The Greeks of Marseilles and Greek nationalism

Erato Paris,
Université de Nice Sophia-Antinopolis

24 November 2000

Relative to other Greek communities such as that of Alexandria, which have already been extensively studied, the Greek community of Marseilles has gone virtually unnoticed to researchers, and case studies are conspicuous only by their absence. With regard to existing literature on the subject (which I have been studying for two years), there is the thesis by Pierre Echinard (1973) on Greeks and Philhellenes in Marseilles from the French Revolution to the independence of Greece, which covers the period from 1793 to 1830. More recently (1998), Anna Mandilara presented her thesis entitled “The Greek Community in Marseilles, 1816-1900 :  Individual and Network Strategies” at the European University of Florence, but notwithstanding the interest of this work on the question of the Greek diaspora, the subject seems to have been addressed from a strictly economic point of view. Finally, we may cite Sophie Basch’s book Le mirage grec, La Grèce moderne devant l’opinion franÿaise (1846-1946) [The Greek mirage, Modern Greece in French public opinion (1846-1946)] (Athens, Hatier, 1995), which studies French writers’ perceptions of Greece and makes very occasional references to the two main Greek communities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Marseilles and Paris. With the exception of these three studies and a few somewhat general articles, no in-depth research has yet been carried out on the whole of this thriving minority in France. We are thus dealing with a new field of investigation.

Historically, this minority was composed of wealthy merchants, ship-owners, intellectuals and international traders. In the course of the second half of the nineteenth century, their trading houses were to become veritable dynasties present in all the major port cities of Europe, the Mediterranean and as far as Odessa, on the Black Sea, notably owing to the control the Greek merchants exerted over the bulk of the Russian wheat trade. As an inspector of the Banque de France observed in 1860 concerning the Greeks :  “The main headquarters of their businesses are found at the east and west of the Mediterranean, in Constantinople and Marseilles”.

With regard to Marseilles, according to Echinard, some one hundred Greek businesses were to be found there in 1863, “twice as many as London, three times more than Vienna or Livorno” and perhaps as many as Trieste. A striking example of this flourishing community is revealed by the private archives of the Zarifi family, which is still present in Marseilles :  the Zafiropoulo and Zarifi company, known as Z/Z, founded in 1852 and devoted to the import of wheat from Odessa, became one of the most prosperous businesses in Marseilles. In addition, it had agencies in Constantinople (its main headquarters), London-Liverpool, Odessa and Trieste. The two letters Z/Z inscribed on the sacks of flour were known throughout the French Midi. After the introduction of France’s Wheat Law (early 1900), clearly protectionist in its inspiration, the company turned towards industry and finance, contributing massively to the rise of Marseilles.

Two other examples are also revealing. The first is that of the Argenti family of Chios, which founded the “Argenti Father & Son” company in Marseilles in 1820, thus bringing together the interests of a family network present in several European cities. Philip Argenti, born in Marseilles towards the end of the century, became one of the famous evergetes (benefactors) through his donations to Greece. The second example is that of the Rodocanachi family which, fleeing the massacres in Chios, settled in London, Marseilles, Livorno and Odessa from 1822 on. Among those who remained in France, we may cite Emmanuel (1859-1934), historian, member of the Academy of Athens by correspondence and crowned by the Académie Franÿaise for the whole of his opus.

Our interest, however, goes far beyond the obvious dynamics of the networks of merchant dynasties settled in Marseilles and other country. We are interested above all in the movements of ideas which contributed (still through these same elites) to define or renew the cultural sites of the cities. Underlying this extraordinary activity is a key theme explaining in part the chronological limits of this presentation :  the Great Idea (Megale Idea) which, especially after the 1850s and 1860s and until 1922, enflamed a large part of the Greek diaspora; The Great Idea, mixing together memories of the Greek past from the classical, Hellenistic and Byzantine eras, aspired to the return of the young Greek kingdom to the geographical borders of the “Great Hellades”—the territories peopled by the Greeks, maintained under Ottoman domination, as well as the lands where Greek civilisation had exerted its influence in the past. This is where the theme of “Greco-Latinity”, or the long duration of Hellenism and its prolongations at the very heart of a “Latin” France, actively intervene.

A venerable relic of the community of Alexandria, the Greeks of Marseilles alternately participated in the city’s political life or became patrons of its cultural, artistic and athletic life (and even the press), and the philanthropic activity of some of them was crowned by the Légion d’Honneur. In Greece itself, the presence of these Greek patrons also made itself strongly felt :  they endowed the schools (e.g. Auguste Ralli, who, at his death in 1878, was to leave considerable sums of money to the high schools of Athens and Chios), aimed both at the study of the Greek language and a high level of culture. They built hospitals, sent aid in time of major natural disasters, received representatives of the Greek government with full honours, supported the Cretan insurrection with discretion and efficiency, and so on. But the Greeks of Marseilles, as the documents prove, and exactly like those of Alexandria, energetically supported the Great Idea, spread from Athens towards all the Greek communities of the diaspora and the East. This is demonstrated by the welcome and support that the Greek community gave to Jean Colettis (a major representative of the “Megale Idea”) at the time of his journey to Marseilles. Or again, the Coray Association, whose steering committee, composed of Rallis and Zafiropoulos, hoped that the four-volume publication of the letters of the “great man” would result in “the imitation of his patriotic sentiments and the spread of Hellenism”. Finally, we may cite the capital example of the 1899 celebration of the twenty-fifth centennial of the foundation of the Hellenic colony and the speech of the archimandrite of the Orthodox Church of Marseilles, Grégoire Zigavinos, on the influence of the Hellenic spirit in the West”. Here we find, side by side, Greco-Latinity, the long duration of Hellenism and the defence of the Great Idea.

Another capital theme, arising from the role of the Greek language as a vital element for the support and survival of this Hellenism beyond the borders of Greece, is the history of the Hellenic language in the host country. The key issues are the following :  how is the linguistic question tied to the Great Idea? What efforts have the Greeks of France made so that their children learn the language of their homeland? How do Greek intellectuals define themselves in the debate between the “demotic” (or popular) language and the “katharevousa” (or official) language? It seems that in Marseilles, Greek children went to the prestigious Lycée de Marseille (Lycée Thiers) to learn, among other subjects and at the request of their parents, modern Greek. The archives of this high school (covering the period up to the 1870s) gives us a picturesque image of the nature of the instructions as well as the customs of this school.

With regard to the French philhellenism in Marseilles, it is closely connected to the Greek national cause. Alongside the Greek community, two French philhellenic networks distinguished themselves by their support for the Great Idea :  that of the daily newspaper Le Sémaphore de Marseille, which, from the 1830s on, was under the auspices of the Barlatier family (Auguste Barlatier [1809-1885] was even honoured with the supreme title, knight of the order of the saviour of Greece), and that gravitating around Jules Blancard, translator and historian, who, as professor of modern Greek, first at the Lycée de Marseille and then at the Faculty of Letters (1878-early 1880s) fervently pleaded for “the legitimate rights of Greece”. The Revue d’études grecques (Journal of Greek studies), published in Paris and explored for the period from 1871 to 1914, must also be mentioned here, along with the newspaper L’Indépendance hellénique (Hellenic independence) published in Athens, both of which quite naturally made a bridge between the Greeks of France and those of the larger Greek diaspora.

As should be clear by now, this study is intended to restore a Greek memory to France and bring out a French memory in Greece.


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