Common Hellenism

When we take a closer look at the Greek or Hellenic people, we see a vibrant culture that manifests itself in a variety of different ways at the individual, local, and state levels. There are different dances, musical styles, ceremonies, superstitions, fairy tales, cultures of memory, family structures and unique traditions forged by historical experiences. All these emanations of Greek culture are interconnected and thus interact with each other. This interaction is possible because it is rooted on a common ground for all Hellenic tribes. Our pan-Hellenic identity is structured on the basis of this shared common ground. And this common ground is our Common Hellenism which, of course, entails all regional idiosyncrasies. Some contemporary scholars even conclude “that regional identities were always a weak concept compared to the state identities of individual poleis, descent-based identities as Dorians or Ionians, and to an over-arching sense of common Hellenism.”[1] But regardless of what we might personally think of this idea, one thing does not negate the other. On the contrary, they coexist with one another in our language, architecture and in the arts. “In fact, in epigraphy, as in other branches of Greek art, the independence of individual states, as well as their common Hellenism, is apparent.”[2]

Sometimes Greeks seem to forget their belonging to the same ethnicity. We tend to place tribal interests above those of all Greeks, sometimes even above everything else, which led to the popular saying: “The worst enemy of a Greek is another Greek.” It is for this reason that we need to remind ourselves of our common Hellenism and therefore naturally also of the pan-Hellenic togetherness. Considered from the historical point of view, it was always an outside threat, for example the Persian invasion, that forced us to pull ourselves together, though that did not last long. “The enemy was distinctly recognizable, as was the cost of submission: economic servitude and loss of autonomy. In the face of such a clear and present danger, many of the Greeks acknowledged their common Hellenism and agreed to work together to defend it.”[3]

We should always bear in mind that we are an ethnos, a word which is, unfortunately, often misunderstood in the non-Greek world or, even worse, confused with the Western European originated concept of “race.” The word “ethnos” derives from the ancient Greek éthos which means “character, idiom, behavior.” An “ethnos” is a group of people sharing a common ethos or culture, as we call it today. A Hellene is someone of Hellenic ancestry who participates in Hellenic ethos (language, religion, way of life), and hence a bearer of a specific ethnic identity based on a specific ethos, language and religion (“kinship of all Greeks in blood and speech, and the shrines of gods and the sacrifices that we have in common, and the likeness of our way of life,” Herodotos, 8.144).

Nevertheless, as an ethnos, we are, just like any other ethnicity, inhomogeneous. As explained above, our historically grown diversity expresses itself in a variety of customs, dialects and tribal realities. All this variety, however, flows to our Common Hellenism like a mighty river to the sea.

In Herodotus‘ Histories, we read what this common Hellenism meant to our ancestors:

8.143.1 But to Alexander the Athenians replied as follows: “We know of ourselves that the power of the Mede is many times greater than ours. There is no need to taunt us with that. Nevertheless in our zeal for freedom we will defend ourselves to the best of our ability. But as regards agreements with the barbarian, do not attempt to persuade us to enter into them, nor will we consent. 8.143.2 Now carry this answer back to Mardonius from the Athenians, that as long as the sun holds the course by which he now goes, we will make no agreement with Xerxes. We will fight against him without ceasing, trusting in the aid of the gods and the heroes whom he has disregarded and burnt their houses and their adornments. 8.143.3 Come no more to Athenians with such a plea, nor under the semblance of rendering us a service, counsel us to act wickedly. For we do not want those who are our friends and protectors to suffer any harm at Athenian hands.”

8.144.1 Such was their answer to Alexander, but to the Spartan envoys they said, “It was most human that the Lacedaemonians should fear our making an agreement with the barbarian. We think that it is an ignoble thing to be afraid, especially since we know the Athenian temper to be such that there is nowhere on earth such store of gold or such territory of surpassing fairness and excellence that the gift of it should win us to take the Persian part and enslave Hellas. 8.144.2 For there are many great reasons why we should not do this, even if we so desired; first and foremost, the burning and destruction of the adornments and temples of our gods, whom we are constrained to avenge to the utmost rather than make pacts with the perpetrator of these things, and next the kinship of all Greeks in blood and speech, and the shrines of gods and the sacrifices that we have in common, and the likeness of our way of life, to all of which it would not befit the Athenians to be false. 8.144.3 Know this now, if you knew it not before, that as long as one Athenian is left alive we will make no agreement with Xerxes. Nevertheless we thank you for your forethought concerning us, in that you have so provided for our wasted state that you offer to nourish our households. (Histories by Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1920.)

The loyalty towards the pan-Hellenic cults, our language and way of life are the basic characteristics that all ethnic Hellenes have in common, regardless of which school of philosophy (Platonic, Stoic or Epicurean) and tribe we belong to, regardless of the dialect we use at home or how we bury our dead. Common Hellenism contains all of that, and in addition offers the strength to face threats we could not face alone. The sovereignty of Hellenism and Greece must always be our highest imperative. Our ancestors regarded sovereignty as the most precious value of all. “There are to be found no innovations in constitutional theory, no extension of the criteria of citizenship, no mergers of autonomy within a common Hellenism, no binding alliances, and no ideology of subordination beyond recognition of de facto sovereignty and the obvious need to preserve the safety of koinonia.”[4]

It is only when we work together (or at least towards the same goal) that we experience the underlying certainty of Common Hellenism: Even though we come from different tribes, we are one. Even in ancient times “each polis had its own cults, and each was a community of its citizens and could forge its separate culture … The shared and common Hellenism expressed itself through regional and polis variations on the theme.”[5]

It does not matter if the main god of your tribe is Zeus Stratios or Pallas Athena, if you belong to an Ionian or another tribe, if you speak this or that dialect, if you live in Thessaloniki, Athens or in the diaspora, if you are able to speak Greek fluently or if you struggle to not forget your native language: You are a member of the Hellenic family. That is the message of Common Hellenism. Wherever you are, whatever you experience, do not ever forget that.

[1] Kathryn Lomas, “Introduction,” in: Kathryn Lomas (ed.), Greek Identity in the Western Mediterranean. Mnemosyne Supplementum 246. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2004, pp. 3 and 7.

[2] Gisela M. Richter, A Handbook of Greek Art: A survey of the visual Arts of Ancient Greece, New York: Phaidon, 1969, 6th edition, p. 389.

[3] James Romm, Herodotus, New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1998, p. 197.

[4] W. G. Runciman, Doomed to extinction. The polis as an evolutionary dead-end, in: Oswyn Murray and Simon Price (eds.), The Greek City from Homer to Alexander, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 354.

[5] Rosalind Thomas, “The classic city,” in: Robin Osborne (ed.), Classical Greece: 500-323 BC, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 71.