In this paper I will consider the issue of Greek identity through two processes visible in Greek historical writing: the creation of mythological genealogies at the edges of the Greek world, and the “barbarianization” of a Greek city.
Upon introducing the conflict in Northwest Greece between Ambracia and Amphilochian Argos, Thucydides briefly digresses to explain its origin: Amphilochos, son of Amphiaraos (a Peloponnesian Argive), is credited with founding both the city of Argos and the surrounding region of Amphilochia. Many generations later, the city fell into misfortune and brought in settlers from neighboring Ambracia. It was at this time, Thucydides says, that the Amphilochian Argives “were Hellenized with respect to their current language from the settlement of the Ambracians; the rest of the Amphilochians are barbarians” (2.68.5–6). Eventually the Ambracian settlers drove out the original Argive inhabitants, who allied themselves with the Acarnanians; this led ultimately to Athenian intervention and the current conflict.
This passage raises numerous questions about Greek identity, the construction of mythological genealogies, and the reception of such descent claims. If Amphilochian Argos was founded by an Argive of the Heroic Age, how did it only come to speak Greek much later? It is unlikely that Thucydides refers merely to dialect, as Hammond argued (Hornblower, I.352); rather, the language criterion appears crucial for Greekness (Malkin, 196). Perhaps Thucydides simply ignores the city’s claim to a heroic foundation? If so, he offers no clue when he mentions the foundation story (cf. 4.120.1, where Thucydides writes, “The Scionians say they are Pallenians from the Peloponnese”). Did the supposed Greek settlers of the Heroic Age become barbarian, in a process which Thucydides leaves unstated? In any case, there remains the issue of how the city of Argos is now Greek while the rest of Amphilochia is barbarian, although both were founded by Amphilochos.
Adoption of mythical ancestors on the part of cities and regions occurred throughout antiquity, especially, as J. Hall notes (2002, 47), as a method of adapting to contemporary political situations. The Amphilochian claim, however, created a glitch in the mythological descent framework, since Thucydides – who shows an interest in language (e.g. 3.94, 4.109) – knows that the Amphilochians outside the city of Argos do not speak Greek. A later passage offers a possible solution: at 2.102, Thucydides notes that Acarnania took its name from Acarnan, son of Alcmaeon, who was also a son of Amphiaraos – and thus a brother of Amphilochos. It is possible, then, that the Amphilochian Argives’ descent from a Greek hero was fashioned at the time of their struggle with the Ambraciots, thus creating kinship between two new allies. Indeed, by the fourth century, Ephorus (F 123) had Amphilochia being founded by Alcmaeon himself and characterized the inhabitants of the region as Acarnanian, not barbarian (Breglia).
A passage in the Periegesis attributed to Scymnos reveals another option mentioned above: the “barbarianization” of a city or region which claimed Greek descent. The peninsula of Hyllike in the Adriatic contained 25 cities which took Hyllos son of Heracles as their founder; “but over time they have been barbarianized, historians tell us, by the customs of those nearby, as Timaios and Eratosthenes say” ([Scymnos] Perieg. 410–12; FGrHist 566 F 77; Roller, F 146). At least by the third century, then, Greek authors envisioned communities which had lost their (imagined) original Greekness. Thucydides’ account of Amphilochian Argos may provide an earlier precedent.
I intend to examine this and other possible historical scenarios for the relationship of Amphilochia with its neighbors and the development of its Greekness, in an attempt to shed light on how ancient communities near the edges of the Greek world utilized the past to adapt to the present and how those maneuvers are reflected in our historical sources.
- Breglia Pulci Doria, Luisa. "Argo Amfilochia, L'Alkmaionis, e la tradizione di Eforo." Annali dell'Istituto italiano per gli studi storici 12 (1991–94), 123–40.
- Hall, Jonathan. Hellenicity. Chicago, 2002.
- Hammond, N.G.L. Epirus. Oxford, 1967.
- Hornblower, Simon. A Commentary on Thucydides. 3 vols. Oxford, 1991–2008.
- Malkin, Irad, ed. Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity. Washington, DC, 2001.
- Marcotte, Didier. Geographes grecs. Tome 1: Circuit de la terre, Ps.-Scymnos. Paris, 2000.
- Roller, Duane W. Eratosthenes' Geography. Princeton, 2010.