21 June 2015

Finding the spirit of ‘Romiosini’
in the Soul and Heart of Greece

Greek flags fluttering in the street protests in Dublin at the weekend (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Last night, as I reflected on the opinion piece by the Greek Foreign Minister, Yannis Varoufakis, in The Irish Times, and thought about the sea of Greek flags the fluttered in a street protest in Dublin, I quoted the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote almost 200 years ago in his poem Hellas: “We are all Greeks.”

A friend asked on Facebook asked about the Greek translation of “We are all Greeks now.”

The phrase translates <<Είμαστε όλοι Έλληνες τώρα>>.

But, of course, the word Greek does not exist in the Greek language. The phrase Έλληνες (Hellenes) describes Greeks today. But the words Ρωμιός (Romios) and Ρωμιοσύνη (Romiosini) are probably more appropriate to use in describing the emotions Greeks share today and how they are feeling in the face of their present adversities.

No two Greeks have the same definition of these terms. The meanings and understandings of Romiosini are tied up with identity and soul, it is both but it is neither. It is about Greek-ness, yet not about identity with the Greek State, which is less than 200 years old. It is Hellenic and it is Byzantine. If foreigners find it difficult to understand, then Greeks find it difficult to describe.

The word has its roots in being part of the Roman Empire. But not the Empire of Rome. It is eastern Rome or the Empire of Byzantium, it is the New Rome that is Constantinople, Κωνσταντινόπουλος (Konstantinopoulos), or simply the City.

The history of modern Greece, from the end of Ottoman rule to today’s fiscal crisis, is one great unfolding drama and catastrophe. And it has been punctuated by coups, revolutions, invasions, civil wars, the tyranny of the colonels, and the tension of being both Western and Eastern, of being both Balkan and Anatolian.

Greeks of my generation learned to speak two languages, formal Καθαρεύουσας (Katharevoussa) and popular or domestic Δημοτική (Dhimotikí) – all at one and the same time … and at different times.

At school and in churches, in songs and in placenames, Greeks learned two words can mean the one thing: water is both ύδωρ (idor) and νερό (nero), bread is both άρτος (artos) and ψωμί (psomí).

Ireland is Ireland, England is England, but Greece is not defined by the cartographer’s limitations or lines drawn on the maps of Europe. Greece does not even exist in the Greek language. Greece is Ἑλλάς (Hellas), but romiosini is defined in hearts and in souls. Politics, parties and geographical boundaries can change, but Romiosini endures.

After Constantine founded Byzantium as the new capital of his Empire, the word Hellene became associated with a pagan past, although Greek became the official language. From then on, the Roman and Greek cultures were virtually fused in the East.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Greeks were defined by the Turkish terms Rumlar and Rum millet. In time, Greek identity was largely defined by Orthodoxy. A unique intertwining and blending of language and religion shaped that identity, that fused a Hellenistic identity that claimed Classical Athens and a Greek Orthodoxy focussed on Byzantium and Constantinople.

Greeks today remember that Byzantium flourished while Western Europe was living in poverty, ignorance and violence.

The 20th century poet Kostis Palamas defended the use of the words Roman instead of Hellene and Romanism instead of Hellenism, of the use of the terms Romios and Romiosini.

For Crete’s gratest writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba exhibits all the characteristics of a character with all the marks of Romiosini.

Yiannis Ritsos (1909-1990), the poet of the Greek Left and of the resistance, saw the memory and emotion, the identity and the energy in these concepts that evade translation alive in Greek memory, and expressed it in his great long poem Romiosini.

For Ritsos, Greeks fall into one of two groups: the educated middle class, who want to forget the memory of the 400 years of Turkish oppression and identify with the ancient Greeks; and the peasant and working class, whose memory goes back through the Turkish occupation to Byzantium. Greeks in the first group think of themselves as Hellenes, those in the second group are Romoii, and Ritsos sees himself as a Romios, embracing the living language that expresses this.

Romiosini expresses and is the suffering and the experience German occupation, the Civil War, and the betrayal of the Resistance. But it goes back from the ballads the klephts sang in the War of Independence to the Byzantine poems and the Homeric songs. Romiosini.

In the 1960s, Mikis Theodorakis provided a choral setting that made this the classic anthem of Greek identity and of resistance to the colonels. It is one of his earliest works and of nine songs written on the lyrics of Ritsos. In one of the earliest recordings, these songs and poems were interpreted by the legendary singer Grigoris Bithikotsis (Γρηγόρης Μπιθικώτσης).

This poem and this choral setting shatter the barriers of space and time and they recover the memories of past sufferings that shape identity from the debris of Greek history.

There are nine songs in all:

1, These trees (Αυτά τα δέντρα)
2, All are thirsty (Όλοι διψάνε)
3, When they shake the hand (Όταν σφίγγουν το χέρι)
4, So many years (Τόσα χρόνια)
5, They got enslaved (Μπήκαν στα σίδερα)
6, Tree after tree (Δέντρο το δέντρο)
7, Who would say it (Ποιος να το πει)
8, Soon the bells will ring (Θα σημάνουν οι καμπάνες)
9, They travelled to heaven (Τραβήξανε ψηλά)

In his reflections in the The Irish Times yesterday [20 June 2015], Yannis Varoufakis explained the plight of Greece today:

“Greece’s drama is often misunderstood in northern climes because past profligacy has overshadowed the exceptional adjustment of the past five years. Since 2009 the Greek state’s deficit has been reduced, in cyclically adjusted terms, by a whopping 20 per cent, turning a large deficit into a large structural primary surplus. Wages contracted by 37 per cent, pensions by up to 48 per cent, state employment by 30 per cent, consumer spending by 33 per cent and even the current account deficit by 16 per cent.

“Alas, the adjustment was so drastic that economic activity was choked, total income fell by 27 per cent, unemployment skyrocketed to 27 per cent, undeclared labour scaled 34 per cent, public debt rose to 180 per cent of the nation’s rapidly dwindling GDP, investment and credit evaporated and young Greeks, just as their Irish counterparts, left for distant shores, taking with them huge quantities of human capital that the Greek state had invested in them.

“What Greece needs now is not more cutbacks that push an impoverished populace into greater indignity, or higher tax rates and charges that crush what is left of economic activity. These “parametric” measures, as the institutions call them, have been excessive, the result now being a nation on its knees.”

Now that’s the spirit of Romiosini, personified in Zorba, and expressed by Kazantzakis, Ritsos and Theodorakis.


Anonymous said...

I am a british/ ausssie liviing on.a Greek island since 1968 ! amongst subsistent farmers And fishermen ,it was very similair to some Irish isolated lands, so said my late Irish poet friend Desmon O,Grady! I have posted your wonderful well written, piece About Romiosini on facebook to show some of the foreigners here a little more about the understanding of the deep soul of Greece and How these proud people are now once again being plunged into chaos, "this land is theirs and ours. And noone can take it from us " is suddenly very poignant today july 14 th 2015 anniversary of the French Revolution thank you for your devotion to Greece and its people sto kalo best wishes Phillada Lecomte

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you so much for your supportive comments, and for sharing on Facebook. I hope you get through the present travails with that true spirit. Patrick.

Κατια said...

Thank you for writing this. A very accurate and touching account- written with love-of Greeks and the Greek country.

Unknown said...

Just reading Patrick Leigh Fermour's book Roumeli where he covers these issues in detail. He was an Englishman who loved Greece and the Greeks and knew them as well as any foreigner could. A great read, as is Mani about southern Greece.