What is Greek or Hellenic Civilization?


What are the bounds of Hellenic civilization? Some seem to have a very narrow view of what this was. Some focus on the mainland of Hellas itself without regard to the colonies and wider world that was settled by and/or influenced by Hellenism.

I think this would be quite a mistake.

Let us examine first, Ionia. Ionia is a name for the colonies of Hellenic settlers who occupied the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, and along the Hellespont and Sea of Mamara. From Halicarnassos to Byzantium, these colonies stretched along the coast. Major and important cities, such as Ephesus, Miletus, and Halicarnassos contributed mightily to Hellenic civilization. Philosophy and science originated among the Greeks in Ionia. Part of this was due to the contact with ideas from Egypt and the Ancient Near East. Thales and other early natural Philosophers began their investigation into the workings of nature here, and began the logical study and discussion of theology, and ethics in this region. Herodotus hailed from Halicarnassos. Some think Homer composed his poems in this region. Hesiod’s family came from Miletus. Pythagoras came from Ionia as well.

Important deities in the Hellenic Pantheon apparently arose in this area among the authochthonic peoples of Anatolia. Apollo was apparently adopted by Greeks after they colonized Anatolia. It is thought that Apollo’s sister Artemis may have come from here as well (which is only logical). Ephesus was a major center of Her cultus, while the oldest areas worshipping Apollo were found here as well. Hecate was worshipped in Miletus, and it seems she spread from there to the mainland as well. Later deities of importance, such as Zagreus, and Cybele also come from Ionia and the Troad.

Eliminating Ionia and its cultural, philosophical and religious influences would remove a lot of “Hellenic” culture and civilization. To the Mainland Greeks, the Ionian colonies were important. When they became dominated by the Persians, and revolted, Mainlanders sent ships to aid the rebels, and triggered the Persian Wars. A major objective of the wars was the restoration of Ionia to freedom. To this end, many of the cities joined the Delian League, while later, even Spartan Kings campaigned in Ionia. When Philip of Macedon, and his son Alexander III, organized the city-states of Hellas for a grand purpose, it was to liberate Ionia. Indeed, the stated objective of Alexander’s expedition to Asia was to free Ionia and avenge the Persian invasions. So Ionia seems fairly certain to be “Greek” or “Hellenic” in the eyes of the ancient Hellenes. Ionia was also the paragon of Greekness or Hellenicness to foreigners. The word for “Hellene” in most languages of the Near East and as far away as Hindustan, are variants of the term Ionian. Javan in Hebrew, Yavana in Persian and Sanskrit, Yona in Pali…Consider that, if you will. For many languages, the very word for Greek comes from Ionia.

How about the Greek colonists on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Italy, and Sicily, and Gaul? Well they certainly were seen as Greek by the mainland Greeks. The Athenians sailed against Syracuse to bring the Westerners into the Athenian Empire and weaken Sparta. Syracuse’s wars against Carthage were considered wars to defend Hellenic civilization. On the mainland of Italy, one of the great Sibyls of the ancient world was a Greek oracle at Cumae. Defeats at the hands of Carthage and Etruria were seen as threats to Hellenic civilization, while Pyrrhus of Epirus marched to defend Hellenes from Rome and Carthage alike from the mainland.

Western Greeks contributed mightily to Hellenic civilization. Pythagoras taught there, as did Empedocles. Hellenic siege weapons and field artillery were invented in Syracuse, while other great scientific and engineering developments by Archimedes also came from this area. Alexander would not have made many of his conquests without the technologies developed in the West, mostly for use against Carthage. Diodorus Siculus also hailed from Sicily. Expunging the Westerners from Hellenic civilization or downplaying their importance, would again excise much of what is “Hellenic” or “Greek” from consideration.

It is an interesting fact, that the word we use for Hellene, “Greek” derives from a Greek colony in this region, a colony that gave its name to the peoples when Rome encountered them. To this day, most European languages use a variant of the latin term “Graecum” for these people to mean “Hellene.” This is again, an indication of their importance. Further consideration can be had, by thinking of what the Romans called this region: “Magna Graecia” (Great Greece). It was called this because it was richer, and more powerful than Greece itself.

I wonder if either Magna Graecia or Ionia is Greek enough for some people?

I know that the next major colonial area to be considered, is apparently not-Greek enough, or perhaps simply, degenerately Greek. I am of course, discussing Alexandria, Alexandria-near-Egypt. Let us consider the impact of Alexandrian science and technology. Shall we discuss automata, and the steam engine? Or how about the compilation of astronomy that was standard for over a millenium? Or the calculation of an accurate estimate of the size of the Earth, or the distance to various celestial phenomena? The redaction of Homer into the form we know it now? The greatest and most important grammars of the Greek language? How about the greatest compendium of knowledge in the ancient world, the Library of Alexandria?

How about Naucratis, the colony in Egypt established by nine city-states?

If we reject Alexandria, we reject another great chunk of Hellenic civilization and culture, and also religion.

Remove these culture zones and colonies, and there isn’t much left of Hellenism or Hellenic civilization. Even most of the Wonders of the Ancient World, those that are Hellenic are all in the colonial zones. The mainland’s contributions are relatively modest in some ways. The Athenian Navy, the Spartan Army, Hesiod, the Philosophers and scientists in Athens. Culturally speaking, even most of the best-known poets are from the Cyclades. The biggest and most important religious elements of Hellenismos that come from the Mainland are very important, it must be admitted.

The Oracle at Dodona, the Olympic Games (and the Nemean, and Pythian and Isthmian Games as well), and the Mysteries of Eleusis. Though the Mysteries are often suspect as well…

No, I will not deny their importance. Though other important oracles and sibyls existed elsewhere as well, though not perhaps of the same caliber (though Siwa was third only to Delphi and Dodona). Important oracles were found in Asia Minor and Cumae, as well as Siwa. Other Mysteries had centers in the periphery.

So should the defining element of “Hellenism” be limited to the Mainland, even in terms of religion and culture? I think not, as is clear from the discussion here.

How about the elusive definition of what is a Hellene or a Greek? Well, one classic definition was anyone who spoke and wrote Greek and took part in Greek culture. By that definition then, of course all colonists, as far away as Bactria count as Hellenes. It get tricky though…most educated Romans studied and spoke Greek, they conversed in it, and composed their works in it. By the standard definition, then, they were Hellenes too. Several Greek writers and philosophers, who were accepted as Greek were also, Greek-speaking and writing Syrians, Phoenicians (Porphyry, Zeno of Kition), Egyptian (Manetho, Plotinus) and so forth.

Things get a bit messier by another classical definition of who was Greek…those who were allowed to take part in the Olympic Games, which were meant to be limited to Hellenes. Well, then Macedonians were Greek too…as were Romans, who were also allowed to compete (one Emperor did as well). At the very least, these were honorary Greeks.

So what is Greekness? Is it narrowly defined or more widely defined?
I would suggest it is more widely defined.


1 Response to What is Greek or Hellenic Civilization?

  1. Kalen says:

    I like this article. I’d also like to see a discussion of how it is defined in terms of “time” in addition to regional considerations. Does it predate Homer and the Olympic games? Would its history reach back to the Mycenaeans, to before? Also, to what extent was it “lost” or was it held onto by small tribes in the outer peripheries, such as the Kalash, or others over history?

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