As a historian who has spent most of his life studying the ancient and Medieval Greek world in a serious way, the recent financial and political crisis in Greece has caused me more than a little anxiety. That the most recent paroxysm took place while I was in Greece and working away on an archaeological project made the entire experience even more stressful. We had front row seats to the painful political wrangling that would have such a tremendous impact on the lives of our Greek friends and colleagues.
Now that I’m home, people are naturally curious about what life was like in Greece during the most recent crisis. For obvious reasons, they expect me to have insights into the fiscal and political culture of Greece. As someone who has lived in Greece, I can offer some very superficial insights and recite the same difficult story about cost of austerity, the fear of economic instability, and the resilience of everyday life.
As a historian, however, I’m frankly at a loss. My dedication to the material, political, and religious culture of premodern Greece has equipped me with very few tools to understand the particular complexities of the global economy and the current situation in Greek and European political life. In fact, even specialists in these matters have struggled to see or understand the situation clearly through the rancorous and dissimulating political rhetoric.
At the same time, the media has continued to evoke Greece’s ancient past to add a bit of national color to a story that has played out on a global scale over the last decade. I’ve blogged about this already, and noted that this lazy lede and headline writing does little more than evoke a watered-down version of the same Classicizing fantasies that contributed to the creation of the Greek state in the 19th century. Recently, observers of the crisis have begun to critique this practice, and a few authors have swapped Classical allusions for those of Byzantium. We can maybe thank Patrick Leigh Fermor’s well-known distinction between the Hellenic and Romaic (i.e. Byzantine) for that. While this distinction offers a framework for Fermor to narrative a rich and sweeping narrative of the Greek landscape, I’ve found that it offers little in terms of real explanatory value. We should probably prefer an approach like Tom Gallant’s recent contribution to Chronos magazine which looks to the relatively recent legacy of Greek-German relations.
Where does that leave the historian of Ancient and Medieval Greece? It is inevitable that we’ll be asked our opinions on the recent events and expected to be able to offer some kind of deeper understanding of the situation (owing more to our expertise in, say, the Early Christian architecture of the Peloponnesus as much as our time in the country). At the same time, we’re all aware (pdf) of the tragicomic bizarreness that can result when scholars of antiquity wade into contemporary geopolitics. It is humbling to admit that our specific expertise is irrelevant for understanding the current crisis, but it is our obligation to avoid the frankly ahistorical conceit of conflating (our knowledge) of the ancient and modern worlds. At moments of particular frustration, my inability to deploy two decades of historical understanding of Greece to explain or understand the current situation has made me despair the value of the humanities. At the same time, I hope that my background in the humanities has made it possible to recognize and appreciate in a critical way the limits to what we know no matter how frustrating that may be.