Saturday, March 16, 2019


“Look,” Jani, my grandmother’s Albanian neighbour’s son, interrupted me. I was in the process of waxing lyrical about his father’s hometown of Fieri, near the ancient Greek city of Apollonia and centre of Vlach culture in south west Albania, where once I had a rather sordid midnight encounter with a pelican of questionable moral fibre. Having visited the town on numerous occasions, I felt able to provide a learned opinion about its architecture, urban planning and rubbish removal.
“I am really not interested in Fieri at all,” he continued. “I haven’t been there since I was five. I don’t really know anyone there and it makes no difference to me whatsoever. I was born here. This is my country. Just like you were born in Australia and Australia is your country.”
“So what you are saying is that you are a Greek and I am not?” I sought clarification.
“Look at it this way,” Jani elaborated. “I was born here. You were not. I’ve lived here all my life. You have not. I work here. You do not. I pay taxes to the Greek government, you do not. I’ve married a Greek girl and had children here. You have not. Sure, you may visit on occasion, but what do you know about what it is to live in this country? What makes you more Greek than I? Most of you who come from Australia can barely speak Greek.” He launched into a passable imitation of Greek-Australians lisping  their s’s and aspirating their t’s by way of example.
I started to recite my ancestry to him, and some of the history of the regions my parents come from. He cut me short. “That’s all stories you have picked up from your family and from books,” he dismissed me. “It’s not your story. YOUR story is in Australia, among Australians. It is MY story that is in Greece, among the Greeks.”
Some months later, I was back in Australia and launching a book of poetry. At the launch, an old man walked up to me determinedly. Inflating his chest to the breadth of a sausage balloon suffering from hypertension, he pronounced: “You shouldn’t be writing in Greek. You were born here. English is your language. Not Greek. Greek is our language, the language of us who were born there. Don’t you ever forget it.”
“Great advice,” I responded, “if I were not a devotee of Favorinus.”
The old man, thinking that I was making a comment about his luxuriously anachronistic sideburns, walked off, muttering curses under this breadth.
Favorinus, born in Arletum, modern day Arles, in France, a Gallo-Roman who wrote prose in beautiful Greek, defies definition. His very nature transcends characterization for he is described as being a eunuch by birth. Polemon of Laodicea, in his treatise on physiognomy, described him as “a beardless eunuch born without testicles and with a high pitched voice,” a condition similar to what I could have come to espouse had that gonad-obsessed pelican of Fieri been permitted to have its way with me, while Philostratus determined that he was a hermaphrodite.
As an intersex sophist, Favorinus was, just like many of us Antipodeans, when travelling to Greece, and just like many immigrants to Greece from other lands, constantly being called upon to establish his Hellenic credentials, his identity continuously being called into question.
In one musing, Favorinus’ sentiments come eerily close to those of Jani, an earlyὍπου γής και πατρίς᾽ argument:
"And I too love my fatherland; my love is second to no one's and I should never have left it willingly. On reflection however, I discover that it is nothing other than the place in which my forebears settled or resided. That a fatherland is not the country in which we ourselves were born is clear from the following: many people, though born elsewhere, regard another land as their fatherland. If our fatherland is this, the territory to which our ancestors have become accustomed, why by the same token should we not also love the country in which we currently reside? After all, the land in which one dwells is much closer than that in which one's ancestors dwelled, and my future descendants will have the same reason (or even more just cause) to make my enforced dwelling place their fatherland."
 «τὴν δὲ πατρίδα φιλῶ μὲν καὶ αὐτὸς οὐδενὸς δεύτερος καὶ ἑκὼν αὐτὴς οὐκ ἂν ποτε ἀπελείφθην. λογιζόμενος δὲ εὐρίσκω οὐδὲν ἕτερον οὖσαν ἢ ἐν ἧι οἱ πρόγονοι ἡμῶν κατώικησαν ἢ διέτριψαν. ὅτι γὰρ οὐκ ἐν ἧι αὐτοὶ ἐγενόμεθα, δῆλον ἐκ τούτου, πολλοὶ γὰρ ἑτέρωθι γεννηθέντες ἑτέραν πατρίδα νομίζουσιν. εἰ δὲ τοῦτό ἐστιν πατρίς, τὸ σύνηθες τοῖς προγόνοις χωρίον, τί δὴ οὐχὶ τῆι αὐτῆι γμώμηι καὶ ταύτην φιλητέον, ἐν ἧι τὰ νῦν διατρίβομεν; πολὺ γὰρ ἑκάστωι ἐγγυτέρω ἐν ἧι αὐτός τις οἰκεῖ ἢ ἐν ἧι οἱ πρόγονοι αὐτοῦ ωἴκησαν, τοῖς δὲ ἐξ ἐμοῦ γενησομένοις ἡ αὐτὴ αἰτία καὶ πολὺ δικαιοτέρα τὴν ἐμὴν ἀναγκαίαν ἐνδιαίτησαν πατρίδα ποιεῖν.»
In emphasizing that an individual;s proper place may not lie in his geographical origin but the place to which he relocates, Favorinus justifies his own Hellenisation and decision to write in Greek, to Greeks who would be loath to accept him as an equal into their cultural group, because of his ancestry.
In commenting derisively on Emperor Hadrian's founding of the "Panhellenion," an institution tasked with determining which cities within the Roman Empire were actually Greek, Favorinus presciently echoes many of the arguments used down the ages to dismiss concepts of primordial bloodlines and inherited identity:
 "If you delve back to the earliest times, you will find that all people everywhere are foreigners and exiles."
 «ἐὰν τὰ τοιαῦτα εἰς τὸ παλαίτατον ἀρχαιολογῆις, ἅπαντας ἀπανταχοῦ ξένους τε καὶ φυγάδας εὑρήσει.»
For him, there is no such thing as a original land. Employing what amounts to be a proto-Derridean argument, he maintains that while myths of origin may be deemed necessary in order to substantiate identity, when we look critically at the point of origin we identify with, we only find displacement.
Favorinus also mirrors Jani in his dismissing genealogy as a tool for establishing a diachronic national identity: "Do you know that if you trace back all those noble ancient ancestries, you will trace them back to Promethean mud or the stones of Deucalion?"
«ἢ οὐκ οἷσθα ὅτι ἐς πάσας τὰς παλαιὰς ἐκείνας εὐγενείας ἀναφέρων ἀνοίσεις ἢ εἰς τὸν Προμηθέως πηλὸν ἢ εἰς τὸυς Δευκαλίωνος λίθους;»
 In all his dismissal of my proffered arguments to establish my Greek identity, the Janus-like and deliciously ambiguous Favorinus, offers a few that can be employed against the Jani’s of the age.
In upbraiding the Corinthians for removing a statue of him, in his ‘Corinthian Oration,’ Favorinus mentions that though he was a  Roman of equestrian rank, “he espoused not only the voice but also the mind-set, life and style of the Greeks.” (οὐδὲ τὴν φωνὴν μόνο ἀλλὰ καὶ τὴν γνώμην καὶ τὴν δίαιταν καὶ τὸ σχῆμα τῶν Ἑλλήνων ἐζηλωκώς).
Consequently, he posits that he had developed an outstanding quality, that of  both resembling a Greek and being one.” (Ἕλληνι δοκεῖν τε καὶ εἶναι.)
Favorinus explains transition process from seeming” Greek to “being” Greek by explaing that “having been educated is no different from being so by nature in respect of seeming.” (οὐδὲν τὸ παιδευθῆναι τοῦ φῦναι πρὸς τὸ δοκεῖν διαφέρει). Who one actually is, then, is a matter of training and mime.
Devastatingly for the Greeks who would deny him his Hellenic affiliation, Favorinus goes on to call into question the Hellenic credentials of the very city that would deny him his coveted statue. Accordingly, he claims that “though Roman, he has thoroughly Hellenised like your own city” (Ῥωμαῖος ὣν ἀφηλληνίσθη, ὥσπερ ἡ πατρὶς ἡ ὑμετέρα.) This is because Corinth was sacked in 146BC by the Roman Mummius and was refounded as a Roman colony in 44BC. It is for this reason that the ancient travel writer Pausanias writes “Corinth is inhabited by none of the Corinthians of old, only settlers sent by the Romans.” (Κόρινθον δὲ οἰκοῦσι Κορινθίων μὲν οὐδεὶς ἔτι τῶν ἀρχαίων, ἔποικοι δὲ ἀποσταλέντες ὑπὸ Ῥωμαίων.) Corinth is both a Greek and a Hellenised mimetic city, just like Favorinus, Jani and myself, attempting to find parking in Oakleigh while balancing a frappe on my dashboard.
Jani was not particularly interested in Favorinus and resemblance to the sophist. As his father was a property developer of considerable clout in the neighbourhood, he was more interested in compelling my grandmother to sell him her smallholding and relocate elsewhere. His denial of identity had much to do with his understanding of property rights and I remembered that the very reason why the Corinthians pulled down their statue of Favorinus in the first place was because he let the Emperor Hadrian win in a debate. When asked to justify his match-fixing, Favorinus was said to have replied that it was foolish to question the logic of the master of thirty legions. He also responded to the obsequious Athenians pulling down their statue of him in order to curry favour with the Emperor, by observing that if Socrates had a statue in Athens, he would have been spared the hemlock.
I haven’t returned to Greece since the last time I spoke with Jani.  I learn from old neighbours that he no longer lives in Greece. Instead, after a property deal involving astute Russian investors went tragically wrong, he relocated to Albania, where he is an active supporter of the Party for Justice, Integration and Unity, which advocates the annexation of that part of Epirus where the Çam Albanian minority once lived.
I on the other hand, remain here, in the Hellenic Antipodes, perennially striving, as Favorinus did, to transition from seeming Greek to being Greek and back again, often unable to determine one from the other, especially while starching the pleats of my foustanella, in readiness for the 25th March parade and always on the lookout, like my pelicanic adversary, for tasty mouthfuls of large and ponderous Hellenic words and attributes, some to masticate, others to swallow wholesale.

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 16 March 2019