This Week in Greek History

The National Herald

The bust of Constantine Cavafy from the Cavafy Museum in Alexandria. Photo by Nableezy, via Wikimedia Commons

April 27: On this day in 1748, Greek scholar and literary giant Adamantios Korais was born in Smyrna, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. Korais was the son of a merchant who studied medicine at the University of Montpellier in France. He then moved to Paris following the completion of his studies to pursue a career in literature. His first writings were centered on ancient medicine and he focused heavily on Hippocrates and Theophrastus. While he was in Paris, Korais was a firsthand witness to the French Revolution, which proved to be critical in shaping his way of thinking. During this period, he would burrow intellectual inspiration from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In contrast to many of his fellow enlightened Greeks and revolutionary minded countrymen, Korais was liberally secular. That made him something of an outcast to many, as he always admitted that the church played a critical role in the preservation of Greek language and customs, but thought that over-religiosity would be binding and would stunt the progress of Modern Greece. He believed that a liturgical-based language and a Greece modeled after the Byzantine Empire was a mistake and Greece should instead to the democracy of Ancient Athens under Pericles for guidance.

Some of his most influential works included Atakta, Parerga, and Library of Greek Literature. The latter in particular was a 17-volume work, which was published between 1805 and 1826 along with editing the first four books of Homer’s Iliad. Throughout the struggle of the Greek War of Independence, Korais predominantly remained in Paris, where he wrote pamphlets and op-ed pieces to keep up foreign public interest in the Greek cause. In addition to his writings, he raised funds for weapons and other necessary war materials for the revolutionaries, confounding the Paris Philhellenic Society in the process. He respected French drive for freedom during the revolution there so much that he recommended that Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, be asked to lead the fledgling nation after independence from the Ottomans.

Korais’ most lasting contribution to the Greek written word was that he created the Katharevousa Greek language, which was the “purification” of modern Greek to more closely resemble Ancient Greek and in essence bridging Modern and Ancient Greece. His aforementioned work Atakta (1828-1835) is considered to be the first Modern Greek dictionary.

Korais helped to lay down the intellectual foundations for the Greek Independence movement by reviving classicism. Encyclopaedia Britannica mentions that Korais’ contributions and influence on the Greek language rival those of Martin Luther on German and Dante on Italian respectively. Korais died on April 6, 1833 at the age of 85 in Paris, France. He was laid to rest in the First Cemetery of Athens.

April 29: On this day in 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, of the then-Ottoman Empire renowned Greek poet, journalist, and civil servant Constantine P. Cavafy was born. Cavafy was born to two immigrant Greek parents from the sizeable Greek community of Constantinople. His father was a merchant with business stakes in Constantinople and England. The family settled down in Alexandria and Cavafy’s father would pass away when he was just seven years old and his mother moved herself and her two sons to England. After disastrous business management, the the family returned to Alexandria seven years after leaving until 1882, when the British occupied and bombed the city. After a brief relocation to Constantinople, Cavafy returned to Alexandria in 1885, where he would live for the rest of his life. As Paris was to Adamantios Korais, Cavafy was intellectually inspired by his upbringing in England and the cosmopolitan world that it exposed him to.


The statue of Adamantios Korais in Athens. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Yorgos Kontarinis)

Cavafy wrote in a hybrid between Katharevousa and Demotic Greek, which was in direct antithesis to most of his contemporaries who typically wrote only in Katharevousa. His chief works came after his 40th birthday as he was a notorious perfectionist who scrapped many of his poems and got about 200 to be published in his long career. Cavafy developed his own unique style of poetry and storytelling which was consciously individualistic in style. He often invoked historical imagery and aesthetic perfectionism in his works. Cavafy also touched on topics seldom discussed in his day such as the homosexuality, uncertainty of the future and sensual pleasures which were regarded as taboos in many corners of society to be written. As such Cavafy’s can be characterized into three cycles; historical poems, sensual and poems of pleasure and philosophical poems. One of his most famous works was his 1911 poem, “Ithaca.”

He was the first to not purely translate the Iliad’s passages for contemporary on our understanding but used Ithaca as a means to describe the soul’s journey through life. Constantine P. Cavafy died on his birthday in 1933 at the age of 70 after succumbing to cancer of the larynx in his beloved Alexandria, Egypt. His final resting place is in the Greek Orthodox Cemetery in Alexandria. Cavafy remains one of the most important figures in the history of Greek poetry and his importance is recognized throughout the world over.

May 3: On this day in 1887, influential Greek actress Maria Kotopouli was born in Athens. Kotopouli was born to two actors and made her debut in the entertainment world one of her parents’ tours for the play “The Coachman of the Alps” when she wasn’t even a year old. She made her official debut as Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Theatre of Athens in 1903 a the tender age of 16.

At first, Kotopouli was despised by her colleagues due to jealousy of her achievements at such a young age. However, her talents shown through and later that same year of 1903 where she appeared in Aeschylus’s trilogy of Oresteia as the character Electra where she performed an ancient drama for the first time in the Demotic Greek language. That shocked the Greek cultural and theatrical world to the point where ardent supporters of Katharevousa took to the streets and demonstrated against the performances of the play in Demotic Greek for four days where there were numerous violent demonstration with one in particular resulting in scores of injuries and one person dead. A pivotal organizer of the riots was Professor Georgios Mistriotis of the University of Athens who taught linguistics. The performances were then halted altogether.

From 1908 to 1912, Kotopouli became an acting troupe leader based at the Omonoia theater in Athens. From there, she moved her troupe around and in 1924 Haile Selassie, who was regent of Ethiopia at the time, visited Athens it was Kotopouli who performed the play Agamemnon in his honor at the Herodion tis Attikis. In 1932 she left with a theater troupe to America for she would stay for two years  and would perform in Greece for the next twenty with very sporadic performances during the Nazi occupation of Greece and the ensuing civil war. Her last performance was in 1952 in Ermoupoli on the island of Syros. Maria Kotopouli died at 67 from an undisclosed illness and was given a state funeral. She is in buried in the First Cemetery of Athens. In life, Kotopouli was the long-term girlfriend of Ion Dragoumis and then settled down and married theatre executive Georgios Chelmis. She did not leave behind any children. Kotopouli is one Modern Greece’s most important stage performers and consequently many theatres in Greece bear her name.