It took centuries for ancient Athenians and Spartans to see themselves as ‘Greeks.’ After Alexander, ‘Greekness’ spread rapidly and widely.
Probably the most famous living Greek is Giannis Antetokounmpo, better known as the “Greek Freak.” Not only is Antetokounmpo a celebrity athlete in the U.S., he is the face of Greece in a recent Aegean Airlines safety video, where he takes the viewer on a tour of the country, from Athens’ summer cinema to the windmills of Mykonos, from a fishing boat to a wintry mountain taverna, all filmed with austerity-savvy thrift in an empty warehouse. In Plaka, the old town underneath the Acropolis, souvenir shops sell Antetokounmpo jerseys, in both Milwaukee Bucks green and white and in the blue and white of the Greek national team, with his name in Greek characters.
The Greeks: A Global History
What makes this all the more remarkable is that Antetokounmpo was born in Athens to Nigerian immigrant parents. Originally stateless—Greece does not have birthright citizenship—he and his brothers used to hawk watches and handbags on the streets to make ends meet before their talent for basketball was discovered; he was only awarded Greek citizenship in 2013. But his Greekness is now accepted in Greece and abroad, so much so that he is Greece’s unofficial tourism ambassador. In this, he has breathed fresh air into the ancient idea that “Greekness” is not a race or ethnicity, but a proficiency in the language and an embracing of the culture.
Roderick Beaton’s “The Greeks: A Global History,” could have been subtitled “Becoming Greek,” a phrase that weaves throughout its 466 pages (not counting full-color illustrations, maps, notes and index.) “Hellenism” means exactly that. Mr. Beaton, a retired professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, has recently written books on Byron and on modern Greece. This volume, written for a lay audience and wearing its learning lightly, is more ambitious, a complete reorienting of Western history.
Carl Bernstein before Watergate, the War of Jenkins’ Ear, the return of Hanya Yanagihara and more.
Even people with an interest in classics can be vague about how Hellenistic kingdoms overlap with the rise of Rome; can assume “the Roman empire” fell in 476; and can take for granted that the ability to read Greek was somehow lost and then rediscovered, hence the Renaissance. From the Greek perspective, Rome was an obscure city state that suddenly roared onto the scene. The Roman Empire continued in the East for another good millennium after “Rome” fell, with Greeks not only considering themselves but calling themselves “Romans” (Romioi). Greek never stopped being spoken, and even ancient Attic Greek continued to be taught and written. Viewed from the standpoint of the vast Greek-speaking East, Western epochs turn out to be a trick of blinkered perspective.The book opens lyrically with rosy-fingered Dawn rising out of Asia some morning in 1500 B.C., touching one already-ancient kingdom after another—Assyrian, Hittite, Egyptian, Minoan—before illuminating the hilltop settlements in mainland Greece that will form the Mycenaean civilization of the Homeric poems. In the Iliad, the Greeks (“Hellenes,” in Greek), are never called such; “Hellene” refers only to an obscure subset. Forging an idea of “Greekness” out of disparate, squabbling city states would take the Persian invasions of the fifth century B.C. The idea of Greeks (as opposed to Spartans or Athenians or Corinthians), united in a fight for Greek “freedom,” appears in Aeschylus’ “Persians,” our first extant Greek drama. The play, which depicts the Persian reaction to their defeat at Salamis, describes Greek sailors singing a rousing war song:
Sons of Hellenes, onward,
set free your fatherland, set free
your children, wives, the homes of your ancestral gods,
and your forefathers’ graves
The Greek historian Herodotus, born a Persian subject and writing a half-century after these events (in a newfangled medium, prose), would further cement the legend of Greeks pulling together for “liberty” in the face of a vast “barbarian” invader. (“Barbarian” meant a non-Greek speaker; someone whose speech was unintelligible.) As Mr. Beaton points out, the success of this propaganda is such that John Stuart Mill, nearly 2,000 years later, could write that “the battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings.”
Even after Athens lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta, the city leveraged a sort of cultural victory. The orator Isocrates put the Athenian case for Greekness thus in 380 B.C.: “By so much has our city exceeded all mankind in matters of thought and speech, that her students have become the teachers of others; she has caused the name of Greeks to be understood, not in terms of kinship any more, but of a way of thinking, and people to be called Greeks if they share our educational system, rather than a common ancestry.” In a letter to Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great), Isocrates would later propose that a united Hellas (Greece) conquer Persia; Alexander would turn this into reality.
Greek (with its nimble alphabet) and Greekness became not only highly portable, but contagious. In the aftermath of Alexander’s conquests, which encompassed the territory of the former Persian empire as far as Afghanistan, “Common” or “Koine” Greek would become the Lingua Franca of new kingdoms. Koine Greek in the hands of a Greek-speaking Jew and Roman citizen out of Syria named Paul, would prove vital to the spread of a new religion, Christianity. Paul’s letters to early gatherings of this new sect would form the earliest texts of the New Testament.
For all the shocks suffered by the Greek-speaking East, whether the ruinous fourth Crusade of 1204, where Western European crusaders under a 97-year old Doge of Venice sacked the Christian city of Constantinople, or the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to a 21 (!) year-old Mehmed II (“The Conqueror”), the way of life for an average Greek speaker may have continued much the same. Greeks even occupied some of the highest bureaucratic positions in the Ottoman empire. Yet 1453 also proved, as Mr. Beaton reminds us, if not the cause, at least a “catalyst” for the Renaissance in Italy. Refugee (or “émigré”) Greek scholars—and manuscripts—began trickling into centers of Italian learning, ready to pass on the language and education of “Greekness.” It is an idea of Greekness as a shared set of values that will later encourage philhellene Europeans and Americans to join in Greece’s struggle for independence against the Ottoman Empire.
The last great contraction of the Greek-speaking world came with the 1922 “Asia Minor Disaster,” when an ill-advised attempt to expand Greek boundaries back to Byzantine times instead resulted in a rout by a new, modern Turkey. An “exchange of populations” in 1923 meant that more than a million “ethnic” Greeks would “return” to a land most had never known. The Greek nation-state, not a century old, weathered the crisis surprisingly well. Waves of refugees in outlandish clothes, who ate exotic foods and sang songs in the cadences of Asia minor, flooded into Piraeus and Thessaloniki in scenes that mirror the waves of refugees that became highly visible in Athens in 2015 and 2016.
The cities these new migrants hail from—Aleppo, Homs, Baghdad, Kabul—are familiar from maps of the once Greek-speaking East; they would also be at home in the poems of C.P. Cavafy. Cavafy, the great modern Greek poet, who was born and died in Alexandria, had little interest in Greekness as an ethnicity. As E.M. Forster explained: “Racial purity bored him, so did political idealism. . . . The civilization he respected was a bastardy in which the Greek strain prevailed, and into which, age after age, outsiders would push, to modify and be modified.”
Greeks are to be found everywhere, as this book reminds us. (The third-largest “Greek” city is arguably Melbourne.) In the 1540s, the first Byzantine mission to England discovered a cohort of Greek mercenaries already in Henry VIII’s employ, under “Thomas of Argos.” Thomas echoes Aeschylus in battle: “We are sons of Hellenes and do not fear a swarm of barbarians . . .” (In this case, the French.) Migration goes both ways. The Aegean is again a well-traveled, if dangerous, route. Many asylum seekers, from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Congo and elsewhere, aim for Germany. But some will settle in Greece. And many, learning the Greek alphabet and language in addition to their own, adopting and adapting, will test the ancient (and Enlightenment) idea of “becoming Greek.”
—Ms. Stallings is a poet and translator.
Appeared in the January 8, 2022, in the Wall Street Journal print edition as ‘Becoming the Greeks.’