Location and Dislocation in Early Greek Geography and Ethnography

Authored by: Philip Kaplan

The Routledge Handbook of Identity and the Environment in the Classical and Medieval Worlds

Print publication date:  December  2015
Online publication date:  January  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415738057
eBook ISBN: 9781315686622
Adobe ISBN: 9781317415701


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In a well-known passage in his Archaeology, the Greek historian Thucydides provides an assessment of early Greek history in which he describes most of its early inhabitants as migratory (metanastaseis), living off of subsistence farming and being readily willing to change homes (1.2). This was true of most of Greece, except for Arkadia: he notes Thessaly and Boeotia as prime examples. He goes on, however, to make a perversely ethnocentric claim about Athens: by virtue of the poverty of its soil its population was uniquely immune to displacement. Of course, Thucydides did not have special access to information about Greece’s remote past unavailable to the poets and prose writers who preceded him. He was instead applying his severe brand of rationalism to the large body of legends of early heroes and peoples wandering from city to city and resettling in new lands, intermingling with or driving out previous inhabitants, to create a schematic, and to our ears anthropologically plausible, portrait of early nomadic Greeks. While this portrait does not add up to reliable history, it represents a good starting place to consider why such stories of movement and displacement are so common in Greek thought about the remote past. The frequency with which Greeks resorted to the discourse of displacement is particularly striking when compared with the discourse of autochthony, which has received a great deal of scholarly attention but is in fact important in only a handful of cases of Greek self-definition. 2 The primacy of narratives concerning migration and the displacement of peoples suggests that the Greeks had a complex understanding of the relationship between themselves and the lands they inhabited, which put more emphasis on their interrelations and the process of becoming, rather than on a primordial connection with the lands they inhabited. In both their self-conceptions and in their understanding of other peoples, Greeks framed the relationship of peoples to land and environment in terms of complex diachronic evolution and adaptation.

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