Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation by Roderick Beaton - review by Sean McMeekin

Sean McMeekin

The Place that Launched a Thousand Ships

Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation


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For a country of just eleven million people, whose population ranks eighty-fourth in the world, between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Greece has a large and imposing history. When many Anglo-Saxons think of Greece, they think of the ancients: the millennium of the Trojan War and Athens’s wars with Persia and Sparta, of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and of Alexander the Great’s Hellenic empire. Russians and the Eastern Orthodox tend to think of the age of Byzantium – another thousand years rich with incident. The modern Greek state, known since 1974 as the Hellenic Republic, is a toddler in comparison. Nevertheless, even this version of Greece is nearly two centuries old. And all this is not even to mention the four hundred or so years during which most Greeks lived under Ottoman rule. For a student or tourist hoping to read up on Greek history before flying to Athens, there is a lot to digest.

For the historian of Greece, the first problem is defining the subject. In Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation, Roderick Beaton has chosen to tell the story of the modern Greeks as a people or nation, which is less straightforward than it sounds. It means jettisoning the ancient and Byzantine heritage, and most of the Ottoman period too. Geographically, Beaton casts his net wider. By focusing on the Greek ‘nation’ instead of ‘state’, he brings in the broader Greek diaspora (which today numbers fifteen million), from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.

He begins his story with the Russo-Ottoman War of 1768–74. Catherine the Great’s resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Christians in the recently conquered lands of New Russia (today part of Ukraine) reignited the question of Greek national sovereignty after centuries of quiescence under the Turks. The empress also championed what she called the ‘Greek idea’, basically a programme to restore the Christian Orthodox Byzantine Empire with its capital at Constantinople.

Catherine’s scheme never came off, but in the 1820s the freshly invigorated Greek diaspora of New Russia led the charge for independence. Although it had no official support from St Petersburg, Philiki Etaireia, the ‘friendly society’ that helped launch the revolt, was based in Odessa, and its leader, Alexandros Ypsilantis, was a tsarist officer who wore a Russian army uniform when he crossed into Ottoman territory (in what is today Moldova) in March 1821. Significantly, his army was composed almost entirely of educated diaspora Greeks.

And they lost. It was not Philiki Etaireia that won independence for Greece but a group of brutal local warlords on the mainland – helped along by military intervention by the great powers. The naval victory won by the British, French and Russians over the Ottomans at Navarino in 1827, Beaton writes, ‘changed everything’, even though ‘not a single Greek took part’. Helping clinch independence was the decisive Russian victory over the Ottomans at Adrianople (today Edirne) in 1829. Although Lord Byron and European ‘Philhellenes’ imagined the battle for Greek independence as a romantic struggle, the new state was actually born in a ‘frenzy of terror, mutual hatred and bloodletting’, with the assistance of outside powers, most of all Russia.

Some of this story is familiar, but Beaton salts it with fascinating details which consistently surprise. Athens was not simply a backwater at the time of independence; its population spoke mainly Albanian, not Greek. More than three times as many Greek speakers lived outside the new country as inside it. The attempt by nation-builders to bring back the ancient heritage involved not only reviving a dead language but also clearing away centuries of architectural ‘clutter’ and stripping the Acropolis ‘down to the bedrock’. In a sign of political intent, ‘dozens of beautiful and historic Byzantine churches’ were ‘levelled … to make way for the new Athens city plan’.

The Philhellenes may not have been the ones who actually secured Greek independence, but they won the political argument with the Russophiles of Philiki Etaireia. Modern Greece would not be Byzantium reborn. Rather, it was an imagined nation conjured up from ancient Hellas. Despite inevitable hiccups, the project was hugely successful, helping pioneer, in Beaton’s telling, ‘the route that would lead from the old Europe of great empires to the Europe of nation states that we know today’.

The lure of a greater Greece persisted for many decades following independence, bringing both opportunity and danger as politicians sought to envelop diaspora Greeks within the new state. From successive crises in Crete and Cyprus over enosis (‘union’) with the Greek mainland to the great clash with Kemalist Turkey over Anatolia in the aftermath of the First World War, dreams of greater Greece have wrought untold havoc in the eastern Mediterranean.

Beaton covers bitterly contested historical terrain with flair and an admirable lack of partisanship. He expertly navigates landmines surrounding the Greco-Turkish population exchange, the years of the Metaxas dictatorship and the bloodletting that occurred during the Axis occupation of 1941–4 and subsequent civil war. Beaton reminds his readers that the 1974 war in Cyprus was ‘started by the Greek junta’, even if the Turkish invasion of the north island is what most people remember.

Beaton is scrupulously fair on the most controversial episodes, including Greece’s painful recent headaches over Eurozone debt and austerity. He clearly loves Greece, with all its imperfections and flaws, and he is not afraid to expose them. At times, however, his sympathy for Greece leads to a lack of critical distance. While noting the frequent abuse of the past by Greek politicians, Beaton still takes the Greek national project largely at face value. Early critics of the Philhellenes, like the Austrian writer Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer, argued that for Greece to trace its political lineage back to Hellas meant erasing the 2,159 years in between Philip II’s invasion in 338 BC and AD 1821 – basically trying to revive a dead people, as there were no blood ties left to the ancients. Beaton brushes off this critique as ‘irrelevant’, since ‘nobody nowadays thinks that culture is determined by race’.

But there is much more to identity than racial heritage. Just as modern Zionists resurrected Hebrew and Kemalist Turks purged Ottoman of Arab and Farsi words, so modern Greek has been cleansed of centuries of linguistic accretion. Like the Philhellenes who championed their cause and the city planners who wiped away Roman-era architecture, Greek nationalists have succeeded in erasing much of Greece’s history from popular consciousness – especially the Ottoman period.

Because his aim is to explain how modern Greeks ‘have thought about themselves’, Beaton follows them in downplaying their country’s Ottoman heritage (something that is obvious to anyone who visits Greece today). He might well have asked why modern Greeks and Turks quarrel over whose ‘coffee’ it is and pretend they don’t greatly resemble each other, in spite of shared musical, culinary and social traditions, including what Beaton calls the ‘men-only kapheneion’ (in Turkey they’re known as kahvehane), where in times past wizened old coots ‘played backgammon, drank coffee and disputed the contents of the daily newspapers’.

Still, these are quibbles. Beaton’s history of modern Greece is a scholarly and elegant introduction to this beguiling country. Serious students of history should read it, and no visitor to Greece should leave home without it. 

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