Faber (2021) h/b 588pp £25 (ISBN 9780571353569)

This is a wonderful book. Professor Beaton sets out its scope: ‘The Greeks of the title and the pages that follow are to be understood as speakers of the Greek language. The story of these Greek speakers will turn out to be a story about identity—or rather about identities, in the plural’ (pp.1-2). Herodotus pre-echoes this (as Beaton duly acknowledges) in his reflection on ‘What it is to be Hellene: our shared blood and common language, the temples of our gods, the ways we make sacrifice, and our shared customs…’ (8.144).

The book is a bold exploration of the successive creation, modification and reinvention of Greek identity over three and a half millennia to the present. Through this immense arc of history the people we call Greeks (derived from the Romans’ naming of them after the Graeci, a minor tribe from the north-east of the Greek mainland, it seems) successively called themselves Achaeans from the Hittite Ahhiyawa, Hellenes after the name Hellas for the loosely defined territory they inhabited, and then Romaioi, by which they identified themselves as citizens of Rome and, in time, specifically of the Eastern Empire.

From around the middle of the 4th century BC and up to the end of the 18th, ‘Hellene’ was sidelined as a term for pagan Greeks who had not abandoned the ancient gods for Christianity. It was not until the end of 1821 in the first national assembly of the areas newly liberated from Ottoman rule that the territory they had won (most importantly the Peloponnese) was officially named Hellas and the people in it redesignated as Hellenes. But now these Greeks saw themselves as descendants of the ancients, distanced from their pagan past but heirs to all the good things that had fuelled the enlightenment of the eighteenth century and the renaissance three centuries before, and sustained culture and learning in previous generations.

A well-paced and highly readable narrative and 15 maps take up 466 of the book’s 588 pages. Detailed and wide-ranging references are provided in 70 pages of endnotes (which would do a better job as footnotes). These are followed by seven pages of suggestions for more general Further Reading and a thorough index from ‘Abbasid Caliphate’ and ‘Achaea’ to ‘Zorba the Greek’. There are 43 well-chosen images in the 16 page plates section.

The story Beaton tells so well is not geographically confined to the land of Greece. It reaches far beyond its borders. Nor, while giving the era its foundational due, does he centre it on the ‘classical’ Greek civilization in which so much of today’s arts, science, philosophy, law and politics had its origins. Rather than focus on that single civilization, he looks at the whole interconnected series of Greek-speaking and -writing civilizations that preceded and followed it.

Beaton begins with a wonderful flight of imagination in which he pictures the dawn of a day in 1500 BC. He tracks it from the Fertile Crescent and the Assyrian capital of Ashur, over the kingdom of the Hittites and, to its south, Egypt. Travelling on across Anatolia, the light falls on the great cities known as Milawanda and Wilusa, the future Miletus and (W)Ilios (the besieged city). Now, spreading across the Aegean, the sun lights up Crete. Finally it touches on a modest settlement on a hilltop above a coastal plain on the north-eastern edge of the Peloponnese. This is a mere village in comparison to the elaborate cities now in full daylight across the seas to the east, but it is growing and prospering and its people and their kinsmen in other similar centres will in a few generations dominate the whole Aegean area.

The Mycenaeans, Beaton’s starting point, spoke an early form of Greek and they also wrote in it using a cumbersome syllabic script now known as Linear B. It was the preserve of highly skilled scribes and there is no evidence that it was used for anything other than bureaucratic purposes. At some point around the 9th century BC, as the region began to recover from Mycenae’s collapse, the Greeks, possibly through the genius of one man, adapted the Phoenician syllabic alphabet to provide the symbols for 21 consonants and included five more, to form the basic vowel sounds. This was a technological development more significant than the increasingly sophisticated smelting of metals. It unleashed the full potential of the written word to bring into existence all the forms of communication that would shape the culture of subsequent centuries and civilizations.

The Greek alphabet was soon to be adapted to other languages, most notably Latin, but this was the first of many revolutionary Greek inventions and, two or three hundred years before the classical era, it brought about great change. It enabled the transformation of content that had hitherto been orally composed and delivered into text, soon (in historical terms) preserving for us the earliest treasures of European literature, the Iliad and Odyssey. Written works of literature, history, philosophy, education, science, medicine and politics were the bedrock of the classical ‘golden age’. Beaton courteously and convincingly argues against the conventional view (quoting from a blurb of my own creation) that ‘the fifth-century flowering of Greek culture and institutions, and their future legacy, were secured’ by the Greeks’ victory in the Persian War. He points out that much of the culture we regard as classical was already flourishing in previous decades, so it is much better to think of the Persian War as a catalyst for its subsequent development, not as a root cause. Over the centuries that legacy went on to survive events just as cataclysmic as Persian victory might have been.

Greek was the language of Alexander the Great’s polyglot armies and the language of administration in his eastern conquests for centuries after his death. The first Christian teaching in Judea would have been in Aramaic or Hebrew, but Greek was the language in which the message began its global spread in the Epistles of Paul, decades before the four Gospels were written, also in Greek. Moving forward to the 2nd C AD, Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman empire in Latin but thought in Greek, writing his Meditations in the language. In the 530s Justinian, emperor of the surviving eastern half of the empire, having famously codified the huge accumulated mass of Roman law, which was written in Latin, decreed that all future laws be drafted in Greek. ‘Greek had at last reached all the way to the top to become the language of imperial legislation’ (p. 267). Byzantium was becoming the Greek (and Christian) empire that would last for centuries, and it would preserve the culture of the classical world in a sophisticated education system that was based on thorough knowledge of Homer and the literature of 5th and 4th C BC Greece.

In the decades after the death of Constantine XI on the ramparts of Constantinople, ‘the last emperor of the Romans’, and the final toppling of the remnants of his empire in 1453, Byzantine scholars migrated to Italy bringing back learning that had faded away in western Europe over earlier centuries, and supplying a vital ingredient of the renaissance. By the 18th C, Byzantine-style classical education was thriving again under the sponsorship of the Orthodox Church, not only tolerated, but valued by their Ottoman rulers. Large numbers of Greeks who excelled in it came to be employed by them in important and lucrative official positions; Horace’s Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit is almost as true here as it was in the first century.

After a final swoop through the closing brief span of his journey from 1833 when Hellas had at last become a sovereign state, Beaton reminds us again how in the three and a half millennia of their history ‘speakers of the Greek language have never ceased to reinvent themselves’ (p. 463). He has opened our eyes to the variety of ways in which Greeks have successfully interacted with all manner of non-Greeks beyond their physical and cultural borders in this process. This is what makes their history, properly told, truly global.

In this context the glories of the classical era glitter even more brightly. But was the creation of modern Hellas, the nation state, the final reinvention? Professor Beaton says not, pointing to the millions of Greeks gathered in substantial communities across every continent, and to the challenges and opportunities presented by the tide of migrants flowing to their shores from the east and south.

William Shepherd