Discussion / History

How Much Does a Grecian Urn? Humour, Philhellenism and the Greek Crisis

The last few weeks have seen a huge peak in Classical references appearing in the media. This is because, as political commentators have so regularly pointed out, we have just witnessed a Greek tragedy. They are referring not, regrettably, to the popularisation of the pointless neologism ‘Grexit1 but to the austerity measures imposed by Eurozone members on Greece as conditions for a new bailout loan. Recently, Wikipedia’s Greek Tragedy page even briefly listed ‘Tsipras’ as one of the major authors of the genre. Opinions on the recent agreement (sorry, ‘aGreekment’) are varied – extremely so – but on one thing it seems everyone can agree: it’s time to wheel out the Greek puns.

Perhaps it should be warming to a Classicist’s heart to see the ancient past feature so prominently in a modern political debate. There have certainly been some interesting allusions to Greece’s illustrious history and culture cropping up since the crisis first hit. However, after the umpteenth ‘Greek Tragedy’ headline this week, it’s hard to maintain the enthusiasm.

Private Eye 26/6/15

Corny Kouros jokes courtesy of Private Eye

Amid this sea of standard clichés, I have enjoyed the coverage provided by Private Eye, who have – as ever – managed to lampoon everyone else’s barrel-scraping puns, while also choosing some of the wittiest and insightful metaphors themselves. Their June 26th cover (pictured) may seem to set the bar pretty low for lame jokes (oh dear, there’s another), but at least it embraces the silliness. Inside more recent issues, this has been followed up in a similar vein in a satirical section entitled ‘The Timons of Athens,’ featuring headlines such as ‘Tsisipras defaults on boulder rolling obligation,’ ‘King Pyrrhus welcomes referendum victory’ and ‘Prometheus accepts punitive terms’ (after ‘borrowing’ fire from the Gods).

A lot of the puns are quite straightforward – King of the Gods, ‘zEUs;’ Jason claiming ‘I’ve been fleeced’ – but some require a little more familiarity from the reader with Greek myth and history: Tiresias is quoted as saying ‘I never saw this coming. They’re robbing me blind.’ ‘Tsisipras’ is punished by Merkel and the ‘EU-Menides – known as the Furies due to their anger at the thought of not getting their money back.’ Pyrrhus of Epirus belongs to one of the more obscure phases of Greek history, even if you have heard of his ‘Pyrrhic victories.’

It’s not just the ‘specialist’ humour that appeals to me though: what is so good about these pieces is the way they not only satirise the mainstream media’s obsession with (pointless) links to the Classical past but also provide apposite and sympathetic analogies for the current situation. This isn’t just empty humour or facetious word-association.

In fact, the mainstream Classical references to the Greek crisis can be criticised for much worse, as argued recently by Johanna Hanink (a former Cambridge postgrad, no less) in an article for Eidolon. Such lazy references can often reveal a quite limited understanding of what is a very complex situation: worse, some calls to Classical precedent are simply irrelevant – even those offered by ‘professionals.’ Hanink cites a recent segment on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme (starting 12 minutes in), where two Classical scholars were shipped in to discuss what lessons ancient economic crises could teach us about modern Greece. There were few: unsurprisingly Solon’s seisachtheia and Themistocles’ attempts to strong-arm the island of Andros were very little help in shedding light on the Eurozone crisis.

Even the experts themselves seemed a little baffled as to why they were there. Neither seemed able to provide a convincing answer as to whether those who have “studied these classics” should (or do) “feel the pain of the modern Greeks in a different way to other observers,” the question which prompted Hanink’s own thinking on the subject. However well-intentioned, not only did this segment come across as frivolous and irrelevant, but juxtaposed with interviews with desperate and anguished Greek voters faced with extreme personal hardship, it seemed downright insensitive. In a similar vein, Hanink also notes another BBC piece on how Stoicism might help modern Greeks: the suggestion that the 23.1% of Greeks living below the relative poverty threshold “may have it bad, but it beats banishment to Gyaros – beats it by a long shot” is almost comically inappropriate.

Bailout Cartoon

Cartoon from the African Mail & Guardian (3/11/11)

But it is not just simplification and insensitivity that such responses can be accused of. Hanink connects them to a much wider and older trend in Western attitudes to Greece, one of cultural snobbery and paternalism. Western culture glorifies Ancient Greece as the cradle of democracy and the birthplace of philosophy amongst many other things, but for centuries this has resulted in a profound disappointment with those Greeks’ modern descendants, who are ‘unworthy heirs’ to their fine past.

In Hanink’s view, many of the humorous deployments of Classical Greek history and myth (she mentions John Oliver and Saturday Night Live) could be seen as unwittingly fitting into this narrative, implying that the Greeks haven’t lived up to their past, or are unable to reference it correctly – laughing ‘at’ not ‘with.’ They lack that sympathetic insight that makes the Private Eye pieces so refreshingly different.

Hanink rightly traces this trend of patronising European Philhellenism back ‘for centuries.’ One strand is the academic snobbery that casts Western scholars as the true inheritors of Classical culture and the ones who kept alive the study of Ancient Greece (ignoring inconvenient facts like the Byzantine influence on the Renaissance). Another strand came to the fore in the Greek struggle for independence in the 19th Century, which saw constant European interference in trying to ‘re-’create their ideal of Greek nationhood. One reason Lord Byron became (and remains) so popular in Greece is that he was accepting of his contemporary Greeks, rustic klephts and all (as well as his criticism of Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles).

In fact, I would argue, we can see the beginnings of this attitude to Greece even further back. When Roman armies first arrived there, Greece’s glory days were already long past. The Persian Wars were nearly 300 years distant, and Alexander the Great almost 150: Athens and Sparta had been eclipsed politically even among the Greek cities, never mind on the world stage. The Macedonian Kings were the real power-brokers in Greece, and it was because of a disagreement with one of them that Roman troops first turned up in 200 BC. At first they weren’t greatly successful: it was only when they started trying to win the Greeks over with promises of freedom from Macedonian oppression that the tide turned in their favour. After the eventual Roman victory, they proclaimed ‘Freedom for the Greeks’ in grand style at the Isthmian Games of 196 BC.

The motivations for, and sincerity of, this pledge have long been debated: it does seem to show, at least, that the Romans were buying into the idealised vision of Greece that had been created in the aftermath of the Persian Wars. It was then that ‘freedom’ had first become a political slogan – supposedly the Greeks had sworn before the Battle of Plataea to place freedom before life.2 But the political theatre of the decree was not merely appreciation on the part of the Romans, it was appropriation: the Greeks may be famously the lovers of liberty, but it was the Romans that had achieved it for them. This fact was not lost on the later writer, Plutarch, when he came to imagine the reactions of contemporary Greeks to the decree: for all Greece’s past glory, it was the Romans that did her the greatest good.

The idea of the Romans as the ones to sort out Greece, even to save it from itself, became a common theme and not just in the political sphere: Cicero records that one witty Roman magistrate once called representatives of all the competing philosophical schools in Athens together and offered to help settle their disagreements once and for all.

Tied up with this was the same dismissive attitude to contemporary Greeks that we saw earlier: another Roman wag gave Philopoemen, a Greek general from the time of the Isthmian liberation decree, the nickname ‘the Last of the Greeks,’ because his fierce spirit of independence made him seem more like the heroes of old than his servile contemporaries. When his brother was about to take up the post of governor in Asia Minor, Cicero warned him not to admit the locals into his confidence,

except in the case of the very few, if such are to be found, who are worthy of ancient Greece. As things now stand, indeed, too many of them are untrustworthy, false, and schooled by long servitude in the arts of extravagant adulation.

Later on in the same letter, he concedes that since Rome had received the benefits of Greek civilisation in the past, it was her duty to repay that debt. Similar sentiments were expressed in the Imperial age by Pliny the Younger. Greece may have invented civilisation, but it was in Roman hands now.

Indeed, so too was the power of life and death. Respect for the Greek past was an indulgence that Romans did not always have to grant. When the general Sulla came to besiege Athens, which had revolted from Roman control, he told the Athenian ambassadors that tried to orate at length about their city’s glorious history that he had not come for a history lesson, but to subdue rebels. When Sulla finally took the city, he was able to humour his Philhellenic side: he called off the slaughter of the inhabitants, praising the Athenians of old and saying that he forgave a few for the sake of many, the living for the sake of the dead.


Mummius apparently took all their clothes too – “Le dernier jour de Corinthe” by Tony Robert-Fleury (Musee d’Orsay, Paris)

Sulla’s mercy only came after a significant number of Athenians had already been put to the sword. In the course of the siege he had also probably destroyed Plato’s famed Academy, and had sent men to loot the sacred treasures from Delphi and Olympia to pay his troops. He was only the latest of many Roman generals to make such a concrete gesture of the Roman appropriation of Greek culture. Sixty years earlier, when Greece finally became a Roman province, Lucius Mummius had marched into Corinth and carried off its artwork to decorate Rome: sixty years before that, it had been Marcus Claudius Marcellus and the artistic wealth of Syracuse. The rich decoration of the new imperial capital signalled that Rome had superseded Greece both politically and culturally – so too did the emptiness of the Greek cities.

Patronising appropriation of Greek culture is nothing new then, but what does this tell us about the current Greek crisis? Ostensibly very little, but perhaps at least more than Thucydides’ thoughts on the 5th Century Athenian economy. The history of so-called ‘Philhellenism’ tells us nothing about the Greek debt crisis itself, but does provide an insight into the responses to it, and our recurring desire to bring the Ancient Greeks into the debate.

There is nothing wrong with current affairs providing a leaping-off point for considering the past: our own Daniel Unruh’s recent King’s Review article on Solon’s seisachtheia is a very good example. However, it is quite another thing to claim that our understanding of Greece’s sovereign debt default is furthered by comparison with 6th Century BC land reform. This blog has often argued that the past matters very much to people in the present – the revival of ‘Seisachtheia’ as a slogan in Greece today bears this out – but, as Hanink concludes, it is a Classicist’s job to inform and critique these modern invocations, not to indulge in them wantonly:

But if classicists are really particularly stirred by Greek suffering, they would best spend their time explaining and critiquing how politicians and media draw on highly charged tropes in representing the crisis — not gleefully pointing out the origin of the word.



1: It’s a term which has recently been criticised for its Latin etymology, for example in this letter to the Financial Times (paywall), with ‘Grexodus’ the supposed preferred alternative. If ‘exodus’ is to be preferred on grounds of propriety and etymology, then we should also do away with ‘Gr[eek]’ and use the term ‘Hellenexodus,’ which is nowhere near as catchy. ‘Grexit’ is at least consistently Latinate: it was only the Romans who applied the term ‘Graeci’ to all ‘Greeks.’

2: A phrase later echoed as ‘Liberty or Death’ in both the American and Greek Wars of Independence: even today it is the national motto of Greece.

8 thoughts on “How Much Does a Grecian Urn? Humour, Philhellenism and the Greek Crisis

  1. Great post – thanks! Also, I have to say, although I got really sick of the puns some time ago, the EUmenides is actually quite good…

  2. Ta, Josh! And I agree entirely with your view that Solon doesn’t have much to teach us about modern economics – indeed, it would be shocking if an agrarian, non-monetary, precapitalist state *were* a good model for modern debt. It would also be the height of arrogance for me to suggest that I know *anything* about modern economics!

    If there is any lesson that modern Greece can draw from Solon, it’s that a) trying to please two parties with opposing agendas who have no sympathy for each other is hard; and b) if compromise isn’t found, unsavoury people may well exploit the divisions.

    But I rather doubt that we needed Solon to tell us that.

    • Perhaps not, but I think that it’s surely the better lesson to take from it. Take the Themistocles on Andros example – in Herodotus, it’s actually a prism for thinking about broader questions, like imperialism, sympathy and poverty. I think it is worth rehearsing these stories in the present context, but to help understand people, not anything else – on Broadcasting House, no one really seemed sure why they were talking about these examples.

      • I didn’t express that very clearly. What I meant was, are the lessons we get from history ‘practical’ or ethical? Thinking about Solon should make us appreciate compromise, sympathy and so on (an aspect your piece emphasised quite well I thought) – often when he’s been brought into the contemporary discussion though (as on R4), it’s been in an attempt to find some practical lesson (which has inevitably failed).

        In some ways, that’s what’s so wrong about the Stoic piece too: it’s determined to find some practical advice to give, without thinking more deeply about how people react to misfortune generally, and the whole issue of what is within one’s control (a particularly relevant point in this financial crisis, I feel). Your comment about it below is spot on.

      • I’m not sure quite what you mean by “practical” and “ethical”. I guess I might frame it in terms of specificity. The more specific an answer you’re looking for, the less likely the past is to help you. If you’re asking “how do we negotiate the social divisions that result from an economic crisis” Solon might have something to teach us (though of course he largely failed in this). If we’re asking “what policies should the Greek government pursue in 2015” we’re much less likely to get an answer.

      • This is a great example of what I mean by ‘practical’ lessons (though to be honest I’m not entirely sure what lessons he even comes up with in the end) https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/europe/2015-08-04/advice-antiquity

        I guess the distinction was between ‘historical lessons’ with a ‘practical’ application (economic or political policy etc) and those which tell us about how people behave (which we may also apply to ourselves).

  3. I also want to add that I thought that the Stoicism piece was not only devoid of compassion, but a travesty of much of Stoicism itself. While there certainly exists a smug, elitist strain in Stoic writings (I’m looking at YOU, Seneca), there is also a great emphasis on the need for fellow-feeling. Stoics see humans as social beings, with an obligation to help each other when in distress. Indeed, the article reveals the hollowness of its thesis. When exiled to Gyaros, Musonius Rufus didn’t spend his time berating the inhabitants for not bearing their troubles more stoically; he helped them.

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