When In Greece, Do as the Persians Don’t: Defining the Identity of the Greeks Against the Persian Imperial ‘Other’

When In Greece, Do as the Persians Don’t: Defining the Identity of the Greeks Against the Persian Imperial ‘Other’

By Katrina Van Amsterdam

Hirundo: the McGill Journal of Classical Studies, Vol.12 (2013-14)


Introduction: “By attributing a population with certain characteristics in order to categorize and differentiate it as an Other, those who do so also establish criteria by which they themselves are represented.” This statement by Robert Miles is particularly true when applied to the ancient Greeks. The Greeks of the early 5th century defined themselves against the ‘other’ or the ‘barbarian’ in establishing their identity as a common people, both politically and culturally. In the wake of the Persian invasion of 480-479 BC, the Greeks reconsidered the values that gave them distinction and shaped those qualities by contrasting them with the Persian ‘barbarian’. By solidifying the opposition between the governments of the burgeoning Greek poleis and the Persian imperial monarchy, the Greeks defined themselves against the Persians as they developed and solidified their political identity.

The ancient Greeks did not recognize a common identity amongst themselves until the time of the Persian Wars. As such, there was little ethnocentric stereotyping, derogatory or otherwise, of ‘barbarians’ before this period. Indeed, Homer does not use the word barbaros as anything except a descriptive word. Yet there were still no Greeks, at least not in the sense of a cohesive people with a common identity. Thucydides states that the term ‘barbarian’ is missing from the Homeric epics because there did not exist at that period a category such as ‘Greek’ against which a non-Greek could be defined. Thus, in order for some to be Greeks, it meant that others had to be declared barbarians.

The attribution of superiority “to Greeks by Greeks” provided a highly subjective definition of cultural unity. While Hellenic identity was previously aggregative, with peer groups created around various genealogies, the construct of Greek identity in the early 5th century BC was primarily ‘oppositional’ in nature. The general separation between a Greek and a barbarian was the possession, or lack thereof, of specific characteristics. The boundary between the two was clear. Greeks had shared customs and values that could be expressed in a common language, providing a very real facet of cultural unity. These values included hybris (excessive pride or self-confidence), ate (destructive behavior leading to the person’s downfall), time (honor), dike (justice), arete (inherent virtue or excellence), and charis (grace or obligation). Those who lacked those essential qualities, whether good or bad, were thus ‘barbarian’. Indeed, Aristotle believed that being a barbarian meant that one simply possessed the wrong combination of both character and intelligence.

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