Did nationalism exist in the classical world?

Nationalism is often thought of as a modern development - but its traces can be found in antiquity.

Alexander Mosaic (detail), House of the Faun, Pompeii.
Alexander Mosaic (detail), House of the Faun, Pompeii. Wiki Creative Commons.

Modern nationalism grossly distorts history, especially in Far Eastern states where history is treated as ancillary to nationalist myth. It leads to the oppression of minorities within a state’s borders and to attacks on others outside them. In the postwar period, it has achieved nothing creditable and much that is utterly discreditable, never more lethally than in the bogus ‘Khmer’ ideology of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the mid-1970s. How best can we characterise it? Is it, as almost all modern historians assume, only an invention of the modern period, at least from the 18th century onwards?

I begin with George Orwell, writing in May 1945. In his essay, ‘Notes on Nationalism’, he describes it as ‘the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests…it is also inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and prestige not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.’ Orwell profoundly disliked this ‘sinking’ element. Nationalism, he observes, is the habit of assuming that whole blocks of people, even millions of them, can be classified like insects and confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. He gives telling examples of its distorting effect on historical events around him, and in 1945 there were indeed many. It was already a ‘post-truth’ era.

Orwell’s definition is unusual but valuable for its insistence on power and block-labelling. It is unusual because it includes the identification not only with a nation but with any ‘other unit’. As examples he cites pacifism, Catholicism and even Trotskyism, but he had Stalinist communism especially in mind. Few nowadays would accept this extension of the term, but Orwell goes on to distinguish nationalism from patriotism most interestingly. Unlike power-seeking nationalism, patriotism, he declares, is ‘devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life which one has no wish to force on other people’. It is essentially defensive.

American historians may wish to extend the term ‘patriot’ to past leaders whose aggression or diplomacy extended American power across their continent, but like others who are not American nationalists, I prefer to hold to Orwell’s definition. Can we transfer it back into the ancient world? Patriotism is of course widespread there. Most Greeks were devoted to life in their particular polis, or city-state. Romans also wrote warmly of their patria, and patriotism was frequently expressed by provincial subjects of the Roman empire. Upper-class magistrates, for instance, in Greek cities under Roman rule, publicly dedicated statues of Aphrodite, goddess of love, as symbols of their ‘love’ for their home town.

What, though, about nationalism? Political theorists and modern historians, Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm among them, write as if nationalism began in the 1790s with the revolutionary citizenry of France and then spread either by example among France’s conquered neighbours or as a reaction to the French armies’ conquests. The general assumption is that there was no nationalism in antiquity. Hobsbawm adopts Gellner’s definition of nationalism as ‘primarily a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent’. In his widely-cited Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson even picked on items like the printing press, mass communication, newspapers and – why not? – capitalism, as necessary conditions of nationalism. The global historian William H McNeill has even added infantry drill to the list.

Following Isaiah Berlin, let us first distinguish nationalism from ‘national consciousness’. For Berlin, nationalism is an ‘enflamed and pathological’ state of national consciousness, one which is caused most often by a ‘wound’, especially the wound of military defeat. Let us look at the ancient Greeks in this light.

Greek history was certainly not confined to one nation state, ‘Greece’, in which the political and national units were congruent. Nor was it confined to one ‘national’ territory. In fact, more Greeks lived outside our modern land of Greece than ever lived in the place, a point which is also true nowadays. Sometimes they had left through compulsion, being obliged to depart by their fellow citizens, but sometimes the choice to leave had been their own, hoping for a better life abroad. Those who left duly settled new citizen-states in Sicily and the south of Italy, in the north Aegean and its coastline, up the Black Sea or in western Asia, what is now west Turkey. The settlers were seldom exiles with a consciousness of a single lost homeland, like modern Armenians, say, or many Kurds. Yet after two centuries of migration overseas, a sense of shared Greekness could still be firmly asserted. The classic expression of Greek national consciousness is ascribed by Herodotus (writing around 440 BC) to the year 481–80 when the Persian king, Xerxes, and his vast army were invading Greek lands. The Athenians in Herodotus’s history are made to answer in memorable tones the charge that they might turn traitor and join the invaders. In reply to just such an offer from the duplicitous king of Macedon, Alexander I, they cite factors which unite all Greeks: the need to avenge ‘to the greatest degree possible’ the sacrilegious burning and destruction of images of the gods and their temples, their shared blood and language, the shrines of the gods which Greeks have in common and also their sacrifices, and similar customs too (they would surely include among them Greek athletic sports, performed in the nude). Their explicit sense of shared Greek blood is notable, though not always noted by modern historians. Their appeal to a shared identity, to ‘Hellenikon’, was not only based on a ‘construction’, their shared culture. Importantly, it was made only in answer to negative criticism – that the Athenians might be traitors and join the Persian enemy. Generally in history, identity is asserted strongly only when it is contested or under threat.

In that very same year, many of the Greek city-states had already sworn allegiance to what they called a new ‘Hellenic’ alliance, an instrument for resisting the Persian invasion. Despite its existence, some of the Greeks, but not the Athenians, actually joined the Persian invaders. However, after the other Greeks’ surprising victories in 480–79, the Greek allies then embarked on an offensive war against Persian western Asia, declaring it a Greek war, a hellenikos polemos. Their Hellenic alliance went on the offensive. Again, not all Greeks joined in the alliance and its Hellenic war. Within 20 years the Hellenic alliance split into two blocks, Athenians and their allies and the Spartans and theirs. Greek history again became deeply divided.

Nonetheless, the memory of this Hellenic alliance and its golden years from 480 to 470 survived. It was artfully revived 150 years later as a rallying call for Greeks by Philip and Alexander of Macedon, conquerors of many of the Greek city-states in the 330s BC. They even emphasised ‘revenge’ for the Persians’ past sacrileges as a justification for the campaign, exactly the element which Herodotus’s Athenians had emphasised before all others in their speech on Greekness, ‘to Hellenikon’. Modern historians, when writing in the 1870s and later, tended to describe this new Hellenic alliance as if it was the alliance or league which finally realised Greek national unity. The unification of Germany and Italy had made a nation state the goal to which, it seemed, all history must have been striving. In the first edition of the standard Cambridge Ancient History, published in 1927, Philip’s Hellenic peace and alliance was even described as ‘the assembling of the scattered Greek communities into a United States of Greece’. In fact, it was an instrument of Macedonian domination. It destroyed Thebes, one of the great Greek city-states. It omitted the Spartans. Its many Greek enemies denied that the Macedonians were Greeks at all. After Alexander’s death in June 323, another war broke out in Greece, known to most moderns as the Lamian War, after the site of its first big battle. By its proponents it was presented, once again, as a Hellenic war. It was declared by Greeks who swore an alliance against Macedon, but once again several major Greek powers refused to join in. The last Hellenic war in ancient history soon ended in failure.

Even before these revived Hellenic alliances, wars between Greek city- states were occasionally described by Greek orators and writers as ‘civil wars’. However, the label never stopped Greeks from embarking on yet another such war or enslaving the Greeks in the neighbouring polis. What we see, therefore, in the ancient Greek world is a persistent national consciousness, often muted in Greek minds and often betrayed by Greeks’ actions. When Isaiah Berlin goes on to specify that ‘for nationalism to develop in it, a society must in the minds of at least some of its most sensitive members carry an image of itself as a nation, at least in embryo, in virtue of some general unifying factor or factors, language, ethnic origin, a common history (real or imagined)’, we have to include, though few consider this point, the ancient Greeks as a qualifying people. We need to remember Herodotus’s Athenians and their explicit stress on ‘shared blood’.

Until very recently, modern scholars have preferred to write about Greek ‘ethnicity’ rather than Greek national sentiment. However, that fashion has now been called in question and a recent volume has even proclaimed in its title ‘la fin de l’ethnicité’ for students of the ancient world. It was never easy anyway to distinguish ethnicity, a more recent arrival on the scholarly scene, from national consciousness. Whatever we choose to call it, the crucial fact is that national sentiment never led in the Greek case to a nation state nor to the inflamed and pathological mutation, nationalism, which would have pushed for such a state to be founded. There was no such inflammation even after the great wound of the Greek states’ subjugation by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. It was the Romans who did most to entrench the word ‘Achaea’ for what we call Greece, by imposing a province of that name on the Greeks they had conquered.

The German historian Friedrich Meinecke once distinguished a Kultur­ nation from a Staatsnation. Manifestly, Greek unity fell firmly into the former category, sustained by a shared language, by such Greek inventions as politics, philosophy, tragedy and comedy and by the long-lived ‘pan-hellenic’ athletic games. Conquest and empire did not fan nationalism into existence. When Alexander the Great died young in 323 BC after conquering lands as far off as India, including Egypt, Babylon and Persepolis, his Macedonian successors rapidly began fighting against each other. We might therefore have expected his conquered subjects in Asia to seize the opportunity to rebel, intensified by the wound to their national consciousness which recent defeats by his armies had inflicted. In fact, they did no such thing. Tens of thousands of them joined one or other side in the wars of the Macedonian successors themselves. Babylon actually welcomed back the Macedonian commander Seleucus and a mere 500 troops when they galloped in to take over the mega-city and its population of many millions in 312 BC. There was no Persian national opposition, either, despite the loss of their kings’ ancient empire. Some 10,000 Persian troops actually joined a Macedonian commander in 317 BC for one episode in the war between individual would-be successors, and enjoyed being feasted within sight of ancient Persepolis, the great royal centre which Alexander had formerly burned to the ground. Paid service in an army had its attractions, but unlike the French citizen armies of the 1790s, Macedonian troops had not conquered Asia on a new wave of nationalist fervour. In turn, defeat inspired none in their subjects. Both the Macedonians and the Persians also remained devoted monarchists in the longer term.

The great Hellenistic historian Elias Bickerman has even contested the national labels which we pin nowadays on phases of history in Asia: the Assyrian period, the Persian, the Macedonian, the Roman. In his view, next to nothing changed for the vast majority of the inhabitants between one empire and the next, and it is only, he thinks, the ‘nationalist delirium of post Napoleonic Europe’ which cut history up into a sequence of ethnic and national units, age by age. By contrast, the sequence of empires described in the biblical Book of Daniel (in the 160s BC) was a political sequence, not a national one.

Not until some 120 years after Alexander’s conquest do we find a rebellion which looks at first sight to have a nationalist dimension. It occurred in southern Egypt and continued for some 20 years. Egyptian writers had long shown a xenophobic attitude to non-Egyptians, although they had not extended this xenophobia to Alexander the Great in surviving texts from his reign and its immediate aftermath. Then, from 206 till 186 BC, two rebel rulers, Haronnophris and Chaonnophris, appeared in southern Egypt and can be followed in outline in contemporary sources, although none of them contains any statement of aim or purpose from either of the rebels themselves. One wing of modern scholarship has explained their rebellion as socially motivated, against oppressive Greek rule and taxation, but social motivation can coexist with a nationalist emphasis. I agree with the specialist Claire Préaux who stressed in 1936 that the aims of these two rebels was in no way to ‘chasser le Grec‘, but in a detailed study, published in 2004, Anne-Marie Véisse has emphasised that the rebels claimed to be the beloved favourites of one or other Egyptian god. The distinctive polytheism of Egypt was indeed a strong element in Egyptian national consciousness, and it is eminently possible that the rebels’ religious self-image went with an explicit sense of national identity. Their prolonged rebellion was followed by three more such rebellions in Egypt until the Roman conquest in 30 BC. They were not, however, nationalist in nature, offering ‘Egypt for Egyptians only’, even if a strong sense of Egyptian identity did underpin them.

Why did Roman conquest not provoke a nationalist backlash among subjects newly forced into their empire? The reasons are not the absence, say, of capitalism or newspapers and a print culture. National consciousness was certainly present among Greeks and Egyptians but, when challenged, the Romans imposed their superior power with an absolute preponderance of force and cruelty which made resistance by the survivors seem futile. Most importantly, Roman imperial rule was class-based. The upper classes of the Greek city-states realised that Roman rule would usefully strengthen their own domination over the lower classes in their cities. In the western non-Greek parts of the empire, revolts did occur within a generation of the imposition of Roman rule, whether in Boadicea’s part of Britannia or in Gaul or north Africa. However, these revolts were responses to the debt, exactions and harshness of Roman rule and the ‘carpetbaggers’ who moved in in its wake. They were not nationalist, ‘Britannia for Britons’. After they had been suppressed, so far was nationalism a consequence of conquest, however wounding, that when educated, highly literate individuals call themselves Syrian or African in the Roman empire, they are not identifying themselves nationally against Roman rule. They are presenting themselves as members of the Roman province of Syria or Africa. This crucial point has greatly confused some of their modern historians.

Throughout classical antiquity, then, there was national consciousness, but no inflamed nationalism and certainly no nation state. In the Greek world, the focus was on alliances and city-states and on the dense infrastructure of units within the city-state to which citizens belonged. This multiplicity of internal associations worked at ground level against nationalism.

There is, however, one controversial exception: the Jews. Their scriptures stressed the people of Israel’s election as the ‘chosen people’ and Israel as the land promised by God. Within Israel, as in no other area in antiquity, there was one and only one approved national temple and its cult was exclusive, amounting eventually to Jewish monotheism, ‘Yahweh alone’. By public readings of scripture, especially when the institution of the synagogue developed and spread, by teaching within families and by word of mouth, all these elements combined to give Jews an exceptionally strong sense of national identity. Did it become nationalism at times when it was threatened by outside powers and inflamed? Such a threat and inflammation certainly occurred, first in the Hellenistic age, leading to the Maccabean revolt of the 160s BC, and then again under Roman rule in the mid-60s AD onwards, culminating in the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and then in Hadrian’s final solution in the 130s, the utter destruction of Jerusalem and its replacement with a Roman colony after yet another Jewish revolt.

In each case Jews were divided, and other considerations were active too. The great war against Rome had various origins, Roman insensitivity and direct taxation, the ambitions of groups within Jewish society and so forth, and in due course it became a fearful war of Jew against Jew, but other factors can perfectly well coexist with an inflamed national consciousness which is propelling some, but not all, who join in. As in Sicily in 1860, class antagonism, grievances over foreign rule and so forth coexisted with a sense, among many, that a national rebellion was now required. Even more clearly than in the Egypt of Haronnophris and Chaonnophris, religion and local rule were intertwined. As even the liberal modern Jewish historian Martin Goodman observes, messianic teachings proclaimed such a Jewish future, though its timing was left unspecified: ‘A hope for Jews’ eventual political autonomy in Judaea was…a religious imperative.’

Not all Jews lived in Judea itself, and so other historians have argued that the failure of diaspora Jews to join in the great Jewish war of the 60s AD shows that Jewish national consciousness was not in fact strong or nationalist. However, the more important point is that the Romans specifically feared such participation, not least by fellow-Jews across the empire’s eastern frontier, a fear which they never voiced about other rebels against their rule. If none actually occurred, it was surely for prudential reasons, not for non-nationalist ones. Major subsequent uprisings by Jews in Cyrene, Cyprus and Alexandria showed there was indeed scope for anti-Roman rebellion in the diaspora too, whatever the particular local mix of factors in the origins of each of these revolts.

In 1882, the French historian Ernest Renan already argued that the Jews were indeed an example of nationalism in antiquity, intensified beyond mere national consciousness by threats to their distinctive national and exclusive religion and to their special status according to scripture, in which they were upheld as God’s elect people, pre-eminent in the table of nations. We can dispute when exactly scripture coalesced or was composed, and when its distinctive view prevailed for most Jews at any one time, but by the 1st century AD its existence and widespread impact was unmistakeable. The Hebrew prophets had one and only one point of reference, their people and their nation, whereas the early Greek poets had had several, of which their nation was not one. When the Greek poet Hesiod left the daily concerns of farmers to consider more universal matters, he leaped straight from the village community to the entire human race.

The Jewish example severely dents many moderns’ assertions about nationalism, that nationalism is related causally to capitalism, that it only surfaced in the late 18th century, let alone that it required a print culture. That culture was important for the likes of Garibaldi but there was no Galilee Times in the age of Jesus or the 1st century revolutionary Zealots. There is also a tendency among modern theorists to limit Jewish nationalism to the modern proponents of Zionism or the ‘state of Israel’, with the implicit premise that such a rallying call was new and partisan, to the cost of Palestinians ever since. The ancient Jewish example does not, however, blunt a classic observation by Isaiah Berlin with which I would like to end. Berlin acutely observed how 19th-century thinkers, including Marx, were blind to the persistent strength of nationalism around them. They even assumed that it was a passing response which would simply disappear, and yet, as Berlin memorably put it in his paper of 1972, it was ‘the widespread response to the effect of technological revolution or the development of new markets or the decay of old ones, the consequent disruption of the lives of entire classes, the lack of opportunity for the use of skills by educated men psychologically unfit to enter the new bureaucracy…’. It was a weapon turned against ‘foreigners or cosmopolitans, or sophists, economists and calculators who did not understand the true roots of the people or the roots from which it sprang, and thus robbed it of its true heritage’. By contrast, the idea of a single scientifically-organised world system, governed by reason, had been at the heart of the Enlightenment programme. It emphasised what men had in common, not what kept them apart. In reply, the idea of the nation as the supreme authority relieved the pain of the wound to group consciousness which was being inflicted, as Berlin puts it, by ‘native capitalists or an artificially imposed, heartless bureaucracy’. In antiquity, there was no such technological revolution and no elite move to proto-globalisation, but Berlin’s words about the reaction to them in 19th century Europe make it very much easier, I suggest, to understand the latest modern flare-up, Brexit.

This essay originally appeared under the title Nationalism: does it exist in the classical world? in Nation, State and Empire: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, 2017.


Robin Lane Fox