(1) Them and us: Trends, themes and constructs
Man is a social animal, expressing his understanding of himself and the world around him through symbols. Symbols can be language, personal and collective habits, objects of everyday or ritual use. Symbols can be manipulated to express affiliation to a particular group of people be that ethnic, status, gender, or age, but they can also serve to create boundaries between ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. The ultimate ‘Other’ was the ‘Barbarian’ a creature of Greek invention. Through defining the ‘Barbarian’, the Greeks defined themselves.
(2) Polis and politics
This theme is devoted to the most omnipresent phenomenon of the ancient Greek world: the polis and in particular to its political dimensions as a force of identity construction. The Greek polis – otherwise known by the modern term ‘city-state’ – manifested itself in a number of different ways. It was the geographic notion of the entire territory of the ‘city-state, it was the proper term for the ‘city’ as opposed to the undifferentiated landscape, and it was used as a concept denoting the political and ideological collective of individuals of citizen status. By and large, Greek societies of the Classical period (ca. 500-300 BC) organized and executed policies and expounded civic political life via institutions such as councils, assemblies, and magistracies. The degree to which individuals living in Greek societies had access to these institutions remains a strong indication of how the singleton society was unified or divided in political as well as social and ideological groupings. The focus will be on the examples from Athens and Sparta in the Classical period.
(3) Identity in ancient Greek religion
Ancient Greek religion was very much different from modern religion: it was not a question of ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ but of the participation in public and private rituals. Rituals formed the substance that bound together society. Every member had its own role to play in the religious life, and the role was foremost prescribed by age, gender, and status.
(4) Sacred landscape with temple
Worship of the gods took place by the altar, which was the most important element in a Greek sanctuary. Temples housed the cult image and it served as storage for the treasury associated with the cult. Devotees left their votive offerings inside and outside of the building. Temples were mighty symbols of civic pride. Immense resources were invested in building them, and they became a main parameter in inter-state competition.
The way people live expresses in many ways their identity and their ideals. The architecture of houses reflects the social structure within the family and reveals the social functions the house was expected to accommodate, such as for example the symposion. At the same time, houses show the relation between the family and the community. In egalitarian societies, such as many Greek poleis in the Classical and Hellenistic period, there tends to be a high degree of conformity in the lay-out of houses. Two of the best preserved cities, Priene and Olynthos, each show a remarkable similarity in house architecture. There is, however, no such thing as "a Greek house". House architecture was adapted to local conditions and traditions.
The sense of place and belonging always has had its icons. Coins and coin motifs number among the most valuable sources of evidence for changes in the ancient Greek society and development of a new sense of civic association. The Greek cities also had their civic devices, which were often used on coins, since the nature of coinage required the backing and prestige of its issuing authority. But civic devises were also stamped on, for example, amphorae and roof tiles.
(7) Language and race
Most modern scholarship (pre)supposes that adherence to a certain linguistic group makes a major contribution to the construction of ethnic identity. Even though this view calls for modification, there can be no doubt that language plays a significant role in Herodotos’ concept of ethnicity both in the Greek and the non-Greek world. At the same time, Herodotos carries on a controversy against contemporary essentialist concepts of language and ethnicity, which inferred that linguistic and ethnic differences were basically a product of nature.
(8) Literacy and power
The degree of literacy in the ancient world is a matter of hot debate. However, even if the written word was accessible only to a minority, public inscriptions played since the end of the Archaic age a significant role in constructing collective and individual identities. Yet, orally-performed verse literature, like epic, drama, and lyric was a much more important vehicle of Hellenic identity. Furthermore, written literature, though available only to the educated elite, was an essential part of the so-called paideia that distinguished Greeks from non-Greeks from the Classical age onwards.
(9) On the battle-field and beyond: Greek warfare
To most students of ancient Greece history, the period from the Persian wars in 494 – 479 BC to the victory of Philip of Macedonia in 338 BC constituted an almost endless series of warfare. What is more, a proof of the war-like nature and attitudes of the ancient Greeks is found in the agonistic – that is, competitive – nature of the Greeks, which takes its most potent expression on the battlefield. The theme of this lesson is how warfare constituted the context of powerful identity constructions, most importantly those associated with the ‘middling’ ideology of hoplite-warfare – massed infantry battles fought between formations of heavy infantry; and those of empires based upon the naval supremacy.
(10) Ancient dress (codes)
The semantics of ancient dress were as multi-facetted as they are today. Dress expresses status, ethnicity, age and gender, and as is well known from contemporary society, it can constitute the arena of heated battles, e.g. when used as religious markers. Dress thus reveals a tangible part of our identity which we chose (or are obliged) to show in public as well as in private.
(11) Burial rites and status
Social status displays in burial customs
Burials are powerful media for communicating identities. Both private and public identities can be displayed in the mortuary contexts and often the funeral and subsequent burial is used as a scene for the negotiation and manipulation of identities. However, it is important to remember that the identity expressions we find in burials are not always necessarily the direct reflections of the ‘real’ lifetime identities of the deceased. Often we must understand them as the perceptions and wishes of the people who buried – ideas and ideals often create a manipulated identity. Social norms and expectations play a central role in the way we perceive identities and this create some difficulties when we want to understand more about such aspects of ancient life on the basis of archaeological remains.
(12) Burial rites reflecting gender/age, grave goods, and ethnicity
Like in real life, where the role to play in the society was prescribed by age, gender, and status, these categories also defined the actions to take place at the funeral as well as the appearance of the tomb. For tomb types, grave markers, and grave offerings are media of identities, they all depend greatly on gender and age, as well as on the ethnicity of the interred. Reliable attribution of burials with respect to gender and age is of a key importance both for studying the demography of ancient population and reconstructing their mortuary practices.
(13) Summing up