Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation

Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation



The Pequod Review:

Roderick Beaton's Greece is quite drily written but it is otherwise a solid cultural history of the country, with a focus on the last three hundred years. Beaton captures well an identity that is at once ancient and modern:

For at least a century and a half these two illustrious ancestors, the ancient and the Byzantine, have jostled uneasily together in the national imagining. There have been various attempts made at a precarious synthesis, sometimes called ‘Helleno-Christian civilization’. But that terminology was hijacked by the military junta of the late 1960s and early 1970s and ever since has been tarnished beyond use. Ancient Greece and Byzantium were two civilizations so different from one another that it is hard even to think of them at the same time.

The consequence of looking back simultaneously towards two such different ancestors has been a remarkable doubling, or perhaps better a splitting, of identity. The modern language has not one but two words to describe a person as ‘Greek’: ‘Hellene’ and ‘Romios’ (Romioi in the plural). When it comes to translation, both have the same meaning. But they are not interchangeable. ‘Hellene’ (Ellinas) is the standard term. Ever since 1822 it has been used in all official contexts. Indeed the official name for the Greek state in English is the ‘Hellenic Republic’. ‘Romios’, on the other hand, appears on no passport or official document. Increasingly, since the early nineteenth century, it has become the unofficial, more intimate way for Greeks to refer to themselves–and, more often than not, among themselves too. ‘Hellene’ is the outward-facing term, it defines the Greek for the outsider. ‘Romios’ carries an emotional weight. The poet Kostis Palamas, writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, detected in the very word ‘something poetically and musically charged’, ‘something soaring, that fills us with youthful vigour, something ethereal even’. This is an understanding tacitly shared and appreciated by insiders. It is nobody else’s business. When Melina Mercouri, in the days before she became Minister of Culture in a socialist government, was stripped of her Greek citizenship by the military junta, she recorded in song her scorn for the petty bureaucrats who had dared to make out ‘that I’m no longer a Romia’. The point of the song-lyric is that citizenship may be conferred or taken away, but one’s identity as a Romia or Romios is inalienable. It exists beyond a threshold where officialdom has any right to interfere or can even reach.

It has sometimes been suggested that each of these overlapping but distinct identities, as ‘Hellene’ and ‘Romios’, can be mapped onto cultural traits or patterns of behaviour. So when Greeks think of themselves as ‘Hellenes’, they are apt to have in mind elites and official culture, to identify with Western Europe in their politics and cultural preferences (admiring classical music, for example), to embrace a secular outlook and rational ways of thinking. When they think of themselves as ‘Romioi’, on the other hand, they do so in order to emphasize intimacy and informality, to identify with traditional forms of culture linked more immediately to the Balkans and the Middle East (admiring rebetika, for example, a musical style with its roots in the traditions of the Levant), to embrace a religious outlook, spontaneity and emotional ways of thinking.