Saturday, July 05, 2014


A cursory glance of the surnames of august Greeks whose posteriors have perched upon the benches of the Parliament throughout the ages is instructive. It presents as a vast family tree of interlocking and conjoined tribes. There is a smattering of Kanellopoloulos,’ two Varvitsiotis,’ two Pangalos,’ one of whom was briefly a dictator and of course a sprinkling of Karamanlides, two named Kostas, both of whom were Prime Ministers and one named Achilleas, the older Kostas’ brother. There is also a Marietta Karamanli who is a member of the National Assembly of France and we can therefore exclude her from our count, which renders the Karamanlis clan as a bunch of political parvenus. They are especially trumped by the Rallis,’ who are surreptitiously woven into the fabric of Greek political history. The first of his name, Dimitrios Rallis, was PM no less than five times between 1897 and 1921. His son Ioannis was the Prime Minister of the Greek collaborationist government during the Second World War, while the bushy browed Georgios Rallis was Prime Minister between 1980-1981.
The Rallis clan’s achievement is rivalled by the Papandreou clan, who also have elevated three of its members to the political helm of the country. Georgios Papandreou, known as the ‘old man of democracy,’ served as Prime Minister of Greece three times, in 1944-45, 1963, then again in 1964-65. His son Andreas, who in a poll by the newspaper Kathimerini in 2007 was voted ‘the most important Greek Prime Minister in history,’ served two terms as Prime Minister, firstly for eight years between 1981 and 1989 and then again between 1993 and 1996. Andreas’ son Georgakis, also has served as Greece’s Prime Minister, between 2009-2011.
On occasion, the lineal descent of Greek politicians is obscured by changes in name. Thus seven times prime minister of Greece, Charilaos Trikoupis, and politician and general Nikolaos Trikoupis are all descended from Charilaos father’ Spyridon Trikoupis, also a prime minister, and Ekaterini Mavrokordatos, the sister of Alexander Mavrokordatos, also an early prime minister of Greece.
Similarly, while the Venizelos clan produced two prime ministers, the brilliant but flawed Eleftherios Venizelos and his not so brilliant Sofoklis Venizelos, it is rumoured that the Mitsotakis family is an offshoot. The father and grandfather of Konstantinos Mitsotakis, leader of New Democracy and former prime minister, were also parliamentarians, as is his daughter Dora, and his son Kyriakos.
Antonios Samaras on the other hand, the current Prime Minister, is descended from the Benakis clan, which basically bankrolled the functions of the Modern Greek state for a time and exercised enormous influence upon the exercise of its politics. Other Greek prime ministers achieving the pinnacle of their political career as a result of the influence of their family are Gennaios Kolokotronis, son of the great Theodoros, Kitsos Tzavellas, scion of the great Souliote clan, Athanasios Miaoulis, son of the great admiral Andreas Miaoulis, Alexandros Koumoundouros, son of the last Ottoman bey of Mani, Thrasyvoulos Zaimis and Alexandros Zaimis, son and grandson of revolutionary leader Andreas Zaimis, Zinovios Valvis and his brother Dimitrios Valvis, connected to the Trikoupis clan and Kyriakoulos Mavromihalis, scion of the prominent Maniot Mavromihalis clan. Thisenumeration must conclude with Augoustinos Kapodistrias, elevated to the position of Prime Minister owing to him being the brother of assassinated Prime Minister Ioannis Kapodistrias. Ioannis was of course killed by the Mavromihalis clan, as he opposed their nepotism…
One would, given the above, be forgiven for thinking that the government of Greece is a family concern, with each branch possessing defined spheres of influence within a granted territory. Apologists for the idea that Greece is both the birthplace and bastion of democracy, as well as that of representative government ascribe blame to the nepotistic and corruptive practices of Ottoman rule, for what they perceive to be the inception rather than the evolution of Greek political clientilism. If Antonia Kiousopoulou is to be believed however, the roots of our system are to be found further back in time. After all, Greece has been ruled by hereditary rulers, whether elected or not since times ancient and what we now know is that Greece has also been administrated according to hereditary principles at east since Byzantium.
In her seminal work “Emperor or Manager: Power and Political Ideology in Byzantium before 1453,” Antonia Kiousopoulou has painstakingly collected a list of eighty court officials and forty four ambassadors for Constantinople in the late Byzantine period. Seventeen percent of these have the name either of Palaiologos or Kantakuzenos or of both, these being families that eventually ascended the imperial throne and twenty eight percent bear other imperial names. Sixteen percent of such administrators, come from families whose names appear on a list of Peloponnesians making their obeisance and pledging loyalty to the Mehmed the Conqueror. Some of the names on Kiousopoulou's lists repeat themselves, reinforcing her contention that the Byzantine Empire was governed by relatively few born-to rule families, referred to as the “dynatoi.”
Among the main earlier examples of such families are the Phokades and the Maleinoi, who almost monopolized the senior administrative and military posts in Asia Minor in the early and middle tenth century. These dynatoi were able to use their political and financial strength to enrich themselves at the expense of the penetes, or small-holders, who had hitherto formed the main pillar of Byzantine society and economy. Despite the efforts of several emperors from Romanos I Lekapenos to Basil II to prevent the land acquisition and amassing of huge foturnes and power by the dynatoi, these efforts failed, and by the Palaiologan period (1261–1453), there was a vast decline in the authority of the central state government, which hastened the fall of the Empire.
In the 15th-century province of Morea alone, Diana Gilliland Wright has made a list of 172 dynatoi. Of these, 35 bear the imperial name Palaiologos, and 20 bear other imperial names such as Angelos, Soukas, Kantakouzenos and Laskaris. One of the extraordinary names of these dynatoi comprises of five imperial and four archon (noble) components: Ioannis Doukas Angelos Palaiologos Rallis Laskaris Tornikes Philanthropenos Asan, who was commemorated in a burial icon at Megaspilion, now destroyed. The largest non-imperial name featured, occurring as it does ten times, is that of Rallis, first cousins of the Palaiologoi emperors and, distant ancestor of the modern political Rallis clan.
Writer after writer in the last eighty years of the Morea mentioned the rapaciousness and brutality of the dynatoi. The Philosopher Gemistos Plethon ascribed to them responsibility for the pathetic condition of the area. Cardinal Bessarion wrote that there were a few good men among the dynatoi, but that their efforts were far outweighed by what the rest had done.
Only instance of a single effort toward change has been found. When Constantine Palaiologos made Giorgos Sphrantzes governor of Mistra in 1446, he exhorted him:
“You are to stay here and govern your command well. You are to put an end to the many instances of injustice and reduce the power of the numerous local lords. Make it clear to everybody here that you are in charge and that I am sole lord (ὡς ἐμὲ μόνον αὐθέντην).”
We know almost nothing about how Sphrantzes fared. Given that soon after he was sent on an embassy to Georgia and the Empire of Trebizond in search of a third wife for Emperor Constantine and that during these duties he married Helena, the daughter of the imperial secretary Alexios Palaiologos Tzamplakon, with the Emperor Constantine was his best man, one thing is certain, which has continued to resonate down the centuries within Greek political life to the present day: Whatever you do, do not ever go against the family.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 5 July 2014