This review was published by the Times Literary Supplement.
The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity
23.95 pounds, 310pp
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017
In February 2012, as Greece was negotiating its second bailout loan, I interviewed a retired commander of the Hellenic Air Force whose pension austerity policies had cut by half. He was incensed that Greece’s European partners saw their loans to the country in uncompromisingly financial terms. “Don’t they remember Marathon? Don’t they remember Salamis? Shouldn’t Greece receive some consideration for defending Europe from the Persians?” he asked.
In The Classical Debt, Johanna Hanink, Associate Professor of Classics at Brown University, sets out to answer that question. In practical terms, of course, it is unanswerable. No economist has put a value on Greece’s contribution to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and adjusted for inflation. In any case, Europe and the IMF have already answered: Give unto creditors that which is creditors’.
Why does such a rhetorical question form the basis of a book? No Greek political party has proposed exchanging the financial debt for a cultural one. An overwhelming majority of Greeks and their legislators support repaying the national debt in full. The parties that claim that the debt is somehow illegitimate receive only about 13 percent of the vote.
The only debt swaps ever seriously proposed in eight years of recession are of a purely financial nature. During the Nazi occupation, Germany forcibly extracted a line of credit from the Bank of Greece. A 2013 study by former finance minister Nikos Christodoulakis estimated the loan’s present value using the average interest rates Germany and the US have paid on their ten-year bonds since 1944. He argued that Greece could claim between €10.5bn and €15.87bn euros – an amount roughly equal to Germany’s share of Greece’s first bailout loan. “I think that a very fair compensation and settlement of the issue would be to count one for the other,” Christodoulakis told me. Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis proposed the second debt swap in February 2015, days after he assumed office. He asked European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi to buy up the IMF’s share of Greek debt, so that Greece’s sovereign debt could be brought onto the European continent and the IMF left out of discussions. Neither proposal went any further, but neither is mentioned by Hanink.
The premise of The Classical Debt – whether a cultural debt can be held against a financial one – turns out to be an organising principle around which to have a broader discussion: how classical scholars and early travellers to Greece idealised ancient Athens and created a Philhellenic movement. Hanink teaches courses on these topics and she is at her best in that discussion, as she threads the needle through many of the major characters and moments contributing to the Greek sense of nationhood in 5th century BC Athens and from the 17th century to today.
Hanink ultimately answers the question in an unexpected way: that the West does indeed owe the Greeks a cultural debt, not for defending Europe from barbarians or even for developing the foundations of European thought, but for suffering the West’s disparagement at their failure to live up to an impossible ideal. In the process, she suggests that Western educators take the ancient Greeks off the pedestal scholars put them on, and discuss them not as a miraculous parthenogenesis, but as a culture with its own debts to previous civilisations.
This argument, which acknowledges Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, seems entirely appropriate, especially in view of the fact that the ancient Greeks themselves openly admitted their cultural debts. When Herodotos was asked to glorify Athens in a history of the Greco-Persian Wars, he spent two thirds of his opus on their background – the growth of the Persian Empire, including a chapter on the Egyptians – paying tribute to those whom the Greeks considered civilised, before placing Athens among them.
The territory Hanink ventures onto is heavily mined, as it encompasses the old battlefield between those who believe in Greek genetic and cultural continuity, and those who do not. This has been a fraught debate from the start, because the Greeks’ authenticity was questioned by comparing them at their nadir, hundreds of years after they had lost all self-determination, with their apogee. It was also being posed by travellers from northern Europe who, in Hanink’s words, “were convinced that because of their classical education and personal passion for antiquity, they understood and appreciated Greece better than the Greeks themselves could.” This relationship became further compounded when Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire partly thanks to British, French and Russian support in 1830, and imported a Bavarian king two years later: “Many in Britain, France and Germany also believed that because their countries had safeguarded antiquity for centuries and supported the War of Independence, they had also earned the right to intervene in Greek affairs.” This tour of Philhellenism and Hellenenmity is fascinating, as it reveals not only how proprietary western Europeans have felt (and perhaps still feel) about ancient Greece, but also how their opinion of the modern Greeks is inextricably – and sometimes inversely – linked to their own national self esteem.
Hanink under-reports the Greeks’ deep skepticism about western Europeans, too, who never forgave the Venetians and French for sacking Constantinople in 1204. As recently as 2005, when Pope John Paul visited Athens, they sought an apology for the errant Fourth Crusade. From the Greek point of view it was the Latins, and Catholic western Europe by extension, which had broken European civilisation in two by denouncing the authority of Byzantium and departing from the Eastern Church. Thus weakened the Greeks fell to the Ottomans in 1453. By the time they rejoined Europe, each was unrecognizable to the other.
The last two hundred years, including Greece’s induction into the European Economic Community, can be seen as a slow process of re-acquaintance. Not all of Greece’s bilateral relationships have evolved equally well. The Anglo-Greek relationship is the strongest and healthiest, Lord Elgin’s marble-nicking notwithstanding. Professor Spyros Flogaitis of Athens University expressed this succinctly during a recent discussion about Brexit at the British-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce. The Greek state would be unthinkable without Britain, he said, because it is a product of the Battle of Navarino, in which Admiral Codrington definitively secured Greek independence from the Ottomans, and of Greece’s alliance with Britain in two World Wars. Without Britain in Europe, he went on, Greece is left alone to face the ascendant powers of central Europe, which have only ever been its enemies. (Flogaitis might have added that Britain was foremost in supporting the Greek quest to recreate the Athenian Empire by conquering Asia Minor in 1919-22. And it was Churchill who, at the Yalta Conference in 1945, secured Greece’s exclusion from the Iron Curtain).
Greece’s alignment with the British thalassocracy, itself a classical allusion, ensured that it has remained a recurrent enemy of Germany, and this historic animosity has resurfaced in the ongoing debt crisis with various below-the-belt remarks in populist German media about how far the Greeks have fallen. Do these stem from the 19th century discussion? Perhaps, but the debate over continuity, if it still lives, is in its death throes. Hanink quotes almost exclusively from embarrassed, self-deprecating Greeks who see antiquity as a burden and are happy to deny any relationship with it. The propagators of continuity, on the other hand, are portrayed as the far right Golden Dawn, who are a caricature of Greek nationalism. Neither is representative of mainstream Greek opinion. To most Greeks, continuity is a settled matter, and the reactions of the Greek government to its mauling by certain German politicians and media underline this viewpoint.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras made full use of the EU’s crisis of confidence in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave it at a summit of Mediterranean member states last year. The resulting Athens Declaration extolled social values rather than fiscal discipline, and by extension the artistic, cultural and intellectual pedigrees of the southern states. “Europe cannot go on just being technicalities, finances, rules, administration and austerity,” said Italy’s premier, Matteo Renzi. “The Europe of tomorrow must above all be based on profoundly-felt values because this is what has made us great: the social Europe, the Europe of ideas, the Europe of beauty.” Tsipras was even more direct in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde. “We must decide whether we want a European Union or a German Europe,” he said.
Greece has since invested further in its cultural identity. Along with China, it led a group of ten countries in declaring the Ancient Civilisations Forum last April. The Forum’s declaration recognises “civilisation and cultural diplomacy as a soft and smart power”, hails the preservation of cultural heritage as a defence against “terrorism, radicalisation, extremism… and other forms of related intolerance”, and reminds everyone that the Greek world used to desist from hostilities under the Olympic Truce. Most of the ancient civilisations in the Forum had nothing to do with each other, and when they did it usually resulted in violence, but that is not the point. The Greeks are using it to remind the world that their currency is culture, and that China’s ambition to turn Peiraieus into the Mediterranean’s biggest container port shows countries like Germany that the Greeks can use culture to buy respect, while attracting investments from people who don’t dispute their illustrious descent.
The Classical Debt is a fascinating foray into the process by which Europeans moulded their own and modern Greek identity on the basis of ancient Greek ideals, and this shared culture helps explain the antagonism towards the Greeks when their path seems to veer away from that of the rest of Europe; but it is an anachronism to suggest that the recent crisis has revived the debate of previous centuries on Greek descent. Media attacks on the Greeks probably have more to do with the politics of their audience and the political alliances of the last hundred years, than with an outdated and highly subjective view of who the Greeks were, and are.