What to read on holiday in Greece – Johanna Hanink’s “The Classical Debt”- book review


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Image credit: “Greek Ruins” cartoon by Rick McKee in the Augusta (GA) Chronicle



I came across Johanna Hanink’s book through sheer coincidence. There was an event organized in my local bookshop in which she was discussing her new book (which I had heard nothing of) with Mary Beard. I was curious enough to see Mary Beard live– so I attended the event. And as I had spent my last holiday in Greece, it was perhaps inevitable that I came out of with a copy of the book that had been discussed that evening.

Johanna Hanink is an Associate Professor of Classics at Brown University who has lived in Greece.  Her book, The Classical Debt is a historical perspective on the notion of the various ‘debts’ both owed to and by Greece. She starts with the ancient notion which positioned Athens as the city which saved civilization from the Persian barbarians. All the other cities in Greece thus owed it respect. After the Athenians defeated the Persians, the Delian League used to pay Athens money every year. The notion of ‘debt’ was conveyed in actual currency.

The book quickly moves on to 17th-century travellers’ perceptions of Greece.  Typically, it was perceived in the shadow of its ancient past.  Western travellers to Greece would describe Greeks as orientalized and polluted by Ottoman rule (although the book also includes the perspective of an Ottoman traveller from the same period, Evliya Çelebi, who naturally did not share this point of view). Travellers from England, France, and the Netherlands were not interested in the contemporary inhabitants of Greece – instead, they were drawn to its glorious past, which they tended to identify with.

Hanink pays considerable attention to Johann Joachim Winkelmann and his History of Art and Antiquity (Geschichte der Kunst des Alterhums 1764) , which is credited not only with the basic chronologic division of Greek art into the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods, but also with the pernicious idea that whiteness, whether of marble or of human skin contributed to aesthetic perfection. Though by the end of his life Winckelmann acknowledged visible traces of pigment on Greek sculptures, he did not manage to revise his work before his death (he was murdered in a tavern by a robber) and the irrevocable damage had been done.  Greekess was irrevocably linked to issues of race. Even though in the 19th-century, the German historian  Fallmerayer suggested that the modern inhabitants of Greece were of Slavic origin and not connected to the ancient Greeks in any way. His thesis has been the subject of controversy ever since.

In the 18th-century, however, Greeks took up the notion of their ancient roots (and there is evidence to suggest that this development of Greek identity was helped by the mid-eighteenth century Greek translation of a French work of history, Charles Rollin’s Histoire Ancienne.) Influential Greek secular thinkers, such as Adamantios Korais (1748-1833) started to argue that the Greek people should realize that the spirit of ancient Athens is still present in them – and rebel against the Turks. Korais blamed the Orthodox Church and the Ottomans for the corruption of the Greek spirit and strove to develop a new version of the Greek language, called Katharevousa which retained most of the popular spoken version of modern Greek, but ‘purified’ of its acquired ‘barbarism’. Societies of Philhellenes around Europe were keen to help restore Greece to its former glory, and they helped Greece gain its independence in the early 19th-century. Europe’s debt to the ancient world of Greece was, in theory, repaid. Though in fact, European powers could not stop themselves from meddling with Greek politics – and the Kings of Greece were not chosen by the Greeks themselves, but by foreign politicians.


Hanink notes that Europe’s obsession with Greece’s ancient past has at time harmed other relics. King Otto’s decision to ‘purify” the Parthenon involved removing “all postclassical structures from the Acropolis and… [dismantling and demolishing ] even the Byzantine monuments – churches among them – in the neighboring quarters below it.” Monuments removed included a medieval castle built around the gateway to the Acropolis, the Frankish Tower that had dominated the skyline of Athens, and most obviously the mosque on the Acropolis and its minaret.  I have acquired the book The Acropolis and its new Museum when I was in Athens – and it does not contain a single image of the Acropolis before its purification, so I am incredibly grateful to Hanink for including one. In fact, the museum book doesn’t even mention that the dismantling of medieval structures ever took place.


According to Hanink’s account, it took a while for the medieval past of the Orthodox Church and the Ancient Past of Greece to stop competing against each other and form a unified nationalist ideology.

And here we come to the part that many readers will find most relevant. The question of Europe’s debt to Greece, or rather Greece’s debt to Germany in the present day. Hanink talks a great deal about the stereotype of the lazy Greeks not deserving the legacy of their ancestors appearing in American and German newspapers – but she doesn’t underline the fact that this stereotype originates not only from relations made by 17th century travellers, but with ancient Rome, which on its conquest of Greece, created an idea of a historically and culturally valuable but nevertheless indolent and effeminate nation that needed to be ruled by strength.

Hanink is very good at picking out and analyzing the historical allusions made by the Greek government and its representatives while talking of Europe’s debt to Greece. She even interviewed Yannis Varoufakis about why he used antique tropes while talking to his audience.


But there are times, when (dare I say it) Hanink doesn’t seem quite attuned to the historical emotion attached to certain situations. For example, she cites a scandal which electrified the Greek news in 2015. The story went that apparently a German man travelling with his family had approached a guard at the Heraklion Archeological Museum and said: “look after the antiquities, because they belong to us and we want to make good use of them”. Now, Hanink (as an American) says this was insensitive because “German politicians had started to call on Greece to sell off the country’s antiquities to help pay down the debt”. Then she goes on to say that the Greek’s reaction of “ownership” towards their antiquities has “roots as deep as the War of Independence.”

She completely misses the point. The point is this – not only were the Greeks being squeezed by the German Parliament at the time but also they remember the archeological artifacts that were stolen during World War II. Indeed, in May 2015, the Greek Ministry of Defense was calling on Germany to pay repatriations for the Nazi occupation. – Hanink talks about this campaign in the first chapter of her book but then fails to connect the dots. She is very accurate however in monitoring the way ancient Greek origins are used in the xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric used by the Golden Dawn

Hanink also quotes Mirjam Brusius‘s reservations towards Western notions of ‘heritage’ and ‘archeology’. I will be nasty and say that this is probably mostly because Hanink is a historian by trade and historians archaeologists tend not to get along. Yes, archeology does get used by political propagandists, but so does history. That does not discredit either as a discipline.

The most bizarre bit of Hanink’s book is its last paragraph, in which she tries to redefine ‘classical debt’ –

“the debt would cease to be seen as on that is owed to (certain) Greeks whose literal ancestors supposedly illuminate the path of Western civilization. Rather, it could be construed as a debt owed for the centuries of destruction that other people’s dreams of ancient past have wrought… The reconceived debt would be owed to everyone whose life has worsened, or whose human value has been demeaned at the hands of the West’s Greek ideal. ”


I’m not quite sure what she means here.


I suppose she could mean that the debt is owed to the refugees by the Western world? Those people have been created as barbarian other thanks to the Western/ Greek framework? This is a tricky argument for me – I do believe that refugees deserve help as human beings, right here, right now.


But the problem is, the reframing of the idea of ‘the classical debt’ as the debt that the West owes to the rest of the world is problematic. It involves the idea of ancient Greece as somehow owned by the West. Now that is a narrative the West likes to tell itself. But it isn’t true. Arabic translations of ancient Greek works in many cases ensured their survival, and Arabic mathematicians developed Greek ideas. The idea of Greece is not ‘owned’ by the West or the East, and not even simply by the Greeks themselves. It has a life of its own now – and is the shared property of all mankind.


Johanna Hanink’s book is a fascinating exploration of the notion of “the classical debt” through history. I would recommend it to any foreigners wanting to learn more about Greece – both ancient and modern.

One thought on “What to read on holiday in Greece – Johanna Hanink’s “The Classical Debt”- book review

  1. Hi, Ada! It sounds interesting! It’s always nice to know what people that actually knows about a controversial topic think about it, although I would say reading more points of view would help you better make your own opinion. I don’t think anyone has the right answer -it all depends on the evidence you are showing for yours! Also, I love that you challenge the author’s ideas!


    Cova M. Lee @ Wonderful Literature

    Liked by 1 person

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