The peoples identified as the ancient Greeks and Romans were distinct groups by the 700s B.C. Their ancestors had come to the Mediterranean region centuries earlier, during a period in which groups of people appeared, split apart, migrated, merged with other groups, and sometimes disappeared. Archaeologists* and historians are still attempting to untangle the complex web of prehistoric invasions, wars, migrations, and influences that gave rise to the ancient Greek and Roman cultures.

As the Greeks and Romans settled and became powerful, they encountered many other peoples. They traded with and fought against the inhabitants of Asia, Africa, and other parts of Europe. Greek and Roman historians and geographers left detailed accounts of many of these peoples. The Greeks considered themselves superior to all non-Greeks, referring to these others as barbarians. The Romans felt equally superior to all who were not Roman.

Throughout the ancient period, people continued to migrate from one region to another, sometimes pushing out the former inhabitants and sometimes mixing with them. These migrations and mixtures shaped the population of Europe and the Mediterranean world during the Middle Ages.

* archaeologist scientist who studies past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins

The Greeks. The first wave of Greeks came to Greece around 2000 B.C. or earlier. They evolved into the Mycenaeans, whose civilization flourished in southern Greece around the 1400s B.C. The second wave of migration to Greece came around 1200 B.C. from a people called the Dorians.Scholars believe that all Greeks descended from a population that by about 1000 B.C. spoke a similar language. The Greeks called themselves Hellenes. Although there were many different states, tribes, and subgroups of Hellenes, all of them spoke dialects* of the same language, Greek.

Even when the Greeks were at war with each other, they shared a strong sense of ethnic* identity. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that what set the Greeks apart from the peoples of the Persian Empire was that the Greeks were a single people. He wrote that the Greeks had “one blood, one language, common shrines and sacrifices* to the gods, and a shared way of life.”

* dialect form of speech characteristic of a region that differs from the standard language in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar

* ethnic relating to the national, religious, racial, or cultural origins of a large group of people

Although the Greeks considered themselves a single people, they recognized three large subgroups of Hellenes based on the dialects of different regions and on their own accounts of their early history. These groups were the Dorians, the Ionians, and the Aeolians. The Dorians were believed to have come from the mountains of northwestern Greece. They settled in the Peloponnese* and on the island of Crete. The Ionians occupied Attica, the region in which the city-state* of Athens was located, and settled on the southern islands of the Aegean Sea and on the coast of Asia Minor(present-day Turkey). The Aeolians lived in Thessaly, in the northern region of Greece, and on the northern Aegean islands. Many Greeks believed that the Dorians possessed the original, authentic Greek culture, with their patriotism, military strength, community spirit, and strong ties to traditional myths and beliefs.

Greece was bordered on the northeast by Thrace, on the north by Macedonia, and on the northwest by Illyria. Although the people of these regions shared some Greek ethnic characteristics, the Greeks did not consider the inhabitants of these regions to be Hellenes. The Macedonians, the Greeks’ closest neighbors, eventually conquered Greece and adopted Greek culture, which they then spread into western Asia and Egypt as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great in the late 300s B.C.

* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat

* Peloponnese peninsula forming the southern part of the mainland of Greece

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

The Romans. The Romans originated in Latium, a region in west-central Italy inhabited by a people called the Latins. Rome, one of several cities built by the Latins, expanded and eventually dominated the rest of Latium. At the beginning of the Roman Republic*, the Romans shared Italy with more than 40 other peoples. Greek colonies were located on the coasts of southern Italy, and the Samnites and the Lucanians lived in the mountainous interior of the south. The Sabines and the Umbrians inhabited the mountains of the north. The Etruscans, the Romans’ neighbors to the north, developed an advanced and influential culture long before the expansion of Rome. By the time of the late republic, Rome controlled all these peoples within Italy, and the Romans had also conquered other regions of the Mediterranean, including Greece, Asia Minor, North Africa, and much of Europe.

Originally a small city with a primarily Latin population, Rome became the capital of a vast empire that included dozens of very different groups of people. Even in the streets of their own city, Romans encountered people from many different regions and were exposed to foreign languages, religions, and customs. At the same time, Rome established colonies of Roman citizens throughout the empire. These colonies helped spread Roman language, culture, and traditions to other peoples of the Mediterranean region—a process known as Romanization.

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

Other Peoples. The Greeks and Romans were sturdy people of short to medium height. Although some had light hair and blue or gray eyes, most had dark hair and brown eyes. Their skin color ranged from light tan to fair. While the Greeks and Romans regarded these physical characteristics as the human norm, they did not generally classify foreign peoples by race, skin color, or physical features. They noticed ethnic differences more than racial ones. When describing foreign peoples, Greek and Roman writers focused on such features as names, marriage and burial rituals, religion, diet, sexual habits, hair and clothing styles, manner of swearing oaths, and other beliefs and customs.

In the 400s B.C., Herodotus recorded many details about the peoples known to the Greeks. Four centuries later, the Greek geographer Strabo, after much study in the great Library at Alexandria, summarized till available information about the known world and its peoples. Strabo’s work and that of other historians, as well as ancient works of art, provide evidence as to how the Greeks and Romans perceived the other groups who inhabited their world.

The Iberians, who lived in far western Europe in present-day Spain, were known to the Greeks as early as the late 600s B.C. Roman writers described the Iberians as having dark skin and an abundance of curly hair. Modern historians believe that some of the people on the southern coast of Spain may have been descended from North Africans who migrated to Spain in prehistoric times. At the southeastern fringe of Europe (in the present-day Balkan Peninsula) were the nomadic* Thracians. The Greek historian Thucydides called the Thracians “the most bloodthirsty of barbarians.” Several writers reported that the Thracians had blond or red hair, which they wore in knots on top of their heads, and blue or gray eyes.

The Celts were a restless people who migrated into much of western Europe, including northern Italy, Spain, Thrace, Britain, and Ireland. The Celts’ appearance seemed different from that of both the Greeks and the Romans. One ancient writer described them as “tall, with pale skin, rippling muscles, and hair which is not only naturally blond, but also bleached artificially to heighten their distinctive appearance.” Strabo wrote that physical fitness was extremely important to the Celts. Young men who became fat or potbellied had to pay fines. Throughout the ancient world, the Celts were believed to have a warlike temper and to enjoy fighting. However, they were also said to lack stamina and often suffered from heat and thirst.

The Germans were “like the Celts, though larger and fiercer,” wrote Strabo. The Germanic peoples probably originated in Scandinavia and northwestern Germany. They migrated south to the valley of the Rhine River, where they mingled with the Celts, and southeast to southern Russia and the shore of the Black Sea. To the Romans, the Germanic tribes were a constant menace along the northern borders of their empire. The Germanic tribes of Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Vandals caused the decline of the Western Roman Empire in the A.D. 400s.

Although the ancient Greeks and Romans knew much about the Scythians, a nomadic tribe of southern Russia, they knew far less about other peoples of central and eastern Russia and central Asia. Among the most mysterious of these groups were the Huns, battle-hardened nomads on horseback who emerged from the Black Sea region in the A.D. 300s to terrorize Europe.

The Greeks and Romans were familiar with many of the peoples who lived in Asia Minor and the Middle East. The Greeks and the Romans both engaged in trade, warfare, and conquest with the Syrians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Persians, Jews, and Arabs. The Greeks and Romans also knew a little about the Asian peoples who lived east of the Persians, in the lands that are now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The Romans had heard of China by the 100s B.C. because that land was the source of the silk that merchants were selling to the rich in cities throughout the Mediterranean region. Although Rome sent envoys* to China in A.D. 166 and A.D. 284, there was very little direct contact between the Roman world and eastern Asia.

The Greeks and Romans were familiar with the different ethnic and racial groups of Egypt, Sudan, Libya, and northwestern Africa. About the rest of Africa the Greeks and Romans knew only what they heard from Egyptian and Arab sources. Although Greek writers as early as Homercorrectly described the Pygmies of the African interior as “black-skinned” and much smaller than other people, the Greeks and Romans had little real knowledge about Africa south of the Sahara desert. Their world centered on the Mediterranean Sea, which they regarded as the hub of the earth. (See also Citizenship; Ethnic Groups; Greece, History of; Migrations, Early Greek; Migrations, Late Roman; Mycenae; Rome, History of.)

* nomadic referring to people who wander from place to place to find food and pasture

* envoy person who represents a government abroad


Many ancient writers reported accounts of strange and remarkable races of people who always lived somewhere just beyond the frontier of the known world. Herodotus reported that a race of one-eyed people lived in far northern Europe. One visitor to India reported hearing about a people whose ears were so large that they wrapped them around themselves when they slept. One race of people reportedly had dogs' ears and a single eye in their forehead, and another had feet that pointed backward. None of these fantastic peoples ever existed. They were nothing more than travelers' tall tales.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!