TAF >> NY & the World >> Teaching Materials



Map of mainland Greece
Map of eastern Greece
Map of Sicily


The status of being a foreigner, as the Greeks understood the term does not permit any easy definition. Primarily it signified such peoples as the Persians and Egyptians, whose languages were unintelligible to the Greeks, but it could also be used of Greeks who spoke in a different dialect and with a different accent. Notable among this latter category were the Macedonians, whom many Greeks regarded as semibarbaric, as the following judgement upon Philip 11 of Macedon by the Athenian politician Demosthenes indicates:

He's so far from being a Greek or having the remotest connection with us Greeks that he doesn't even come from a country with a name that's respected. He's a rotten Macedonian and it wasn't long ago that you couldn't even buy a decent slave from Macedon. (Third Philippic 31)

Prejudice toward Greeks on the part of Greeks was not limited to those who lived on the fringes of the Greek world. The Boeotians, inhabitants of central Greece, whose credentials were impeccable, were routinely mocked for their stupidity and gluttony. Ethnicity is a fluid concept even at the best of times. When it suited their purposes, the Greeks also divided themselves into Ionians and Dorians. The distinction was emphasized at the time of the Peloponnesian War, when the Ionian Athenians fought against the Dorian Spartans. The Spartan general Brasidas even taxed the Athenians with cowardice on account of their Ionian lineage. In other periods of history the Ionian-Dorian divide carried much less weight.

"Metic," which comes from the Greek word metoikos meaning Metics "one who dwells among," denoted a foreigner with the right to live permanently in the host country of his or her choice. Classical Athens, because of her empire, wealth, and commercial importance, attracted a vast number of metics. In this she was rather unusual, as Perikles pointed out (Thukydides 2.39.1). Approximately three-fifths of the metic population lived in demes located in or around Athens, nearly one-fifth in the port of Piraeus, and the remaining fifth in dernes situated in the countryside and along the coast. At least sixty different Greek and non-Greek states are represented among their ranks, as we know from sepulchral inscriptions. In the fifth century B.c., metics perhaps accounted for as much as 10 percent of Athens' entire population, or about from 20,000 to 30,000. It should be emphasized, however, that their numbers fluctuated in line with Athens' changing fortunes and prosperity. Very likely many left before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 i3.c. Athens was not the only Greek state that encouraged the immigration of foreigners, but it was undoubtedly the one that attracted them in greatest numbers. The Spartans were notoriously xenophobic and actively discouraged foreigners from residing in their territory even on a short-term basis.

It was due to the large influx of metics around the middle of the fifth century i3.c. that Athens introduced a law debarring the offspring of a union between an Athenian citizen and a metic woman from claiming citizenship. The state also revised her citizen register at this time and struck off a number of suspected metics who were believed to be claiming citizenship under false pretenses. Though Athenians could marry metic women, metic men were subject to a fine of 1,000 drachmas-the equivalent of about three years' salary-for cohabiting with an Athenian woman. Each metic had to have an Athenian sponsor, called a prostatês ,and be registered in a deme. He or she was required to pay an annual poll tax called a metoikion. Men were liable to service in the military but in the navy only in times of emergency. They were also required to undertake liturgies. Metics were not permitted to own land unless they had obtained a special grant called an enktêsis. This entitled them either to purchase a home or establish a sanctuary for the worship of a foreign deity.

It was through their private cultic associations that metics were able to consort together and retain their distinctive identity. Many such associations also functioned as dining clubs. One of these was devoted to the worship of the Phrygian god Sabazios, an exotic deity whose nocturnal rites included ecstatic dances accompanied by the flute and kettledrum. The cult of Sabazios aroused such animosity when it was first introduced into Athens that it was the butt of humor in no fewer than four comedies by Aristophanes. In one play, Sabazios, together with other foreign deities, is booted out of Athens. In the middle of the fourth century B.C., however, the Athenians received an oracle ordering them to desist from persecuting the followers of Sabazios. This had the desired effect, and in time the Athenians themselves became worshipers of Sabazios. An inscription dated to the very end of the second century B.C. records the names of fifty-one members of the cult, no fewer than thirtysix of whom were Athenian.

Religion apart, to what extent were the Athenians tolerant of foreign influences, let alone in the business of absorbing them? We know that some Athenians affected the Spartan style of dress by wearing short cloaks and growing their hair long. In addition, the Athenians' fascination with the sophists, who were teachers of rhetoric, is often quoted as an instance of their appetite for foreign ideas. As the sophists and Spartans were Greek, however, they hardly count as foreign.

It is sometimes suggested that the Greeks more or less invented racism single-handedly by holding up their culture Barbarians as a shining example of everything that was noble and praiseworthy, while at the same time rubbishing everybody else, particularly the Persians. The truth, however, is rather more complex. Even if the Greeks considered their culture to be superior to others, that does not mean that they were out-and-out racists. Moreover, some Greeks saw much to admire in Persian culture. The historian Herodotos was so enamored of the Persians that he was dubbed philobarbaros, or "barbarian lover." Overall, the Greek attitude toward the Persians was probably a complex mixture of fascination, envy, and contempt. The notion of the barbarian was not inherent in Greek culture. There is no trace of racial prejudice against the Trojans in Homer's Iliad. In fact, the regard for civilized values on the part of the Trojans is equal, if not superior, to that of the Greeks. The word barbaroph6noi, meaning "of barbarous diction," appears only once in the Iliad, in reference to a contingent of Karians, a semi-barbarous people who fought on the side of the Greeks. Not until Aeschylus' Persians, which was produced in 472 B.c., are barbarians depicted as a stereotypical group with a homogeneous culture. This change came about as a result of the Persian invasion of Greece-an event that bred terror and loathing in the Greek population, similar in intensity to that felt toward the hated Hun by the Allies in World War I. The stereotype was also disseminated through art, notably in portrayals of the battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs, which we find on the metopes of the Parthenon. The lascivious and aggressive Centaurs stand for the Persians and the innocent and abused Lapiths for the Greeks. Depictions of this mythological encounter, in which right clearly triumphed over wrong, served to bolster Greek self-esteem and self-righteousness in the aftermath of the Persian invasion.

Precisely what the category barbarian amounted to in practical terms is difficult to determine. The most plausible origin of the word is "the people who mutter ba-ba-ba." Barbarians, in other words, were people who could not speak Greek. Non-Greek speakers were excluded from participation in the Olympic Games and from certain other religious ceremonies, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries. In time, however, barbarian also came to acquire the pejorative meaning of "ignorant, brutal, and savage."

"Typical" barbarian behavior included drinking neat wine, beer, and milk; wearing effeminate clothing; and practicing circumcision. Thukydides (1.6.1-3) was of the belief that contemporary barbarians behaved similarly to the earliest inhabitants of Greece, in that they carried weapons around with them and wore loincloths when exercising. The most despised feature of barbarian society, however, was the subjugation of its population to one man, as the following brief exchange from Aeschylus' Persians indicates. It takes place at the royal capital of Susa shortly after the Persian queen received news of her son's defeat at the battle of Salamis.

Queen: Who is their leader? Who commands their army?
Chorus: They declare themselves to be the slaves of no-one and to serve no-one.
Queen: How then can they withstand an enemy invasion?
Chorus: Well enough to destroy King Dareios' large and powerful army. (lines 241-44)

Despite the highly negative view of barbarian culture that many Greeks held, there is no evidence to suggest that barbarians were unwelcome or subjected to mistreatment if they traveled to Greece. On the contrary, they figure prominently among Athens' metic population in the fourth century. The Sidonians, who were Phoenicians, actually enjoyed a privileged status that was not extended to other metics: they were exempted from the metic tax and other financial burdens.

Ultimate Monstrosity
The outermost reaches of geographical knowledge were thought to be inhabited by monstrous races, descriptions of whom were brought back by travelers. They include the Astomoi or Mouthless Ones, who have holes in their faces instead of mouths; the Skiapods or Shadowfeet, a one-legged people who lie on their backs shading their heads from the sun with a single huge foot; and the Kynokephaloi or Dogheads, who communicate by barking.

No figure quite so succinctly epitomizes the horror of the foreign, however, as the Cyclops Polyphemos, whom Odysseus encounters in Book 9 of the Odyssey. Solitary, monstrous in size, possessing a single eye in the center of his forehead, stupid, contemptuous toward the gods, hostile toward strangers, . -rnorant of seafaring and agriculture, Polyphemos is everything that the Greeks despised. Who could fail to be repulsed by the description of the regurgitated pieces of human flesh that surface at the comers of his giant maw, as he sleeps off a dinner that consisted of Odysseus' companions? And who could fail to applaud when Odysseus blinds his single eye with a stake, before escaping from the cave by grabbing onto the belly of Polyphemos' favorite ram?

This interpretation nonetheless ignores one or two important details that are less than complimentary to the hero. In the first place, the encounter with the Cyclops could have been avoided altogether if Odysseus had listened to his companions, instead of being guided by his own insatiable curiosity. It was his curiosity that prompted him to wait for the Cyclops in his cave, and this in turn led to the deaths of several of his companions. Again, after he escaped, it was his irrepressible ego that caused him to reveal his name to the Cyclops, enabling the Cyclops to curse him in the name of his father Poseidon and delay Odysseus'homecoming by many years. In short, the encounter leaves us with the distinct Impression that a canny Greek is by no means intellectually light-years ahead of an ignorant and uneducated Cyclops. Already in Homer's day, the category "barbarian" was problematic.

Adapted from Daily Life od the Ancient Greeks


| Programs | Teaching Materials | Publications | Links | Inside TAF |
| The China Project | New York & the World | SEC |

Copyright ©
2000 The American Forum for Global Education