Thomas W. Hodgkinson

Has nostalgia become the Greeks’ national disease?

Ever since Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, the Greeks have longed for the restoration of the Byzantine empire, says Roderick Beaton

The Battle of Navarino, 1827, in which Allied forces defeated the Ottomans and helped pave the way for Greek independence. [Getty Images]

Imagine a new take on the Greek myth of Pygmalion. A love-shy artist makes a woman out of marble who is so beautiful that he falls for her and prays that she will come to life. For a moment he thinks his wish will be granted, but it is only his imagination. Now, in his sadness, he feels as if he himself is turning to stone.

This, in a sense, has been the story of the Greek nation since, two centuries ago, a gang of brigands and diplomats took up arms to breathe life into the Parthenon marbles and revive the glory that was Greece. Thus began the phenomenally bloody Greek War of Independence, which brought an end to the centuries-long Ottoman occupation. Yet even at the start, the dream was as chaotic as its realisation. For then and later, a second fantastic mission existed alongside that of resurrecting the spirit of classical Athens.

Known as the Megali Idea, it longed for a restoration of the Byzantine empire. This had nothing to do with Homer or Socrates. Instead, it looked back nostalgically to the Middle Ages, when for 1,000 years a Greek-speaking power in Constantinople controlled all the lands around the Aegean. When that city fell to the Ottomans in 1453, legend has it that the last emperor, Constantine XI, was whisked away to safety by an angel and turned to stone. There sleeps the Marbled King until the day when he will awake and lead the Greeks back to Levantine supremacy.

As Roderick Beaton tells it in his packed, panoptic new history of the Greek-speaking people, it has been this Big Idea, this Hellenic equivalent of a Second Coming, that has inflicted the most damage on modern Greece. For it led to the military disasters of 1897 and 1921, the second of which, known to Greeks as the Catastrophe, resulted in the forced migration of Greek speakers living on the far side of the Aegean.

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