Greek Identity White Paper - National Hellenic Museum

The National Hellenic Museum will be closed to the public from 10:00 AM to 1:30 PM on Friday, June 16 due to a private event.


As a public history museum dedicated to preserving the Greek story in America and sharing the Hellenic legacy, the issue of Greek identity, that is who and what makes a person, place, or object Greek or Hellenic, is a fundamental institutional question for the National Hellenic Museum. This white paper is designed to provide a brief historical overview of Greek identity and outline basic questions shaping the debate surrounding Greek identity today. As a starting point for discussion, nothing in this paper should be taken to be comprehensive. 


We will begin by exploring the distinction (or lack thereof) between Greek and Hellenic and discuss how the terms will be used in this paper. We will then move on to an overview of the history of Greek identity. Finally, we will look at contemporary issues surrounding Greek identity.

Greek vs. Hellenic 

In this document (and in a lot of other places), the words “Greek” and “Hellenic” are used interchangeably. It is still acceptable to ask if there is a difference and, if so, what the significance of that difference is. 


Like many things that will be explored in these discussions, this is a matter of language. Greeks do not call themselves “Greek.” Instead, Greeks refer to themselves as “Έλληνες”— Hellenes. This is a fairly late appellation, particularly when we mean it as being applied to all Greeks. The word Hellenes, for example, does not appear in Homer except to refer to a small tribe among those on the side of the Trojan War that we will later call “the Greeks.”  The word appears for the first time in the writing of the Bronze Age lyrist Echembrotus in around 584 BC. By the 5th century B.C.E., however, the term was being used for all those who spoke any of the Greek dialects and/or participated in the religious and cultural traditions associated with those speakers. “Greek” comes from the Latin “Graeci”, and through Roman influence has become the common root of the word for Greek people and culture in most languages. 


English-speakers tend to use the two words also identically. The only difference is that Hellenic tends to be used in more “highbrow” contexts, a legacy of the 19th-century when the well-educated all knew Greek and wanted you to know it.

Historical Overview

Traditionally, Greek history begins with the Minoan civilization of Crete, which dates from about 3500 B.C.E. It also serves as the first starting point to discuss how difficult it is to decide who is “Greek.” The Minoans predate the arrival of proto-Greek speakers in the Southern Balkans by over a thousand years. Based on archeological evidence, their cultural practices were also significantly different from later inhabitants of Crete and the Greece peninsula, for example around gender. 


The Minoans also prove our first example of the ways in which Greek identity has been a fueled concept. Because, except for the Minoans (who have notably been identified as “Greek” only retrospectively), Greeks has firstly been primarily a matter of language, though other cultural practices such as religion, social norms, etc. have also played a role. The first speakers of Proto-Greek (an Indo-European language) arrived in the Southern Balkan peninsula (much of which is now the territory of the Hellenic Republic today) around 2200 B.C.E. These people were importantly united by a common language, but most likely divided into small tribal groups that were not necessarily homogeneous in other important ways and, the lack of written evidence, means we will never properly know how members of one tribal group viewed their relationship with members of other tribes.


These tribes eventually gave way to what is known as the Mycenean civilization, from which the first evidence of written Greek emerges. The memory of this civilization also served as the “mythic past” for Classical Greece. It is also within Mycenean civilization that the principal mythic and religious practices identified with ancient Greece arose.


Despite the significant contributions of the Myceneans to what has come to be seen as “Greek,” it is really in Classical Greece (a period that last from roughly between 600 B.C.E. and 400 B.C.E.) which has been most important in shaping the popular (and particularly non-Greek) imagination about what “Greekness” constitutes. Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Athenian democracy, and ancient tragedy are all products of Classical Greek culture. During the period, Greek-speakers remained divided across several city-states, and lived as linguistic/ethnic minorities in large multi-ethnic empires. While there was certainly a sense of a shared Greek identity during the period, one that is identifiable a variety of texts, this shared identity was not a matter of citizenship. Moreover, the idea emerged during this period, spurred on by the growing importance and prestige of Greek culture, that Greek identity was something that a person could aspire to and obtain through the adoption of Greek language and cultural practices and beliefs. This idea was largely unique in the ancient world (and one might say the modern one) where ethnicity was exclusively matters of ancestry, an immutable characteristic based on descent not personal belief or preference.


The idea that Greek identity (and perhaps Greek identity alone) was uniquely obtainable would persist and grow as the Greek city-states were incorporated into the Hellenistic empires and then into the Roman Empire. Thus, by the 1st century C.E., it was possible for Paul of Tarsus to claim to be Greek, Roman, and Jewish. While he was Roman and Jewish as a matter of descent, his claim to Greekness was purely linguistic and cultural.


When the Roman Empire was divided between the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East during Late Antiquity, it is worth noting the Eastern half not only survived politically intact for several more centuries, it retained a Roman political identity. The Greek-speaking Christians of what would later be called the Byzantine Empire[1] called themselves “Romanoi”- Romans.


Greek identity once again began to take on a more traditionally ethnic tone only after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. With the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire, most Greek-speaking Christians found themselves living under a Muslim Ottoman government that organized civic life around religious identity. These confessional communities were called  millets. Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians found themselves grouped together and defined not by language, but religion. Moreover, because of Ottoman law, it was possible for people to exit the Orthodox Christian millet via conversion to Islam, but not to enter it, because conversion to any non-Islamic religion was forbidden. Thus, it can be suggested that it is in the Ottoman period, with its stringent religious categorization, that modern Greek self-identity begins to take shape. Where once Greek identity had been accepted by nearly all as fluid and changeable based primarily upon language, in the Ottoman context, Greek-speakers came to see themselves as primarily united by their shared Orthodox Christian faith.


While most people remained in the Ottoman Empire, many prominent political and intellectual figures fled westward following the fall of Constantinople, primarily to Italy. They carried with them the Classical Greek literature and philosophy that had survived in the Eastern Empire but had been lost in the Western one. They also brought with them the knowledge of the Greek language, which had been largely unknown in the Western Middle Ages. This infusion of Classical Greek culture into Western Europe was one of the catalyzing events of the Renaissance and inspired the re-creation and re-imagining of ancient Greek culture by Western Europeans, who adopted ancient Greek culture as their own mythic past and sought to “establish continuity with a suitable historic past”[2] vis-a-vi Classical Greece.  In what Stathis Gourgouris has called histories first instance of the “colonization of the ideal,”[3] Western Europeans, beginning in the 15th and 16th centuries C.E., claimed the Classical Greek past as their own, setting around it parameters which excluded modern ethnic Greeks, whose contemporary identity was being simultaneously shaped by Ottoman rule.


To this day, the tension between the ethnic Greek experience defined by longing for the Byzantine past and the trauma of the Ottoman occupation and consequently rooted in an Orthodox Christian identity and the Western European idealization and adoption of the ancient Greek (pre-Christian) past remains at the heart of debates around Greek identity. This tension was not resolved, but further exacerbated by the creation of the modern Greek state. The Greek War of Independence, which began in 1821, freed large numbers (though not all) Greek Christians from the Ottoman Empire after four hundred years of Ottoman rule. It was an effort greatly aided by Western European and American Philhellenes inspired by the ancient past, but conflicts between the ethnic Greek fighters and the Philhellenes over issues such as where the capital city of the new country should be (Athens or Constantinople) and what time of government it should adopt (monarchy or a republic) highlight how differently each group understood what “Greekness” means.

Contemporary Questions

Today this tension still exists and has added to it questions that animate identity writ large in the 21st century. When we ask, “What does it mean to be Greek? we are asking a host of questions, questions complicated by the complexity of current geopolitics, identity, and life. For example, what does the high right of “mixed-marriages” among Greek Americans mean for the future of Greek identity in the United States? Ninety percent of marriages in the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States include one non-Orthodox Christian, this will inevitably change the self-perception of the Greek community. How will the children of these marriages, with a mixed heritage, see themselves? Can you be Greek and not an Orthodox Christian? Can you be Greek and not speak Greek? Can you choose to become Greek? These are the questions that we hope to address at the National Hellenic Museum, because as we tell the Greek story we know that it is not always easy to determine whose story we are telling.

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