When the Greek poet George Seferis rose to deliver his speech on the occasion of the 1963 Nobel Prize for Literature, he asserted that the honor of the Swedish Academy was not so much for him as for the language in which he wrote: “A famous language through the centuries, but not widespread in its present form.” The peoples who have spoken it in one version or another over the past 3,500 years are the subject of Roderick Beaton’s masterful new book. He writes: “The Greeks of the title and of the following pages should be understood as Greek language speakers.“
This language was indeed very widespread; and has served as a lingua franca, so to speak, across politics and cultures. At its peak, the Hellenistic world stretched beyond the Hindu Kush mountains of present-day Pakistan to the south of France, its extent revealed by place names that continue to this day. . Alexandria, Naples, Nice – all of them are the legacy of a world that was, in a certain sense, “Greek”. Consider the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. AD from the Hebrew Bible. Made in Egypt, it responded to a need among Egyptian Jews, losing contact with Hebrew, for an intelligible version of the original text. And like in so many other times and places, intelligible meant Greek.
As immense as the Hellenistic world was, the cultural influence of the Greeks over the millennia was even greater. The world is littered with their architecture; university programs and political structures, among other social forms, are inspired by their customs and institutions. “The Greeks have roughly all overBeaton writes.
His emphasis on language happily makes us wander alongside Greek speakers through a vast geography and timeline, and plays on the author’s strength as an expert in his many forms and dialects. But perhaps the real driving force behind the book is Seferis himself, on whose life and writings Beaton is the greatest living authority. The poet, who has spent his life reflecting on the meaning of modern Greeks and their connection to the ancients, wrote the famous words: “Greece travels, always travels. This image of constant wandering, but also of protean dynamism, is well captured by Beaton.
Its Greeks are constantly changing, debating and interacting with the worlds of which they have been a part. The Hittites of the 2nd millennium BC. the innumerable peoples of the Hellenistic world; the varied cultures of the early Christian era; the Venetian and Ottoman Mediterranean from the Renaissance and early modern times; Modern Europe today – all were antagonists and neighbors, influencers and influenced by the Greeks. Some, by adopting the language as their own, have themselves “become Greek”.
In this way, Beaton’s linguistic definition of the Greeks is much more than a narrative framework. This goes to the heart of a long-standing academic question, and one of the most charged debates among contemporary Greeks themselves: What is it that “matters” as a Greek? The current Greek nationalist response – which typically invokes Orthodox Christianity alongside a relatively recent ancestral connection to the lands that today make up Greece – is distinctly modern, inflexible, and constrained. Beaton’s work restores multiple identities to the Greeks, reflecting the depth and complexity of all they have been during their long history. As Seferis said in that Nobel speech, Greece today is “a small country, but its tradition is immense”. One of Greece’s greatest paradoxes, and arguably its most characteristic feature today, is this simultaneous humility and philosophy of conquering the world. Beaton is probably the only living person who has managed with such subtlety and authority to convey it in a cohesive volume.
After decades as a diplomat, Seferis returned to his homeland in 1962. He was saddened to see how much the country had changed, in large part because he had devoted himself to tourism. The summer of his return, he had a vivid nightmare of a future in which he stood among a crowd on the Acropolis. To his horror, he discerned that the crowd around him was there for an auction: the Greek government had given the Parthenon to the highest bidder, an American toothpaste tycoon.
The dream was premonitory: in 2010, at the height of the financial crisis, two German politicians caused a stir by offering Greece to repay its debts by selling its old buildings and its islands. The suggestion led to outrage and boycott of German products. But on a more symbolic level, he addressed questions such as: who owns the Greek past? How is this past connected to the modern Greek present? And, more fundamentally, who are the Greeks?
With this remarkable historical tale, Beaton points us to answers. This dazzling array of peoples with multiple civilizations, identities and traditions has animated the world – and they continue, as always, to be on the move.