They’re all Greeks to me (part 1)
Gazing upon the genes of Agamemnon
Note: This is part 1 of a series. Part 2 is posted here.
In the 1820’s, the modern Greek nation-state was born out of a war for independence against the Ottoman Turks, who had ruled the Greeks as a subjugated race since 1453 when Mehmed the Conqueror breached Constantinople’s walls. The Greeks were aided in their battles by sympathetic Western Europeans, notably classically educated “Philhellenes,” eager to liberate the descendants of the noble civilization in whose literature and philosophy they were so thoroughly steeped. The most famous of these young men was Lord Byron, who in his elegiac Isles of Greece laments:
Must we but weep o'er days more blest?
Must we but blush? – Our fathers bled.
Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae.
By 1832, the native partisans’ and European powers’ joint efforts (in particular Russia) had compelled the Ottoman Empire to recognize Greek independence, a modern state born of an ancient nation.
But in the aftermath it became clear the classically educated elites of Western Europe who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the partisans felt almost betrayed by their erudition, reflexively measuring the contemporary Greeks they supported against the vaunted ancient Greeks of legend. Homer’s paeans to the courage of the Achaeans storming the shores of Troy fired the imaginations of the Philhellenes. By contrast, the rebels huddling in refuge in the Ottoman Greek mountains seemed shabby stand-ins for the warriors of yore. Unsurprisingly, war’s wholly unromantic realities disillusioned many a callow Philhellene. In The History of Warfare, military historian John Keegan recounts these interlopers who came to fight on Greece’s behalf expecting to see their beloved Hellenes fiercely confront the Ottoman armies head-on, just as their outnumbered ancestors had faced down the Persians at Thermopylae with steely determination and unflinching acceptance of their doom. Instead, they experienced the gritty utilitarianism of guerilla fighters who preferred to harass and aggravate the Ottomans, content to win the war through slow-grinding attrition rather than a heroic battle ending in self-sacrifice.
The Philhellenic disillusionment with the rebels’ approach reflects the outsized and enduring impact Thucydides’ chronicles and those of his contemporaries still had on Greek martial reputation even millennia later. According to the classicist Victor Davis Hanson, the ancient Greeks invented the pitched battle. In The Western Way of War Hanson argued that tightly coordinated formations of phalanxes reflected the egalitarian democratic ethos of the Greek city-states, where citizen-soldiers fought shoulder to shoulder out of patriotic devotion to their polis. The clash of opposing infantry formations head-on meant that the only options were a clean and conclusive victory or defeat. This is in sharp contrast to warfare predicated on the ambush, skirmish and retreat, a style famously employed by the warriors of the steppe. Wars between Greek city-states employing citizen-soldiers had to be short, with a quick and decisive outcome, for economic and cultural reasons. Fields always needed tending and tilling, while public life in the polis required continuous active participation.
The reality then of 19th-century Greek hit-and-run skirmishing could not have been more different from the ancient battles memorialized in 2,500-year-old texts and poems, whether highly disciplined phalanxes marching headlong into an enemy pike formation or brave combatants charging the walls of Troy one by one. The reluctance to engage in a pitched battle against superior Ottoman forces was so out of step with the stoic fatalism recounted embodied by the Spartan king Leonidas and his three hundred armored hoplites (dramatized in the 2007 film 300), that some Western intellectuals questioned whether the modern Greeks were the noble Hellenes’ descendants at all. Could these lithe and swarthy people indeed be the scions of graceful, brutal Achilles, the berserker giant Ajax and the glorious superman Heracles? Some began to suspect that ancient Greeks were an entirely different race than the Balkan Christians throwing off the Ottoman Muslim yoke. French Minister to Greece and racial theorist Arthur de Gobineau claimed that the Hellenes of his time were a mixture of Arabs, Slavs and Albanians, while the ancients were of pure Aryan blood.
Gobineau and his fellow travelers proposed that the classical Greeks were a Nordic people, closer in form and spirit to Scandinavians than the modern races of the Mediterranean. To support such conjectures, these intellectuals made reference to the original-language Greek works, leaning on their fluency in classical Greek to summon Homer himself as a witness. In the Iliad, one translation referring to Achilles contends that the “goddess standing behind Peleus' son caught him by the fair hair.” Likewise, the Spartan king and Helen’s husband Menelaus is described as “yellow-haired,” as is the wily adventurer king of Ithaca Odysseus. The casting of Brad Pitt in 2004’s film Troy falls squarely in line with this tradition of the Nordic Greek demigod hero archetype.
Of course, this thinking fed into the ideology that justified Nazi racial history, which synthesized the valorization of ancient Greece that was the norm in 19th-century Germany with scientifically concocted racial theories. While some in the Nazi elite sought to confirm the glories of the Aryan race through an archaeological and ethnographic investigation of Northern Europe, Heather Pringle in The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust reports that Adolf Hitler himself had only contempt for these endeavors. Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, exulted in the recovery of ancient clay pots in Scandinavia, but Hitler was insistent that the most outstanding achievements of the fair-haired Aryans had occurred in the Mediterranean, where the Nordic race had been invigorated by the healthful influence of the bright southern sun that unleashed their cultural dynamism, blossoming into the glories of Rome and Greece.
So who were the modern Greeks to the disillusioned Philhellenes? I must again quote the second-century Roman poet Juvenal, well known to 19th-century classical-educated gentlemen, who asserted:
A Rome full of Greeks, yet few of the dregs are Greek!
For the Syrian Orontes has long since polluted the Tiber,
Bringing its language and customs, pipes and harp-strings
Germany’s WWII defeat and the horror of the Holocaust threw such views fully into disrepute, but their miasmic shadow still lingers in some circles. Ancient Greece was the font of the West, but modern Greece is viewed as a fragment of the corrupt Orient, explicitly included in the European Union only by dint of a geographic coincidence.
And yet today, modern genetics, using both ancient DNA and surveys of contemporary Greeks and how they relate to neighboring peoples, can test the disgruntled conjectures of the 19th-century Philhellenes, rooted, as they were, unrealistically in their love of the vaunted Athens and disciplined Sparta. Though the ancient world was one of transformation, migration and dislocation, the Nazi fantasies do indeed turn out to be mostly fiction. The ancient Greeks were not Nordic, but a Mediterranean race, and to a great extent, the Greeks of today are their descendants, even if the collapse of the classical world did bring some newcomers to the edge of Homer’s “wine-dark sea.” The typical lineaments of modern Greeks would be recognizable to their classical ancestors and even their more distant Bronze-Age forebears.