Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.06.24

K.S. Brown, Yannis Hamilakis, The Usable Past: Greek Metahistories.   Lanham:  Lexington Books, 2003.  Pp. xiv, 239; figs. 33.  ISBN 0-7391-0383-0.  $70.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-7391-0384-9.  $26.95 (pb).  

Contributors: Eleni Bastéa, John Bintliff, K.S. Brown, Philip Carabott, Loring M. Danforth, Patrick Finney, Basil C. Gounaris, Yannis Hamilakis, Margaret E. Kenna, Thomas M. Malaby, David Sutton

Reviewed by John K. Papadopoulos, University of California, Los Angeles (
Word count: 2641 words

This stimulating little book, packed with interesting essays, had its origins in a conference held in 1998 at the University of Wales, Lampeter, entitled: "Negotiating Boundaries: The Past in the Present in Southeastern Europe." A quick glance at the Acknowledgments shows that the original conference was a much grander affair, with a dozen or so papers that were delivered, but never published, not to mention even more additional participants. Sometime between the conference and the publication, not only the title of the event, but its intellectual focus seem to have shifted from "boundaries in southeastern Europe" to a more sharply focused contribution on twentieth-century Greece. The title itself belongs to well over 20 books published in the last thirty years with the "Usable Past" either in the title or subtitle; these are volumes that cover a wide range of subjects, but which, predictably, deal primarily with literature, cultural, and architectural (or urban) history. In contrast, the subtitle is an open tribute to Hayden White's seminal study on the historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe, which established the concept of metahistory into that kaleidoscope of wonderfully trendy words that roll off the tongue.1 There is a great deal to commend in this book. It will appeal to anyone interested in a better understanding of cultural dynamics, the multiplicity of the human past, and the preconceptions that we ourselves bring to its reconstruction, interpretation and invention. It will not appeal to social scientists who are in the habit of wearing lab coats, nor to processual archaeologists hell-bent in uncovering the truth.

The volume is arranged into a trio of essays, prefaced by an introduction by the editors, and followed by an afterword by Loring Danforth. The first paper, entitled The Cupboard of the Yesterdays? Critical Perspectives on the Usable Past, by K.S. Brown and Yannis Hamilakis sets the intellectual stage, and goes on to summarize and contextualize the various contributions in the volume. The paper begins with the debate among what the authors refer to as professional historians, though they quickly note the low prestige of history in the United States on the grounds of irrelevance (I wonder, however, how many history departments in the United States Brown and Hamilakis know firsthand?). The debate is well-known, pitting historicism against presentism, a perennial dichotomy or polarity that, I would argue, spirals back to a past much more remote than that of Robin Collingwood or Benedetto Croce (and his classic statement: ogni vera storia è storia contemporanea),2 right back to the earliest attempts, ironically in classical Greece, at writing about and interpreting the past.3 Since the debate over the past as a cultural production rather than a scientific pursuit of the truth is centered not only in history but also in archaeology and socio-cultural anthropology, the aim of the volume was to bring together historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists to explore different and often contested understandings of history and to delve into the location and context of historical narratives. The result is yet another wonderful demonstration of the benefits of inter- or cross-disciplinary interaction in the study of the relationship between the past and present. As the editors stress, however, their aim was not simply to cross boundaries -- self-perpetuating entities fortified and upheld by institutional politics and the power structures of academia -- but to blur the boundaries altogether, albeit temporarily. To this end, Greek nationalism and its many narratives provides a wealth of case studies that permit a variety of scales of analysis, as well as different forms of data and conceptual approaches that better reflect, as the authors state, the diversity and fluidity of human experience.

The explicit focus of the volume on the twentieth century in Greece is in part defended by the fact that "accounts of nineteenth-century Greek nationalism emphasize the central importance attached to classical Greece, especially Athens, as a key resource in claims that people in modern Greece should govern themselves in a state that would be part of Europe" and one in which "European middle classes and intellectuals played a major role, as did diasporic Greek intellectuals". Ironically, this very volume was largely conceived of and in part written by European middle class intellectuals, including at least one diasporic Greek. Unlike the nineteenth century, the twentieth century saw the expansion of Greece after the Balkan Wars, the substantial demographic consequences of the Megale Idea, domestic policies that put political prisoners on remote islands at different times throughout the century -- thereby creating just one category of internal "others" -- and massive levels of migration, both from the countryside to the city and from Greece to the New Worlds of America, Australia, and other destinations abroad. Nevertheless, the power of the classical past and Byzantium did not wane.

Part I, entitled Projects: The State in Action (or alternatively, The Nation and Its Fragments) begins with Philip Carabott's paper on Monumental Visions: The Past in Metaxas' Weltanschauung. This is the first of three essays that undermine, if not deconstruct, the imposing and monolithic political and ideological structure (aka: the nation-state) that dominates the lives, bodies, and minds of its citizens. Carabott's paper explores the Greek experience in the "age of dictatorships" in Europe and the ideas upon which the Greek nation-state was founded under the regime of General Ioannis Metaxas. Although Metaxas' dream of the Third Hellenic Civilization (1936-1941) -- ironically, though not intentionally, echoing the Third Reich -- was largely based on notions appropriated from classical antiquity (ancient Sparta as opposed to Periclean Athens) and Byzantium, it is interesting how the trajectory of Greek dictatorship -- lacking as it did the mass party support along the lines of the Italian Fascists or the National Socialists in Germany4 -- nevertheless came into conflict with that of contemporary European dictatorships, most famously in the OXI! (NO!) uttered by Metaxas himself. Yet Metaxas' use of antiquity was highly selective, one that stood in contrast to the cherished images of classical Greece held elsewhere in Europe, and it is this that Carabott effectively explores. Hamilakis' paper, "Learn History!" Antiquity, National Narrative, and History in Greek Educational Textbooks, one of the most enlightening in the volume, explores the uses of archaeology in primary and secondary education textbooks in Greece today. This penetrating essay not only emphasizes the ethnocentricity of education in Greece, it shows how continuous reference to material culture facilitates the construction of an imagined topos of Hellenism in the national education system. The following paper, by Basil Gounaris, turns to The Politics of Currency: Stamps, Coins, Banknotes, and the Circulation of Modern Greek Tradition. Together, Greek money and stamps provide a set of visual signifiers, that are not quite as unnoticed in scholarly writing as the author, and editors of the volume, maintain. Employing a quantitative analysis, Gounaris' study shows how antiquity, once more, serves as the ancestral golden age of the nation. The paper, unfortunately, is not illustrated, and for those wishing to see what is a compelling visual background, at least so far as coinage and banknotes are concerned, the recent book by Othon Tsounakos covers the field well.5 By dealing with both stamps and coins/banknotes, however, Gounaris overlooks the power of money, particularly the fact that the nation-state not only authorized a common past through representation but utilized the very vehicle of value to do so.6 Ironically, the introduction/imposition of the Euro in Greece, an issue not directly dealt with by Gounaris, has highlighted many of the processes that underlie the manner in which symbols on money -- or stamps -- work to create/impose what may be termed a common identity.

Part II, entitled Fractures: Resisting the National Narrative, comprises three essays that focus on specific case studies that explore the factures of, or resistance to, the national project. The first of the three, by Patrick Finney, looks at the Macedonian Question in the 1920s and the politics of history. By spiraling back to a formative period in the history of Greek Macedonia, Finney effectively explores the relationship between the recent past and present, and antiquity and the present. He also turns his attention to the broader issue of academic responsibility, urging intellectuals to expose and deal a deathblow, whenever possible, to simplification, to demystify narratives of destiny, and to challenge the essentialism that collapses the gap between the present and antiquity. The second paper in this trio deals with a small island on the very edge of the Cyclades. Based on her decades-long association with and study of Anafi, Margaret Kenna cogently brings to light the existence of various minorities within a community of exiles on the island between 1936 and 1941, a community that was very far from unanimous in its vision. Motivated individuals were able to create an alternative view of the Hellenic past by looking to an alternative dream of a Hellenic future. Here is resistance in its rawest form. Using archival photographs, Kenna presents a multiple vista of the orthodox communist majority, the Trotskyite Archive-Marxists, and the Old Calendrists among those banished to Anafi during Metaxas' dictatorship. The third essay in this section, by John Bintliff, begins with the conversations in the coffee shops of rural villages and turns from archaeology to ethnography to portray the ethnoarchaeology of the Arvanites of central Greece and their passive ethnicity, an ethnicity, often overlooked, that is in many ways more Greek than the Greeks. A co-founder of the Boiotia regional project and a veteran of landscape archaeology in Greece, Bintliff avoids the trap that so many earlier scholars of regional survey fell into, namely the belief in what Michalis Fotiadis termed the past-still-present.7 By focusing on the Arvanites of central Greece, Bintliff uncovers startling historic discontinuities and ethnic divisions under what seemed to be a uniformity of contemporary provincial society. In the process, he also shows, inadvertently, the important role played by archaeologists in capturing information not only of the remote past, but also of Greece of yesterday and today.8

The final trio of essays fall under the heading: Conversations: From Past to Present. The first paper, and one of the most interesting in the volume, by Eleni Bastéa, examines "how architectural heritage, woven into our lives through personal and collective memory, becomes a testimony to the past -- a past, however, that reflects current theories of history and culture". From personal reflections of Thessalonike in the 1960s and 1970s and recent studies of memory, Bastéa turns to the architecture of Dimitris Pikionis (1887-1968) and Sedad Hakki Eldem (1908-1988), among the most influential architects, respectively, of twentieth-century Greece and Turkey. Adopting a comparative approach, Bastéa effectively uncovers, on both sides of the Aegean, the image of the modernist grappling with the past, or an awareness of the past. She ends her essay with the Arabic proverb: "We resemble our neighbors more than we resemble ourselves".

The issue of modernity is also explored in Thomas Malaby's study entitled Spaces in Tense: History, Contingency, and Place in a Cretan City, which explores what may be termed the ethnography of a commercial enterprise, particularly the issue of city space and café décor in Chania. [Frequenting kafenia (cafés) and zacharoplastia (sweetshops) represents some of the most rigorous ethnographic fieldwork I have come across in years, and I am envious that I had not thought of it myself!] In the final essay of the trio, entitled Poked by the "Foreign Finger" in Greece: Conspiracy Theory or the Hermeneutics of Suspicion? David Sutton returns to the island of Kalymnos and more particularly to ta mesa by which Kalymnians make sense not only of relationships on their island, but in Greece more generally, and the wider world. By focusing on ta mesa and the Kalymnian interpretations of local and international events, Sutton highlights an enduring aspect of the Modern Greek psyche, not only on Kalymnos.

In his Afterword, Loring Danforth casts his net wide, from William Bouwsma's introduction to A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History to Homi Bhabha's "narrating the nation." His aim is to throw nationalist narratives -- whether Greek, Macedonian, or American -- into sharper focus by pointing to their similarities with one another and their "tendency to simplify, generalize, essentialize, idealize, and romanticize the events they narrate". In so doing, Danforth effectively brings out all sorts of issues that the various papers in the volume have dealt with and, as all good afterwords strive to do, he succeeds in hitting all the high notes of each paper. Danforth's essay is a worthy complement to the introduction by Brown and Hamilakis, covering as it does similar ground but from a slightly different perspective.

The book follows in the intellectual footsteps of the seminal contributions of a number of scholars, not least Vassilis Lambropoulos and Artemis Leontis, to mention only two, who have explored so well the contextual nature of Greek historical and literary narratives.9 But by alluding to such contributions, one sees more clearly what is missing in this volume. Not only does The Usable Past lack the contributions of those that have delved deeply into aspects of Greek literature, it also lacks the voice of a truly consummate historian -- as opposed to archaeologists and anthropologists -- of twentieth-century Greece (and Europe), someone like Mark Mazower, whose work has brought to the fore, a decade ago, many of the issues that the volume under review so effectively explores. When dealing with the multiplicity of Greek narratives and the construction of "others," I was sorry not to see, for example, something not so much on the Greek communities of South Italy, but how South Italians (including "passive" Albanians who migrated to Calabria centuries ago) have used the classical past to construct the notion(s) of Magna Graecia, a concept that is much more modern than it is ancient. Similarly, I was disappointed not to see anything on a diaspora Greek community, and their narratives, whether in Brisbane or Melbourne, Cape Town or Queens, or the experiences of returned Greeks, such as the different Pontic communities of the Black Sea, who, on their return to Hellas, became the butt of many a Modern Greek joke. In a similar vein, there is nothing on the very real minorities within Greece, whether Pomaks or Moslems in the north, Catholics on the islands, or economic refugees from countries of the former Soviet block and the Philippines in the metropoleis of Athens and Thessalonike, though Bintliff's paper on the Arvanites of central Greece does focus on a fascinating ethnicity, passive as it is, within Greece. To be sure, I am being pedantic here, and it would be wrong to judge this book by what it does not cover. Nevertheless, I remain intrigued by the papers delivered at Lampeter in 1998 that were never published. This said, the editors of the volume have succeeded in putting together a fine volume.

Perhaps because the book appears in a series conceived by a philologist (Gregory Nagy), with previous volumes very much in a philological mode (with the possible exception of the new edition of Meg Alexiou's classic The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition), the quality of illustrations is poor, and this is a shame, particularly given the wonderful selection of illustrations by Hamilakis, the haunting images of exiles on Anaphi chosen by Kenna, and the historic photographs of Pikionis' and Eldem's architecture presented by Bastéa. In addition, the book is not free of editorial boo-boos, not so much typos (of which there are a few), but missing words, and the occasional cumbersome turn of phrase. The idiom of the volume is neither wholly English nor American and reflects contributions by scholars entrenched in both English and American academe. All this, however, is more than compensated by a book that is intellectually stimulating, a delight to read and one that will appeal to many humanists and social scientists -- except, of course, for those in the habit of wearing white lab coats.


1.   H.V. White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
2.   A classic one-liner I was surprised not to see quoted by Brown and Hamilakis, given the number of one-liners cited in the introduction from Voltaire to Henry Ford and well beyond.
3.   See J.K. Papadopoulos, Engaging Mediterranean Archaeology, in J.K. Papadopoulos and R.M. Leventhal, eds., Theory and Practice in Mediterranean Archaeology: Old World and New World Perspective, Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, 2003, 3-32.
4.   M. Mazower, Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, p. 14.
5.   O. Tsounakos, Drachmoula mou kalo sou taxidiAthens: Ekdoseis Eliotropio, 2001.
6.   See especially J.K. Papadopoulos, Minting Identity: Coinage, Ideology and the Economics of Colonization in Akhaian Magna Graecia, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 12, 2002, 21-55; J. Parry and M. Bloch, eds., Money and the Morality of Exchange, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
7.   M. Fotiadis, Modernity and the Past-Still-Present: Politics of Time in the Birth of Regional Archaeological Projects in Greece, American Journal of Archaeology 99, 1995, 59-78.
8.   Cf., among many other contributions, S.B. Sutton, ed., Contingent Countryside: Settlement, Economy, and Land Use in the Southern Argolid since 1700, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
9.   E.g. V. Lambropoulos, Literature as National Institution: Studies in the Politics of Modern Greek CriticismPrinceton: Princeton University Press, 1988; A. Leontis, Topographies of Hellenism: Mapping the Homeland, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995; also M. Alexiou and V. Lambropoulos, eds., The Text and Its Margins: Post-structuralist Approaches to Twentieth-century Greek Literature, New York: Pella Publishing Co., 1985.

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