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Greek Letter

ISSUE:  Autumn 1999

The summer after I passed my preliminary examinations for a doctorate at Yale, I sailed for Greece. I had written the examination for the Seymour Fellowship at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, and won it. The year was 1954, I was 23, literary criticism was “New,” the Korean War was in a state of suspended animation, the Vietnam War still lay in the future, and I was making my first visit to Europe. Greece itself had emerged from civil war not quite four years earlier. Only one ship offered direct service between New York and Piraeus: the Greek Line’s Nea Hellas, an elderly vessel which was built for a defunct British company only a couple years after the Titanic sank, and she still possessed Edwardian elegance in first class and some equally Edwardian squalor in third. Less than a year later the Greek Line replaced here on the New York-Piraeus route by a new ship named the Olympia and the Home Line provided competition with the Queen Frederika, and the Queen Anna Maria, named after the last queen of Greece who has somehow faded out of the headlines without ever attracting media attention. In 1954, however, Paul and Frederika still lived in the royal palace behind the National Garden, and the recovery from the long period of war which had begun in 1940 was well underway.

A few weeks ago, on my latest visit to Greece, I discovered a copy of Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi in an Athenian bookstore which advertised new and used books. I bought it quickly, thereby stripping myself of the drachmas I had intended to spend on a capuccino, but the book is out of print and the store was about to close for a delayed siesta (it was 3 p.m.). Miller’s Greece was pre-WWII; he sailed from Marseilles to Piraeus a few months before Mussolini sent in his troops in 1940. His fellow passengers were Arabs, Turks, Lebanese, English, French, Americans. Mine were American students, a few Maltese and Turks, and a party of English tourists. But mostly the passengers were Greeks, including some middle-aged men returning home in search of wives. One made friends quickly, and forgot them. But since this was my first trip abroad, I kept a journal. Faithfully at first, then fitfully and in the end, not at all. But I recorded some encounters. There was the young Greek priest returning from studies in the United States, who told me sadly that the Fourth Crusade was one of the great criminal acts of history. There was a young Greek from Canada who was going home to find the bones of his brother, killed by the Communist E.L.A.S. ten years before. He also intended to find his brother’s killer. I got my first taste of one of Greece’s great controversies when I retired to a deck chair with a textbook of modern Greek. An assemblage of Greeks, all eager to help, soon gathered round. But they soon quarreled. What Greek should I learn? The argument was good-natured but vigorous. I listened carefully, trying to understand. It seemed that each of my would-be tutors had strong opinions about correct grammar and vocabulary but none of them agreed with anyone else. On one matter, however, there was complete consensus. My textbook was wrong.

I reflected on Henry Miller again a few days ago when I was enclosed by a traffic jam at Dafni on the road between Athens and Eleusis. My little Fiat Uno was surrounded by a battalion of larger cars: Hondas, Mercedes, BMWs, Rovers, and Peugeots, with a Jeep Cherokee almost scraping my left fender. “One should never race along the Sacred Way in a motor-car,” Miller had written, “it is sacrilege. One should walk, walk as the men of old walked, and allow one’s whole being to become flooded with light.” Miller belonged to an age that is lost. The Sacred Way between Athens and the site of the Eleusinian Mysteries in the industrial suburb of Eleusis is now a four-lane highway. The 11th-century monastery church at Dafni is hemmed in by an immense river of traffic. The marvelous atmospheric light which Miller admired is still there but the omnipresent nefos has stolen its clarity. The nefos is the cloud of pollution which now hangs over Athens: a mixture of smudge from oil-burning furnaces and exhaust from internal combustion engines, and in the summer of 1998, forest fires from Mts. Hymettos and Pendeli outside the city added wood smoke to the mix. The nefos sometimes recedes but never disappears, nor will it as long as Hellenic Petroleum provides the furnaces of Athens with low-grade fuel oil. But Hellenic Petroleum is not only a state monopoly, it is one of the small minority of state-owned enterprises in Greece which make a profit and that shields it effectively from pressure to reform.

Henry Miller came to Greece on the eve of World War II. The country was still coping as best as it could with the resettlement of a million Greek refugees driven from Turkey in the 1920’s. The debacle of 1922 in Asia Minor is forgotten now in most of the world which has other later incidents of ethnic cleansing to occupy its attention, but not in Greece or Turkey. The political stability of Greece was a victim of the first World War when the Allies, Britain and France, maneuvered the pro-German King Constantine I off the throne and replaced him by his second-eldest son Alexander with Eleftherios Venizelos as his prime minister, one of the most brilliant statesmen of modern Greece. It was another example of Great Power-interference in Greek affairs, but the times were desperate. The war was not going well for the Allies. The Gallipoli campaign, which was intended to yield them Constantinople, had turned into a mismanaged bloodbath. Bulgaria, an old enemy of Greece, had joined the Central Powers and attacked Serbia. Greek assistance was crucial: in fact, the nine Greek army divisions which Venizelos provided for the Allied offensive in Macedonia in September, 1918, hastened the German collapse on the Western Front in November. The Allies had reason to be grateful to Venizelos and to Greece when peace came, and the prize that Venizelos wanted was Smyrna, which Turkey has renamed Izmir now that it has been swept clean of Greeks. On 15 May 1919, a Greek task force landed at Smyrna and took it, killing or wounding some 350 Turks in the process, and setting a spark to revived Turkish nationalism under Mustafa Kemal or Atatiirk, to give him the surname he took after he ordered Turks, as part of his reforms, to use family names. The Treaty of Sevres next year gave Greece to right to administer the Smyrna region for five years, after which Greece could annex it if the inhabitants wished; the League of Nations reserved the right to demand a referendum. Then King Alexander was bitten by his pet monkey and died of blood poisoning; the next election brought the anti-Venezelists to power and a rigged plebiscite returned King Constantine to Athens. Not to be outdone by their political opponents, the royalists launched their own offensive in Turkey. It went well at first; the Greek army almost reached Kemal’s stronghold of Ankara. But its supply lines were overstretched and its commander was slightly lunatic, and although mental stability is not a sine qua non for a successful general, it is a desirable virtue. In late August 1922, Kemal launched his counteroffensive, and it was devastating. The Greek army fled, and the Greeks and Armenians were driven from Smyrna; only the Jewish and Turkish quarters of the city were spared. Greece received a flood of refugees, among them some who would achieve distinction, such as the shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis, the archaeologist Manolis Andronikos who found the royal Macedonian tombs at Vergina in 1977, and the Nobel prize-winning poet George Seferis whose papers are now in the Gennadius Library which is part of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.

Henry Miller described his visit to the Armenian refugee quarter of Athens just before war broke out. “I had heard that it was sordid and picturesque,” he wrote, “but nothing I had heard about it had quite prepared me for the sight which greeted my eyes.” The refugees had been waiting for 20 years for new homes which the government had promised, and when Miller visited the quarter, the new homes were ready. They were “models in every sense of the word,” he wrote. “The contrast between these and the hovels in which the refugees have somehow managed to survive for a generation is fantastic, to’ say the least. From the rubbish heap a whole community provided shelter for itself and for its animals, its pets, its rodents, its lice, its bedbugs, its microbes.” The refugees were at last being integrated into the fabric of Athens. Then came Mussolini’s invasion. In the early morning of Oct.28, 1940, the Italian ambassador presented the Greek prime minister—or, perhaps to be more accurate, dictator—loannis Metaxas with an ultimatum. Metaxas said “No.” Thereupon Mussolini launched his attack which bogged down with embarrassing alacrity and had to be rescued next year by the German army. October 28th is still celebrated in Greece as “Ohi Day” or “No” day for Ohi is the modern Greek for “No”. However the day is now a celebration of the spirit which brought Greece through a couple millenia of vicissitudes since it became a province of the Roman Empire in 146 B.C. Anti-Italian overtones have been eliminated. Greece and Italy are now both members of the European Union, and relations are friendly, if occasionally wary.

One other byproduct of the Smyrna debacle and the flood of refugees was that the American School of Classical Studies was given the right to excavate the marketplace of classical Athens, the “Agora,” written with an upper case “A” to distinguish it from many other “agoras,” for the label can be applied to any emporium from a grocery store to a flea market. Refugee resettlement put pressure on any land available for development in the city, and the Agora, the location of which was known in a general sort of way, was a prime site. But Greece lacked the money to save it; 65 per cent of her taxation revenue went to service the national debt. In 1924, a bill to expropriate the land failed to pass the Greek parliament. Thereupon the government turned to the American School and offered it the right to excavate if it could find the money to buy out the owners of the dwellings on the site. John D. Rockefeller Jr. provided the funds, and in 1931 the digging started. By 1940 when war interrupted the work, 365 “undesirable buildings” (the description comes from the History of the American School of Classical Studies by a former director, Louis Lord) had been removed.

When I reached Greece in 1954, the American School was building a new museum in the Agora to display the artifacts discovered there. This was no ordinary museum. The Agora site was crowded with the ruins of ancient structures and there was no room for a new building; so the School decided to rebuild an old one. The Stoa of Attalus was a great colonnaded portico with shops along the back wall which had been donated to Athens by King Attalus II of Pergamon in the mid-second century B.C. Pergamon was a wealthy realm in Asia Minor which followed a policy of never opposing the Romans and reaping the rewards of a faithful satellite as a result, but its last king, reading the future accurately, willed his kingdom to Rome which made it a province and exploited it cruelly. But the donation of the Stoa belonged to Pergamon’s opulent period. It was preserved well enough that its plan could be recovered securely for both the first and second floors and thus an accurate restoration was possible. Forty years on, the startling whiteness of its new marble has become muted and even a little soiled in odd corners. The nefos is beginning to leave tell-tale marks. But in 1954 the new pillars were rising and the stone masons were chiseling new column drums out of rough-hewn cylinders of marble from Mt. Pendeli which had supplied the marble for the Parthenon and most of the other great monuments of classical Athens.

The archaeological exploration of the Agora which had been interrupted by the war was underway again. The last season before the war had been in the year of the Italian invasion, 1940. The professor of archaeology at the American School, Eugene Vanderpool, one of the greatest American archaeologists to work in Greece, had opted to remain in Athens during the German occupation. He had come in 1927, crossing the Albanian border into Greece on foot with a group of students, and he had no wish to leave. He bicycled regularly to the Agora until the Germans caught up with him and dispatched him to a concentration camp as an enemy alien. However, he contrived to take with him his copies of Herodotus and Thucydides, and with the help of these two old friends, he survived.

He never talked to us about his experiences during the occupation, though there was a lively oral tradition which transmitted the Vanderpool legends. The nearest he came to discussing contemporary politics was when he interpreted the painted graffiti on the whitewashed walls in the countryside. “Long live my party” in red paint was probably executed by a crypto-Communist. “Long live the king” appeared with suspicious frequency. We suspected some industrious monarchists at work. The Greek monarchy was a casualty of the Colonels’ coup d’état in 1967 (there were, in fact, two army colonels and one brigadier behind it), though one should not discount the intense unpopularity of King Constantine II’s mother Frederika, who must count as one of the most unwise queens of history. The glum, nationalist dictatorship of the Colonels was not Constantine’s responsibility; in fact, he tried to unseat the Junta with a bungled coup of his own, but as a Greek student told me, even though the political impasse which led to the coup may not have been his fault, he did nothing to make the situation better. When constitutional government was restored in 1974, a referendum was held on the king’s return, which the center and left parties vigorously opposed, and 70 per cent of the votes were for a republic. Yet last year I saw a small, somewhat furtive “Long live the king” graffito on a newly-painted wall along Queen Sophia boulevard in Athens, 24 years after the referendum. Graffiti generally, however, are more contemporary. One, a short distance from the French School, read, “Fascist rotters go hang!” Another, painted on an immaculate white wall in front of the British Embassy a few weeks ago read, “NO to the Internet. It is the Beast of the Apocalypse.” It seemed to portend an encounter between Microsoft and the Book of Revelation!


A few weeks ago I went to the neighborhood kiosk to buy my copy of the Sunday Kathimerini, Greece’s answer to The New York Times, which has a supplement that presents an in-depth feature with each issue. This Sunday the subject was Adamantios Korais, 250 years after his birth. He is hardly a household name outside Greece. Yet he was a leading light in the renaissance of Greek culture on the eve of the Greek War of Independence which began in 1821, when the Bishop of Patras raised the flag of revolt in the picturesque village of Kalavryti which has now become a winter skiing resort. Born in Smyrna the son of a Greek merchant from the island of Chios which he always regarded as his homeland, Korais became one of the greatest classical scholars of his day and though he lived much of his life in Paris, he helped greatly to shape modem Greece’s vision of its classical past. When he was born, Greece was still only an idea nourished by a history which went back through the Byzantine Empire to the Hellenistic world which followed Alexander the Great’s conquests and beyond it to the classical world which contemporary Europe considered the matrix of its culture. The Greeks still called themselves “Romans,” to the surprise of the early travelers from Europe, and the name recalled the legacy of the Byzantine Empire which viewed itself as the heir of imperial Rome. But the intellectual world of 18th-century Europe was dominated by the French Enlightenment, and it had no time for the Byzantium, which was too full of incense and mumbo-jumbo for its taste. The classical world was a different matter. Europe and America were at the beginning of a romantic love affair with classical Greece which they considered the fount of Western culture. It was an antiseptic, idealized Greece, far removed from the Greece which emerged from the Ottoman Empire, but it provided an idiom which the educated world understood. As part of its self-definition, modern Greece moved quickly to claim the classical heritage as its own. The demotic Greek spoken in the villages with its borrowings from Turkish, Slavic, and Latin would not do, and in any case, the dialects were numerous and the vocabulary limited. The katharevousa, the “purifying speech” which hearkened back to ancient Greek was an effort to give the new kingdom a language which would command respect. Adamantios Korais, for all his nurturing of pride in the classical past, was himself a moderate on the question, but he set the tone. As I discovered on the Nea Hellas on my first trip to Greece, language is still an open issue.

It is also a political one. The Left favors demotic. The Right, and the monarchists, while they were still a viable political group, favored katharevousa. The church, law, education, and the universities used katharevousa, or at least the University of Athens did; I am told that the Aristotelian University of Saloniki never developed any enthusiasm for it. The left-wing PASOK government of Andreas Papandreou which came to power in 1981 banished katharevousa from the schools and for some Greeks it was a painful reform. James Pettifer, whose paperback The Greeks: The Land and People since the War (Penguin, 1994) manages to be both readable and knowledgeable, relates how an elderly Greek lady of his acquaintance, who lived abroad, wrote to Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis whose conservative New Democratic party was elected in 1990, to express her discontent with the PASOK language laws. She wanted him to restore the breathing marks on the written language. These are the little apostrophes which in classical Greek texts indicate whether or not a vowel at the beginning of a word should be aspirated or not. Kathimerini still uses them meticulously; it is not the Greek answer to The New York Times for nothing. But they are vestigial in the Lexico tis Neas Ellenikis Glossas (“Lexikon of the New Greek Language”) by University of Athens Professor George Babinioti, which was published in 1998 and greeted with a predictable storm of criticism.

The Center Union government of Georges Papandreou, Andreas’ father, dropped ancient Greek from the school curriculum in the early 1960’s, but the Colonels’ junta restored it. As I write, students are demonstrating to protest education reforms proposed by the Education Ministry in the government (PASOK) of Costas Simitis, one of which would increase the amount of ancient Greek required for graduation. The legacy of the Byzantine Empire may be closer to the hearts of most Greeks than the classical world, but a restored Byzantium is a dream in ruins. There is still a patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul, but the anti-Greek pogrom there in 1956, and the chilly climate which the remaining Christians face in Turkey has decimated the Greek community. Turkish law requires that the patriarch be a Turkish national, and consequently the pool of eligible Greeks is becoming very small. In 1971, Turkey closed down the famous Greek Orthodox Halki Theological School in Istanbul, hoping perhaps that it would fade away, and last year, to hasten the process, it sacked the School’s board of directors. Turkish policy aims at writing “Finis” to the long history of the Orthodox patriarchate which, goes back to the foundation of Constantinople by the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire. The patriarchate is an important piece of Christian tradition, but Europe and America watch with little interest as it fades out.

The ancient world is not only more recognizable abroad; it brings in hordes of tourists to see its monuments. Greek has been spoken in the south-east tip of Europe for some four millenia, and the Greek that might have been heard at King Agamemnon’s Mycenae about the time of the Trojan War 3200 years ago differs less from modern Greek than Anglo-Saxon differs from modern English. But can modern Greeks count Leonidas and Pericles and other notables from the pages of ancient history textbooks as their ancestors? In the 1830’s, a German scholar, Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer published a history of southern Greece where he argued that the modern Greeks were descended from Slavs and Albanians who settled Greece in the Middle Ages, after the year 600, and there was no drop of ancient Hellenic blood in their veins. All Greeks were incensed. Refuting Fallmerayer became a scholarly industry, and it was not an easy task, for he was an able historian; before he turned his attention to Greek bloodlines, he had single-handedly recovered the history of the Empire of Trebizond, an outpost of Byzantium which sprang up south of the Black Sea after the Fourth Crusade of 1204 captured Constantinople. But Fallmerayer’s conclusions, right or wrong, are irrelevant, for the continuity of culture does not depend on genetics. The experience of Greece since the War of Independence has been the story of a melting pot at work, operating at a higher temperature than its counterpart in the United States. Greece is officially a homogeneous country and multiculturalism has no place in it. But half-submerged in the universal Greekness are other ethnic groups: Albanians who supplied some of the most famous heroes of the War of Independence, Vlachs, Sarakatsans, Pomoks in the Rodopi mountains and by no means least, the modern Macedonians who speak a Slavic language akin to Bulgarian.

Macedonia is an open wound. Classical Greece’s northern neighbor was Macedon, and one of its kings, Alexander III whom we know as “the Great,” overthrew the Persian Empire and ushered in the Hellenistic Age when Greek cities were founded as far east as Afghanistan and Greek culture dominated all the eastern Mediterranean. Modern Greece considers Alexander the Great a Greek, and a wholly admirable character. Modern historians of the ancient world who are not Greeks themselves have doubts about both conclusions. The Macedonian royal family had a tradition that traced its ancestry to the city-state of Argos, but what of their subjects? Modern Greeks claim they had genuine Hellenic bloodlines. The ancient Greeks thought they did not, and would not let them compete in the Olympic Games which were for Greeks only. The ancient Macedonians are no longer extant to speak for themselves. But whatever their genetic history was, their culture was Greek; the Macedonian dynasty which carved out a kingdom in Egypt out of Alexander’s empire after his death, made its capital Alexandria a brilliant cultural center, and the royal family which ruled in Antioch was no slouch either as a promoter of Hellenism.

The ethnic identity of the ancient Macedonians would be unimportant except for the modern Macedonians who straddle the northern Greek border. Across the boundary the breakup of Yugoslavia has given birth to a new Macedonian republic with its capital at Skopje. The majority of its population is Macedonian, but perhaps as much as a quarter is Albanian; about 60 thousand are Turks, and there is a sprinkling of Serbs, gypsies, Vlachs, Pomoks, and Greeks. The ancestors of these Macedonians entered the Balkans as part of the Slavic migration in the Middle Ages which, according to Fallmerayer’s unloved hypothesis, supplied modern Greece with much of its own genetic ink. They got the name “Macedonian” through an accident of history, but with it they acquired a claim to the ancient Macedonians as their ascendants. The new republic would have appropriated as its national symbol the sunburst emblem of the ancient Royal House of Macedon except that Greece protested angrily. Greece has also insisted that the new republic’s official name be the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”: FYROM for short. The Greek media use FYROM religiously. Beyond Greece’s borders, however, the media refer to the republic simply as “Macedonia.” As a label, FYROM is a failure.

The Greek concern is not mere sentimental nonsense. Macedonia a.k.a. FYROM has thus far been the most stable of the Yugoslavia’s fragments, but at the end of 1998, a new coalition government took office at Skopje, headed by 32-year-old Ljubco Georgievski who is reputedly a Bulgarophile and no friend of Serbia and Greece. In 1991 he delivered a speech wherein he claimed that over half of “Macedonia’s” people lived in Greece and should join a united “Macedonia” led by himself. However one of the first acts of his government in 1998 was to allow NATO to base troops on its soil to protect international monitors in Kosovo, and not much later, one of Georgievski’s political allies came to Thessaloniki on the invitation of the city’s port authority to discuss regional development. FYROM would like usage rights at the port, and is interested in a Thessaloniki-Skopje pipeline. The symptoms of amity are present. But the Balkans is an historical powder-keg and only a frangible border separates it from Greece.


When I first arrived here as a student, the foreigner was an object of curiosity who deserved courteous treatment. Greece was poor; for most Greeks, life was hard and yet a foreign visitor rarely needed to lock the door of his hotel room. But, last year Greece had 12 million tourists, more than the total population of the country, and the “xenos,” which means “guest” as well as “foreigner,” has become a commodity. Tourists compete for space on the Athenian streets with Greek automobiles and motorcycles, and they crowded the Acropolis and the Plaka. They think they should be able to walk on the sidewalks, whereas the Athenians believe their sidewalks are parking lots for cars. The old courtesy still persists outside Athens, but no one is curious about xenoi any more. It seems as if every Greek has a family member or a friend in Australia, the United States, or Canada, and travel is easy. Moreover the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the upheavals that followed have brought a new wave of unwelcome xenoi: Albanians, gypsies, and Russians who make a disproportionate contribution to the criminal element. Greece has had enough xenoi. It takes a hard line with refugees: in the first ten months of 1998, 2,236 persons requested asylum and only 140 were granted it.

Pro-American sentiment has been a casualty of “dejuntafication,” to anglicize a new immigrant into the modern Greek vocabulary. The Greeks believe that the CIA supported the Colonels’ glum, unpopular Junta, and the American ambassador has admitted it and apologized, which has taken the edge off Greek resentment. But the PASOK government led by Andreas Papandreou which won the 1981 election drew on a reservoir of anti-American, anti-NATO, nationalist sentiment. The foreign archaeological schools in Greece for the first time encountered a chilly atmosphere. Fortunately the temperature has since gone up.

The foreign schools have been in Athens for so long that they are part of modern Greek history. They are here because Europe and America accept the classical world as part of their own heritage. Admittedly the heritage came from a fantasy Greece where philosophers and aesthetes strolled amidst gleaming columned buildings and produced sculpture whose white marble symbolized the purity of the inspiration behind them. It was a shock when archaeologists began to dig up sculpture which still had traces of color. The ancient Greeks had painted their marble and their statues had looked like the images of saints in a Catholic church! Nonetheless scholars wanted to know more about classical Greece in its geographical setting, and it has been this thirst for accurate knowledge which has driven archaeology here over the past century.

The French School was established here as early as 1846 and a few years later was digging on the Acropolis. The German Institute was set up in 1874, the year that Heinrich Schliemann, fresh from his discoveries at Troy, turned his attention to Mycenae, the city of King Agamemnon and there revealed for the first the Bronze Age civilization of ancient Greece. The American School celebrated its centenary in 1981. Greece in the 19th century, though it would allow no finds from excavations to leave the country, gave official encouragement to the establishment of the Schools. Both the American School and the British School beside it on “Sweden Street” sit on land donated by the Greek government. The libraries of the Schools make Athens one of the major research centers for Mediterranean Studies.

The emphasis has changed over the years. Unlike Heinrich Schliemann, archaeologists no longer dig to find treasure, although they are still delighted if they do; rather their attention is focused on pieces of broken pottery, the stratification of the earth, bones and plant pollen. Even the stones of an ancient site can be made to yield information. Archaeology now is a scientific discipline. Still I am happy that I came to Greece in an earlier age, before the country was criss-crossed by superhighways, and Athenians harried by serial strikes, when the mountain villages were still vibrant communities which had not yet lost their population to the large cities, and some of the countryside was little changed since the date that 18th-century travelers visited it. Greece today is a easier place for living. But no one any more gets his first sight of the Parthenon gleaming in the distance against a clear blue sky, from the deck of an ocean liner docking in Piraeus. And no one any longer hikes two and a half hours to see the other great building designed by the Parthenon’s architect, the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae, alone and deserted in the highlands of Arcadia.


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