Robin Waterfield reflects on the puzzling attitude of the Greeks to their own local and national identity

One of the major puzzles of ancient Greek history is that the Greeks recognized that they were kin, and recognized their shared culture, and yet their history is often an account of inter-Greek wars, as state fought state or alliance fought alliance. Why did they do this? Why did they not allow their acknowledged kinship to dictate a more peaceful form of co-existence? At the same time, there is an undeniable trend over the course of Greek history towards greater unity, especially in the form of federalism. Was this deliberate, in the sense that unity was seen as a desirable goal by Greeks themselves, or was it a historical accident of some kind? These are the questions I’d like to explore.

The underlying issue is that there was no national state called Greece in the ancient world. Most Greeks, if they stopped to think about it, would have found the idea of a Greek nation alien; they considered themselves first and foremost citizens of their particular states; that was where they placed their loyalty, while the notion of a shared Greekness or Hellenicity hovered somewhere in the background. When writers and politicians spoke of ‘Greece’ they sometimes meant the Balkan peninsula that we call by the same name, but they often used the term as an abstraction, the sum total of all Greeks wherever they were living. Christendom in the Middle Ages was a similar concept.

For, of course, there were almost as many Greeks off the Balkan peninsula as on it, living in separate city-states (poleis, sing. polis) or federations (koina, sing. koinon) all around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. And after the massive emigration that took place to the East in the late fourth and early third century, in the wake of Alexander the Great’s takeover of the Persian empire, the number of Greeks off the peninsula far overtook the population of ‘Old Greece.’

There were hundreds of separate city-states, and this separation was the cause of their internecine warfare. Plato agreed: ‘Every state,’ he said, ‘is inevitably engaged in undeclared warfare with every other state’ (Laws 626a). Each state possessed a certain amount of territory, but there was never enough to go around. Although states proclaimed self-sufficiency as an ideal, they could never realize it and every state was in competition with its neighbours for resources. The border wars of the Archaic period (750–480), that took place as states formed and flexed their muscles, gave way in the Classical period (480-323) to larger-scale wars designed to curb those states which had developed the strongest muscles and wanted to have hegemony over the rest, or as many of the rest as possible—‘hegemony’ refers to the kind of leadership where one state subordinates its allies to itself by political and economic means, and by the real or implied threat of military intervention, while allowing them formally to retain their autonomy. Thus Athens was the target of the Peloponnesian War (431-404) and Sparta of the Corinthian War (395-386). The Boeotian War (378-371) was meant to decide which of Sparta or Thebes would be ascendant.

Now, there were a few intellectuals in the early fourth century who found this disunity deplorable. The eminent orators Gorgias, Lysias, and Isocrates called for Greek unity, choosing the Olympic Games as the place where their speeches were delivered because they would find there a large audience from all over the Greek world. Even the comic poet Aristophanes, in his Lysistrata, deplored the fact that Greeks recognized their kinship and yet constantly fought one another. In past decades, scholars tended to claim that the Greeks – or, more usually, the ‘best elements’ among the Greeks – saw that disunity was not serving Greek interests and strove for unification, for a United States of Greece.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. None of these calls for unity was disinterested and idealistic; there was no real recognition of the value of unity in itself. Aristophanes, Gorgias, and Isocrates wanted the Greeks to unite against the Persians; Lysias was no different – except that for him, as a Syracusan by birth, the enemy was not the Persian king, but Dionysius II, the tyrant of Syracuse. All these intellectuals were using a grandiose theme to disguise lesser motives.

It is certainly not clear that by ‘unity’ they meant that it was desirable for all Greeks everywhere to unite politically and permanently in some form of national state. They more likely meant the kind of alliance that had been formed in 480 to repel the Persians, which was limited both in time (it was never formally annulled, but it became a dead letter after the Persian retreat) and in numbers, since only thirty-one Greek states made up the alliance that resisted the Persians. Many more Greeks fought on the Persian side (albeit sometimes unwillingly) than fought against the Persians. Lysias and the others were undoubtedly imagining some such alliance. That was the only realistic option. In future decades too, the Greeks would scarcely unite in the face of the Macedonian or Roman threat.

And so these appeals for unity in the early fourth century had little effect; the time was not yet right for their words to fall on fertile ground. We can see this clearly from a couple of failed initiatives dating from a few decades earlier, in the fifth century.

The Persian Wars undoubtedly formed a watershed in the way the Greeks viewed themselves. They had long recognized their kinship, but now they sharpened up the idea by defining themselves as the opposites of ‘barbarians,’ especially Persians. Greeks were tough and independent, for instance, where Persians were soft and servile, ruled by an autocratic master. Inspired by this greater sense of Greek kinship and unity, after the Persian Wars the practice of dedicating trophies at pan-hellenic sites such as Olympia and Delphi to commemorate victories over fellow Greeks died down, possibly by official edict. Moreover, in 476 an international tribunal was established at Olympia with the job of arbitrating disputes and reconciling states before they fell to fighting. We know of the existence of this tribunal only because inscriptions have been unearthed that record its decisions in two cases. For a while, then, the experiment worked, but only for a while: before long warring Greek states refused to recognize the authority of the panel and stopped submitting their disputes to it.

So much for Greek disunity. At the same time, however, as one surveys the course of Greek history as a whole, there is a clear tendency towards greater unification. Naturally, they had always formed military alliances, but these had never proved stable. Some of them were based on shared leadership (as the Athenians, Corinthians, and Boeotians formed an alliance to defeat the Spartans in the Corinthian War), but particularist interests always threatened to undermine these temporary unions. Other alliances were hegemonial, which is to say that one state was supreme and imposed its interests on its allies. The Peloponnesian War was fought between two hegemonial alliances: the Peloponnesian League, dominated by Sparta, and the Delian League, which differed little from an Athenian empire.

A hegemonial alliance does not make for true unity, but the trend towards greater unification did lead to the formation of more permanent leagues. The pattern was set by the ‘common peaces’ of the early to middle fourth century – multilateral peace treaties designed to encompass as many of the Greek states as possible and make it hard for them to go to war with one another. In 386, the Persians used the Spartans as their agents to bring the Corinthian War to an end and impose peace on the Greeks. The King’s Peace (also known as the Peace of Antalcidas, after the chief Spartan negotiator) required all Greek states to respect one another’s autonomy and territorial integrity, and to retaliate jointly against any state that breached the treaty; conflicts were to be resolved by arbitration rather than military action. This set the pattern for later arrangements. When the Macedonians became the masters of the Greeks in 338, Philip II formed all the Greek states into what we now call the League of Corinth; tellingly, the Greeks themselves called it the League of the Greeks. It lasted for sixteen years, with a brief revival at the very end of the fourth century.

The importance of these leagues is that they treated the Greeks as a distinct people. Never mind that it was outsiders – Persians, Macedonians, and, later, Romans – who were treating them in this way. Every individual has a tiered sense of identity. In ancient Greek terms, a person might think of himself as an Argive (from his native city of Argos), and as a Dorian (sharing a dialect and other cultural features with others who claimed Dorian descent, as opposed to Ionians and Aeolians), and as a Greek. At any given moment, external events, or moral persuasion (by a speech, or a tract, or a politically engaged theatrical production), or his own internal motivations prompt a person to accept one tier over the others.

The events of history happen when enough people share the same framework in a sufficiently coherent form, and choose the same set of loyalties. Then they act as Greeks, or as Dorians, or as Argives, or as a political faction. Coherent and long-term identification was needed with the top tier, with Greekness, before any kind of Greek unification was possible or even conceivable. The leagues of the fourth century made it easier for Greeks to think of themselves as Greeks, to move to that tier. True unification is not imposed by outsiders and is not the outcome of intellectuals’ appeals; it comes from bottom up – from the collective, subliminal impulse of the people as a whole.

And so, when we come to the third century, we find apparently greater efforts being made towards unity. I say ‘apparently,’ because in the nature of things there is no direct evidence, and I am working on the principle that one can determine a person’s or a people’s motivation by their actions (‘by their fruits you can judge them’).

There are two main manifestations. The first, easily stated, was the development of instruments for peaceful cooperation. Arbitration, mediation, sharing rights to intermarriage between states, or even shared citizenship – these all helped and became more common in the Hellenistic period of Greek history (323-30). Kinship diplomacy was another major phenomenon: dozens of inscriptions survive in which cities base a claim of kinship on a shared genealogy in the mythical past. It became very common for one state to claim kinship with another, even when such a claim was rather far-fetched and involved tweaking the mythical past.

For instance, when the little town of Cytenium in Doris, the original homeland of the Dorians, needed financial assistance to repair earthquake damage, it did not just turn to Dorian states, which would have been easy, but constructed complex genealogies and journeyings of both gods and heroes to demonstrate its kinship not just with the city of Xanthus in south-west Asia Minor (where the surviving inscription comes from), but even with the Seleucids and Ptolemies, whose courts in Antioch and Alexandria the Cytenian envoys were headed for when they stopped in Xanthus. The mythology they came up with could have linked them to almost any other state in the Greek world.

The second, very striking, manifestation of an impulse towards greater unity was the phenomenon of confederation. There came to be many federal states, but the two greatest and most important were the Achaean and Aetolian Confederacies, based respectively to the south and north of the Corinthian Gulf.

Aetolia and Achaea were mountainous places that had remained poor and removed from the mainstream of Greek history, but by uniting they gained the strength to stand up to the greatest of the city-states, and even to the Macedonians and Romans. It was the war between Rome and the Achaean Confederacy that led to the infamous destruction of Corinth in 146, and the start of the process that led to Greece becoming ‘Achaia,’ a province of the Roman Empire.

Both confederacies began as ethnic organizations – that is, the original members were only Achaeans or only Aetolians – but both came to burst their ethnic bounds and incorporate ‘foreign’ communities. Numbers were never quite constant, but the Achaean Confederacy at one point encompassed pretty much all the towns of the Peloponnese (and at one or two points came close to gaining Athens as well), and the Aetolians felt able to incorporate even overseas Greek communities.

Both confederation and the development of peaceful instruments of interaction were deliberate acts, but we should not leap to the conclusion that the Greeks now recognized the desirability of national unity and were consciously working towards it. That does not seem to have been the case. The Achaeans actively wanted and pursued the unification of the Peloponnese, but it is not clear that they ever wanted to unify all Greeks into a federal state, or conceived of that as a possibility. For a while, both the great confederacies were allies (though they were more usually enemies), and with historical hindsight we might wonder whether the notion did not arise of turning all mainland Greece into a federal state, seeing that, as allies, these two confederacies already incorporated many of the Greek communities. But there is no sign that they ever thought along those lines, and the alliance fell apart before long.

I think the process of unification was more subtle – more to do with the kind of subliminal shove from the collective unconscious that I mentioned before. Given the scattered and belligerent nature of the Greeks, political unification would never have happened if the potential had not been there. As soon as the Greeks emerged in the Mediterranean, they became aware of themselves as cultural cousins. In the words of Herodotus, writing in the 420s, Greekness (to Hellēnikon, ‘the Greek thing’) consisted of shared culture, language, and lineage (Histories 8.144.2). The Greeks were always aware of a shared substrate underlying their regional and other differences, and the idea of a pan-hellenic community was supported by cult at sites such as Delphi and Olympia, by shared values, by warfare against barbarians, and by a shared past as constructed by poems such as Homer’s Iliad and the genealogies of The Catalogue of Women.

This sense of cultural unity, of an imagined community, only increased in the Hellenistic period, as a result of the diaspora in the wake of Alexander’s conquests and of expatriate clinging to tradition. There was a genuine sense that Greeks all around the world shared values, ideas, and institutions, and formed a worldwide community. Someone transported from Athens to Alexandria or Antioch would not have felt far from home.

The Greeks, then, had long imagined themselves as forming a community by virtue of their shared culture, and, like any powerful act of imagination, the idea exerted pressure and edged closer to realization. One of the important triggers, or reminders, was the flourishing of federal states, because their constitutions gave the Greeks a blueprint for the idea of a federal state of a non-hegemonial kind, voluntarily entered into. Another was sustained contact with quasi-Greeks such as Macedonians, which entailed the adoption of a larger idea of what it was to be Greek. But responsibility lay chiefly with Alexander the Great, who gave an enormous boost to the idea of Greek unity by reaffirming his father’s League of Corinth, and by undertaking an expressly pan-hellenic war against the barbarian, a continuation of the Trojan War. His vast empire opened up new horizons that made it possible for Greeks to transcend the parochialism of the city-state culture of Old Greece.

Over time, then, more people than just a few intellectuals began to take seriously the idea that the Greeks were one in blood as well as in culture, and to take steps to consolidate the Greek world on that basis. The Roman creation of the provinces of Achaia and Macedonia, and the patchwork of Greek provinces in Asia Minor, was the culmination of that trend. But – in a phenomenon with which the modern world is all too familiar – these Roman provinces created borders which were not necessarily salient to the Greeks themselves.

In the first and second centuries CE, super-confederacies were formed out of the confederacies of both Greece and Anatolia. These could not be political unions, since politically the Greek confederacies were members of the Roman provinces, so they were given a religious purpose: they were founded on the worship of the emperor – Caligula for the first-century league, and Hadrian for the second-century one. The delegates called themselves ‘Panhellenes’ and met, in the second century, in a temple called the Panhellenion, built in Hadrianopolis, the new suburb of Athens built by Hadrian. Neither of these leagues lasted more than a few decades, but they show that the Greeks’ awareness of themselves as a potential nation survived the imposition of the Roman provinces.

But there was always one thing missing. The Greeks could stress their shared language, their kinship, their similar forms of worship, of dress, of warfare. Despite the fact that so much of their history involved Greeks fighting against one another, they could even create a sense of a shared history, by stressing pan-hellenic moments such as the Trojan War, the Persian Wars, and the long resistance to Macedon. But they could never point to a common territory, a Greek homeland. The Greeks shared the sea, impossible to encompass and possess, but they had no land.

In the fourth century, however, some politicians began to speak of Greece as ‘the common fatherland’ of the Greeks. Isocrates, for instance, projected back onto earlier Greeks the idea that ‘while they regarded their native cities as their several places of abode, yet they considered Greece to be their common fatherland’ (Panegyricus/Festival Speech 81). In other words, he supposed that earlier Greeks were capable of transcending the particularist tier of identification with one’s birthplace and recognizing a higher level of shared Greekness. But at the time the idea of a shared Greek homeland was a fantasy, no more than a rhetorical appeal for unity.

Nevertheless, it was true that the road to political unification would never reach an end until there was a Greek homeland; until then, it would always be partial, and cultural more than political. For long centuries, as members of the eastern Roman Empire, and then of the Ottoman empire, the Greeks remembered that they were one and held in their imaginations a sense of community. Finally, in 1832, as a result of the War of Independence, Greece became a proper national state, with its own territory, government, history, religion, language, and culture.

Robin Waterfield’s Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece (Oxford University Press) has just been published.

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