Greek (name)

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The Greeks have been known by a number of different names throughout history. Their rise to great heights of power and lapse to near complete destruction were situations that repeated more than once. Which is perhaps why they are such a polyonymus people. The onset of every new historical was accompanied by a new name, either completely new or old but forgotten, extracted from tradition or borrowed from foreigners. Every single one of them was significant in its own time.

Achaeans (Αχαιοί)

In Homer's Iliad, the Greek allied forces are described under three three different names. Argives, Danaans and Achaeans, and all with equal meaning. From the above the first is used 29 times, the second 138 and the third, being the dominant one, 598 times.

Argives is a political annotation drawn from the original capital of the Achaeans, Argos. Danaans is the name attributed to the tribe first dominating Peloponnesus and the area nearby Argos. Achaeans is the name of the tribe that, reinforced by the Aeolians, first dominated Greek territories, centered around its capital in Mycenae.

Hellenes (Έλληνες)

After the migration of all Hellenic tribes towards the south was complete, geneological mythologies explaining their lineage developed. According to the most prevailing one 1, Hellene, son of Deucalion and Pyrrha, received from the nymph Orseis three sons, Aeolus, Xuthus and Dorus, each of which founded a primary tribe of Hellas. Thucydides considers these names historical, in a trictly schematic context. During the Trojan War, Hellenes were called a relatively small but vigorous tribe settled in Thessalic Phthia, centralized along the settlements of Alos, Alope, Trehine and Pelasgian Argos2.

Various etymologies have been proposed for the word Hellene, but none is widely accepted. Sal- to pray - (Selloi), ell- mountainous - (Selinous), sel- illuminate - (selas, sun). A more recent study traces the name to a city named Hellas, next to the river Spercheus which also was called Hellas in antiquity.3 We do know with certainty, however, that the Hellenic race is linked with the Selli (Σελλοί), the high priests of Dodona in Epirus. Homer portrays Achilles praying to Dodonian Zeus as the ancestoral god: "King Jove, he cried, lord of Dodona, god of the Pelasgi, who dwellest afar, you who hold wintry Dodona in your sway, where your prophets the Selli dwell around you with their feet unwashed and their couches made upon the ground."4

Ptolemy calls Epirus as primordial Hellas5 and Aristotle states an ancient cataclysm was most severe in ancient Hellas. In between Dodona and the Achelous river [...], the land occupied by Seli and Graeci who later came to be known as Hellenes.6" The prospect therefore that Hellenes were a tribe from Epirus that later migrated southward to Phthia in Thessaly is a valid one. The spread of a particular cult of Zeus in Dodona (a tendency among the Greeks to form ever larger communities and amphctionies) and the increasing popularity of the Delphi cult caused the name to spread gradually to the rest of the peninsula, later cross the Aegean sea into Asia Minor and eventually westwards again to Sicily and southern Italy, together known as Magna Graecia.

Hellenes in the wider meaning of the word appears in written for the first time in an inscription made by Echembrutus, dedicated to Heracles for his victory in the Amphictyonic Games7. The inscription refers to the 48th Olympiad (584 BC), but must have been in use even earlier through oral prose. Pan-Hellenes is a term used by Hesiod. It appears this name was introduced with the Olympic Games in the 8th century and permanently established by the 5th century. The multi-named coalition formed to wage war against Troy was repeated this time under a single and unique name with the aim of removing the Persian threat. The inscription in Delphi celebrates victory over the Persians following the Battle of Plataea and praises Pausanias as the leading general of the Hellenes.8 Awareness of a pan-hellenic unity was vivified by participation in religious festivals like those of Dodona, Delphi and Olympia with the aim of delivering peacefull deeds, and more importantly, worshiping the divine. Performance in athletic competitions further promoted fraternization and realization of those common cultural chacteristics such as language, customs and socio-political institutions, that existed despite the local differences. Tribal cognation was set as the basis of participation for individuals in religious festivals and especially in the Olympic Games.

The development of a mythological geneology after the migration of the four tribal groups (Achaeans, Ionians, Aeolians and Dorians) south of Olympus produced grave consequences in the perception of the identity of the northern tribes. At the age of the Trojan War, the Epirotes, Molossians and Macedonians were not considered Hellenes. At the time the word refered only to the small tribe in Thessaly of which Achilles was a member. After the name was extended to all peoples south of Olympus it still excluded those of common origin living in the north. One factor contributing to that was their non-participation in the Persian Wars, which was considered a vital issue all Hellenes should be involved in. Yet, prior to that, representatives of those very tribes had been accepted in the Olympic Games and did compete alongside other Hellenes.9 Disputes though did exist. Thucydides calls the Acarnans, Aetolians10, Epirotes11 and Macedonians]]12 as barbarians, but does so in a strictly linguistic context. Demosthenes also calls the Macedonians barbarians, but he too does so with respect to the culture they project ostensibly not adhering to Hellenic standards as one would expect from true Hellenes, and does not raise the issue of their origin. Polybius on the other hand regards the tribes of western Hellas, Epirus and Macedonia immiscibly Hellenic in every respect.13

Hellenes and Barbarians

In the following centuries "Hellene" adopted a wider meaning encompassing any civilized people, forming supplemental polarity with its opposite, "barbarian", which represented the uncivilized.

The first thing the Greek tribes realized they did not share with their neighbours was language, and that is the original meaning of the word "βάρβαρος" (barbarian); foreign language speakers. This is also true for the Egyptians, who according to Herodotus named barbarians all those who spoke a different tongue.14 and in later years for the Slavs, that ascribed to the Germans the name nemec which means stammerer.15 Aristophanes in his play The Birds calls the illiterate supervisor a barbarian who nevertheless taught the birds how to talk.16 The term eventually picked up a derogatory meaning extending itself to the entire lifestyle of foreigners. It has thenceforth identified with the illiterate or uncivilized. "An illiterate man is also a barbarian".17 According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Hellene differs from a barbarian in four points, which is also the definition of the word: refined language, education, religion and the rule of law.18 Greek education became identified with noble upbringing. Saint Paul thought it as his obligation to preach the Gospel to all men, Hellenes and barbarians, both wise and foolish.19

Discrimination between Hellenes and barbarians lasted until the fourth century b.c.. Euripides thought it plausible that Hellenes should rule over barbarians, because the first are destined for freedom and the other for slavery.20 Aristotle came to the conclusion that "the nature of a barbarian and a slave is one and the same".21 Attenuation of racial differentiation though had already began earlier with the distinction between nature and convention introduced by the Stoics, who taught that all men have equal claim before God and by nature cannot be unequal among each other. In time, old discriminations faded away and Hellene became a trait of intellect, not race, to use the words of Isocrates.

Alexander's conquests consolidated Greek influence in the east by exporting culture from Greece into Asia and permanently transforming education and society in the region, matched in magnitude only nine centuries later with the rise of Islam. The instument that performed Hellenization was the polis. For the ruralized civilizations of the East, the Hellenistic cities were urban centers integrated in a greater governmental system, with their own parliaments and elected representatives, constantly in contact with the country. Isocrates declared in his speech Panegyricus: So far has Athens left the rest of mankind behind in thought and expression that her pupils have become the teachers of the world, and she has made the name of Hellas distinctive no longer of race but of intellect, and the title of Hellene a badge of education rather than of common descent.22

With a slight reformation, the Hellenistic civilization is the evolution of classic Greek civilization with globalized proportions, this time open to everybody. Carriers of this civilization was Greece, acting as the exporting center, and the nations of the East, which adopted it. Hellene therefore had turned from a national name signifying an ethnic Greek, to a cultural term signifying anybody who conducted in Greek manners.

Graeci (Γραικοί)

The modern English word Greek derives from Latin Graecus which in turn comes from Greek Γραικός (Graikos), the name of a Boeotian tribe that migrated to Italy in the 8th century BC. Homer provides the first reference for a Boeotian city named Graea. In the Catalogue of Ships while reciting the Boeotian forces, Homer mentions the city of Graea.23 Pausanias mentions that Graea was the name of the ancient city of Tanagra.24 Cumae, a city lying to the south of Rome was founded by Cymaeans and Chalkideans as well as Graeans who by coming into contact with Romans may very well have be responsible for naming all Hellenic speaking tribes Graeci. The modern Italian city Grai was also founded in antiquity by Graeans.

Graea, though, was the name given not strictly to the city itself but also to the area around it, which is why ancient authors dispute over the neighbouring city of Oropos, which lied on the borderline between Boeotia and Attica.25 Aristotle, our oldest source mentioning the word states that a natural cataclysm swept across central Epirus, a land where its inhabitants used to be called γραικοί (Graeci) (Γραικοί) and were later named Hellenes (Έλληνες).26 In mythology, Graecus is a cousin of Latinus, and the word seems to be related with γηραιός (geraius, anile) which was the title given to the priests of Dodona. They were also named Σελλοί (Selloi) which verifies the relation between the two basic names of the Greeks.

Another theory explaing the colonization of Italy has it that part of the the people living in those lands crossed Dodona and migrated to Phthia, becoming infamous as Hellenes the tribe Achilles lead to Troy. Another part remained in Epirus and merged with other tribes that arrived later, without losing its name. From there they traveled westwards to Italy, before the colonization of Sicily and southern Italy from the other Hellenic tribes.

Distortion of the name Hellene

The name Hellene acquired a wholly religious meaning in the first Christian centuries, during of which the Church even though did not cause the change, played an instrumental role in accelarating its transition.

Contact with Judaism was critical since it was their interaction with Christians that passed along the religious differentiation of men. Hebrews, like Greeks, distinguished themselves from foreigners, but unlike Greeks, did so according to religious instead of cultural standards. The removal of the political freedom of the Greeks from Romans enhanced their religious institutions that remained intact. Just as the Greeks considered all uncivilized men barbarians, so did the Hebrews consider all pagans, goyim (infidels). That religious differentiation of man was adopted by the early Christians. To that end the formerly cultural meaning of the word Hellene was marginalized by the religious element within it and eventually took over entirely. Thereafter, pagans came to be known by Christians as Hellenes in a particular demeaning context.

Saint Paul in his Epistles uses Hellene almost always in association with Hebrew possibly with the aim of representing the sum of those two religious communities.27 Hellene is used in a religious meaning for the first time in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Mark a woman arrives before Jesus kneeling before him. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter.28 Since the nationality or ethnicity of the woman was Syrophenician, Greek (translated as such into English) must therefore signify her religion. The development towards a purely religious meaning was slow and completed at aproximately the 2nd or 3rd a.d. century. Athenian statesman Aristeides picked out the Hellenes as one of the representative pagan peoples of the world along with the Egyptians and the Chaldaeans.29 Later, Clement of Alexandria reports an unknown Christian writer who named all of the above Hellenes and spoke of two old nations and one new: the Christian nation.30

Several books were written on the religious change over. The beginning was Tatian's Address to the Greeks, completed in 170 a.d., where he criticizes pagan beliefs in order to defend Christian ones. Most important of the later works was Athanasius' "Against Hellenes", originally titled "Against Pagans" according to older transcripts. It was changed by a future writer at a time when Hellene had lost its ancient meaning entirely. Henceforth, Hellene no longer signified an ethnic Greek or those adhered to Greek culture, but pagans in general, regardless of race. Julian's attempt to restore paganism in the forefront of society failed, and according to Pope Gregory I matters moved in favor of Christianity and the position of the Hellenes was severely aggravated.31 Half a century later Christians headed to from Nitria to Alexandria in protest against the Eparchy of the city whom they accused as a Hellene to further burden him.32 Tribonian, legal commisioner of Justinian I was a pagan, and is described by the Suda dictionary was a Hellene.33

The word remained a religious term for most of the first millenium, towards the end of which the eclipse of paganism allowed the word to re-acquire its older meaning, representing that of a Greek.

Romans (Ρωμαίοι)

During the Christianization of the Roman Empire in the first a.d. centuries the vitiation of the name Hellene as a religious term was complete. It is during that period the Greeks adopted the roman name, "Romans", given that their former name had come to signify pagans. While the Roman Empire was being Hellenized, the name of the Greeks was being Romanized. Caracalla's decree in 212 a.d. extended citizenship beyond the borders of Italy to all corners of the empire thus setting the basis of integration for many of the provinces later on, particularily for the Greeks. The transfer of the capital from the West to the East, from Rome to Constantinople, gradually put control of the empire into Greek hands and eventually turned the empire into a Greek state, elevating their new name, Ρωμαίοι (Romans), to national importance of equal status as Hellenes held in classic times.

The foreign borrowed name held initially more a political meaning than a national one, going in par with the universalizing aspect of the empire aspiring to encompass all nations under one true God. Up until the early 7th century, when the empire extended still over large areas and many peoples, the use of the name Roman always indicated citizenship and never descent, since local races and ethnicities applied their own names to specify that. Which is why the historian Procopius prefers to call the Byzantines as Hellenized Romans34 while others use Romhellenes and Graecoromans35, aiming to indicate descent and citizenship together.

The Lombard and Arab invasions though in the same century resulted in the loss of most of the provinces including Italy and all of Asia, save for Anatolia. The areas that did remain were mostly Greek, thereby turning the empire into a much more cohesive unit eventually enabled to develop a national conscience. Unlike in the previous centuries, there is a clear sense of nationalism reflected Byzantine documents towards the end of the first millenium a.d..

Failure in protecting the Pope from the Lombards forced him to seek alternate means of defence. The man who answered his call was Pepin of Aquitaine, whom he had named patrician. A small and vague title that nevertheless evolved in a serious conflict. In 772, the year the emperor first ruled from Constantinople was ceased being commemorated in Rome, and in 800 Charlemagne was crowned Roman emperor by the Pope himself, officialy rejecting the Byzantine emperor as a true Roman. According to Frankish perception, the papacy appropriately transfered roman imperial authority from the Greeks to the Germans, in the name of his greateness, Charles.36 From then on, a war of names begins around the imperial rights. Unable to deny that an emperor did exist in Constantinople, they sufficed in renouncing him as an successor of Roman heritage, on the grounds that Greeks have nothing to do with Roman legacy. Pope Nicholas I wrote to Emperor Michael III you ceased to be called "emperors of the Romans", since the Romans whom you claim to be emperors of, according to you are barbarians.37

Henceforth and for centuries to come, the emperor in the East was to be known and refered to as Emperor of the Greeks instead of the usual Emperor of the Romans, and the Roman Empire as Greek empire, both titles reserved for the Frankish emperor. The interests of both sides were nominal rather than actual. No land areas were ever claimed or threatened, but the insult the Byzantines took on the accusation demonstrates how close at heart the Roman name (ρωμαίος) had become to them, suprassing in popularity all other ancient ethnonyms. In fact, bishop Cremon Liutprand, a delegate of the Frankish court, was briefly imprisoned in Constantinople for not refering to the Roman emperor by his appropriate title;38 which was but a pretext - his imprisonment was a reprisal for the re-establishment of the Holy Roman Empire by his king, Otto I.

Byzantines (Βυζαντινοί)

By the time of the fall of Rome most easterners had come to think themselves as Christians, and more than ever before had some idea that they were Romans. Although they may not have liked their government any more than before, the Greeks among them could no longer consider it foreign, run by Latins from Italy. The word Hellene itself had already began to mean a pagan rather than a person of Greek race or culture. Instead the usual word for an eastern Greek had begun to be Roman, which we moderns render as Byzantine.39

The term "Byzantine Empire" was invented in 1557, about a century after the fall of Constantinople by German historian Hieronymus Wolf, who introduced a system of Byzantine historiography in his work Corpus Historiae Byzantinae in order to distinguish ancient Roman from medieval Greek history without drawing attention to their ancient predecessors. Several authors adopted his terminology thereafter but remained relatively unknown. When interest did arise, English historians prefered to use Roman terminology (Edward Gibbon used it in a particularily belittling manner); while French historians prefered to call it Greek.40 The term reappeared in the mid-19th century and has since dominated completely in historiography, even in Greece despite Constantine Paparregopoulus' (Gibbon's influential Greek counterpart) objections that the empire should be called Greek. Few Greek scholars did adopt the terminology at that time, but only became popular in the second half of the 20th century.41


  1. Hesiod, "excerpt 9"; see also Thucydides "Histories", I, 3
  2. Homer, "Iliad", book 2, 681-685
  3. Antonis Hatzis, "Helle, Hellas, Hellene", pg.128-161, Athens, 1935
  4. Homer, "Iliad", book 16, 233-235
  5. Claudius Ptolemy, "Geographica", 3, 15
  6. Aristotle, "Meteorologica, I, 352a"
  7. Pausanias, "Description of Greece", 10, 7, 3
  8. Thucydides, "Histories", I, 132
  9. For example, King Alcon and King Tharypas of Mollosus, Alexander I and Archelaus of Macedonia
  10. Thucydides, "History", II, 68, 5 and III, 97, 5
  11. Thucydides, "History", II, 68, 9 and II, 80, 5 and I, 47, 3
  12. Thucydides, "History", II, 80, 5
  13. J. Juthner, "Hellenen and Barbaren", Leipzig, 1928, pp.4
  14. Polybius, "History", 9, 38, 5; see also Strabo, "Geographica", 7, 7, 4; see also Herodotus, "Histories", book I, 56 and book VI, 127 and book VIII, 43
  15. Herodotus, "Histories", book II, 158
  16. Aristophanes, "The Birds", 199
  17. Aristophanes, "The Clouds", 492
  18. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, "Roman Archaeology", 1, 89, 4
  19. Saint Paul, "Epistle to the Romans", 1, 14
  20. Euripides, "Iphigeneia at Aulis", 1400
  21. Aristotle, "Republic", I, 5
  22. Isocrates, "Panegyricus", 50
  23. Homer, "Iliad", II, 498
  24. Pausanias, "Boeotics and Phocaeic, book 5, pp. 136
  25. Thucydides, "History", book II, 23, 3
  26. Aristotle, "Meteorologica, I, 352a"
  27. Saint Paul, "Acts of the Apoststles", 13, 48 & 15, 3 & 7, 12
  28. New Testament, "Gospel of Mark", 7, 26
  29. Aristides, "Apology"
  30. Clement of Alexandria, "Miscellanies", 6, 5, 41
  31. Pope Gregory, "Against Julian", 1, 88
  32. Socrates, "Ecclesiastical History", 7, 14
  33. Suda dictionary, entry τ (t)
  34. Procopius, "Gothic war", 3, 1 & "Vandal war", 1, 21
  35. Lambru, "Palaeologeia and Peloponnesiaka", 3, 152
  36. Pope Innocent, "Decretalium", "Romanourm imperium in persona magnifici Caroli a Grecis transtuli in Germanos.",
  37. Epistola 86, of year 865, PL 119, 926
  38. Liutprand, "Antapodosis"
  39. Warren Treadgold, "History of the Byzantine State and Society", pp.136, 1997, Stanford
  40. Edward Gibbon "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", Alexandre Rambeau, "L'empire Grecque au X'siecle"
  41. Ρωμαίος (Roman) remained a massively popular name for a Greek in Greece even after the foundation of the modern Greek state in 1829. Anastasius Eftaliotes, published his history of Greece series in 1901 under the title "History of Romanity", reflecting how well rooted Roman heritage was in Greeks, as late as the 20th century.