Hellenization (American English) or Hellenisation (British) is the historical spread of ancient Greek culture and, to a lesser extent, language, over foreign peoples conquered by Greeks or brought into their sphere of influence, particularly during the Hellenistic period following the campaigns of Alexander the Great (king of Macedon, r. 336–323 BCE). The result of Hellenisation was that elements of Greek origin combined in various forms and degrees with local elements; these Greek influences spread from the Mediterranean basin as far east as modern-day Pakistan. In modern times, Hellenisation has been associated with the adoption of modern Greek culture and the ethnic and cultural homogenization of Greece.[1][2]

Historic usage

Classical period

A map showing the Greek territories and colonies during the Archaic period.

The concept applies to a number of other ancient historical contexts, starting with the Hellenisation of the earliest inhabitants of Greece such as the Pelasgians, the Leleges, the Lemnians, the Eteocypriots in Cyprus, Eteocretans and Minoans in Crete (prior to Classical antiquity), as well as the Sicels, Elymians, Sicani in Sicily and the Oenotrians, Brutii, Lucani, Messapii and many others in territories constituting Magna Graecia.

Hellenistic period

Map of the Greek Empire established by the military conquests of Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, 334–323 BC.

During the Hellenistic period, following the death of Alexander the Great, considerable numbers of Assyrians, Jews, Egyptians, Persians, Parthians, Armenians, and a number of other ethnic groups along the Balkans, Black Sea, South-Eastern Mediterranean, Anatolia, Middle East and Central Asia were Hellenized. The Bactrians, an Iranian ethnic group who lived in Bactria (northern Afghanistan), were Hellenized during the reign of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and soon after various tribes in northwestern regions of the Indian subcontinent (modern Pakistan) underwent Hellenization during the reign of the Indo-Greek Kingdom. Other tribes that underwent varying degrees of Hellenisation included Thracians,[3] Dardanians, Paeonians and Illyrians[4][5][6][7] south of the Jireček Line and even Getae.[8]

Hellenisation during the Hellenistic period, however, had its limitations. For example, areas of southern Syria that were affected by Greek culture mostly entailed Seleucid urban centers where Greek was commonly spoken. The countryside, on the other hand, was largely unaffected since most of its inhabitants spoke Syriac and continued to maintain their native traditions.[9] Moreover, Hellenisation did not necessarily involve assimilation of non-Greek ethnic groups since Hellenistic Greeks in regions such as Asia Minor were conscious of their ancestral lineages.[10]

Among Jews there was a sharp polarization between Hellenizers and anti-Hellenizers, especially manifested during the rebellion of the Maccabees against Seleucid rule. The word "Mityavnim" (מתיוונים) i.e. "Hellenizers", remains up to the present in use among radical Orthodox Jews as a pejorative term for Jews seeking to assimilate in whatever world culture.

Middle Ages

Main article: Byzantine Greeks

Hellenisation can also refer to the medieval Byzantine Empire and Constantine's founding of Constantinople (Eastern Roman Empire that was Hellenized). Moreover, it can refer to the primacy of Greek culture and the Greek language after the reign of Emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641) in the 7th century AD.

Ottoman period

Main article: Rum millet

Hellenisation during the period of Ottoman imperial rule entailed the higher status which Greek culture and the Greek Orthodox Church enjoyed among the Christian Orthodox populations of the Balkans.

Modern usage

See also: Grecomans

In 1909, a commission appointed by the Greek government reported that one third of the villages of Greece should have their names changed, often because of their non-Greek origin.[1] In other instances, names were changed from a contemporary name of Greek origin to the ancient Greek toponym. Some village names were formed from a Greek root word with a foreign suffix, or vice versa. The majority of the name changes took place in areas populated by ethnic Greeks, where a stratum of foreign, or divergent, toponyms had accumulated over the centuries. However, in some parts of northern Greece the population was not Greek-speaking and many of the former toponyms reflected the diverse ethnic and linguistic origins of their inhabitants.

The process of the change of toponyms in modern Greece has been described as a process of Hellenisation.[1] A modern use is in connection with policies pursuing "cultural harmonization and education of the linguistic minorities residing within the modern Greek state" (Hellenic Republic), i.e. the Hellenization of minority groups in modern Greece.[2]

In 1870, the Greek government abolished all Italian schools in the Ionian islands, annexed to Greece six years earlier. This led to the diminution of the community of Corfiot Italians, resident in Corfu since the Middle Ages; by the 1940s there were only four hundred Corfiot Italians left.[11]

Modern scholarship

The twentieth century witnessed a lively debate over the extent of Hellenisation in the Levant and particularly among the ancient Jews that has continued until today. The History of Religions' interpretations of the rise of Early Christianity (applied most famously by Rudolf Bultmann) were wont to see Judaism as largely unaffected by Hellenism, while the Judaism of the diaspora was thought to have succumbed thoroughly to its influences. Rudolf Bultmann thus argued that Christianity arose almost completely within those Hellenistic confines and should be read against that background as opposed to a more traditional Jewish background. With the publication of Martin Hengel's two volume study Hellenism and Judaism (1974, German original 1972) and subsequent studies Jews, Greeks and Barbarians: Aspects of the Hellenisation of Judaism in the pre-Christian Period (1980, German original 1976), and The 'Hellenisation' of Judaea in the First Century after Christ (1989, German original 1989) the tide began to turn decisively. Hengel argued that virtually all of Judaism was highly Hellenized well before the beginning of the Christian era, and even the Greek language was well known throughout the cities and even smaller towns of Jewish Palestine. Scholars have continued to nuance Hengel's views, but very few continue to doubt the strong Hellenistic influences throughout the Levant, even among the conservative Jewish communities who were the most nationalistic.

See also



  1. 1 2 3 Zacharia 2008, p. 232.
  2. 1 2 Koliopoulos & Veremis 2002, pp. 232–241.
  3. Samsaris 1980.
  4. Athanassakis 1977, p. 263: "It seems that the original home of the Albanians was in Northern Albania (Illyricum) rather than in the partly Hellenic and partly Hellenized Epirus Nova."
  5. Hammond 1976, p. 54: "The line of division between Illyricum and the Greek area, 'Epirus Nova', in terms of Roman provincial administration ran somewhere between Scodra and Dyrrachium and then eastwards on the north side of the Shkumbi and Lake Ochrid..."
  6. Lewis & Boardman 1994, p. 423: "Through contact with their Greek neighbors some Illyrian tribe became bilingual (Strabo VII.7.8. diglottoi) in particular the Bylliones and the Taulantian tribes close to Epidamnus."
  7. Pomeroy et al. 2008, p. 255.
  8. Webber & McBride 2001, p. 14: "Reconstruction of the procession drawn on the lunette (back wall) of the 3rd century BC Sveshtari tomb; the original is in charcoal, as the tomb was unfinished. It shows a Hellenised king of the Getai being crowned by the Thracian mother goddess."
  9. Boyce & Grenet 1975, p. 353: "South Syria was thus a comparatively late addition to the Seleucid empire, whose heartland was North Syria. Here Seleucus himself created four cities—his capital of Antiochia-on-the-Orontes, and Apamea, Seleucia and Laodicia—all new foundations with a European citizen body. Twelve other Hellenistic cities are known there, and the Seleucid army was largely based in this region, either garrisoning its towns or settled as reservists in military colonies. Hellenisation, although intensive, seems in the main to have been confined to these urban centers, where Greek was commonly spoken. The country people appear to have been little affected by the cultural change, and continued to speak Syriac and to follow their traditional ways. Despite its political importance, little is known of Syria under Macedonian rule, and even the process of Hellenisation is mainly to be traced in the one community which has preserved some records from this time, namely the Jews of South Syria."
  10. Isaac 2004, p. 144: "Apparently the best and most pleasing compliment one could pay to a Hellenistic establishment in Asia Minor was to insist on the lineage of its ancestors: they were not a city of nondescript migrants but of Greeks and Macedonians of true blood. Once again, we see that such views were very common, but there were critics."
  11. Giulio 2000, p. 132.


Further reading

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