By Christos C. Evangeliou The Hellenic love of liberty, like a beacon of bright light, shines through the millennial history of Hellenism, more intensely than the proverbial and passionate love of wisdom that is known as Hellenic philosophy. In fact, the history of the Hellenes can be seen as a long struggle for liberty. To love freedom so intensely as to be willing to sacrifice even dear life to obtain it, or defend it, is a trait of only a few heroic human souls.
The historical Hellenes belong in this special category of heroic people. Fighting for freedom has been the fateful mark of their long and glorious history. The heroic uprising of 1821 against the tyrannical Turkish rule is perhaps its most remarkable moment, but there are many more such great moments in the three-millennia-long history of Hellenism. In reviewing this history it becomes evident that, from the time of their appearance on the scene to the present, the diachronic Hellenes have been fighting for freedom more persistently than any other recorded historical nation on earth. Most of the time the Hellenes or Greeks were defending their freedom from the attacks of barbarism and, when they lost it temporarily due to their internal discord, they struggled heroically to regain and cherish it even more. A glance at their long and glorious history can verify this simple historical truth. Even if we leave out of consideration at present the pre-historic heroism that one encounters in the Homeric epics, the fact would still remain that the Hellenes of the historic times appeared definitely as determined defenders of freedom. For they were the only people of the known world, who dared to resist and to defeat the superpower of the time, the Persian Empire. They suffered the consequences of their heroic determination and their Hellenic love of liberty. By the 5th century BCE, the immense Empire of Persia extended from present day Russia to Africa and from India to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. The people of Hellas strategically situated and determined, under the combined leadership of the two greatest Hellenic cities, Athens and Sparta, and inspired by their undying love of liberty, decided to stand up to this giant and to fight heroically for their freedom. These famed Hellenes made the heroic choice, at a critical moment in their history, to either live free or die the glorious death of a free people. When liberty-loving men make a decision to fight to their death to protect their freedom, they cannot be easily defeated. Even when they lose the battle and die, they gain immortal glory, like Leonidas and his three hundred men, the heroic defenders of Thermopylae. At such moments, the free and fighting human spirit can totally overcome the innate fear of death, and death itself. But, more often than not, the freedom fighters win the battle and, having thus saved their freedom, they use it as the foundation to build upon and become creators of a higher civilization. The Athenians and the allied Hellenes did just that after the famed victories of Marathon and Salamis (490-480BCE) against the Persians. To them the civilized world owes perennial gratitude for such immortal creations as the artistic beauty of Parthenon, the poetic wisdom of Aeschylean and Sophoclean tragedies, and the philosophic and political wisdom of the Platonic dialogues. “The Glory that was Greece” was born at that specific time, the golden age of classical Hellas. The unexpected Hellenic victories in the prolonged Persian wars succeeded in stopping the advancement of Asiatic barbarism into Europe, but they did not eliminate the persistent threat of the still powerful and menacing Persian Empire. This was to be accomplished by the most glorious son of Ancient Hellas, Alexander the Great, king of Hellenic Macedonia. Alexander’s political and military genius was such that it enabled him, in a short time, to unite all the Hellenes (with the notable exception of the proud Spartans who were used to leading rather than following) on a Pan-Hellenic goal. He led them victoriously against the Persians, until the Persian Empire was dissolved. Then, although Alexander’s dream of uniting the Hellenes and the Persians in a commonwealth ruled by Hellenic laws proved ephemeral, the spread of Hellenic culture and philosophical reason left their permanent marks all the way to India. The heirs of Alexander resisted initially the growing power of militant Rome in the West and defended their freedom to the very end. Cleopatra, the last Hellenic Queen of Alexandria in Egypt, is a great example of the Hellenic love of liberty and heroic resistance to the Roman rule. Her death (31BCE) marked both the end of armed resistance of the Hellenistic world to Rome, and the beginning of an intelligent offensive which in time succeeded in turning the Roman Empire into a Greco-Roman cultural and political “condominium” for the next three centuries. When the Emperor Constantine decided to transfer the seat of the Roman Empire from Rome to New Rome or Constantinople (330AD), the world witnessed the peaceful transformation of the aging Roman Empire into a culturally unified, Hellenized and Christianized Empire known in world history as Byzantine Empire. For more than a millennium (330-1453), this Hellenized Empire stood as the defender of freedom at the extended borders of the Greco-Roman civilization. Although Constantinople was not like the Hellenic and classical Athens, it too became in time a beacon of light in the Dark Ages that had covered the rest of Europe, West and North. It was recognized even then as the defender of human freedom and dignity against the militant and more fanatic faith of Islam. Led by Arabs initially, Islam expanded rapidly westward conquering Christian North Africa and Spain, where it remained and ruled over the Christians for centuries. However, in the East, i.e. in the Hellenized Roman Empire, Islam, under successive Arab, Iranian, and Turkish leadership, failed miserably to move into Europe for many centuries (7th–14th), in spite of its great efforts. This was due primarily to heroic resistance of the Byzantine Empire, which by that time had been culturally shaped by a blending of Christian faith, Roman law, and Hellenic literature. The Greco-Roman realm had changed into the Greco-Christian realm. Ironically, it was after those greedy and foolish Crusaders had plundered Constantinople (1204), and had divided and weakened the Empire by trying to impose upon the remnants of Orthodox Christianity a version of Catholic despotism, that the gates of Europe were opened to Turks (1453). With them, Islam entered and stayed for centuries. Muslim Turks settled in South Eastern Europe until the 20th century holding in subjugation Greeks and other Orthodox Christians of the Balkans. It is a great historic irony that Christian Europeans have now invited the Muslim Turks reluctantly to return to Europe, as potential political partners in the “European Union.” In this historical background, then, the date of March 25, 1821, is a memorable moment in the history of Hellas/Greece and its fight for freedom. The heroic rising of a whole nation, the Neo-Hellenic nation, that was believed to have been dead for four centuries under Turkish yoke, appeared as a great historic event. For the New Hellenes, like their ancestors at Marathon and Salamis, were ready to utter again the same fateful cry, “Freedom or Death!” They were also prepared to pay the heavy price in blood and sacrifice to regain their long lost political freedom. The rebirth of Hellas or Greece as a new nation was the political outcome of that heroic struggle for Hellenic freedom. Leonidas and Themistocles, Alexander the Great and Constantine Palaiologos, and the other Hellenic heroes of history would have recognized themselves in the acts of such noble men as Diakos, Karaiskakis, Botsaris, Macriyannis, Kanaris, Kolokotronis, and others who bravely led the Hellenic struggle for freedom and political independence (1821-1830). Although territorially the free New Hellas was only a tiny fraction of what it had been in Ancient, Alexandrine, and Byzantine times, it was inspired by the same Hellenic love of liberty and determined to defend it bravely. The crucial test came for Hellas in October/April, 1940-1941, when Greece was attacked by the combined forces of Fascism and Nazism, but it resisted them both heroically. This act of resisting the aggressors and sacrificing their lives in the altar of Liberty, at a time when the rest of Europe had surrendered to them without fight, is certainly the best birth certificate of Modern Greeks as legitimate inheritors of their great Hellenic ancestors. The Greek heroic resistance also delayed the Nazi advance, and forced Hitler to alter his plans of invading Russia. Thus, it contributed to the ultimate victory of the Allies, because it gave precious time to Stalin to prepare his resistance and to defeat the invaders with help from a Russian winter. At any rate, at the political present the historic Hellenic characteristic of unconditional love of liberty, and the determination to defend it to the very end manifests itself clearly in the island of Cyprus. This lovely island of Aphrodite has been partially occupied by the invading Turkish armed forces since 1974, with illegal use of NATO weapons and in stark violation of international law and order. Even so, and in spite of international pressure to yield to an unfair settlement, the Government of Cyprus and the people had the courage to say “No” to a UN plan that would have perpetuated the division and Turkish occupation of so-called “Northern Cyprus.” Certain moves (certainly humiliating for the Hellenic honor) by the previous Bush Administration may or may not impede the finding of a viable solution to the “Cyprus problem” and a legitimate name for FYROM. But, they clearly indicate that the time has come for Greeks in Hellas and the Hellenic Diaspora to stand up again and say “No!” Resistance to great powers and love of liberty has its heavy price in sacrifice, of course; but, as the glorious history of Hellas shows, Hellenes have always been ready to pay such noble price repeatedly and, for the most part, successfully. We must, of course, recognize and honor the role of the United States, as defender of freedom during World War II, and even during the Cold War that followed it. But, the arbitrary declaration of perpetual war on global terrorism is so elusive and indeterminate that it has the potential to transform in time even a country like the USA from a historical lover of liberty and defender of freedom and democracy to the exact opposite. For, history teaches us that the right use of supreme power is more difficult than the right acquisition of such power by just and lawful means. It is unclear at present whether the USA will resist the temptation of such abuse of power. At any rate, it is time for the Greek Government, through its diplomatic agencies, to find ways to make it clear to the new Administration that the Hellenes will imitate their ancestors’ struggle against the mighty Persian Empire to defend anew their dignity and liberty. It seems that at present and perhaps more so in the future, when the messy war in Iraq will grow to engulf the entire Middle East and North Africa, the US will need Greece as an ally more than Greece needs the US. In this light, then, the Obama Administration, elected by the substantial vote of the Greek-American Community and its considerable communal contributions, should try to become a little more sensitive in its dealings with the Hellenic Republic, regarding its political interests and national concerns. There are two simple initial steps which the US diplomacy cam and should take, if it wants the Greek, Hellenic and Phil-Hellenic cooperation in its present ventures, and possibly in its future adventures in the global world which it aspires to control politically. First, the US should ask its NATO ally, Turkey, to remove its armed forces from Cyprus, allowing thus the Cypriot Turks to live in peace there enjoying the rights and liberties of liberal EU laws, as its legitimate members, as Cypriot citizens. Secondly, the US should ask FYROM (also a candidate for NATO membership) to behave accordingly, and try to resolve the name issue with Greece rationally and seriously. Taking these reasonable steps in the right direction would be timely and constructive. They may secure Greece as a valuable ally of the US, at a critical time of need for securing peace in the Middle East, North Africa, and in the turbulent Balkans. The American and Greek peoples have been political friends for a long time and should remain friends in the future too, as lovers of liberty and defenders of freedom. Especially at the present moment of economic crisis in Europe, this is expedient. For the crisis has tested the viability of the EU, and has led Greece to humiliation and disappointment of the initial pan-European expectations of political unity, social sympathy, and solidarity. Given the present crisis and the level of anti-Americanism in the areas mentioned that surround Greece, the US does not need to encourage more of it, especially from such a faithful ally and longtime friend as Greece has historically been. But, as they say, good friends can remain functional and reciprocal only if they take good mutual care of their friendship. So, the two historic nations, USA and HELLAS, should work together for this noble goal, inspired by a renewed and inspiring Hellenic love of liberty. Dr. Christos C. Evangeliou is Professor of Hellenic Philosophy, Honorary President of IAGP, poet and author of several books including the most recent, Themata Politica: Hellenic and Euro-Atlantic.