The birth of Greek culture

From the invention of prose to innovations in epic and lyric poetry, from the beginnings of philosophical exposition to the origins of historical enquiry, many of the characteristic features of ancient Greek culture had their origins in one particular place and time. The place was Ionia, a region on the western coast of modern-day Turkey, and the time was the archaic period between c.750–550 BCE. 

This project sets out to explain why there was such intense and innovative cultural activity in Ionia at this time, resulting in the period being dubbed ‘the Ionian enlightenment’. In particular, I will be questioning the relationship between cultural diversity (understood as presence of and interaction between different ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups) and cultural activity (to include both ‘high’ culture such as literature, and ‘low’ culture such as the decorative arts). 

It has long been assumed that the vibrant cultural activity that is evident in archaic Ionia was due to the region’s unique location, situated between the Greek Aegean and the Near East. The cosmopolitan mix of peoples, it is often argued, created a dynamic environment that led to the innovations of the Ionian enlightenment. This explanation is appealing because the diversity of archaic Ionia is well documented, as is Near Eastern influence on archaic Greek culture. Nonetheless, the explanation is unsatisfactory, as it assumes diversity is sufficient to give rise to cultural innovation. While diversity would indeed have been a vital contributing factor, other issues must also have been important.


The epic poet Homer, as represented in a Hellenistic portrait bust. According to tradition, Homer hailed from either the Ionian city of Smyrna or that of Chios.

I will investigate the extent to which high levels of documented cultural activity can be correlated with evidence for high ethno-cultural diversity. Did noted cultural centres have particularly diverse populations? How significant was the nature of inter-ethnic relations (i.e. the quality of interaction as well as its quantity)? What other social, political and economic factors either facilitated or constrained cultural activity? I will explore these questions in relation to specific case studies, including cities celebrated as centres of ‘high’ culture (e.g. Miletus, Samos); cities where much of the documented cultural activity lay beyond the formal boundaries of mousike (e.g. Ephesus, Clazomenae); and cities that were relatively little known for cultural activity (e.g. Teos, Chios). This work will involve examination of archaeological, epigraphic, iconographic and literary evidence, firstly to determine the nature of cultural activity; secondly to identify evidence for diversity; and thirdly to build up a broad picture of other factors impacting on cultural production.

Dr Naoíse Mac Sweeney
University of Leicester
Philip Leverhulme Prize