Migration and Greek Civilization

Migration and Greek Civilization

Jean-Luc Lamboley

Immigration and emigration in historical perspective, edited by Ann Katherine Isaacs (Pisa University Press, 2007)


The history and the pre-history of the Greeks is marked by migrations. The Greek language is not autochthonous to the area of Greek civilisation and hence arrived from elsewhere. Ancient and modern historians have distinguished between different great periods of migration. The ‘heroic migrations’ lead to the spread of Greek speaking populations around the Eastern Mediterranean, but the legends linked to these migrations are a reconstruction of the Greek identity deriving from the classical period; later movements are referred to as ‘colonisations’ and are associated with many foundation myths which relate the beginnings of the new ‘colonies’.

Recent historiography and archaeology refuse these sharp distinctions, because the Mediterranean has always been a “connective sea”, but, in reality, the so-called colonisation phase is distinguished by the rise and spread of a significant new political and institutional invention, the polis or city-state, strongly connected with religious aspects. Furthermore ancient authors, like Thucydides, distinguish between the migrations of the dark ages and the colonisation of the archaic period; it is worth looking at their testimonies carefully, so as to understand the meaning of these phenomena – without being swayed by modern and anachronistic concepts of colonisation.

During the Hellenistic period, Greek civilisation reached its largest area of diffusion, through huge kingdoms. Shifts of populations were then less important and mainly consisted only of mercenaries, who contributed to mixing the populations. Finally, it is interesting to underline the apparent contradiction in the Greek mentality between the ideal of autarchy and autochthony, and the call of the “corrupting sea”. The roles of the gentleman farmer and of the sailor/wanderer are mutually exclusive, but both are important components of Greek civilisation.

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