Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
While patriotism is associated with the modern world, scholars now believe that it was very common in the Classical world. Patriotism—which can be defined as a love of one’s country that conditions one’s behaviors and beliefs—played a major role in both Roman and Greek society. There, it was promoted through rituals and traditions—just as it is in modern nations, such as the United States on the 4th of July.
Patriotism in Ancient Greece
The ancient Greek world understood patriotism in a way similar to the modern world. For the Greeks, patriotism meant a willingness to serve and support the state—and if necessary, fight and die for one’s native land. Citizens who lost their lives in war were honored, as is evident in Pericles’ oration for those who fell in the early days of the Second Peloponnesian War.
But for the ancient Greeks, there were actually two types of patriotism. The first was patriotism focused on a shared Hellenic identity. The Greeks took a great pride in being Hellenes. In fact, they believed that they were much superior to non-Greeks, whom they referred to as barbarians. Hellenic patriotism was celebrated in rituals and practices. A good example of this was the various Pan-Hellenic institutions, especially of a religious nature, such as the Oracle of Delphi.
Then there was the unique Hellenic expression of patriotism expressed in the Olympic Games. Only Hellenes could participate in the Games, which were a celebration of a common identity and values. Hellenic patriotism inspired Greeks to cooperate in Leagues, such as that formed when Persian invaded the Greek mainland in 492 BC.
The second form of patriotism in ancient Greece took a more localized form: pride in one’s city-state. A good example of this is the patriotism of Sparta. The Spartans took a great pride in their native land and identity. The vast majority of Greeks owed their first allegiance to their city-state, such as Thebes. The male citizen-body was a privileged group in the polis, and they were very loyal to the city-state. Typically, the citizen took an oath of loyalty to the state and was expected to devote himself to the good of the state.
The downside of this form of patriotism was that the citizens of city-states such as Athens felt that they could enslave and massacre those from a different polis. This civic patriotism was enforced by the citizen community in the form of military training. Religious festivals were often appropriated by the Civic Magistrates to enforce a sense of patriotism among the citizenship and the wider population.
The Panathenaea, for example, was a festival that celebrated the goddess Athena, the patron-deity of the city. This involved a procession and feasting, and it sought to demonstrate the uniqueness of Athens and it taught the citizens and others to take pride in their city. Many leading citizens would celebrate liturgies demonstrating their patriotism in which wealthy citizens would contribute to the public good, such as staging a tragedy in Athens.
The word patriotism has its roots in the Latin word for patria, which means homeland or fatherland. Roman patriotism was thus tied to a strong sense of loyalty to the father (pater) and family. Romans were totally devoted to their family and the head of the household was the undisputed authority. This loyalty to the family was gradually took on a more collective form and was transferred to the early Roman Republic. Roman patriotism became dedication and pride in the Fatherland. Rome was seen as a family of families.
This intense patriotism was one of the reasons for the success of Rome. Like the Greeks, the Romans had two forms of patriotism, one specific to the Roman Republic (and later Empire), and one to their native city or region. Romans were often both citizens of the Republic or Empire and their own city or area. They swore to serve the state and put it before their own interests.
Roman patriotism was enforced in a variety of rituals and ceremonies, such as those dedicated to Mars. All citizens served in the army during the early Republic, and this helped enforce patriotism. During the Imperial period, the emperor came to embody the state. Increasingly, patriotism centered on the emperor. The imperial cult was used to promote loyalty to the emperor and a common Roman identity throughout the provinces. Triumphs which celebrated some victory in battle were also used to inspire a pride and love of the Fatherland.
As in Greece, wealthy citizens would demonstrate their patriotism by building public works or providing entertainment for their fellow citizens in return for increased prestige. A good example of this was the staging of gladiatorial games. Roman history and literature often celebrated ancient heroes like Aeneas who were praised for their pietas, or love of family and fatherland. This inspired many Romans to serve their country and even to die for its sakes. A number of Romans, especially writers such Virgil, were patriotic in the sense that they believed that the empire had a divine mission to civilize the world.
Patriotism was common in the ancient world, where it was both a force for good—in that it promoted social cohesion and public service—but it also had its dark side, as it encouraged conflict and even xenophobia. Patriotism was essential to military strength and considered necessary for the public good. This helped the Greek and Roman civilizations to survive and to flourish for many centuries.
Kapust D. (2017) Roman Patriotism. In: Sardoc M. (eds) Handbook of Patriotism. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-30534-9_42-1
Crowley J. (2017) Patriotism in Ancient Greece. In: Sardoc M. (eds) Handbook of Patriotism. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-30534-9_7-1