I fear my infatuation with David Brewer has thoroughly cooled. I’m well over halfway through The Greek War of Independence, and what was at first a trickle of annoyance has become a torrent of bile. I’ll begin with an apparently innocuous factor: accents.
One of the things that attracted me to the book when I first saw it in a store was the fact that all Greek names were provided with accents. I don’t understand why this is so rarely done; word accents are as important in Greek as in, say, Spanish, for which they’re routinely reproduced in English text; they’re written in Greek itself (unlike in Russian, which is some excuse for the fact that the stress is so rarely marked in transliterated Russian words); and in this computer age it should be no problem to put acute accents over vowels. Nevertheless, they are almost always ignored for Greek, and I considered it a high recommendation that Brewer took the trouble to add them.
But already on page 4 I noticed an anomaly: the name of what was once the grandest cathedral in Christendom and is still the most famous building in Istanbul was given as Áyia Sofía. This is mixing apples and oranges; the katharévousa (archaizing) form of the name is Ayía Sofía, the demotic (colloquial) form Áyia Sofiá (whence Turkish Ayasofya; the traditional Anglicized version is Hagia Sophia). But that seemed like nitpicking even to me, and I moved on. Then on page 11 I came across Naoússa for what should have been Náoussa—and not once but twice, so it wasn’t a typo. I knitted my brow, but moved on. On page 26 one of the founders of the Philikí Etería was given as Tsákalov when I was pretty sure it was actually Tsakálof, but… maybe I was wrong. (I wasn’t.)
Soon, though, it was impossible to keep making excuses: the accents were a mess. “Salóna, modern Amphíssa” should be “Sálona, modern Ámphissa.” Armátolos (‘local law-enforcer hired by the Ottoman government’) was given in place of the correct armatolós, Ellínikon for ellinikón. and Lévkas for Levkás (demotic Levkáda, the island then known as Ayia Mávra or Santa Maura). And I was noticing something else as well. Aside from the accent problem, “Salóna, modern Amphíssa” is exemplary; a historical text should give the name used at the time of the events and add the modern name to orient the reader. Brewer does this a few times; by and large, however, he simply uses the modern names, however anachronistic: Lamía for what at the time was called Zitoúni, Agrínion for Vrakhóri, Tripolis (no accent!) for the Peloponnesian center famous at the time as Tripolitzá. Like Tripolis, Navplion is given throughout without an accent (which is on the first syllable); back then it was called Anápli by the Greeks, Anabolu by the Turks, and frequently Napoli by Europeans who did not insist on classical nomenclature. Brewer calls the large island east of Attica and Boeotia “Évvia,” which is unlikely to be intelligible to readers who think of it as Euboea and which was not used at the time (Greeks called it Égripos and Europeans Negropont). The height of absurdity is reached when at one point he talks about the Alamána River and at another about the “Sperchíos” (should be Sperkhiós) without appearing to recognize that these are the old and new names for the same river.
I admit I’m peculiarly sensitive to nomenclature, and these things probably do not matter to the average reader. But to my mind they are symptomatic of a larger problem. I began realizing this in the chapter “Revolt along the Danube,” about the abortive invasion of Moldavia and Wallachia (modern Romania, then ruled by Greeks on behalf of the Ottoman Empire) that heralded the War of Independence. Here’s the passage that set off the warning bells:
In Wallachia intrigue was rife. The governor, Alexander Soútsos…, was gravely ill…, and in January 1822 on his deathbed set up a caretaker government of native nobles or boyars. These saw this interregnum as an opportunity to establish Wallachian rights, in particular the right to be governed by a native prince rather than a phanariot Greek. To this end they sent at the end of January one of the government’s military commanders, Theodore Vladimirescu, into western Wallachia, ostensibly to put down disturbances there, but in fact with instructions to create a disturbance of his own, aimed at inciting the local inhabitants and boyars against the phanariot Greeks. Vladimirescu’s private motive, however, was to make himself prince of an independent Wallachia. His game was thus a double one from the start, and its increasing deceptions finally undid him. Of a different stamp was another of the Bucharest commanders, Iorgáki Olimpiótis. Thomas Gordon… described Iorgáki as ‘distinguished for prudence, valour, and patriotism, and enthusiastically wedded to the principles of the Hetoeria…’
This is absurdly Boy’s Own and hellenocentric, more suitable to schoolchildren than readers of history. On the one hand, we have the greasy native playing a double game and out for himself, whose “increasing deceptions finally undid him”; on the other, a patriotic and principled member of the club, who would doubtless have distinguished himself on the playing fields of Eton had he only had the good fortune to be born British. The denouement of this little morality play is equally broadly drawn:
[The governor of Moldavia] fled with his family across the Pruth into Bessarabia. It is hard to see him as anything other than a fair-weather friend of the Etería. A further problem was the questionable conduct of Vladimirescu, who, as Ipsilántis learnt from intercepted despatches, was now negotiating with the Turks, offering them military help in return for the coveted governorship of Wallachia.
Trying to save one’s family is being a “fair-weather friend,” and a Romanian trying to rule Romanians in place of a bunch of hated rapacious Greeks is “questionable conduct”! Brewer seems to take a certain pleasure in reporting how Vladimirescu was seized and “butchered” by the momentarily triumphant Greeks. The whole invasion is summed up with far better perspective in this short paragraph of Richard Clogg’s excellent A Concise History of Greece:
Ypsilantis also hoped to take advantage of the concurrent uprising, led by Tudor Vladimirescu, of the Romanian inhabitants of the Principalities [Wallachia and Moldavia] against the native boyars, or notables. But the Romanians showed no greater enthusiasm than did the Serbs and Bulgars for making common cause with the Greeks, whom they identified with the oppressive rule of the Phanariot hospodars. Following the defeat of his ragged army at the hands of the Ottoman forces at the Battle of Dragatsani in June 1821, Ypsilantis was forced to flee into Habsburg territory and the invasion petered out.
And there is a far more detailed discussion in Barbara Jelavich’s History of the Balkans, which I cannot recommend highly enough; she has the amazing ability to write scholarly history that is as readable as a novel. Here is a bit of her discussion of Vladimirescu:
Although Vladimirescu himself tried to make a distinction between the “good” boyars who supported his movement and the others, the peasants, who joined him in thousands, were not so discriminating. They burned houses and barns, and they looted the boyar estates. A true social revolution was in progress. Vladimirescu formed an army, called the People’s Assembly, whose basis was the group of six hundred pandours who had come to his support at once.
Vladimirescu’s movement, it will be noted, was not directed against the Porte [the Ottoman government]. He and his supporters called upon the suzerain power to restore “old conditions”—in other words, to return to the days before the Phanariot Greek rule. Vladimirescu also appealed to the Ottoman government to investigate the conditions in the Principalities and to remedy the sufferings of the people. Throughout this period he remained in touch with the Ottoman agents and with the pashas in command of the Danube forts.
This is real history, giving you a sense of the complexity of the situation and the motives of the various actors without attempting to pass judgment. Brewer is a cheerleader, and a careless one at that. I won’t go into detail about the two chapters devoted to Byron, an object of obsession to the British both then and now but so peripheral to events he’s not even mentioned by Makriyannis in his memoirs of the war; Brewer’s loving depiction of Byron’s love life, correspondence, raffish friends, and impetuous decision-making set in high relief his cursory descriptions of the Greeks involved in the war, and make it plain that for all the jacket copy about “certain to be the standard history for many years to come,” this is yet another in an endless series of slapdash, Britocentric popular histories, full of flashing swords and treachery and glorious patriotism but sadly deficient in accuracy, either in overall perspective or in the small matter of accents.