Biopolitics, Racialism, and Nationalism in Ancient Greece: A Summary View

The following is a brief summary of the ancient Greek theory and practice of biopolitics, racialism, and nationalism. These themes, which are so taboo in the West today, were integral to the Hellenic way of life at the founding of our Western civilization and of our unique tradition of civic self-government. I will also refer to some of the copious mainstream academic literature documenting this.

The Greeks believed that, despite their political divisions, they belonged to a common nation, defined by shared blood, language, religion, and culture. According to Herodotus, the Greeks were“one race speaking one language, with temples to the gods and religious rites in common, and with a common way of life” (Histories, 8.144). Patriotic Pan-Hellenic rhetoric – on the supreme value of Greece and the glory of sacrificing oneself to save Greece – is pervasive across centuries of Greek literature and political discourse.[1]

The Greeks had a primitive and unsystematic racial theory. They believed that peoples gradually acquired characteristics due to their environment (e.g. Ethiopians became black because of the heat) and that these traits became hereditary.[2] These observations certainly prefigure Darwin’s later evolutionary theory.

The Europeans north of Greece were generally considered barbaric and spirited, while Asians inhabiting Persia were considered effeminate and submissive. Barbarians were often thought incapable of civic self-government. The Phoenicians were sometimes perceived as having certain Semitic stereotypes (mercantile, dishonest, greedy, mercenary) but were also sometimes perceived as a fellow advanced people, comparably organized and capable in terms of trade, warfare, and civic self-government.

The Greeks did not talk about anything analogous to racial differences in IQ and it is often unclear to what extent they believed ethnic characteristics to be due to culture, geography and climate, or heredity. The Greeks were however certainly very struck by the physical differences of the few Blacks they encountered, producing pottery contrasting Caucasian and Negroid features, in styles rather reminiscent of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Greeks had a primitive theory and practice of eugenics. Following the practice of animal breeding and simple observation, the Greeks understood that human physical and psychological traits were at least partly hereditary. It was often said that men should choose the best women as wives so as to have the best children possible. Due to economic difficulties, infanticide through exposure was a cruel accepted practice, at the parents’ discretion. In Sparta and Rome, the killing of deformed children was mandatory, an exercise in negative eugenics.

Greek and Roman political and social assumptions were grounded in the ancestral Indo-European religion. This was a patriarchal and exclusionary ancestor cult, which made a religious duty of having children in order to perpetuate the familial religion. In his classic work The Ancient City: Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome, Fustel de Coulanges said of the religion:

If it ignores the duties of charity [i.e. no duties towards outsiders], it at least traces for man with an admirable clarity his familial duties. It makes marriage mandatory; celibacy is a crime in the eyes of a religion which makes the continuity of the family the first and the holiest of duties.[3]

The religion turned the family household into a sacred and inviolable sanctuary, under the authority of the father, obeyed by wife, children, and retainers, for the good of the family taken as a whole, including past and future generations. In short, reproduction and the family itself were seen as sacred and therefore of great religious significance.

The assumptions of the ancestral religion also became commonplace in non-religious contexts. A man’s happiness was equated with his descendants. Aristotle said: “That the fortunes of descendants and of all a man’s friends should not affect his happiness at all seems a very unfriendly doctrine, and one opposed to the opinions men hold” (Nicomachaean Ethics, 1.11).

This Indo-European familial religion and its assumptions were projected to the city-state as a whole, which was always a religious entity, every public act being accompanied by rituals. Coulanges says:

The comparison of [Indo-European] beliefs and laws shows that the primitive religion created the Greek and Roman family, established marriage and paternal authority, fixed the hierarchy of kinship, consecrated the right of property and the right of inheritance. This same religion, after having enlarged and extended the family, shaped a wider association, the city, and reigned in it as in the family.[4]

Hence, like the ancestral religion, the polis’ ideal of citizenship was exclusionary (serving only citizens, typically defined by blood), communitarian (all could be regulated/expected to sacrifice for the whole, with a citizen-soldier ideal), and reproductive (marriage was not for pleasure, but for children so as to perpetuate family and community; celibacy was often punished). Plato, probably expressing the traditional religious and political view, wrote: “Mankind is immortal because it always leaves later generations behind to preserve its unity and identity for all time: it gets its share of immortality by means of procreation. It is never a holy thing to voluntarily deny oneself this prize, and he who neglected to take a wife and have children does precisely that” (Laws, 721b–d). In seeking to regulate and improve the reproduction of the citizenry in the service of collective and eugenic goals, the Greeks were eminently biopolitical.[5]

The city-state meant for the Greeks the actual people (they always called themselves “the Athenians,” “the Spartans,” etc.), their ancestors, and their gods: “this explains the patriotism of the ancients, a vigorous sentiment which was for them the supreme virtue and that which all the others culminated in . . . Love of country is piety to the ancients.”[6] However, this patriotism was in political practice very much focused on the individual city, making its interests absolutely supreme, with little consideration for eventual imperial subjects, allies, or fellow Greeks in general.

These general observations are evident in the particular examples of Athens and Sparta. Periclean Athens limited citizenship to those with two full-blooded Athenian parents and adopted racial notion of citizenship, Athenians supposedly being racially pure and “sprung from the Earth” (autochtonous).[7] Under the law of Lycurgus, Sparta famously made military training, marriage, the rearing of children, and fighting for the fatherland into a systematically-organized way of life—a clear example of a group evolutionary strategy. Sparta was an ethnostate composed of two separate, non-intermarrying peoples: Spartans and Helot slaves, with strongly xenophobic attitudes about other Greeks which functioned to prevent foreign influences on their way of life. Both Athens and Sparta claimed to be defending Greek freedom (whether against Persian rule or against imperialism of fellow-Greeks).

The Hellenic way of life combined a high degree of civilization with the aristocratic, competitive, and warrior ethos of the Indo-Europeans, developed over the course of ceaseless struggle and expansion over millennia. This ‘Aryan’ ethos is what so appealed to Nietzsche: a people not animated by pity or guilt, nor trying to achieve impossible or fictional equality in an endlessly vain attempt to assuage those feelings, nor a people trying to make every person individually happy. Rather, Hellenic culture, driven by that aristocratic and competitive spirit, held up the ideal of being the best: the best athlete, the warrior, the best philosopher, or the most beautiful. This culture also held up the collective ideal of being the best as a whole society, for they understood that man as a species only flourishes as a community.

Inspired by the Hellenic experience, we can imagine an archeofuturist renewal of the Western peoples, when modern technology and science will be combined with this vital spirit, this communitarian ethos honoring excellence, that our race and civilization may forever flourish. The Greeks, adhering to a cyclical vision of history, were obsessed by how luxury, effeminacy, and decadence, the loss of ancestral traditions and manly virtue, doomed societies. Renewal cannot be decreed, but might unexpectedly occur from some sort of collapse, such as Civil War II in the United States. As ever, time will tell.

[1] See Lynette Mitchell, Panhellenism and the Barbarian in Archaic and Classical Greece (Swansea, Wales: Classical Press of Wales, 2007).

[2] Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004). Isaac’s work is typical of the intellectual movements documented by Kevin MacDonald in The Culture of Critique, insofar as he seeks to pathologize ancient Greek hereditarian observations and theories.

[3] Fustel de Coulanges, La Cité antique (Paris: Flammarion, 1984 [1864]), 143. Available online in English translation: Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome (Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001; originally published in 1862), 166.

[4] Ibid., 36.

[5] See Mika Ojakangas, On the Origins of Greek Biopolitics: A Reinterpretation of the History of Biopower (London/New York: Routledge, 2016).

[6] Coulanges, La Cité, 278-79.

[7] See Susan Lape, Race and Citizen Identity in Classical Athenian Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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