Brief introduction to the Greek Literature from Byzantium to 19th century

The Modern Greek literature after the revolution of 1821 follows the European norms of the 19th century. One of the main characteristics of this century of liberal movements, national patriotism, revolutions, but also the century of storytelling, is the organization of human collectives in territorially defined territories, which function politically in the form of the nation- state.

Although this process is not homogeneous, linear and continuous for the entire European space, there is, however, a common structure that sustains the will and the need of people to constitute these new “imaginary communities”: the social relations of the subjects are organized now around a modern common spatiotemporal matrix that exceeds the limits of their previous historical experience.

The European Enlightenment

The formation of the modern Greek nation-state and its literature is the product of a wider process for the formation of national consciousness, which is registered in the political, social and cultural processes of the European Enlightenment, is a decisive event in the modern Greek reality of the 19th century.

The organization of the modern Greek state indicates the gradual transition from the framework of the province of the Ottoman Empire to a new state and institutional structure, according to European standards. The importance of the revolution as a constituent element of this new social and historical reality was decisive.

This modern conception of the nation-state is not, however, a natural and self-evident process. The nation-state, as an “imaginary community” is mediated through specific social and political groups that manage, usually competitively and from a hegemonic position, its representations.

The era prioritizes as an immediate priority the cultivation of national consciousness and imagination, at least as understood by the educated social elites who handle the language of mediations but also the language of administration, politics and the press.


The area of ​​politics as well as the area of ​​scholarship undertakes, through public intervention, to put into circulation the new national life and to respond to the historical demands of the time: the form of the national language, the orientation of political institutions, the conceptualization of the national cultural identity, the “national” history and the secretariat.

Issues such as language, religion, tradition, origin, the legacy of the ancient Greek past, Greece’s relationship with the West, as well as the texts that make up the national grammatical tradition, now come to the fore to give new content to the social life of the young “model kingdom”.

The role of grammar and history

Within this context, the role of grammar and history acquires special weight. Among the other concerns of scholarship, the grammatical record of the national past will seek the appropriate tools in order to record and classify the traces of the nation’s written output. The meeting of history with grammar is imperative. In the context of the ethno-romantic ideology, after all, the “historicism” of the time constitutes a “historical prose”, which is dispersed in many and various narrative genres (historical essay, scientific studies, historical novel, etc.) .

The discourse of History is, after all, the central environment of production and reception of various literary and scientific narratives. In essence, the 19th century highlights History as a generalized cultural practice that gives words and things their historicity, within and outside the humanities.

The turn to History gave new symbolic values ​​to the concept of the past. He integrated the past organically within a synchronic historicity, with the result that the flows of social action are treated as synapses between episodes that constantly recall and relate the chronological tables of the past and the present.

History and Culture

Correlative chronological logic, a key parameter of all explanatory schemes of 19th century science, became, with history, the most privileged vehicle for a paradigmatic knowledge.
Thus, in the 19th century, history became a kind of “cultural surface”, on which the power of knowledge itself developed.

The phenomenon appears with all its intensity and extent in the field of European literature: national histories, histories and grammars of literature, “chronicles”, historical and grammatical “catalogues”, diplomatic and ecclesiastical archives, historical novels powerfully claim a new readership, a new interpretive community, compatible with the modern conception of history as a “national” science.

The concept of the chronicle, the catalogue, the memoir, the biography, the historical study – or, on the contrary, the complete avoidance of any specific indication, precisely because, in one way or another, history, whether as past or present, it is ubiquitous – running through 19th century European bureaucracy.

Evolution of the modern Greek literature

The evolution of the modern Greek history of literature will also pass through the obligatory crossing of history with grammar. As early as the years of the Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment[6], the first attempts to reconstitute a “national” secretariat were manifested.

Georgios Zaviras

In 1804, the merchant Georgios Zaviras wrote a “chronicle” with the work of “New Hellas,the Greek Theater” (published in 1872 by Georgios Kremos) that would contribute to the rebirth and awakening of the national consciousness, by highlighting the earlier intellectual products. Zavira’s chronicle is a crude bibliographic attempt to compile a first catalog around the national secretariat.

Rizos Neroulos

Iakovos_Rizos_NeroulosTo stay, however, with literary attempts that found their recipient in time, we should come to the work of Iakovos Rizos Neroulos, Cours de littérature grecque moderne, published in Geneva in 1827.

The work has indeed a didactic character, as it has arisen from a series of lessons in philhellenic circles in Geneva, with the aim of introducing the European reading public to Greek letters. Therefore, even in this case, the historical examination of the modern Greek secretariat is not a priority.
The author himself, however, when the work is translated into Greek (1870) will not hesitate to recommend it as history..

The work of Neroulos, a typical example of the Phanariot perception, is of particular interest for the peculiar perception he has regarding modern Greek writing. Its reference point and dating system does not start from the fall of the Byzantine Empire but from the recent 18th century.

In the three main periods he distinguishes (1708-1750, 1750-1800, 1800 and onwards), modern Greek literature is treated as a synchronistic phenomenon, which even follows an intellectual pattern of transition from intellectual renaissance to scientific and philosophical reflection, as well as to the expansion of literacy.

LITERATUREIts shape is evolutionary and progress-centric. In the list of works and authors he cites in his work, their distinction from the main body of the book, which focuses mainly on the narrative overview of modern Greek literature, is evident.

It is clear that Neroulo’s authorial effort is not limited to the cataloging and “chronology” of intellectual creation. It is a first form of composition, with all its advantages and disadvantages: the constant digressions, the moralizing, the complete recording of his reflections in the linguistic controversies of the time. The degradation of literature in relation to the wider (aesthetic and scientific) literature is an eloquent indication of the demands of recording.

To stay, however, with the literary interests of Neroulos, the Phanariot philological taste is quite evident. The search for the “national character” of literature does not leave much room for meaningful judgments and evaluations: Cretan literature is accused of imitating the Italian “originals”, Christopoulos of Phanariot is glorified, Andreas Kalvos resembles, and Dionysios Solomos is justified exclusively and foreign only through his patriotic poetic tone.

Along with all this, comes the political rhetoric towards the enlightened Europe: the glory of the ancient ancestors, the replacement of the ancient ruins by the modern spiritual flash, the sacred rights of the country, the romantic struggle of the revolution. In other words, we are in front of a Phanariot mirror, adapted to European eyes that wanted to confirm what they already knew: the classical ideal of philhellenism.

Soutsos Solomos Kalvos

Panagiotis_SoutsosPanagiotis Soutsos moves on a similar wavelength. Soutsos, with the “Letter to the King of Greece Otto”, in 1833. This poetic work of Soutsos is at the same time a measured epistolary grammar, which aims to prove to the King and the Bavarians the living existence of a remarkable intellectual production in reborn Greece. From Rigas Fereos and Christopoulos and from Dionysios Solomos to Andreas Kalvos, the “phanariot” Soutsos makes critical judgments about Greek poetry and the language of literature.

The shape of Soutsos is obvious and completely compatible with the new ruling elite of the time: phanariotism and its linguistic investment in the purgatory claim to become a dominant form of cultural code, with normative force. Tsoutsos does not hesitate to award honors to the spiritual forces that worked for the fight – even giving a prominent place to Adamantios Korais – but he also does not hesitate to exclude from the spiritual pantheon those who do not join the Phanarion code.

dionisios solomosThus, Andreas Kalvos and Dionysios Solomos, who “both neglected the best of our language”, are rejected hastily, in order to highlight the real standards of Soutso’s poetry: Iakovos Rizos Nerulos, the quintessence, that is, of the Phanariot tradition.

The measured grammar of Soutsos, without of course adhering to the criteria of a scientifically elaborated history of literature, interests us mainly for the modality, intentionality but also for the contexts of its writing: it is a “poetic historiography” of the intellectual education of the new Greece; it is a text written not only from a certain point of view but from a certain “political position”; finally, it is a grammatical exposition that tries to convince its Bavarian addressees of the existence of a living cultural capital. Soutso’s measured grammar is an epistolary tableau, written if not to convince, at least to charm its recipient.

When Panagiotis Tsoutsos, in 1853, publishes – in the form of a manifesto – the New School of the written language, in order to support the resurrection of the ancient Greek language as linguistic and poetic autarky, the angry response of Konstantionos Asopios, student of Adamantios Korais, will be immediate and quite enlightening for the criticism of the Phanariot canon.

Adamantios_KoraisAsopius will be the first to highlight the organic relationship between the Adamantios Korais tradition and the Heptanesian tradition and will talk about Velaras and Tertsetis. Dionysios Solomos is no longer only the poet of the Hymn, but also the poet of the Lambros. In fact, Aesopius does not only defend a different choice in the use of the linguistic device but he defends another literary paradigm.

This critical controversy, without claiming historiographical concerns in the field of literature, is, however, an important record of the philological contests of the time in relation to the national secretariat. Its importance, moreover, can be seen from the attempt of the conflicting parties to influence the institutions themselves.

It is the first time that university criticism is asked to take, even indirectly, a position on the evaluation not only of the literary present but mainly of the literary past. The era, however, has shown its tendencies, which will be expressed through the subordination of literature to the forms of national benefit.
We are, after all, in the years of the communicating containers of science, aesthetics and politics. The Great Idea recalls the “uncertain memories” of the Byzantine Empire, the nation “updates” its history through the pages of Byzantine history, and correspondingly, the “national secretariat” seeks its role through the a new shape of continuity.

Andreas Papadopoulos Vrettos

Andreas_Papadopoulos_BretosThe work of Andreas Papadopoulos Vrettos, Modern Greek Literature, i.e. a list of books printed from the fall of the Byzantine Empire until the establishment of the kingdom in Greece. Biography of the Greeks who shined in letters, right from the title it highlights the ideological and political relevance of periodization.

The inclusion of ecclesiastical books in the grammatical corpus (the other two categories are Philological and scientific) is equally indicative of the upgraded role of religion. The coherent argument of “Greek Christianity” has, after all, made it clear that Orthodoxy and the nation are identified in a common and complementary politico-religious entity, which claims its hegemonic role through the intellectual discourse of historiography and national pedagogy.

The sense and imagination of national unity is now systematically cultivated through the constant intersections of religious life with political life, on the basis of the romantic idea of ​​a transcendent nation with a flourishing Christian faith and historical mission through the ages. It is no coincidence, therefore, that in the literatures of the time, religious scholarship, through the discovery of Byzantium, acquires a special weight.

Vretos in his introduction is quite enlightening, regarding the choice of periodization: “from the fall of Constantinople to the political rebirth of ancient Greece”. Vretos repeats the common places of his time. Its originality lies elsewhere. A closer reading of the introduction to his work shows us that his intention is to compile a catalog of works and biographies Vreto’s “unit of measure” is the book, not the author so that his work forms the basis for “the a history of modern Greek literature so desired by Greeks and foreigners”.

The request for a history of modern Greek literature seems to have already matured, since, more or less, all writing attempts are coordinated under the same common denominator. At the same time, the demand for an evolutionary treatment of Greek literature, through the distinction of the word from the popular culture, is also maturing.

A few years later, in 1859, Spyridon Zampelios with his study will talk about the double tradition of Greek literature, Scholastic and Poetic, providing an overall scheme of classification: on the one hand, the “Ptochoprodomika”, the love stories in metered verse like Erotokritos of Vitsentzos Kornaros, the Cretan tradition and the Eptanisians (those from the Ionian islands); on the other hand, the “Byzantine Atticism”, which is revived to this day.

Concentration of historical and literary interests

Anastasios_PolyzoidisThe following years clearly show that if until now we were talking about scattered lists of works and authors, now we are faced with a concentration of historical and literary interests: Dimitrios Vikelas, On Modern Greek Literature (Dokimion), (London, 1871), Andronikos Dimitrakopoulos with the work Orthodox Hellas (Leipzig, 1872), and Anastasios Polyzoidis with the work “The new Greek” (Athens 1872-1875) are indicative cases in this direction.

Although written in different circumstances and with different purposes, these works increase the sense of historicity in the compilation of a modern Greek grammar, always of course within the scientific and ideological framework of the time: the sense of continuity, from antiquity to modern times, is still to set the tone.

In Demetrios Vikelas however, we will find a more refined understanding of the “stations” of modern Greek writing. It is not only the references to the byzantine poem “Spaneas”, and Ptochoprodromika poems that impress the author’s linguistic sensibility; it is, above all, the references to Erofili and Erotokritos, which reveal a modern feeling for modern Greek poetry. The Phanariotic echo that exists in the work of Vikelas, goes hand in hand with an early sense of comprehensive treatment of the problems of modern Greek writing.

Alexandros Rizos Ragavis

Alexandros_Rizos_RangavisIf somewhere, however, we have to look for an apologist of Phanariotism, we should turn our gaze to another important book, which stirred the waters of Greek scholarship. It is the work of Alexandros Rizos Ragavis, “Brief history of modern Greek Literature”, (Athens, 1877). The work was based on his earlier work “Esquisses de littérature grecque moderne”, published in the journal “Le Spectateur de l’Orient” (1853-1856), and was widely disseminated through its French, German and Greek adaptations and reprints.

The criterion of language, is the basic criterion of classification and evaluation of writers. Although sparing in his praise or disparagement judgments, Ragavis has chosen a camp early on: Heptanesian poetry is for him a constant imitation (everyone imitates Solomos, who also imitates Italian standards), while the Phanariotes have their honor – himself included.

His work is characterized by statics in relation to grammatical phenomena and lacks any theory on the evolution of language and art in general. The interesting thing, however, about Ragavis is that he “thinks” in terms of politics and geography: for him, Greece will rise through national (see grandiose) integration and will succeed in becoming the mediating link between the rational spirit of the North and the aesthetic imagination of the South.

Platon Drakoulis

platon dracoulisThe permanent address to the foreign public obliges the author to absolutely adopt the shapes of the existing decline and the upcoming prosperity of New Greece. Something similar will happen twenty years later with the strange “grammatical” lectures of Platon Draculis in England. In his Neohellenic Language and Literature (London, 1897), the early socialist Draculis apologizes for the possible weaknesses of Neohellenic letters, making optimistic predictions for the future.

His rather original and contradictory work as a literary historian is more important for his omissions than for his references. Certainly, however, his reference to Ragavis himself, the “Atlas of Modern Greek literature”, shows that the latter’s grammatical work had played its role in the peculiar cultural diplomacy through the history of literature.

Emmanuel Rhoides and Georgios Vlachos

RhoyidisLet’s not forget, however, that Ragavi’s audience is not only in Europe but mainly in Greece. Its shape, therefore, also rests on domestic realities, at a time when it seems that Phanariotism is losing its hegemony in the cultural field. After all, the year in which Ragavi’s work is published is a year marked in many ways.
The dispute between Rhoides and Vlachos will spectacularly set the tone of clarification in philological matters, and at the same time will submit, at least secretly, the request for a different record in the area of ​​history and grammar. The measures and standards of the time, after all, seem to have changed definitively and irrevocably.

Prepared by theory and study, Roidis ascends to the stage of “Parnassos”, on March 19, 1877, and reads his introductory report on the dramatic competition of the year, making, at the same time, the account of all the poetry competitions of the period 1853-1877 : “The lack of this authorship, which for us characterizes not only this year’s but also always without exception the works submitted by the establishment of such competitions and in general the current generation in Greece, should neither surprise nor unduly grieve the apathetic about these philosophers”. And it shouldn’t surprise and sadden him because, “restricted to the empirical lessons of history, we see that the poets were nothing more than mirrors faithfully reflecting the feelings of the contemporaries”.

From this point of view, the “lack of poetry” is nothing more than a symptom of a broader diagnosis for Greek society: “This complete alienation of ours from the spiritual chaos that torments the other nations today is not recorded here as an accident, but simply as the the main reason, perhaps, is that Greece cannot hope for poetry at the moment, since it has renounced its ancestral customs, and it does not participate in the intellectual life of the younger nations, nor does it suffer from the age-old disease that inspired its poets, i.e. the lack of it and they made her thirsty for the ideal”.

When the strategy of challenge meets the style and ethos of a permanent objection, then the transition from the academic criticism of literature to a criticism of a generalized field – to a cultural, that is, criticism – is made in terms of rupture and subversion: we have no poetry, in fact, we never had, says Roides, precisely because the society has not suffered from the “disease of the century”, it has not experienced the intensity of intellectual life, which is found in other European societies. The problem of literature, for Roides, is ultimately a problem of “cultural mismatch between Greek society and European societies”

Conclution of the 19th Century

spyridon_ZampeliosThe 19th century will close with a useful and critical “synthesis”, which, however, leaves several gains and many outstandings in the history of modern Greek literature. Let’s keep the most important aspects of this grammar activity. The transition from the “chronicles” and “catalogues” of the Greek book to a more “scientific” history of modern Greek literature is fully registered in the new scientific and ideological contexts of the 19th century.

The discovery of a “national secretariat”, in the context of the cultural continuity of Hellenism, marks the parallel investigation of grammar, within a periodization scheme that, at the end of the century, has the necessary link of Byzantium to reach the modern years.

The later debate about the “beginnings” of modern Greek literature will be sealed by the 19th century ethno-romantic conception of “continuity”, which will be judged mainly in linguistic terms. The dominant issue of language, moreover, will unfold in all its dimensions the cultural dualism of the New Hellenism. There is no doubt that modern Greek literature was a prisoner of the synchronic linguistic confrontations of the literature: the difficulty of integrating the Ιονιαν literary production as well as the confusion about the folk song is indicative of the very limits of the historiographical program.

Finally, we should note that, in most of their versions, grammar attempts support an ideological scheme that obeys the laws of morality, progress and improvement of the social subject, indirectly recycling public rhetoric and the discourse of national pedagogy, which produced and consumed by the newly formed Greek society.

This discourse, didactic in its basis and reformative in its aims, functions normatively in relation to the new urban morals and the portrait of the citizen within the new nation-state. Grammar is proposed as a form of historical culture, which will form either the basis of a cultural diplomacy towards Europe, or the basis of the “national ark” for Greek education.