The whole affair took place while I was having a coffee with a friend at one of the cafes on Toorak Road, near my office. My friend a particularly patriotic gentleman when it comes to matters Hellenic was holding forth upon the necessity for us to regain our erstwhile greatness, by casting aside the foreign imposed title of Greek and replacing it with that of Hellene. In his estimation, a simple name change would suffice to turn around the destiny of the beleaguered Greek people.
“Did you know,” I interrupted as an aside, “During the First Balkan War in 1912, when the Greek navy captured Lemnos, it promptly sent soldiers to every village and stationed them in the public squares. Children from all over the island ran to see what these so called Greeks looked like. “What are you looking at?” one of soldiers asked. “At you Greeks,” one of the children replied. “Are you not Greek yourselves?” said the soldier. “No, we are Romans,” replied the child.”
“No, but you see,” my friend interjected, “Roman is one of those words that was used by the Turks to deny us our heritage. To them, anyone who was Orthodox was Rum, or Roman, because they did not want us to have a Hellenic national consciousness that would enable us to tap into our ancestral roots and discover our ancient civilisation.”
“Actually,” I objected, “from at least the 400s to 1453, the Greek people did call themselves Romans. If you have a look at the inscriptions on the Byzantine coins, they name the Emperor and describe him as a faithful and august king of the Romans. The inscriptions are in Greek, mind you.”
“It’s the church’s fault,” my friend riposted. “They did that on purpose to keep people away from their Hellenic roots, so they would lose the ability to philosophise and question the priests. Did you know that back then, to be a Hellene meant to be a pagan?”
“Yes,” I concurred, “and to be a Roman, meant being a citizen of the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire, which was considered to be a continuation of the original Roman empire. Interestingly enough, as the scholar Apostolos Kaldellis has pointed out, non-Greek speaking minorities of the empire, such as Arabs, Armenians and Bulgarians were not considered Roman unless they were assimilated within the Greek-speaking milieu. To put it plainly, you had to be a Greek to be a Roman. The reason why other peoples, such as the Arabs and the Turks of the time called the Greeks Romans, was because we called ourselves Roman. Pontians referred to their country as Ρωμανία, the land of the Romans. And even today, when we want to refer to the Greeks of Constantinople, we don’t use the word έλληνες. Instead, we speak of Ρωμιοί.”
“If what you say is true,” my friend mused, “then we have appropriated the Roman identity, in the same way that the Skopjans have appropriated a Macedonian identity for themselves. I wonder why the Italians haven’t realised this. They would sue the pants off us. And it turns out we are no better than those we deride, except that we got away with it.”
“No,” I interjected. “Byzantium was the continuation of the Roman empire, of which the Greek people were citizens. So, they were citizens of the Roman Empire and saw themselves as such. The term was meant politically, not ethnically and this caused confusion. The proof is that while the easterners called the Greeks Romans, the Romans and the western Europeans referred to them as Greeks. For example, there are runic inscriptions in Sweden dating from the 11th century, mentioning men who went to ‘Grikkland’ to serve the emperor and were known as ‘Grikkfari’ or ‘Greece-farers.’ If this isn’t complicated enough, after the creation of the Holy Roman Empire in the west, the German emperors refused to consider the Byzantines as Romans and called them Greeks instead. The Byzantines found this offensive. As the bishop Luitbrand records, when Emperor Nikephoros Phokas received a letter from the Pope addressing him as emperor of the Greeks, he shouted in fury: “Doesn’t that idiot of a pope know that Constantine the Great transferred the imperial capital and senate here, to Constantinople, and left behind in Rome only slaves, plebeians, and common types?” Further, when in the 9th century, in a letter to Pope Nicholas I, Emperor Michael III referred to Latin as a “barbarous and Scythian language,” the Pope asked: “How then can you call yourself a Roman?” Similarly, when the pope sent a letter inviting the Byzantine delegation to the Council of Ferrara, to discuss union between the churches, Bishop Stephanos of Media exclaimed: “He is insulting us. He is calling us Graikoi. How can we go if he is insulting us?”
“Which is the same thing as the Macedonian issue,” my friend frowned. “Just like we thought we were Romans and promoted a Roman identity, even though the world was telling us we were not, they think they are Macedonians, even though they are not.”
“I think the difference is that we actually were Romans, that is, citizens of the Roman Empire,” I responded. “We knew exactly who our ancestors were and we knew that our language was Greek. The Roman identity was borne of a state, legal, and religious ideology, not an ethnic consciousness and this was always understood by the Greeks of Byzantium, which is why, when deprived of that political entity, were able to identify ethnically and linguistically as Greeks, even though the Roman appellation persisted, either in predominance or in parallel, right up until the 20th century. The Skopjans, on the other hand, do think that they are ethnically Macedonian. That is where they make their blooper. As for calling ourselves Greeks or Hellenes, considering we have called ourselves everything under the sun since we first formed a collective consciousness, does it really matter? What makes us great is not our name but the sum of our collective experiences, including the collected works of Sakis Rouvas.”
“This is doing my head in,” my friend complained. “I can’t have a cup of coffee with you without getting a migraine. You’re a bloody Roman.”
Having exhausted his patience, I approached the cafe counter in order to proffer payment. To the side of the cash register, I noticed some suspiciously familiar round biscuits covered in icing sugar, resting on a plate.
Turning to the proprietor I asked:
“What are these?”
“These are called courbiettes,” she responded, affecting a French accent.
“What are they made out of?”
“Where do they come from?” I persisted.
“France, I think,” she responded. “Do you want some? They are $4.00 each.”
“Go on,” my friend goaded me. “I want to see you pay $4.00 in a pretentious joint in Toorak for a kourabie. Because that’s what it is. It’s a bloody kourabie masquerading as a courbi-, whatever the hell it is. Πού φτάσαμε. Flogging off Greek kourabie to the hoi polloi as French petits biscuits. What a ξεφτίλα.”
I handed over eight dollars and pinkies in their air, we each bit into our respective courbiette. It was unmistakably, a kourabie, despite its gallicised name. The taste however was excremental.
“Alright,” my friend crowed triumphantly, as he blew a gust of icing sugar in my direction. “Tell me, is this a courbiette in the political, linguistic, or ethnic sense? Or this is a courbiette that secretly knows that it is a Greek kourabie?”
“Actually,” the proprietor intervened, “it’s a qurabiya. Our chef is Iranian. These originate from the Turks of Tabriz and you can find mention of them in Ottoman sources from the 15th century. But of course, being where we are, we need to market them accordingly.”
“So there you go,” I turned to my friend. “Its ethno-linguistically Turkish, culturally Greek, and economically French. Does that satisfy you?”
“Bulldust,” my friend muttered defiantly. “They will never take our name.”