A Classic Mistake: Ceding Greece to the Ancient Greeks

Katherine Kelaidis

Despite the fact I was only eight years old, I clearly recall the first time that I realized there was probably some disconnect between my view of my heritage and that of those around me. My awakening occurred on the day as an eight-year-old when Chris Ferrero (I’m pretty sure that was not his real name) asked me if I had considered “taking Jesus into my heart and getting saved.” This was not an unusual occurrence. Colorado in the 1990s was not the Land of Legal Marijuana, it was the home of Focus on the Family. So I gave the pat answer I had been taught to give: “I have been baptized.”

Really, there was no use in explaining the different soteriology held by American Evangelical Protestants and by the Greek Orthodox to a second-grader who did not actually care. Chris looked shocked though. “Wait,” he said, “Doesn’t your family worship Zeus and Hera?” Except for all those Greek cities to whom Paul of Tarsus writes “in the Bible”, my classmate might have been forgiven for this misconception. The fact is that every time “the Greeks” came up in our suburban elementary school, it was in the context of an idealized ancient past – an imagined antiquity that not only has very little to do with actual ancient history, but seems to forget that much of anything has happened in Greece or to the Greeks since Alexander the Great. Unfortunately, this problem can also be found commonly enough higher up the educational ladder.

Hera welcomes Dionysus from Zeus’s thigh (detail from Apulian krater, c. 410 BC; now in the National Archaeological Museum of Taranto, Italy)

In the year that marks the bicentennial anniversary of the Greek War of Independence (1821–32), I have been thinking a lot about my former classmate and that very awkward day on the playground nearly thirty years ago. As a classicist by training and a Greek American by birth, I have watched the recent debate surrounding the future of Classics with both attention and a combination of amusement and frustration, feelings that have only been heightened at this bicentenary by the complex relationship between Greece’s independence on the one hand, and Classics as imagined and admired by Western Philhellenes on the other.

There is, after all, little doubt that Greece would not have obtained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821 if not for the support of the Western powers. And though much of that support was good old-fashioned political opportunism, a considerable remainder, especially among ordinary people, was directly related to Philhellenism and the love of an idealized Ancient Greece celebrated as the Founder of Western Civilization and all that accompanies it. Even today, tourism is the heartbeat of the Greek economy and those tourists come looking not just for beautiful beaches, but for the Parthenon, the Temple of Apollo, and the ruins at Knossos. And they pay little attention, if any, to Byzantine churches or the Ottoman-era Gazi Evrenos Bey Imaret. The tourists are looking for an antique Greece where time has stood still, an unhelpful way to look at any nation’s history.

The name of Lord Byron lurks among the romantic graffiti of Philhellene vandals (a column of the Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion, Greece)

The development of this idealized Greek – the figure who lives outside of history that these tourists continue to seek – arguably corresponds with the moment at which modern Greek identity was also beginning to take shape, as the Byzantine Empire began its collapse and the Italian Renaissance its ascent. Without the space to repeat the excellent work that has been done and is being done on this subject, let it suffice to say that modern Greek identity is a hodgepodge of images from antiquity, Byzantium, and the Ottoman occupation.[1] And it is hard to argue that any of these pieces cannot be interpreted in some way through the lens of postcolonial experience, the identity of a people who have not only been politically, economically and/or militarily occupied for centuries, but whose very past has been colonized – a point that has been best and most famously argued by Stathis Gourgouris and Marc Nichanian. Prompted by Wilhelm von Humboldt’s declaration that “our study of Greek history is a matter quite different from the history of other peoples. For us, the Greeks step out of the circle of history,” Gourgouris declared this to be “no less than an explicit and programmatic colonization of the ideal.”[2]

And this colonization has had consequences. A seemingly innocuous one is that in many universities in North America and Western Europe, when Modern Greek is offered (and that is rather rare), it is frequently offered through the Classics Department. This is not the case for Italian or for that matter (as would perhaps be linguistically more appropriate) Romanian; the daughter languages of Latin, notably the ancient language of the western half of the Roman Empire, are allowed to cut their ties with their Classical past.

But there are other, more serious consequences to this way of doing things. By confining Greek history to a solitary era, we have made the ancient past the perfect sharpening rock for anyone with an ax to grind. There has been a plethora of attention over the past five years to the ways in which white supremacist and white nationalist groups have hijacked antiquity into the service of their ideological aims. And let us be clear, while the attention to the problem is recent, the problem itself is not. This is in part because by freeze-framing Greek history at the moment in which Athens triumphs over Persia (more or less), we have offered to these people a view of history in which the white (whatever that means) European man is forever triumphant. Conversely, our static presentation of Greek history has likewise set Classics up to be the enemy par excellence of those who view history as a simplistic morality play about The Oppressed and The Oppressor, with the forever colonizing, forever slave-holding Greeks standing as the source of all of history’s subsequent woes.. While clearly the former position is more immediately dangerous, neither of these views of history is accurate or helpful.

The Battle of Salamis (480 BC, fought between the Greeks and Persians), Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868

But this significant problem that stems from the current relationship between Classics and Modern Greek culture can suggest some productive ways forward. To begin with, no matter on what side of the raging debates surrounding Classics people find themselves, it seems that everyone bears out von Humboldt’s statement to some degree by placing the Greeks outside of the circle of history. This is in no small part because much of the Greek narrative is challenging to contextualize within current political and academic paradigms. The story of the Greeks is, like fiction (to paraphrase Joan Didion), quite hostile to ideology. Edward Said, the father of Postcolonial Studies, declared that “Orientalism and Hellenism are radically incomparable” – and yet, as has been demonstrated time and time again, modern Greeks are “orientalized” by Western Europeans and North Americans.[3]

The Greeks are “white”, European, Christians who spent four hundred years being colonized and occupied by an Asiatic Islamic empire. Europa is a Greek woman and Greece is the perpetually underperforming member of the European Union. The Greek past is appropriated and weaponized by white supremacists and yet contemporary internet message boards debate the “whiteness” of the Greeks.[4] But these paradoxes are not really paradoxical at all; they simply highlight the places where our ideologies and paradigms fall short. In doing so, the case of the Greeks offers us an opportunity to challenge the rigidity of our theories.

The Abduction of Europa, Valentin Serov, 1910

By viewing Greek history through the same lens as we view the history of other places and people, we have an opportunity to highlight the ways in which identities and power relationships shift through the course of time, sometimes rapidly, breaking from the ridged identity categories and perceived hierarchies that grip so much of contemporary discourse. Moreover, examining Classics as part of Greek history, and just a part, offers us the chance to discuss how history is used and sometimes abused in the service of contemporary politics. In short, the Greeks offer us an opportunity to question what we know about the past and what we do not know about the present.

Further still, coming to understand Greek history in the context of continuity offers Classics the opportunity to escape from its image as a discipline dedicated to the unquestioning preservation of a long-dead past, the worship of ancestors who never really were. Instead, it opens up the possibility that Classics seek to engage with the beginning of a rich and complicated tradition, sometimes defined by supremacy and power and at other times shaped by subjugation and survival. Moreover, reconfiguring the relationship between Classics and Modern Greek holds out the chance of re-engaging productively with questions about universalism, multiculturalism, and transcultural exchange. At a fundamental level, we are being asked to examine what it means to “belong” to a tradition, and how and even if cultures and histories can belong to us.

None of this is to say that Classics as a discipline does not have a lot of work to do, particularly around its own history. There is plenty. Instead, I offer these thoughts to try and break through the binary, stringent, and rather predictable shape the debate has taken. Because I believe that any future for Classics must look for a salvation that is more complicated than what a child once told me on the playground decades ago.

Katherine Kelaidis is the Resident Scholar at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, IL. She holds a PhD in Classics from the University of London and a BA in Classics from the University of California, Berkeley.


1 For further reading on this topic, begin with the following: Georgios Steiris, Sotiris Mitralexis and Georgios Arabatzis (eds.), The Problem of Modern Greek Identity: From the Ecumene to the Nation-State (Newcastle, 2016); Stratos Myrogiannis, The Emergence of a Greek Identity (1700–1821) (Newcastle, 2012), and Dimitrios Vasilakis, “Hellenism and Christianity: Petros Brailas-Armenis on the Constituents of Modern-Greek Identity,” Akropolis: Journal of Hellenic Studies 3 (2019) 88–108.
2 Gourgouris’ emphasis. This quotation comes from his seminal book Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization and the Institution of Modern Greece (Stanford UP, 1996) 124; von Humboldt’s quotation occurs in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Greek Republic (Geschichte des Verfalls und Unterganges der griechischen Freistaaten (1807): “Es ist daher mit dem Studium der griechischen Geschichte für uns nicht wie mit dem der Geschichte anderer Völker. Die Griechen treten gänzlich aus dem Kreise derselben heraus.”).
3 See, for example, Anna Carastathis, “Is Hellenism an Orientalism? Reflections on the Boundaries of ‘Europe’ in an Age of Austerity.” Critical Race & Whiteness Studies 10.1 (2014), and Yannis Mylonas, The “Greek Crisis” in Europe: Race, Class and Politics (Leiden, 2019).
4 Anna Foka and Katherine Kelaidis, “Fifty Shades of Greek: The Reception of Greek Racial Identity in the Swedish Internet Forum Flashback.” Forthcoming.