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Funding father: The Acropolis, rebuilt by Pericles with money meant for defence (© A.Savin)


Years ago, when Hollywood was Hollywood and musicals were musical, my friend Stanley Singin’ in the Rain Donen used to hang out with a crowd one of whom was an addictive gambler. Marvin was very good company, which pretty much excused him regularly touching the others for a few bucks. One day Marvin came to Stanley’s house and said that, unless he could come up with a thousand bucks like yesterday, the bookies were going to break his legs. “So, Stanley, please . . . I’m begging you.” Stanley said, “Marvin, here’s the deal: I’ll give you $500 and I never ever want to hear from you again. Not another word, OK?” “Deal.” Marvin took the money and went away. Twenty minutes later, Stanley’s doorbell rang. And there was Marvin. Before Stanley could say a word, Marvin said, “I know, I know, but I just need to clear up one small thing: who owes who five hundred?”

Johanna Hanink unpacks a not dissimilar story about the Greeks. Do we owe them (for the ancient foundations of Western civilisation and our “ideas”, including democracy), or do they owe the Euro gang for their wanton mismanagement of their own modern economy? The crux hinges on the false equation of literal (cash) and cultural debts. The question of whether the modern Greeks should be given unlimited credit or whether, in truth, they are the legitimate descendants of Pericles & Co has received all kinds of answers, from sentimental to scathing.

Hanink is a Hellenist with impressive academic credentials. Unlike many earlier classical scholars (Johann Joachim Winckelmann among them), she has spent time in Greece. She leans towards sympathy for today’s Greeks for whom their heritage is at least as much a burden as it is what Thucydides called a ktema es aei, a possession for all time. Even in the 1930s, the poet/diplomat George Seferis remarked: “Wherever I go, Greece hurts me.”

As every schoolboy used to know, Thucydides was referring to his own history of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Sparta’s victory ended Athenian domination of the Aegean Sea, many of whose islands — those in the Delian League — paid the tribute which was supposed to fund the fleet that would keep the barbarian Persians on the back foot. In her haste to put down Athenian “imperialism”, Hanink fails to mention that the islands of Samos and Chios declined to subscribe cash and continued to supply ships, captains and crews. This gave them a certain independence, to which Athens, under Pericles’ command, took viciously punitive exception when, in 441 BCE, Samos refused to accept Athenian coinage and continued to mint its own. This episode has passed unmentioned by any of the scholars who, seconded from the Department of False Analogies, have suggested that the Athenian ultimatum to the Cycladic island of Melos was an antique presage of what, in 2015 CE, the Eurocrats threatened to do to modern Greece when she faced bankruptcy. So delicious is the supposed irony of the ancient democracy behaving badly, that no one has cared to mention that the Spartan obliteration of the small city of Plataea preceded by a full decade the Athenian massacre of the Melian males in 416 BCE.

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George B.
May 13th, 2017
6:05 PM
"The question of whether the modern Greeks should be given unlimited credit or whether, in truth, they are the legitimate descendants of Pericles" is similar to the question of whether Eastern European immigrants to the Middle East should be given unlimited credit amd support or whether, in truth, they are the legitimate descendants of biblical people who lived in those lands more than eighteen centuries ago. Regarding "Greeks fleeing Persians" in Missolonghi, Raphael fails to mention that the third siege of the city ended with the Greeks fighting to the bitter end, rather than surrendering to the Ottomans. Forgotten or misplaced, this is a detail that wouldn't fit his narrative.

George B.
May 13th, 2017
5:05 PM
A rather strange review. Raphael tries so hard to sound witty and entertaining, that he doesn't mind cherrypicking or bending facts.

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