The history of the Greek-speaking world in antiquity may be divided into three periods: that of the free City States, which was brought to an end by Philip and Alexander; that of the Macedonian domination, of which the last remnant was extinguished by the Roman annexation of Egypt after the death of Cleopatra; and finally that of the Roman Empire. Of these three periods, the first is characterized by freedom and disorder, and the second by subjection and disorder, the third by subjection and order.
The second of these periods is known as the Hellenistic age. In science and mathematics, the work done during this period is the best ever achieved by the Greeks. In philosophy, it includes the foundation of the Epicurean and Stoic schools, and also of scepticism as a definitely formulated doctrine; it is therefore still important philosophically, though less so than the period of Plato and Aristotle. After the third century B.C., there is nothing really new in Greek philosophy until the Neoplatonists in the third century A.D. But meanwhile the Roman world was being prepared for the victory of Christianity.
The brief career of Alexander suddenly transformed the Greek world. In the ten years from 334 to 324 B.C., he conquered Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Samarcand, Bactria, and the Punjab. The Persian Empire, the greatest that the world had known, was destroyed by three battles. The ancient lore of the Babylonians, along with their ancient superstitions, became familiar to Greek curiosity; so did the Zoroastrian dualism and (in a lesser degree) the religions of India, where Buddhism was moving towards supremacy. Wherever Alexander penetrated, even in the mountains of Afghanistan, on the banks of the Jaxartes, and on the tributaries of the Indus, he founded Greek cities, in which he tried to reproduce Greek institutions, with a measure of self-government. Although his army was composed mainly of Macedonians, and although most European Greeks submitted to him unwillingly, he considered himself, at first, as the apostle of Hellenism. Gradually, however, as his conquests extended, he adopted the policy of promoting a friendly fusion between Greek and barbarian.
For this he had various motives. On the one hand, it was obvious that his armies, which were not very large, could not permanently hold so vast an empire by force, but must, in the long run, depend upon conciliation of the conquered populations. On the other hand, the East was unaccustomed to any form of government except that of a divine king, a role which Alexander felt himself well fitted to perform. Whether he believed himself a god, or only took on the attributes of divinity from motives of policy, is a question for the psychologist, since the historical evidence is indecisive. In any case, he clearly enjoyed the adulation which he received in Egypt as successor of the Pharaohs, and in Persia as the Great King. His Macedonian captains—the 'Companions', as they were called—had towards him the attitude of western nobles to their constitutional sovereign: they refused to prostrate themselves before him, they gave evidence and criticism even at the risk of their lives, and at a crucial moment they controlled his actions, when they compelled him to turn homewards from the Indus instead of marching on to the conquest of the Ganges. Orientals were more accommodating, providing their religious prejudices were respected. This offered no difficulty to Alexander; it was only necessary to identify Ammon or Bel with Zeus, and to declare himself the son of the god. Psychologists observe that Alexander hated Philip, and was probably privy to his murder; he would have liked to believe that his mother Olympias, like some lady of Greek mythology, had been beloved of a god. Alexander's career was so miraculous that he may well have thought a miraculous origin the best explanation of his prodigious success.
The Greeks had a very strong feeling of superiority to the barbarians; Aristotle no doubt expresses the general view when he says that northern races are spirited, southern races civilized, but the Greeks alone are both spirited and civilized. Plato and Aristotle thought it wrong to make slaves of Greeks, but not of barbarians. Alexander, who was not quite a Greek, tried to break down this attitude of superiority. He himself married two barbarian princesses, and he compelled his leading Macedonians to marry Persian women of noble birth. His innumerable Greek cities, one would suppose, must have contained many more male than female colonists, and their men must therefore have followed his example in intermarrying with the women of the locality. The result of this policy was to bring into the minds of thoughtful men the conception of mankind as a whole; the old loyalty to the City State and (in a lesser degree) to the Greek race seemed no longer adequate. In philosophy, this cosmopolitan point of view begins with the Stoics, but in practice it begins earlier, with Alexander. It had the result that the interaction of Greek and barbarian was reciprocal: the barbarians learnt something of Greek science, while the Greeks learnt much of barbarian superstition. Greek civilization, in covering a wider area, became less purely Greek.
Greek civilization was essentially urban. There were, of course, many Greeks engaged in agriculture, but they contributed little to what was distinctive in Hellenic culture. From the Milesian school onwards, the Greeks who were eminent in science and philosophy and literature were associated with rich commercial cities, often surrounded by barbarian populations. This type of civilization was inaugurated, not by the Greeks, but by the Phoenicians; Tyre and Sidon and Carthage depended on slaves for manual labour at home, and on hired mercenaries in the conduct of their wars. They did not depend, as modern capital cities do, upon large rural populations of the same blood and with equal political rights. The nearest modern analogue is to be seen in the Far East during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Singapore and Hong Kong, Shanghai and the other treaty ports of China, were little European islands, where the white men formed a commercial aristocracy living on coolie labour. In North America, north of the Mason-Dixon line, since such labour was not available, white men were compelled to practise agriculture. For this reason, the hold of the white man on North America is secure, while his hold on the Far East has already been greatly diminished, and may easily cease altogether. Much of his type of culture, especially industrialism, will, however, survive. This analogue will help us to understand the position of the Greeks in the eastern parts of Alexander's empire.
The effect of Alexander on the imagination of Asia was great and lasting. The First Book of the Maccabees, written centuries after his death, opens with an account of his career:
'And it happened, after that Alexander, son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came out of the land of Chettiim, had smitten Darius, king of the Persians and Medes, that he reigned in his stead, the first over Greece, and made many wars, and won many strong holds, and slew the kings of the earth, and went through to the ends of the earth, and took spoil of many nations, insomuch that the earth was quiet before him; whereupon he was exalted, and his heart was lifted up. And he gathered a mighty strong host, and ruled over countries, and nations, and kings, who became tributaries unto him. And after these things he fell sick, and perceived that he should die. Wherefore he called his servants, such as were honorable, and had been brought up with him from his youth, and parted his kingdom among them, while he was yet alive.1 So Alexander reigned twelve years, and then died.'
He survived as a legendary hero in the Mohammedan religion, and to this day petty chieftains in the Himalayas claim to be descended from him.2 No other fully historical hero has ever furnished such a perfect opportunity for the mythopoeic faculty.
At Alexander's death, there was an attempt to preserve the unity of his empire. But of his two sons, one was an infant and the other was not yet born. Each had supporters, but in the resultant civil war both were thrust aside. In the end, his empire was divided between the families of three generals, of whom, roughly speaking, one obtained the European, one the African, and one the Asiatic parts of Alexander's possessions. The European part fell ultimately to Antigonus's descendants; Ptolemy, who obtained Egypt, made Alexandria his capital; Seleucus, who obtained Asia after many wars, was too busy with campaigns to have a fixed capital, but in later times Antioch was the chief city of his dynasty.
Both the Ptolemies and the Seleucids (as the dynasty of Seleucus was called) abandoned Alexander's attempts to produce a fusion of Greek and barbarian, and established military tyrannies based, at first, upon their part of the Macedonian army strengthened with Greek mercenaries. The Ptolemies held Egypt fairly securely, but in Asia two centuries of confused dynastic wars were only ended by the Roman conquest. During these centuries, Persia was conquered by the Parthians, and the Bactrian Greeks were increasingly isolated.
In the second century B.C. (after which they rapidly declined) they had a king, Menander, whose Indian Empire was very extensive. A couple of dialogues between him and a Buddhist sage have survived in Pali, and, in part, in a Chinese translation. Dr Tarn suggests that the first of these is based on a Greek original; the second, which ends with Menander abdicating and becoming a Buddhist saint, is certainly not.
Buddhism, at this time, was a vigorous proselytizing religion. Asoka (264–228), the saintly Buddhist king, records, in a still extant inscription, that he sent missionaries to all the Macedonian kings: 'And this is the chiefest conquest in His Majesty's opinion—the conquest by the Law; this also is that effected by His Majesty both in his own dominions and in all the neighbouring realms as far as six hundred leagues—even to where the Greek king Antiochus dwells, and beyond that Antiochus to where dwell the four kings severally named Ptolemy, Antigonus, Magas, and Alexander … and likewise here, in the king's dominions, among the Yonas'3 (i.e. the Greeks of the Punjab). Unfortunately no western account of these missionaries has survived.
Babylonia was much more profoundly influenced by Hellenism. As we have seen, the only ancient who followed Aristarchus of Samos in maintaining the Copernican system was Seleucus of Seleucia on the Tigris, who flourished about 150 B.C. Tacitus tells us that in the first century A.D. Seleucia had not 'lapsed into the barbarous usages of the Parthians, but still retained the institutions of Seleucus,4 its Greek founder. Three hundred citizens, chosen for their wealth or wisdom, compose as it were a Senate; the populace too have their share of power.'5 Throughout Mesopotamia, as further West, Greek became the language of literature and culture, and remained so until the Mohammedan conquest.
Syria (excluding Judea) became completely Hellenized in the cities, in so far as language and literature were concerned. But the rural populations, which were more conservative, retained the religions and the languages to which they were accustomed.6 In Asia Minor, the Greek cities of the coast had, for centuries, had an influence on their barbarian neighbours. This was intensified by the Macedonian conquest. The first conflict of Hellenism with the Jews is related in the Books of the Maccabees. It is a profoundly interesting story, unlike anything else in the Macedonian Empire. I shall deal with it at a later stage, when I come to the origin and growth of Christianity. Elsewhere, Greek influence encountered no such stubborn opposition.
From the point of view of Hellenistic culture, the most brilliant success of the third century B.C. was the city of Alexandria. Egypt was less exposed to war than the European and Asiatic parts of the Macedonian domain, and Alexandria was in an extraordinarily favoured position for commerce. The Ptolemies were patrons of learning, and attracted to their capital many of the best men of the age. Mathematics became, and remained until the fall of Rome, mainly Alexandrian. Archimedes, it is true, was a Sicilian, and belonged to the one part of the world where the Greek City States (until the moment of his death in 212 B.C.) retained their independence; but he too had studied in Alexandria. Eratosthenes was chief librarian of the famous library of Alexandria. The mathematicians and men of science connected, more or less closely, with Alexandria in the third century before Christ were as able as any of the Greeks of the previous centuries, and did work of equal importance. But they were not, like their predecessors, men who took all learning for their province, and propounded universal philosophies; they were specialists in the modern sense. Euclid, Aristarchus, Archimedes, and Apollonius, were content to be mathematicians; in philosophy they did not aspire to originality.
Specialization characterized the age in all departments, not only in the world of learning. In the self-governing Greek cities of the fifth and fourth centuries, a capable man was assumed to be capable of everything. He would be, as occasion arose, a soldier, a politician, a lawgiver, or a philosopher. Socrates, though he disliked politics, could not avoid being mixed up with political disputes. In his youth he was a soldier, and (in spite of his disclaimer in the Apology) a student of physical science. Protagoras, when he could spare time from teaching scepticism to aristocratic youths in search of the latest thing, was drawing up a code of laws for Thurii. Plato dabbled in politics, though unsuccessfully. Xenophon, when he was neither writing about Socrates nor being a country gentleman, spent his spare time as a general. Pythagorean mathematicians attempted to acquire the government of cities. Everybody had to serve on juries and perform various other public duties. In the third century all this was changed. There continued, it is true, to be politics in the old City States, but they had become parochial and unimportant, since Greece was at the mercy of Macedonian armies. The serious struggles for power were between Macedonian soldiers; they involved no question of principle, but merely the distribution of territory between rival adventurers. On administrative and technical matters, these more or less uneducated soldiers employed Greeks as experts; in Egypt, for example, excellent work was done in irrigation and drainage. There were soldiers, administrators, physicians, mathematicians, philosophers, but there was no one who was all these at once.
The age was one in which a man who had money and no desire for power could enjoy a very pleasant life—always assuming that no marauding army happened to come his way. Learned men who found favour with some prince could enjoy a high degree of luxury, provided they were adroit flatterers and did not mind being the butt of ignorant royal witticisms. But there was no such thing as security. A palace revolution might displace the sycophantic sage's patron; the Galatians might destroy the rich man's villa; one's city might be sacked as an incident in a dynastic war. In such circumstances it is no wonder that people took to worshipping the goddess Fortune, or Luck. There seemed nothing rational in the ordering of human affairs. Those who obstinately insisted upon finding rationality somewhere withdrew into themselves, and decided, like Milton's Satan, that
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
Except for adventurous self-seekers, there was no longer any incentive to take an interest in public affairs. After the brilliant episode of Alexander's conquests, the Hellenistic world was sinking into chaos, for lack of a despot vstrong enough to achieve stable supremacy, or a principle powerful enough to produce social cohesion. Greek intelligence, confronted with new political problems, showed complete incompetence. The Romans, no doubt, were stupid and brutal compared to the Greeks, but at least they created order. The old disorder of the days of freedom had been tolerable, because every citizen had a share in it; but the new Macedonian disorder, imposed upon subjects by incompetent rulers, was utterly intolerable—far more so than the subsequent subjection to Rome.
There was widespread social discontent and fear of revolution. The wages of free labour fell, presumably owing to the competition of eastern slave labour; and meantime the prices of necessaries rose. One finds Alexander, at the outset of his enterprise, having time to make treaties designed to keep the poor in their place. 'In the treaties made in 335 between Alexander and the States of the League of Corinth it was provided that the Council of the League and Alexander's representative were to see to it that in no city of the League should there be either confiscation of personal property, or division of land, or cancellation of debt, or liberation of slaves for the purpose of revolution.'7 The temples, in the Hellenistic world, were the bankers; they owned the gold reserve, and controlled credit. In the early third century, the temple of Apollo at Delos made loans at ten per cent; formerly, the rate of interest had been higher.8
Free labourers who found wages insufficient even for bare necessities must, if young and vigorous, have been able to obtain employment as mercenaries. The life of a mercenary, no doubt, was filled with hardships and dangers, but it also had great possibilities. There might be the loot of some rich eastern city; there might be a chance of lucrative mutiny. It must have been dangerous for a commander to attempt to disband his army, and this must have been one of the reasons why wars were almost continuous.
The old civic spirit more or less survived in the old Greek cities, but not in the new cities founded by Alexander—not excepting Alexandria. In earlier times, a new city was always a colony composed of emigrants from some one older city, and it remained connected with its parent by a bond of sentiment. This kind of sentiment had great longevity, as is shown, for example, by the diplomatic activities of Lampsacus on the Hellespont in the year 196 B.C. This city was threatened with subjugation by the Seleucid King Antiochus III, and decided to appeal to Rome for protection. An embassy was sent, but it did not go direct to Rome; it went first, in spite of the immense distance, to
Marseilles, which, like Lampsacus, was a colony of Phocaea, and was, moreover, viewed with friendly eyes by the Romans. The citizens of Marseilles, having listened to an oration by the envoy, at once decided to send a diplomatic mission of their own to Rome to support their sister city. The Gauls who lived inland from Marseilles joined in with a letter to their kinsmen of Asia Minor, the Galatians, recommending Lampsacus to their friendship. Rome, naturally, was glad of a pretext for meddling in the affairs of Asia Minor, and by Rome's intervention Lampsacus preserved its freedom—until it became inconvenient to the Romans.9
In general, the rulers of Asia called themselves 'Phil-Hellene', and befriended the old Greek cities as far as policy and military necessity allowed. The cities desired, and (when they could) claimed as a right, democratic self-government, absence of tribute, and freedom from a royal garrison. It was worth while to conciliate them, because they were rich, they could supply mercenaries, and many of them had important harbours. But if they took the wrong side in a civil war, they exposed themselves to sheer conquest. On the whole, the Seleucids, and the other dynasties which gradually grew up, dealt tolerably with them, but there were exceptions.
The new cities, though they had a measure of self-government, had not the same traditions as the older ones. Their citizens were not of homogeneous origin, but were from all parts of Greece. They were in the main adventurers like the conquistadores or the settlers in Johannesburg, not pious pilgrims like the earlier Greek colonists or the New England pioneers. Consequently no one of Alexander's cities formed a strong political unit. This was convenient from the standpoint of the king's government, but a weakness from the standpoint of the spread of Hellenism.
The influence of non-Greek religion and superstition in the Hellenistic world was mainly, but not wholly, bad. This might not have been the case. Jews, Persians, and Buddhists all had religions that were very definitely superior to the popular Greek polytheism, and could even have been studied with profit by the best philosophers. Unfortunately it was the Babylonians, or Chaldeans, who most impressed the imagination of the Greeks. There was, first of all, their fabulous antiquity; the priestly records went back for thousands of years, and professed to go back for thousands more. Then there was some genuine wisdom: the Babylonians could more or less predict eclipses long before the Greeks could. But these were merely the causes of receptiveness; what was received was mainly astrology and magic. 'Astrology,' says Professor Gilbert Murray, 'fell upon the Hellenistic mind as a new disease falls upon some remote island people. The tomb of Ozymandias, as described by Diodorus, was covered with astrological symbols, and that of Antiochus I,
which has been discovered in Commagene, is of the same character. It was natural for monarchs to believe that the stars watched over them. But every one was ready to receive the germ.'10 It appears that astrology was first taught to the Greeks in the time of Alexander, by a Chaldean named Berosus, who taught in Cos, and, according to Seneca, 'interpreted Bel'. 'This,' says Professor Murray, 'must mean that he translated into Greek the "Eye of Bel", a treatise in seventy tablets found in the library of Assurbani-pal (686–626 B.C.) but composed for Sargon I in the third millennium B.C.' (ibid., p. 176).
As we shall see, the majority even of the best philosophers fell in with the belief in astrology. It involved, since it thought the future predictable, a belief in necessity or fate, which could be set against the prevalent belief in fortune. No doubt most men believed in both, and never noticed the inconsistency.
The general confusion was bound to bring moral decay, even more than intellectual enfeeblement. Ages of prolonged uncertainty, while they are compatible with the highest degree of saintliness in a few, are inimical to the prosaic every-day virtues of respectable citizens. There seems no use in thrift, when tomorrow all your savings may be dissipated; no advantage in honesty, when the man towards whom you practise it is pretty sure to swindle you; no point in steadfast adherence to a cause, when no cause is important or has a chance of stable victory; no argument in favour of truthfulness, when only supple tergiversation makes the preservation of life and fortune possible. The man whose virtue has no source except a purely terrestrial prudence will, in such a world, become an adventurer if he has the courage, and, if not, will seek obscurity as a timid time-server.
Menander, who belongs to this age, says:
So many cases I have known
Of men who, though not naturally rogues,
Became so, through misfortune, by constraint.
This sums up the moral character of the third century B.C., except for a few exceptional men. Even among these few, fear took the place of hope; the purpose of life was rather to escape misfortune than to achieve any positive good. 'Metaphysics sink into the background, and ethics, now individual, become of the first importance. Philosophy is no longer the pillar of fire going before a few intrepid seekers after truth: it is rather an ambulance following in the wake of the struggle for existence and picking up the weak and wounded.'11