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The Greek myth that created the West Heroism is at the heart of revolutionary thinking

Soldiers celebrate the 200th anniversary of the 1821 Revolution (ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Soldiers celebrate the 200th anniversary of the 1821 Revolution (ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP via Getty Images)


November 25, 2021   5 mins

My ancestor Georgios Sisinis was a leading figure of the Greek Revolution and, by all accounts, a man of large appetites — for food, women, and violence. His bearded, heavy-lidded features hang in portrait in the Natural Historical Museum of Greece in Central Athens; a far less impressive reproduction adorns my living room wall. He fought in several battles during the War of Independence, provided a load of the troops for the war in the south, and afterwards, as Speaker of the revolutionary National Assembly, he invited Ioannis Kapodistrias to return to the country as the first head of state of independent Greece. He then became President of the Greek Senate, only to end up rowing furiously with Kapodistrias and resigning from frontline politics.

During this year’s 200th anniversary celebrations, I thought about my ancestor a lot, particularly when I read Mark Mazower’s sublime new book, The Greek Revolution. Mazower describes him as “one of the most powerful magnates in the west of the Peloponnese” — but he was also a complicated man. Probably brilliant, he was a patriot and integral to the war effort. But he was also, essentially, a warlord.

This matters. Mazower is at pains to underscore the relationship between myth and reality and the importance of the latter to Greece’s 1821 revolution from Ottoman rule. In particular, he understands that the “national-togetherness” (ethniki omopsychia) so important to the Greek national story was in many ways just that: a story. In fact, what existed were clusters of people like Sisinis and his followers: local clans and chieftains who often fought each other, occasionally allied with the Ottoman Empire, and frequently had entirely different visions of how to build a nation-state and what that state should in fact be.

Even the idea of the “Greeks” of an Ottoman province was wrong. “The peoples of the peninsula included not only Greeks but also Serbs and Albanians, Bosnians and Romanians, an assortment of Orthodox, Catholics, Muslims and Jews,” Mazower notes. How could this mob be turned toward a single national goal? Mazower’s answer is: imagination, or what we might call myth. The portrayal of chieftains like Sisinis as what Mazower calls “heroes” was and is vital because “heroes have their uses too and in the Greeks’ struggle with a far mightier foe, heroism had been at the heart of revolutionary thinking”.

The goal was simple: to homogenise a variegated population into a nation, which emphatically it was not. But it worked and “the fiction bolstered what otherwise seemed a hopeless cause”. It was genuinely a tremendous achievement for Greeks; and an important one for the West. Greece was the first country to break free of empire and become a nation state in the modern age. It began the age of modern nationalism that in turn created the Europe — and indeed the West – that we know today.

If Greeks began the first modern nationalist movement then, perhaps fittingly enough, Greece was also the first example of what the historian Benedict Anderson called an “imagined community”. For Anderson, all nations are “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”.

This is doubly true for Greece, which more than any other country, except perhaps the United States, is not just a state but an idea. The relationship between myth and reality is the nation’s dialectic — fitting for the land of the myths that underpin much of Western civilisation. 200 years ago, these myths drove Lord Byron to travel to Greece to join the battle for independence. He never actually got to fight any Ottomans because he died from a fever at age 36 in the Greek town of Missolonghi. His body was embalmed and sent back to England while his heart was supposedly kept in Missolonghi and placed in a cenotaph that remains a tourist attraction to this day.

But he made his mark. He raised much-needed cash for the revolutionaries and his death was yet one more global event that implanted the Greek struggle firmly into the Western consciousness. Byron had vowed that if Greece should fall, “I will bury myself in the ruins”. But why? What makes a Cambridge-educated aristocrat die for a small Balkan province of the Ottoman Empire on the edge of Europe? The answer, of course, is the idea or the myth of Greece, which for a man of Byron’s class and time was pretty much second nature. As Mazower observes, “travellers to the region took with them not a modern guidebook (there were none), but a fake ancient one, a bizarre eighteenth-century travelogue that purported to describe the journeyings of a young Scythian in the fourth century BC”.

The Greeks were savvy enough to understand this. Delegations were dispatched to Western countries to ham all this up; newspapers trumpeted the struggle of Plato and Aristotle to break free of the Sultan. Greek independence cannot be understood without the mass of volunteers, intellectuals and journalists — as well as the intervention of the Great Powers — who served as geopolitical alchemists transmuting ancient myths into contemporary reality; doing what the Greeks could not do themselves.

The importance of all this cannot be overstated. The rebels were set to lose the war until the 1827 Battle of Navarino, during which the British and French navies, along with Russia, smashed the Ottoman and Egyptian forces and made independence pretty much a certainty. Mazower tells us that “the country that tourists visit today was born to a large extent out of the revolution of 1821” — and the West made it possible.

Yet from the beginning, the relationship between Greece and the West was both co-dependent and dysfunctional. If the modern state was born in 1821, then so were many of the trends that have defined it throughout its modern history: the familiar idea of Greeks biting off more than they can chew and then getting bailed out by the major — predominantly Western — powers; foreign aid provided to refugees fleeing the fighting in Chios; the Greek nation-state’s entanglement with foreign loans; and above all, the ability of this small patch of land to affect Western history.

When I pitched up in Greece in 2015, what was supposed to be a relaxed six-week family break turned into a frenzied six months dashing around the country covering the financial crisis. It was during this time, as I spoke to those made homeless by the credit crunch and interviewed Syrian refugees flopping down on the shores of Lesbos, something dawned on me. Greece today is a small, not especially rich, not especially powerful state at the eastern edge of the European continent. But it is also the epicentre of three of the great crises of the West: EU, financial, and migration. (And with the recent fires that destroyed over 10% of the country’s forest you can probably add a fourth: climate change.)

2500 years ago, Greek society created the philosophical and political underpinnings of what we call the West. 200 years ago, it birthed modern nationalism. In 2021 Greek society has become the locus of the West’s biggest threats: and therefore, part of a potential solution to them. If you want to tackle migration in Europe, you need Greece; and if you want to at least try to fix some of the disequilibrium between the continent’s north and south, as well as the pervasive financial dysfunction that still exists, then you must internalise at least some of its lessons.

Whether it’s independent or subjugated, rich or poor (usually the latter) influential or not (almost invariably the latter), Greece has always mattered deeply to the West. Far beyond its importance as a political entity or its power as a national actor.

I try to stroll through Athens each evening, and as I do I pass streets whose names — Alexandros, Themistocleous, Achilleos — have been with me my whole life. But I first heard them not because I am of Greek origin, but because I was an English schoolboy. And they mean so much not because they are a part of my Greek identity but because they are a part of my Western heritage. That is why Greece has always mattered, why it continues to do so today and why, for all its many flaws and endless frustrations, the West will never give it up.


David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)

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Elias D
Elias D
2 years ago

This article makes an omission which is quite common among western educated authors. It portrays Greece and Greeks as a story of classical Greece and then suddenly a modern state showing up 200 years ago. There’s a gap of 2000 years in-between.
Greeks have the privilege (or curse) to be not just the continuation of the defining (at least for the Western way of life) ancient civilisation but also of an empire, the Eastern Roman Empire or as the West likes to call it (somewhat to denigrate it) Byzantine Empire.
Under Ottoman Empire, the Greeks were not called “Greeks” but Romhioi (ÎĄÏ‰ÎŒÎčοί – Romans) as they were seen to be the continuation of the Roman Empire. The word Rhomios or RĂ»m can also be seen today for communities of Greek origin (and Orthodox belief) everywhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greeks were some of the first people who adopted Christianity (what is called after 1054 Orthodox Christianity). That defined them as much as Plato, Socrates and Euripides.
When Rhomioi (or as we call ourselves today: Greeks) started the war of independence in 1821, the uniting factors were the common belief (Orthodoxy) and the common language which can be traced back in ancient times and not a national identity. The goal of the war of independence was to abolish Ottoman rule and create a state under what was seen as the de facto capital of Greeks: Constantinople. To free Aghia Sophia.
However, this was not possible as western powers were fixated to form a fictional national identity, centred around the Classical Greece to preserve the roots of Western Civilisation and hide anything to do with Byzantium under the rug. Greece was allowed only the lands of most of classical Greece (Athens, Sparta, Thebes etc.) for the new formed state. Athens in 19th century was nothing more than a village and never seen as the capital of Hellenism.
I mention all that just to conclude that anyone who wants to better understand Greece has to look not just to the classics but also to Constantinople. Greece is neither West nor East. It is both.

Last edited 2 years ago by Elias D
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago
Reply to  Elias D

Elias D has made an excellent supplement to the interesting article. Sir Edward Codrington became the Admiral leading the combined British, French and Russian fleet at Navarino not simply because of the classically educated Philhellenism of the British ruling class but because of a geopolitical desire to block Russian expansionism. The fear was that if Russia was perceived in Greece to have been the sole country seeking to liberate the Greeks, their co-religionists, – Greek and Russian Orthodox Christianity having a common origin in Constantinople – Russia might thereby have expanded into Greece and become a more significant player in the Mediterranean.
Sir Edward Codrington’s great victory at Navarino that enabled Greece to achieve liberation from the Ottoman Empire attracted subsequent criticism in Parliament because he had failed to stop some of the Egyptian ships sailing away with hundreds of Greek men, women and children for sale in the slave markets of Egypt. The Ottoman Empire, of which Egypt was a part, was one of the great slave trading and using empires of the time. The women of the Caucasus in particular sold for high prices as sexual slaves.
There is little to record Sir Edward’s victory and the Blue plaque in his honour in Brighton has subsequently been removed on the grounds that that he part inherited an estate in Antigua including slaves.
In Sir Edward’s letters he often refers to the Greeks as little more than pirates and the leaders of robber bands. I don’t think he had a particularly philhellenic view of the Greeks.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jeremy Bray
Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago
Reply to  Elias D

The Making of Byzantium, 600-1025 (Mark Whittow, 1996) would help fill in some of the lacunae. Very readable and engaging. An impressive book.
I found myself getting absorbed in the pre-Ottoman Aegean world some time ago. (I was trolling my way through Italian archives looking for documents, mostly contracts, pertaining to the financing of trade in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea. A lot of the commercial activity became concentrated in Crete.) The Genoese and Venetians fought at least three wars over access to the Black Sea. It was during that first war that Marco Polo and his uncles found themselves barred from returning home through Constantinople. They found themselves with nothing better to do than walk all the way to China …
Separately: What came first, the myth and then the successful revolution, or the revolution and then the myth? I’ll put my bets on the latter.

jmullen
jmullen
2 years ago
Reply to  Elias D

As someone who lived eight years in Greece (Thessaloniki), I fully agree. What Westerners call “Byzantine civilization”–the Christianized Hellenistic culture that prevailed across the east Mediterranean, the shores of the Black Sea, most of the Balkans, and Anatolia under the Eastern Roman Empire is very much alive today. Patrick Leigh Fermor presents an insightful and occasionally amusing account of the “Hellenic/Romaic dilemma” in his book RUMELI that explains a lot of the seeming contradictions of the modern Greek character.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Elias D

Your comment is why I pay for UnHerd.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Elias D

Very good addendum and the original author’s mention of being a school boy in England of course perhaps explains the lacuna. I think the English attitude to Byzantium was best summed up by Gibbon: “the minds of the Greeks were bound in the fetters of a base and imperious superstition”. Needless to say it is clear the Greeks themselves don’t see it that way. The very term Byzantium is in some ways an weasel word that attempts to obscure that they were indeed not the heirs of Rome, but were indeed Rome itself. Indeed many in the West would rather ascribe the recovery of Greek learning in Europe from the 13th century onwards to the Arabs alone, when there were as many if not more texts passed to us by the Byzantines.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Sam Wilson
Sam Wilson
2 years ago

A fascinating foray into the place of “myth” as a prominent driving force in the history of society and philosophy – the ideal, the meta-narrative, the “meme”, if you will
 but what happens when these are gone? What happens when we become skeptical of these narratives? The author leaves out this task of a lifetime, considered at length by a large portion of postmodern (in addition to the late moderns such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) thinkers. The thing is, many of the solutions proposed by these philosophers stress the individual as the new source of the “grand narrative”, rather than society as a whole. Each individual becomes a separate entity trying to find meaning – the problem is, to be human is to exist in relation to others. How do we reconcile these two things? How does society function when the individual’s narrative is constantly competing with the narrative of other individuals? I don’t know, but it’s a scary thought.

Last edited 2 years ago by Sam Wilson
Charles Mimoun
Charles Mimoun
2 years ago

I think that historically the claim of Benedict Anderson that “nationalism” is based on myths is misleading and reductive. The revolutionary France that was, as far as I know, the first nation-state, have gotten rid of despotism by replacing it by the Enlightenment’s philosophy; already a uniting myth. Human nature, is thus made that we need a chief to lead us. In the past, this authority of the leader was acquired by force, cruelty and wars. When the people of Europe began to rebel against this immemorial order, they sought to organize the state around a common and shared conception of it : principles of equality or freedom, philosophical movements or a glorification of the common (real or fictitious) history. It means that the very reason of nations is the wish to unite around ideas and to organize public life according to their repercussions on reality. Those ideas don’t need to be true, the must be attractive. Any revolutionary French never asked how equality and freedom can live together : it doesn’t really matter. The only problem is that now and then reality loves to whack those principles and to show their disappointing truth : they are only dreams. And the circle of violence comes back, the society is shot through by unreasonable expectations and what we call nationalism reappear. In reality, it simply a sensitive manifestation of what’s are the foundations of States ruled by a common acceptation of principles. When the principles are not anymore a source of satisfaction, they are changed … by violence. But don’t worry tyrannies are even worse… 

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

How much in the Western mind was the liberating of Greek lands in the 1820s to do with a romantic notion of unlocking the lands mentioned in the New Testament? In Acts especially? In a straight line view from north-western Europe, beyond Greece, lay the Holy Land, also under Ottoman rule. So was there the hint of the crusades in the myth? The educated and influential in Lord Bryson’s time may well have learned Greek as a matter of course, like Latin and French, Greek being the language the New Testament was originally written in.

The West, at least the Americans and Churchill I think, did what it took to ensure Greece did not fall to the Communists at the end of WW2. The fall of Greece would have been a virtual guarantee of Soviet hegemony over the eastern Mediterranean, I imagine. A huge anti-Christian wall that would have blocked off the Holy Land from the West’s own expansionist drive; that would have driven the Holy Land from the Western mind itself.

Were the Olympic Games, their modern rebirth, built into the modern myth of Greece? As a Western attempt to secure its links to Greece?

When the movie The Guns Of Navarone was filmed on the island of Rhodes in 1960, the great and the good from Greek politics and society visited the shooting, mixing with some of the great and the good of Hollywood responsible for the movie’s production. For those times, it was a symbolic exercise to give great importance to a film like that. Another way to signal the great link between Greece and the West.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago

Greece was the first country to break from imperial rule and become a nation state in the modern age? In Europe or even the whole of the Eastern Hemisphere, perhaps. But there was quite a lot of that going on in the Americas prior to the Greeks achieving it in 1827. There was the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and all the Spanish-speaking South American countries liberated by the forces of Bolivar, San Martin, et al. Or is the “modern age” conveniently set at 1825 or so to avoid counting those?

Last edited 2 years ago by Tom Krehbiel
Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
2 years ago

Whaaaa? “ Greece was the first country to break free of empire and become a nation state in the modern age. It began the age of modern nationalism that in turn created the Europe — and indeed the West – that we know today”

Is the author just talking about nations in Europe? If not, has he heard of the Declaration of Independence (from the crown and the British Empire, which happened in 1776? By 1821, the new modern nation State USA had gained independence from the British Empire and fought off the British Empire again (during the latter years of Europe v. Napoleon).

Am I missing a nuance about Empire and modern nation State?

Gayle Rosenthal
Gayle Rosenthal
2 years ago

Can we really say that “Greece was the first country to break free of empire and become a nation state in the modern age.” ?? If so, then what do we make of the establishment of the nation of ancient Israel ?
I say this not to diminish Greece, but to say that “imagination” is exactly what is necessary to bring continuity to a peoplehood, a nation, to a faith and to the meaning of the individual in a sea of humanity. The nation of Israel was also a collection of peoples when Moses took them out of Egypt. Yes they had their core of Jews, but they took with them some hangers-on and they wandered the desert for 40 years to build cohesion. The trip was only a few miles away but the imagination needed time to work it’s magic.
Once can even say the same about Khazarian Jews as a collection of adherents. And voluntary adherents as opposed to conquered adherents. My point is that nationhood does indeed exist in the imagination, on the basis of faith and common values, and on territorial ground. It’s best done voluntarily and not by coercion. It’s remarkable that the Greeks and their fellows broke free from the Ottoman “imagination”. Islam is a jealous master, and neither jealosey nor oppression of a master jive with a voluntary union.
Nations, like individuals, have a natural right to define their common goals and their common identity. Israel is doing this today. Islamic movements are fighting the natural right of self-definition.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago

I guess it depends on one’s definition of the “modern age”. The actual establishment of Israel came after WWII, long after Greece and the various American republics did so. And the Ottoman Empire was defunct by then. So, unless you have some other establishment of Israel in mind. If so, let’s hear when it was. The reference to Moses is irrelevant, as that is clearly ancient rather than modern history. There might be some medieval breakaway from empire of which I’m unaware – and the end of the medieval period has more than one definition, being a source of debate among historians. But I don’t know of any that extends medieval times past the early 16th century, and the modern era that follows would include the successful US, Haitian, and South American wars for independence.

Howard Ahmanson
Howard Ahmanson
2 years ago

Other nations have had their concepts of the hero. Japanese, if you follow manga or anime, have their own concepts which partly owe to the samurai ethic. And others, such as Native Americans, have had their own. And to what extent was later Western “chivalry” influenced by Greek concepts? What is unique about the Greek version?