Ancient History & Civilisation

APPENDIX H Dialects and Ethnic Groups in Thucydides

©1. “Hellas,” as the Greeks did and continue to refer to their land, was not a unified nation in Thucydides’ time, but rather a country composed of hundreds of independent city-states, most of them very small. The citizens of these states all spoke Greek, but the Greek of each city-state was at least slightly different from the Greek speech of all other city-states. Athenian speech, for example, differed from that of neighboring Boeotia, and Spartan speech differed from both of these and also from that of nearby Arcadia.

©2. In general, Greeks made little comment about dialects. There was no ancient, common, Standard Greek, as there is a Modern Standard English, and it seemed natural to them that the people of different city-states had different accents. Every Greek could understand every other Greek regardless of dialect, although Thucydides does mention the Eurytanians of Aetolia whose speech was said to be exceedingly difficult to understand (3.94.5). Greek authors only occasionally took notice of dialectal differences. The Athenian comic poet Aristophanes brings Spartan, Megarian, and Boeotian characters on stage, each speaking in his native dialect to achieve comic effects; and Aeschylus, the tragic poet, has one character in the drama The Libation Bearers refer to speaking in “the Phocian manner”—the dialect spoken in the vicinity of Delphi. Thucydides mentions dialects several times. Although he himself writes in his native Attic with an admixture of a few Ionic forms, he does quote Dorian decrees in 5.77 and 5.79, and quotes them in a Doric dialect. The first decree must have been composed in Sparta, the second either in Sparta or in Argos. Though he might well have summarized the decrees or translated them into Attic if he had time to revise them, their presence in the text shows that he had access to Spartan decrees and could read them easily, and that later readers and scribes also could understand these dialects.

©3. Throughout antiquity the Greeks thought that all their dialects arose from three main roots: Doric, Ionic, and Aeolic. This concept must be an ancient one, for it is found in the work of the early epic poet Hesiod, who says (fragment 9) that from King Hellēn (@ Greek) were born three sons, Dōros, Xouthos, and Aiolos. These three are the ancestors of the later Dorians, Ionians, and Aeolians—Xouthos had a son Ion, who settled in Athens and was regarded as the ancestor of the Ionians. Modern scholars accept the ancient classification, but add a fourth grouping, the Arcado-Cypriote, a dialect spoken over much of the Peloponnese before the arrival there of the Dorians.

©4. The origin of these dialectal differences is of course lost to us by time. Some scholars used to feel that the Greeks migrated into Greece in three distinct waves: first the Ionians, then the Aeolians, and finally the Dorians. And it is true at least that the Aeolic and Ionic dialects must have become differentiated long before they crossed over to Asia Minor (Ionia, 1.2.6), perhaps around 1000 B.C. The Dorian “invasion” was thought to have taken place at the very end of the Bronze Age (1200 B.C.) or later, and this date, at least for the Dorian settlement of the Peloponnese and elsewhere, must be about right. A later wave of Greek colonization (750-600) took speakers of the various dialects to Sicily, southern Italy, and the Black Sea region.

©5. Scholars no longer believe in this neat three-wave hypothesis of the arrival of the Greeks; they assume rather that dialectal differences arose among Greeks in Greece during the Bronze Age (2200-1200 B.C.). There are, however, a number of cultural differences that argue for some period of independent development of Dorians and Ionians. The names of the Dorian tribes—Hylleis, Dumanes, Pamphyleis—are common to all states whose citizens speak the Dorian dialect, but are found in no others. Each dialect group celebrates at least a few religious festivals that are peculiar to themselves and different from those of other groups. The Carneia mentioned by Thucydides (5.54; 5.75) was a uniquely Dorian festival, just as the Panionia mentioned by Herodotus (1.1.148) was a uniquely Ionic festival. Their calendars also differ in characteristic ways, as in the names of the onths. Heracles, the protagonist of many tales, was the Dorian hero par excellence, and the Ionians developed myths involving the Athenian Theseus in part so as to have a native hero as powerful as Heracles.

©6. Aeolic, the dialect spoken in Boeotia, Thessaly, Lesbos and a small portion of the northern Asia Minor coast, is of little importance in Thucydides, and he rarely alludes to Aeolians (3.31.1; 8.108.4). He does say that the Lesbians are kin to the Boeotians (3.2.3; 7.57.5; 8.100.3), as indeed they are linguistically, but he also incorrectly believed that Aeolians once lived in the area around Corinth (4.42.2) and inAetolia(3.102.5).

©7. Thucydides does make frequent references to Ionians and Dorians, however, and reports that the war between Athens and Sparta was perceived by many as a dispute between these two distinct groups, with Athens and the Ionians of the Asia Minor coast pitted against the Dorian inhabitants of the Peloponnesus and elsewhere. This view was maintained despite the fact that many Dorians fought with Athens, and many Ionians, at least near the end of the war, fought against her. Thucydides provides a convenient list of the mixed dialectal allegiances in his description of the combatants at Syracuse (7.57-58). Rhetorically, at least, Dorians and Ionians were eternal enemies (6.80.3; 6.82.2).

©8. Thucydides makes abundantly clear that his contemporaries developed, used, and responded to distinct and pronounced stereotypes of Dorians and Ionians. Dorians were thought to be rough, hardy folk in habits—brave fighters to be sure, but rural, conservative, and a little slow. In speech they were spare, pithy, and blunt (4.17.2; 4.84.2). Ionians (and primarily Athenians), on the other hand, were cultivated in manner (1.6.3) and glib in language—clever, commercial, and adventurous: one may instance Pericles’ Funeral Oration (2.36-46) as an example of Athenian developed oratory. Although some Ionians (but not Athenians) were scorned as all too ready to serve any master (6.77.2), the Athenian Ionians were feared as restless and aggressive. Many Greeks seem to have been surprised when Ionians defeated Dorians (8.25.5), as this outcome was contrary to the expectation often expressed (5.9.1; 7.5.4).

©9. The linguistic differences between the dialects were clear. Where Dorians said dāmos “people,” as in the name of the Spartan king Archidamos, Ionians said dēmos; and when a Dorian said “he gives,” he would say didōti, while an Ionian would say didōsi.These differences were slight, but they could sometimes be very significant. The Athenian general Demosthenes, for example, exploited the Dorian accent of the Messenians from Naupactus in order to deceive and surprise the Ambraciots at Idomene (3.112.4); and he later remarked that because their dialect was the same as that of Sparta, they would make particularly effective raiders against the Spartans (4.3.3). The Athenians, in their turn, were thrown into confusion in the night battle on Epipolae (7.44.6), when the paean(see Glossary) was simultaneously raised both by their Dorian allies, the Argives and Corcyraeans, and by their Dorian enemies, the Syracusans and Peloponnesians; since all these Dorians were chanting their paean in the same dialect but the Athenians could not distinguish friendly from hostile accents, the Athenians were unable to locate their allies and perceived their enemies to be on all sides, which contributed much to their bewilderment and ultimate panic.

©10. The ancients were generally more concerned with ethnic differences than with linguistic ones, and believed that language reflected character. Thucydides shared this focus, as his own interest in dialect was generally more cultural than linguistic. In this he proves a better guide to ancient attitudes toward language than to the facts of linguistic diversity.

William F. Wyatt
Classics Department
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island

These same people were said to eat their meat raw. Most likely Thucydides knew very little about them, but thinking them primitive, felt that their language must be primitive as well.

Boeotian and Megarian characters appear in The Acharnians, and a Spartan woman plays an important role in Lysistrata. The broad use of dialect by these characters must have delighted Athenian audiences in much the same way that modern American writers employ “yankee” or a “southern” or “western” drawl, or modern British writers use Scots or Yorkshire dialects.

For Theseus, see Appendix E, ©4.

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