Modern Greece

Modern Greece


Port of Piraeus

The port of Piraeus,one of the finest ports in the world.

Modern Greece is one of the most interesting countries in the world. Currently Greece is the bad boy of the European Union, unable to pay its debts and being forced very reluctantly to change its course. How did this come about? Many other countries in the world, notably in the ‘third world’ are faced with similar problems of making the transition to a modern economy and a modern society, but it should be said that compared to countries in the third world, Greece is a shining success. But what caused Greece’s problems – and what caused its success?

It is perhaps appropriate for an archaeologist to ask this question, because the roots of the problem lie two and a half thousand years ago when as we have seen Greece led the world in producing the world’s first market-based society and the world’s first democracy. What are the differences between then and now?

We should perhaps begin by looking at Greece’s ‘Dark Ages’, a very long period stretching over a millennium and a half, a period that is dominated by three invasions  – the Slavs, the Franks and the Ottomans, and seeing how far the invasions influenced the country, and how far being a subject nation has deformed the Greeks, and why, despite all this, Greece has managed to survive.

 Was there a Slav invasion?

In the fifth and sixth centuries, Greece saw something of a revival, carried along on the coat-tails of the success of Constantinople, and, it must be said, by the euphoria of the new religion of Christianity. But the euphoria did not last for long, and in the seventh century, Greece collapsed and entered the dark ages that were to last for so long. The period was dominated by the first of the great invasions, the invasion of the Slavs; and here we enter one of the great controversies of Greek history: just how extensive was the invasion of the Slavs? They certainly caused great disruption: did they attack and settle, or did they attack, cause chaos, but not settle?

This was the age of the great Folk Wanderings,  when the Germanic peoples – the Angles, the Saxons, the Franks and the Goths invaded and took over Western Europe, and the Slavs came down and took over much of the Balkans. In the area of Yugoslavia – a term that means the southern Slavs – the Slavs were mostly successful and imposed their own languages. In Greece however, though there are plenty of records of invasions by the Slavs, they were less successful and failed to impose their own languages. Here we enter a phase of great dispute for which we must turn to the political history of the 18th and 19th centuries in Greece.

Jakob Philiipp Fallmerayer

The German scholar Jakob Fallmerayer, who argued that the Greeks were really Slavs. Photo Wikipedia


The Greek scholar Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos, who argued that the Greeks were in fact Greek. Photo Wikipedia

The 18th century saw the emergence of Russia as the most formidable opponent of the Ottomans. At the time the Ottoman Empire was in decline. Greek nationalism was stirring – should they make common cause with the Russians in opposing the Ottomans? One of the great German scholars, Jakob Fallmerayer, argued that the Slavic invasions involved a total takeover so that the Greeks were not really Greek at all but were really Slavs (like the Russians?)  He was soon answered by a rising Greek scholar, Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos, who argued that the Slavic invaders were repulsed and the Greeks therefore were not Slavs but Greek after all. This has inevitably become the favourite explanation in Greece itself, but the dispute lingers on and helps to explain the bitterness that still exists, particularly over Macedonia, where the name is claimed both by the Greek speaking province of Macedonia, as well as the Slavic speaking Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

Certainly there are references in Greek texts to Slavic invasions by the Avars, the Bulgars and others, but how far is there evidence for this in the archaeology? Archaeological evidence for the 6th and 7th centuries is scanty – it was a Dark Age. But there are half-a-dozen or so of cemeteries of cist graves lined with stone slabs, which while not being obviously Greek are certainly not Slavic either. The one good evidence for Slavic invaders comes from Olympia of all places, where there is a small cemetery of 32 cremation burials – and these are cremations (i.e. pagan) rather than inhumations (i.e. Christian). However though the hand-made pottery is of a Slavic type, its analogies are not with the southern Slavs but with the Slavs of the middle Danube, a long way away; so this must be a wandering group of Slavic invaders who were very different from the rest of the population of 7th century Greece.

The 7th century was the beginnings of a “dark age” throughout much of Western Europe, a Dark Age that lasted for two centuries or more. Possibly the decline began with the great plague, probably the Bubonic plague which began in the reign of Justinian in 541-2, and devastated much of Europe, and indeed China, from whence it possibly originated. By this time the history of Greece is dominated by the history of Constantinople, by far the largest city. In fact the 7th century began quite well in Constantinople, for there was an energetic emperor, Heraclius (610-641), who conquered the great enemy, the Persians.

But the revival was in vain, for a new enemy was arising: Islam. In 632 the prophet Mohammed died, leaving behind him one of the most formidable war machines the world has ever seen, and by 641 both Palestine and Syria had been conquered by the Muslims. Constantinople survived, protected by its walls, but it did its best to destroy itself from within with a theological frenzy, the rise of Iconoclasm, the breaking of idols, which wracked the church and ensured the final separation of the Catholic Church in Rome from the Orthodox Church in Constantinople. Meanwhile in the Mediterranean the Muslim fleets – pirates according to the Christians – were disrupting the old trade routes which meant that Rome and Constantinople could no longer be fed from Egypt and had to grow their own food, which ensured that the great population of both cities came to an end.

It was not until the 11th century that Constantinople revived under the Comnenian Dynasty (1081-1185) and so too, to some extent, did mainland Greece. This was in many ways a different world when most of us consider that Byzantine art flourished. In 1096 the First Crusade assembled at Constantinople and went off to conquer Jerusalem where they set up their own separate kingdom, to the disappointment of the Byzantines who had hoped that the Crusaders would add the new lands to the Byzantine empire.


The Fourth Crusade

The end of this revival came in 1204 with the Fourth Crusade. This was the disgraceful crusade when the Crusaders, instead of going off to fight the infidels, turned on Constantinople itself and sacked it, so that many of the great treasures of Constantinople are to be found today in Venice. In mainland Greece this led to the second great wave of invaders: the Franks, the Normans and the Venetians. Different parts of mainland Greece now had different stories. The islands in the Aegean became part of the Duchy of Naxos which now has a Venetian history, as does Corfu and the Ionian islands to the west of Greece. Architecturally indeed the Venetians left behind the best evidence for the Middle Ages in Greece.

Mistra The Pantanassa church

The Pantanassa (Queen of all) church on the border of the Middle town is the highlight of any visit to Mistra . It was the last church to be built, in 1428, and is the best preserved and it is the only building to be still occupied as a convent with half a dozen nuns. Each nun has her own room — see the photos below — while the rooms have a magnificent view as can be seen in the photo above where they are a row of windows just below the balcony.

Perhaps the most interesting story is the surprising revival of Sparta in the form of Mistra. Classical Sparta had always been in the fertile plain – there was no need for any defences. In the Middle Ages however defence was of the essence and a new site sprang up five miles to the East on a steep hillside in the foothills of Mount Taygetus known as Mistra. This was originally founded in 1249 by William de Villehardouin, a Frankish adventurer who hoped to carve himself out a new kingdom in the Peloponnese. Alas, twenty years later he was captured by the Byzantines and was forced to hand over Mistra as part of his ransom. And for the next couple of centuries Mistra flourished as part of the Byzantine Empire. Indeed it became the tradition for the Emperors in Constantinople to send out their sons and successors to be rulers at Mistra as a stepping stone to becoming emperor at Constantinople itself.

Mistra came under the control of the Ottomans in 1460, but it continued to exist down to the 17th and 18th centuries, and it was only with the re-founding of Sparta itself and a new kingdom of Greece in the 1830s that Mistra began to be abandoned. And it was only in the late 20th century that it was suddenly realised that Mistra could be a grand tourist attraction and was the best preserved monument of Medieval Greece. It is now a World Heritage Site with some of the best Byzantine mosaics anywhere. (For further details, see my extended account)


The Ottomans

But in 1458 the Byzantine Empire came to an end. The Ottoman forces finally stormed Constantinople which became Istanbul, and for the next two centuries the Ottomans became one of the world’s great empires. Greece was taken over, and the Ottomans formed a third of the great invasions of Greece in the Middle Ages. Their influence still remains very substantial. Speak it very quietly but Greek food is Turkish food, Greek Baklava is a Turkish delicacy and Greek coffee is Turkish coffee. But it is the Ottoman administration that is the source of many of the problems of modern Greece and so it deserves briefly our interest.

Let us start by giving the Ottomans their due and look at the pluses: it was a multi-ethnic society (which is probably mot the same as multi-cultural). The Jews in particular flourished and when they were expelled from Spain, many of them settled in Thessalonica which became the most Jewish city in the world. They also tolerated the Christians: the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church was given responsibility for all Christians, much to the disgust of Catholics, and it was up to him to see that they towed the line. They ran the courts and the schools and in practice actually preserved the Greek heritage. However the Christians were kept firmly in their place. They had to pay a special poll tax known as the Jizya, the penalty for being a Christian in an Islamic land. (One wonders whether the same principle should not be applied today and Muslims should be required to pay a special poll tax in Christian lands). However as a benefit they were not required to do their national service in the Ottoman army. And up to 1705 they also had to pay the tribute of children: one male child in five had to be sent away to be raised as a Muslim and to become a ‘janissary’, the crack troops of the Ottoman Empire. Some flourished.

Ottoman rule is generally considered to have been a disaster for Greece, though David Brewer has argued that this may be exaggerated: there is a legacy of enmity between Greeks and Turks, and he argues that in practice the Venetians were hated almost as much as the Ottomans. But during the Ottoman period, the population shrank, and economic activity declined. Land was owned by the Ottoman invaders and when they died the land reverted to the Ottoman state, which eventually came to own 70% of all the arable land in Greece. The majority of the Greeks became landless serfs, sharecroppers who were tied to the land. Horse riding was forbidden which meant in effect travel was forbidden. Many Greeks immigrated to America or the Balkans where they flourished. Others fled to the mountains beyond the reach of the Ottomans. Greece became a people without history.

But the real problem is that in the rest of Europe, this was the time of the Renaissance  when new ideas were floated, the power of the church was challenged, monasteries were dissolved and society generally was shaken up. In Greece under the Ottomans, none of this happened, and thus when the Ottoman rule was finally shaken off,  Greece had not experienced the revivifying benefits of the Renaissance.

Greece becomes independent

But in the 19th century the Idea arose that Greece should once again be a proud independent country. The idea originally arose in the Greek Diaspora in the Balkans and around the Black Sea, but it caught on among the Philhellenes in Europe. Lord Byron went out to Greece and died there. But it wasn’t the great thinkers who rose up against the Turks, but the brigands in the Peloponnese and the new country of Greece was formed in 1834 from the poorest and most backwards parts of the country. However the British and French gave their support and a petty German prince was imported to be the king. Loans were raised to finance the new government and the first ruling minister was imported from Russia but he tried to be rather too sensible and was promptly assassinated. Greece was born proud, poor and in debt.

Greece was still confined to the southern part of modern Greece and the story of Greece in the next century is its story of gradual expansion. And here the story tends to revolve around the still slightly controversial figure of Eleftherios Venizelos, after whom the new Athens airport has been named.


Eleftherios Venizelos, the Greatest Greek statesman, who both enlarged Greece by bringing in Crete and Macedonia and who carried out major reforms to modernise Greece.

Venizelos is the one of the greatest of all Greek statesmen: he had charisma, but he was above all a superb diplomat who was able to impress the whole of western Europe and most of the Greek nation with his ideals. He came from Crete, and Crete was still Turkish but between 1897 and 1910, Crete gradually threw off the Turkish yoke. The story is incredibly complicated but much of the final success was due to Venizelos’ diplomacy.

The next big addition was that of Macedonia to the north including Thessalonica, the second biggest Greek city. This was the result of another Balkan war and again Venizelos’ diplomacy ensured triumph. But the Great War 1914 – 1918 was a disaster. The king, being German, supported the Germans and the Serbs, the nominal cause of the war; but Venizelos wanted Greece to join with the British and the French. The National Schism followed with the king at first imposing a German leaning neutrality, but then Venizelos led a pro-Western front. At the end of the war Venizelos won his reward and in 1920 at the Treaty of Sèvres, Greece was awarded Eastern Thrace, and also a large part of western Turkey around Smyrna. But then, disaster. In 1920 Venizelos lost the general election and fled abroad in exile. The Greek government without him blundered: Turkey found a new dynamic leader in Kemal Ataturk who routed the Greek army and ensured that western Turkey became Turkish and Smyrna became Izmir.

Map to show enlargement of Greek state

Map from Wikipedia to show both the enlargement of Greece in various stages and also (in yellow) the areas lost in 1923. (Double click to see details)

But Venizelos returned and negotiated the most traumatic event in modern Greek history: the great Exchange of Populations when all the Greeks living in what became Turkey, that is western Anatolia and the areas around the Black Sea, were transported to mainland Greece and the Turks living in the islands in the Aegean which now became Greek were moved to Turkey. Over a million and a half Greeks were uprooted and 500,000 Turks. The population of Athens doubled more-or-less over night and large areas of Macedonia lost their Turkish population and were populated by Greeks from the Black Sea. It was a hugely costly exercise though not without its upside, for the Greeks from around the Black Sea and the Smyrna area were among the most intellectual and modernised of all the Greeks. (Would the history of Ireland been happier if there had been a similar transfer of populations between Protestant and Catholics in Ireland?).

In the 1920s Greece boomed and became much more of a European state, but it was hit hard by the worldwide slump of the 1930s when politics once again became chaotic with Venizelists ranged against Royalists. Indeed to our modern terminology it becomes very confusing, because we tend to think that the royalists are right-wing and that the Venizelists must therefore be left-wing. But by any normal characterisation, Venizelos was a rightwing figure who was always trying to balance the books: he did fundamental reforms of the education, health and many other aspects of Greek life, and led a rapprochement with Turkey, Yugoslavia and Italy.

The Second World War was again a disaster for Greece. Germany invaded, and murdered all the Jews in Thessalonica which had traditionally been one of the great Jewish cities following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. The most effective underground operation against the Germans came from the Communist partisans, and following the War there was a civil war from 1946-1949 when the Communists came near to taking over Greece and adding it to the Communist states of Yugoslavia and the Balkans. The nationalists, supported by the British and Americans fought back and eventually in 1949 won, leaving Greece even poorer than before, and even more heavily indebted.


The Rise of PASOK

Greece once again recovered, helped by Marshall Aid from America, but the politics were as usual chaotic and led to a military takeover by the Colonels in 1967. At first the coup d’état received a sort of passive acquiescence as the economic boom continued, but then everything began to go wrong. In 1973 the world economy collapsed due to high inflation and in 1974 the Colonels blundered badly over Cyprus which led to the Turkish invasion and the division of Cyprus which continues to this day. The Colonels were ousted and the Greeks returned to a chaotic democracy which saw the rise of PASOK, the Greek socialists.

PASOK_logo_2012Yet PASOK were a funny sort of socialists. Socialism is normally based on the ‘workers’ but in Greece there was no heavy industry and therefore no ‘workers’, so PASOK was based on an unholy alliance of civil servants and small farmers, and under its fiery leader Andreas Papandreou they committed all the sins of populist socialism. True, they upgraded the welfare state, reformed family law and introduced gender equality, but they also introduced patronage on a large scale. The civil service was not only increased, but made more inefficient, as appointments were based on political support, rather than on merit or ability, thereby laying the foundations for Greece’s current woes.


Andreas Papandreou, the firebrand creator and leader of PASOK

This situation was slightly improved when PASOK was replaced in 1989 by the New Democracy party, but the (necessary) reforms it introduced meant unpopularity and from 1993 to 2004 PASOK again came to power, though this time as a somewhat reformed character

The Genie in the bottle was the European Community. In 1981 Greece became the first member of the enlarged European Community and in 2001 it joined the Euro. At first, Europe was a good thing: money flowed in and interest rates dipped to the levels of northern Europe, and Greece flourished. The high point came in 2004 with the holding of the Olympic Games in Athens which provided the impetus for massive new infrastructure – a new and efficient airport for Athens, as well as a proper Metro, with four lines instead of the previous single line. But the good times of the Euro could not last for ever, and when in 2008 the world stumbled, Greece collapsed. The task now is not only to undo some of the damages of the PASOK years and get the civil service and their pensions under some sort of control, but also to tackle some of the deep underlying problems inherited from the Ottoman era. The bloated bureaucracy in Athens is suffering, but There Is No Alternative

Modern Greece has one big advantage and one big drawback, but both advantage and drawback are the same thing: the weight of the past and the memory of ancient Greece. Modern Greece was formed on a swelling of enthusiasm for restoring the glories of 5th century Greece and modern Greece has always been considered to be a European country with modern European ideals. But the problem is that Greece under the Ottomans had become what we call a third world country. In the words of one of the most distinguished modern Greek commentators, Stathis Kalyvias: Greece was ‘rather a primitive region of the world inhabited by an illiterate population of subsistence farmers, preyed upon by disgruntled warlords – a situation that has made Greece the forerunners of the problems of the third world today’.

It is interesting to compare this with the democracies of Classical Greece which inherited a booming economy with technological excellence and a thrusting dynamic society. Speak it very softly but the tyrants of 6th century Greece such as Peisistratos laid secure foundations for democratic Greece. Modern Greece has had the reverse: it inherited a declining economy of subsistence farmers. The Revolution of the 1830s only succeeded by accumulating foreign debts and bureaucracy boomed at the expense of the relatively small number of entrepreneurs: the Middle Class did not exist.

Nevertheless Greece, or the concept of Greece as a democratic nation, has survived. It is part of the modern world, and to Europeans, Greece is ‘one of us’ in a way that modern Turkey, despite all the modernisation carried out by Ataturk is not. The lesson is that it is difficult to impose democracy where the underlying economic conditions do not exist and the structure of society is all wrong. When dealing with the third world, economic reform should come first, and we should encourage the emergence of a society that benefits from the tolerance that is an essential part of the market economy. Only when these things are right can democracy be introduced, and may possibly even flourish.


And with this, we come to an end of our account of Greece.

Now on to Rome!


9th May 2016