;


It's not ancient Greek history pundits should be using to understand the Greek crisis

Roundup
tags: Grexit



Daniel Mendelsohn is the author of seven books, including “Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture.”

... “Draconian,” “procrustean,” “Euripides”: however confusing the state of affairs in Athens and Brussels right now, it’s clear that the temptation to invoke the glories of ancient Greece in connection with the current Greek economic crisis is one that journalists have found impossible to resist. Most of the allusions are unlikely to send readers racing to Wikipedia. “ ‘GREXIT’ BRINKMANSHIP IS CLASSIC GREEK TRAGEDY,” went one headline, on Breitbart.com. (The article contained a link to the Web page for a Greek-tragedy course at Utah State University.) Some betray a sentimental high-mindedness about Greece’s position in the history of civilization: “In Greece, a Vote Befitting the Birthplace of Democracy?” Reuters mused.

Of the more substantive attempts to link Greece’s grandiose past to its humbled present, nearly all have focussed on a notorious incident from the Peloponnesian War—the ruinous, three-decade-long conflict between Athens and Sparta. In 416 B.C., the Athenians brutally punished the tiny island state of Melos for trying to preserve its neutrality. In a famous passage of Thucydides’ history of the war, known as the Melian Dialogue, the Athenian representatives blithely tell their Melian counterparts, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” before killing all the adult males of the city and enslaving the women and children. Perceived similarities between the Athenians of the fifth century B.C. and today’s Germans have provoked a flurry of think pieces. “What Would Thucydides Say About the Crisis in Greece?” an Op-Ed in the Times asked.

Yet, despite the baggy analogizing and the rhetoric about eternal verities, attempts to use Pericles’ Athens to explain Tsipras’s Greece often obscure important differences. “Melos was a neutral state,” the Times Op-Ed tartly observed, “while modern Greece not only joined the European Union but over the years merrily plundered its treasury.”

It’s easy to see where the impulse to conflate “Greek history” with “Classical Greek history” comes from: appeals to Thucydides or Plato can confer authority in real-world decision-making. (In 2001, some conservatives cited the Athenians’ take-no-prisoners rhetoric at Melos to justify the invasion of Afghanistan.) But the presumption that nothing much of interest happened in Greece between the end of the Classical era, in 323 B.C., and the founding of the modern nation, in the early nineteenth century, has long irritated both Greeks and students of Greek history.

One thing that gets left out of that myopic picture is Byzantium, which in many ways is the true parent of the modern Greek nation. That Christian, Greek-speaking empire was a conduit for Greek culture from the fifth century A.D. to 1453, when Constantinople was sacked by the Ottoman Turks and the Greeks became a subject people. Indeed, journalists eager to understand the roots of Greece’s political habits and economic failures—the deep clannishness that easily ferments into cronyism, say, or the resistance to the tax collector, or the explosions of quixotic defiance—would be better off studying the centuries of subjugation and humiliation endured by the Greek people than reading the Melian Dialogue. ...

Read entire article at The New Yorker


comments powered by Disqus