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The Four Elements of National Identity in Herodotus

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The Western Classical notion of identity comes to us from Herodotus’ Histories, written in the 5th century B.C. It’s from Herodotus that we have the story of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, told in the broader context of the entire Hellenic world’s successful resistance of the Persian invasion. In order to do that, the Spartans (Dorians) and Athenians (Ionians) had to overcome their differences and join together to defend what was common to both of them as Greeks. 

In Book VIII, there is a scene in which the Athenians explain to a messenger from Sparta why the Spartans should side with the Athenians and not the Persians. (It should be remembered that both the ancient Greeks and ancient Persians were Indo-European peoples.)

“First and foremost of these is that the images and buildings of the gods have been burned and demolished, so that we are bound by necessity to exact the greatest revenge on the man who performed these deeds, rather than to make agreements with him. And second, it would not be fitting for the Athenians to prove traitors to the Greek people, with whom we are united in sharing the same kinship and language, with whom we have established shrines and conduct sacrifices to the gods together, and with whom we also share the same way of life.” (VIII:144.2)

In this passage are no less than four criteria for being a Greek, or Hellene: common religion, common blood, common language, and common customs. (One could argue that customs are almost entirely derivative of religion and blood, but we will stick to the four-part formulation in the text.) That was 2500 years ago, but in my opinion this is still the best and most comprehensive working definition of national identity. This is because one can extract it fro m this particular situation in ancient history and apply it to virtually anywhere in the world at any time.  The four elements of identity are either present or absent, to varying degrees, and a people are correspondingly either strong or weak.

The story of the Greek resistance to Persian tyranny is the story of the self-realization and self-actualization of a people. When the four elements of identity are in place, they work together synergistically to form a kind of collective body, capable of functioning as an organic whole. The Persian army was numerically much stronger than the Greek, but most of their soldiers were conscripts from conquered territories who were forced into service. They were Persians in name only.

It’s interesting to note that the Athenians tell the Spartan messenger that the most important reason for opposing the Persians is their desecration of Greek religious shrines. (It should be remembered that the Spartans were known as both the fiercest warriors of the ancient world and also the most pious, dividing their time more or less equally between military training and religious ritual. How Evolian.) The Classical notion of identity is thus supportive of the Traditionalist view of the primacy of religious faith — that “culture comes from the cult,” as Russell Kirk put it — but it also checks it by including the other criteria. Common faith alone will not suffice, even if it is ultimately the most important unifying factor of a culture.

It should also be noted that the Classical definition of identity comes to us from a time prior to the reign of Homo economicus. (Though even then, Herodotus has the Persian king Cyrus mocking the Athenians for having “a place designated in the middle of their city [the agora, marketplace] in which they gather to cheat each other.”) It is a formula for the cohesion of a people and the health of a culture. It is not necessarily a formula for dominance in the world, particularly economic dominance.

Finally, the Classical definition of identity represents an ideal, a standard. As with other standards, there are bound to be deviations and variations. Elsewhere in The Histories, Herodotus tells us that the Athenians were originally Pelasgians — pre-Indo-European inhabitants of Greece — who “learned a new language when they became Hellenes.” (I:57.3 – I:58) The dominant influence on Classical Greek culture and identity was probably Dorian, the Indo-Europeans who conquered Greece from the north. But these Pelasgians were apparently able to assimilate and “become Hellenes,” although history shows us that Athens was always culturally and spiritually different from Sparta. Still, at the time of the Greco-Persian war, the Athenians and Spartans must have had enough in common for the Athenians to cite the four elements of their common identity to the Spartan messenger.

But the further one moves from the quadripartite Classical definition of identity, the more the strength and cohesion of a people is diluted. This is so because the elements which give rise to feelings of otherness gain in power, and consequently the elements of commonality diminish. Classical identity works because it’s based on nature, both human psychological nature and larger biological nature.

Applying this model to the history of Western civilization, we can see that the peak of Western identity in terms of cohesion and strength was probably the Middle Ages. Despite the diversity of European customs and languages, Latin was the lingua franca that united the educated peoples of every European country, and Christianity was the faith of the whole continent. One could go to any church in Western Europe and partake in the same Latin mass. The racial identity of Europeans was, I think, a given — an obvious fact of nature that need not even be dwelt upon. This entire scenario stands in stark contrast to contemporary Europe and North America, where racial, linguistic, religious and cultural diversity are pushed to further and further extremes, with predictable consequences.

The coming together of the greater Hellenic world to resist the Persian invasion offers an inspiration and a model for contemporary Western people who value their identity and heritage. However, it should also be remembered that ultimately, the differences between Athens and Sparta proved greater than their commonalities, and the two city-states destroyed each other in the Peloponnesian War, a mere fifty years or so after their shared victory over the Persians.

Perhaps the unspoken fifth element of identity is a common enemy.



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  1. c
    Posted June 16, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I am grateful to you for bringing this passage to light – it is certainly thought provoking.

  2. Posted June 15, 2016 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    I don’t follow you. Are you saying that both the Greeks and Persians were racially identical to northwestern Europeans? That may have been the case with the Greeks – their artwork would seem to indicate so. As for the Persians, I don’t know. They spoke an Indo-European language, and their religious beliefs accord with the larger Indo-European tradition, but I don’t know much about their racial make up. Perhaps a reader can refer us to a source?

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  • By Plato’s Racial Republic* | Hwaairfan's Blog on August 29, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    […] themes have been present in Western thought from the beginning. An example of this would be Herodotus, the very first historian, who 2,500 years ago already defined being part of the Greek nation […]

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