Hellenistic Hubris

Johanna Hanink’s The Greek Debt asks if we owe the Greeks for the foundations of Western democracy—or do they owe us for their economic mismanagement?

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.

Here, as elsewhere, the case of Melos is treated with lack of close attention. Hanink tells us that the Melian citizens “refused to bow” to the Athenian bullies. In fact, the marble-rich island’s oligarchic rulers gave them no chance to vote on the matter. The reason is not far to seek: had there been a referendum, the Melians would almost certainly have chosen to stay alive and — key point — would have taken the chance to dump the oligarchs. When the citizens of Acanthus — in northeast Greece — were menaced in a similar way by the Spartan Brasidas, they took the soft option and stayed alive. When Greeks meet Greeks, they rarely agree. The essence of their genius and of their ructions is summarised in the regular ancient use of the enclitics men (on the one hand) and de (on the other).

The Greek Debt
is, essentially, a fun book. Except in prim eyes, Hanink can be excused for her mix’n’match summaries of what happened two and a half thousand years ago, since much of her energy is devoted to ridiculing the attempts of European powers — England and Germany in particular — to refashion post-Ottoman Greece in antique costume. But can Hanink seriously believe that an oracular prophecy “caused” Oedipus to kill his father?  Or that the Greeks “stole” their philosophy? She cites a 1953 “historian from Guyana”, but not Mary Lefkowitz’s 1996 Not Out Of Africa, a condign dismissal of the fantasy that Hellenic intelligence derived from a cultural heist.

Elsewhere, Hanink suggests that Solon — the founding father of Athenian democracy — settled an ancient financial crisis by his policy of seisachtheia, the annulling of all debts owed by the lower class. In fact, there was one form of debt which he did not rescind: money owed to the state. If the modern Greek state had collected its taxes, and if a single member of parliament had deigned to pay them, the current pickle might have been averted. The game of fiscal fraud was a national sport. Who can be surprised that no Greek politician, of Left or Right, doubted the propriety of hoodwinking the humourless Eurocrats, especially when led by Germany?

Hanink is boldly, and amusingly, iconoclastic when it comes to “our” affectations of cultural superiority. Like any number of star-struck academics, however, she says little in criticism of Pericles, who set a precedent for imaginative use of funds by spending the tribute paid by Athens’ allies, supposedly for mutual defence, in order to rebuild the temples on the Acropolis. Hanink claims that the prudent so-called “Olympian” warned against an expansionist war; so he did, until he didn’t. Like Robert McNamara, when it came to Vietnam, he assumed that the side with most money was bound to win and discounted the place of chance in history. When things took a disastrous turn, Pericles promised the disgruntled electors that victory would bring them huge dividends (see Vincent Azoulay’s uncited 2016 biography).

In 416 BCE, Pericles’ nephew Alcibiades, the Baddest Bad Boy of moralising ancient historians, was hustling in his now dead uncle’s footsteps when he urged the Athenians to go for broke by sending a fleet to conquer Sicily. As a young man, Alcibiades is said to have come upon Pericles frowning over the financial accounts that he was due to deliver to the scrutiny of the Assembly. The young smart-ass said, “You’d do better to work out how not to have to present them at all.” And yet not a few bandwagon jumpers insist that there is no real connection between ancient and modern Greeks! If literature matters (it ain’t mentioned here a lot), the continuity of Greek poetry — Cavafy, Seferis and Yannis Ritsos — alone refutes the notion of absolute rupture between then and now.

The notion that the Greeks “invented” democracy lies at the heart both of the praise lavished on them and of journalistic disappointment in their modern performance. In her alpha-gamma knockabout style, Hanink serves a buffet of gossipy mezes sprinkled with naughty iconoclasm. She claims, for instance, that Byron was “terribly unqualified” as leader of the “military expedition” sent out in November 1823 by the London philhellenes. Did it occur to her that the Athenian demagogue Cleon was also unqualified when he went to the island of Sphacteria, captured more than two hundred Spartiates and gave Athens the best chance it had, during the long war, to quit while it was ahead? In fact, Byron went off his own bat to Missolonghi and had to recruit a squad of dodgy Suliot auxiliaries by paying them from his own treasure chest. When a proper soldier — Lieutenant-Colonel Leicester Stanhope — turned up, the principal ammunition he brought with him to scarify the Turks was a stack of bibles. Byron was a true lover of the Hellenes (and their boys), but he saw their contemporary faults clearly enough. When a skirmish ended ignominiously, he observed: “The Greeks, it seems, have run away from Xerxes.”

Hanink devotes a fat chunk of prose to the arguments for (and especially against) the genetic connection between today’s Greeks — often said to be Slavs or Albanians — and those of the fifth century. We have had a house on a Cycladic island since 1962. Depopulated when we purchased our then ruined spiti, Ios now gleams with new building to lodge the summer influx of tourists. Facing our house is the island of Sikinnos, which Solon recommended to those who wanted nothing better than a quiet life. I asked our neighbour Kosta why the people on “our” island had grasped the opportunity to prosper, while those across the water had not. “Tha se po, Frederikos,” Kosta said: “We come from here and who knows where else, but they — they are one hundred per cent Greek!”