give greek history (and legend) a chance: don’t use it


Vangelis Kechriotis


After the impasse in negotiations at the Eurogroup meeting for a resolution regarding the Greek loan program, the renowned economist Paul Krugman published an article titled “Athena delenda est.” This was an obvious reference to the Roman senator Cato the Elder (234-149 BCE), who repeated in every public speech that Carthage had to be destroyed since, although it had been defeated twice by the Romans, it continued challenging their authority. This is not the first time that a historical metaphor has been used to support an argument about politics in Greece recently. The most frequent was the legend of Iphigenia, used by the former prime minister, Antonis Samaras. During his electoral campaign, Samaras claimed several times that there were many in Europe who wanted to see in Greece a modern Iphigenia. He assumed that his audience knew that, as Homer narrates in the Iliad, when the Achaeans gathered their troops at Aulis to sail to Troy, several weeks of dead calm kept them moored there. Then an oracle advised them to appease the goddess Artemis, who was infuriated that Agamemnon, king of the Achaeans, had hunted and killed one of her sacred deer. The only way that the goddess would allow the wind to blow was for the king to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia. Having no alternative, Agamemnon called upon his daughter, deceptively telling her that he was going to marry her to Achilles. Instead, she was sacrificed and the Achaeans managed to leave the port, sail to Troy and capture Helen, but only 10 years later. This is the part of the legend highlighted by Samaras. The story, however, does not end there. As we know from Aeschylus’ trilogy Oresteia, when the king of the Achaeans returned to his capital, Mycenae, he was assassinated by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her love, Aegisthus. The desperate mother, who never forgave her husband for having sacrificed their daughter, was also put to death by their son Orestes, who took revenge for his father. In other words, Iphigenia’s sacrifice was a disaster for the entire dynasty. This is an aspect of the legend that Samaras failed to address.

Historical metaphors or comparisons can give dramatic dimensions to a statement. They are also intended to convey a message to an audience more understandably. However, those who use them often miscalculate two aspects: One is the twists of public memory that might lead to the opposite result from the one sought. The other is the heterogeneity of any audience. During the election campaign, again, there were some who compared these elections with those of November 1, 1920. These elections were won by the Royalist opposition, led by Dimitrios Gounaris (1866-1922), who managed to defeat the Liberal Party of Eleftherios Venizelos (1864-1936), with the promise of putting an end to the military campaign in Asia Minor. After coming to power, the new government forgot its pledges and continued the campaign, which led to the Asia Minor Catastrophe. Similarly, while Greece was now triumphant, the elections would turn the triumph into a disaster. The miscalculation in this comparison was that the performance of the previous government was compared to Venizelos’ achievements, which had led temporarily to the fulfillment of the vision of the Great Idea, but had also prepared the ground for the disaster that followedThe resurfacing of this memory did not help support the intended argument. 

Another such case is a cartoon published few days ago in the daily Avgi, the official organ of the SYRIZA party now in power. It depicted Wolfgang Schäuble as a Wehrmacht soldier who made insulting comments against Greeks that referred back to the Holocaust. The German finance minister has been very much despised among the Greek people for the last few years due to his insistence on austerity measures and the hegemonic role of Germany in the European Union. Hence, this is not the first time that this hegemony has been compared to the Nazis and the third Reich. This last instance, however, went over the top. Moreover, it coincided with a very crucial moment in the negotiations that would determine the fate of the Greek economy. Thus, it touched a sensitive chord all over Europe, where any reference to the Holocaust can seriously misfire. The Jewish Community in Greece protested against the newspaper, while the current prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, officially denounced the image, although simultaneously defending the freedom of press.  

Going back to Krugman’s title, it is not necessary to point out that Carthage was indeed destroyed only three years after Cato’s death in 146 BCE as a result of the third Punic War. One cannot but be reminded, though, that this was also the year of the battle of Corinth. After the Romans defeated the Carthaginians, they turned against the Achaean Confederation, a last attempt among Greek city states to unite their forces and resist the hegemony of Rome. In all periodizations, this year marks the end of the ancient Greek world and the beginning of the Roman Empire. Following the Greek Revolution of 1821, Greeks and foreign scholars alike used to claim that the Greek nation would fight for its independence after 2,000 years of slavery that started precisely with its defeat by the Romans, although some would consider even the Macedonians of Alexander the Great as having enslaved the Greeks. Yet, according to the renowned 19th century Greek historian Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos (1815-1891), even if they were politically dominated, the Greeks managed to survive culturally and, eventually, Hellenize the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as Byzantium. Whether the European Union can be compared to the Roman Empire or not, it would be interesting to view the destruction of Athens, predicted by Krugman, as a step in a process that can take two entirely opposite directions. In other words, one could ask whether Europeans plan to destroy Athens in order to wipe it out from the face of the earth, as happened with Carthage, or in order to fully integrate it, as happened with ancient Athens. 

You might think that this is an intellectual deliberation. Yet politicians, economists and cartoonists should use their metaphors more carefully. Yesterday, Panos Kammenos, leader of the Independent Greeks party, the partner in the coalition government, stated, “If the Europeans do not accept our terms, we will turn the [EU] into a ‘Kougi.’” This was a direct reference to the decision of the monk Samouil, trapped in the fortress of Kougi in the mountainous settlement of Souli in today’s Greek Epirus. In 1803, after the Souliotes negotiated their departure following the third siege by troops loyal to the Ottoman Albanian ruler of the region, Tepelenli Ali Pasha, the monk decided to blow himself up together with a few wounded comrades, destroying the entire arsenal and killing many enemies who had already intruded. European politicians and diplomats will have to look the story up on Wikipedia to find out what the current defense minister means. Yet, most probably half of the Greek population below 35 will have to do the same. This is one of the rare moments that historians might be happy that younger people “don’t know much about history.”



  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 22 (02.2015)