Beware of Greeks Bearing Debt
“We are on a difficult course, on a new Odyssey for Greece,” former Prime Minister George Papandreou once observed of his country’s economic malady. “But we know the road to Ithaca and we have charted the waters.” The man could be forgiven for falling back on the iconic Odysseus—Greece has always looked on the Classical Age as a usable past.
But the metaphor of the Odyssey offers no guidance for Greece’s economic travails. For the Odyssey is about adventure and revenge and the yearning for home; profit rarely figures in the journey. And when it does, on one occasion in Phaeacia, it is used to taunt Odysseus to demonstrate his skill at feats of physical prowess. “Oh I knew it!” said a local mocking the traveler. “I never took you for someone skilled in games, not a chance. You are some skipper of profiteers roving the high seas in his scudding craft, reckoning up his freight with a keen eye out for home cargo, grabbing the gold he can!” Odysseus takes the bait—after all, honor and glory matter. He gives the games of Phaeacia a whirl.
The ancient Greeks did not have much praise for commerce. Plato denigrated it in the Republic, as did Aristotle. Commerce was not fit for men of the polis, and was best left, it was thought, for metics, resident foreigners. No solace could be found in that classical tradition Greece passionately claims as its own. The German bankers should not rest easy if Greeks come forth bearing the inspiration of the epics and heroes of ancient Greece.
Ironically, the more usable—and proximate—past comes from the way the Greeks performed as traders and merchant mariners during the centuries of their subjugation to the Ottomans. The story is not heroic. Banking and business are not the stuff of legend. The Ottoman Empire created structures of collaboration: Some three-dozen nationalities and communities made up that ramshackle empire. The bureaucracy and the army were the preserve of the Turks, but the Greeks found a niche for themselves, and they prospered as merchants and middle-men.
They could be found in all parts of the Sultan’s domains, in the Greek Peninsula, in Anatolia itself, and wherever the Ottoman soldiers went and conquered. Greek was the lingua franca of the Levant, on par, in places, with Ottoman Turkish. “So they always had the sea, the very essence of caprice,” Jason Goodwin wrote of the Greeks in his beautiful reconstruction of the Ottoman world, Lords of the Horizons (1998).
The Greeks dominated the empire’s coasts. Smyrna (today Izmir), on the Anatolian seaboard, stood as a monument to the brilliance of the Greek merchants. In the 1600s, this city was to know a golden age, and the merchants did it on their own, outwitting the Ottoman bureaucrats, and the Sultan’s court in Constantinople. Its world was genuinely cosmopolitan; the Greeks were the city’s bankers, lawyers, merchants, and doctors. Alexandria, too, was a haven for the Greek traders, and Greeks could be found peddling their wares in the remotest corners of rural Egypt. They were a resourceful breed, and the French and the British, pushing their way into the markets of the Levant, saw the Greeks as agile and brilliant competitors.
The ancient Greeks did not have much praise for commerce.