise evenhanded and objective book starts to falter. First, in his retelling of the second world war, he adopts the views of a team of historians known in Greece as ‘the new revisionists’, whose history of the civil war is considered at best controversial; and then in the overly positive light shed on the tenure of Pasok’s Kostas Simitis as prime minister from 1996 to 2004. Far from being ‘modernising’, the Simitis years are now generally seen as an example of pervasive corruption and cultural degradation.
But it’s no accident that these sections appear more partial to specific political narratives. They are also subjects of intense debate within Greece at this very moment, which is why they shouldn’t be considered an indictment of the book. If anything, they’re testament to the challenges posed early in its mission.
It’s in the time the author spends on the 19th and early 20th centuries that he really achieves his object, because there he makes clear that Greece belongs to the world rather than just itself. And this is why the country still matters, and probably always will.