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Lecture 5:  The Hellenistic World


Political and social instability and cultural achievements in the wake of the Peloponnesian War (400-360 BCE)


We left off with the Greeks just after Sparta won the Peloponnesian War and the Spartan commander Lysander had been called back to Sparta.  Athens was in turmoil, and had sentenced Socrates to death for corrupting the youth.  Sparta was the dominant city state in Greece, but that would not last long. 

Sparta was ill-suited to the task—its army, remember, was made up of all its citizens (all of the Spartan men), and by 400 BCE there were only about 2,000 of them (and they were not accustomed to long tours of duty away from home).  And more importantly, the Spartans were poor diplomats.   


Within a few years Sparta had managed to turn most of the Greek city states against it, and the Persians gladly backed Sparta's enemies.  In the Corinth War against Corinth and Athens (in 394-387 BCE), Sparta held on to its preeminent position.  But they were defeated by the army of Thebes (which had trained on Spartan principles, and had more than 10 times as many soldiers) in 370 BCE.  The Theban army then freed Messenia from Sparta's rule, which deprived Sparta of its slave labor force.  That blow destroyed Sparta's ability to restore itself Greece's most powerful state.


Thebes could not hold onto power, though; in 362 BCE it was defeated by an alliance of Athens and Sparta.  Next, Athens found itself embattled.  In short—the Greek city states spent more than two generations fighting among themselves. Within the city states, there also was discord, frequent conflicts between the citizens and aristocrats who sought to take power as tyrants.  Warfare and civil unrest sapped the vitality from the Greek economy.  At the same time that states were imposing higher taxes to pay for their wars, agricultural yields declined, food prices rose, employment declined, and more and more Greeks fell into debt slavery. Only a few generations before the Greeks had been among the wealthiest peoples in the ancient world; now they had fought themselves into poverty.  Banditry emerged as a problem in the Greek countryside, and more and more Greek men hired themselves out as mercenaries.


Yet despite this turmoil (or perhaps in reaction to it), Greek cultural life continued evolving.  The naturalistic trend in the visual arts continued its development.  Perhaps in response to hard times, artists concentrated less on models of human perfection and sought to portray "real people" more accurately.  In troubled times, audiences seemed to want "lighter" entertainment, which was reflected in more "superficial" plays and comic poetry of the era. 


Philosophy, though, became even more serious.  This was the age of Plato (427-347 BCE) and his Academy.  In a series of "dialogues," Plato laid out the main teachings of his mentor Socrates.  Like Socrates, Plato believed in absolute Truth, and that man must seek truth by applying reason.  For Plato (like Socrates), the purpose for seeking truth was to live a just, proper, ethical life.  Plato's philosophy fit into the tradition the Greeks called dialectical Idealism.  Plato argued that reality is immaterial—that the "real" is composed entirely of Universal Ideas (forms) that can not be grasped through the senses.  These Ideas are perfect and unchanging.   Categories of Ideas and the relationships between Ideas/categories exist in a pure spiritual realm that we can contemplate but not see.   Plato argued that material things are simply approximations of Ideas.  Material life is always in flux, always changing, always in a state of "becoming" based upon the perfect Forms (Ideals), which exist previous to and independent of material life.  (Note: Plato was strongly influenced by the Pythagorians [see last week's lecture], and argued that the Forms and their relationships could be expressed as numbers and equations.)


Plato argued that anyone wishing to live a proper, ethical, virtuous life must contemplate the most important Idea—Good.  Plato wrote at great length about many aspects of human behavior, in search of the Good (ethical, virtuous) Life, the nature of the Soul, Love, Evil, Virtue and Morality, and how society should be organized.  Plato explained in The Republic that for society to pursue Virtue and Good, the wisest, most intelligent men must rule as "philosopher kings." Men and women must be treated as equals, marriage and the family must be abolished, as must private property, art, and politics.  In Plato's ideal society (which was not democratic!), the smartest people would make decisions for everyone else to lead them towards the wisdom of the gods….


No doubt having seen Socrates condemned by an easily manipulated crowd had shaped Plato's political views; he also was responding to ongoing turmoil in the Greek city states, where aristocrats swayed the mood of the demos by appealing to their emotions instead of to their reason….


Platos's own student, Aristotle (384-322 BCE), challenged many of his teacher's fundamental ideas.   Aristotle studied under Plato while a teen, then became the tutor of Alexander the Great.  Later, he founded his own version of Plato's Academy (the Lyceum) and became one of the most influential teachers of the Hellenistic era.  Aristotle rejected many aspects of Plato's Idealism.  In some regards, his views were more in tune with the tradition of "materialism."  (In contrast to Idealists, the Materialist philosophers argued that "ideas" are based upon actual pre-existing material things—first there is a physical thing, and then a person who sees and experiences the thing forms the idea of the thing.)  He didn't give up Plato's idea of the "Forms," but he was more concerned about how they shaped material reality.  For Aristotle, the object of man's study must be the material manifestations of the Forms.   Like Plato, Aristotle's philosophy was dialectical—he argued that all of the cosmos is in a constant state of change and movement towards perfection.  But Aristotle rejected Plato's focus on "Universals" and argued that understanding reality requires examining the particular—specific concrete examples. 


For Aristotle, the key to understanding reality was to observe using the senses, then to use logic to determine how specific things function and relate to other things.  Instead contemplating Universal Ideals from which we then get categories that material things "mimic," we must systematically examine material things and figure out how they fit into categories on the basis of function and relationships—we must look for patterns. Aristotle worked out a careful system of rational analysis that we call Logic.  He developed rules of argument (syllogisms, a mathematical proof in words, in which one builds from statements which are know to be true to determine the truth of other statements).  [Here is an example:  All men have lungs; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates has lungs.] 

Aristotle laid out rules for inductive reasoning (based upon analysis of that which is observed) and deductive reasoning (based upon logical extension of that which is known to be true).  He laid out rules for understanding the relationship between cause and effect.  In other words, he created the system of rational analysis that we call Science.


Aristotle's system of thought had enormous influence over the intellectual history of western civilization.  One example is his view of the Universe.  He argued that all the cosmos is made of five elements:  earth, water, air, fire, and ether (the perfect stuff from which heaven is made).  Earth, water, air, and fire are constantly changing, constantly turning into one another; ether is perfect [the stuff of Forms] and unchanging.  The universe is organized as a series of nested spheres, like an onion.  The inner spheres progress from unformed primal matter to changing, imperfect matter, each sphere progressively higher as its matter comes closer to perfection.  The earth stands at the center of the universe; around it travel the heavenly bodies, stars, planets, and the sun, all of which are made of ether and are perfect and unchanging.  All mater is in motion—rectilinear motion, circular motion, or a combination of the two.  The motion of heavenly bodies is perfectly circular, as they travel across the heavens along perfect crystalline ether spheres, and they move at a perfectly constant speed.  All this had been set in motion by a "first cause"—an un-moved mover--a creator. 


I mention this at such length because in the Christian epoch, this would be the official view of the Church for more than a thousand years…  (Note:  Aristotle was not a monotheist, and argued that there were 55 gods….)


Like Plato, Aristotle was concerned with leading "the Good life"—a life of virtue, which required compromise between contemplation and practical action (a middle path, the "Golden Mean").  Like Plato, Aristotle rejected democracy as the rule of the ignorant mob (an opinion based, no doubt on his revulsion against events he witnessed on the streets of Athens in the 360s BCE).


Philip of Macedon and His Son, Alexander the Great


Aristotle spent much of his life in service to the King of Macedon, to the north of the Greek city states.  Although the Macedonians considered themselves Hellenes (and although they had a remarkable source of wealth—huge deposits of gold), the peoples of Athens, Thebes, Carthage, and Sparta considered them semi-civilized foreigners.


In 359 BCE Macedonia's new king, Philip, began pulling his kingdom out of chaos.  He reorganized his army on the Theban-Spartan model, so that it became expert at hoplite warfare.  He paid soldiers so that they did have to worry about maintaining their farms or feeding their families (and so that they were more loyal to him).  He established elite units of cavalry (the "Companions") made up of the specially trained sons of Macedonian aristocrats (to build cohesion as a unit, but also to secure loyalty of the aristocrats).  His army soon was more disciplined and better trained than that of Thebes and Sparta.  Having secured alliances with several neighboring states (using "marriage diplomacy"), Philip turned his army against rival states in the Balkans north and east of Greece.  This brought him into direct competition with several Greek city states (especially Thebes).   Philip tried to build alliances with Athens, Thebes, and the Delian League, but leaders of the Greek city states refused, since they feared that the "half-barbarian" Philip would move his army south to conquer Greece.  Philip waged a successful war against Athens and Thebes in 338 BCE.  But instead of conquering and destroying the defeated states, he used his victory to pressure them into joining a new alliance, the League of Corinth.  His real goal, it became clear, was holding Greece together while he built an invasion force to go after the Persians.


When in 336 BCE Philip died suddenly, the task of invading Persia fell to his son, the 20-year old Alexander.  From 336 to 323 BCE Alexander led his armies in conquering most of the ancient world.  A student of Aristotle, Alexander helped spread Greek culture throughout the "known world."  Everywhere he went, he founded Greek cities peopled by Greek colonists, established Greek theaters and temples, patronized Greek styles in the arts and literature, etc.


Alexander had earned military credentials well before his father's death (at age 18, he had led soldiers into battle against Athens and Thebes).  As King, he used his armies to put down rebellions in Greece after his father's death.  In victory, Alexander treated the Greeks far differently than had his father.  Unlike Philip, Alexander insisted that he and he alone ruled Greece, and that the former city-states were simply territories in his empire.  He then launched a mass invasion of Persia in 334 BCE.  Alexander's armies seemed invincible in their engagements against the once feared Persians in Anatolia.  Having smashed the Persians' western armies, he drove south into Syria and Palestine into Egypt.  Again, Alexander's armies seemed unstoppable; by 331 BCE, Alexander controlled the entire Eastern Mediterranean and all of its trade.   Alexander had always believed that he had a special destiny, but with his conquest of Egypt his ego became boundless.  The Egyptian Oracle of the god Amon had announced that Alexander was the son of the god Zeus (the Greek's "chief" god).  Alexander now demanded that he be treated as a divine being.  He also named the capital of his new Egyptian kingdom after himself—Alexandria.   


Rather than returning to Greece, Alexander quickly moved his army back up the coast and through Syria into northern Mesopotamia.  There, at Gaugamela, he soundly defeated the Darius II and the Persian army in 331 BCE.  He now declared himself the King of Persia and marched his armies south the Babylon.  Alexander easily captured Babylon, which he declared would be the new center of his empire.  Alexander apparently saw his empire as spanning and uniting the worlds of Asia and the Mediterranean.  He sent thousands of sons of the Persian nobility back to Macedon to learn Greek.  He married to Persian princess and forced his officers to Persian wives.  (All this, plus Alexander's egotism, proved too much for Aristotle, and relations between the two broke down.)  Alexander had set up Greek-style administrative cities in every place he conquered, and had appointed administrators governed in his name; back in Greece, his trusted lieutenant and regent, Antipater (a close friend of Aristotle), ruled in Alexander's absence.     


Next, Alexander marched his armies into the Persian capital of Peresopolis, which he sacked—Alexander personally threw a torch into the old royal palace and burned it to the ground.  He then turned north.  He took his soldiers into the mountains of Bactria (Afghanistan) then on to Samarkand—a critical junction in the trade routes that linked the Near East to East Asia. Fighting through the mountains against the fierce Bacrians (who waged what we would now call a guerilla war against Alexander's) had taken its toll on his soldiers, but still Alexander fought on.  He invaded the rich Indus Valley, and when the peoples of northern India failed to greet him as their conqueror, the determined Alexander pursued their forces and fought further and further down the Indus.   By the time he reached the Indus River Delta, Alexander had been seriously wounded and his cholera, malaria, and typhus (in addition to war!) had killed off a large portion of his army.  His troops began to rebel, and Alexander promised them that they could at last return home.  They had marched back to Babylon by the end of 324 BCE.  


That was the end of the road for Alexander.  (Although he had been planning to build a fleet that would sail around the coast of Arabia.)  The combination of festering wounds, malaria, and excessive drinking ended his life in June 323 BCE.  He was 32 years old.  Alexander had appointed a regent (Perdiccas) to rule his empire as regent pending birth of his son with his Bactrian wife Roxane.  Greece, though, immediately exploded into rebellion against Macedonian rule upon receiving news of Alexander's death.


The Splintering of Alexander's Empire


After Alexander's death, his empire began to splinter.  Greece was the first territory to rise up against Alexander's heirs.  But under the leadership of Antigonis, a general who seized power in Macedon in 276 BCE, the Macedonians restored their dominance over Greece.  Antigonis and his heirs cast off the "divine" and grand imperial assumptions of Alexander, and sought instead focused attention on administering their sphere of the Mediterranean efficiently. 

Still, they faced resistance from the Greek city states, who formed two alliance systems against the Macedonians—the Aetolian League and the Achaean League.  The struggle against Antigonis and his successors pushed the Greeks towards greater cooperation; these two "leagues" were really federations of equals, each with a common system of law, a common monetary system, a joint council of state—in other words, each city-state agreed to give up aspects of its own sovereignty in return for the advantages that came from a centralized government.


In the meantime, Alexander's imperial territories in Egypt had come under the rule of one of Alexander's generals.  General Ptolemy, sent by the regent Perdiccas to govern Egypt in 332 BCE, declared himself Egypt's king seventeen years later.  Ptolemy and his descendents (the Ptolematic dynasty, 332-30 BCE) ruled Egypt from Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander, which had a population that included tens of thousands of Greeks and Macedonians. 


The high culture of Egypt during the Ptolematic dynasty was Greek.  Ptolemy II founded a royal library and museum at Alexandria that became the greatest center of scholarship in the Greek world.  (When the library burned, probably during the occupation of Alexandria by Julius Caesar in 47 or 48 BCE, its great collection was destroyed.)  Among the most important contributions of Alexandria's scholars where their medical studies, which produced many of the key medical texts of the ancient world.  The Ptolematic dynasty was run by Greeks and for Greeks.  Ptolemy and his descendents (the last of who was the famous Cleopatra) portrayed themselves as pharaohs descended directly from the original rulers of Egypt, but they did not even speak Egyptian.  Greeks composed the wealthy and powerful elite of society in Egypt. Greek merchants dominated Egypt's economy, controlled its commerce and its international trade, and owned large estates (on which they introduced new agricultural techniques and crops imported from Greece).  The mass of the Egyptian population lived in abject poverty.


Just as General Ptolemy had taken power in Egypt, another of Alexander's commanders took power in Persia—General Seleucus.  When Alexander's former agreed to partition the empire in 312 BCE, Seleucus claimed Babylon.  He then took control of Bactria, Arabia, Syria, and the Indus Valley in India.  Seleucus rebuilt Babylon and its temples, married his officers into local aristocracy, and made an effort to blend Greek and Babylonian culture.  Like Alexander, he claimed to be divine (as did his heirs).  Seleucid's heirs, the Seleucid dynasty, could not hold on to this vast territory:  his son Antiochus I first gave up the Indus Valley and was forced out of Bactria.  In what remained of their empire, the Seleucids set up a system of rule much like that of the Ptolemic dynasty in Egypt:  Greeks dominated the economy, the high culture was basically Greek, the ruling elite was Greek, and the mass of native population lived in abject poverty.  But the Seleucids were less efficient administrators than the Ptolemies or the Antigonies.


The Hellenistic World:  Economy and Culture


Alexander's conquests had directly tied the former Persian Empire, Egypt, and the Greek world into a single economic system.  Greek merchants settled colonies and outposts from India to Italy, from North Africa to the Black Sea.  Alexander stimulated international trade when he introduced the Lydian practice of stamping gold and silver into coins as the basis for commercial exchange.  (Alexander used coins for propaganda as well—his face was on the coins of his empire.  Much of the gold and silver for his coins came from the treasure vaults of the conquered Persian Empire.)   This vast network of international trade prospered for two centuries after Alexander's death.  Each of the successor empires (the Antigonies, the Ptolemies, and the Seleucids) built ports, established new caravan routes, and encouraged trade.  As already noted, Greek colonial cities were the centers of this trade, and the great volume of trade through this cities fueled urban growth during the rule of Alexander and then under the successor states.


But despite the importance of trade and the great wealth that it produced for a small elite, agriculture remained the backbone of these ancient economies and the vast majority of the population engaged in farming.  The elites often owned vast estates, but most of the farmers were poor.  Similarly, the poor and slaves made up the majority of the urban population.  Life for common people in Hellenistic Greece was hard, and tens of thousands of men and women gladly abandoned Greece in hope of a better life in the new "colonial" cities…. In short, the great majority of the Hellenistic population did not have the luxury of enjoying the cultural achievements enjoyed by the era's elites, for which these centuries are so famous.


Hellenistic Culture at its High Point


Alexander's conquests helped push Greek science, arts, and philosophy to even higher levels of achievement.  In the sciences, which the state encouraged and patronized, Greek scholars learned a great deal from the Persians, the Babylonians, and the Egyptians, in particular in the fields of astronomy, geometry, and medicine. 


Many of the great scientists of the era lived out their lives in the Greek "colonies." Alexandria (Egypt) was home to the mathematician Hipparchus (the father of trigonometry), Euclid (the father of geometry, whose texts were used for more than 2000 years), the geographer Eratoshenes (who calculated the Earth's circumference), and many of the most important medical scholars of the era.  (The Greeks banned dissection of human corpses, but it was permitted in Egypt; that allowed scientists in Alexandria to study anatomy and learn, for instance, that arteries carry blood.)


Syracuse (Sicily) was home to the great mathematician Archimedes, the father of the science of Physics.  Among his many important discoveries (in addition to calculating Pi) were the principle of displacement and specific gravity.  This is the famous bathtub story:  asked by the tyrant of Syracuse figure out if his crown was really made of pure gold, Archimedes set the crown in a tub of water, measured how much water it displaced, then set an equal weight of gold in the same tub and measured how much water it displaced.  He supposedly figured out this solution to the problem while bathing… Archimedes also did some of the first serious experiments on the principles and uses of simple machines (inclined planes, levers, screws, pulleys, etc). 


Archimedes used his knowledge of mechanics to build amazing weapons, such as catapults and a "burning glass."  But his interest in the application of science to technology was unusual among the Greeks.  Although the Greeks invented machines such as water pumps, water mills and sun dials, as a rule they were much more interested in "pure" or abstract science.  (Please note that the word "Science" is based upon a Latin word root, not Greek:  the Greeks considered science a branch of philosophy, and considered medicine, astronomy, etc., aspects of "Natural Philosophy.")


In philosophy, the materialism that had influenced Aristotle continued shaping major trends in Greek philosophy after Aristotle's death.


The Skeptics argued that because the only reality is material reality, man has no "soul" and no a-priori knowledge (in-born or "before the fact" knowledge); all "knowledge" is gathered through the senses.  (This is similar to John Lockes' argument in the 1690s that we are born "tabula rasa"—a blank slate.)   Since the senses are imperfect, all knowledge is imperfect:  we can not know truth.  Therefore we should not worry about Truth or Virtue or good or evil—we can live happy if we simply accept that we are ignorant and incapable of such judgments.


The Epicureans (followers of the ideas of Epicurus [342-270 BCE]) followed a materialistic "atomistic" view of the cosmos, and argued that since all men were made of the same matter, then all men everywhere must be the same.  Epicureans argued that existence has no special rational, logical purpose; it simply is.  Therefore, since there is no greater purpose, the best way to live is to enjoy life's pleasures as much as possible--seek to increase pleasure and decrease pain.  Peace of mind comes from casting off things that bring pain and fear (including belief in the supernatural) and satisfying one's physical and mental appetites.  Society would work best, Epicurus argued, if everyone minded their own business, avoided politics, concentrated on their own happiness, and followed rules that were in their own best interest because they were in their own interest.


The Stoics (founded by Zeno [circa 300 BCE]), unlike the Epicureans, saw the universe as rationally ordered and teleological (all headed inevitably towards a specific intended goal or end).  Man is part of this grand plan and can not escape destiny; instead, man must recognize that what "is" is as it should be and is for the best.  Instead of battling against the Fates, one should seek to understand the how things and events fit into this grand logic.  The Stoics valued peace of mind above all else, and taught that men should become engaged in politics and the work of the community so as to help order society in the most rational manner (which to them also meant to work against war, slavery, and injustice). 


Greek religious practice in this period became increasingly focused on the promise of individual salvation.  The popularity among aristocrats of the cult of Dionysius (the god of wine and pleasure) (also called the Orphic Cult) is sometimes seen as rooted in decadence and hedonism, as sanctioning drunken orgies, etc.  (And that certainly was an aspect of the cult.)  But at its core, the cult was about the promise of salvation—Dionysius died and was resurrected, and members of the Orphic cult hoped that they, too, would have eternal life and happiness through resurrection in an afterlife.  


Among the poor, the cult of Dionysius was less popular than was the cult of Mithras (Mithraism), a Greek variation of the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism (see lecture 4 notes).  In Zoroastrianism, the god Mithras was a minor figure.  Among the Greek poor, he became the center of a resurrection cult. 


Many of the aspects of the Mithras cult may sound familiar:  Mithras was said to have lived as a man, in poverty and simplicity. He performed miracle, healing the sick, raising the dead, turning water into wine, etc.  He declared Sundays to be sacred days (the day of the Sun) and 25 December to the most sacred of all days (the Winter Solstice—the shortest day of the year and the day that the sun is "born").  Members of this cult believed that they could be "redeemed" (be raised from the dead on the judgment day and life forever in happiness) by devoting themselves to Mithras and abandoning concern for worldly things.


Therefore a common theme in both philosophy and religion in Hellenistic Greece was the desire to escape the pain of life and find greater inner peace and happiness.  One can see a similar tendency in the art of the period.


In literature, the Greeks seemed to retreat even further from the hard political themes of their early theater, into a romanticized "Pastoral" world of supposedly "simple" country life.  Works of fiction and poetry betray nostalgia for a simpler peaceful rural past (that never existed—think back to the previous lectures on life in classical Greece).  Although some Hellenistic non-fiction took a hard analytical look at the Greek past (e.g., the works of Polybius), most popular writing of this time was "fluffy" compared to Herodotus or Thucydides. 


In public architecture, Alexander and his successors cast aside the classical Greek concern for balance and grace and instead focused on "bigger and fancier."  Like the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Kings and tyrants of the Hellenistic world sought to memorialize their own personal greatness by outdoing each other in the size and decoration of their public buildings.  (Most of these monuments have been destroyed, such as the Colossus of Rhodes.)


Similarly, Greek sculpture became more and more ornate, even while artists refine and perfected the naturalism inherited from Classical Greek culture.  The more that the artist could capture the complexity of natural form, the better please his patron.  (In addition to temples and royal palaces, artists worked for wealthy aristocrats who hoped to out-do their rivals by owing "better art"—much as rulers built grander and grander monuments.)  Hellenistic artists often portrayed men, women, and gods in contorted poses so as to show off their musculature (think of the unnatural poses of body builders…).


Alexander the Great's victories, the establishment of dozens of new "Greek" cities, and the subsequent rule of Greek ruling dynasties transformed the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world. 


Tens of thousands of Greeks peopled the great cities of Egypt, Anatolia, Babylon, and Persia.  Greek became the international language of commerce, of science and philosophy, and or government.  The culture of Greece became an element of the cultures of all of the lads that Alexander had conquered. 


At the same time, Greece itself had been changed by these conquests.  The proud Greek city states had lost most of their independence, and the public/civic life that had made Classical Greece so dynamic was fading away.  So was the Greek population, almost half of which now lived outside of the Greek homeland.


Just as Greeks had transformed the culture of foreign cities, so their own culture was transformed.  Aspects of Persian religion, for instance, had directly influence popular Greek religious cults, and the science of Egypt had influenced Greek science.


As we have seen, such cross cultural influences were not a new phenomenon (just look back at notes for previous lectures and this becomes obvious).  But in the Hellenistic world the result was a new sense of cosmopolitanism, of belonging to a cultured community that transcended the borders of any one kingdom.  We will see this trend extended in the next lecture, when we discuss the rise of Rome.