Monday, October 17, 2005


One of the most dramatic scenes to endure in my mind of Herodotus' histories is where the leaders of the Ionian cities in Asia Minor met at Panionion in the wake of the Persian and Medic crushing of the Ionian revolt, frightened out of their wits. The Panionion, a village located near Priene in Asia Minor, near today's Guzelcami marks one of the most singular Greek achievements - that of federalism and its example has been so enduring, that it is reflected in various forms of Greek organization today.
Like us, the Ionians of Asia Minor were apodimoi who had left their homelands to set up colonies on the other side of the Aegean coast, known as Ionia. Faced with a hostile local population and battling the assimilative and imperialist sway of the renascent Persian empire, they were the first among our ancestors to form a federation, consisting of the twelve Ionian colonies, inclusive of the islands of Chios and Samos. It was envisaged that such a federation would preserve the individuality of each city so jealously guarded by its owners while also providing scope for such cities to assume collective action when required. The Federation would be based in and meet at Panionion at regular intervals. The parallels with our own community are striking.
The meeting in Panionion was usually after the harvest. The members shared their concerns about business, art, farming and sea trade and made suggestions for improving their own cities or finding reasonable solutions to their problems. Every year, at the same time as the meeting, a traditional festival was held to the honor the god Poseidon. During the festival, the young men of Panionion herded cattle into the temple to be sacrificed, by hanging them from their horns. During the Hellenistic era which ushered in the demise of democratic rule and the rise of imperialism, one day of the festival was devoted to the honor of King of Pergamos, Eumenes.
That the Panionian league could be effective is evidenced by the fact that its collective action almost overthrew the yoke of the vast Persian Empire and gave mainland Greece a valuable breathing space of time in order to prepare itself against the storm from the East, in arguably what may have been, her finest hour. Having been utilized and exploited for mainland Greece's defensive and other purposes rather unscrupulously, the Ionian cities were helpless against the Persian and Medic counterattack and meeting at Panionion, indulged in earnest debate as to their future. At that meeting, one man, Bias of Priene, "set forth," as Herodotus tells us, "a most profitable counsel, by following which they might have been the most prosperous of all the Hellenes. He urged that the Ionians should set forth in one common expedition and sail to Sardinia and after that found a single city for all the Ionians: and thus they would escape subjection and would be prosperous, inhabiting the largest of all islands and being rulers over others; whereas, if they remained in Ionia, he did not perceive, he said, that freedom would any longer exist for them."
Proving that even when Greeks agree on a form of political organisation, as inherent innovators they indulge in formulating radical proposals of restructuring, Thales of Miletos saw the solution in "the Ionians having one single seat of government, and that this should be at Teos (for Teos, he said, was in the centre of Ionia), and that the other cities should be inhabited as before, but accounted just as if they were demes."
In the end, the Ionians did not pack up and move to Sardinia though one cannot resist the temptation of considering how differently the history of Europe would have unfolded, had they done so. Nor did they adopt Thales' injunction. Instead, they stayed and capitulated first to the Persians and then to the neo-imperialist Athenian Empire, creating a vibrant culture and becoming the yeast for the rise of Hellenism in the East. Their sojourn in Ionia was a glorious one though it was abruptly terminated in 1922 by their brutal expulsion and related massacring by the Turks.
One could not help thinking at the SAE Oceania Youth Conference which took place in Adelaide a few weeks ago, how ever present and ever relevant the burden of our history is for us. For it cannot be disputed that the Council of Greeks Abroad (SAE) is naught but a direct descendant of the first Greek migrant council, the Panionion, with the same aspirations for collective action and unity between Greeks abroad as taxed the minds of our illustrious forebears in Ionia. As if this were not enough, SAE even has its own Panionion, the SAE headquarters in Thessaloniki, where SAE delegates gather every so often, ostensibly to discuss issues while rumours of shenanigans during the partying that goes on each night do approach nefarious dealings with horns, belonging to sheep, or otherwise. The parallels do not stop there though. Just as the Panionion was an entity founded by migrant Greeks and ultimately exploited and/or appropriated by mainland Greece, the same to can be said about SAE which though founded by an American Greek, owes its entire existence to an act of the Hellenic Parliament.
Again just as their Ionian counterparts before them, SAE youth delegates see their communities facing mortal peril. Today's Medes and Persians come in the form of assimilation, indifference, lack of communication and a host of other factors that ensure that the extremely loose warp and weft of our erstwhile tightly woven community fabric is slowly unraveling, leaving in its stead long clumps of loose, dissociated and thoroughly vexed strands of non descript yarn. The cultural and societal shift that has elevated the cult of the individual has cut vast swathes across the effectiveness and relevance of those community organizations around which the Greek community has chosen to identify itself with and its inability to seek other more contemporary modes of cultural expression signifies that it is presiding over a period where many of its younger members are 'medizing' to use the Herodotean term or to utilize the most favoured expression of the Oceanian President of our own Panionion, "becoming lost to Hellenism."
The Greek Government bears some responsibility for this. Currently, the SAE Youth is comprised of youthful members of Federations already acknowledged by the Greek government as belonging to SAE. Unfortunately, this means that the vast corpus of Greek-Australian youth, which does not belong to any form of organized body, is effectively disenfranchised. The Greek government's lack of perspicacity and adherence to 'quick fix solutions' for Greeks abroad thus results in a group of idealistic youthful members becoming relegated to SAE 'show-pieces' to their great indignation. Perhaps a way of assuaging the disenfranchised youths' indignation in that regard is to let them in on another big secret. Whether in, or out of SAE, successive Greek governments have merely paid lip-service to the youth in SAE and on occasion, have stymied or brutally humiliated delegates who had the courage and the gumption to attempt to be heard. Further, in years past, the youth Panionion has been successively undermined by attempts by its senior counterparts to broaden the field of their own political infighting by appointing and instructing their own protégés to continue such intrigue at the youth level. Thankfully, through indifference and a concerted effort by the youth delegates, this problem has been resolved. The problem of Athenian interference in the Panionion though, has not. The new Draft Law proposed by the Athenians to the Ionians does not define the Panionian youth and merely leaves their operation and definition to the mercies of the senior regional Councils.
Despite the basic difficulties in representation, operation and implementation of policy in the youthful Panionion, much potential exhists for it as an auxiliary to what remains of the organized Greek community. After all its primary purpose as dictated to it by Athens is to represent Federations and it is pleasing to note that the Panionionakia have attempted to make do with what they have with gusto. The conducting of Greek-Australian Book Exhibitions, Smith's Crisps Campaign, Panhellenic Games and other activities prove that effective action can be taken to hold off the Medes and persuade the medizers to remain.
At the Adelaide conference the general unspoken feeling was that Athenian dominance inhibits a Thalesian restructure of the organization. Also, while Bias of Priene's approach to the Panionion does have its merits, it does also imply that a surrender to the Medes should be effected and/or that a new Panionian could be re-established in a galaxy far far away. Yet was it not Cavafy, the supreme orientalist who upon mentioning that "we are Greeks of Eastern tastes and pleasures" also pointed out that wherever we go, will carry our cities and our problems around with us? Is the only solution then to travel to Poseidoneia, the Grecian colony in southern Italy where the Greeks over time forgot their Hellenism and barely could pronounce their own names? Possibly. Yet in spite of the relative ease of the Bias approach, the brave Panionian delegates took an oath in Adelaide, just as in Cavafy's poem Thermoplyae, to guard the passes against the enemy to the best of their ability and not resiling from that duty, remain at their posts, knowing full well that scores of Ephialtai will betray them and that ultimately, the Medes shall come.

First published in NKEE on 17 October 2005