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.
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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.