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For other uses of the name "Greek", see Greek (disambiguation)

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

Kouros of the Archaic period, Thebes Archaeological Museum
Kouros of the Archaic period, Thebes Archaeological Museum

Classical and Roman

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:

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 AD, Greeks became Christian. (In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Greeks are descended from Javan, son of Japheth).

Byzantine and Ottoman

The 11th-century Trebizond Gospel was commissioned by the Komnenoi family of Byzantine emperors.
The 11th-century Trebizond Gospel was commissioned by the Komnenoi family of Byzantine emperors.

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 Empire, 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 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 Greek national identity similar to that of other Western European nations. The Greek Orthodox faith is now only one of a variety of factors that yield Greek identity.

Names used for the Greek people

Main Article: Names of the Greeks.

Family group on a grave marker from Athens, National Archaeological Museum, Athens
Family group on a grave marker from Athens, National Archaeological Museum, Athens

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 niece to Hellen. It was the name of a Boeotian tribe that migrated to Italy 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.
  • Romans (Ρωμαίοι) - Romans is the name by which the Greeks were known during the Middle Ages. The name originally 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 Latins and instead came to represent the inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire, an Empire of Greeks. 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 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 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-Americans.
  • Germany: 363,000 (1995, based on citizenship)
  • Canada: 203,354 born in Greece4 (1996 Census); total approx. 320,000 Canadians of Greek heritage (2003 community estimates)
  • Australia: 260,000 speak Greek at home (1996 Census); 336,782 self-reported Greek origin (1986 Census[1])
  • Albania: Approx. 45,000 remain in Albania; another 35,000 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

Stop! Practically every event in this timeline is disputed by one theory or another. This timeline attempts to represent the mainstream views of modern Greek historians. Some key historical events have also been included for context, but this timeline is not intended to cover history not related to migrations. For more information on the historical context of these migrations, please see History of Greece.


1In Greek: homoglosson (ὁμόγλωσσον) +

2In Greek: homaimon (ὅμαιμον)

3Compare the Christian Greek and Demotic term omothriskon (ὁμόθρησκον).

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

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