Enlightenment and School History in 19th Century Greece: the Case of Gerostathis by Leon Melas (1862-1901)

Harris Athanasiades


Students in present-day Greek schools are taught History as a biography of the Greek nation from the Mycenaean times to the present. Over the course of three millennia, the Greek nation has experienced three periods of cultural flourishing and political autonomy: (i) the period of Antiquity (from the times of legendary King Agamemnon to those of Alexander the Great), (ii) the Byzantine period (from Justinian’s ascension in the 6th century to the Fall of Constantinople in 1453), and (iii) the modern era (from the War of Independence in 1821 to the present day). However, in this article we argue that in the 19th century the history taught in Greek schools differed substantially from the tripartite schema described above. In support of our thesis, we examine the most popular school textbook of the 19th century, O Gerostathis, by Leon Melas. In the Gerostathis, the history of the Greek nation is identified with that of Classical Greece (i.e. from the 6th century BC to the 4th century BC), which is held up as an exemplary era worthy of emulation. In contrast, the rise of Macedon under Philip II signals the cultural decline of the Greeks and the loss of their political autonomy, which was not regained for two millennia, until the 1821 national revolution. In that period, the Greek nation ceased not to exist, but survived as a subjugate of the Macedonians, the Romans, and finally the Ottomans. The Byzantine, on the other hand, is described as an unremarkable period of decadence that is only worth mentioning in relation to its final period, that of the Palaeologus dynasty, which bestowed upon the Greeks a legacy of resistance against the Ottomans. We argue that the above reading of the Greek past owed much to the Enlightenment, which as an intellectual movement still exerted a powerful influence (albeit to a gradually diminishing degree) on Greek intellectuals up to the latter third of the 19th century.


School history; Enlightenment; Romanticism; Education; Greece; 19th century; Gerostathis; Leon Melas

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14516/ete.146


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