[…]As many of you will know, Professor Tamis has written numerous volumes on Philhellenism in countries and regions of the Greek diaspora, but the book that is being celebrated today is surely his most significant in that it explores the nature, history and growth of Philhellenism in the world at large and reveals clearly the unique and pervasive influence that a small country has had for many centuries on a global scale.
The chapters on the nature and growth of Philhellenism are detailed and informative, and I detect two basic manifestations, which I shall for simplicity call ‘Classical Philhellenism’ and ‘Contemporary Philhellenism’ － and I note that there can sometimes be tension between their respective objectives.
By Classical Philhellenism I mean the study and appreciation of Ancient Greek society – its history, literature, art, and philosophy. As is obvious, such Philhellenism is essentially admiration for a long lost society, and some idealisation can from time to time be detected – for instance in the frequent omission of the fact that the famed democracy of Athens was based on slavery, as were most societies at the time – but I will not elaborate on this for fear of inspiring a frenzy amongst modern critics, who seek not to learn from history but to criticise the ancients for supporting such a system and , where possible, to deface or to destroy any surviving images of statesmen of the time.
By Contemporary Philhellenism I mean the study of contemporary Greece, the teaching of Modern Greek language and literature and support for policies favourable to Greece. Such manifestations of Philhellenism developed strongly in and after the struggle for independence from Ottoman rule, although change did not come swiftly in the university sector – for in Oxford University, for instance, where Classics had long been available, Modern Greek was first introduced only in 1908 and endowed with a professorship of language and literature in 1915. It remains the only Modern Greek program in Britain that is the component of a BA degree.
Classical Philhellenism became prevalent in Europe from an early stage and found visibility in the writings of famous authors and philosophers, and by the 17th century in the establishment of Departments of Classics (that is, of Greek and Roman society) in most major universities. Indeed Classics became the dominant subject in universities, notably in Britain, France, and Germany, and most political luminaries, literary figures and educated persons were thoroughly imbued with knowledge of Greek history, myth, literature and philosophy. In Oxford University, a leading exponent of Classical education, there were in 1870 no less than 140 professors of Classics (as opposed to a handful in science).[…]
Contemporary Philhellenism had its effective origins in and after the war for independence, and more recently it can be linked to the growth of the Hellenic diaspora. This is evident in the Orient, where Professor Tamis has thrown welcome light on the situation – and somewhat paradoxically, whereas Classical Philhellenes have been slow to develop interest in contemporary Greece, migrants have actually supported the establishment of Classical studies locally. Thus, for instance, in Beijing there are now significant university programs in Ancient Greece at Peking University and Modern Greek at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. As a professor in both institutions I can report that Hellenic Studies in Beijing are flourishing.[…]
To return to Professor Tamis’ book, he covers in impressive detail four major instances of contemporary Philhellenism, comprising reactions to the fate of the so -called Elgin marbles, the Macedonian Question, the partition of Cyprus and recent debt problems. I restrict myself to a brief comment on the first of these.
As is well known, Elgin, with the agreement of the Ottoman authorities, removed pedimental sculptures and a substantial part of the frieze from the Parthenon to Britain in the early years of the 19th century. The Parthenon was at the time serving as a mosque and it had suffered serious damage during the assault on the Akropolis by Francesco Morosini in 1687, and, according to travellers it was being mistreated by the Turks. Such at any rate was the context of ( or the pretext for ) the removal, which might possibly be characterised as a misguided manifestation of Classical Philhellenism. Elgin was in any case emulating the deeds of others who had taken antiquities out of Greece, such as the French diplomat Choiseul-Gouffier, who took part of the Parthenon frieze to Paris. Byron was deeply imbued with Hellenic scholarship, and before he visited Athens in 1811, he had contemptuously described the Elgin marbles as “Phidian freaks, mis-shapen monuments, and maimed antiques”. A few months later, when he visited Athens and viewed the Parthenon himself, he changed his mind dramatically, wrote poems violently castigating Elgin for removing the marbles and became the initiator of the campaign for their return. I can add little to Tamis’ account of this continuing campaign, but seek to emphasise that it is not a ‘return’ or ‘removal’ that should be supported, but a RE-UNIFICATION – for the marbles are PART of a great monument, and they should thus be given back as an unconditional donation.
I may add that Elginism did not die out in the face of Byron’s criticisms – for subsequently, for example, the sculptures from the Aphaia temple on Aigina were removed to Munich, and, somewhat to the embarrassment of the excavator (Alexander Conze) the massive altar of Pergamon was despatched to Berlin, where it remains today.
Throughout this book there are frequent references to the establishment of foreign schools of Classics in Athens, and there can be little doubt that these schools have stimulated greater interest in Hellenic Studies in the home countries and contributed in terms of finance and expertise to the discovery, excavation and exhibition of many archaeological sites, as well as the establishment of magnificent libraries. Originally, however, these schools were certainly introverted and they were designed to amplify knowledge of Ancient Greece – in other words they were examples of Classical Philhellenism – and they were from time to time criticised as intruders, who spent most of their efforts on excavations. In more recent times they have become more open and they cover both modern and Ancient Greece, and are of clear benefit to locals as much as to their own nationals. The first such school was established by the French in 1846, and over the years it has developed and built museums for the famous sites of Delos, Delphi and Thasos (to name but a few). Subsequently German, American and British schools were founded – and in recent times many more have appeared.
The American school has been responsible for major excavations, notably in Korinth (from 1896) and in Pylos in the Peloponnese, where Carl Blegen unearthed the Mycenaean palace of Nestor and discovered therein a hoard of Linear B tablets, dating from ca. 1500 BC and now known to be written in an early form of Greek. But perhaps most impressive has been the excavation of the ancient Agora of Athens – and herein we find an interesting dilemma over the two aspects of Philhellenism, since the Agora was regarded as ‘a national site of symbolic value’, and bringing to light the remains of the city centre of ancient Athens could only be effected by destroying the dwellings of the current residents. It had been decided as early as 1832 in the plans for Athens as the capital of Greece that the area north of the Akropolis should be reserved for eventual excavation, and in 1921 the Director of Antiquities had requested funding to commence excavations there. Negotiations for a start were protracted and complicated by the fact that the area in the 1920s was densely populated – some 300 houses catering for more than 5000 persons, many of them refugees from the Smyrna debacle of 1922. The cost of expropriation of properties was well beyond the resources of the Greek government, and after much diplomatic manoeuvring and political agitation the American School secured permission to undertake the excavation at American expense and on the condition that all antiquities should remain in Athens. In the 1950s, of course, the area was made the more magnificent by the reconstruction of the huge Stoa of Attalos (built in the second century BC and wrecked by the Heruli in 267 AD) – the enormous cost being borne by wealthy American Philhellenes. Excavations are, of course, still in progress.
The British School, which adjoins the American School, began operations in 1886, and in the late 1960s its director, Peter Fraser, who was not just a fine scholar but in every sense a Philhellene (having served with the Greek resistance throughout the Second World War) set an important example by being the first to open up membership of the School to scholars and students from countries with no such base in Greece. Many Australians took advantage of this opportunity to become members until in 1980 the Australian Institute was founded by Alexander Cambitoglou.[…]
*Professor Michael J Osborne was the Vice Chancellor of La Trobe University from 1990 to 2006.