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Columnists

Historical Fiction: Eric Sommers: Our Man in the Near East 1859-1898

December 12, 2020

My name is Eric Sommers, an American journalist and diplomat, born in Rochester, New York, in 1859. I attended Columbia University and graduated with a double degree in European history and ancient Greek/Roman literature. I was fascinated with the classics where I obtained a doctorate from the same university. On completion of my studies, I needed to work. It wasn't easy finding a job, but I found one working as a journalist for the New York Tribune (NYT) in 1886.

The NYT had the largest daily circulation of any newspaper in New York. Our two main rivals the New York Times and New York Herald were fierce competitors but we were always one step ahead of them in getting news scoops. Our chief news editor, Charlie Drummond, complimented all the journalists on the quality stories written by us. He ensured that our reports were better written than those appearing in the Times and the Herald. Of course, such a judgment was better left to our readers.

During my seven years as a reporter, I covered political and social issues. I was interested in learning about our small Greek community in New York. I witnessed young men and boys toiling long hours to earn enough to pay their rent and remit money to their parents in Greece. Some managed to purchase a pushcart selling fruit, vegetables, and candy to the public. Most of them spoke little or no English and were illiterate in their native tongue. 

Initially, they were suspicious of me. Winning their confidence did the trick. I befriended two Greeks named Panayiotis and Alexandros, who spoke broken English. They acted as intermediaries between their small community and me. They were surprised that I understood and spoke to them in Greek. It made communication so much easier between us. I was able to learn first-hand the racism, discrimination, and xenophobia that these poor Greek immigrants faced in America. It was an eye-opener for me.

In 1892, my newspaper assigned me to cover the presidential election campaign. I wrote a series of articles on the presidential race and received positive feedback from the Democratic Party. I was very pleased with myself. These articles would trigger my future diplomatic career.

I received a letter out of the blue from the State Department nominating me as U.S. Consul in Athens, Greece. This was something of a surprise for me. I found out President Grover Cleveland nominated me for this strategic position. The President invited me to the White House, where he congratulated me on my diplomatic appointment. The President told me that he read my articles with great interest, and my knowledge of Greek would be a great asset for our nation in Greece.

In June 1893, I caught the steamship, Alexander, to Piraeus from New York, which took ten days. I disembarked in Piraeus and immediately proceeded to the U.S. Legation to meet our Minister. He briefed me on my duties and the current political situation in Greece. The next day, I went to the palace at Tatoi to present my diplomatic credentials to King George I. He warmly received me and was pleasantly surprised that I answered him in Greek. We became good friends and was a regular visitor to the palace.

My visits to the palace were private and had nothing to do with my diplomatic status. The King and I discussed the uneasy political situation that existed in the Balkans and on Crete. The last-named place would explode into a short-lived conflict between Greece and the Ottoman Empire in 1897.

His Majesty was very interested in American democracy and wanted our two nations to forge close diplomatic relations. I was in favor of this but couldn't go against the instructions of the State Department, who avoided involvement in European affairs. Our nation loved its splendid isolation until our war with Spain in 1898.

Besides my consular duties, I visited some of the ancient sites outside Athens. Famous Greek names like Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle came to mind. I visited the Epidaurus theater in Peloponnesus and imagined attending one of Aristophanes's famous plays. The acoustics were simply divine. I also visited the Parthenon, which overlooked Athens. I imagined listening to Pericles delivering his funeral oration for the war dead. For me, the Parthenon symbolized the birthplace of democracy, on which our founding fathers modeled our American nation. We owe so much to the ancient Greeks.  

Around this time, there was the talk of staging the first modern Olympic Games in Athens. I was so happy that such an event would be staged during my time as U.S. Consul in Athens. The excitement was building up as we approached the official opening of the first modern Olympiad. On April 6, 1896, the Panathinaikos Stadium overflowed with spectators, with King George I declaring the official opening to the first modern Summer Olympic Games. Our American athletes won medals in track and field, which made me very happy.

For the Greeks, Spiron Louis winning the marathon brought honor to the small Hellenic Kingdom. I remember when Louis was presented with his silver medal and olive branch by the King. He was so proud and smiled from ear-to-ear. At last, the Greeks heard their national anthem being played and sang along with it. It was a fantastic moment and got goosebumps hearing the Greeks singing their national song. Momentarily, I thought I was Greek too.

After a successful Olympic Games, war clouds were appearing on the horizon. There were rumblings in Crete where the Cretans wanted union with the motherland. The island belonged to the Ottoman Empire, who were reluctant to relinquish it to the Greeks. However, Greek nationalists in Crete and Athens wanted the union to proceed as quickly as possible. In the end, this resulted in a short war between the Greeks and Turks, which lasted six weeks. The intervention of the major European powers established peace between the belligerents, and the Greeks paid war reparations to the Turks.

In June 1898, the State Department recalled me back to the United States and so ended my first diplomatic posting. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Athens, and I am grateful that I undertook classics at Columbia University. I fell in love with Greece and its people, which made me an ardent philhellene, something that would remain for the rest of my life. I will recount my diplomatic journey in my next piece.

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