BMCR 2001.09.22

Encyclopedia of Greece and the Hellenic Tradition (2 vols.)

, Encyclopedia of Greece and the Hellenic tradition. London/Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000. 2 volumes : illustrations, maps ; 29 cm. ISBN 1579581412. $295.00.

This is a fine and substantial work of scholarship, but it is problematic on a number of counts. First, one wonders whether we need yet another encyclopedic work devoted to the Greek World. We have seen, in recent years, the appearance of a third edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary (1996, 1696 pages), the original and comprehensive Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (1991, 2232 pages), and the ongoing publication of the 15-volume Neue Pauly (1996-2002, projected at 9000 pages), which surveys the Greek and Roman (including Byzantine) Worlds to AD 800. Moreover, in its latest incarnation, volumes 13 to 15 of Der Neue Pauly are devoted to “the history of the later reception and influence of Graeco-Roman antiquity, the ‘classical tradition,’ with its continuous reinterpretation and revaluation of the ancient heritage, including the history of classical scholarship.” The Encyclopedia of Greece and the Hellenic Tradition may advance a claim to be different by virtue of covering the Greek World in all ages, with an emphasis on continuity, and addressing not the “classical” but specifically the “Hellenic” tradition. But surely the notion of Hellenic continuity is a construction of the period of nation formation (largely post-1821), which compromises our understanding of earlier periods and phenomena? This problem, I must now confess, is one I broached with the editor when I was asked to write a number of entries. Ultimately, although my fears were not entirely allayed, I agreed to contribute three entries (Alexios I Komnenos, John II Komnenos, Manuel I Komnenos). These comprise four and one half of the work’s 1861 pages, and I trust this does not compromise my integrity as a reviewer. They do, of course, implicate me in the criticism that follows. I restrict that criticism to the area I know best: Byzantium and Byzantinism. Others may have similar problems, or no problems at all, with other areas within the encyclopedia’s broad remit.

What is meant by the Greek World, or Graeco-Roman World, is my principal problem with this work, and this is not solved, indeed may be exacerbated by the choice of title. “What do we mean by Greece,” the editor asks in his introduction. His answer, embracing the “fairyland of myth and legend ruled by unruly demigods” and “the gay clubs of Mykonos,” is fairly broad. But is it broad enough to embrace also Armenia, which enjoys an excellent four-page entry by A. R. Littlewood (pp. 170-3)? The justification is that Armenia and Armenians experienced varying degrees of “acculturation” by principally Greek-speaking East Rome through many centuries. However, Greek was never a major language in Armenia and Armenian Christianity followed its own path. Language and religion are the two factors that Speake singles out as defining Greek-ness, being “the most obvious vehicles of cultural transmission,” and neither makes Armenia part of Greece or subject to the Hellenic tradition. Certainly, Armenians shared cultural ideas with their Byzantine neighbors, and the estimate that 10-15 percent of the Byzantine aristocracy was Armenian by origin is striking. But to consider Byzantine and Greek equivalent terms is dangerous, indeed erroneous. Yes, the so-called Byzantine period was a period of Greek cultural history (see “Byzantine period”, pp. 260-71); and yes, the principal language of Byzantine government and administration, literature and history was, after c. 565, Greek. But Byzantium was far more than medieval Greece, and not all Byzantines, meaning subjects of the Byzantine emperor, spoke Greek as a first language (pp. 920-5). The Byzantines, as John Barker explains (pp. 271-3), identified themselves as Romans, or Christians. “Hellenes” was a term reserved initially for those implicated in “cultural or religious paganism.” In the later Middle Ages the Latin term Graecus was applied by westerners to the Byzantines, and a few Greek-speakers did begin to call themselves Hellenes (pp. 721-3), opposing their faith and language with those of Latins competing for the designation “Roman.” But many more Orthodox Christians continued to call themselves Romans, and the Balkan peninsula remained the land of the Romans, Rumeli into the twentieth century (pp. 1470-2).

The encyclopedia’s identification of Byzantium with Medieval Greece is made explicit in the section devoted to the continuous “Political History” of the Greeks (pp. 1349-79). Once again, well-written pieces by eminent and emerging authorities present the reader with summaries of the principal periods of Byzantine and post-Byzantine history: F. E. Schlosser, 330-802; C. Foss, 802-1204; P. Lock, 1204-61; D. Angelov, 1261-1453; A. M. M. Bryer, 1453-1832. But are these excellent essays best placed in an encyclopedia of Greece? What have they to do with the Hellenic tradition, beyond representing the triumph of nineteenth-century Greek national claims to the political history of a multi-ethnic empire? It is now widely realized that Byzantine history began to play a significant role in Greek life and thought in the context of the struggle for emancipation from Ottoman rule. That is not to say that a Byzantine tradition did not endure through the period of Ottoman domination, but we must draw a distinction between the Byzantinism of the Tourkokratia, and the vision of Byzantium which emerged in the independent Greek state. Moreover, for the century before 1821 the classical past prevailed over the Byzantine period for those seeking a model past for the new Greece. The Byzantine centuries were considered dark by Greek intellectuals of the Enlightenment. The most famous detractor was Adamantios Korais (pp. 906-8), for whom Byzantium stood for obscurantism, oppression and inertia. Korais championed instead the ideal of the classical Greek poleis, and the example of revolutionary France. He was present in Paris in 1789, and believed that modern Greeks, in order to emulate their ancient forebears, could do no better than imitate the French.

Korais’ contemporary Rigas Velestinlis (pp. 1694-6) also took the French Revolution as his inspiration. His publications included a projected constitution, modelled on the French constitutions of 1793 and 1795, for a new state called the ελληνικι διμοκρατια, or Hellenic Republic. It was to be a unitary, not a federal, state which embraced the whole Balkan peninsula and Asia Minor. Sovereignty was to reside in the people, who were to comprise all the state’s inhabitants without distinction of language or religion, though, the official language was to be Greek. However, there were substantial problems with Rigas’ vision of a Greek nation state as a restored Byzantine empire, not least the fact that the Byzantine system was monarchical and anti-national. To serve as a model, therefore, Byzantium had to be redefined so that it might fit within, and not contradict, the national, and nationalist, framework of nineteenth-century Greece.

In the middle years of the nineteenth century Byzantium was embraced by scholars of philology, linguistics and folklore as the missing link, which proved the continuity of hellenism. Byzantine texts were compiled, edited and published, and Byzantine themes were a commonplace in contemporary literature. The history of the Byzantine empire was embraced as a subject worthy of study, and redefined as the history of medieval Greece. The greatest exponent of Greek historical continuity was Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos (pp. 1250-1), author of the monumental History of the Greek Nation. Paparriogopoulos’ task was to chart the passage of “the Greek nation” ( το ελλινικον ετηνος) from origins to emancipation, through the Byzantine era, which he rechristened the age of the Hellenic Empire of Constantinople. Initially a mere sketch intended for school-children, Paparrigopoulos’ vision expanded to five volumes for the second definitive edition (1885-7), of which three volumes were devoted to Byzantine history. A contemporary of Paparrigopolous’, George Finlay (no entry) repackaged this for an English-speaking audience.

Paparrigopoulos and Finlay, amongst others, gave solid historical foundations to contemporary Greek political ambitions. In the decades before the first edition of their histories appeared, Greece had been established as a sovereign kingdom under a Bavarian-born king, Otho I (pp. 1211-12). A new capital city, Athens, had been chosen in September 1834 (pp. 192-6). And in the context of a debate over the relative rights of Greeks living within and outside the borders of the new kingdom, a new doctrine was formulated which was to govern Greece’s foreign policy objectives for the remainder of the nineteenth century. The Great Idea ( μεγαλι ιδεα, pp. 688-90) expounded first and famously by Ioanis Kolettis (pp. 897-8) in 1844, was to bring all Greeks within the kingdom by extending its borders by force of arms. Historians like Paparrigopoulos and Finlay established a link between the medieval empire and the Great Idea within the prevailing political culture of “Romantic Hellenism.” The eminent Byzantinist Joan Hussey once wrote of Finlay that, in assessing his A History of Greece from its Conquest by the Romans to the Present Time, B.C. 146 to A.D. 1864, “particularly on the Byzantine period, it must be remembered that he was writing about what he calls ‘the fortunes of the Greek nation.’ This led him to omit much that would now be included in any ‘Byzantine’ history.” The opposite is true in this encyclopedia: much has been included that has little to do with “the fortunes of the Greek nation.” Most contributors are aware of this, and present excellent critical analyses upon which much of the foregoing exposition draws. To that extent the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

“This book was,” the editor notes, “my idea.” Graham Speake, the secretary of the Friends of Mount Athos, is a determined Philhellene, and this is his second encyclopedia devoted to matters Greek. It is beautifully produced, and contains a wealth of erudition. It should and will be consulted with great interest and benefit by scholars of many specialisms and historical periods who may, or may not share the editor’s overarching vision.