As I write, it is mid-morning in Athens and fighter jets are roaring overhead. My windows rattle, the sky splinters, and out they burst, strafing the blue with lines of white. It is a celebratory deployment. Today, Greece marks 200 years since the start of the war of independence from Ottoman rule. In Syntagma (Constitution) Square, home to the Hellenic Parliament, assorted military and political bigwigs gather to celebrate. Medals gleam. The lack of crowds gives the scene an incongruous, surreal quality. Over here, the end of lockdown remains a long way off.
On TV this morning, I watched Prince Charles, who is in Athens for the occasion, stumble through a few words of Greek. Last night, he gave a speech (in English) to much acclaim. ‘As the wellspring of Western civilisation, Greece’s spirit runs through our societies and our democracies,’ he said. ‘Without her, our laws, our art, our way of life, would never have flourished as they have.’
In one sense, Charles was just mumbling the sort of platitudes he does on these sorts of occasions. But, this time, he articulated something very real. Greece (or at least its ancient iteration) is indeed the wellspring of much of our political and moral thought. But also, for many in Britain – particularly people of Charles’ generation – he articulated a view of Greece that has had a profound influence on both countries.
Philhellenism (the love of Greek culture) comes from the Greek φίλος philos ‘friend, lover’ and ἑλληνισμός hellênismos, ‘Greek’. 200 years ago, when Greeks looked to allies for their battle against the Sultan, Britain, then a world power, seemed an obvious destination. For the British, the battle between the Greeks and Ottomans was one to which they