What role did tribalism and racism play in ancient Greece?

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A broad analysis of the evidence and impact of the concepts of tribalism and racism within Greece of antiquity, concentrating on the Classical and Hellenistic periods. Assessing the archaeological and literary evidence alongside the prevailing historical bias for these concepts. It is argued that Greece, although not a tribe but a state under Elman Sevice’s definition shows some strains of tribalism. Racism or proto-racism, is defined by differing criteria to the modern connotation and seems to have been geographically rather than biologically biased.


The period associated with ancient Greece ps around 1400 years from the archaic period with the traditional date for the first historic Olympic games in 776BC to the end of antiquity around 600AD.It is sensible to focus on the Classical and Hellenistic periods beginning with the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC and ending with the end of the Fourth Macedonian War in 148BC.

The modern concepts of racism and tribalism are non necessarily one that would be comprehended in the ancient world. Racism in the modern sense of the word arose in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries alongside concepts of nationalism and the ‘noble savage’.

To add a broader cultural context, the Mycenaean palace civilization which collapsed in the twelfth century BC and the archaeological evidence supporting this collapse indicates a phase of depopulation and decline in the region. (Champion et al 1989: 244) At the beginning of the eighth century BC an archaeologically visible cultural complex emerged, distinct from the Halstatt iron age culture predominant in northern Europe. Broadly homogenous and distinctive, this cultural complex was established by the sixth century BC encompassing most of the Mediterranean coastal regions and included the Phoenicians, the Etruscans and Celt-Iberians as well as the Greeks. (ibid) and includes the corpus of work by Prof. Manolis Andronikos which establishes that the Macedonians had a Greek material culture. The attitudes of colonial Greeks in places like Massilia (Marseille) towards Hellenic ethnic identity differs from that of the Greeks who were living in polis (city-states).

As an example of this geographical difference, and what that meant to ancient Greek society , there is a marked contrast between Pericles’ citizenship law of 451/450BC and Ptolemy I’s ‘Diagramma’ explaining the legal implications of inter-marriage between Greeks and non-Greeks in Cyrene in the fourth century BC. Pericles’ law relates to Athens and stipulates that only individuals who had two Athenian parents could be considered Athenian citizens. From Ptolemy we learn that in Cyrene children of a Greek father and a Libyan mother were considered citizens. Aristotle in his Politics (VI, 2 1319 b 2) remarks that the democratic members had changed the orthodox practice and “flooded the citizen body with these half-castes” (nothoi pros metros) betraying the conservatism of ‘mainland’ Greece, but in particular Athens.

Discussing trading colonies it is significant that the only echelon of society within Greek polis involved in banking and business in the modern connotation were xenoi or outsiders. In Aristotle’s words:

“…money orientated life is not of the knightly kind” (Nicomanchean Ethics I. iv 1095b15-22)

As there was a material cultural continuity across the Mediterranean world at the time, the concept of ethnic difference or racism cannot be easily tracked archaeologically but through literary sources. Considering the bias of such sources Baldry says:

“One can all too easily overestimate the importance of beliefs expressed by a small intellectual minority, while forgetting that the majority found it difficult to see beyond the horizon of the polis;…”(Baldry, H.C., 1965 176-77)

Within this academic community there was a breadth of opinion. Conservative Aristotle equates ethnic identity with slavery in his Politics saying:

“Wherefore the Hellenes (Greeks) do not like to call Hellenes slaves, but confine the term to barbarians. Yet in using this language, they really mean the natural slave…Hellenes regard themselves as noble everywhere, and not only in their own country, but they deem the barbarians noble only when at home, thereby implying that there are two sorts of nobility and freedom, the one absoloute, the other relative” (Aristotle Politics 1255a-1255b)

“…the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors (sc barbarians) that they should be under the rule of a master. For he who can be, and therefore it, another’s, and he who particupates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, such a principle, is a slave by nature” (Aristotle’s Politics 1254b)

This hints at concepts of the ‘noble savage’ which emerged during the enlightenment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in tandem with nationalism and racism. It has been suggested that the ideologies of the ancient Greeks could be defined as proto-racism (Bakaukas 2005: 5)

The zenith of the Greek polis was the sixth to the fourth centuries BC. The period of the Persian Wars and the dominance of Athens and Sparta as political entities, underlining the perceived divisions between those who defined themselves as Hellenic and those deemed barbarian. Paridoxically there was concurrently growth in the concept of the unity of all mankind. Homer defines men as aydeentes (speaking beings), and this concept can also be seen in Plato’s Protagoras with the pronounced distinction between man and inarticulate animals. There is also a choral fragment from the fifth century BC from the Alexander of Euripides and the philosophy of sophists, in particular Antiphon. Other proponents were Thucydides, and the medical writers of the Hippocratic Corpus ( “…the same symptoms have the same meaning everywhere”). Nevertheless, as has already been alluded to, Greek proto-racism was not biologically based as the common modern interpretation.

Tribalism could be placed within the theoretical framework of the American anthropologist Elman Service. He postulated a four-fold classification system of societal evolution (Band, Tribe, Chiefdom and State) with associated types of site and settlement patterns. Greece in Service’s definition is not a tribe but a State. Tribalism implies shared cultural or ethnic identity used to exclude non-members. Therefore it could be described as a cohesive force and racism a devisive one.

A good example of the impact of both concepts is the Greek attitudes towards Macedonia and Alexander the Great. Greek states generally considered Macedonians barbarians, but, since the fifth century BC they had been permitted to compete in the Olympian Games, ostensibly because they were believed to descend from the legendary Heralces. Linguistically they spoke Greek (Bakaukas, M. 2005: 9). Alexander’s mother, Olympia was another ‘barbarian’ (daughter of Neoptolemus of Epirus (ibid)) another Hellenised individual who met Philip of Macedon during celebrations of the Greek Mysteries of Samothrace. Alexander was a pupil of Aristotle and Plutarch relates that the teacher was criticised for advising Alexander to treat Greeks as friends and barbarians as enemies. Alexander did not pay any heed to this advice:

“All mortals from now on shall live like one people, united and peacefully working towards a common prosperity. You should regard the whole world as your country – a country where the best govern – with common laws and no racial distinctions” (The ‘Oath’ of Alexander the Great – Speech at Opis (Assyria) in 324BC)

The most obvious comparison between Greek city states for race and tribal considerations is between Athens and Sparta. Both considered each other Hellenic but Athens was a democracy and Sparta an oligarchy. The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404BC) is the pinnacle of their rivalry and as Thucydides comments, before the War and after the Persian Wars (499 – 449BC) much of Greece was known as the Athenian Empire.


In conclusion, tribalism and racism are modern constructs which existed in ancient Greece but were formed according to the prevalent cultural, political and social contexts. Archaeological evidence has provided a quantitive benchmark that the material culture was homogenous throughout the Mediterranean world. The ‘tribe’ of Greeks were united in their urban state structure and common ideals of democracy and civilization but the significance of ‘purity’ in racial terms was malleable, tending to be more flexible the further from the nexus of Greek civilisation.


Bakaukas, Michael. 2005. Tribalism and Racism amongst the Ancient Greeks: A Weberian Perspective. Anistoriton Journal, vol. 9, March 2005, section E0501 Available through: http://www.anistor.co.hol.gr [Accessed 10th August 2012]

Baldry, H.C., 1961 The Idea of the Unity of Mankind in Greek Thought Cambridge University Press

Borza, E.N., and Palagia, O., The Chronology of the Macedonian Royal Tombs at Vergina Available through: http://uoa.academia.edu/OlgaPalagia/Papers/872753/The_chronology_of_the_Macedonian_royal_tombs_at_Vergina [Accessed 11th August 2012]

Champion, C., Gamble, C., Shennan, S., Whittle, A. 1984 Prehistoric Europe Ninth printing 1997. Academic Press Ltd, London.

Renfrew, C., and Bahn, P., 1996 (Second Edition) Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice Thames and Hudson, London

Trigger, Bruce G. 1989. A History of Archaeological Thought Cambridge University Press.

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