Ancient History & Civilisation


In 1948 I met an elderly Greek man on the island of Naxos who said he had been with General Kitchener at Khartoum. As a boy he was helping his father sell lemonade to the British troops, undercutting the prices of the local Arab shopkeepers. The episode seemed typical of that Greek private enterprise and success far from home which was as apparent in antiquity as it is today, commercial rather than militant or imperial – consider Greek millionaire shipowners. It may be that this quality was one imposed by the relative poverty of the homeland. When the first Greek-speakers approached the Mediterranean from the north they found themselves ushered into a peninsula whose southern extremity was far less well provided with arable or pastoral plains than most of the other countries bordering the Mediterranean; not at all like Italy or Spain. It inevitably led to a complex of independent and often competitive states rather than a united country, and this was apparent already under the Mycenaean Greeks in the Bronze Age, with their separate kingdoms and fortress capitals. Many Greeks took to the seas and looked to improve their fortunes elsewhere. The ancient world was a relatively small place: Indian cinnamon could be found in the Heraion of Samos in the 7th century BC, but had travelled hand-to-hand;1 amber arrived from the Baltic. But the Greeks would soon learn the merits of distant travel for themselves.

They had come from the north and east originally.2 Their presence in Greece, as what we call Mycenaeans, already provided opportunities to demonstrate their readiness to look both east and west, to Anatolia, to Cyprus, to Italy. Barely three centuries after the fall of the Mycenaean world in around 1200 BC their attention again inexorably turned away from the homeland. To the west they were partly looking for new homes, but were mainly acquisitive of the products and wealth of peoples of, by comparison, relatively modest cultural accomplishment and no threat.

The results were to mutual benefit: the Greeks grew richer and found some new homes; the westerners were introduced to a wider world for their produce, to a monetary economy, to literacy, and to an art that could express narrative explicitly, after some centuries of relative stagnation. They were not physically threatened. This is not quite ‘colonization’ in the modern sense of the word, but there are points of comparison and any sensible scholar or student is not misled by use of the word.

In the eastern Mediterranean the Greeks reintroduced themselves to the heirs of the great civilizations and empires of the Near East, and submitted to an orientalizing revolution in their arts, which was to lead inexorably to the classical revolution of the 5th century BC and the genesis of a mode of ‘classical’ civilization to which the whole Western world remains heir.

This book is about what happened when Greeks met easterners – Anatolians, Levantines, Persians, Asiatics, Indians; how they interacted and what effects there were on the arts and societies of distant lands being visited and even settled by these folk, whose own traditions had evolved through various forms of kingship, tyranny and empire, and whose arts had passed from the formal and abstract to a degree of observation of life and nature not attempted elsewhere in the then civilized world. And they were visiting settled civilizations far older than theirs, with their own strong traditions in life, government and the arts, of a yet more decisive and individual cultural stamp than the Greek. As elsewhere in the world, these interfaces between cultures present a fascinating study of how human societies evolve, and how progress is as at least as often the product of interaction as it is locally generated.3 So this is not just a study of peoples and arts of non-Greeks who had been exposed to Greek culture at various levels, but more a study of the Greeks, ‘the Greek’ and the more broadly ‘classical’ in Asia, including material that can only be explained by acquaintance with Greek culture but not always involving the immediate presence of Greeks. And one result is a certain discontinuity of subject and date between some chapters (especially the non-Greeks of Chapters 3 and 7) in the attempt to keep like with like. ‘The Roman’ is also a problem since the Roman Empire spread east to as far as Mesopotamia and (much) later dealt directly with southern India. I have therefore to address the problem of ‘Greek or Roman’ arts and, without, I hope, demoting the Roman, stress the Greek character of so much in Roman Asia and especially at Alexandria in Egypt, which were the main sources of the classicism that passed east.

My treatment of the subject is not exhaustive, since there are several histories of the period and subject available, as well as thorough bibliographies and lists of sources. It tends to favour the primary evidence – physical, archaeological, artistic and literary, too often scorned by latter-day scholars – since this is often less easily found by the reader and has long been my main interest. Here too I am much dependent on the resources of a good library and the information supplied by colleagues.

The Greeks were not empire-builders, and for the most part the Asian cultures they met were far better organized to control great tracts of land, to aspire to ambitious conquest and to influence and eventually absorb other peoples. The Greeks had no such vision, and spent much of their time trying to foil each other. But they had other qualities which could be valued anywhere, as they had been in the west: they were adept at trade, they could be good accountants and organizers for others, they were highly literate, they spread a monetary economy for Eurasia, their religion was not too demanding and easily adapted to that of others, and their art developed a form of narrative that was to be dominant for centuries to come. Their poets and philosophers were widely respected outside their homeland. They are an odd phenomenon in world history, and through their travels they came to leave a very distinctive imprint on the lives and arts of many distant peoples, and over centuries, some to the present day.

My interest in the subject was generated at an early date by preoccupation with evidence for Greeks visiting the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, in Syria, as pirate-traders, in the 9th/8th century BC, as demonstrated by the type of Greek pottery they carried and which was locally copied. This revealed them to be from the island of Euboea, which was, we know, also the source of those Greeks who were starting to explore the western Mediterranean coasts, North Africa, Italy and Sicily. Their closest rivals were the Phoenicians, who were more ambitious, less versatile. All this led me to a more general study of Greeks overseas (the title for a book in 1964, much revised since, to 1999) in the earlier period. My enthusiasm was expanded as a result of travel, to Persia, Afghanistan, India and East Asia, of involvement in the Crossroads of Asia exhibition in Cambridge in 1992, and of a deliberate study for lectures on the diffusion of classical art in antiquity (DCAA; a book title for 1994), as well as a better acquaintance with the plentiful literature that has been devoted to those areas. New finds have generated new observations, to the point at which an assessment of results seemed desirable (as much for the writer as for any interested reader).

The Greeks’ view of the Phoenicians is not easy to fathom. They do not become obvious rivals until a much later date and they seem to have moved west through the Mediterranean with a dividing line between their interests drawn by simple geography and the obvious routes rather than mutual antagonism – across the Adriatic into Italy for the Greeks, along the North African coast for the Phoenicians. Phoenician works appear in western Greek sites, though the North Syrian outweigh them in the beginning. And the early Phoenician sites in the west, even Carthage, are not without clear traces of Greek goods and probable presence, and as early as any Phoenician.4

In my book on the diffusion of Greek art (DCAA) the reader will find a more fully documented account of much of this subject, more art and archaeology, less history. I have obviously depended much on the published work of others, which it is becoming increasingly difficult to command, despite Internet sources.5 It is in the nature of the lands covered in this book and their exploration in the last two centuries, that much material of relevance has not been scientifically excavated and may be known only once it reaches the market. A minority of scholars would regard such material as untouchable, but it would be foolish, indeed unscholarly and smacking of censorship, to ignore it. Most forgeries are obvious, and there are major classes of material which are vital to our subject – such as coins – which simply cannot and should not be ignored. So I have not ignored them.

The Land

History starts in geography, and climate, but in the two-and-a-half thousand years since my narrative begins climate has not changed enough to need taking into account, although the activity of man – through cultivation and irrigation – may have affected local surroundings. In our area there are some serious mountain ranges but with passes, and generally speaking there are few places where passage could not somehow be effected. The Achaemenid Persians proved this by building a road network from the Aegean Sea to India and Central Asia6 – not the least of their major contributions to the history of man and a project inconceivable for any Greek.

Our ‘Greece’ starts partly in Asia, on the west coast of Asia Minor (its Roman name; otherwise Anatolia, now Turkey). The west coast, as also the south and the offshore island Cyprus, resembles Greece, rugged with valleys, but fertile. Asia Minor is a high plateau, also rugged in the north and especially the northeast where the coast turns along the borders of the Black Sea, with a fertile enclave in modern Georgia, leading to the mountainous Caucasus to the north, and east to the Caspian Sea. South, the east coast of the Mediterranean, on to Egypt, is also fertile, giving way soon to desert. To the east lay the fertile valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates (Mesopotamia, ‘between the rivers’), which emerge on to the Persian Gulf. Persia beyond is a sweep of mountain ranges with some fertile plains, then desert, ending in a plateau before what we call Central Asia. The mountain ridges run on through modern Afghanistan (the Hindu Kush), north Pakistan and ultimately Tibet.

The plains of Central Asia are crossed by two rivers – the Oxus (Amu Darya) running into the now dessicated Aral Sea, but once probably into the Caspian Sea, and the Syr Darya; and between lie massive plains, part desert but often fertile though lacking other natural definition than the rivers. But these river plains proved the bases for major towns, including some of the largest in antiquity. Otherwise these lands were more naturally occupied by nomad peoples. North of India and the high Tibetan plateau we are in an area where rise of many of the greatest rivers of Asia, the Indus, the Ganges, the Mekong, along with the sources of the great Chinese rivers, the Yangtse and Yellow, and not far off the ‘Silk Roads’ going east to China – the ‘roads’ in our period being simply a succession of staging posts, from the Mediterranean to the China Seas, where goods were handed on, and only incidentally on transcontinental highways (an Achaemenid Persian speciality).7 And north there are more mountains (Tienshan) with routes to their north, through Siberia to China. The northern nomad lands are defined north–south, by the Urals running north of the Caspian, then the Irtysh and Yenisei (Minussinsk) river valleys, then Lake Baikal and Mongolia. Overall the climate varies from the tropical to a land of permafrost, the terrain from sheer desert to impenetrable forest.

Personal acquaintance with areas studied counts for a lot. I have not seen as much of Asia Minor and the Black Sea coast as I might wish, but have travelled most of the coastline, Georgia, and, in the Levant, parts of the coast from Al Mina to Petra. Iraq is unknown to me but Persia quite well travelled (1985, 2011), as also north Pakistan and Afghanistan (1978), with a trip beyond the Oxus (from Tashkent west, 2011), and east of Kashgar past the Taklamakan desert and on to China and the coast (1989). Even a fleeting visit helps to fix the history and geography. I am a great admirer of the historian Arnold Toynbee (whom I accompanied on a tour round Attica in 1949), who made a point of knowing the land as well as the literature, not always a merit of today’s historians.8His view was that ‘Human beings and human societies cannot be understood apart from their environment, and their geographical environment cannot be apprehended at second hand’.

I have declared that this is not designed to be a comprehensive account of the subject – that would take a lifetime and several volumes. I have tried to indicate and document its range and appeal, sparing the detail in areas well covered by others, notably the strictly ‘historical’, and paying more attention to the archaeological/art-historical aspects, since these have always been my primary interest; they are not easily assessed, and they are plentiful and multiplying year by year. My title is ‘The Greeks’ – but it includes much which must be Greek in inspiration although not necessarily from the hands of Greek-speakers. And I would add only one general observation. The Greeks were not empire-builders, but their culture contributed to the imperial history of Rome and to more than one empire to the east. The columns of their Temple of Artemis at Ephesus could match those of Persepolis (themselves Greek-inspired). They made a major intellectual and artistic contribution, directly, and indirectly by the example set by travellers and migrants, to much of that great geographical band of urban civilizations that stretched from China to Peru, which I attempted to define in my World of Ancient Art (2006), a feat that might excuse their many faults. Certainly, their art ‘had something of the character of a virus in antiquity’.9

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