Sunday, 28 October 2012

A Greek ‘No’ in the face of German demands

A Greek painting on the walls of Corfu, the Greek restaurant in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Greek Community in Dublin celebrated “Ohi Day” in style this afternoon.

After the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral this morning, and coffee in the crypt, I joined the Hellenic Community in ‘Corfu’ in Parliament Street for a community meal.

Oxi Day on 28 October commemorates the day in 1940 when the Greek Prime Minister General Ioannis Metaxas said, “No” to an ultimatum by Mussolini, who demanded that Italian forces should occupy strategic locations in Greece or face war.

Mussolini’s ultimatum was an attempt to impress Hitler by securing what was thought would be an easy victory. But when the Italian Ambassador presented his demands at dawn after a party at the German embassy and Metaxas refused, it was clear that the Greece was being drawn into World War II.

There is no proof that Metaxas answered with such a simple and direct <<'Οχι>> or “No.” But within hours later, Italian troops based in Albania were attacking Greece’s borders.

The day is described with a combination of literary wit and pathos by Louis de Bernières in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. But Oxi Day is more than an anniversary or even a national holiday … it is a day to remember Hellenic values, passion and courage.

We remembered that passion, resistance and the courage to say “No” in ‘Corfu this afternoon. There was music, food and wine, and tributes to Dimitrios Tsouros, a veteran of that struggle.

Everyone had been back in Greece this year. And no-one was without a first-hand sad and emotional story of the struggles and demands Greece faces today.

Walking the way of love

Lovers’ locks on the along the Via Dell’Amore, or the “Walk of Love,” linking Manarola and Riomaggiore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Today, 28 October, is being celebrated in Greece and by Greek communities around the world as Ochi Day (Επέτειος του «'Οχι», Epeteios tou ‘Ohi’), marking the Greek rejection of the ultimatum from Mussolini on 28 October 1940.

But today, 28 October 2012, also marks the 1,700th anniversary of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. My attention was drawn to this anniversary earlier this week on the Facebook page, the Church of England’s Diocese of Lichfield, drew attention to this anniversary by the Revd Dr Peter Green. He is the Chaplain of Abbots Bromley School, 12 miles north of Lichfield, but is about to move to the Diocese of Lincoln as the Dean of the Chapel at Bishop Grosseteste University College.

The Battle of the Milvian Bridge was one of the most momentous events in the history of Christianity, but it is hard to imagine that many church bells are being rung throughout Europe to mark this anniversary this morning.

Dr Green says: “I suspect that most Christians today in the UK would feel rather ambivalent about it – but then others would argue that if something like it hadn't happened, you probably wouldn’t have become a Christian in the first place.”

The battle was fought between the Roman Emperors Constantine I and Maxentius on 28 October 312 at the Milvian Bridge, or the Ponte Milvio, an important crossing point over the Tiber on the way to Rome. During the battle, Maxentius drowned in the Tiber. Constantine, who had been proclaimed emperor in Eboracum (York), won the day and set out on the path that led him to become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.

For Eusebius of Caesarea, Lactantius and other early historians, the battle marks the beginning of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. Eusebius recounts that Constantine and his soldiers had a vision of God promising victory if they daubed the sign of the Chi-Rho, the first two letters of Christ in Greek, on their shields.

As the two armies prepared for battle on the evening of 27 October, Constantine had a vision that led him to fight under the protection of the Christian God. Lactantius says that on that night, Constantine was commanded in a dream to “delineate the heavenly sign on the shields of his soldiers.”

He followed the commands of his dream and marked the shields with a sign “denoting Christ.” Lactantius describes that sign as a stavrogram or cross with its upper end rounded in a P-shaped fashion. However, there is no evidence that Constantine ever used this sign or the better known XP sign described by Eusebius.

Eusebius says that when Constantine looked up to the sun he saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words “Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα” (En toutō níka), usually translated into Latin as in hoc signo vinces, “In this sign conquer.”

The sign first appears on a silver coin from the reign of Constantine ca 317. But other coins that depict him quite overtly as the companion of Apollo the sun god were minted as late as 313, a year after the battle.

Whatever happened the night before the battle, Constantine entered Rome on 29 October, the day after the battle, and was met with popular jubilation. Maxentius’s body was fished out of the Tiber and he was decapitated. His head was paraded through the streets of Rome, while his disembodied head was sent to Carthage – the Ponte Milvio had been a symbol of military might, dedicated to the triumphant victory of Rome over Carthage in the Second Punic War.

Contrary to popular perception, the Edict of Milan in 314 did not make Christianity the imperial state religion, but merely promised religious toleration for all. Nevertheless, as Sean Freyne says: “The age of Constantine was indeed a golden age of a kind for the Christian church.” Constantine’s victory gave him total control of the Western Empire, paved the way for Christianity to become the dominant religion in the Empire and in Europe.

But I much prefer the story of how the bridge has become a symbol of peace and love in recent years rather than a symbol of marching, conquering Roman legions.

The Ponte Milvio has been invaded by an army of young lovers ever March 2007, when an Italian romantic movie based on the novel Ho Voglia di Te was released and started a ritual now wildly popular with young couples.

In the movie, a teenage couple is seen writing their names on a padlock and locking it with a chain around a lamppost on the Ponte Milvio. Both the novel and the movie were hugely popular with Italian teenagers, who began to imitate the practice on the Ponte Milvio, then throwing the keys into the Tiber in a gesture of undying love.

By April 2007, so many young lovers had imitated the ritual that the lamppost had begun to buckle under the weight of so many padlocks. The loss of the lamppost did not stop young lovers from throughout Italy coming to chain their locks to the bridge.
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Recently, the Mayor of Rome, in search of a solution, had all the lovelocks moved to the City Hall where they were put on display. But lovers arriving at the bridge can still lock up their love as the city has installed posts upon the Ponte Milvio where the lamppost once stood.

Clever entrepreneurs are selling padlocks by the Ponte Milvio for the throngs of teenage lovers ready to show their devotion, but have forgotten their locks. And the habit has spread throughout Italy, so that I noticed last month along the coastal walk in Cinque Terre that all along the Via Dell’Amore or the “Walk of Love,” linking Manarola and Riomaggiore, lovers’ padlocks have been clipped to the fences and railings along the trail.

For some young people in Italy, the 1960s slogan, “Make Love Not War,” still resonates with an essential truth today.

But I still think the Cross is a more powerful symbol of love than the XP symbol, or padlocks for that matter.

Walking along the Via Dell’Amore or the “Walk of Love,” linking Manarola and Riomaggiore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)