Why Hellene and not Greek

Some of the readers of this blog would be wondering why Katerina, in one of the previous topic, “Different opinions”, wants to be known as Hellene and not Greek. Here is a brief explanation:

The name of our state is officially Ελληνική Δημοκρατία, Elliniki Dimokratia or Hellenic Republic.  

In the ancient times the area that today is Greece consisted of a number of city states and kingdoms so the name Hellas was not in use to describe it but appears initially to refer to some people living in an area of the eastern part of Greece. It is only from the 7th century BCE and later that the term Hellene and Panhellenic appears more often to describe the people of the peninsula and their activities. The term Graeci (from where Greek and Greece comes from) was used by the Romans to refer to the people of north western Greece but we also see a reference in ancient Greek writings about the same people as “Γραικοί (Graeci), an older name of people that they now call themselves Hellenes”. With the establishment of Greek colonies in southern Italy, the term Graeci became more widespread amongst the population of today’s Italy to refer to all people of the Greek peninsula. With the advent of the Eastern Roman Empire (later Byzantine Empire) and of Christianity, the use of the term Hellenism was related by then to idolatry and paganism and was restricted for use only amongst scholars. The Byzantines, although were using the Greek language in the Empire’s later years, they referred to themselves as Ανατολική Ρωμαϊκή Αυτοκρατορία – Eastern Roman Empire and themselves still as Romans. The broader population used the term Ρωμαίος or Ρωμιός – Roman or Romios (a shorter version for Roman), when not referring to themselves simply as Χριστιανός – Christian. But many westerners continued with the Roman term Graeci that became quite widespread in many of the languages of the west as Greeks, Grecs, Griechen, Grec and Griegos. With the deprivations of the 400 years of Turkish occupation, western visitors to Greece during that period, seeing the misery of the people of the area started using the term Greek to mean more than just an inhabitant of Greece but also someone that was illiterate, uncivilised, often a villain.

With the 1821 uprising a new era emerged. The more farsighted and educated amongst the leaders of the new nation realised that a new image was required to unite the people of the land who all they knew at the time was that they were Romioi, Christians and occasionally they were referred to by others as Graeci. The image of the long lost greatness of ancient Hellas was known only amongst the few educated who decided that the new state was to aspire to the greatness of its ancestors, the ancient Hellenes. So the name of the new state was to be Hellas.

The first government of the new state issued its first provisional constitution as Προσωρινό Πολίτευμα της Ελλάδος – Provisional Regime of Hellas in 1822 and its first constitution issued in 1832 upon the appointment of the first king of the state, King Otto, was the Πολιτικόν Σύνταγμα της Ελλάδος – Political Constitution of Hellas. Since then Hellas is the official name of the state and Hellenes is what we like to call ourselves.  The term Greeks, although tolerated because of its widespread use by most foreigners, is not one that we like.

And that’s what Katerina’s call was for; don’t call us Greeks, we are Hellenes.


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20 Responses to Why Hellene and not Greek

  1. Peter says:

    Many thanks, Yorgo, for your very interesting and, as always, insightful posting.
    As a linguistic scientist, though, there are some important language points I would like consider here. For example, you say “the name of our state is officially Ελληνική Δημοκρατία, Elliniki Dimokratia or Hellenic Republic.” I would query your “or” here. The official name of the country is indeed Ελληνική Δημοκρατία. But this can perfectly well, and in my view should correctly be, translated into English as “The Greek Republic” or “The Republic of Greece. “Hellenic” is not really a very English word and most anglophone people have no idea what it means. (You won’t find it in small dictionaries, and in big dictionaries it is mostly defined as having some connection with ancient Greece.)
    Your story of where the word “Greek, Griechisch” etc. comes from is quite true, but I don’t see that it is very relevant. The word “English” derives from the area of northern Germany called “Angeln”, but that is not relevant to anything important in the 21st century. Words mean what they mean – their origins have nothing to do with anything – and to suppose that they do is called the “etymological fallacy”!
    You also say that towards the end of Greece’s time as part of the Ottoman Empire, “western visitors to Greece during that period, seeing the misery of the people of the area, started using the term Greek to mean more than just an inhabitant of Greece but also someone that was illiterate, uncivilised, often a villain.” I didn’t know this, and I’m grateful for the information, but I promise you this is not something any English speaker knows today – and so once again is not relevant. The word “Greek”, whether in connection with “Ancient Greek Philosophy” or “Greek poetry” or “Greek icons” or “Greek Islands” has only favourable and honourable connotations in the modern English language.
    You also say that “the few educated …decided that the new state was to aspire to the greatness of its ancestors, the ancient Hellenes. So the name of the new state was to be Hellas.” But actually, no, it wasn’t to be “Hellas”, was it? It was to be Ελλάς /Ελλάδα. English speakers – and as you will recall, a number of them did help this new state to come into being! – called the new state ‘Greece’. You also tell us – thank you! – that Greece’s first constitution issued in 1832, upon the appointment of the first king of the state, King Otto, was the Πολιτικόν Σύνταγμα της Ελλάδος – Political Constitution of Hellas. Since then Hellas is the official name of the state and Hellenes is what we like to call ourselves.” But here, Yorgo, you are telling us what the Greek words were – and then coming up with your own translation. But I dispute your translation! The normal and correct English translation of της Ελλάδος is “of Greece”, not “of Hellas”. There is no such word as “Hellas” in English.
    I don’t believe, either, that Katerina can be seriously concerned about what people call her country in their own languages. She is free to call it what she likes in Greek, obviously, but she knows she cannot hope to dictate to speakers of other languages what they should say. I’m sure she doesnt really suppose that 400,000,000 English speakers will ever start saying “Hello, are you are a Hellene? Are you Hellenic? Do you speak Hellenic? This year Im going for my holidays to the Hellenic Republic”.
    The Germans call themselves Deutsch. We call them German. (Do they mind? Of course not.) The French call them Allemand. The Italians call them Tedesco. The Poles call them Niemiec. The Lithuanians call them Vokietijos. The Finns Saksa. Greeks, too, will have to allow us, please, to use the words of our own languages to mean what they mean!
    People say Greek if they are speaking English, Yunani if they are speaking Indonesian, Řekyné if they are speaking Czech, Ellinas if they are speaking Greek. Lets be happy about this! English speakers have used the proud word Greek in our language now for about 1,500 years – the word was Grecisc in Anglo-Saxon/Old Englsh – and you can be sure we will continue to do so.
    And let us, too, beware of “official names”, as these are decided upon by, well, officials. You and I, Yorgo, remember when Greece was “Ελλάς Ελλήνων Χριστιανών”… And the official name of the country of which I am a citizen is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” – but I’d rather not be called United-Kingdomish, thanks!

    • Jean says:

      Hi Peter,
      Thanks for your long post putting what I was also thinking about the whole issue in a clear and erudite form.
      Essentially, whilst I understand where Yorgos is coming from I also think that this Greek/Hellenes issue is something that only (native) Greek speakers will be aware of and possibly have a problem with.

    • Yorgos says:

      Peter, thank you very much for your erudite and most entertaining reply. Certainly, we Hellenes, do not expect the 400 million English speakers and many more hundreds of millions of speakers of other languages to change the way they have been using their language for hundreds of years and start calling us Hellenes. Katerinas’ You Tube piece was a good promotion piece aimed more at the depressed and disheartened Greeks rather than the English speakers of this world. Made most Greeks and many friends of Greece to cheer up and look positively to the future. Listen to all the other messages of the video, other than the call me Hellene bit, and also the Greek national anthem at the end. All good stuff, provided that you don’t overanalyse it and being overcritical.

      In my piece I was trying to explain why we prefer to be known as Hellenes, but this is just what we like; we do not demand it, although Katerina’s message at the end of the video might be misunderstood.

      • Ange Kenos says:

        WHY Yiorgo? We no longer refer to Ceylon but Sri Lanka, no longer Rhodesia but Zimbabwe, no longer New Holland but Australia. Despite the utter nonsense from Peter YOUR explanation was close to one I placed on the internet 3 years ago.
        Our many enemies including the Turks prefer to have us called Greeks and to deny our Hellenism because that Hellenism is related to civilisation, to culture, to organised society, to genius, to art, to so much more that is great.
        As to your piece my late great uncle once showed me a French English dictionary, circa 1952: Greek – thief or deceitful. Since that day I have been a Hellene and NOT a Greek. Maybe Peter is pro Fyrom or some other NON Hellenic nation.

    • Conor says:

      In my opinion, it’s up to the Hellenes/Greeks to be called what they want to be called. I always found it curious how the Hellenes came to be called Greek in the first place. I understand it’s because Latins applied their name of “Magna Graecia” to all “Greek” speaking peoples, but why was that region named Magna Graecia? Did the Latins just make up their own word, Graecia? If there was no word for the Hellenes before colonization, why would they create one that differed from the populations own term? Or did early “Magna Graecians” call themselves something like “Greacian?”

      Regardless, if the “Greeks” want to be called “Hellenes” more power to them. Herodotus refers to them as Hellenes in his “History of the Pelleponesian war” so I don’t see why we can’t as well. Since the English translation for “the Hellenes” is not “the Greeks” but “the Hellenes.”

      • Yorgos says:

        Hello Conor,
        This is a complex subject but here I will try to clarify a few points. Magna Graecia was referred to the south eastern part of Italy where Greeks established colonies around the 8th and later centuries BC. They were referred by the Latins as Graeci. Again they got this from the Illyrians who occupied the north-eastern part of the Adriatic Sea, or western part of the Balkan Peninsula, who used to refer to the peoples living south of them, in the current Greek district of Epirus as Graeci.
        Some of the Greek writers of the 4th century BC and later (incl. Aristotle) have written that “the people that have lived in the area around Dodoni and the Achelos River were once called Graeci but are now Hellenes”.
        So the Graeci, and by extension Greeks, was applied by many Europeans who were more familiar with the Latin rather than the ancient Greek language, to those living in what is now Hellas, or Greece. The uneducated Greeks of the 18th and 19th centuries, under the control of the Ottomans at the time, were also referring to themselves as “Romioi” or Graeci”, the first coming from the Byzantine times where they were considered as Romans (Byzantium being the eastern Roman Empire), and the second from what they were being called by the Europeans.
        Complex and fascinating subject that deserves a more extensive study rather than a couple paragraphs in a blog such as this.

      • Ange Kenos says:

        Thank you Conor

    • You miss the important point that among us (Hellenes),when speaking in our native language of Hellenic, we always identify ourselves as “Hellenes” or “Hellenas / Hellinida”. Now why would someone like yourself wish to call us otherwise. I realize that the English language is poor as it relates to other languages, but I am sure you can learn one more, else you would be identified as a “Greek”.

    • Alex says:

      Peter, I do see your points but disagree with the spirit. English is a very flexible language. The word ‘Hellas’ might well not exist, but neither did e. g. ‘ selfie’ a few years ago.
      If it bothers hellenes to be called greeks people should take notice ( even if their use of the term greek is well intentioned) and the new word will diffuse into the language

    • Ange Kenos says:

      Yiorgos is correct. Your lack of logical understanding and historical comprehension is astounding

  2. Sam Kioskli says:

    When my father was a boy on the island of Crete he spoke Kritika – Cretan – and considered himself Ottoman.

    • Yorgos says:

      Sam, your father’s very sad story is one of tens of thousands of similar stories that one can still hear on both sides of the divide between modern Turkey and Greece. It was the result of the exchange of populations in 1923 following the disastrous 1919 Greek invasion in Smyrna. One and a half million Orthodox Christians from Ottoman lands and half a million of Muslims from Greek lands were resettled, many of them not knowing the language of the people in the country where they were resettled.

      Many have written about this very sad story and I will not try to expand on this topic. But I will strongly recommend to anyone that is interested in this topic to watch a short film titled “My Cretan Lemon Tree”. It costs only € 3 but it is worth many times more.


      • Nash says:

        What kind of nonsense and Turkish propaganda is this? I challenge you, let’s go to Crete or anywhere in Greece and ask people. Everyone consider himself Hellenas! Us, Europeans are sick of people who try to change the truth in such forums and blogs.

      • Ange Kenos says:

        Resettled? Three million Hellenes, Assyrians, Kurds, Persians, Armenians and others were SLAUGHTERED by Kamal Ataturk and his followers. Just as previously they executed the Hellenes who lived in Kalipoli (now Gallipoli).

  3. Constantine Dragases says:

    Just a small correction: the Byzantines never referred to their empire as the “Eastern Roman Empire”. In their eyes they were ROME, plain and simple. While the emperor was sometimes referred to as αὐτοκράτωρ, the empire itself was never called Αὐτοκρατορία, but βασιλεία, πολίτευμα, οικουμενή or even ἡ διοίκησις.

  4. Angelina Papanikolas says:

    MPRABW!!! I was very happy to find this. Academia does not give the perspective of the true Ellines. My father is from Kphth (Kpirtikos eivai all lei pou eivai Ellenas). The first time I was ever educated as to the will of the people to be identified as Ellines, opposed to Greeks, was when I was in Ellada (Greece) and was advised my one of my friends…kai Ellinikos etan. This mentality is still very much alive. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks…not everyone can be an Ellivida or Ellevas:)

  5. Jim says:

    I’m of Portuguese descent. Azorean, more specifically. I stumbled across your blog because I was very confused about the distinctions between all of the related terms and expressions used in the translation of Herodotus’ THE HISTORIES that I’m rereading. I started the search by looking for the earliest acknowledged people that inhabited the land of today’s Greece. I got more confused. It seems that the people that were to become Hellenes were a polyglot of many peoples extending from Thessaly and Macedonia through Asia Minor to the islands of the Aegean and Cyprus, Crete, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, etc. For all that I can find, settlements in Italy, France, Spain and the Levant and all around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea all produced those folks that would take on the name “Hellene” and/or become “Hellenistic”. It just seems to me that what binds them is less blood than it is a shared culture, language and heritage. Perhaps even a thought process, which of course is facilitated by a common language and culture – whether infused by birth, adopted by choice or assimilated by proximity doesn’t seem to make much difference. Those who have taken that mantle wear it proudly … and that is how it should be. I can’t believe it’s all about where you live. Or where you used to live. Or where your parents or grandparents lived. If that alone is the source of pride … we’re all in trouble.,

  6. Phil Hellene says:

    Columbus discovered the West Indies and called their people “Indians”. Greeks who visit the United States and return are called “Indians” too. US residents think they are “Americans”, which means that their neighbors the Canadians and Mexicans are not. Why not? Maybe we should be “statists”.

  7. Paula giannakis says:

    I think that “Hellene” sounds far more attractive and romantic than “Greek” which seems harsh and not so attractive

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