Ancient Greece and the Modern Greek Debt Crisis


Admittedly some are cheesy— but ancient references to Greece’s very modern debt crisis are everywhere in the media these days as editors and writers the world over scan the pages of books like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes— known as “the Bible” of Greek mythology, for two-thousand-year old references to the news and events happening in Greece today.

Harnessing the imaginative force of Greek mythology to explain a complex crisis is no longer exclusive to stuffy university professors in Classics departments. Editors and editorial boards, financial correspondents and television news commentators are all doing it.

The trials and tribulations of modern Greece have been repeatedly referred to a “Greek Tragedy”— boring, uninsightful and simple. The Trojan Horse and the “Greeks bearing gifts” line has also been used repeatedly in numerous headlines. The story of the Trojan Horse is from Homer’s Iliad, translated into dozens of languages and considered one of humanity’s most important published works ever.

But other references are much more imaginative and even complex.

Writing in the Financial Times, George Pagoulatos, professor of European politics and economy at Athens University of Economics, cited the myth of the Greek king Agamemnon sacrificing his eldest daughter Iphigenia so his warships could receive a fair wind to Troy. Likening the sacrificial victim to a Greece bundled out of the euro, the professor noted that: “The sacrifice of Iphigenia would turn out to be the ritual beginning of a collective suicide for the euro. As her sacrifice led to a decade-long Trojan War, a ‘Grexit’ could bring years of horror to the eurozone.” The blood Greek drama comes from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Iphigenia at Aulis.

It can be said that the complete Greek crisis of late can be described in Ancient Greek references.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras successfully persuaded his fellow Greeks to reject austerity measures in a recent referendum, but it was a “Pyrrhic victory” since he now faces an even more devastated economy and deeper austerity cuts, as well as a divided party. Victory at what cost?

The phrase, about a victory won at too great a cost, refers to King Pyrrhus of Epirus’ subduing of Roman forces in the Battle of Asculum in 279 BC. After losing a staggering number of men, Pyrrhus is alleged to have said that another such “victory” would ruin him.

Tsipras has also been compared repeatedly to Atlas, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, a reference to the mythical giant.

During marathon negotiations (another Greek reference) with other European leaders, Tsipras was said to be caught “between Scylla and Charybdis,” made to choose between a bailout with punishing terms that would be damaging to Greece or an equally disastrous ejection from the Eurozone.

Scylla and Charybdis were sea monsters who assumed the forms of a rocky shoal and a whirlpool respectively on either side of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Sailors such as Odysseus, in Homer’s “Odyssey,” had to pick which one to confront in the narrow channel — in essence, a choice between two unpalatable options. In English, “between a rock and a hard place” is a rough equivalent.

Against his own party’s ideals, Tsipras has now committed himself to more “draconian” budget cuts, with Greece forced to carry out the “Sisyphean task” of ever-increasing austerity.

In Athenian history, Draco was a politician who codified the city-state’s laws in the 7th century BC, but the punishments, though impartial, were resented as overly harsh. According to Greek myth, the gods condemned Sisyphus, the ruthless king of Corinth, to the fruitless, never-ending task of rolling a heavy stone up a hill only for it to roll back down again.

Former Deputy prime minister of the UK John Prescott said, after intense meetings concluded in Brussels that “Greece had stood up to EU bullies like Spartans did against the Persians,” a reference to the 300 Spartans at the Thermopylae Pass.

To qualify for a third international bailout, Greece must adopt the “Procrustean” reforms, such as liberalizing closed professions and loosening labor rules, that economic powerhouse Germany insists are the path to success for all Eurozone countries.

Procrustes was a giant who stretched or lopped off the limbs of his captives so that the helpless victims would exactly span the length of his bed, a cruel one-size-fits-all approach that made no allowances for individual differences or unusual circumstances. A “Procrustean bed” is an arbitrary standard to which everyone must conform, however painful.

Not wanting to be outdone on matters classical, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, predicted – almost certainly incorrectly – that “unlike in Sophocles’s tragedies, this Greek story will have a happy ending”.

Ridding Greece of its endemic political patronage and corruption will take a “Herculean effort,” similar to cleaning the “Augean stables.”

Of the 12 “labors” set for the mighty hero Hercules, the smelliest was to flush out, in a single day, the stables where King Augeas kept thousands of cattle, which some versions of the story say hadn’t been cleaned for 30 years. Using brains and brawn, Hercules tore through a stable wall, then dug trenches for two nearby rivers to surge through and sluice away the muck.

Greek banks, which shut their doors for three weeks because the European Central Bank capped their emergency funding and raised its collateral requirements, will have to apply, like Telephus, to the central bank to help rescue them when they resume full operation again.

Telephus, the king of Mysia, was wounded by the warrior Achilles in battle. In an unfortunate irony, an oracle told Telephus that only the person who inflicted the wound had the power to heal it.

Despite the threat of eviction from the Eurozone and even the wider European Union, many Greeks say that the idea of a united Europe is inconceivable without their country’s participation, since Greece gave the continent its name, from “Europa.”

Europa was a Phoenician princess of such astonishing beauty that Zeus, disguised as a white bull, spirited her off to Crete and had three children by her. How willing or happy she was varies in the telling, but the “Rape of Europa” is a common theme in Renaissance painting. “Europe” as a place name in English occurs as far back as the Old English period more than 1,000 years ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As Greece submits to the Eurozone’s dictates and surrenders some of its national sovereignty, remember what happened to the poor island state of Melos in 416 BC during the Peloponnesian War.

During the bloody decades-long war between Athens and Sparta, the island of Melos tried to maintain neutrality. Athens insisted that Melos join its alliance, noting threateningly that the powerful do what they want and the weak must accept it, according to the historian Thucydides in his famous “Melian Dialogue.” When the leaders of Melos refused, the Athenians slaughtered the island’s men and sold its women and children into slavery.


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