New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Professor Young Richard Kim, University of Illinois, Chicago, spoke with Maureen Connors Santelli, Associate Professor of History, Northern Virginia Community College on May 16 in the fourth—and last—of his excellent live interviews in HALC’s (Hellenic American Leadership Committee) virtual conversation series celebrating the bicentennial of the Greek Revolution, “Philhellenism Through The Ages” Professor Santelli is the author of The Greek Fire: American-Ottoman Relations and Democratic Fervor in the Age of Revolutions (The United States in the World).
The series examined the development of Philhellenism from antiquity to the Revolution, with the last conversation about the perseverance of Greek cultural ideas and ideals in the United States, as well as how popular support for the Revolution conflicted with the political and economic goals of the United States government. Philhellenism in America also contributed to other movements, including abolition and the struggle for women’s rights. Professor Kim referred to points made in Professor Santelli’s book in his questions.
While a student of the classics with a focus on Latin, Professor Santelli took “a life-changing trip to Greece” that led her to combine her love for both Greece and Rome, culminating in her interest in the Greek Revolution. “For a lot of us, Philhellenism is that first time we come to Greece, to Athens,” said Kim, “The first time I saw the Parthenon on the Acropolis with my own eyes was a breathtaking moment.”
“You write that Americans were quite enthusiastic about Greek independence. Was this because of a sense of shared political and civic ideals? To what extent were these ideas rooted in elite education and culture? What did common Americans think when hearing about the Greek revolution?” The literacy rate in the United States was on a greater scale than some places in Europe, replied Santelli, citing a couple of newspaper statements showing that the Greek cause resonate with common Americans, as well as the elite: A barber pledges that he “will donate all of his earnings on Friday to the Greek cause,” and ‘the firehose brigade of Washington City is going to donate all their money from this function to the Greek cause.”
In the early 19 century there weren’t any sizable–if any–populations of Greeks in the United States, so where were these ideas were coming from, asked Kim, “Were they a romanticized European notion of ancient Greece or did something contemporary inspire their interest in Greece?” Almost exclusively, their perceptions of the Greeks came from an understanding of the ancients, said Santelli. they developed a cultural, religious and racial understanding of the modern Greek. By the 1820’s in America, there was a greater feeling toward democracy, “The assumption that the United States is politically and culturally to some extent linked with the ancients. There was also the religious element, Greeks are Christians as are we, and the Turks are Muslims. And race was considered somewhat differently in the 1820’s, so there was a racial element as well. the Turks were considered to be almost a separate race. The Greeks were white and on the same level as us in terms of being superior, that we come from this ancient tradition.”
Lord Byron’s poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” was very popular in the United States, and Lord Byron became a figure of fascination for Americans. His movements and contributions captivated the attention of the American populace, not as a great representative of the British Philhellenic movement but as a great separate Philhellene from the end of the world.
Regarding the sense of connection between the Americans and the Greeks because of their shared religious heritage of Christianity, Kim asked whether American Christians and Philhellenes understood the Greek Christians to be really of the same sort or was there a sense that Greek Orthodoxy was something that ultimately needed to be addressed as an issue. “Generally, in the newspapers, speeches to drive up support for the Greeks almost always were in terms of ‘the Greeks are Christians like us and we should support them on those grounds,’” she replied. Organizationally, though, missionaries were being sent to the Mediterranean, to Greece in particular.
“Americans saw the Turks as the ultimate example of despotism, so there was also the conversation about the Greeks, living under the so-called slavery of the Ottoman Empire for so long, having culturally and religiously been kind of degraded as a people. So, we need to go and establish missions in that region with an eye for uplifting the Greeks to the level that we think that they should be at so they’re both saying their Christian but not quite the right kind of Christian so let’s go help them embrace the correct form of Christianity as they establish a new nation state, hopefully.”
This extensive conversation will be continued in our next issue.
“Philhellenism Through The Ages” was presented by the Classics and Mediterranean Studies Department at the University of Illinois Chicago, the Embassy of Greece in the USA, HALC, the Metropolis of Chicago, the Foundation for Hellenic Studies, Illinois, and the Consulate General of Greece in Chicago.
Professor Kim is head of Classics and Mediterranean Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, with an additional appointment in the Department of History. He is a scholar and teacher of the ancient Mediterranean world, with wide interests and specific expertise in Late Antiquity, Late Ancient Christianity, and Early Byzantine Studies. He is the author of Epiphanius of Cyprus: Imagining an Orthodox World, winner of the 2016 North American Patristics Society Best First Book Prize, and the editor of the Cambridge Companion to the Council of Nicaea. Dr. Kim’s current research project is on Cyprus in Late Antiquity.