How Greek are the Greeks of today?

While Mr Panagiotaros MP of the Golden Dawn far right party described a highly regarded member of the Greek National Basketball team as non-Greek only because he is black, how sure can he be that he himself is “racially” clean? How Greek are the Greeks of today?

The continuity of Greeks from antiquity to today is a thorny issue and many Greek academics throughout the years produced papers and articles with the conclusion always predetermined. The modern Greeks are descendants of Pericles and Socrates. But are the Greeks really Greek? Definitely the Greek academia and the state have done everything possible to undermine the possibility of such an eventuality and to harm the credibility of their arguments. The popular belief of the Greek continuity from the age of antiquity to the present day is predominantly supported by inadequate observations, by scientific misrepresentations, by the help of the divine and by the alleged existence of a Greek DNA code.

Any non-Greek scholar, who wrote something relatively positive about the Greek lineage, was always blown out of proportion by the press. For example, Carleton Coon mentioned that the similarity of the ancient Greeks with the modern ones is remarkable. However, everyone seems to omit from the statement that Coon actually described a Mediterranean race with similar characteristics found from Morocco to Greece and the Middle East. Greeks of the past are similar to the modern-day populace; however they also look pretty much the same with modern Albanians, Turks, Italians etc. A fundamental miscalculation of his research lies on the fact that he divided people according to their religion. He even mentioned that the Muslim Greeks are a centimetre shorter than the Orthodox. Cretans, from example Coon says, are taller and blonder than the “Greeks” and very similar to the Serbian race. He also mentioned that the Greeks of Boston, Massachusetts are even taller, neglecting completely their actual origin back in Greece.[1] Nevertheless, the aforementioned anthropologist is regularly referred as scientific proof regarding the true Greek origins.

Another notorious example of scientific misinterpretation is the case of Stanford’s geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli Sforza. Sforza in his hypothesis simply mentions that a specific DNA type had strong presence in Greece. This was the sparkle for another round of theories regarding the Greek purity. Sforza however, also mentions that the specific DNA stems from Anatolia and Asia from 7000BC due to the farming migration,[2] a biased omission on behalf of several Greek journalists and scholars who promoted the idea of a Greek DNA, since in that time Greece was not even “invented” yet. Sforza also mentioned that Greeks are genetically similar to the Iranians more than anyone else,[3] a fact also simply proven by historical and anthropological studies but completely ignored in Greece. Besides the Persians were the true Aryans, contrary to the popular belief that the Nordic people were. Distorting Sforza’s study, several Greeks gave to genetic codes consciousness and a nationality.

A renowned Greek scholar A.Vakalopoulos recognised the tremendous influx of Bulgarians, Arvanites (or Arnavouts, mercenaries of the Byzantine Empire, usually Albanians)[4], Vlachs and generally Slavs in the Greek mainland from the very beginning of the Byzantine Empire up to the 20th century. However, he claims that despite the massive and gradual migration, the “new-comers” have been culturally and linguistically assimilated without causing any perturbation among the indigenous populace.  Nevertheless, especially his linguistic assimilation theory is rather frail. According to Tsitsipis and Elmendorf, linguistic diversity was never really acceptable in Greece, especially in the 20th century.[5] Vakalopoulos himself mentions that the Greek language was the only tangible unifying symbol for the emerging state in the 1830s. The linguistic problem has not been solved by assimilation or any other circumstantial causes; it was a conscious and institutionally planned process that lasted for more than 100 years. It only ended when the uttering of another language (other than the Greek) was deemed as a socially discriminating feature. Even the prominent Greek historian Helene Ahrweiler tries in a rather diplomatic and romantic way to digress on the issue as she is not in position to fully explain the legacy of the Greek language. She claims that ultimately the “greek-ness” is situated in the peoples’ hearts and souls and the divine.[6] Perhaps that is true.

The existence of ancient Greek resemblances with modern day Greeks is not refuted, but to claim concrete evidence of the continuity is futile as there are other staggering elements debating the racial purity of the ancient Greeks, but this is not part of the present analysis. The much despised in Greece Fallmerayer stated that there is not a single drop of ancient Greek blood in the Greeks of his age. It is perhaps an exaggeration for additional emphasis of his point; however we must consider the fact that no one was exactly identifying himself as a Greek national back then, but rather as a Christian or Muslim without necessarily being Greek speaking too. Commonsensical, someone may say, as Greece as nation-state was still non-existent. The establishment of the first real Greek sovereign state was not until 1830s, something like 2400 years after Pericles.

But even if we accept the argument that the Persians, the Slavs, the Bulgarians, the Goths, the Albanians, the Romans, the Venetians, the Genoans and the Ottomans were all Hellenised and assimilated, how much pure can you be after that? The same notions stand for the modern Turks, for the modern British people and actually pretty much for everyone. Nothing can be objective in this particular issue, because the world, the countries and societies are constantly shifting. Greece is perceived by many as cleansed by all foreign or alienating elements. Well not anymore, things have changed once again. The basketball player with the very Greek name Sophokles Schortsianites could be way more Greek than the self-proclaimed geneticists of the Golden Dawn party. Nobody can tell you what you are or how you feel. In Greece of today this seems to be forgotten. Some politicians of the past knew very well that Greece was so ethnically fragmented that we could not establish the nationality according to tangible or physical criteria. This was the main reason why Prime Minister E. Venizelos promoted the idea that the “greek-ness” is not measured by race, language or religion but from someone’s national consciousness.[7]  As Simon McIlwaine writes the Greek ethnical homogeneity was just a conviction.[8] Indeed nobody could be 100% Greek. But no matter how cliché that is, Shelley said that “we are all Greeks”.

[1] The Greeks from C.S. Coon, The Races of Europe, Chapter XII, section 14

[2] Mitchell Leslie, Stanford Magazine The History of Everyone and Everything, May/June 1999

[3] ibid

[4] Κωστας Μπιρης 1960, Αρβανίτες οι Δωριείς του νεÏŒτερου Ελληνισμού: ιστορία των Ελλήνων ΑρβανιτÏŽν

[5] Language Shift among the Albanian Speakers of Greece

Lukas D. Tsitsipis and William W. Elmendorf

 Anthropological Linguistics, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Fall, 1983), pp. 288-308

Published by: The Trustees of Indiana University on behalf of Anthropological Linguistics

[6] Hélène Ahrweiler “The Hellenic Europe: Problems of Greek Continuity”
Ahrweiler H., The Making of Europe, Lectures and Studies, Nea Synora Livanis Publishing Organization, Athens 2000.

[7]Michael Llewellyn Smith “Venizelos’ Diplomacy 1910-23: From Balkan Alliance to Greek Turkish Settlement” in  Kitromilidis, Paschalis (ed) “Venizelos: The trials of statesmanship” Edinburgh University Press, 2008 p.173

[8] Simon McIlwaine, The Strange Case of the Invisible Minorities - Institutional Racism in the Greek State, International Society for Human Rights, British Section, Dec. 1993

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The author of this article holds a PhD on Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. He has written numerous papers on defence and International Relations, European Union issues, Islamic Finance, Religion, History and Middle East Politics.  His current research interest is on theorising informal economy and World War II.

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