This year’s Census gave rise to an interesting cultural phenomenon: the perennial debate as to what our ethnos should be called. As debates go, it is rather baffling. Considering that we have been around for millenia, one would have thought that by now, we would have arrived at a broad consensus as to our collective nomenclature. Yet this is not the case.
From the rugged Romaic borderlands of Oakleigh came the cry: “Why is the Australian government calling us Greeks? This is an insult. We are Hellenes.” (Cue YouTube clip of Canadian internet phenomenon Katerina Moutsatsos screeching “I am Hellene!” on a computer generated background of island whitewash here.)
There are two reasons sundry the patriotic denizens of our ethnic enclaves in Melbourne feel affronted by the term ‘Greek’. The logic of the first is simple. It is not the name we call ourselves. Since we call ourselves Hellenes, so should everyone else. To impose a different name upon us is thus seen as cultural imperialism. Of course the fact that we Greeks have no problems in referring to those who call themselves Deutsch as Germanoi, those who call themselves Zhongguoren as Kinezoi, those who call themselves Hayer as Armenioi, those who call themselves Magyarok as Oungroi (and in times Byzantine as Tourkoi), those that call themselves Kartvelebi as Georgianoi and those who call themselves Bhaarateeyon as Indoi, either completely escapes us, or finds us totally indifferent at the inconsistency. After all did not one venerable ancestor opine: «Πας μη έλληνβάρβαρος»?
The logic of the second reason is also straightforward. According to the erstwhile pre-lockdown patrons of sundry coffee shops in Eaton Mall and beyond, the term “Greek” is insulting because apparently it was imposed upon us by the occupying Romans and was used to denote an effeminate and weak race. Best stick to Hellenes which has always been the name of our proud and glorious conglomeration of tribes that acknowledge Pericles, Alexander the Great, Kolokotronis and Otto Rehhagel as our common ancestors.
Except it hasn’t. From the Homeric epics, we learn of several appellations pertaining to our people such as Danaans and Achaeans. The Persians called us Yauna, after the Ionians, who colonised part of the coasts of western Asia Minor. This term was later adopted into Hebrew as Yevanim, and into Arabic, and strictly to describe the Greeks living in modern day Greece, by the Turks. The word also entered the languages of the Indian subcontinent as the Yona. The Facebook etymologists who claim on this basis that the Greeks must have reached the southern province of China known as Yunnan, however, are mistaken. Yunnan means “south of the colourful clouds” and has nothing to do with the Ionians. Tantalisingly, in ancient times, the Chinese called the Greek-speaking kingdom that existed on its borders, “Da-Yuan,” that is, Great Ionia. Modern Chinese, conversely, refer to modern Greece as Xila, that is, Hellas, so they deserve a round of applause.
It makes sense that a people would name a nation after the part of it that they historically encountered. The term ‘Greeks’, merely reinforces this. Contrary to common prejudice, the term Γραικοί, is not a Latin term. Indeed, the first use of the word as equivalent to Hellenes is found in Aristotle to describe a tribe living in Epirus. Homer, while reciting the Boeotian forces in the Iliad’s Catalogue of Ships, provides the first known reference to a region named Graea, which is why the name Graecoi, whence ultimately the term “Greek” is derived, was given by the Romans originally to the Greek colonists from Graea who helped to found Cumae, a Greek colony in southern Italy where the Italic peoples first encountered the Greeks and then to all Greeks.
“Graeculus” or “Greekling,” not Greek, was the term coined by Cicero and employed by certain Romans to belittle their Greek contemporaries who they considered much fallen and debased in comparison to their illustrious ancestors, engendering a form of orientalism that persists in the West until the present day. Conversely, according to Rene Olivier, in the French language the word ‘Grec’ is sometimes also used as an ethnic slur meaning fraudster, whereas ‘Hellénique’ has no negative connotations and is euphoniously très chic to boot. Considering that the letter y in French is referred to as i-grec, we can best leave the French, who have adopted the name of a Germanic tribe, instead of their original Galloi (which we retain), to their own devices.
Assyrians in Australia further reinforce just how nuanced and loaded with meaning the terms used to denote our people can be. They uniquely refer to the Greeks of Greece as “Yunaye,” (Ionians) but to the Greeks they have encountered in Australia as “Greknaye”, a linguistic phenomenon that does not exist anywhere else in the world and which serves to differentiate a diasporan community from its mother culture by adopting the ethnonym used by the dominant culture in order to define us.
In his “Meteorologica”, Aristotle refers to ancient place called Hellas in Epirus between Dodona and the Achelous river. According to him the land was inhabited by the Selloi and Graeci, who later came to be known as Hellenes. Homer refers to Hellenes as a small tribe settled in Thessalic Phthia and in order to unduly complicate matters, the Parian Chronicle mentions that Phthia was the homeland of the Hellenes and that this name was given to those previously called Greeks, something which is reinforced by Spartan lyric poet Alcman, who in the seventh century BC, wrote that the mothers of the Hellenes were the Greeks. Both ethnonyms therefore, refer to tribes that lived alongside each other, or engendered each other.
The confusion regarding ethnonyms is further intensified by the fact that in Hellenistic times, the word ‘Hellenic” no longer referred to a nation but rather, to an attitude and a way of life. As rhetor Isocrates, declared in his speech Panegyricus: “And so far has our city distanced the rest of mankind in thought and in speech that her pupils have become the teachers of the rest of the world; and she has brought it about that the name Hellenes suggests no longer a race but an intelligence, and that the title Hellenes is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood”.
This idea of a shared culture has been appropriated by the West, which continues itself the successor of ancient Greece, (not Hellas). As Percy Byshe Shelley wrote: “We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece.”
While in early Byzantium the term “Hellenic” came to refer to a pagan, it enjoyed a resurgence in late Byzantium.
It should be noted as an aside, that just as there once existed a soccer team in Melbourne called South Melbourne Hellas, which dropped its ethnonym in order to be accepted into the mainstream. Perhaps we could do the same, signifying our assimilation into the mainstream by expressing our ethnicity via a lacuna in the text, or a silence, or nervous hum, where the word Hellas used to be.
Yet for much of our modern recorded history, the Greek people called themselves neither Greek nor Hellene. Instead, they identified as Romans, originally referreing to their citizenship as subjects of Byzantium, which was the continuation of the Roman Empire. This state of affairs persisted until modern times, with one author writing how when in 1912 the island of Lesbos was liberated from the Ottomans, the local inhabitants, hearing the words “the Greeks are coming” were mystified, as they referred to themselves as “Romioi.” In the Middle East, the situation is even more complicated. There “Rum” is synonymous not only with the Greeks, but with the Orthodox religion. Thus, the Patriarchate of Constantinople is known in Turkish as the “Rum” patriarchate, just as they termed central Greece “Rumeli,” a term that persists today. The Orthodox in Syria refer to their Church as the “Rum” Orthodox Church and on the basis of that, which translates as “Greek,” some of them espouse a Greek ethnic identity. In modern Greek, the word “Romios” or “Romiosyni” still persists to denote a cultural identity that encapsulates the entire historical experience of the people in a manner that other terms do not. Pontians still lament their lost homeland as “Romania,” and while most modern Greeks refer to themselves as «Έλληνες,» they still call the Greeks of Constantinople: “Romioi of the City,” (Ρωμιοίτης Πόλης).
Given this concatenation of names, signs and signifiers, do we get rid of the word “Greek,” when one of our greatest heroes, Athanasios Diakos, consigned himself to a horrific death all the while maintaining: “I was born a Greek and as a Greek I will die?” («ΕγώΓραικός γεννήθηκα, Γραικός θε να πεθάνω».)
Do we insist on the use of the word “Hellenes,” when the West associates our ancient civilisation with the term “Greek,” thus creating a rupture that reinforces prejudices which cast doubt upon the historical continuity of our people?
Do we divest ourselves of the word Romios, when the term Romiosyni is still used to describe the quintessence of our ethnic identity, enshrined in such masterpieces as Ritsos’: “Don’t cry for Romiosyni?” (Τη Ρωμιοσύνη μην την κλαις).
Ultimately, the names we are called by others say more about the nations that come into contact with us, rather than just ourselves. Calling someone by a name establishes not only an identity, but also a history of cultural exchange. Viewed from this perspective, it matters little whether I am called a Greek, a Hellene, a Romios, a Rum or an Ionian because my people defy description and definition.
Yet if I were to settle on one officially approved ethnonym to denote our polymorphous hypostasis, I would look no further than the word Georgians use to describe us: “Berdzeni.” Derived from the Georgian word “brdzeni,” it means: “the wise men.” Flattery will get you everywhere.