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Dorians were one of the four major ethnic groups among which the Hellenes (or Greeks) of Classical Greece considered themselves divided (along with the Aeolians, Achaeans, and Ionians).[1] They are almost always referred to as just "the Dorians", as they are called in the earliest literary mention of them in the Odyssey,[2] where they already can be found inhabiting the island of Crete.

Variants of name

Jat Gotras Namesake

social organization

They were diverse in way of life and social organization, varying from the populous trade center of the city of Corinth, known for its ornate style in art and architecture, to the isolationist, military state of [[Sparta[[. And yet, all Hellenes knew which localities were Dorian, and which were not. Dorian states at war could more likely, but not always, count on the assistance of other Dorian states. Dorians were distinguished by the Doric Greek dialect and by characteristic social and historical traditions.

In the 5th century BC, Dorians and Ionians were the two most politically important Greek ethne, whose ultimate clash resulted in the Peloponnesian War. The degree to which fifth-century Hellenes self-identified as "Ionian" or "Dorian" has itself been disputed. At one extreme Édouard Will concludes that there was no true ethnic component in fifth-century Greek culture, in spite of anti-Dorian elements in Athenian propaganda.[3] At the other extreme John Alty reinterprets the sources to conclude that ethnicity did motivate fifth-century actions.[4] Moderns viewing these ethnic identifications through the fifth- and fourth-century BC literary tradition have been profoundly influenced by their own social politics. Also, according to E.N. Tigerstedt, nineteenth-century European admirers of virtues they considered "Dorian" identified themselves as "Laconophile" and found responsive parallels in the culture of their day as well; their biases contribute to the traditional modern interpretation of "Dorians".[5]


Accounts vary as to the Dorians' place of origin. One theory, widely believed in ancient times, is that they originated in the northern mountainous regions of Greece, ancient Macedonia and Epirus, and obscure circumstances brought them south into the Peloponnese, to certain Aegean islands, Magna Graecia, Lapithos and Crete. Mythology gave them a Greek origin and eponymous founder, Dorus son of Hellen, the mythological patriarch of the Hellenes.

The origin of the Dorians is a multifaceted concept. In modern scholarship, the term has often meant the location of the population disseminating the Doric Greek dialect within a hypothetical Proto-Greek speaking population. The dialect is known from records of classical northwestern Greece, the Peloponnesus and Crete and some of the islands. The geographic and ethnic information found in the west's earliest known literary work, the Iliad, combined with the administrative records of the former Mycenaean states, prove to universal satisfaction that East Greek speakers were once dominant in the Peloponnesus but suffered a setback there and were replaced at least in official circles by West Greek speakers. A historical event is associated with the overthrow, called anciently the Return of the Heracleidai and by moderns the Dorian Invasion.

This theory of a return or invasion presupposes that West Greek speakers resided in northwest Greece but overran the Peloponnesus replacing the East Greek there with their own dialect. No records other than Mycenaean ones are known to have existed in the Bronze Age so a West Greek of that time and place can be neither proved nor disproved. West Greek speakers were in western Greece in classical times. Unlike the East Greeks, they are not associated with any evidence of displacement events. That provides circumstantial evidence that the Doric dialect disseminated among the Hellenes of northwest Greece, a highly-mountainous and somewhat-isolated region.

Dorian invasion

The Dorian invasion is a modern historical concept attempting to account for:

  • at least the replacement of dialects and traditions in southern Greece in pre-classical times
  • more generally, the distribution of the Dorians in Classical Greece
  • the presence of the Dorians in Greece at all

On the whole, none of the objectives has been met, but the investigations served to rule out various speculative hypotheses. Most scholars doubt that the Dorian invasion was the main cause of the collapse of the Mycenean civilization. The source of the West Greek speakers in the Peloponnesus remains unattested by any solid evidence.

Post-migrational distribution of the Dorians

Though most of the Doric invaders settled in the Peloponnese, they also settled on Rhodes and Sicily, in what is now Southern Italy. In Asia Minor existed the Dorian Hexapolis (the six great Dorian cities): Halikarnassos (Halicarnassus) and Knidos (Cnidus) in Asia Minor, Kos, and Lindos, Kameiros, and Ialyssos on the island of Rhodes. The six cities would later become rivals with the Ionian cities of Asia Minor. The Dorians also invaded Crete. The origin traditions remained strong into classical times: Thucydides saw the Peloponnesian War in part as "Ionians fighting against Dorians" and reported the tradition that the Syracusans in Sicily were of Dorian descent. Other such "Dorian" colonies, originally from Corinth, Megara, and the Dorian islands, dotted the southern coasts of Sicily from Syracuse to Selinus. (EB 1911).

Dorian of Bronze Age Pylos

A man's name, Dōrieus, occurs in the Linear B tablets at Pylos, one of the regions later invaded and subjugated by the Dorians.[6] Pylos tablet Fn867 records it in the dative case as do-ri-je-we, *Dōriēwei, a third or consonant declension noun with stem ending in w. An unattested nominative plural, *Dōriēwes, would have become Dōrieis by loss of the w and contraction. The tablet records the grain rations issued to the servants of "religious dignitaries" celebrating a religious festival of Potnia, the mother goddess.[7]

The nominative singular, Dōrieus, remained the same in the classical period.[8] Many Linear B names of servants were formed from their home territory or the places where they came into Mycenaean ownership. According to Carl Darling Buck, the -eus suffix was very productive. One of its uses was to convert a toponym to an anthroponym; for example, Megareus, "Megarian," from Megara.[9] A Dōrieus would be from Dōris, the only classical Greek state to serve as the basis for the name of the Dorians. The state is a small one in the mountains of west central Greece. However, classical Doris may not have been the same as Mycenaean Doris.

Dorians of upland Doris

A number of credible etymologies by noted scholars have been proposed. Julius Pokorny derives Δωριεύς, Dōrieus from δωρίς, dōris, "woodland" (which can also mean upland).[10] The dōri- segment is from the o-grade (either ō or o) of Proto-Indo-European *deru-, "tree", which also gives the Homeric Δούρειος Ἵππος (Doureios Hippos, "Wooden Horse").[11] This derivation has the advantage of naming the people after their wooded, mountainous country.

Chosen Greeks

It sometimes happens that different derivations of an Indo-European word exploit similar-sounding Indo-European roots. Greek doru, "lance," is from the o-grade of Indo-European *deru, "solid," in the sense of wood. It is similar to an extended form, *dō-ro-, of *dō-, (give), as can be seen in the modern Greek imperative δώσε (dose, "give [sing.]!") appearing in Greek as δῶρον (dōron, "gift"). This is the path taken by Jonathan Hall, relying on elements taken from the myth of the Return of the Herakeidai.[12]

Hall cites the tradition, based on a fragment of the poet, Tyrtaeus, that "Sparta is a divine gift granted by Zeus and Hera" to the Heracleidae. In another version, Tyndareus gives his kingdom to Heracles in gratitude for restoring him to the throne, but Heracles "asks the Spartan king to safeguard the gift until his descendants might claim it."

Hall, therefore, proposes that the Dorians are the people of the gift. They assumed the name on taking possession of Lacedaemon. Doris was subsequently named after them. Hall makes comparisons of Spartans to Hebrews as a chosen people maintaining a covenant with God and being assigned a Holy Land. To arrive at this conclusion, Hall relies on Herodotus' version of the myth (see below) that the Hellenes under Dorus did not take his name until reaching the Peloponnesus. In other versions the Heracleidae enlisted the help of their Dorian neighbors. Hall does not address the problem of the Dorians not calling Lacedaemon Doris, but assigning that name to some less holy and remoter land. Similarly, he does not mention the Dorian servant at Pylos, whose sacred gift, if such it was, was still being ruled by the Achaean Atreid family at Lacedaemon.

A minor, and perhaps regrettably forgotten, episode in the history of scholarship was the attempt to emphasize the etymology of Doron with the meaning of 'hand'. This in turn was connected to an interpretation of the famous lambda on Spartan shields, which was to rather stand for a hand with outstanding thumb than the initial letter of Lacedaimon.[13] Given the origin of the Spartan shield lambda legend, however, in a fragment by Eupolis, an Athenian comic poet, there has been a recent attempt to suggest that a comic confusion between the letter and the hand image may yet have been intended.

Ancient traditions

In Greek historiography, the Dorians are mentioned by many authors. The chief classical authors to relate their origins are Herodotus, Thucydides and Pausanias. The most copious authors, however, lived in Hellenistic and Roman times, long after the main events. This apparent paradox does not necessarily discredit the later writers, who were relying on earlier works that did not survive. The customs of the Spartan state and its illustrious individuals are detailed at great length in such authors as Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus.


Homer: The Odyssey has one reference to the Dorians:[14]

"There is a land called Crete, in the midst of the wine-dark sea, a fair, rich land, begirt with water, and therein are many men, past counting, and ninety cities. They have not all the same speech, but their tongues are mixed. There dwell Achaeans, there great-hearted native Cretans, there Cydonians, and Dorians of waving plumes, and goodly Pelasgians."

The reference is not compatible with a Dorian invasion that brought Dorians to Crete only after the fall of the Mycenaean states. In the Odyssey, Odysseus and his relatives visit those states. Two solutions are possible, either the Odyssey is anachronistic or Dorians were on Crete in Mycenaean times. The uncertain nature of the Dorian invasion defers a definitive answer until more is known about it.


Herodotus: Fifth century BC hoplite, or "heavy-armed soldier", possibly the Spartan king Leonidas, a Dorian, who died holding the pass at the Battle of Thermopylae.

Herodotus was from Halicarnassus, a Dorian colony on the southwest coast of Asia Minor; following the literary tradition of the times he wrote in Ionic Greek, being one of the last authors to do so. He described the Persian Wars, giving a thumbnail account of the histories of the antagonists, Greeks and Persians.

Herodotus gives a general account of the events termed "the Dorian Invasion," presenting them as transfers of population. Their original home was in Thessaly, central Greece.[15] He goes on to expand in mythological terms, giving some of the geographic details of the myth:[16]

1.56.2-3: He found by inquiry that the chief peoples were the Lacedaemonians among those of Doric, and the Athenians among those of Ionic stock. These races, Ionian and Dorian, were the foremost in ancient time, the first a Pelasgian and the second a Hellenic people. The Pelasgian race has never yet left its home; the Hellenic has wandered often and far. For in the days of king Deucalion it inhabited the land of Phthia, then the country called Histiaean, under Ossa and Olympus, in the time of Dorus son of Hellen; driven from this Histiaean country by the Cadmeans, it settled about Pindus in the territory called Macedonian; from there again it migrated to Dryopia, and at last came from Dryopia into the Peloponnese, where it took the name of Dorian.

1.57.1-3: What language the Pelasgians spoke I cannot say definitely. But if one may judge by those that still remain of the Pelasgians who live above the Tyrrheni1 in the city of Creston—who were once neighbors of the people now called Dorians, and at that time inhabited the country which now is called Thessalian and of the Pelasgians who inhabited Placia and Scylace on the Hellespont, who came to live among the Athenians, and by other towns too which were once Pelasgian and afterwards took a different name: if, as I said, one may judge by these, the Pelasgians spoke a language which was not Greek. If, then, all the Pelasgian stock spoke so, then the Attic nation, being of Pelasgian blood, must have changed its language too at the time when it became part of the Hellenes. For the people of Creston and Placia have a language of their own in common, which is not the language of their neighbors; and it is plain that they still preserve the manner of speech which they brought with them in their migration into the places where they live.

1.58: But the Hellenic stock, it seems clear to me, has always had the same language since its beginning; yet being, when separated from the Pelasgians, few in number, they have grown from a small beginning to comprise a multitude of nations, chiefly because the Pelasgians and many other foreign peoples united themselves with them. Before that, I think, the Pelasgic stock nowhere increased much in number while it was of foreign speech.

Thus, according to Herodotus, the Dorians did not name themselves after Dorus until they had reached Peloponnesus. Herodotus does not explain the contradictions of the myth; for example, how Doris, located outside the Peloponnesus, acquired its name. However, his goal, as he relates in the beginning of the first book, is only to report what he had heard from his sources without judgement. In the myth, the Achaeans displaced from the Peloponnesus gathered at Athens under a leader Ion and became identified as "Ionians".[17]

Herodotus' list of Dorian states is as follows.

  • Dorians also colonised Crete including founding of such towns as Lato, Dreros and Olous.[20] The Cynurians were originally Ionians but had become Dorian under the influence of their Argive masters.[21]


Thucydides professes little of Greece before the Trojan War except to say that it was full of barbarians and that there was no distinction between barbarians and Greeks. The Hellenes came from Phthiotis.[22]The whole country indulged in and suffered from piracy and was not settled. After the Trojan War, "Hellas was still engaged in removing and settling."[23]

Some 60 years after the Trojan War the Boeotians were driven out of Arne by the Thessalians into Boeotia and 20 years later "the Dorians and the Heraclids became masters of the Peloponnese."[24] So the lines were drawn between the Dorians and the Aeolians (here Boeotians) with the Ionians (former Peloponnesians).

Other than these few brief observations Thucydides names but few Dorians. He does make it clear that some Dorian states aligned or were forced to align with the Athenians while some Ionians went with the Lacedaemonians and that the motives for alignment were not always ethnic but were diverse. Among the Dorians was Lacedaemon,[25] Corcyra, Corinth and Epidamnus,[26] Leucadia, Ambracia,[27] Potidaea,[28] Rhodes, Cythera, Argos, Carystus,[29] Syracuse, Gela, Acragas (later Agrigentum), Acrae, Casmenae.[30]

He does explain with considerable dismay what happened to incite ethnic war after the unity between the Greek states during the Battle of Thermopylae. The Congress of Corinth, formed prior to it, "split into two sections." Athens headed one and Lacedaemon the other:[31]

"For a short time the league held together, till the Lacedaemonians and Athenians quarreled, and made war upon each other with their allies, a duel into which all the Hellenes sooner or later were drawn."

He adds: "the real cause I consider to be ... the growth of the power of Athens and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon...."

Mention by Pliny

Pliny[32] mentions...We then come to the river Evarchus13, and after that a people of the Cappadocians, the towns of Gaziura14 and Gazelum15, the river Halys16, which runs from the foot of Mount Taurus through Cataonia and Cappadocia, the towns of Gangre17 and Carusa18, the free town of Amisus19, distant from Sinope one hundred and thirty miles, and a gulf of the same name, of such vast extent20 as to make Asia assume the form of a peninsula, the isthmus of which is only some two hundred21 miles in breadth, or a little more, across to the gulf of Issus in Cilicia. In all this district there are, it is said, only three races that can rightly be termed Greeks, the Dorians, the Ionians, and the Æolians, all the rest being of barbarian origin.22 To Amisus was joined the town of Eupatoria23, founded by Mithridates: after his defeat they were both included under the name of Pompeiopolis.

14 On the river Iris. It was the ancient residence of the kings of Pontus, but in Strabo's time it was deserted. It has been suggested that the modern Azurnis occupies its site.

15 In the north-west of Pontus, in a fertile plain between the rivers Halys and Amisus. It is also called Gadilon by Strabo. D'Anville makes it the modern Aladgiam; while he calls Gaziura by the name of Guedes.

16 Now called the Kisil Irmak, or Red River. It has been remarked that Pliny, in making this river to come down from Mount Taurus and flow at once from south to north, appears to confound the Halys with one of its tributaries, now known as the Izchel Irmak.

17 Its site is now called Kiengareh, Kangreh, or Changeri. This was a town of Paphlagonia, to the south of Mount Olgasys, at a distance of thirty-five miles from Pompeiopolis.

18 A commercial place to the south of Sinope. Its site is the modern Gherseh on the coast.

19 Now called Eski Samsun; on the west side of the bay or gulf, anciently called Sinus Amisenus. According to Strabo, it was only 900 stadia from Sinope, or 112 1/2 Roman miles. The walls of the ancient city are to be seen on a promontory about a mile and a half from the modern town.

20 He means the numerous indentations which run southward into the coast, from the headland of Sinope to a distance of about one degree to the south.

21 On examining the map, we shall find that the distance is at least 300 miles across to the gulf of Issus or Iskenderoon.

22 Not speaking the Greek language.

23 A part of it only was added to Eupatoria; and it was separated from the rest by a wall, and probably contained a different population from that of Amisus. This new quarter contained the residence of the king, Mithridates Eupator, who built Eupatoria.


  1. Apollodorus, Library, I, 7.3
  2. Homer, Odyssey, Book XIX line 177.
  3. Will, Édouard (1956). Doriens et Ioniens: essai sur la valeur du critère ethnique appliqué à l'étude de l'histoire et de la civilisation grecques (in French). Paris: Belles Lettres.
  4. Alty, John (1982). "Dorians and Ionians". The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 102: 1–14. doi:10.2307/631122.
  5. Tigerstedt, E.N. (1965–1978). The Legend of Sparta in Classical Antiquity. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. pp. 28–36.
  6. Ventris, Michael; Chadwick, John (1973). Documents in Mycenaean Greek (2nd ed.). Cambridge: University Press. p. 541.
  7. Carlier, Pierre (1995). "Qa-si-re-u et Qa-si-re-wi-ja" (PDF). Aegeum (in French). Liège: Université de Liège (12): 359.
  8. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert (1940). Jones, Henry Stuart, ed. A Greek-English Lexicon (in Ancient Greek and English). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  9. Buck, Carl Darling (1933). Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 316.
  10. Pokorny, Julius. "deru-, dōru-, dr(e)u-, drou-; drewə: drū-". Indogermanisches Etymologisches Woerterbuch (in German). Leiden University. pp. 214–217. Archived from the original on 9 August 2011. "Δωριεύς 'Dorer' (von Δωρίς 'Waldland')"
  11. Πάπυρος - Λεξικό τῆς Ἑλληνικῆς Γλώσσας (Papyros - Dictionary of the Greek Language), 2007, v. 3. pp. 37–8
  12. Hall, Jonathan (2002). Hellenicity: between ethnicity and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago. pp. 85–89.
  13. Murray, Gilbert (1934) [1907]. The Rise of Greek Epic. Oxford: OUP. pp. 39 n.2.
  14. Book 19, Line 177.
  15. Histories, 1.57.1.
  16. Herodotus, Histories, 1.56.2-1.58.1
  17. Histories, 7.94, 8.44.
  18. Histories 8.43.
  19. Histories 2.178, 7.99.
  20. Hogan, C. Michael (10 January 2008). "Lato Hillfort". The Modern Antiquarian. Julian Cope.
  21. Histories, 8.73
  22. Peloponnesian War, 1.3
  23. Peloponnesian War, 1.12.
  24. Peloponnesian War, 1.12.
  25. Peloponnesian War, 2.54.
  26. Peloponnesian War, 1.24.
  27. Peloponnesian War, 7.58.
  28. Peloponnesian War 1.124
  29. Peloponnesian War 7.57.
  30. Peloponnesian War 6.4.
  31. Peloponnesian War, 1.18.
  32. Natural History by Pliny Book VI/Chapter 2