Seldom does one word summarize a monumental historical moment or movement. One of the most famous cases – at least among Greeks (the Italians do their best to forget it) is ‘OXI’ Day.
Indeed, the Greek leader – actually dictator at the time – Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas never uttered that word to the Italian ambassador who conveyed to him Benito Mussolini’s demands. The Greek in fact implied his ‘OXI’ through standard diplomatic language: “Alors, c’est la guerre – and so, this is war!”
While October 28, 1940 is the only day in Hellenic history that comes to mind that can be signified by a single word, there are many examples of Greeks famously and usually victoriously saying ‘OXI!’… in other words.
The most famous, that of Leonidas, King of Sparta, whose response to the Persia’s Great King Xerxes’ demand for “water and soil” – i.e. the right to enter and occupy Greek territory was: ‘Molon lave! – Come and take them!”
Many Athenians, led by the great orator Demosthenes, and his epic series of speeches known as ‘The Philippics’ uttered a resounding ‘OXI!’ to Philip of Macedon. That however, didn’t work as planned – but then again, Philip was a Greek.
I would place a longish but beloved phrase in this category: “Καλύτερα μιας ώρας ελεύθερη ζωή, παρά σαράντα χρόνια, σκλαβιά και φυλακή – Better one hour of Freedom than 40 years of slavery and imprisonment.” Those words of the great Rigas (Velestinlis) Feraios helped fire up the Hellenes of the Diaspora and of occupied Hellas.
Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, can be said to have uttered ‘OXI’ in deeds, battling the Romans to keep them on their side of the Adriatic Sea. He kept winning and winning, but was finally forced to famously say: “Another such victory and I am undone.” Indeed, he lent his name to the phrase ‘pyrrhic victory’ – but it was nevertheless an heroic effort.
On May 29, 1453, the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Paleologos, could have fled to the West or accepted favorable surrender terms from the Mehmet II before the final Ottoman onslaught on the walls of Constantinople, but he chose to tear off all the marks of his rank and plunge into the heart of the fighting, never to be seen again. Constantine declared ‘OXI’ to the powers of both the East that were invading and the West that were exploiting Byzantium.
Yes, ‘OXI’ is a powerful word, signifying not only defiance by leaders but a basic demand for self-respect by the humble too, but while ‘no’ can be a critical line of defense for the actuality and the quality of one’s life, negativity alone, even in the service of self-defense, does not make for a radiant or fulfilling life.
A rich, radiant life is best served by expressing the great ‘yesses’ of human existence: Yes! – to Love. Yes! – to Justice. Yes! – to Faith! Yes! – to Freedom. Yes! – to Hellas and Hellenism – and the same applies to the history of nations.
In the ancient world, there was no ‘Greece’, no state that united most of the Hellenes under one banner and purpose – although the Olympic games and the religious shrines of the Olympian worship did bring together those numerous independent entities.
As a transition, let it be said that an ‘OXI’ often implies a ‘NAI’. The daring ‘molon lave’ ‘OXI’ to Persia was simultaneously a thundering ‘NAI’ for Ellas, the idea of one nation – notwithstanding that several Greek City States were allies of the Persians.
About one-and-a-half centuries later, the magnificent campaign of Alexander the Great to finally liberate all Hellenes from the Persian yoke was another great ‘NAI’ for Hellenism – but not only his military victories. The Hellenistic Civilization that he established not only in the Mediterranean basin but even in the Middle East – and as far away as India! – was a great ‘NAI’ to Hellenic culture by the Greeks who made the initial sacrifices and built the libraries, theaters, ports, roads, and commercial networks, and that was echoed by the peoples they conquered. Large sections of the populations living on the land stretching from North Africa to the Indus River were essentially bilingual, the commercial and governing classes especially fluent in Greek constituting a great ‘NAI’ to Greek ‘Paideia’ – education and language.
The rising Christian community said ‘NAI’ to the Greek language after the Hellenes – among whom worship of the Olympian deities had been in decline for centuries – embraced Christianity on a large scale. The definitive editions of the Gospels in the early years of Christianity in the Mediterranean were in Greek, the most important Fathers of the Church – even some of those living in the Latin-speaking West – were in Greek, and numerous Popes of Rome were native Greek speakers. Through the centuries, from the days of Isocrates, Greeks said ‘NAI’ to all who learned to speak Greek and were products of Hellenic educations – and they continue to do so, with prime examples not only people like Giannis Antetokounmpo but the in-laws and friends of the many Greeks in the Diaspora who marry non-Greeks, resulting in a burgeoning of the numbers of Philhellenes in the world.
Byzantium as a state and civilization said ‘NAI’ to Hellenism, and its citizens, notwithstanding they called themselves Romioi after the Romans gained control of the entire Mediterranean, remained Hellenes in language and culture, copying and preserving – often in monasteries – the great works of Plato, Aristotle, Euripides, Thucydides, et al – a great ‘NAI’ to remaining Hellenes in the face of conquest and adversity that was repeated under Frankish and Ottoman rule.
History should also marvel at the fact that over time, the Roman Catholics who conquered the East Mediterranean after the so-called Fourth Crusade rather than succeeding in converting the Greeks became Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians – another great ‘NAI’ to Hellenism.
Perhaps the greatest ‘NAI’ of all was the response of Hellenes to the invitation of the ‘Filiki Eteria’ – the Society of Friends – to rise up against Turkish oppression which led to the success of the Greek Revolution of 1821.
And after the thunderous ‘OXI’ of October 28, 1940, a great ‘NAI!’ followed. The ‘NAI!’ to freedom, again reflecting 1821, that the people of Greece expressed as they first chased Mussolini’s forces and then the remnants of Hitler’s invaders and occupiers out of their country, expelling the Nazis from Athens on that glorious October 12, 1944, the perfect coda to the day almost exactly four years earlier . That was never as dark a day for the people of Greece as it might have been for other peoples – because Greek statesmanship, literature, art, and religion, have always been crowned by the fact that in a Hellene’s powerful ‘OXI’ there is always a beautiful and overwhelmingly powerful NAI!