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It is 2004. It is impossible to imagine Southern Europe in 2015.

That summer, Portugal hosted the European Cup. In the final the host nation played Greece—Greece won.

England established a pattern of scoring very early but losing their matches—the joke going around was that the English were the best lovers in Europe: they could stay on top for ninety minutes and still come second.

Meanwhile Greece also hosted a tournament of its own, the 2004 Summer Olympics. The Olympic Games were a celebration of the country’s new found wealth, its full integration in Europe after centuries of convolution, and its emancipation from military dictatorship.

Shortly after the closing ceremony of the 2004 Olympics, Greece warned its deficit would be worse than expected—it came in at 6.1% of GDP, double the euro area limit.

As usual, when looking to the future, there’s much to be gained by reviewing the past. Nations can be broadly divided into those that have made a global impact and the other kind.

We feel humans have reached their maximum empowerment (so far) today, but we cannot generalize the concept to countries—the days when a small nation like Portugal or Holland could build an empire are gone.

Globalization gives humans and corporations global reach, so you can listen to the music of Burkina Faso online or speculate on the European sovereign bond markets from a brokerage in Singapore, but it paradoxically arrests the emergence of new Napoleon or a William of Orange.

Greece is part of the Global Impact club, centered on the city-states of Ancient Greece, Alexander the Great, and the conquest of the Mediterranean Sea. Greek philosophers and scientists formed the cornerstone of European thought, whereas the Romans helped to unite Europe by providing a common rule of law, administration, and communication.

The subsequent history of Greece is very poorly known—the same can be said for Portugal after the period of the discoveries (1430-1580), and for Italy in the post-Roman Empire, although the renaissance once again brought it to the forefront.

Janissary recruitment in the Ottoman Empire. Christian children were abducted and raised as Muslims to serve in the army and civil service.

Janissary recruitment in the Ottoman Empire. Christian children were abducted and raised as Muslims to serve in the army and civil service.

So here’s post-Hellenic history as the elevator pitch. Until 1453 Greece was part of the Byzantine Empire, and survived through a series of wars of varying scale, before becoming part of the Ottoman Empire—from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak.

The Turkish occupiers forced the Greeks, and all other non-Muslims, to pay the jizya, a religious tax equivalent to the voluntary offering of zakat by all good Muslims. Any Christian who did not produce his jizya certificate upon request was jailed.

The Ottomans also levied a far greater imposition, the blood tax, or devşirme.

In 1821 Greece announced its independence, and in 1829 secured it, not by its own means, but through the naval victory of Navarino, in 1827—a Greek bailout, so to speak, since the conquering forces were British, French, and Russian. The opposition was Turkish and Egyptian.

The first king of modern Greece was Russian, the second Bavarian, and the third Danish. After World War II, the Wikipedia headings are:

Greek Civil War (1944-1949)

Postwar recovery and military junta

Restoration of democracy (1974)

The article ends with Economic crisis of 2009-2014

I suppose it should read 2009-present, but apart from that, the headline pales in comparison to what has gone on before. So let’s look at the lessons of history, from which I draw three.

1. Greece has lived through much harder times than it presently faces, during which foreign occupation, extermination of its citizens, and kidnap of its infants feature prominently.

2. Greece has relied almost entirely on foreign assistance for consolidating its borders and for financial survival over the last centuries.

3. Greece has only governed itself as a democracy since 1974. During this period the socialist party PASOK was in power for twenty years (1981-2001).

I’m not going to draw conclusions from this toxic triangle, except to say that it helps to put Greek expectations in perspective, and perhaps helps to explain why the same approach that put Germany on top of the heap, and had variable outcomes in Ireland, Spain, and Portugal, resulted in a Greek tragedy of Euripidian proportions.

It is 2015. It is impossible to imagine Southern Europe in 2004.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

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