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Template:Otheruses2 Template:Ethnic group The Greeks (Hellenes) are an ethnic group found in the southern Balkan peninsula of southeastern Europe and are speakers of the Greek language. Despite frequent colonisations, Greeks have lived in Greece and Cyprus for over 3500 years. There are also native Greek minorities from Southern Italy to the Caucasus and Diaspora communities in a number of other countries.


Identity of the Greek people

The modern Greek state and its people are the inheritor of the ancient Greek and Byzantine civilizations and cultures. From ancient Greece the modern people inherited a sophisticated culture and a language that has been documented for almost three millennia.

The Greek language has an unbroken literary history which makes it one of the oldest surviving branches of the Indo-European family of languages. Modern Greek is recognizably the same as the language of Athens under Pericles in the 5th century BC. Few languages can demonstrate such continuity. It has been spoken in the Greek peninsula for over 3500 years (and in western Asia Minor for a little less).

The definition of Greekness has varied through history, but by modern standards, the term "Greeks" has traditionally referred to any native speakers of the Greek language (whether Mycenaean, Byzantine or modern Greeks). Byzantine Greeks valued the classical tradition and considered themselves the Orthodox heirs of ancient Greece and Rome. The use of the older self-descriptive ethnic term "Hellenes" revived during the era of the neo-platonic philosopher Gemistus Pletho and the work of Cyriac of Ancona. It became fairly common with the emergence, in the late 18th century, of the nation-state and its gradual consolidation, but it was not until the early 20th century that its popular use was firmly re-established.

Greece became the first country in the Balkans to come into being, both as a nation-state and breaking away from the Ottoman Empire. The Greek revolutionary movement formed its own definition of Greekness out of the Byzantine and ancient Greek cultural heritage along with the influences of western nationalism. This attracted foreign support from the Philhellenes.

Classical and Hellenistic

Image:Ac.thebeskouros.jpg Herodotus states that the Athenians declared, before the battle of Plataea, that they would not go over to Mardonius, because in the first place, they were bound to avenge the burning of the Acropolis; and, secondly, they would not betray their fellow Greeks, to whom they were bound by:

As Thucydides observes that the name of Hellas spread from a valley in Thessaly to the Greek-speaking peoples after the formation of the text of Homer (the Panellenes of Il. 2.530 are the troops of Thessaly, contrasting with the Achaeans), not long before his own time. This places the idea in the Archaic period, when Greeks discovered that the world was wider, wealthier, and more cultured than they had imagined. Homer's Trojan War is, indeed, a conflict among Greeks: the Trojans speak Greek (although most modern historians believe they were more likely an Anatolian people), bear Greek names, and worship the Greek gods; and Priam is descended from Zeus (see Alaksandus). The Carians are the only people Homer considers barbarophonoi.

Nor did the late and schematic myth of the sons of Hellen ever convince other mythographers to comply with it. Theseus is descended from Erechtheus, son of the Earth; Oedipus from the Phoenician Cadmus; Agamemnon from Phrygian Pelops; Heracles and Perseus from Egyptian Danaus. Whole cities were not descended from Hellen: Athens, Lemnos, and the Cretans were Pelasgian. The myth of Hellen combined into one group the smaller tribes that participated in the Delphic Amphictyon, such as the Aeolians, the Achaeans, and the Dorians. Traces of the older distinctions remained; Dorians were forbidden in the Parthenon; although the Spartan king Cleomenes I claimed this did not apply to him — as a descendant of Heracles, he was an Achaean. As in this example, the Greeks almost always reckoned descent through the male line.

So the exact nature of Greek identity has been an open question since ancient times. It has not become clearer with time: descent is at best a matter of tradition, and the Greeks have altered their language, religion, and customs since Herodotus. Nevertheless, there has been, in practice, a continuous Greek identity since ancient times, containing at least those who were born Greek and who had citizenship in a Greek city, or membership of a Greek community.

As early as the 5th century BC, Isocrates, after speaking of common origin and worship, says: "the name Hellenes suggests no longer a race but an intelligence, and... the title Hellenes is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood". Panegyric 4.50.

After the 4th century BC and Alexander the Great's conquest of the East, Greek became the lingua franca of the East Mediterranean region and was widely spoken by educated non-Greeks.

Byzantine Greeks

Image:Trapezunt gospel.jpg

After the creation of the Byzantine Empire, Greek culture changed from Hellenic (Greek pagan) to Eastern Roman (Greek paganism fused with Christianity), and the word "Hellene" became associated with the pagan past. Distinctions of nationality still existed in the empire, but became secondary to religious considerations as the renewed empire used Christianity to maintain its cohesion. However, the Byzantine Empire was dominated by the Greek element to such an extend that Emperor Heraclius (575-641AD) decided to make Greek the official language. From then on, the Roman and Greek cultures were virtually fused in the East. Thanks to the settlements that resulted from such policies, many names that seem Greek are actually of different ethnic origin, such as Slavic or Turkish. By that time it was common policy by the Latin West to refer to Byzantium strictly as "Empire of the Greeks" (Imperium Graecorum), or even "Greece" (Graecia).

Nonetheless, it was religion that divided the Empire from the Muslims; and, along different lines, it came to divide the Empire from the Franks, Armenians, Copts, and Syrians.

Pure Greek nationalism re-emerged in the 11th century within specific circles and became more forcefull after the fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, and the establishment of a number of Greek kingdoms (such as the Empire of Nicaea and the Despotate of Epirus). When the empire was revived in 1261, it became essentially a Greek national state. Adherence to Greek Orthodox rites and the Greek language, became the defining characteristic of the Greek people.

Greeks in the Ottoman Empire

Under the Ottoman Empire, religion was the defining characteristic of "national" groups (millet), so "Greeks" ("Rum") were defined by the Ottomans as members of the Greek Orthodox Church, regardless of their language or origin. Conversely, those who adopted Islam during that period were considered 'Turks', regardless of their language or origin. Thus Alexander Ypsilanti expected the Moldavians and Wallachians, being Greek Orthodox, to rise for Greek independence; but they did not.

Modern independence

This strong relation between Greek national identity and Greek Orthodox religion continued after the creation of the modern Greek state in 1830, and when the Treaty of Lausanne was signed between Greece and Turkey in 1923, the two countries agreed to use religion as the determinant for ethnic identity. However, in many important respects, the Greek state adhered from its founding to remarkably secular principles. For instance, Jews were granted full citizens rights in 1830, the year Greece's independence was formally recognized, thus making Greece the second state in Europe (after France) with an emancipated Jewish community.

Today, the deeper integration of Greece into the Western strategic system and the effects of migration (both emigration from Greece in the 1950s and 1960s, and immigration into Greece in more recent years) have led to a perception of multiculturalism similar to that of other Western European nations.

Names used for the Greek people

Main Article: Names of the Greeks.


Throughout the centuries, the Greeks have been known by a number of names, including:

  • Hellenes (Έλληνες) - In mythology, Hellen, son of Deucalion and Pyrrha, received from the nymph Orseis three sons, Aeolus, Dorus and Xuthus, each of which founded a primary tribe of Hellas; Aeolians, Dorians, Achaeans and Ionians. Originally, only a small tribe in Thessaly were called Hellenes, but the word soon extended to the rest of the peninsula and came to represent all Greek people. In early Christian times it was sometimes used to mean "pagans". It remains in Greece today, the primary national name.
  • Greeks (Γραικοί) - In mythology, Graecus was the brother of Latinus and nephew to Hellen. It was the name of a Boeotian tribe that migrated to the Italian peninsula in the 8th century BC and probably through contact with natives there brought the term to represent all Hellenes, which then established itself in Italy and in the West in general.


  • Romioi (Ρωμιοί) - Romans is the political name by which the Byzantine Greeks called themselves during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. In parts of mainland Greece and Asia Minor, the use of this name survived well in the 20th century. The name in antiquity signified the inhabitants of the city of Rome in Italy, but with the elevation of the Greeks in the Roman Empire, it soon lost its connection with the Latins and acquired a completely different definition. Roman Emperor Caracalla with his Constitutio Antoniniana (212) granted all free people in the Roman Empire citizenship. The term Roman (Romaios) represented for the Greeks their Roman citizenship and their Hellenic ancestry. The word Romaioi came to represent the Greek inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire. It remains still in use today in Greece, being the most popular national name after Hellene.
  • Yunani (Ίωνες) - Yunani, from the Persian Yauna, itself a transliteration of the Greek Ionia, is the name by which the Greeks are known in the East today. The term became established in the ancient Middle East from the Persians, who in contact with the Ionian tribes in western Asia Minor in the 6th century BC, extended the name to all Hellenes.
  • Achaeans, Argives, and Danaans are names used interchangeably by Homer, to signify the Greek allied forces.

History of the Greeks

The history of the Greek people is closely associated with the history of Greece, Constantinople, and Asia Minor. By the late 19th century, over half of the Greek-speaking populations were settled in Asia Minor (now Turkey). It is only in the middle 20th century that Greek-speaking populations are almost exclusively confined within the borders of the Greek state.

During the Ottoman rule of Greece, a number of Greek enclaves around the Mediterranean were cut off from the core, notably in Southern Italy, the Caucasus, Syria,and Egypt.

During the 20th century, a huge wave of migration to the United States, Australia, Canada,and elsewhere created a Greek diaspora. Image:Bouboulina.jpg

Modern and ancient Greeks

Most modern ethnologists believe that there is a strong and continuous tradition linking ancient and modern Greeks genetically, linguistically and culturally over the millennia, though, of course, there have also been significant contributions to Greek culture from other peoples. The facial recostruction of skeletons found in ancient tombs, combined with genetic and anthropological studies shows that the ethnic elements of ancient Greece (which, apropos, proved to be highly heterogeneous), remain in the modern population.

Greeks around the world

Apart from Greece and Cyprus there is a large Greek diaspora. Large Greek communities can be found in a number of countries:

Significant Greek communities can also be found in: Argentina (c.30,000), Austria (c.12,000[[2]]), Italy (c.50.000 in "Grecia Salentina" speaking a Greco-italian dialect called Griko), Belgium (c.25,000), Brazil (c.25,000), Bulgaria (c.25,000), Egypt (c.42,000[[3]]), France (c.20,000), Hungary (c.5,000), Kazakhstan (c.12,000), Netherlands (c.4.000), New Zealand (c.4,500), Romania (c.6,500), Sweden (c.50,000[[4]]), Switzerland (c.11,000), South Africa (c.50,000), Turkey (2.000 Christian Orthodox in Istanbul), Uzbekistan (c.9,000) and Zambia (c.1,000).

Timeline of Greek migrations

Various events in this timeline are disputed by one theory or another. Some key historical events have also been included for context, but this timeline is not intended to cover history not related to migrations. There is more information on the historical context of these migrations in History of Greece.

Other languages


  • Yunan (from the ancient Persian 'Yauna', from the Greek 'Ionian'), derives from Ionian Greeks established in Bactria.
  • "Rum" (from the Greek "Romaioi"), one of the self-descriptive ethnic terms of the Byzantine and modern Greeks.


1In Greek: homoglosson (Template:Polytonic)

2In Greek: homaimon (Template:Polytonic)

3Compare the Christian Greek and Demotic term omothriskon (Template:Polytonic).

4Includes non-Greeks born in Greece; excludes Greeks not born in Greece; excludes second-generation Greek-Canadians.

Miscellaneous topics


  • Peter Mackridge, Eleni Yannakakis, eds., Ourselves and Others : The Development of a Greek Macedonian Cultural Identity since 1912, 1997, ISBN 1859731333.
  • Peter Bien, "Inventing Greece", Journal of Modern Greek Studies 23:2 (October 2005), pp. 217-234.
  • Michael Herzfeld, Ours Once More: Folklore, Ideology, and the making of Modern Greece, 1982, ISBN 918618320.
  • Victor Roudometof, "From Rum Millet to Greek Nation: Enlightenment, Secularization, and National Identity in Ottoman Balkan Society, 1453-1821", Journal of Modern Greek Studies 16:1 (May 1998), pp. 11-48.
  • Stephen Xydis, "Medieval Origins of Modern Greek Nationalism", Balkan Studies, 9 (1968), 1-20.

External links

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