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The Greeks are a nation and ethnic group, who have populated Greece from the 17th century BC until the present day.

Identity of the Greek people

Classical and Roman

Herodotus says 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

This notion that the Greeks had a common descent was then comparatively recent. As Thucydides observes, 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 Greek-speakers discovered that the world was wider, wealthier, and more cultured than they had hitherto imagined. Homer's Trojan War is, indeed, a conflict among Greeks: the Trojans speak Greek, 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; and 1 Maccabees 12:21 attests that the Spartans are children of Abraham.

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 only 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 chose to be 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, Greek became the lingua franca of the East Mediterranean region and was widely spoken by educated non-Greeks. After the 4th century CE, Greeks became Christian. (In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Greeks are descended from Javan, son of Japheth).

Byzantine and Ottoman

After the creation of the Eastern Roman Empire, Greek culture shifted from Hellenic (Greek pagan) to Romaic (Greek paganism fused with Christianity), and the word "Hellene" became associated with the pagan past. All Roman citizens, and thus all subjects of the Byzantine Emperor, were Romaic. Distinctions between nationalities among the citizens of the Eastern Roman Empire did not become extinct, but became secondary to religious considerations as the renewed Empire used Christianity to maintain its cohesion. 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.

Greek nationalism was reborn 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 became the defining characteristic of the Greek people.

During the Ottoman rule of Greece, Greek Orthodox Christianity was the only Greek community; the Ottomans considered religion to be the defining characteristic of "national" groups (millet). Greeks who adopted Islam during that period were considered 'Turks'. Following this definition, Alexander Ypsilantis 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 diminishing role of the Orthodox church in modern Greece, 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 Greek national identity similar to that of other Western European nations. The old notion that "Greek equals Greek Orthodox" is only held to be true by a very conservative minority of the population.

Modern vs ancient Greeks

Many Greek nationalists insist that the modern Greeks are pure descendants of the ancient Greeks; at the other extreme are those that believe that the ancient Greeks genetically disappeared at some point. Modern ethnologists consider genetics irrelevant, but agree that there is a strong and continuous tradition linking ancient and modern Greeks linguistically and culturally over the millenia, though, of course, there have also been significant contributions to Greek language and culture from other peoples.

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:

  • Hellene (pl. Hellenes) (Έλλην) was the word used by Greeks themselves during the classical period. The Demotic Greek form is pronounced Ellinas (pl. Ellines) (Έλληνας). In English, the word has archaic or romantic overtones, though it is used by some Greeks in preference to Greek.
  • Grekos (pl Greki) from the Latin Græcus, in turn from the Greek (Γραικός) is seldom used colloqually. Most European languages similarly terms derived from the latin Græcus, including the English word Greek.
  • Romios (pl. Romii) (Ρωμιός), literally 'Roman', referring to the Eastern Roman Empire, is often used in a familiar or fraternal way. The derivative term Rum is used in Turkish to refer to Greeks living in Turkey.
  • Yaunan is an ancient Persian word that derives from the geographical term Ionia. Derivative words are still used in Turkish (Yunan), Hebrew (Yavan), Persian, Arabic, and other Middle Eastern languages.
  • Achaean, Argive, and Danaan are names used in Homer, and sometimes used poetically.

History of the Greeks

The history of the Greek people is closely associated with the history of Greece itself. While Greeks have migrated away from Greece for many centuries, historically these colonists or emigrants remained close to their homeland.

During the Ottoman rule of Greece, a number of Greek enclaves around the Mediterranean were cut off from the 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 which, in many ways, has developed a cultural identity separate from that of the Greeks who remained home.

Greeks around the world

Outside Greece and Cyprus, large Greek communities can be found in a number of countries:

  • United States: 1,153,295 (self-reported heritage); 365,435 speak Greek at home. (2000 Census). See Greek American.
  • Germany: 363,000 (1995, based on citizenship)
  • Canada: 203,354 born in Greece1 (1996 Census); total approx. 320,000 Canadians of Greek heritage (2003 community estimates). See Greek Canadian.
  • Australia: 260,000 speak Greek at home (1996 Census); 336,782 self-reported Greek origin (1986 Census[1]). See Greek Australian.
  • Albania: Approx. 200,000 remain in Albania; another 150,000 have migrated to Greece (2004, figures not reliable).
  • Former Soviet Union: Approx. 200,000 remain; 300,000 have migrated to Greece (2003, figures not reliable).

Significant Greek communities can also be found in the United Kingdom (mostly Greek Cypriots), Argentina, Sweden and South Africa.

Timeline of Greek migrations

  • 20th century BC — Greek tribes migrate into Macedonia (most likely from the Caucasus region), and establish some settlements in peninsular Greece.
  • 17th century BC — Decline of Minoan civilization, possibly due to the eruption of Thera. Greek tribes (Achaeans, Ionians) enter southern Greece, establishing the Mycenaean civilization. Greek history begins.
  • 13th century BC — First colonies established in Asia Minor.
  • 11th century BCDoric tribes move into peninsular Greece.
  • 9th century BC — Major colonization of Asia Minor.
  • 8th century BC — First colonies established in Sicily and Southern Italy.
  • 6th century BC — Colonies established across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea
  • 4th century BC — Campaign of Alexander the Great; colonies established in Egypt and the Middle East.
  • 2nd century BC — Conquest of Greece by the Roman Empire].
  • 4th century CE — Establishment of Eastern Roman Empire. Migrations of Greeks throughout the Empire, and of non-Greeks into Greece over the next 6 centuries.
  • 13th century CE — Dissolution of Eastern Roman Empire. Re-emergence of Greek nationalism.
  • 14th century CE — Eastern Roman Empire recreated and refashioned as a Greek state.
  • 15th century CE — Conquest of Greece by the Ottoman Empire . Greek diaspora into Europe begins. Turkish settlements in Greece.
  • 1830s — Creation of the Modern Greek State. Immigration to the New World begins.
  • 1913 — Macedonia partitioned; Population exchange with Bulgaria; Greek presence in Bulgaria and presence of Slavic peoples in Greece practically end.
  • 1910s — Genocide of Pontian Greeks; approximately 350,000 killed.
  • 1923 — Treaty of Lausanne. 1.3 million Greeks removed from the newly created Republic of Turkey; 500,000 Turks and other Muslims removed from Greece. Muslim Greeks remain in Turkey. 50,000 Christian Greeks in Constantinople and a number of Muslims in Greek (Western) Thrace excluded from the exchange.
  • 1948Greek Civil War. Tens of thousands of Greek communists and their families flee into Eastern Block nations. Thousands settle in Tashkent.
  • 1950s — Massive emigration of Greeks to West Germany, the United States, Australia, Canada, and other countries. Large Greek community in Alexandria flees Nasser's regime in Egypt.
  • 1955 — Violent riots against Greeks in Constantinople. Exodus of Greeks from the city begins; less than 2000 remain today.
  • 1960s — Republic of Cyprus created, as a joint Greek–Turkish state. Economic emigration continues.
  • 1974Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus. Almost all Greeks living in northern Cyprus flee to the south; many flee to the United Kingdom.
  • 1980s — Civil war refugees allowed to remigrate to Greece. Reverse migration of Greeks from Germany also begins.
  • 1990s — Collapse of Soviet Union. Approx. 300,000 ethnic Greeks migrate from Georgia, Armenia and southern Russia to Greece. Approx 150,000 ethnic Greeks migrate from Albania to Greece.
  • 2000s — Schengen Treaty increases population mobility within the European Union. Numbers indicate a trend of reverse migration of Greeks from the United States and Australia beginning.


1Includes non-Greeks born in Greece; excludes Greeks not born in Greece; excludes second-generation Greek-Canadians.

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