Tag Archives: modern Greece

On “the classical debt”

I was once describing to a non-archaeologist Hellenist colleague and friend how archaeology works in Greece. In the course of that discussion I mentioned in passing that the directors of regional archaeological offices are called “ephors” (Greek έφορος). “Really?” she asked, before exclaiming, “How cute!” I didn’t say anything, but privately I was annoyed at the remark. I guess that it is kind of neat for a Classicist, who naturally associates ephors with ancient Sparta… but is it really so remarkable that the word for “supervisor” in Greek (ancient) is also the word for “supervisor” in Greek (modern)?

There are two ways that I think about this little anecdote. They’re interconnected, and both have been stimulated by recent work by Johanna Hanink, an associate professor of Classics at Brown University. The first part is from an article in the journal Eidolon entitled “On not knowing (modern) Greek“, where she argues (in short) that “our discipline continues to take a colonialist view of, among other things, Greece, Greeks, and (Modern) Greek” and that “classicists trained in the “Western” classical tradition tend to disregard Modern Greek as a scholarly language.”

She’s absolutely right, of course. One little example: I almost lost my mind when, just two years ago, a new Journal of Greek Archaeology was announced with the following statement:

Announcing an international journal printing contributions in English, French, German, and Italian…. Work from Greek scholars is particularly welcome, but should be either translated into English or sent to us for English translation or assistance.

Yeesh. I saw that statement on July 22nd, 2015. On social media there was palpable anger about the policy’s neo-colonial implication (and much gallows humor too, of course). Through direct intervention on the part of more established scholars, with cooler heads than mine, the policy was changed (to English only! Huzzah?). Part of my irritation at my colleague’s off-hand comment was, to be sure, the implication that modern Greek was cute: just cute. It didn’t really count, as demonstrated by the fact that she, a specialist in ancient Greek, didn’t really have any acquaintance with the modern language.

But this blog post was supposed to be about the second part of this: a book, The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity (Harvard University Press 2017), which I just finished last night. (There’s also a nice review in the WSJ by Alicia Stallings). This book pulls on a thread and traces it through time, that thread being the idea of the debt owed to Greece by the West because of the achievements of the Classical (senso latu) age – democracy, philosophy, and that – and especially how that idea has manifested itself and been reacted to since the economic crisis. In pulling on this thread, she deals with many interrelated issues, all dealing with the productive and strained relationships between Classical antiquity and modern Greece and the West. In the end, Hanink suggests that the debt ought to be understood as “a debt owed for the centuries of destruction that other people’s dreams of the ancient past have wrought.” It’s a really thoughtful, accessible, well-written book, and one that I’ve been recommending to anyone who will listen.

It’s also helped me to think about why the “cute” comment so rankled. As so many commentators have noted – including Hanink, who is very good on this – Greece is caught in a bind. Here’s how Michael Herzfeld describes it in Anthropology through the Looking-Glass (1987: 19):

the West supported the Greeks on the implicit understanding that the Greeks would reciprocally accept the role of living ancestors of European civilization – the standard, for most romantic writers, of civilization in the most general and absolute sense.

And yet the terms of this tacit agreement were unequal in the extreme. Whereas the Greeks sought genetic confirmation of their cultural destiny in the link with the ancient past, western observers, operating on the basis of a self-fulfilling prophecy, more often saw in it the evidence of Greek backwardness and “obsession.” The Greeks of today are still living out the consequences of that imbalance…

Or, maybe better, here’s Nikos Dimou (translation mine; cf. Hanink, p. 206):

Η σχέση μας με τους αρχαίους είναι μία πηγή του εθνικού πλέγματος κατωτερότητας. Η άλλη είναι η σύγκριση στο χώρο και όχι στο χρόνο. Με τους σύγχρονους «ανεπτυγμένους». Με την «Ευρώπη.»

Our relationship with the ancients is one source of the national inferiority complex. The other source is a comparison of space, rather than of time. With contemporary “developed” people. With “Europe.”

I’m sure that the title of έφορος for the head of a regional archaeological department was motivated by the word’s antiquity. It’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t, and that corresponds to the desire to forge the “link with the ancient past” that Herzfeld refers to. Indeed, early in the history of the Greek state, the creation of a purified Greek language (Katharevousa) was extremely important (this too is well-covered by Hanink). But this purified Greek wasn’t the same as ancient Greek; it was equally built up from modern European languages, especially French. And it was crucially important to the image of Greece, internally and externally. As Herzfeld writes (1987: 52):

Katharevousa would be the means of liberating the Greeks, not only from the cultural corruption that was the legacy of the Turkocracy, but also from the shackles of their humiliatingly dependent status in the European community.

This linguistic link to antiquity, then, well illustrates the bind of being Greek. “Cute,” then, for me at least, was rubbing salt in the wound. It pointed to the inevitable failure of the attempt at Greek linguistic liberation and to both sources of the Greek inferiority complex.

I hope that this too-personal post doesn’t divert attention from my intention, which was to reflect on what I think is a remarkable book. Hanink richly traces the contours of the issues I’ve mentioned here (and many more), sensitively and perceptively, and shows the reader how they played out through much of Greek history, from the 5th century to the present day. It really should be required reading for anyone who’s interested in Greece, past, present or future.


Farm fragmentation in modern Greece

Viewed from a vantage point, and in the clarity of its celebrated light, the Greek landscape contains much to charm and interest the observer. But in the mundane aspects of its agriculture, many imperfections may be detected including such features as primitive farming techniques, meager crop stands, insufficient fencing, and neglect of the principles of soil conservation. Most striking, perhaps, is the fact that the arable land generally presents the aspect of an intricate mosaic of tiny fields set in a matrix of roads, paths, and field divisions.

More careful study of the landscape reveals a grossly anomalous pattern of proprietorship since the minuscule, awkwardly-shaped fields (perhaps better termed plots) are rarely in contiguous ownership. Usually a single farm consists of a number, even 30 or more, of widely separated, tiny plots. The dismemberment of land has gone so far that a plot of 20 stremmata (about 5 acres) is now considered a large piece of property. Truly, the fabric of Greek agriculture has been cut to pieces.

Thus begins Kenneth Thompson’s classic Farm Fragmentation in Greece (1963, 1). The fragmentation of the landscape into small plots was a nightmare for Thompson, who wrote his study for the monograph series of the Greek Center of Economic Research (the preface is written by Andreas Papandreou!). Thompson clearly didn’t understand, and couldn’t understand, the fragmented Greek systems of land holding. Most archaeologists and historians now interpret farm fragmentation positively, as a sensible, risk-averse economic strategy (e.g., Gallant 1991).

In any case, I had occasion to look at Thompson and the other literature of farm fragmentation for different purposes. My forthcoming monograph is a prosopographical study of Late Bronze Age Pylos. I argue that in many cases, we can plausibly show that when a personal name appears in multiple Linear B texts, it represents a single historical individual who was active in multiple areas under palatial administration. One obstacle to these prosopographical identifications is geography. Although in some cases the same name appears at the same place-name, in others the same name is listed against different places. Now, sometimes we know where these places are, sometimes we don’t. But if we do know where these places are, when it is reasonable to say that they are TOO far apart? Clearly if the places are 1 or 2 km apart, it’s not impossible to believe that a single person could have been active at both places. After all, according to Google Maps my office is a 1.4 km walk from my home, a short distance that isn’t very troublesome, even in the coldest depths of a Toronto winter. But what about 10 km? 20 km?

The farm fragmentation studies were one way for me to approach an answer this question. Like most Greek archaeologists, I was familiar with Greek farm fragmentation and the fact that Greek farmers were generally willing to travel great distances (or what seemed to me like great distances) to work their land, but I hadn’t looked at the primary data. Thompson is the most comprehensive study, but there is also information about Melos (from Renfrew and Wagstaff 1982), Methana (from Clark 1988) and Messenia itself (from McDonald and Rapp 1972). On Melos, the travel time to the most distant landholding  ranged from 5 minutes to 6 hours, with a mean of 2 hours. Here is the breakdown based on the 97 farmers interviewed for the Melian study:


The Melian results are basically compatible with those from Methana and the survey of Thompson, which covered several different parts of Greece. Thompson found that the average distance to the furthest landholding was 7 km, or a walk of about 1.4 hours. Clark (1988, 58-59) reports that most fields on Methana are 5 minutes to 1 hour’s walk from the village, although some were as far as 3 hours away, Some Methanites owned land on the plain near the village Τροιζήνα and travelled there by mule, a journey of 5-8 hours (Clark 1988, 92). Unfortunately the Minnesota Messenia Expedition did not report distances to the furthest landholding. Instead, they report that “the average travel distance between the farmer’s home and his fields is about 1.3 km…” (van Wersch 1972, 178). This is significantly less than the average of 2.2 km for the Peloponnese reported by Thompson (1963, 32). For my purposes, the furthest landholding is the most useful statistic. But in any case, we can concluded that farmers in mid-20th century Greece were generally willing to travel 1-2 hours to their furthest landholding, although in some cases they would be willing to travel 5-8 hours. The average field, however, was closer to the farmer’s home, on average about 20-30 minutes away.

If the modern farmers are anything to go by, then, distances of 10 km should be no major obstacle to prosopographical identification. That is, it is not difficult to imagine a Bronze Age Messenian walking 2 hours from this place of residence to a plot of land, or the location of some other part-time work. Indeed, it might even be possible to see 20 km distances as no great obstacle, if we assume that the individual in question lived midway between the two locations recorded in the Linear B documentation (although I don’t operate on this assumption in my book).

In any case, I’m not sure that geography is all that significant in prosopographical identification. After all, many (if not all) of the individuals identified by name in the Linear B tablets were likely to be individuals of some standing, who could have had holdings and interests that were taken care of by kin or dependents. But in some cases, it’s possible to show that a name listed against two different toponyms can reflect one person who, although not itinerant, does regularly move across significant distances in the landscape. Many Linear B scholars, when confronted with the same name at two toponyms, concluded that two individuals with the same name were being referred to. A closer look, however, suggests the opposite conclusion: that in many cases we’re looking at references to the same person who moved around the Messenian countryside.