Monday, November 04, 2013


In complete disregard for Peter Ekonomides feelings, he of the “Rebranding Greece” fame, the fair country of Hellas has been rebranded. No longer is it to be called the “Hellenic Republic,” or indeed “Greece” for unenlightened westerners. Those who fear that Greece has been purchased by a Middle Eastern Airline for sponsorship purposes can rest assured that it is not to labour under the soubriquet of the Republic of Etihad, or indeed, Gulf Air Republic. Furthermore, Greece has not been acquired by Richard Branson and renamed Bransonia, and though Greece is in thrall to the Germans and the troika, technically Greece is not in liquidation, so it has not yet been deemed necessary to offer the business name on the market, though rumours that the name was offered but there were no takers, abound.

Who then is our godfather? None other than the president of Greece’s neighbour, Nikolass Gruevski, who in a recent speech referred to our motherland as “Former Ottoman Province of Greece.” No doubt what he was trying to do, is to give the Greeks a taste of their own medicine and see how they like being referred to as the former constituent of someone else’s country. What he has achieved, however, is to emphasise for the umpteenth time, just how dispossessed of historical knowledge, the fraternal governing clique at Skopje actually is. Such ahistoricity is instructive, for it goes far in explaining why our northern friends seem particularly facile at adopting historical identities not their own and why no amount of rational argument will disabuse them of their misapprehensions.

In the interests then of enlightening Mr Gruevski, it should be noted that in Ottoman times, there was no Greece. Greece as an administrative entity had no existence in the Ottoman consciousness. Instead, the lands now comprising the bulk of the modern Greek state were known as Rumeli, that is, the land of the Romans. This is because two millennia prior to the felicitous manifestation of Peter Ekonomides’ corporeal presence upon this earth, Greece underwent one of its most long-lived and famous re-brandings. Having been conquered by the Romans, in the words of Horace: “Captive Greece took captive her fierce conqueror, and introduced her arts into rude Latium.” As a result, in no small thanks to Constantine who moved the focus of the Roman Empire to the lands of the Greeks, the Greeks found themselves inheriting the Empire that had stripped them of their liberty. When one inherits the trappings of power, the next logical step is to assume the identity of the source of that power and that is precisely what the Greeks did, divesting themselves of the name Hellene, a name that in time came to refer to an idol-worshipper and becoming Romans. They remained as Romans for the next millennium, which is as long as the Byzantine Empire lasted and retained the identifier “Romios,” well into the twentieth century. Thus, if Mr Gruevski were to provide verisimilitude to his petulant attempt to perpetuate a futile dispute, he should have referred to Greece alternatively as the Former Ottoman Province of Rumeli.

Of course, if Gruevski were to go further back in history, as those of his ilk are want to do, parading in their town squares in plastic Roman armour that appears to have been derived from a Royal Melbourne Show show-bag, he could also refer to our motherland as the Federation of the Former Byzantine Themes of Thrace, Macedonia, Strymon, Thessaloniki, Nikopolis, Peloponnesos, Kefallinia, Aegeon and of course Hellas, this last theme comprising of Attica, Boetia and Thessaly. For the sake of completeness, Mr Gruevksi could add to that the theme of Boulgaria, whose capital at the time of Emperor Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, was Skoupoi, now known as Skopje. Therefore, if the principle behind the schoolyard rhyme: “Tit for tat, butter for fat, if you will kick my dog, I’ll kick your cat,” was to be applied, we could soothe Mr Gruevski’s sensitivities by referred to FYROM as the Former Byzantine theme of Boulgaria. There you go. Problem solved, or rather re-branded.

Unlike Mr Gruevski, though we may be unsecured vis a vis funds with which to discharge our financial obligations, we are secure enough in our identity to call ourselves and be called any name under the sun. We appear in the early Hittite texts as the pestiferous Ahiyyawa or sea-peoples, raiding the coast of Asia Minor and creating mischief. Our Cretan brethren appear in the Hebrew Bible as the dreaded and contentious Philistines. In Homer, we appear variously as Danaans, Achaeans, Myrmidons and with a myriad of other exotic appellations. Thus, we were re-branding Greece long before the  concept was a neurosynapse in Peter Ekonomides’ cerebellum or a shudder along the spine of the incoherent Gruevski.

The very people who gave us the name by which Gruevski refers to us, the Graecoi, were a mere tribe of Dorians living in Epirus. Aristotle used the term Graikos in his Meteorologica and claimed that it was the name originally used by the Illyrians for the Dorians of Graii, the word deriving from the Greek word for an aged person. Homer, while reciting the Boeotian forces in the Iliad's Catalogue of Ships, provides the first known reference to a region named Graea, and Pausanias mentions that the ancient city of Tanagra was for a time called Graea, adding that "no one knows where this Graea really was. Aristotle thought it was near Oropus, further east on the same coast as Delion. German classical historian Busolt claimed that the name was given by the Romans originally to the Greek colonists from Graea who helped to found Cumae the important city in southern Italy where the Latins first encountered the Greeks and then to all Greeks, in yet another non-Ekonomides bout of re-branding.

A similar form of re-branding takes place in relation to the name Hellenes, which many uber-patriots prefer as being more correct that that of “Greeks.” Aristotle also places ancient Hellas in the region of Achelous river around Dodona in Epirus where in his opinion the great deluge of Deucalion must have occurred. The priests of Zeus in Dodona were called Selloi which could lead to Sellanes and then to Hellanes-Hellenes. Hellenes in the wider meaning of the word appears in writing for the first time in an inscription by Echembrotus, dedicated to Heracles for his victory in the Amphictyonic Games, in the 48th Olympiad of 584 BC. After the Greco-Persian Wars, an inscription was written in Delphi celebrating victory over the Persians and calling Pausanias the leading general of the Hellenes.

Hall, in his ground-breaking book “Hellenicity” suggests that Hellenism may have been an aggregrative ethnicity that operated across geographically contiguous regions to weld together a transregional aristocracy against lesser status groups. According to him, "Hellenicity" clearly emerges only in the fifth century B.C, and then, rather than being a universally accepted identifier, was largely the production of imperial Athens, which acted as "the new self-appointed arbiter of cultural authenticity." Hellenic identity thus came to be measured increasingly in terms of culture and education rather than of putative descent groups through a process that reached its completion during the Hellenistic age.

Many scholars, Dr Vrasidas Karalis prefer the term Panhellenes, meaning “all the Greeks,” which marks a step away from 19th century monolithic and all-encompassing conceptions of race, connoting in its stead, a confederation of individuals, which is exactly what the highly individualistic Greek people are. Re-branding Greece in this manner may serve to prise the ingenuity of the individual Greek from the quagmire of a corrupt and dysfunctional state that acts as a barrier to further development.

It was Elbert Hubbard who opined that: “If you can't answer a man's arguments, all is not lost; you can still call him vile names.” When all is said and done, Mr Gruevski futile tantrums fail to incense a nation that has far more important things to worry about that a mere title. No amount of historical Viagra dispensed in the erection of kitsch statues of ancient historical personages will serve to mask the true intellectual  flaccidity of a Balkan backwater struggling under the weight of competing nationalisms, to construct a coherent national mythology. In this regard, perhaps the name dispute is the final, rapidly de-magnetised pole upon which our northern friends can converge. The last word of course, goes to the eternally fabulous Zsa Zsa Gabor, from which much can be gleaned:  “I call everyone 'Darling' because I can't remember their names.” From the Disunited Unfederated Former Republic of Darlings, this much greeting.

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 2 November 2013