Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Castoriadis on Plato, the Greeks and living without hope

In a previous post, I looked at Plato’s disavowal of Hesiod’s depiction of a universe underpinned by chaos in favour of a view of the world permeated by goodness and noted the far-reaching ontological and philosophical implications this had, especially in the formation of Christianity.

Cornelius Castoriadis  is also interested in Plato’s break with the classical Greek vision of the world. For Castoriadis, the Greek perception of Being as Chaos – at the heart of which is the tragic imaginary showing that ‘not only [are] we not masters of the consequences of our actions, but we are not even masters of their meaning’ – is substituted by Plato with a religious or quasi-religious ontology in which Being equals the Good equals Wisdom equals the Beautiful. Thus, Plato, Castoriadis says, rejects the ‘nucleus of the Greek imaginary’ – in which there is an absence of order for man – and replaces it with a theological and unitary ontology that presumes an underlying harmony and rationality in the world.

Castoriadis describes Plato’s innovation as a ‘philosophical monstrosity’ and argues that it has parallels with other theological and unitary ontologies, such as Hebraico-Christianity (with its belief in the Promised Land, resurrections, messiahs and the afterlife), and liberalism and Marxism, with their belief in progress and human perfectibility.

Castoriadis illustrates Plato’s rupture with the classical Greek vision of the world by looking at how the latter would have addressed Kant’s three fundamental questions of philosophy: What can I know? What should I do? and What am I allowed to hope?

On the first two questions, Castoriadis says, the Greeks initiated an illimitable discussion that precluded ever arriving at a categorical ‘Greek answer’. However, on the third question, What am I allowed to hope? the Greeks did provide ’a definite and clear answer, and this is a massive and resounding nothing’.

Castoriadis goes on that hope
‘is not to be taken here in the everyday trivial sense – that the sun will again shine tomorrow, or that a child will be born alive. The hope to which Kant refers is the hope of the Christian or religious tradition, the hope corresponding to that central human wish and delusion that there be some essential correspondence, some consonance, some adequatio, between our desires and decisions, on the one hand, and the world, the nature of being, on the other. Hope is the ontological, cosmological, and ethical assumption that the world is not just something out there, but cosmos in the archaic and proper sense, a total order which includes us, our wishes, and our strivings as its organic and central components. The philosophical translation of this assumption is that being is ultimately good. As is well known, the first one who dared to proclaim this philosophical monstrosity clearly was Plato – after the classical period had ended’.
As for the pre-classical and classical Greeks, Castoriadis says, their denunciation of hope and robust belief that the world can never be fully ordered (that the only order that exists is the order Anaximander describes, which is order through catastrophe, Being as creation and destruction), has profound implications for the way they did politics and philosophy:
‘For Hesiod, hope is forever imprisoned in Pandora’s box. In pre-classical and classical Greece, there is no hope for an afterlife: either there is no afterlife, or if there is one, it is worse than the worst life on earth – as Achilles reveals to Odysseus in the Land of the Dead. Having nothing to hope from an afterlife or from a caring and benevolent God, man is liberated for action and thought in this world.’

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Orhan Pamuk and the colonisation and humiliation of Turkey

Greek homes and shops attacked in Constantinople
The novelist Orhan Pamuk has positioned himself as the modern, European face of Turkey, reflective and critical of his country’s history and politics; but in a comment piece for the Guardian he reveals that he is just another exponent of the obtuse claims of Turkish nationalism.

When Turkey started in 2005 to negotiate its entry into the EU, optimists suggested Turkey could be a member by 2014, and in his article Pamuk purports to explain why Turkey’s EU process has badly stalled. In doing so, he trots out the usual paranoid Turkish nationalist view that Turkey’s EU aspirations have been thwarted principally because Europe, not living up to its own standards of modernity and secularism, is sinking into conservative nationalism and Islamophobia. The biggest reason, Pamuk says, for Europe’s shunning of Turkey is:
‘undoubtedly the large influx of Muslim migrants from north Africa and Asia into Europe that, in the eyes of many Europeans, has cast a dark shadow of doubt and fear over the idea of a predominantly Muslim country joining the union’.
Thus instead of taking his own country to task for abysmally failing to reach European norms on democracy, freedom of speech, protection of minority rights, the occupation of Cyprus, the casus belli against Greece and so on, Pamuk chooses to play the Muslim card in which criticism of Turkey is inspired by European malice and anti-Muslim prejudice.

In the last year, reacting to these perceived European sleights and revealing the loathing in Turkey’s love-loathing relationship with Europe, Turkey’s president Abdullah Gul has called the EU a ’miserable union’; so-called minister for Europe Egemen Bagis described the EU as ‘psychologically sick’; senior ruling AK party MP, Burhanettin Kuzu, in a Turkish TV debate, threw on the floor the unfavourable 2012 EU progress report and declared he was in fact ‘throwing the report in the rubbish’ where it belonged; while, two weeks ago, Turkey’s economy minister, Zafer Caglayan, described the EU as ‘the most two-faced union of all time’ and condemned it for ‘torture’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ for continuing to exclude Turkey from membership.

But even more than Pamuk’s refusal to admit that Turkey’s own shortcomings are entirely to blame for the lack of progress in its EU endeavour, I was struck by this statement in his piece:
‘[H]istorically, Turkey was never colonised by any western power, never oppressed by European imperialism. This allowed us later to nurture more freely our dreams of European-style westernisation, without dredging up too many bad memories or guilty feelings.’
It amazes me that such a prominent and supposedly liberal and European Turkish intellectual could succumb to such a parody of historical reality and regurgitate a classic piece of Turkish nationalist bombast, designed to cover up the horrible truth for the fragile Turkish ego, which is that in the 200-year decline of the Ottoman empire, Turkey developed a semi-colonial relationship with the West.

As the ‘sick man of Europe’, Turkey suffered humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat as rival powers and Christian minorities exploited Turkey’s weaknesses to dismantle the Ottoman empire. Ottoman finances and territorial integrity became dependent on the West. The system of Capitulations granted widespread privileges and rights of intervention to European states in Turkey; while, as any ‘A’ level history student could tell you, Great Britain, fearful of Russian expansionism, for decades, diplomatically and militarily guaranteed the Ottoman empire’s survival. As for modern economic activity within the empire, it became largely the preserve of Jews, Armenians and, particularly, Greeks. (If ghiaour Smyrna was not a Greek colony in the midst of the Ottoman empire, then what was it?).

Thus, one of the fundamental tenets of Young Turk nationalism was that the Ottoman empire had become so decrepit that it was no longer able to protect or advance the interests of Turks, and the goal of Turks must be to escape political subordination to European powers and wrest control of Turkish society and the economy from foreigners and the minorities.

In this latter instance, of the minorities, it is evident that the genocides in Asia Minor and Anatolia, as well as the anti-Jewish Thrace pogrom (1934), the Varlik Vergisi (Wealth Tax) and the anti-Greek Constantinople pogrom (1955), were part of this process of restoring Turkish preeminence in (or, if you like, decolonising) Asia Minor and Anatolia and Turkifying (or, again, decolonising) the country’s economy.

Thus far from Pamuk’s depiction of Turkey ‘freely’ nurturing its dreams of Europe, the opposite is true; which is that Turkey’s view of Europe (and of the non-Turks in Turkey) was nurtured by Turkish resentment and humiliation or, to put it another way, was nurtured by the classic inferiority complex that comes from having been colonised, subject to the whims and power of foreigners and non-Turks.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Chaos and goodness: from Hesiod and Plato to Christianity and Nietzsche

What does Nietzsche mean when he says: ‘Christianity is Platonism for the masses’? An interesting essay, Chaos corrected: Hesiod in Plato’s creation myth, by E.E. Pender, gives us an idea.

The subject of the essay is Plato’s attempt, particularly in the Timaeus but also in the Republic, to establish a new creation myth for the Greeks that would supplant Hesiod’s Theogony, which Plato objected to on the grounds that it wasn’t sufficiently edifying and, indeed, that Hesiod’s depiction of the gods and their role in creating the universe was fundamentally wrong.

In particular, according to Pender, what Plato wants to correct in Hesiod is the ‘moral chaos’ of the Theogony, in which the gods are often portrayed as jealous and spiteful, engaged in plotting, deception and violence. For Plato, god is incapable of malevolence. He is by nature good and his motive in creating the universe is to advance goodness.
‘Unlike Hesiod’s Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus, Plato’s supreme god is not seeking to create a world order that will allow him simply to gain and then hold on to power. This god and those he creates are themselves good and their aim is to create further goodness.’
Furthermore, Pender says, into Hesiod’s universe, in which chaos is the primal force and strife and power politics define the relationship between the gods, Plato wants to interject a benign and rational being – a demiurge or craftsman-father – able to impose harmony and rationality. Whereas Hesiod identifies a universe permeated by disorder, out of which an ordered cosmos can never fully emerge, Plato sees a world infused with goodness, always striving to achieve perfectibility.

Plato also wants to correct Hesiod when it comes to defining the attributes of the Muses, the goddesses that inspire in the creation of art and the pursuit of knowledge. In Hesiod, the Muses exist to soothe grief and help men forget their troubles; but in Plato they lose their psychogogic qualities and acquire a more transcendental and metaphysical role, which is to guide the human soul (through philosophy and philosophical exercises) towards divine harmony and reason.

In Plato’s creation tale, then, Pender concludes, ‘the principle of goodness is eternally present, the triumph of order and reason is assured by design, human beings have the means to become like gods’.

In which case, to return to Nietzsche and his ‘Christianity is Platonism for the masses’ – a statement, it’s worth stressing, intended to insult Christianity, Platonism and the masses; we can now see that it is not a long road to travel to get from Plato’s ‘eternally present principle of goodness’ to Christianity’s depiction of God as the epitome of goodness; from Plato’s ‘triumph of order and reason assured by design’ to Christianity’s God the Creator and Jesus the embodiment of divine logos; or from ‘human beings [that] have the means to become like gods’, to Christianity’s belief in transfiguration, in which man, innately good (i.e. even if not born good, then always capable of it), aspires, via communion with God or redemption through Jesus, to become suffused by the divine.

* Chaos corrected: Hesiod in Plato’s creation myth is contained in the book Plato and Hesiod, which you can download as a PDF from here.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Greece courts Egypt, aims to pre-empt Turkish machinations

The visit of Greece’s president Karolos Papoulias to Egypt this week went a little under the radar; but it shouldn’t be underestimated. Papoulias doesn’t make that many trips abroad, so this one (which took in commemorations for the 70th anniversary of the Greek and Allied victory at El Alamein) indicates that Greece has targetted Egypt for a charm offensive, concerned that the new Muslim Brotherhood regime will steer the country into an alliance with Turkey, also with a Sunni and Islamist outlook, which would undermine Greece’s and Cyprus’ sovereign rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Greece does not have an agreement with Egypt on Exclusive Economic Zones and knows that Turkey is lobbying Egypt to agree to their maritime borders in such a way that would ignore the sovereignty of Cyprus and Greece and turn the Eastern Mediterranean into a Turko-Egyptian sea. Greece can claim a 200 nautical mile EEZ around Kastelorizo, implementation of which would make Greece’s and Cyprus’ EEZs contiguous, while Cyprus has an EEZ agreement with Egypt, but it was signed with the Mubarak regime in 2003 and Lefkosia is now concerned that the new government in Cairo, with new strategic priorities, will abandon it. (Remarkably, Greece and Cyprus do not have an EEZ agreement).

In his public comments to President Mohammed Morsi, Papoulias made prominent reference to the EEZ issue, saying: ‘The discovery of significant gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean is an important geopolitical and geoeconomic development. Greece attaches particular importance to the brokering of an agreement with Egypt for the delineation of an EEZ, which would be of benefit to both countries.’

And just to underline Greece’s anxiety about a Turkey-Egypt alliance, it’s worth reading this article from the New York Times, which begins:

‘With war on Turkey’s borders, and political and economic troubles in Egypt, the two countries have turned to each other for support, looking to build an alliance that could represent a significant geopolitical shift in the Middle East prompted by the Arab Spring, uniting two countries with regional ambitions each headed by parties with roots in political Islam.’

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The rise of Golden Dawn: it’s not the economy stupid

There are many things to be said about Golden Dawn – and even more about the hysterical reaction to its emergence – but, for now, I just want to make one point, which is that it is a fallacy to connect this radical nationalist, anti-immigrant party to the financial crisis that hit Greece in 2009.

In a certain crude and superficial imaginary, economic crisis is invariably accompanied by a drift towards racism, fascism, Nazism, etc, with the desperate, unemployed and impoverished – i.e. the victims of economic turmoil – falling prey to extremist right-wing ideologies that specialise in the creation of scapegoats, more often than not ethnic minorities. Thus, Greece is another Weimar Republic, its financial crisis the equivalent of the Great Depression and Golden Dawn is a new Nazi party. All of which is nonsense on any number of levels.

In the specific case of Greece, anti-immigrant (and nationalist) discourse asserted itself a long time before the financial crisis, and the evidence for this is the emergence of LAOS (Popular Orthodox Rally) in the period 2000-2009, with the popularity of the party peaking at 7.14 percent in the June 2009 European Parliament elections.

Indeed, LAOS, before crashing and burning as a result of its support for the austerity bailouts, with many of its most prominent MPs (Thanos Plevris, Adonis Georgiadis, Makis Voridis) now in New Democracy, was itself labelled fascist, anti-semitic and Nazi. Now, whether LAOS was precisely these things or otherwise is not significant; but what is significant is that this anti-immigrant, nationalist force’s rise to prominence coincided with a period during which the Greek economy was booming.

It’s also worth remembering that Golden Dawn’s breakthrough was at local elections in November 2010, when they secured 5.3 percent of the votes in Athens. In other words, the party broke on to the political scene before the impact of the financial crisis had overwhelmed Greece and certainly before any political party had time to develop a discourse connecting the issue of immigration with economic collapse.

Thus, Golden Dawn did not emerge out of nowhere or with the economic crisis. Rather, it owes its emergence to growing popular dismay with illegal immigration, with all this has meant for the social fabric of Greece, and this discontent did not surface in 2009, but goes back at least a decade, perhaps even further, to the 1990s when the first waves of Albanian (and other East European) immigrants came to the country following the collapse of communism. And Golden Dawn has found a space and legitimacy for its particularly direct activities because of the ineffectiveness of the Greek state, and that the weakness of this state is not a post-2009 phenomenon but a consequence of the dysfunctional politics and society that characterised Greece post-1974.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Beyond the diplomatic speak; the true state of Greek-Turkish relations

Last week, Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davoutoglu descended on Greece to discuss bilateral issues. The visit took place under the shadow of continuing Turkish violations of Greek airspace and territorial waters; Turkish machinations in Thrace; threats against Cyprus, 37% of which Turkey has occupied since 1974; and Turkey’s policy of destabilising Greece by facilitating the entry of tens of thousands of illegal immigrants into the country. Still, warm words were exchanged by Davoutoglu and his Greek interlocutors, with the emphasis on co-operation, a common future and so on. Davoutoglu’s reference to the Aegean becoming ‘free’ raised a few Greek eyebrows, implying, as it did, that the sea was currently under occupation or not free; but even this was put down to a figure of speech lost in translation.

Anyway, below is a piece I’ve translated from Greek by Stavros Lygeros, which appeared yesterday in Greece’s leading newspaper, Kathimerini (see original article here); and evaluates where we really are with Greek-Turkish relations, beyond the diplomatic speak.


The Other Side to the Visit, by Stavros Lygeros
The headlines may have been stolen during Ahmet Davoutoglu’s visit last week to Athens by his reference to a ‘free’ Aegean, which was attributed to mistranslation, but, as usual, the essence lies elsewhere. We don’t need to tie ourselves in knots trying to decipher what the Turkish foreign minister meant by a ‘free’ Aegean to learn Turkey’s true intentions. Ankara is consistently and clearly projecting its positions and making sure to back up its words with deeds.

The Turkish foreign minister’s rhetoric is a classic case of public diplomacy. He doesn’t confuse foreign policy with public relations. He knows, however, how to use public relations and rhetorical flourishes in pursuit of strategy. Davoutoglu wants to convince Greek public opinion that not only does Turkey not pose a threat to Greece, but that Turkey is also sincerely working to extricate bilateral relations from the prejudices of the past.

To overcome Greek skepticism and induce Athens to fall in line behind his strategic vision, Davoutoglu is talking up the potential of Turkey and Greece having a common role in the region. But, for Turkey, what this common role entails is turning Greece into a satellite in the Neo-Ottoman orbit. Thus, while Turkish diplomacy cultivates a climate of settling differences, it doesn’t abandon its long-held expansionist designs and provocative actions aimed at Greece.

A typical example is the unilateral and arbitrary delineation of Turkey’s maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, at the beginning of 2011, Ankara announced its intention to carve out 11 maritime zones totalling an area of 20.000 square kilometers, south, south-east and south-west of Attalia. Some of these ‘zones’ violate the median line principle and penetrate deep into the Greek and Cypriot continental shelves. Also, last April, Turkey published maps in its official gazette that showed clear disregard for the Cypriot and Greek continental shelves, while, in September, Turkey gave substance to its arbitrary decisions by submitting documents to the UN confirming what it perceives to be the delineation of maritime borders and continental shelves in the region.

While Turkey attempts to create faits accompli with arbitrary and unilateral actions, Davoutoglu tries to prevent Greece from exercising its legal rights. The Turkish foreign minister expressed to his Greek counterpart Turkey’s opposition to any declaration by Greece of its Exclusive Economic Zone before agreement on the delineation of territorial waters and continental shelves. Thus, Ankara has managed to transform its unilateral claims against Greece into bilateral issues, projecting its threats as a legitimate defence of its rights.

Greece has a legal right to extend its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles and it is a right that can be exercised unilaterally. By insisting that such a declaration would be a cause for war, Ankara has transformed a Greek right into a subject of negotiations. Turkey is trying to do exactly the same on the EEZ issue. Greek foreign minister Dimitris Avraamopoulos must come clean and reveal if it’s true that he told his Turkish counterpart that Greece, for the time being, will not declare its EEZ.

In his discussions with Avraamopoulos, Davoutoglu also reiterated Turkey’s position on the exclusion of Kastellorizo from the exploratory talks taking place between Greece and Turkey on maritime borders. Ankara sees Kastellorizo not as the last link in a chain of Greek islands, but as a detached island lying off the Turkish coast.

Turkey insists that Greek islands do not have a continental shelf and, in this way, Ankara reveals its claim to the continental shelf east of the Rhodes-Karpathos-Kassos-Crete line. Indeed, on 13-14 November 2008, Turkey announced that it was undertaking geological surveys south of Kastellorizo. This was a tangible warning to Athens not to declare its EEZ and proceed with its own research. A few days earlier, the then chief of the Turkish navy, Metin Atac, said: ‘I believe that the Eastern Mediterranean will become the scene of friction and clashes, because in the near future it will acquire increasing importance. Its oil deposits will make it a second Gulf, and Turkey must be alert and react.’

Just as in the Aegean, the Turks are using ‘surveys’ and ‘research’ in the Eastern Mediterranean as a means to provoke crises and prevent Greece from exercising its legal rights to explore for hydrocarbons.

Athens fears Turkish research in the Greek continental shelf, a fear that Turkey cultivates with the continuous and intense presence of its airforce and navy in the region, which is intended to show that Turkey has placed under its military control the sea running from Rhodes to Crete and Cyprus. Overall, Turkey’s aim is to oblige Greece to agree to a sharing of deposits or joint exploration – sharing and joint exploration of Greek resources.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Western duress and Greek self-preservation: thoughts on Steven Runciman’s The Sicilian Vespers

The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century, by Steven Runciman (ISBN-13: 9781107604742). Paperback: £12.99

Canto Classics has recently reprinted Steven Runciman’s The Sicilian Vespers, which expertly guides us through the murky world of 13th century European high politics, its twists and turns, sudden shifts in fortune, alliance, tactics and strategy; and compellingly depicts the brigand-dynasts of the West vying for each other’s thrones and fiefdoms, conspiring, plotting and murdering their way in vain pursuit of power and wealth.

A tumultuous period crescendoed in Sicily at Easter Vespers, 1282, when the local population – as the spearhead of a conspiracy organised by the Byzantine emperor Michael Palaiologos and drawing in King Peter of Aragon and disgruntled supporters of the erstwhile king of Sicily Manfred Hohenstaufen – rose up against the loathed French dynast Charles of Anjou, massacred 8,000 French colonists and liberated the island from his regime.

Central to the history of the Sicilian Vespers is the fate of the Byzantine Empire and the efforts of its emperor, Michael Palaiologos, to consolidate his hold of Constantinople, which he had, in 1261, taken back for the Greeks after 57 years of Latin rule.

The Palaiologan re-conquest was met with shock and dismay in the West, and the ousted Baldwin was sympathetically received in various courts and particularly by the pope and Manfred Hohenstaufen, the king of Sicily, who both vowed to help him recover his throne in Constantinople.

However, for Baldwin’s hopes to be realised there would have to be a reconciliation between the papacy and Manfred. Because even if Manfred believed that nothing would be more pleasing to the papacy than if he were to help restore the Latin Empire of Constantinople and bring to heel the schismatic Greeks; for the papacy, the Hohenstaufens remained German usurpers who had illegitimately wrested Sicily and southern Italy from papal control and were now threatening to create an Italo-German empire that would diminish the papacy’s political role on the continent even further.

Thus, increasingly tormented by the gains of Manfred in central and northern Italy, successive popes scoured Europe in search of a potentate who would end the Hohenstaufen dynasty in Sicily.

After courtship of various English royals had floundered, in 1263 the Sicilian throne was offerred by Pope Urban to Charles of Anjou, the ambitious and underemployed brother of the French king. In June 1265, Pope Clement had Charles anointed king of Sicily, and within a year, Angevin and French forces had invaded Italy and, at the Battle of Benevento, succeeded in killing Manfred, routing his troops and paving the way for Charles to take full possession of his kingdom.

For the Greeks, Charles’ accession to the throne of Sicily significantly increased the danger to Constantinople. Not only had Charles inherited Manfred’s desire to see the Latin Empire in Constantinople restored – with Charles able to extract from the ‘exiled’ Baldwin far more generous terms on how to divide Greek spoils in the event of Charles’ armies expediting restoration; but also, with the Hohenstaufen issue settled to the papacy’s satisfaction, there was now nothing to stop the pope from pursuing his enmity towards the Byzantines.

Michael’s response to the threat from Charles was twofold.

First, to appease the papacy, Michael agreed, at the Council of Lyons in 1274, to the Union of the Churches. By doing so, Michael expected the pope to act as a restraining influence on Charles, which would free the Byzantines to deal with rival Greek kingdoms; hostile Serbs and Bulgarians in the Balkans; and Turks in Anatolia and Asia Minor, where Michael was lobbying the pope to organise a Crusade.

However, it was one thing for Michael to put his name to a document accepting subordination of the Greek church to Rome, but another convincing the clergy and ordinary Greeks to accept the West’s terms, meaning that Michael, to stave off the restless Charles, was having to continuously placate increasingly skeptical papal delegates that he was doing all he could to implement the agreement on church union.

For the Westerners, it was becoming clear that, despite Michael’s reassurances, the Greeks were ‘unflinchingly’ opposed to church union and that Michael could do little to quell the dissent and riots over the issue. Indeed, either to test Michael’s commitment to the terms of union or, as Runciman says, because the pope was ‘deliberately trying to wreck the union’, the West’s conditions for unity became increasingly onerous and more humiliating to the Greeks.

In 1281, Pope Nicholas finally declared that the Greeks were not fulfilling the conditions they’d agreed to, that Michael was a ‘heretic and fosterer of heresy’ and that he was to surrender his empire (by 1 May 1282) to the pope or be overthrown. The way was now open for Charles to oust the Greeks from Constantinople, and he immediately began amassing money, troops and a fleet in preparation for the enterprise.

For Michael, with his policy of preserving his empire (by promising church union in exchange for the papacy restraining Charles) now falling apart, it was time to advance the second strand of his strategy, which was to depose Charles before Charles could depose him.

Thus, Michael not only fomented and financed rebellion in Sicily, where locals were bristling under Charles’ repressive rule and where a large Greek-speaking population still (according to Runciman) felt affinity with the Greek emperor in Constantionople; but he also funded and organised Manfred and Hohenstaufen stalwarts out for revenge against Charles; and persuaded King Peter of Aragon, who ruled Western Spain (including Catalonia), to pursue his claim to the Sicilian throne, which was based on Peter’s Norman ancestry (the Normans had ruled Sicily from 1072 to 1194) and the fact that his wife, Constance, was Manfred’s daughter.

With Byzantine gold and diplomatic craft, then, Charles was pre-empted. Before he had the chance to launch his campaign against Byzantium, which was planned for the spring of 1282, Sicily, after initial violence at Easter Vespers on 30 March outside the Church of the Holy Spirit in Palermo, erupted in a wave of anti-Angevin fervour and bloodletting that drove the French from the island. The rebels initially established Communes on the northern Italian model, but papal disapproval and Angevin counterattack soon had the Sicilians turning to King Peter of Aragon for protection, who accepted the island’s throne in September 1282, and from which, with more gold from Constantinople, he was able to dispose of the remnants of Charles’ forces in Calabria.

Michael Palaiologos died in December 1282 feeling, Runciman says, his life’s work complete. He had restored the empire and thwarted a counterattack from the West.

‘Should I dare to claim that I was God’s instrument in bringing freedom to the Sicilians, then I would only be stating the truth’, was Michael’s valedictory boast.

However, in the event, Michael’s triumphs were illusory and the respite for the Byzantine empire short-lived. For it soon became apparent that all the Sicilian Vespers had achieved was to replace a French king with ambitions to create a Mediterranean empire with a Spanish equivalent.

In 1303, Catalan mercenaries, surplus to requirements at the Aragonese courts in Sicily and Spain, offerred their services to Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos, to aid his wars against the Turks in Anatolia and Asia Minor. The Catalan Company’s initial successes against the Turks only encouraged its avarice and ambitions and the Catalans soon became another threat to Byzantine integrity and legitimacy. In 1305, the Catalans devastated Thrace and Macedonia, including Mt Athos, while in 1311, the company conquered the duchies of Athens and Neopatria, which remained part of the Aragonese crown until 1388-1390, before the Navarrese Company and then the Ottoman Turks intervened, the latter for a more enduring period.

Still, the legacy of the Aragonese interlude in Greece continues, with Spanish kings to this day including ‘Duke of Athens and Neopatria’ among their titles, while, in 2005, the government of Catalonia decided, 700 years after the Aragonese/Catalan invasion and occupation of Greece, to make amends for its ancestors’ pillaging of Mt Athos (on which, all these years, Catalans had been banned from setting foot) by contributing 200,000 euros to restoration works for Vatopedi monastery.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Family names and Cypriot history: reflections of an insomniac

Salamis, Cyprus
I was having trouble sleeping last night, but rather than count sheep, I started recalling names in my family that had classical connotations. Now, I come from a large extended family on both my father’s and mother’s side (my mother told me something funny the other day, which was that her extended family was regarded as so close in her village that they were known as ‘οι Εβραίοι’), and the names that predominate are the usual – Giorgos, Yiannis, Andreas, Maria and so on. However, I was surprised at the number of classical names in my family I was able to evoke – Omiros, Alexandros, Aristos (x2), Miltiades, Alkiviades, Leonidas (x2), Lysandros, Lysandra, Herodotus, Helen (x4), Athena, Cleanthou, Evagoras (x2) and Evelthon (x2).

The last two names, Evagoras and Evelthon, appear to me to be exclusive to Cyprus – I’ve not come across anyone holding them from elsewhere in Greece – and they both refer to kings of Salamis, the predominant ancient city-state on the island, said to have been founded by Teucer, Ajax’s brother, which went through many transformations and upheavals before being abandoned in the 7th century AD in the wake of Arab invasions, forcing residents to evacuate to Arsinoe, later renamed Ammochostos (or Famagusta, to the Latins). Both Ammochostos and the ruins of Salamis – the symbol of Hellenism in Cyprus – are now under Turkish occupation.

Now, we know a fair amount about the reign of Evagoras I (410-374 BC), his efforts to subdue the Phoenician element on Cyprus; his wars to unite the island’s kingdoms and liberate Cyprus from Persian control; his support for Athens in the latter stages of the Peloponnesian war; Athens’ abandonment of Evagoras and Cyprus to the Persians, following the Peace of Antalcidas (387 BC); and Evagoras’ programme of Greek cultural regeneration, including replacing the Cypriot syllabary with the Greek alphabet. All of which earned him a notable panegyric from Isocrates, who cast him as an ideal Greek ruler, and a reputation as Cyprus’ greatest ever statesman.

But we know less about the kingship of Evelthon (560-525 BC). What we do know is that he ruled in Salamis, under Persian suzerainty, but with a great deal of autonomy – to the extent that he was able to mint his own coinage – and that Salamis was sufficiently prestigious and powerful at the time to play an active role in Mediterranean politics.

Thus, Evelthon crops up in Herodotus, at the point where the historian is describing the civic turmoil engulfing the Greek colony of Cyrene in Libya.

According to Herodotus, following reforms to the Cyrenian constitution instigated by Demonax the Mantinean, the monarchy, while being preserved, was stripped of its absolute powers in favour of a Senate and its land distributed to the increasing number of Greeks settling in the colony. This arrangement lasted under Battus III, but when his son Arcesilaus III ascended the throne (530 BC), he began a campaign to regain the monarch’s traditional rights. This caused him to be exiled to Samos, while his mother, Pheretime, took refuge at Evelthon’s court in Salamis, where she relentlessly implored the king to send a Cypriot army to help restore her son’s fortunes in Cyrene. Here’s how Herodotus describes the political background and Evelthon’s reaction to Pheretime’s entreaties:

‘Thus matters rested during the lifetime of this Battus, but when his son Arcesilaus came to the throne, great disturbance arose about the privileges. For Arcesilaus, son of Battus the lame and Pheretime, refused to submit to the arrangements of Demonax the Mantinean, and claimed all the powers of his forefathers.

‘In the contention which followed Arcesilaus was worsted, whereupon he fled to Samos, while his mother took refuge at Salamis in the island of Cyprus. Salamis was at that time ruled by Evelthon, the same who offered at Delphi the censer which is in the treasury of the Corinthians, a work deserving of admiration.

‘Of him Pheretime made request that he would give her an army whereby she and her son might regain Cyrene. But Evelthon, preferring to give her anything rather than an army, made her various presents. Pheretime accepted them all, saying, as she took them: “Good is this too, O king! but better were it to give me the army which I crave at thy hands.”

‘Finding that she repeated these words each time that he presented her with a gift, Evelthon at last sent her a golden spindle and distaff, with the wool ready for spinning. Again she uttered the same speech as before, whereupon Evelthon rejoined: “These are the gifts I present to women, not armies”.’

Friday, 5 October 2012

Anastasiades strong favourite as Cyprus presidential election picture becomes clearer

An update on where we are with the Cypriot presidential elections, which are due in February 2013.

We now know who the main candidates will be and, indeed, who will more than likely win the contest.

The incumbent Dimitris Christofias, from communist AKEL, will not stand again. He has said this is because there exists no immediate prospect of a successful conclusion to the UN-led talks with the Turks aimed at reunifying Cyprus; but the truth is that the president is so reviled by Cypriots – for his handling of the Mari disaster; for his mismanagement of the economy; and for his general shameless ineptitude – that he would have faced an inevitable and humiliating defeat should he have chosen to put his record to the test.

AKEL has now chosen Stavros Malas as its candidate for the presidency. Malas is currently minister of health in the Christofias government and belongs to the tiny United Democrats party, the most dovish and pro-Annan political group in Cyprus. Malas is a feeble candidate, virtually unknown to the Cypriot public and he has no chance of being elected president. In the first round of the election, expect him to take between 18-22 percent of votes, which will be at least 10 percent less than Christofias received in the first round of the 2008 contest.

Standing as an independent but with the backing of socialist EDEK is Giorgos Lillikas. Lillikas started off in AKEL, and was nominated by that party to serve in the Tassos Papadopoulos administration, first as commerce and industry minister then as foreign minister. In government, Lillikas became so enamored with Papadopoulos that he decided to support him against Christofias in 2008, an act of ‘treachery’ for which Lillikas was expelled from AKEL and earned him that party’s abiding enmity.

However, it is not only AKEL that has a personal grudge against Lillikas. His reputation for vaulting ambition and opportunism – his decision to support Papadopoulos in 2008 was regarded as a tactical move designed to keep his job as foreign minister, given that most people expected Papadopoulos to be re-elected – has also alienated him from Papadopoulos’ party, centrist DIKO, which even though it shares the harder stance of Lillikas on the Cyprus issue, decided not to back him for 2013.

In the first round of the election, expect Lillikas to obtain between 15-20 percent of votes.

The man DIKO has decided to back for president is Nikos Anastasiades, the leader of conservative DISY, which is the largest party on the island.

This is a remarkable turnaround for DIKO, which not only, when Tassos Papadopoulos was its leader, entered into an alliance with AKEL that allowed, in 2001, Christofias to be appointed president of the House of Representatives – boosting his profile and prestige – in exchange for the communists supporting Papadopoulos in the 2003 presidential race; but also, in the 2008 presidential run-off, again following instructions from Papadopoulos, backed Christofias against DISY’s Ioannis Cassoulides, and gave the AKEL leader victory.

Now, having acrimoniously abandoned Christofias and ditched its alliance with AKEL, DIKO will support in Anastasiades a man who was not only vitriolic in opposing Tassos Papadopoulos throughout his presidency, damaging him domestically and internationally; but who also notoriously backed in 2004 the reviled Annan plan.

Given the lingering antagonism towards Anastasiades, it is not entirely clear that DIKO supporters will vote en masse the way they have been asked to by the party leadership. Many may well decide to vote for Lillikas, especially since Nikolas Papadopoulos, son of the former president, was one of the minority of senior DIKO officials to oppose the alliance with DISY and state that Lillikas’ views on the Cyprus issue were closer to DIKO’s than Anastasiades’.

Nevertheless, partly because most DIKO voters will go along with their leadership and partly because the 2013 election will be more about the dire state of the economy than the Cyprus issue, Anastasiades will receive between 45-50 percent of first round votes, which means he may not need a run-off to secure the presidency.

However, even if a run-off is necessary, it is still hard to imagine either Malas or Lillikas coming from so far back to defeat Anastasiades on the second Sunday.

If Malas goes through to the second round, then it is inconceivable that Lillikas voters will support the AKEL candidate in sufficient numbers to threaten Anastasiades; and, similarly, if Lillikas were to go through to the run-off, then it’s hard to believe that AKEL would throw its weight behind him to stop Anastasiades. (In a Lillikas-Anastasiades run-off, AKEL would likely advise its supporters to vote according to conscience). And even if AKEL did come to an agreement with Lillikas and support him in a second round, many DIKO (and maybe even EDEK) voters who backed Lillikas in the first round might not do so in the run-off if his victory were to mean AKEL continuing to exert power and influence in a Lillikas government.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Themistocles and Athens at the peak of their careers

Themistocles, the visionary Athenian statesman and soldier, realised that despite the Athenian victory at Marathon (490 BC), Persian ambitions to conquer Greece had not abated, and that the Persians were bound to try again.

As such, Themistocles sought to persuade the Athenians that their city had to become a naval power and build a fleet in preparation for an inevitable Persian invasion. Despite much opposition and skepticism, the Athenians eventually accepted Themistocles’ advice – a fleet was built; the Persian armada was routed at Salamis (480 BC); Athens became a maritime (and imperial) force; and Athenian democracy, buoyed by its military success and the repercussions of its citizens being recast as sailors from soldiers (see this post), entered its most radical and creative phase.

Now, I normally have Themistocles on the brain because his perception of a threat from the east, and his insistence that Athens prepare to meet it, has obvious parallels for contemporary Greece. However, today, I was also reminded of the incident recorded in Plutarch, in which Xerxes’ ambassadors arrive in Athens to relay the Persian king’s demand for earth and water, i.e. the city’s subjection, only for Themistocles to have their interpreter put to death for daring to utter the barbarians’ insulting orders in Greek.

It’s a remarkable scene, which the Romanian writer EM Cioran draws this pertinent moral from:
‘A people commit such an act only at the peak of its career. It is decadent, it is dying, when it no longer believes in its language, when it stops believing that its language is the supreme form of expression.’