Wednesday, October 25, 2017


Johanna Hanink, The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017. Pp. xiv, 337. ISBN 9780674971547. $29.95.

Reviewed by Catherine Rozier, Swansea University (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

This is an ambitious book which aims to speak to a wide audience: to any and all who identify themselves as 'Western' or 'European', and especially to those of us who are involved in the study and teaching of the ancient Greek world, but also to modern political and social commentators. Hanink has two broad aims. First, to draw attention to the ways in which an idealised vision of ancient Greece was fabricated, initially by the Classical Athenians themselves, and then by the modern discipline of Hellenism. Second, to examine how that vision has been used by pundits and politicians on all sides as a way of addressing the financial, political and social crisis which Greece has suffered since 2008. Hanink reminds her reader that the popular image of ancient Greece—birthplace of democracy, philosophy, naturalism—was not discovered, but created by modern scholars, most of them non-Greek. What is most shocking is not that the likes of Johann Winckelmann, Charles Rollin and Adamantios Koraïs were able to create this image of what Greece must have been like, but that their creation has been so very enduring and powerful. Any teachers, students or researchers of the ancient world who have justified their subject by linking it to an ideal of Western civilisation are perpetuating this modern image of 'the glory that was Greece'.1 This book seeks to make us aware of this fabrication, and question how it is being used in the popular media across Europe and the USA to sharpen attacks on the current Greek people and blame them for their country's misfortunes.

Following a short preface, chapter 1 ('Champions of the West') begins with an account of a 2012 public debate in London about the return of the Parthenon marbles. The question of the marbles resurfaces throughout the book, and Hanink uses it as an illustration of how discussion of Greece's current state is framed as a question of 'debt', and the often unconscious prejudices and assumptions which it uncovers. In this introductory chapter, Hanink provides numerous and varied examples of how mass media in the USA and Europe make use of Greek imagery and myth to present current events, ranging from Newsweek cover illustrations and op-ed pieces in the New Yorker to the satirical website The Onion and the pop music of Jay-Z. This popular prevalence, Hanink says, is why understanding Greek antiquity matters for all of us. It is not because of any direct or genealogical link between the Greeks and modern 'Westerners', but 'because ideas about what antiquity really means—and controversies over who owns its legacy—have played an enormous role in shaping the West's sense of its civilizational roots' (24).

In order to trace where these supposed roots may lie, in chapter 2 ('How Athens Built its Brand'), Hanink argues that the vision of Greece which is now so pervasive was first crafted in Classical Athens. The Athenians, Hanink states, were master propagandists, and in the fifth century BC they created a 'national brand' for Athens based upon 5 key attributes:

1. Athens saved Greece from 'barbarians'.
2. Athens is unique.
3. Athens is the home of the arts.
4. Athens is the product of exceptional ancestors.
5. Athens was much better in the past.

These last two points, closely related as they are, form the crux of much of the argumentation of the book, and Hanink believes we tend to apply these maxims to modern Greece as well, by greatly lauding their past achievements and denigrating their present state by comparison.

From the fifth century BC, Hanink moves ahead to the seventeenth century AD in the third chapter ('Colonizers of an Antique Land') as she examines how early European travellers compared the current state of Athens (unfavourably, of course) with the Greece that they knew from their ancient texts. An illuminating digression on the Ottoman travel-writer Evliya Çelebi, however, shows that not everyone who visited Athens in this period was so disappointed. Evliya described seeing the most resplendent mosque, surrounded by awe-inspiring ancient sculptures that seemed to him 'beyond human capacity'—the Parthenon (78). British and European visitors to Athens, though, were more likely to agree with George Wheler, who described the city as 'a Lamentable Example of the Instability of human things' (82). It is here that Hanink identifies the first appearance of a moral judgement that she argues persists in non-Greeks' opinions of the Greeks as unworthy successors of the great Athenian race, and as careless custodians of their own antiquity (a theme which especially recurs in her concluding chapter 'We Are All Greeks?').

In the following two chapters ('From State of Mind to Nation-State' and 'Greek Miracle 2.0'), Hanink focuses not just on outsiders' views of the Greek past, but on how the Greek people themselves have been complicit in perpetuating these ideas, first to bolster the cause for Greek independence in the nineteenth century, and then as part of their modern identity, the culmination of which Hanink sees in two events. The 2004 Summer Olympic Games and the 2009 opening of the New Acropolis Museum both made heavy and emotive use of the popular image of Greek antiquity to show pride in the Greek nation. That this image was an idealised, whitewashed version of antiquity is expressed by two events separated by more than 100 years. In the late nineteenth century, a new cache of rubble was found on the Acropolis which bore evidence of the destruction of the citadel in the Persian invasion. Among the ruined sculpture which had been ritually buried were fourteen korai; but their elaborate decoration and traces of coloured paint did not fit the pure, restrained image of Athenian naturalism which many onlookers had in mind. The French author Charles Maurras described his appalled reaction to these gaudy, Oriental statues, exclaiming 'won't someone rid me of these Chinese girls!' (167). More subtle was the decision by the creative director of the 2004 Olympics opening ceremony to include in his procession a series of performers costumed as ancient statuary—caryatids, discus-throwers, kouroi, and a Nike—all of whom wore head- to-toe white body paint. This may not display the outright disgust that Maurras expressed at the painted korai, but Hanink argues that it perpetuates the same myth of Greek antiquity as perfect, unblemished, and white. Hanink warns us that valuing this vision of ancient Greece brings us close to Winckelmann's equation of whiteness with beauty, and to arguments about the racial identity of modern Greeks—that they are not the true heirs of Periclean Athens, because they are not white enough.

Such warnings may seem far-fetched to some, who see nothing harmful in this ideal of the Greek past, even if it is factitious. At times Hanink's insistence on the link between two kinds of debt—the symbolic debt of the West to Greece for its past achievements, and the monetary debt of Greece to the Eurozone—can seem stretched. However, the sheer multiplicity of examples she provides where the ancient world is used in mockery or satire of modern Greece is impressive, and it would be difficult to argue that this popular image of antiquity has not been an important part of how 21st century Greece is portrayed in the media. These examples are presented throughout chapters 6 and 7 ('Classical Debt in Crisis' and 'We Are All Greeks?'), and illustrate Hanink's thorough knowledge of the current landscape of social and political commentary in Europe and the USA. The author also shows secure understanding of Greece today, and it is to be applauded that not once throughout this book does she adopt a tone either of condescension or of valorisation towards modern Greeks, a trap which would have been easy to succumb to.

A short epilogue, 'A Note for Educators', demonstrates what Hanink hopes this book may achieve: to make us consider what we mean when we talk about 'Western civilisation', and to find new ways of interrogating this concept and its roots in fifth-century Athenian propaganda. These points really boil down to enhanced skills of critical thinking, which teachers in the humanities are already fostering in their students on a daily basis; however, Hanink gives brief but useful examples of how this can be done in the study of Greek antiquity. Readers may not agree with all of Hanink's conclusions, but this book certainly succeeds in reminding or making the reader aware of the invention of Greek antiquity, and our role in the ongoing survival of that invention. It is lucidly written, with rigorous but not overwhelming detail, useful notes, and suggestions for further reading related to each of the chapters. Hanink has recently urged more women Classicists to 'write big';2 while The Classical Debt is not one of the popular-history behemoths that she principally refers to in that piece, it is bold and uncompromising, and deserves just as wide an audience. Hanink has written an important contribution to the ongoing debate about why Classics matters, which is also a wake-up call to encourage us to do Classics in a more critical, thoughtful way, and to hold to account those who use the imagery of an idealised Greek antiquity in a way which does a disservice both to the complexity of the ancient world, and to the modern Greek nation.


1.   This phrase is used in the revised 1845 version of Edgar Allan Poe's To Helen; it is echoed on the front cover of Bowra (1959) The Greek Experience, which promises to reveal 'the grandeur that was Greece'.
2.   'More Women Classicists Need to Write Big', Eidolon March 2016.

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