The term “Greek” comes from the Latin word “Graecia” – it’s what the Romans called them, and thus so do we.
Greeks call themselves Hellenes and their country Hellas. Hellen was the mythical founder of the Hellenic people – grandson of Prometheus (father’s side) & Pandora (mother’s side).
A now-extinct language originating roughly 6000 years ago in the area of southern Russia & Ukraine is considered by linguists the basis of Greek (and its closest relative, Armenian), as well as most other European languages.
Linguists have evidence that about 4000 years ago, tribes living in southern Greece spoke an early version of Greek. Recent genetic evidence points to these people coming to Greece via Anatolia, with a little extra input from the Balkans. They brought with them knowledge of agriculture, salt-water travel, and enough cultural complexity to necessitate and support cities. It appears these Greek-speaking Anatolian migrants absorbed and/or pushed out earlier peoples.
Homer and Hesiod were the first to write about Greece (about 2700 years ago), using the innovative Greek alphabet (the first to include symbols for consonant and vowel sounds). They chronicled nearly 1300 years of tribal memory. Thus Greeks can claim 4000 years of continuous awareness of being Greek.
By Homer’s time, Greeks had already explored and colonized most of the Aegean and Black Seas, and much of the Mediterranean, founding cities as diverse as Syracuse, Marseille, Naples, Split, Istanbul, Odessa, Sevastopol, Alexandria, & Trabzon. Greeks were great sailors and traders, but they didn’t venture far inland. What is now northern Greece was in classical times left to barbarians (Illyrians, Thracians) or semi-barbarians (Macedonians – at least they spoke crude Greek).
City-states were the order of the day; democracy was conceived and sometimes practiced. Free thought, philosophy, science, trade and the arts flourished. By 2400 years ago, Greek ideas had captured the known world’s imagination, but few thought of themselves a Greek, rather as a citizen of Athens, Corinth, etc.
2300 years ago, Alexander the Great controlled the combined armies of most Greek city-states, conquered and extended Greek language and ideas all the way to Egypt and India. He didn’t live long enough to cement his empire, and within 200 years, the Romans took over.
Rome may have conquered Greece, but Greek ideas had already so penetrated Roman thought that their empire was truly the Greco-Roman Empire.
Fast-forward to the year 330. The city of Rome is in economic decline; barbarians are threatening its security. The emperor Constantine decided to move the Roman Empire’s capitol to the Greek city of Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople. In 313 he had issued a decree halting the persecution of Christians. In 380, Christianity became the official state religion – what we now call the Greek Orthodox Church.
It was Constantine’s version of the Roman Empire, [a blend of Greek, Roman, and Christian concepts, (containing a multitude of ethnicities), with its capitol in the former Greek city of Byzantium], that became known to later historians as the Byzantine Empire (though in its day it was still called the Roman Empire). It was to last over 1100 years – far longer than the original Roman Empire. While Western Europe endured its “Dark Ages”, the Byzantine Empire was a haven of security, cultural achievement, and prosperity.
In 1054 the Christian Church formally split over theological and territorial disputes into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The result was some moral justification for competition and warfare between East and West: enough justification that the (mostly French) Crusaders felt no restraint to capturing and looting Constantinople in 1204, and ruling it until 1261. The restored Byzantine Empire was a demoralized, weaker version of its former self, making its final destruction in 1453 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks a foregone conclusion.
The Greeks consider the Turkish occupation of their lands (1400’s-1900’s) to be their “Dark Age”. It coincided with the western Renaissance, Enlightenment, & industrialization, which mostly bypassed the Greeks.
However, one quirk of Turkish rule was responsible for preserving Greek heritage. The Turks, being at heart warrior-nomads, were not very interested in the details of everyday administration of their territories, nor in the endless disputes between religious factions. They just wanted to collect taxes to finance lavish living and further conquests. So, following Islamic precepts on the treatment of non-Muslims; Jews, Armenians, Greek Orthodox, etc., were each allowed their own courts (set up by religious leaders) to settle crimes and disputes among themselves. The religious leader was also responsible for collecting taxes and remitting them to the Turkish authorities.
Today’s Greeks hold their Byzantine heritage more dearly than their Classical Greek heritage. Of course it was more recent. Until the 1930’s most Greeks refused to call Istanbul by that Turkish name, but still referred to it as Constantinople, and thought of it as their real capitol, (only temporarily usurped). Because the Church was the keeper of culture and hope during Turkish rule, the Church’s memory of Byzantium as Greece’s greatest age, and its opinion of Classical Greece as unenlightened paganism has been hugely influential.
As the decline of the Ottoman Empire began to accelerate in the 1800’s, Greece began dreaming of its former glories. By 1881, most of what was traditionally mainland Greece had been liberated from the Turks.
In 1912-1913, Greece, Serbia & Bulgaria combined to push the Ottomans out of Europe, dividing the captured land among themselves. This territory contained a patchwork of Slavic, Vlach, Greek, Turkish & Albanian peoples. Boundaries were drawn based more on national ambition than ethnic logic. Thus many Albanians, Vlachs, Macedonians, Turks, and Bulgarians were trapped inside Greece, while millions of Greeks were left outside. Mass deportations in the 1920’s partly ‘corrected’ these ‘imbalances’. Today Greece has significant populations of Albanians, Macedonians, Bulgarians, Roma, and Vlachs. Political pressure to conform is gradually turning ethnic minorities into loyal citizens of their new country.
Today, the Greeks are 1. People who speak Greek as their native tongue, and/or 2. People who live in Greece (11 million) or whose ancestors came from Greece (7 million), who have an awareness of Greek history, and who think of themselves as Greek, (or Hellene!)