Greek Identity

The Hellenes it has been suggested by Edith Hall defined themselves as opposite that of the barbarians in their writings in particular Greek Tragedy.

To begin to look at this statement and to determine what makes "Greekness", one must examine it's beginnings. As early as Mycenaean Greece, Homer tell us, the early Greek tribes came together. In the epic poem, The Odyssey, the Greek kings and warriors combined resources to help Menelaus rescue his wife who had been carried off to Troy by a barbarian. Through the years of the Trojan war, the Greeks were armed with determination and a single-minded vow to right a wrong done to one of their own. They struggled and prevailed in their quest to retrieve Helen and to annihilate the Trojans.

After the collapse of Mycenaean society, even through the Dark age and into the Archaic period with the help the oral tradition of poets like Homer the seed of Greekness survived. During the Archaic period a new order emerged, the polis. Although each polis evolved independently, they shared certain similarities, such as religion, some form of government and community. The importance of the sense of community was the strength of the polis. It was the responsibility of every citizen to promote the success of the state. With this strong commitment to the state, this unity could be translated into pride in being a Greek. While at the same time fostering a sense distrust against any non-Greek whether friend or foe.

Greek writers of the period continued to promote the idea that the barbarians were the opposite of the Greeks.

For instance, Herodotus, in his depiction of the Egyptians, was quick to point out that " not only is the climate different from that of the rest of the world, and the river unlike any other river, but the people also, in most manners and customs, exactly reverse the common practice of mankind."(p.68,sec.35) In this passage, then Herodotus implies not only the Egyptians were barbaric but maybe something less than human. This kind of description only reaffirms the Greek sense of superiority about themselves and their belief that their manners and customs were the only acceptable ones.

The distrust of those that were not Greek did however prove to have merit with the arrival of the Persians into the Mediterranean around 546 B.C.. For the next 50 years the Persians would try to dominate Greek territories. Under the leadership of Darius, The Persian Empire established strong footholds near Greece especially in the Greek colonies of Asia Minor. The threat of this common enemy that was attempting to conquer the Greek mainland caused the separate city-states to join military forces to bring an end to the Persian tyranny. At the Battle of Marathon the unified Greek forces finally were able to defeat the Persians. However this did not end the conflict, the Persians wanted revenge for the defeat at Marathon.

But Darius died leaving the task to his son, Xerxes. One of his major victories was the sack of Athens around 480 B.C. The sacking of Athens even further united the Greeks mobilizing their hostility toward Persia and this Barbarian threat. Through their skills, trickery, and cunning, the Greeks were finally victorious.

In Herodotus' accounts of the Persian Wars, he repeatedly refers to the forces of the enemy as barbarians, while, on the other hand, praising the Greeks for their bravery and their united efforts.

During the 6th and 5th century B.C., Greek tragedy and the theater were beginning to take shape. Performances at the theater were important civic events and this have been said to effectively define the Greek citizen.

Aeschylus in his play The Persians, portrays the Persians as godless and irreverent. The Greek manner of moderation, dedication to the gods and to the state are quite the opposite of that of Xerxes. In his quest to achieve power greater than that of his father, Xerxes through his actions proves to be a model not to be followed. The ghost of Darius says of his son, "The spring Of evil's found: my son in ignorance Discovered it, by youthful pride; who hoped to check the sacred waters of the Hellespont By chains, just as if it were a slave. He smoothed His way, yoking Neptune's flowing Bosphorus With hammered shackles. Mortal though he was, by folly thought to conquer the all the gods and Neptune."(lines 744-750) In this statement Darius was stating that in his son's ignorance he was challenging the gods and that his boastful attitude had been his ruin.

Xerxes felt that he was not bound by mortal actions and this barbaric attitude would be his downfall. "For his pride and godless arrogance , they invading Greece, felt no awe, they did not hesitate to plunder images of gods, and put temples to the torch."(lines 807-810) This quote emphasizes the prideful arrogance of Xerxes and the utter disregard for the Immortals.

The Greeks above all things would never be so boastful against the gods. It was their belief that good as well as bad came from them. It would not be wise to knowingly disrespect them. Darius further foretells that Xerxes' behavior will be the ruin of the Persians. Darius warns," Zeus is the chastener of overboastful minds, a grievous corrector. Therefore advise him, admonished by reason, to be wise, and cease his overboastful temper from sinning against the gods." (lines 828-832) By testing the gods, Xerxes in the end was witness to the slaughter of his troops. He was reduced to a shadow of his former self. The ghost of Darius tells the Queen,"to meet your son; for he, in grief, has rent his embroidered robes to sheds.." (lines 835-836) At his total defeat he is lamenting, whining and vulnerable,--a fallen man. No self respecting Greek man would act this way. With this he demonstrates the difference between the barbarian and the ideal Greek. Xerxes sums it up himself in the following lines, " Oh , hateful doom, Woe is me, Wretch alas, without augury. How savagely swooped the deity. .......Here am I, alas, O woe: To my native and ancestral land Woe is the evil I've become." (lines 90-911/930-933) The audience is compelled to feel pity and maybe even disgust toward Xerxes. Had he been a Greek the honorable thing for him to do would be to fall on his own sword much like Ajax.

Aeschylus shows the Persians to his Greek audience as men who are godless, boastful, and weak. Aeschylus exhibits the negative character traits, to remind the audience of what they should avoid. An ideal Greek is one who is respectful to all the gods, is moderate in all things, and he must seek strength only for the good of his community. And above all else he should never put himself before these principles.

In a later work by the playwright Euripides, The Medea, the barbarian question is also examined. In this tragedy the barbarian definition is coupled with the issue of gender.

In Greek society in the 5th century B.C. women and the non-Greek were persons without any political rights. "Women were citizens for the purpose of marriage and procreation......but otherwise they lacked all independent status,'(Murray GWH 206), and the non-Greek did not even have that advantage. In the play The Medea, Medea fell into both categories leaving her doubly vulnerable. As a woman living in Greece she could have never been acceptable even if she was Greek-born. Her very personality was her undoing: she was vocal, resourceful, passionate and also a practicing witch. This was not the acceptable demeanor for a classical Grecian woman. Stay home, weave, rear the children and obey the master of the household were the tenants of womanhood.

Jason being a Greek knew the importance of being acceptable. He took a new bride to attain this. Jason was looking out for himself. Being Greek he needed a Greek wife and children. And what better way to get it than to marry the daughter of the king. Since women had no rights--what would be Medea's recourse, a foreigner in a strange land? Well she used her foreign-born talents to seek her retribution for the wrongs done to her. She was a victim of love, she loved Jason unconditionally, and when he chose another she could not bear his betrayal. This pushed her to insanity. She crossed that thin line between love and hate. Her methods were a bit extreme but it certainly got her point across. One can sympathize with Medea: she was put in a no-win situation, trapped by love and by the society to which her husband had brought her. She says in her own words," We women are the most unfortunate creatures. Firstly, with an excess of wealth it is required for us to buy a husband and take for our bodies a master; for not to take one is even worse. and now the question is serious whether we take a god or bad one, for there is no easy escape for a woman, nor can she say no to her marriage. She arrives among new modes of behavior and manners. And needs prophetic power, unless she has learned at home, How best to manage him who shares the bed with her. And if we work out all this well and carefully, and the husband lives with us and lightly bears his yoke, The life is enviable. If not; I'd rather die."(line 231-243) In this speech, Medea vocalizes what it was like to be a woman in the 5th century B.C., there was no real alternative. Man was the master, a woman had no free will over her life or her body.

With the desertion of her husband for another, Medea was alone and desperate. Desperate people do desperate things; her voice echoes that sentiment," I have no mother or brother, nor any relation with whom I can take refuge in this sea of woe."(line 256-258) In this statement, Medea, verbalizes her despair; she is alone and her madness has consumed her.

The Greek audience that would have been viewing this play would have been less than sympathetic to the barbarian Medea. Since this barbarian is a threat to polite Grecian society. Jason sums it up in these words, " Firstly instead of living among barbarians, You inhabit a Greek land and understand our ways. How to live by law instead of the sweet will of force. And all the Greeks considered you a clever woman."(lines 535-539) In this excerpt, Jason enlightens Medea as to how much better off she is in Greece than in some barbaric land. And he further implies that she is not trusted because she is a clever woman.

Euripides although being somewhat sympathetic to Medea uses her character to teach Greek men to be wary of women in general. The character of Medea represents the double evil of a barbarian and an uncontrollable woman. She is used as caution to the Greek male that he must keep his self true to the Greek ways and to have Greek wife that is schooled in the proper place for a Greek wife.

Throughout the history of ancient Greece the writers of the times wrote what they imaged the barbarian to be. The 5th century B.C. was not much different that any period in early Greek history. But with the City of Dionysus festival and the advent of theater, it presented a new vehicle to deliver an old message: Be wary the barbarian and to trust only in what you know. Know what it is to be Greek and remain true to all it's tenants, respect her gods, be moderate in all things, and strive for the strength of the community. To suggest that only Greek Tragedy defined barbarians as opposite of the ideal Greek would not be totally correct since the subject matter was used throughout early literature. But it can be said that use of tragedy certainly was means to reach a larger portion of the male Greek citizenry. During the City of Dionysus festival, religion and community came together and in many ways the theater helped to re-empathize what it meant to be an ideal Greek.


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