The Eudæmonist‘s latest post sent me to a review of David Roessel’s In Byron’s Shadow: Modern Greece in the English and American Imagination that got me interested in that book; the review’s mention of the Dilessi murders of 1870 (Δήλεσι [Dílesi] being a coastal town in eastern Boeotia where British and Italian tourists were killed by brigands) sent me off on a research binge that brought me to a brief but far-ranging article by David Brewer (whose book The Greek War of Independence I own and am eager to read) called “Ethnic Truth and Modern Greek History,” which resonated strongly with ideas I have long been mulling over (and have written about in my PURITY VS. HISTORY series of posts: 1, 2, 3, 4).

Brewer begins with Romilly Jenkins’s concept of “ethnic truth,” the idea that a nationalist conception of history can trump inconvenient facts:

In the furore over the Dilessi murders the Greeks denied all responsibility and argued, when the facts were clearly otherwise, that the travellers had rashly brought the tragedy on themselves and that the brigands involved were not Greeks but… Vlachs from the north. The ‘ethnic truth’ of the Greeks was completely opposed to the facts as perceived by the rest of the world. Yet ‘ethnic truth’ won.

He mentions the Karakasidou scandal of a decade ago (discussed by me here) and proceeds to an analysis of why Greece is particularly prone to this neurosis:

However, the roots of ethnic truth probably go deeper than this, to three divisions in Greek consciousness and culture. The first such split is between History and histories. History (with a capital H) is formal history, officially sanctioned, and an essential part of the national identity. On the other hand, histories (with a small h) are the stories of individual experiences. Anastasia Karakasidou found that the villagers she listened to easily believed both a version of events from History (that they were all Greeks descended from Alexander the Great) and a totally different one from their own histories (that many were Slav speakers from elsewhere). They could accept both—until forced to accept one or the other, when they chose History.

This division is reinforced by a second split, between two forms of the Greek language, katharevousa and demotic. Katharevousa is formal Greek, with many similarities to ancient Greek and purged (hence its name) of foreign words; demotic is Greek as spoken, with all the accretions and elisions that an everyday language naturally acquires. Katharevousa was the language of school books throughout the nineteenth century, and for much of the twentieth whenever a conservative government was in power. Generations of school children thus easily accepted that classroom History written in katharevousa was one thing, and that (hi)stories recounted in demotic by their elders round the fireside was quite another.

The third distinction, from which perhaps all the others flow, brings us back to Jenkins’ original idea. It is the conflict between two archetypes of the Greek temperament, the Hellene and the Romios. This was first proposed by Patrick Leigh Fermor in his 1966 book Roumeli, and no anthropologist working in Greece can now be without it. The Hellene, said Leigh Fermor, was the heir of ancient Greece, Hellas; the Romios was shaped by Byzantium, the new Rome, and by four centuries of Turkish occupation of Greece. He went on to list sixty-four characteristics of the Romios and the Hellene, in opposing pairs except for a few which were common to both, such as unstinting hospitality and a passion for the political sections of newspapers. Whereas the Romios favours practice, for instance, the Hellene favours theory; Romios lived by instinct, Hellene by principle and logic; the former is at home with demotic Greek, the latter with katharevousa. The argument is that in all Greeks there are elements of both, and that this is the origin of an inner turmoil in the Greek psyche which can lead to reactions which are incomprehensible to outsiders.

Romilly Jenkins’ concept of ‘ethnic truth’ was not intended to mock the Greeks: it was the basis of a plea for understanding. Ethnic truths, he wrote, ‘had held the Greek people together as a race, and nerved it to endure in patience and hope nearly four centuries of slavery’. So the next time we read a biography which savages the reputation of a great man, or hear a revisionist historian arguing that one of our own nation’s finest hours was not fine at all, and our hackles rise, and we take no interest in the evidence but spring to the conclusion, not just that the thesis is not true, but that it could not possibly be true—then at that moment we too are Greek, seething with indignation at the trampling of one of our own ‘ethnic truths’.


  1. In Taiwan my students assured me that there was almost no crime in Taiwan. So I said “Yes, but there does seem to be quite a lot of burglary”. (I’m not naturally tactful, but I find “Yes, but….” to be an extremely valuable phrase).
    The class spent the rest of the time period telling stories about burglars and their habits. I didn’t see anyone whatever do a doubletake. They had done their patriotic duty.
    I read a Greek government culture/tourism magazine once which was fine, except that the little piece on Macedonia was ludicrously ferocious. Keeping both Greece and Turkey in the EU is going to be quite a feat.

  2. aldiboronti says

    The extremist position on this is that of Jakob Fallremayer:
    “His contributions to the medieval history of Greece are of great value, and though his theory that the Greeks of the present day are of Albanian and Slav descent, with hardly a drop of true Greek blood in their veins, has not been accepted in its entirety by other investigators, it has served to modify the opinions of even his greatest opponents.”
    Speaking of “true Greek blood”, weren’t the Ancient Greeks a mixture of Dorians, Aeonians, Iolians and heaven knows what else?
    Defoe wrote a sharp little poem, “The True-Born Englishman”, satirizing the ethnic pretensions of the Englishmen of his time, already a mongrel people.
    The modern Israelis have had aspersions cast on their ancestry, with one theory casting the Ashkenazi as the descendants of Khazars, who converted to Islam en masse at some point. (There’s a story that the Khazar chieftain invited the representatives of the three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to appear before him and expatiate on the merits of each. The rabbi clearly won!)

  3. The Khazar story per se is pretty much accurate; there was even a correspondence with the Jews of Spain at one point.
    However,tracing the Ashkenazi Jews to the Khazars is much more dubious. There are better explanations, IIRC. This does not exclude there being some Khazar (Turkish) descent among them. (Arthur, Koestler, The Thirteenth Tribe, launched the story, but there’s been a lot done since.)
    I’ve always wondered where the jewish name Wolf came from. It sounds more appropriate either to a Turk or a German,granted that it is a fierce martial totem and that most Jews have been non-martial and forbidden the use of weapons during most of the last 2000 years.

  4. zizka: I’d say “crackpot” rather than “dubious.” Poor Koestler thought if he could prove Jews weren’t Semites, anti-Semites would stop hating Jews. How an intelligent man could entertain that notion for a moment, I have no idea.
    As for Wolf: The name is from Genesis 49. Verse 9 compares Judah to a lion, verse 21 says “Naphtali is a hind,” and verse 27 says “Benjamin is a wolf”; hence the popularity of the names Loew (Loeb, Loewenson, &c), Hirsch (Hersch, Hirschman, &c), and Wolf (Wulf, Wulf, Wolfson, &c), respectively.

  5. I forget to tell the punchline. Sufing around I came across a long anti-Semitic thing explaining that the Jews are really Turks (which to him was even worse than being Jews). But he wrote Khazak instead of Khazar, mixing up facts about two completely different Turkic peoples separated by over a thousand miles and almost a thousand years.

  6. Zizka:
    Things have changed a lot. Now the Taiwanese love to tell you how bad things are – how dangerous, how much crime, how unsafe, etc. Even though crime rates have gone up, it remains a very safe country, with relatively little violent crime. But anytime there is an incident anywhere in the country, the media reports it 24/7, and so people have come to feel very scared.

  7. “Of those accused of complicity in the murders, minor figures, mostly Vlachs, were condemned, while major figures, mostly Greeks, were cleared.”
    I am almost certain that the Arvanitakis brothers were beheaded publically soon after their capture, and they were definitely “Greek”, but so were all of them anyway – if Vlachs didn’t count as Greek a good number of the Greek heroes of the war of independence would be non-Greek.
    As for the issue of identity, modern greeks are a melange of, not only greek, but also vlach, albanian, slavic and a number of smaller communities and subcommunities, in varying proportions, who pretty much decided (united by a common religious afilliation to the Patriarchate of Constantinople) to become the Greek nation, inventing all sorts of mythologies “explaining”, for example, why the Albanian speakers who dominated the area around Athens really *were* Greek. Greek-Vlachs (Graecovlachi), Arvanites, *Grecoman* slavic speakers are *all* constituent parts of modern greek identity… But this strays too far from the official state history to be openly admitted in Greece despite the fact that, in my personal view, it is a humanizing and inclusive history. Note that even these ethnic groups can’t be said to be even remotely “pure”, as the country has always been a crossroads of migrants and conquerors, who interbred vividly…
    The Macedonian issue… is a sad story of national hysteria and the power of nationalism as a tool of mass distraction. Let me just say that this nationalist panic was encouraged up to a point by the Greek government, which was trying at the time to pass some rather unpopular austerity measures – and then by the opposition, which saw an excellent opportunity to cast the government’s patriotism into doubt.
    Now, thankfully, most Greeks have forgotten about this sordid affair – especially as the more bizzare nationalist claims of the macedonian slavs have been disowned by the Macedonian government.

  8. I entirely agree about the humanizing concept of the melange, and I am relieved to hear that the “Macedonian fever” has passed.

  9. xiaolongnu says

    For a very nice study of the ways in which Ionians, Dorians, etc., became “Greeks,” I highly recommend Jonathan Hall’s recent book “Hellenicity.” In addition, it has some nice materials on the Aiolians, who I can’t help thinking of as the ancient Greek people of the garlic mayonnaise.

  10. Thanks very much for the recommendation; I’ll look for it (at the library — $50!!) and for his earlier book Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity. And this whole bibliography looks worth investigating. Too many books, too little time…

  11. Very interesting, all of the above. What if Greek were to come back into fashion in the schools, as Latin seems to have done in some parts of the U.S. of A.?
    At any rate, I would like very much to start reading according to this intriguing bibliography. Perhaps it can be my way of paying homage to my deceased neighbour Spike Vallas, husband of “Inie;” both were formerly our next-door neighbours in little Knoxville, Knox County, Illinois, not far from the Spoon River of Edgar Lee Masters. (So this would be part of our history with a little “h,” right?)

Speak Your Mind