This Week in Greek History: 4/24-4/30

Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo (1773), inspired by Virgil's Aeneid. Photo: Wikipedia

April 24: On this day in 1184 BC, the traditionally accepted date of the fall of the city-state of Troy occurred. The Trojan War was fought between Greek city states generally in the Achaea region of the Peloponnese in Greece against the wealthy city state of Troy located in Asia Minor across the Aegean Sea. Key commanders of the Greek forces were Agamemnon, Achilles, Menelaus, Odysseus, Diomedes and Patroclus while Troy had Priam, Hector, Cassandra, Andromache and Hecuba.

The war, as legend goes, was fought due to Prince Paris of Troy stealing King Menelaus’ bride, Helen, who was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. After it was discovered that she eloped with Paris back to Troy, Menelaus called upon his brother Agamemnon King of Mycenae to rally Greek forces to take her back by force, since diplomatic missions to Troy failed to yield any results. The war is said to have lasted for 10 years and both the Greeks and the Trojans suffered massive war casualties. The Greeks, though greater in number, couldn’t for many years figure out how to breach the legendarily impregnable walls of Troy that had withstood countless invasions through the city’s hist­ory. A major turning point occurred when the Trojans had the Greeks on the run and had pushed them back to their ships.

In a bid to rally the Greek troops in the face of crushing defeat Patroclus, Achilles’ brother-in-arms and closest friend, wore Achilles’ armor with the great hero’s permission on the condition that Patroclus only beat the Trojans back from the Greek ships and to return to camp. Patroclus initially succeeded in driving back the Trojans and with confidence defied Achilles’ advice and chased the Trojans back to their city walls where he was killed by Hector.

Achilles, who had out the vast majority of the war due to Agamemnon going back on his war about war treasures, was drunk with rage and decided to get involved again in the war promised vengeance against Paris and the Trojans. Achilles challenged Hector to a one-on-one battle in front of the city walls and chased Hector around the walls three times until he finally caught him and killed the great Trojan hero. Achilles tied the body of Hector to the back of a chariot and rode away to the Greek camp in full of King Priam of Troy who was standing atop the Trojan ramparts in a deeply dishonorable act. The Trojan War’s trajectory changed after this as the Greeks were reinvigorated by Achilles’ presence back on the battlefield.

Cunning Odysseus suggested that the Greeks craft a hollow wooden horse and hiding troops inside of it and placing the horse outside the city walls of Troy to give the illusion that the Greeks offered it as a parting gift to Poseidon. The Trojans took the horse into the city and during the night the Greeks emerged from the horse opened the gate and allowed the Greek army to storm into the city, pillaging it and destroying the great city of Troy. In the final moments of the war Achilles would die from an arrow to the heel fired by Paris and King Priam of Troy would be killed as well. The fall of Troy and the war were described by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

April 25: On this day in 404 BC, Spartan General and Admiral Lysander defeats Athens and forces surrender ending the Peloponnesian War. Athens proved surprisingly adept at warfare against the warriors-from-birth Spartans and held out for decades against their rivals for regional supremacy. Athens began to falter when its greatest strength, its navy began to falter.  Following Lysander defeating the Athenians at Notium in 406 BC, Athens won the naval battle of Arginusae but due to inclement weather wasn’t able to finish off the Spartan fleet which led to an inquest in Athens over the strategy of their admirals. Naval commanders were put on trial where six admirals and military strategists were executed therefore demoralizing the navy. Taking command of the Hellespont fleet of Sparta, Lysander sailed for the Marmara Sea where he was to cut off the Athenian grain supply and starve out his foes. There in the Marmara Sea and the near the Golden Horn of what would become Constantinople, Lysander routed the Athenian fleet at the naval battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC where Lysander’s fleet destroyed upwards of 160 Athenian ships and capturing anywhere between 3-5 thousand Athenian sailors with only a dozen Athenian ships escaping the onslaught. Athens surrendered a year later in 404 BC due to starvation and a prolonged siege on the city itself by the Spartans, putting an end to the Peloponnesian War and ending Athens’ superpower status in the Aegean.

April 26: On this day in 1748, Greek humanist and scholar Adamantios Korais was born in Smyrna, Asia Minor. Korais went to the renowned Evangelical School of Smyrna (1733-1922) during his youth. Upon reaching adulthood, Korais traveled to Paris, France where he would immerse himself in the budding enlightenment movement in the city. While in Paris Korais translated nearly 40 volumes of Ancient Greek texts, namely the Iliad and Herodotus, many of which proved crucial to non-Greeks understanding the ancients. Korais enrolled at the University of Montpellier’s school of medicine from 1782-1787 where he wrote his doctoral thesis,Medicus Hippocraticus.  When he completed his studies, Korais was able to focus on his writing and to advance his own thinking and absorb the enlightenment age unfolding in front of him in Paris where he also witnessed the French Revolution which greatly impacted his global outlook. Korais was a noted and fierce critic of the Greek Orthodox Church and particularly the Greek Patriarchate in Constantinople for what he perceived as collusion with the Ottomans to stifle Greek revolt but also for their hypocrisy and organization.

Korais also lamented the influence that the Byzantines had on Greek culture. Despite his criticisms Korais conceded on numerous occasions that it was the Orthodox Church that preserved Greek national identity during the Ottoman occupation of Greece. Korais through his writing encouraged Greek independence and was instrumental in drumming up support for the Greek cause outside of Greece’s borders and with wealthy Greeks who lived abroad.

Adamantios Korais has been compared to some of the greatest writers of his era. Korais singlehandedly conceived Katharevousa, a higher form of Greek that he considered to be a way for Greeks to be more in tune with their Ancient Greek ancestors. Korais published Atakta, the first Modern Greek dictionary which would subsequently serve as the basis of Modern Greek. Katharevousa was a form of “purified Greek” that was a hybrid between Demotic with Ancient Greek. Katharevousa was used for official and formal purposes in the 20th century and was formally abolished by Andreas Papandreou in 1982 in favor of the full adoption of Demotic Greek. In the encyclopedia Britannica it states that Adamantios Korais’ influence on the Modern Greek language is analogous to the influence of Dante on Italian and Martin Luther on German. Korais died in Paris at the age of 84 and he was buried in the First Cemetery of Athens.

April 29: On this day in 1863, legendary Greek poet and journalist Constantine P. Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt. Cavafy is widely regarded as one of the most important figures in Greek and Western poetry. Cavafy hailed from a family where both of his parents were Greeks from Constantinople and his father a wealthy import-export merchant with dealings in Constantinople and England. Cavafy spent much of his childhood in England which became his chief mental formative years.

Despite writing a great deal throughout his life, Cavafy only published 200 of his poems. The vast majority of his influential works were written after his 40th birthday leading Cavafy to call himself a “poet of old age” Cavafy kept Adamantios Korais’ katharevousa Greek in his poems. His style changed as he matured however his works are revered for their remarkable historical imagery, metaphors and linguistic aesthetic richness.Cavafy’s writings can be broken down into three categories: historical poems, sensual/aesthetic and philosophical.  His most important works include Ithaca, As Much as You Can, Walls, The God Abandons Antony, Waiting for the Barbarians and The City.

During his lifetime Cavafy was not fully appreciated in Greece and only in 1935 when his collected works from 1891-1932 got published did the Greek public come around to his masterclass writings. On his 70th birthday in 1933, Cavafy died in his beloved Alexandria from Laryngeal cancer and was buried in his home city where today his apartment is a museum. Lines from his famous Ithaca poem read, “As you set out for Ithaca hope the voyage is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery.Laistrygonians and Cyclops, angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them: you’ll never find things like that on your wayas long as you keep your thoughts raised high, as long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body.” and in Greek “Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάκη, να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος, γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας, τον θυμωμένο Ποσειδώνα μη φοβάσαι, τέτοια στον δρόμο σου ποτέ σου δεν θα βρεις, αν μέν’ η σκέψις σου υψηλή, αν εκλεκτή συγκίνησις το πνεύμα και το σώμα σου αγγίζει.”