When the Greek poet George Seferis rose to give his speech on being awarded the 1963 Nobel prize for literature, he asserted that the Swedish Academy’s honour was not so much for him as for the language in which he wrote: “A language famous 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 magisterial new book. He writes: “The Greeks of the title and the pages that follow are to be understood as speakers of the Greek language.”
This language used to be very widespread indeed; and served as a lingua franca, so to speakas it were, across polities and cultures. At its peak, the Hellenistic world stretched from beyond the Hindu Kush mountains in today’s Pakistan to the south of France, its scope revealed in place names that endure to this day. Alexandria, Naples, Nice – all are legacies of a world that used to be, in some sense, “Greek”. Consider the Septuagint, the third and second-century BC Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Done in Egypt, it met a need among Egyptian Jews, losing touch with Hebrew, for an intelligible version of the original text. And as in so many other times and places, intelligible meant Greek.
Huge as the Hellenistic world was, the cultural influence of the Greeks over the millennia has been greater still. The world is littered with their architecture; university curricula and political structures, among other social forms, draw from their customs and institutions. “The Greeks have got just about everywhere,” Beaton writes.
His focus on language has us happily roaming beside Greek speakers across a vast geography and chronology, and plays to the author’s strength as an expert in its many forms and dialects. But the book’s real engine is perhaps Seferis himself, on whose life and writings Beaton is the greatest living authority. The poet, who spent a lifetime pondering the meaning of the modern Greeks and their connection to the ancients, wrote the famous words: “Greece is travelling, always travelling.” This image of constant wandering, but also of protean dynamism, is captured well by Beaton.
His Greeks are constantly changing, debating and interacting with the worlds of which they have been a part. The Hittites of the second millennium BC; the countless peoples of the Hellenistic world; the varied cultures of the early Christian era; the Venetian and Ottoman Mediterranean of the Renaissance and Early Modern Periods; the modern Europe of today – all have been antagonists and neighbours, influencers of and influenced by the Greeks. Some, in adopting the language as their own, have themselves “become Greek”.
In this way, Beaton’s language-based definition of the Greeks is far more than a narrative frame. It goes to the heart of a longstanding academic question, and one of the most charged debates among contemporary Greeks themselves: what “counts” as Greek? The current Greek nationalist answer – which generally invokes Orthodox Christianity alongside a relatively recent ancestral connection to the lands that today constitute Greece – is distinctly modern, inflexible and constrained. Beaton’s work restores multiple identities to the Greeks, reflecting the depth and complexity of all that they have been over their long history. As Seferis put it in that Nobel speech, the Greece of today is “a small country, but its tradition is immense”. One of the greatest paradoxes of Greece, and arguably the trait most characteristic of it today, is this simultaneous humbleness and world-conquering ethos. Beaton is probably the only person alive who could manage with such subtlety and authority to convey it in one coherent volume.
After decades as a diplomat, Seferis returned to his homeland in 1962. He was pained to see how the country had changed, largely as a result of having given itself over to tourism. The summer of his return, he had a vivid nightmare of a future in which he stood among a throng 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 mogul.
The dream was prescient: in 2010, at the peak of the financial crisis, two German politicians set off a furore by proposing that Greece repay its debts by selling off its ancient buildings and its islands. The suggestion led to outrage, and a boycott of German goods. But on a more symbolic level, it touched on questions such as: who owns the Greek past? How is that past connected to the modern Greek present? And, most fundamentally, who are the Greeks?
With this remarkable historical account, Beaton points us towards answers. This dazzling series of peoples with their many civilisations, identities and traditions have animated the world – and they continue, as always, to be on the move.