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What We Owe to the Greeks

Behind Roderick Beaton’s masterful history lies the question: What do we owe Greece?

The Greeks: A Global History by Roderick Beaton (Basic Books, 2021), 590 pages.

Sometime in the late 1970s, as the European Economic Community (EEC) readied to rebuff yet another of Greece’s successive bids for accession into the bloc since the collapse of its right-wing junta in 1974, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing dialed the European Commission’s economic directorate—then headed by fellow Frenchman François-Xavier Ortoli. “We can’t let Plato play in second league” was the French President’s famous retort when given the Commission’s official view that Greece’s economy wasn’t ready to join the forerunner to the E.U. In Giscard’s view, philosophy trumped economics.

Greece would finally join in 1981, yet similar paeans to its ancient history—“the birthplace of democracy”—have been sung to ensure that it stayed a member, with the notoriously philhellenic French-political-class chief amongst the singers. Both Nicolas Sarkozy and his rival François Hollande claim in their memoirs to have brokered talks over debt relief between Greece and the so-called “troika” throughout the financially rocky 2010s. This decade, Emmanuel Macron has turned France’s Grecian allegiance up a notch. In last year’s commemoration of the bicentennial of Greece’s independence war against the Ottomans, Macron broadcast a five-minute address hailing the 1821 revolution as an heir to Enlightenment ideals, adding the catchphrase— loaded in French discourse—of “a certain idea of Europe.” Why does Greece loom so large over the European—and by extension, the Western—mind? More puzzlingly, why do professional historians and exalted philhellenes alike trace the modern Greek nation directly to the ancient city-states of the classical period, when evidence of a direct lineage is so scarce?

Reconstituting Greek history in all its bewildering nuance and complexity is the core merit of Roderick Beaton’s masterful The Greeks: A Global History. Perhaps the volume’s main lesson is that what we’ve come to describe as Greek history is not a straight plotline, but rather an idealized version of the past passed down through a series of refractions—Rome, Christianity, Byzantium—each adding its dose of distortions to the final rendition. The idea that Greece is a cradle of Western civilization betrays, at least partly, the political intent of past peoples and societies who willed those links into being. Europe, in fact, did not exist as a coherent civilizational bloc when Greece began to crystallize as its own distinct entity, and subsequent attempts by the former to appropriate the latter have tended to sharpen what is in fact a blurred line separating the two from Asia. The civilizations and peoples that have settled in today’s Greece have straddled the boundaries between the two continents, inhabiting a cultural and civilizational borderland that cannot be easily categorized as either European or Asian. Europa, the mythological princess from Argos abducted by Zeus metamorphosed into bull form, is of Phoenician stock. Let that sink in—the mythic figure from which the continent derives its name was Middle Eastern.

Homer’s Iliad, which contains the earliest literary reference to Europa, relates a Greek coalition’s war against Troy, a rival city across the Aegean, from which fled the refugees who would found Rome in Virgil’s Aeneid—yet Troy is in today’s Turkey. The entire Anatolian coast, for that matter, was densely settled by Greek colonists in the classical period, as was Italy and southern France—Greek life flourished, per Plato’s phrase, “between the river Phasis and the pillars of Hercules.” The notion that Greece can be delineated as a fully European entity separate and apart from Asia is further dispelled by military history. Once the leading Greek city-states had vanquished the Persian empire in the Medic wars of 499-449 B.C., their alliance soon withered, as both Athens and Sparta were willing to enlist their former enemy’s help against one another in the Peloponnesian war of 431-404 B.C. Furthermore, classical Greece would only reach its nadir of global influence a century later under the aegis of Alexander’s world-spanning Macedonian empire, an entity born out of an ethnic group that originated outside the bounds of today’s Greece, where Macedonians are a despised minority. 

In the Middle Ages, Greek wisdom and language would be harbored and passed on by the Byzantine empire, a self-appointed heir to classical Greece located mostly in the Asian landmass. The Ottoman Empire, against whom Greek nationalists rose in 1821, was similarly instrumental in keeping the Greek torch alive through its Phanariot aristocracy. And if the 1821 war of independence successfully rallied scores of romantics from across Europe to the Greek cause, it was mostly due to the intersection of three trends—a renewed interest in classical Greece, the rising tide of liberalism, and the optics of a war fought by Christians against Muslims. You get the point—classical Greece was, if anything, a Eurasian civilization.

When one peels off these layers of Eurocentric and chauvinistic embellishment, what emerges underneath? What ambitions and ideals have come from Greece that links its current inhabitants to its former settlers? Beaton’s account of “Greekness” foregrounds the culture-shaping role of language and education. “What can we learn”, his preface asks, “from the accumulated experience of those who have spoken and written this language during 3,500 years, about how identities are created, perpetuated and modified or reinvented over time?” The first author to identify Greekness as an intangible heritage transcending genetics was Isocrates, who in his Panegyrics (380 B.C.) sought to whip an assembled crowd of his fellow Greeks into an anti-Persian frenzy by claiming that his native Athens, then Greece’s hegemonic city-state, had “caused the name of Greece 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.” Writing under Roman rule, Plutarch thought likewise, in Beaton’s words, that “being Greek was less a matter of race or birth than of moral qualities that could be learned from reading the best ancient authors.” The Byzantine erudite Plethon would similarly place learning above lineage when he wrote to his emperor in the 1410s: “we whom you lead and over whom you rule are Hellenes by descent, as our language and our traditional education bear witness.”

Yet condensing Greekness into language and education alone leaves out other important factors. When assessing the achievements of classical Greece, it is hard not to grasp a distinct worldview, a way of apprehending the outside universe and the soul’s inner life, grafted on top of the Greek language and the learning that kept it alive through generations. Whole new areas of human endeavor arose and flourished in classical Greece, expanding the limits of mankind’s potential. Here lies a paradox: The Greek way of ordering social life was marked by two contradicting influences—reason and superstition. Herodotus, the pioneering historian in whose pages the idea of Europe as the seat of a civilization opposed to barbarian Asia took shape, would describe “the totality of the Greeks—Hellenikon—made up of one blood and one language, and the sanctuaries of the gods which are shared, and sacrifices and practices carried out in the same way.” Indeed, each classical city-state had its own patron god but all worshipped at the same oracles, where began to spread, in Beaton’s words, “the first stirrings of a shared sense of identity as Hellenes.” 

Yet wherever Greeks lived, along with their Pantheon went a certain way of ordering social life towards a collective purpose determined by reason, rather than merely the crude will to power or lust for riches. Granted, the classical Greeks had their share of tyrants, including tyrants who claimed to base their rule on reason. Not even Athenian democracy, where citizens were a minority while slaves, women, and foreigners were disenfranchised, can be considered truly democratic by today’s standards. Yet by the standards of the time, a new age of enlightened politics had dawned in Athens. Citizenship no longer depended only on family or ethnic ties but on the dutiful participation in the polis. What’s remarkable about Athenian democracy isn’t so much that it was the world’s only such experiment at the time—it’s that no other experiment like it would follow for centuries. The classical Greeks also pioneered a new way of engaging with the cosmos. Plato’s belief, in Beaton’s words, in “the eternal and unchanging ideas or forms,” of which the tangible things of the world are a crude copy, would be soon after appropriated by early Christian thinkers and leave a profound imprint on the Western mind. Likewise, Aristotle’s precept that life should be lived according to the finest thing in us—reason—would set the terms of a debate between Stoics and Epicureans that reverberated through the centuries.

John Stuart Mill famously wrote in 1846, reviewing another influential history of the Greeks, that “the battle of Marathon even as an event in English history is more important than the battle of Hastings.” That sense of indebtedness to Greece can at times seem hopelessly romantic, at best a hyped and deformed version of history—yet it drove countless Europeans to Greece’s shores in 1821 and continues to shape our understanding of the West. Professor Beaton’s history is a reminder why.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast on Europe (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo.