A national bicentenary, a global pandemic, and the new past

22 March 2021

Dimitris Plantzos National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Everybody loves a party; and national anniversaries usually present themselves as the perfect excuse to throw one. For Greece, this year was going to be one of celebrations and some self-congratulatory bliss, as it sees the bicentenary of the so-called “Greek Revolution”, also known in Greek as to eikosiena (“the ’21”); that is the beginning of the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, traditionally thought to have been declared on 25 March 1821, an uprising that eventually led to the emergence of the Modern Greek nation-state in 1830. Greece was planning to celebrate – urbi et orbi – this significant landmark in its history; and a national committee, fittingly and unexcitingly titled “Greece 2021” was created soon after the General Election of 2019 when the conservative Nea Dimokratia (“New Democracy”) party returned to power, in order to represent 2021 “as a window of opportunity for the future of Greece”. The Committee is led by none other than Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who also famously led the committee for the 2004 Olympics with rather dubious results if the gargantuan budget-deficit of that endeavor is anything to go by.

It would be interesting, under this light, to observe how the official bicentenary celebrations have chosen to represent the Greek nation to itself and others, through – thus far – some performative attempts and (mostly) casual rhetoric. The unfortunate outbreak of the covid19 pandemic has dampened down the national effort to a significant extent: conferences and exhibitions have already been postponed to a more appropriate, post-vaccine future, whereas what is produced bears the strong marks of the pandemic biopolitics: social distancing, masks, quarantine as a way of life. Think, for example, the by now mostly forgotten publicity stunt produced by the 2021 Committee, advertised as the “celebrations’ videoclip”, and officially labelled “May the Dances Never Stop”, the title borrowed from the well-known Dionysis-Savvopoulos song choreographed in a new choral version specially arranged for the video. 

If anyone among my readers out there remains oblivious of this 1983 Greek hit, let them be assured that there is no need to ever look it up now. With its bluntly nationalist candour, its blatant historical anachronisms, its exuberant, yet sadly outmoded exceptionalism, and its ever so thinly disguised xenophobia, this song, like its maker, has long passed its sell-by date. Rather than introducing a new “window of opportunity” to imagine the future of Greece, it very much offers an explanation as to what went so frightfully wrong in its recent past.

The choice of venue was also unimaginative, though not without its own symbolisms: by choosing to film the celebratory video clip in the marble laid Panathenaic Stadium, where Greek modernity re-invented itself as neo-classical heterotopia back in the 1890s (Plantzos 2012; cf. Ioannidou 2011), the Committee made certain it reminded everyone who might care to listen that Greek bodies remain faithful to their archaeolatric selves as years go by (Papanikolaou 2020). Under the trivialities of the staging, and as the carefully picked – all white, all good-looking, able-bodied – cast mimed the song as if in fact they wanted to render some sort of post-modern parody of it, the Committee made clear its intentions as to the strategies it is going to deploy in the following months in its attempt to monumentalize Greek public history, Greek collective memory, and in fact Greek time.

Talking about time, let us remember here one of the celebratory “banners” designed for the Committee by private advertisers grdesign, where the trajectory of the Greek Nation is shown to span from the Battle of Salamis and the figure of Pericles in classical antiquity, to Kolokotronis and the 1821 Revolution, Maria Callas and the internationally famous Nigerian-Greek basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo (a move that seems to have infuriated more than it pleased).

I would like at this point to dwell on two examples of the Committee’s public rhetoric in recent months, both referring to actual monuments from recent Greek history, both also related to the current pandemic, though most crucially both attempting to reframe Greece’s dystopic past into something more palatable, a glossier version of itself as it were, suitable for a less politically inclined market. My first example comes from the official visit, last September, of the Committee’s President to Agios Efstratios. Also known as “Ai-Stratis”, this  islet in the Northern Aegean has become notorious in recent Greek history from its use as a place of banishment for members of the Greek Left by the Eleftherios Venizelos, Ioannis Metaxas and other administrations since 1929 and up to 1962. The official press release from the day, however, although it does mention the fact that some of Greece’s leading cultural figures (from poets Kostas Varnalis and Giannis Ritsos to novelist Menelaos Lountemis and actor Manos Katrakis) found themselves among the exiles over the years, it fails to mention why and by whom; it does however claim that “several ships” from the island helped with the War of Independence back in the 1820s, before concluding that, according to the Committee, the local Museum devoted to Ai-Stratis as a place of exile in recent history, stands as a symbol of “national reconciliation” – again not quite explaining who is reconciling with whom (although this new breed of reconciliatory monument was somehow touted as an antidote to covid19). An equally obscene misrepresentation of recent history had occurred only a few months earlier, when, a similar visit took place on Spinalonga, the infamous leper colony active from 1903 to 1957, legendarily immortalized by 20th c. literature, film, and tv. During the visit, one of the local officials claimed that “the human values expressed in Spinalonga” (a place of incarceration, exclusion, and suffering) would be valuable during the current pandemic.

What I find interesting in these two examples, is how the political and cultural establishment in Greece proceeds to re-imagine the two monuments, in a cynically meta-political, and certainly post-historical context: conveniently aided by the necessary regulatory controls imposed by the pandemic, the Greek state moves forward towards the production of a generalized disciplinary society, inspired by this new, frightfully a-historical past; and a socially distanced one at that, where “the dances never stop” (cf. Ioannidou 2020). And this, at the time when other monuments, from Greece’s recent past, are systematically condemned to oblivion. Take, for example, the special decree – issued by the Head of Police nonetheless – against honoring the Alexis Grigoropoulos monument in central Athens on the 12th anniversary of his murder by two Greek policemen; ostensibly as a precaution against the spreading of covid19, every movement in the area was banned for several days, the spot where Grigoropoulos was shot was cordoned off even to pilgrims walking there on their own, and police were even seen destroying flowers and other votives some Athenians deposited even outside the forbidden zone. Like with the anniversary of the Polytechnic Rise against the junta a few weeks prior which was also banned, the State apparatus in effect created two non-monuments, two black-holed sites of oblivion where the nation was invited to forget its recent history in order to consume a new, more fetching past, appropriate for the post-pandemic era we keep being promised.

It may be argued that biopower wars were always fought on the symbolic register as well. I know it does perhaps sound insensitive to say this after a long Greek decade of austerity, mass unemployment, job precarity, and continuous immigrant and refugee crises, not to mention the current health crisis; but these images we keep seeing – from monuments systematically protected to monuments strategically neglected and back again – are fundamentally biopolitical, and when they refer to antiquity, “archaeopolitical” (cf. Plantzos 2017). As most of the examples I used here show, however, these symbolic gestures of exclusion and inclusion, these regimes of discipline and pacification, affect not just the notional but also the national, not just the symbolic but also the factual reality we are allowed to inhabit. They inscribe themselves onto our bodies as well as our intellects.



Ioannidou, E. 2011. Toward a national heterotopia: ancient theaters and the cultural politics of performing ancient drama in modern Greece. Comparative Drama 44(4) & 45(1) : 385-403.

Ioannidou, E. 2020. Spectres of Greekness at the time of corona. Journal of Greek Media & Culture 6(2): 295-300.

Papanikolaou, D. 2020. Mia keni Ellada «geia sou» / Μια κενή Ελλάδα «γεια σου». I Kathimerini 24 October, https://www.kathimerini.gr/culture/561130033/as-kratisoyn-oi-choroi-gia-to-21/ (last access 12 March 2021).

Plantzos, D. 2012. The glory that was not: embodying the classical in contemporary Greece. Interactions 3(2): 147-71.

Plantzos, D. 2017. Amphipolitics: archaeological performance and governmentality in Greece under the crisis. In D. Tziovas (ed.), Greece in Crisis. The Cultural Politics of Austerity (London & New York: I.B. Tauris): 65-84.

"May the Dances Never Stop": screenshot from the GREECE2021 webpage
"May the Dances Never Stop": screenshot from the GREECE2021 webpage


Dimitris Plantzos is Professor of Classical Archaeology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. He writes on classical art and its modern receptions, archaeological theory, and the uses of antiquity in contemporary political discourse. He is the author of Greek Art and Archaeology and The Art of Painting in Ancient Greece, both published by Kapon Editions in Athens, Greece and Lockwood Press in Atlanta, Georgia in 2016 and 2018 respectively, and The Archaeologies of the Classical. Revising the Empirical Canon (2014) and The Recent Future. Classical Antiquity as a Biopolitical Tool (2016), by Eikostos Protos and Nefeli Editions respectively (both in Greek).