Ancient History & Civilisation


The function of the Seleucid Empire in history was to give to the Near East that economic protection and order which Persia had provided before Alexander, and which Rome would restore after Caesar. Despite the wars, revolutions, spoliations, and corruption normal to human affairs, that function was performed. The Macedonian conquest broke down a thousand barriers of government and speech, and invited the East and the West to fuller economic exchange. The result was a brilliant resurrection of Greek Asia. While division and strife, the poverty of the soil, and the migrations of trade routes ruined the mainland, the comparative unity and peace preserved by the Seleucids encouraged agriculture, commerce, and industry. The Greek cities of Asia were no longer free to make revolutions or experiments; homonoia, Harmony, was enforced by the kings, and was literally worshiped by the people as a god.6 Old cities like Miletus, Ephesus, and Smyrna had a second blooming.

The valleys of the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Jordan, the Orontes, the Maeander, the Halys, and the Oxus were fertile then beyond the conception of present imagination, obsessed with the vision of the deserts and rocky wastes that cover so much of the Near East after two thousand years of erosion, deforestation, and neglectful tenant tillage.7 The soil was irrigated by a system of canals maintained under the supervision of the state. The land was owned by the king, or his nobles, or the cities, or the temples, or private individuals; in all cases the labor was performed by serfs transmitted with the soil in bequest or sale. The government considered as national property all the riches contained in the earth,8 but did little to exploit them. Trades, and even cities, were now highly specialized. Miletus was a busy textile center; Antioch imported raw materials and turned them into finished goods. Some large factories, manned with slaves, achieved a modest degree of mass production for the general market.9 But domestic consumption lagged behind production; the people were so poor that no adequate home market encouraged large-scale industry.

Commerce was the life of Hellenistic economy. It made the great fortunes, built the great cities, and employed a growing proportion of the expanding population. Money transactions now almost completely replaced the barter that had survived for four centuries the coinage of Croesus. Egypt, Rhodes, Seleucia, Pergamum, and other governments issued currencies sufficiently stable and similar to facilitate international trade. Bankers provided public and private credit. Ships were larger, made four to six knots per hour, and shortened voyages by crossing the open sea. On land the Seleucids developed and extended the great highways left as part of Persia’s legacy to the East. Caravan routes converged from inner Asia upon Seleucia, and opened out thence to Damascus, Berytus (Beirut), and Antioch. Enriched by trade, and enriching it in turn, populous centers rose there and at Babylon, Tyre, Tarsus, Xanthus, Rhodes, Halicarnassus, Miletus, Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Byzantium, Cyzicus, Apamea, Heracleia, Amisus, Sinope, Panticapaeum, Olbia, Lysimacheia, Abydos, Thessalonica (Salonika), Chalcis, Delos, Corinth, Ambracia, Epidamnus (Durazzo), Taras, Neapolis (Naples), Rome, Massalia, Emporium, Panormus (Palermo), Syracuse, Utica, Carthage, Cyrene, and Alexandria. One busy web of trade bound together Spain under Carthage and Rome, Carthage under Hamilcar, Syracuse under Hieron II, Rome under the Scipios, Macedonia under the Antigonids, Greece under the Leagues, Egypt under the Ptolemies, the Near East under the Seleucids, India under the Mauryas, and China under the Hans. The routes from China passed through Turkestan, Bactria, and Persia, or over the Aral, Caspian, and Black Seas. The routes from India passed through Afghanistan and Persia to Seleucia, or through Arabia and Petra to Jerusalem and Damascus, or across the Indian Ocean to Adana (Aden), then through the Red Sea to Arsinoë (Suez), and thence to Alexandria. It was for control of the last two routes that the Seleucid and Ptolemaic dynasties fought those “Syrian Wars” that finally weakened them both to the point of falling vassal to Rome.

The Seleucid monarchy, inheriting the Asiatic tradition, was absolute; no assembly limited its power. The court was planned on the Oriental style, with chamberlains and lace, eunuchs and uniforms, incense and music; only the speech and the inner dress remained Greek. The nobles were not half-independent chieftains as in Macedonia or medieval Europe, but administrative or military appointees of the king. It was this structure of monarchy that passed down from Persia through the Seleucids and Sassanids to the Rome of Diocletian and the Byzantium of Constantine. Knowing that their power, in an alien scene, rested upon the loyalty of the Greek population, the Seleucid kings labored to restore the old Greek cities and to establish new ones. Seleucus I founded nine Seleucias, six Antiochs, five Laodiceas, three Apameas, one Stratonice; and his successors imitated him to the best of their lesser ability. Cities grew and multiplied as in nineteenth-century America.

Through them the Hellenization of western Asia proceeded, on the surface, at a rapid pace. The process, of course, was old; it had begun with the Great Migration, and the Hellenistic Dispersion was in part the Renaissance of Ionia, a return of Greek civilization to its early Asiatic homes. Even before Alexander Greeks had held high offices in the Persian Empire, and Greek merchants had dominated the trade routes of the nearer East. Now the opening of political, commercial, and artistic opportunities drew from old Greece, Magna Graecia, and Sicily an emigrant flow of adventurers, settlers, scribes, soldiers, traders, doctors, scholars, and courtesans. Greek sculptors and engravers made statues and coins for Phoenician, Lycian, Carian, Cilician, Bactrian kings. Greek dancing girls became the rage of Asiatic ports.10 Sexual immorality took on a Greek grace, and Greek palaestras and gymnasiums aroused in some Orientals an unwonted devotion to athletics and baths. Cities secured new water supplies and drainage systems; avenues were paved and cleaned. Schools, libraries, and theaters stimulated reading and literature; collegians (epheboi) and university students roamed the streets and played their ancient pranks upon one another and the populace. No one was counted cultured unless he understood Greek and could enjoy the plays of Menander and Euripides. This imposition of Greek civilization upon the Near East is one of the startling phenomena of ancient history; no change so swift and far-reaching had ever been seen in Asia. We know too little of its details and its results. We are poorly informed about the literature, philosophy, and science of Seleucid Asia; if we find in it few figures of prime magnitude—Zeno the Stoic, Seleucus the astronomer, and, in the Roman period, Meleager the poet and Poseidippus the polymath—we cannot be sure that there were not many more. It was a flourishing culture, full of variety, refinement, and verve, and as fertile in art as any preceding age. Never before, so far as our knowledge goes, had a civilization achieved so wide a spread and such complex unity amid so many diverse environments. For a century western Asia belonged to Europe. The way was prepared for the Pax Romana, and the embracing synthesis of Christendom.

But the East was not conquered. It was too deepiy and anciently itself to yield its soul. The masses of the people continued to speak their native tongues, to pursue their long-accustomed ways, and to worship their ancestral gods. Beyond the Mediterranean coasts the Greek veneer grew thin, and such Hellenic centers as Seleucia on the Tigris were Greek islands in an Oriental sea. There was no such fusion of races and cultures as Alexander had dreamed of; there were Greeks and Greek civilization on the top, and a medley of Asiatic peoples and cultures underneath. The qualities of the Greek intellect made no entry into the Oriental mind; the energy and love of novelty, the zest for worldliness and the passion for perfection, the expressiveness and individualism of the Greek effected no change in the Oriental character. On the contrary, as time moved on, Eastern ways of thought and feeling surged up from below into the ruling Greeks, and through them flowed westward to transform the “pagan” world. In Babylon the patient Semitic merchant and the temple banker regained ascendancy over the volatile Hellene, preserved the cuneiform writing, and forced back the Greek language into second place in the business world. Astrology and alchemy corrupted Greek astronomy and physics; Oriental monarchy proved more powerful than Greek democracy, and finally impressed its form upon the West; Greek kings and Roman emperors became gods in the manner of the East, and the Asiatic theory of the divine right of kings passed down through Rome and Constantinople into modern Europe. Through Zeno the East insinuated its quietism and fatalism into Greek philosophy; through a hundred channels it poured its mysticism and its piety into the vacuum left by the decay of the orthodox Greek faith. The Greek readily accepted the gods of the Orient as essentially identical with his own; but as the Greek did not really believe, and the Asiatic did, the Oriental god survived while the Greek god died. Artemis of the Ephesians became again an Eastern maternity goddess, with a dozen breasts. Babylonian, Phoenician, and Syrian cults captured great numbers of the invading Hellenes. The Greeks offered the East philosophy, the East offered Greece religion; religion won because philosophy was a luxury for the few, religion was a consolation for the many. In the rhythmic historic alternation of belief and unbelief, mysticism and naturalism, religion and science, religion returned to power because it recognized the secret helplessness and loneliness of man, and gave him inspiration and poetry; a disillusioned, exploited, war-wearied world was glad to believe and hope again. The least expected and most profound effect of Alexander’s conquest was the Orientalization of the European soul.

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