Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age
The Hellenistic Aesthetic
Hellenistic Poetry: An Anthology
Hellenism in Late Antiquity
When we think of Ancient Greece and Rome, cradle of our civilization and most accessible of ancient societies, what is it that comes to mind? Two periods dominate the idea of classical antiquity for moderns: on the one hand the democracy of Athens in the fifth century BC, innovative and dynamic, and on the other the grandiose and apparently unchanging empire of Rome in the early centuries of our era. Between those two periods lies a gap of four centuries, which may seem less attractive because of the enormous complexity of their political history, with wars, alliances, revolutions, conquests, and the rise and fall of nations. They also can look depressing because so much that happened seems not to lead anywhere, in the sense of forming part of the great historical movements which interest the selective eye of posterity.
Yet this was a crucial period. It was in those turbulent generations that the scale of Greek history was transformed, from an affair of city-states, mostly around the Aegean Sea, to one of great kingdoms, Egypt, Asia Minor, Syria. It was then, too, that the all-conquering city of Rome succeeded in mastering the Mediterranean world and the Near East, an empire both larger and also more enduring than any which had gone before; and in adopting and imposing on the world a culture which was in large part Greek, and which had the effect of ensuring that the achievements of classical Greece were kept alive, in an altered and selected form, instead of passing away with the destruction of Greek political power. It also was the period between the Old and New Testaments, in which for the first time the Jews and the Greeks confronted each other, and in which the world was brought into a state which made possible the spreading and the triumph of the Christian gospel.
A special word, “Hellenistic,” referring to the period from the career of Alexander the Great to the ascendancy of Rome, was not thought necessary by scholars before the German historian J.G. Droysen (1808–1884) used it in his history of the period (1836). The concept has proved useful but also slippery, with scholars disagreeing on the dates at which the period began and ended. Peter Green defines it as the years from 323 (death of Alexander) to 31 BC (defeat of Cleopatra); Barbara Hughes Fowler prefers 323 to AD 14 (death of the Emperor Augustus). Some writers have even included the Roman Empire. Fortunately we need not worry about the point. However defined at its extremities, this period is now receiving intense study by scholars who are helping to make the results accessible to readers who may be daunted by the newly appearing volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History (third edition).
Peter Green, Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has produced a book on the grand scale: 970 pages (large and on good paper), 30 maps, 217 illustrations, 5 genealogical charts of dynasties, a chronological table 45 pages long, 168 pages of notes, 20 of select bibliography, 41 of index (full and helpful). It is a work of great learning, energy, and courage by one man, who gives not only a history but also an interpretation and a criticism of every aspect of that bewilderingly complex world, its politics, literature, art, philosophy, and science. The University of California Press singles it out as a “Centennial book”: one of one hundred books to be published between 1990 and 1995, which to commemorate the centenary of the Press will be “examples of the Press’s finest publishing and bookmaking traditions.” The publishers have done Green proud. The book, though bulky in size, is excellently produced.
The obstacles are formidable to the writing of a book like this. The period of three hundred years was marked by a political history peculiarly hard to follow, since the inheritance of Alexander was fought over by his marshals for decades before three more or less stable kingdoms—Macedonia, Egypt, and Syria—divided up the empire between them. They interacted with one another, with the city-states of Old Greece in their constantly shifting alliances and wars, with the subject peoples, with barbarians, with the rising power of Rome. The ancient sources for much of the story are exceedingly unsatisfactory, and it is very hard to narrate the events in such a way that concentration on one aspect of the story does not lose sight of the others and of the interconnections between them. A mass of varied archaeological evidence illuminates and also obstructs. In addition to the narrative of political and military history, Green gives a critical account of most aspects of the Hellenistic world: its literature, art, philosophy, science, religion. All of these, of course, changed and developed in the course of three centuries.
The difficult combination is made to work with great panache. Green’s style is lively, he draws striking parallels with recent history and recent persons; he paces his narrative in a way that makes it very readable, while deftly keeping the reader aware of the whole of his large-scale patterning of these complex and ramified chains of events. He punctuates narrative with more general discussion, and he picks out telling details that illuminate and remain in the memory. His story line is crisp, and his interpretation of the period is eminently clear and vividly conveyed.
It is this interpretation, in its clarity and vividness, that makes the reviewer less than completely enthusiastic. The period is in some ways a tragic one: the achievement of classical Greece in democracy, freedom of speech, and artistic innovation was not carried on as might have been hoped. Those extraordinary experiments, so unlike anything else in ancient history, were bound up with the small-scale city-state, the polis. Alexander of Macedon and his successors conquered Greece and held it down; repeated attempts to regain liberty for the cities were always crushed. The Hellenistic kingdoms, by their scale and resources, dwarfed Athens and Thebes. Autocracy disliked democracy; on the whole the urban upper class, sooner or later, came to agreement with the kings and ran the cities as more or less benevolent plutocracies. The rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. Constant wars ravaged Greece; the necessity of coming to terms with absolute kings meant the rise of court art, ruler worship, cynicism.
Green sees all this and hammers it home with unrelenting ferocity. The entire book is deeply colored with disillusionment, impatience, and scorn. What caused the loss of the old virtues, democracy, and art? Every aspect of Hellenistic culture is tested for its weakness and its role in causing this universal decline, and in turn each one is found to be guilty: all are elitist and reactionary, venal and corrupt. Two main criticisms of this seem to me to be justified. One is that the reader is shown every aspect of intellectual life from the point of view more of unmasking it than of sympathizing with it. The favorite adverb is “predictably.” As we shall see, poetry and philosophy and the rest turn out to be mystifications which conceal sinister social and political realities. Such an approach is polemical—often brilliantly so—rather than aiming at understanding in the full sense; and a great deal is lost if one tackles the art and thought of any period in that spirit.
The second criticism is that we lose the sense that this was, despite all the disasters, the wars, and the betrayals, in important ways a civilized period. Many people were neither tyrants nor serfs; a middle class less ferocious and less misogynist than that of classical Greece often succeeded in living a life of comparative prosperity, with those refinements of education, theater, and music that proved so irresistibly seductive to educated Macedonians and Romans and even, for a time, Jews. The improvement in the position of women, the spread of literacy, the greater comfort of greater numbers of households: we should not be so intolerant of everything except democratic zeal and progress that we despise, for those distant people, the things we value for ourselves. Like the modern Western society that Green also denounces, it was the envy and aspiration of outsiders.
One of Green’s rarer talents is for making intelligible and interesting even the most intricate and obscure of political events. He sets out the sordid horrors of the family struggles among the last Ptolemies of Egypt for instance, with a nice combination of gusto and revulsion. Take King Ptolemy the Eighth, Benefactor the Second (to give him his official title: a dynasty in which every king had the same name made liberal use of secondary titles), Potbelly~Physcon~and Malefactor (as he was unofficially known to his subjects in Alexandria). About 145 BC he expelled the Jews, purged and ruined the great Museum and Library, scattering the scholars and scientists whom his predecessors had subsidized for more than 150 years.
The eminent scholar and critic Aristarchus was succeeded as head of the institution by “Cydas, one of the Lifeguards.” The king enlivened a career of oppression and luxury by marrying his niece Cleopatra III, in addition to his queen, his full sister Cleopatra II. During the feast at his wedding to his sister he had had her son Ptolemy the Seventh (her child by her deceased elder brother) murdered. The two princesses appear on inscriptions respectively as “Cleopatra the Wife” and “Cleopatra the Sister.” Falling out with the Sister, who attempted to depose him in favor of their son, another Ptolemy, he managed to get hold of the boy, who was twelve years old, kill him, and send his mutilated body back to his mother on her birthday. Riots, alarms, and excursions followed; but soon the Sister was back in the menage à trois….
So cut off was this little group in its private world of incest, intrigue, and pleasure that when the Roman Senate sent a commission of enquiry to Egypt in 140 BC, headed by a member of the great Scipio family, Ptolemy Physcon received them on the quay, dressed in a see-through robe over his enormous bulk, scented and oiled with perfume, and surrounded by all the apparatus of refined debauchery. This of course made the worst possible impression on the virtuous Romans; Scipio was the sort of man who made a point of traveling with a retinue of not more than five persons. He forced the king to walk with him at top speed through the streets of Alexandria, who sweated and wobbled as he struggled to keep up. The confrontation, pathetic and grotesque, is emblematic of the meeting of decadent Hellenistic kingship with the self-praising toughness of Rome (“One thing the Alexandrians owe to me,” said Scipio: “thanks to me, they have seen their king walk!”) It recalls also some encounters between Victorian servants of the Raj and Indian princes, powerless and luxurious.
Green deals well with such people, and his racy style enables the reader to keep his grip on the confusing cast of Ptolemies, Cleopatras, and Demetriuses who seduce and murder one another in the later decades of the period. The comparison with the Raj is one which he does not make in this context, but which does recur several times in his pages. Green likes modern parallels, which serve as shorthand, and he produces some striking ones. The poet Menander is like P.G. Wodehouse:
The world Menander portrays is almost as stylized as that of Blandings Castle or the Drones Club, and indeed contains many very similar characters: Bertie Wooster is not at all unlike one of Menander’s well-heeled young suitors, potty with innocent passion and misunderstood good intentions, while his clever, manipulative slaves have many characteristics in common with Jeeves. Both writers, moreover, lived in highly disturbed times; both, except in the most oblique ways, ignored these disturbances in their work.
The painter Zeuxis is compared to Chardin, the painter Timomachus to Lord Leighton, the deliberately obscure poet Lycophron to Salvador Dali. The Athenian statesman Phocion was like Pétain (“there is a meanness of spirit about Phocion for which no amount of rectitude can compensate”), the Athenian statesman Demochares was “an intransigent Gaullist somehow now accommodated among the more pliable men of Vichy.”
More importantly, the historian Polybius, our most important source for the history of a vital part of the period, “was not exactly a quisling…yet there was ambivalence in his attitude [sc. to Rome] and more than a touch of the pragmatic collabo about him…. The scholar who labeled his role in Achaea from 146 as that of a ‘Roman commissar’ was not exaggerating.” Both a Nazi collabo and a commissar: the vividness given by one such comparison is reduced, rather than increased, by the addition of the second.
The simile of the British Raj raises larger issues. Green’s book is written with much passion, and the Greeks of the Hellenistic period come off, on the whole, very badly. It is significant that one of his three epigraphs is the verse from Dryden’s Secular Masque, written to greet the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century:
All, all, of a piece throughout:
Thy Chase had a Beast in View;
Thy Wars brought nothing about;
Thy Lovers were all untrue.
‘Tis well an Old Age is out,
And time to begin a New.
But, we add quizzically, the new age which followed was that of the Roman Empire, in which democracy and social revolution were further off than ever. Green has many passages of slashing denunciation of the people he deals with and their world, from which he makes very few exceptions. Perhaps the most emphatically repeated of all his general judgments is that the conquests of Alexander and his successors were, from first to last, essays in looting and exploitation, backed up with xenophobia and snobbery.
I must state plainly at the outset that I regard the whole notion of a conscious, idealistic, missionary propagation in conquered territories of Greek culture, mores, literature, art, and religion…as a pernicious myth, compounded of anachronistic Christian evangelism and Plutarch-inspired wishful thinking, and designed (whether consciously or not) to provide moral justification for what was, in essence, despite its romantic popularity, large-scale economic and imperial exploitation.
Material greed and racial contempt had been the fuel that had maintained Macedonians in power from the Nile to the Euphrates, for three centuries—while their own mores steadily degenerated, and, more subtly, were infiltrated by the culture of those whose capital they stole, whose languages they ignored.
Nor was this only the motive: the result, too, was of the crudest. The subject peoples, under the Macedonian kings of Syria and Egypt, were uninterested in Greek culture, did not learn Greek, viewed their conquerors with hatred. It cannot be denied that many people in Syria, Asia Minor, Palestine, and other places did in fact learn Greek, and wrote ambitious works of literature in it, but Green puts this fact in a hostile light:
It is also true that a fair number of the local inhabitants, especially those who were socially or politically ambitious, took full advantage of such openings as the Greek gymnasium culture offered. A native eager to get on in this new imperial world had to cooperate with the regime…. In some of his most mordant poems Cavafy exactly catches the nervous, snobbish cynicism that inevitably characterized such arrivistes….
And the refusal of the natives to learn from Greece is just like the failure of the British to make any impression on India:
Again, the parallel of British India springs to mind, where the acceptance of English as a lingua franca, and the appetite of numerous educated Indians for such plums of power as they could grab within the system as it stood…made [no] inroads against India’s own long-standing cultural and religious traditions.
Green appears to have allowed his fiery antagonism to every Raj, ancient and modern, to blind him to the fact, surely far from trivial, that the British influence on India extended to leaving behind a state with parliamentary democracy and a tradition of secularism that was hardly to be found elsewhere in Asia, and is still in place, despite many attacks, more than forty years later.
There can be little question that Green is right to ridicule any excessively soft views of the Greeks’ cultural mission. Like any other conquerors, they had the straightforward motives of power and wealth; and a people who at no time were remarkably anxious about educating their own lower orders were not likely to set up evening classes for the conquered peoples of Cappadocia or the shores of the Caspian Sea. Probably most Macedonians would have echoed the British officer in Evelyn Waugh who cannot believe that the Americans want to organize operas in occupied Italy in 1944 (“It’s the most certain way to the Italian heart”):
We’ve just beaten the bastards, haven’t we?… I can’t believe even the Yanks would be so wet as to lay on entertainments for them.
But Green goes, I think, a good deal too far in the opposite direction. What the Greek kingdoms replaced was not a world of modern democracies but the Persian Empire, which—like all the Oriental conquerors that preceded it—was also essentially a world of exploitation and dominion. Green uses revealing language:
To take your own superiority for granted does not necessarily, or even commonly, imply that you are altruistically eager to give others the benefit of it, especially when you are busy conquering their territory, exploiting their natural resources and manpower, taxing their citizens, imposing your government on them, and unloading their accumulated gold reserves onto the international market in the form of military loot.
“Taxing their citizens” carries the implication that the peoples ruled by the Great King of Persia really were citizens, when in fact the Great Kings spoke even of their highest functionaries as “my slave So-and-So,” and most of their subjects were peasants, who at all times had been taxed by some ruler or other; and “unloading their accumulated gold reserves,” sounds as if what Alexander seized was the national bank of a Western democracy rather than the hoarded proceeds of two hundred years of taxation and oppression by the King, his personal property, no less inaccessible to a farmer on the Anatolian uplands or a trader on the coast of Palestine than when it had in turn been looted by a conqueror from Macedon.
The entire period is, for Green, a radically unsatisfactory one. “There is an awful void here at the heart of things,” he writes, and again, “There remained a void at the heart of things, a rootlessness that was one of the Hellenistic age’s most enduring and characteristic features.” Of the work of the poet Herodas he says, “It is all very Hellenistic, and, ultimately, very depressing.” The celebrated statue of Laocoon and his sons, struggling in the coils of the serpents, “has always seemed to me a terrible symbol of Hellenistic civilization at its last gasp, caught inextricably in the viselike coils of a new world from which neither athleticism nor fine words could free it.” In his energetic prose he gives a series of lists of the characteristics of that age, sometimes adding that they are common to our age too.
In his preface he writes of the “ornate, indeed rococo, glass,”
in which Alexandria, Antioch, and Pergamon reflect contemporary fads, failings, and aspirations, from the urban malaise to religious fundamentalism, from Veblenism to haute cuisine, from funded scholarship and mandarin literature to a flourishing dropout counter-culture, from political impotence in the individual to authoritarianism in government, from science perverted for military ends to illusionism for the masses, from spiritual solipsism on a private income to systematic extortion in pursuit of the plutocratic dream….
As for the Greek psyche, it had changed from what it was in the classical period:
Loss of self-confidence and idealism, displacement of public values, the erosion of religious beliefs, self-absorption ousting involvement, hedonism masking impotent resentment, the violence of despair, the ugliness of reality formalized as realism, the empty urban soul starving on pastoral whimsy, sex, and Machtpolitik.
What are the “characteristics that typify the Hellenistic period as a whole”?
These include a reversion to large-scale authoritarian government, the emergence of ruler cults, the increased availability of slave labor, a marked inclination toward superstition and astrology, the enskyment of Tyche (Chance, Fate, Providence), a decline in the respect paid to the Olympian gods, a corresponding enhancement of exotic foreign cults, the collapse of the inner spirit animating the polis, the loneliness of the individual adrift in the urban jungle, and finally, the subsidization—meaning control—of scholarship and science by royal patronage.
The reader observes the complete absence, in those exhilarating catalogs, as in others like them, of a single good thing. Observable also is the pleasure which the author has taken in his denunciations. One is reminded, in Wodehousian terms, of Lord Ickenham’s rebuke to Pongo Twistleton: “My dear Pongo, you have a gift for taking the dark view that amounts almost to genius. I should imagine that the prophet Isaiah as a young man must have been very like you” (Uncle Fred in the Springtime).
The arts, philosophy, and science all come off equally badly. The comic playwright Menander, whose work inspired Plautus and Terence and, through them, Molière and Goldoni, wrote “puffball plays” which were “the precise ancient equivalents of modern situation comedies or soap operas”; “the wise aphorisms turn out to be cracker-barrel commonplaces,” and the plays are marked by “commonplace moral values, stock characters, stereotyped opinions, and clichéridden dialogue.” It is even a fault in his work that “murder and serious illness…are taboo subjects in the plays.” But, the reader wants to remonstrate, they are meant to be comedies…. What I miss here is any acknowledgment that these plays are in verse, and in verse which has been admired for its deftness, liveliness, and capacity for constant surprise within apparently stereotyped settings.
The poet Callimachus, whose erudite and ironic verse is quintessential to the period, fares little better.
Callimachus’s waspishness to his rivals was matched only by his servility to the great…. I cannot help finding him at once pretentious and faintly distasteful, a literary exhibitionist with an unpleasant groveling streak about him, a sycophant implacable in his attacks on rival sycophants, a baroque and overworked scholar-poet….
Even Theocritus, some of whose pastoral verse is not bad—at least he had “not acquired the stylized sentimentality that makes Virgil’s Eclogues so offensive in places”—was unsuccessful in his poetry produced for a patron: “Theocritus has become, in effect, a court poet. There is always a price to be paid for patronage.” And even at his best,
Such flashes of uncomfortable realism…are comparatively rare. For the most part Theocritus’s pastoral characters have no real interests except their own intense emotions: in this they foreshadow the attitudes and behaviour patterns common in nineteenth-century European fiction, and probably reflect similar bourgeois assumptions in their creators.
Now these three are the poets whom most students of Greek literature would regard as the greatest in this period. All three are, more or less, condemned; and the condemnation is essentially a moral one, a condemnation of the moral character of these writers as shown by their wrong social attitudes. That is one way of judging poetry, but it is puritanical and onesided. For Green, discussion of poetry seems to be an extension of politics. He writes of “uncomfortable realism,” and it is for him a criticism that with Callimachus “literature moved away from the public arena, to become the property of a private, very often subsidized [ha!], intellectual minority.” That such minority art can have any value, or indeed that there are literary merits and pleasures which are not capable of being reduced without remainder to politics—these possibilities seem not to exist. Barbara Hughes Fowler gives a notably more friendly account in her Hellenistic Aesthetic, and supports it with attractive and readable translations in her Hellenistic Poetry.
The Hellenistic age was a great period of activity in philosophy. Stoics and Epicureans put forward their contending theories of logic, physics, ethics, and politics; the school of Aristotle amassed learned information; the Cynics offered a drastic criticism and rejection of society. In Green’s book they are all alike viewed with an unfriendly eye. The Cynics were “panhandlers”—Green remarks, with apparent approval, that “the Elizabethans described such transients as ‘sturdy beggars,’ and clapped them in the stocks”—in fact, as the Cynic Diogenes lived off unearned income by begging, “he qualifies, on a modest scale, as a rentier.” Are those people who beg in the subway rentiers too? And the trouble about Cynicism was that it did not offer an alternative to the social system: “The revolutionary element in [the] movement turns out, on analysis, to be moonshine.”
The Garden of Epicurus, with its emphasis on the rational pursuit of pleasure, withdrawal from society, and acceptance of women as equals in philosophical activity, might seem radical; contemporaries were outraged, too, by its teaching about the gods (to be treated with courteous attentions, but they played no part at all in human life). But it, too, “remained parasitical upon…the society it had rejected”; the Garden “was a rentier foundation,” and the Epicureans did not try to change the structure of society. It was “designed in the first instance for those with private incomes,” and “when it came to social planning Epicurus could see no further than the world about him.” Individual happiness and serenity, even the special value which the Epicureans put upon friendship: these do not save a philosophy which failed to be revolutionary in a social and economic sense.
The great opponents of the Epicureans were the Stoics. Their creed was regarded by ordinary people in antiquity as a mass of absurd paradoxes: all wrong actions are equally wrong, the wise man can do no wrong and is really the only king, virtue and wisdom make the good man happy under torture or at the stake, the emotions are wholly bad, pain and death are not evils, the wise man is master of every art and technique, and so on. In its early form Stoicism went so far as to recommend that there should be a community of wives with free choice of partners, putting an end to sexual jealousy. Such propositions made the Stoa the target of criticism and indeed ridicule throughout the Hellenistic period among ordinary people.
It is true that some Stoics did achieve a sort of moral ascendancy, and some rulers who were, or wished to be thought, serious, made a point of consulting Stoic thinkers. Green is not interested in the logical studies of the Stoa, which many students of ancient philosophy are now taking seriously; their arguments about physics, too, are of interest to him only insofar as they can bear a political interpretation. Stoic emphasis on fate and on universal causality
provides a device whereby the wealthy and powerful can reconcile their status (and, more important, their actions) with moral peace of mind…. What Stoicism offered, in fact, was a built-in justification—moral, theological, semantic—for the social and political fixed order: it was the most powerful and subtle instrument of self-perpetuation that the Hellenistic ruling class ever conceived.
The moral falsity of Stoicism is shown up by the case of Brutus, the assassin of Julius Caesar. He was a man whom contemporaries took seriously as a moral figure, yet we know from Cicero’s letters that he lent money to provincials at a rate of interest not only exorbitant but illegal, and used illegal force to exact repayment. So for Green: “Marcus Brutus…whose high-minded Stoicism was underwritten by outrageous usury,” and
the moral incoherence at the heart of Stoicism…was almost certainly responsible for the double standard of conduct notoriously practiced by such men as Brutus…. Intellectuals have always been adept at rationalizing their own hypocrisies, so that Brutus saw no inconsistency between his Stoic ideals (which were quite genuine) and his financial extortions on Rhodes.
This will not do. It is a minor point that Brutus’ financial activities took place not on Rhodes but Cyprus. It is more important that Brutus was not a Stoic at all but an adherent of another philosophical sect, the Academy, whose moral views were different.
But above all: we do not know how Brutus justified his actions to himself, and we do not know whether he saw any inconsistency between his philosophical standards and his deeds. Many professing Christians have committed crimes and behaved wickedly; that does not license us to say that Christianity caused their wicked actions, still less that it exists to justify them. The uncharacteristic inaccuracy of the details in this instance must come from Green’s detestation of Brutus, a man who combined high principle with murky secrets. But we should be careful about allowing ourselves the luxury of detesting our long dead subjects.
Lastly, there is Green’s treatment of the master of those who know: Aristotle. His discussion of kingship as a system of rule was, of course, distorted by money: “Still, Pella [the Macedonian capital] was funding Aristotle’s work, and he had, after all, been the young Alexander’s tutor.” More strikingly, “Aristotle regarded warfare as a natural mode of income, and his pupil Alexander took this lesson to heart, plundering what has been estimated at 180,000 talents of accumulated Persian gold.” The passage cited in support of this comes from Aristotle’s Politics, 1256 b23, in a discussion of the means of acquiring property. After talking of herding, hunting, brigandage, and a few other activities, Aristotle observes, “Hence even the art of war will by nature be in a manner an art of acquisition (for the art of hunting is a part of it)”*—not quite the same as calling it “a natural mode of income.” The idea that without Aristotle’s teaching Alexander would not have seized the treasure of the conquered Persian Empire is one that can hardly be taken seriously.
We have seen that Green regards the fact that research was “subsidized” as discrediting it; that is a position which all of us, perhaps, who hold university posts should think twice before we accept. And if the only alternative to subsidies, for the would-be scholar or philosopher, is to live on private means, and that condemns you as a rentier, then it is hard to see how any creditable research or philosophy can ever be done at all.
The period was a great time for mathematics, with the extraordinary achievements of such men as Archimedes and Euclid; Green grants the fact, but comments that
the pursuit of mathematics can be seen as one element in the complex movement that, from the fourth century onwards, placed increasing stress on bien-pensant, property-owning conservatism, with a correspondingly deep contempt (compounded of ignorance and snobbery) for the banausic activities of daily life.
It was a period of bold speculation and keen observation in astronomy, in which the theory that the earth circles the sun was propounded and hotly debated; the geocentric theory prevailed because
to save the appearances was also to save the static social universe in which every upper-class Greek thinker had so large an intellectual and emotional stake.
It was the period that invented textual criticism, librarianship, and systematic scholarly work on literary texts, but that is nothing to boast of:
It is noteworthy, but not surprising, that Hellenistic research in general preferred topics devoid of political sensitivity and ideological dogma, with an emphasis either on consolidation and cataloguing (textual criticism: Callimachus’s Pinakes [a systematic history of Greek literature]), or else on pure science (e.g., Apollonius of Perge’s investigation of conic sections). Again, modern parallels suggest themselves.
It was a period of considerable advances in medicine, but even the attempt at rationalism can be discreditable:
We often hear that the most important advance the Greeks made in medicine was to slough off the incubus of religious or magical superstition, especially as regards the assignation of antecedent causes. There is, obviously, some truth in this assumption, but it can be very misleading. A perverse rational hypothesis is no improvement on a religious one: what is the point of breaking away from superstition if you promptly become a slave to some arbitrary philosophical system? Besides, the religious hypothesis often possesses psychological value, and on occasion may have physical benefits too.
It was a period of great interest in law, and of large investments in education, but
the first (where not merely municipal or parochial) was little more than an elaborate sham masking the realities of power, while the second offered nothing, in essence, but literary rote learning, elementary mathematics, music, athletics, and—most important—a rhetorical grab bag that would enable men at the top to talk their way into, or out of, anything.
It was an age in which many books were written on the arts of politics and of kingship; but that was only a superficial cover for horrors:
There was, in the old-fashioned sense, a general breakdown of mortality, to the point where naked power and sensuous greed were (for the vast majority of those with any influence at all) the only serious driving forces in life.
It was an age in which the visual arts found enormous markets, with refined technique, varied subject matter, and tastes which ranged from gigantism and the baroque to the miniature, the elegant, and the sentimental. Barbara Hughes Fowler, in her sympathetic account of the Hellenistic aesthetic, makes use of words like “charm,” “prettiness,” “the sweetness of nature.” Green has no use for such qualities or such vocabulary, and he excoriates it all. He grants that it is true that “heterosexuality came into its own from the fourth century onward” (a pity that he has not more to say about women, their changing status and greater prominence), and that the change is manifest in art in the perfected representation of the female nude: he sees the new prominence of softer and less determinedly virile representations of the male; but his comment is
The feminine element is clearly emergent…the young male statues…all reveal a mood of sensitive introspection that sets them in sharp contrast to the magnificent, bearded, heroic fifth-century warriors of Riace Marina, the embodiment of self-confident masculinity, with their heavy musculature and great, firm rounded buttocks. But then [now for it!] the art favored by wealthy rentiers with the leisure for self-analysis and the cultivation of good taste—dependent, moreover, on hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, their political activity limited to municipal affairs—is unlikely to bear much resemblance, whether physical or psychological, to that associated with the citizen-soldiers of a genuinely independent polis.
On the other hand, when, as with the Pergamum sculptures now in Berlin, we are confronted, “at almost unbearable length,…with pain, hatred, frenzy, berserk physical outrage,” the explanation is surprisingly similar:
Those who hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them clearly needed some surrogate.
We too, after all, rely on mercenaries, or something more like them than the mass levy of all citizens which Green seems to yearn for—rather surprisingly, in view of his dislike of Sparta, the only Greek state which at this period required every citizen to be a soldier:
The warrior Spartiate, living off the income of his serf-run estate while he devoted himself to athletics and militarism….
As for the artist’s patrons:
While the public image remained pompous, traditional, and self-assertive, the private art patron glutted himself on Angst, narcissism, and nostalgie de la boue.
The same goes for the sitters. Confronted with what he rightly calls “a superb bronze head” from Delos, often named, from its expression, the “Worried Man,” Green is vitriolic in his contempt. Andrew Stewart, in his magisterial work on Greek sculpture—a splendidly illustrated and satisfyingly written book—speaks of
a very particular sense of impermanence, even of immanent mortality, that is externalized in the physiognomy of the down-turned mouth, searching eyes, and deeply furrowed brow. Acutely self-aware and haunted by existential doubt, the Worried Man fittingly inaugurates a long tradition of such images…. Against the brash, thrusting Westerner, the Greek now opposes a quasiphilosophical ideal of introverted reflection….
No such thoughts appeal to Green, who prefers to say that the sitter
has been variously, and implausibly, labeled an athlete, a general, or a prince. I doubt whether he was any of these: he looks far more like a rentier whose father made his millions in the slave trade, who was educated at the best philosophical schools in Athens, thus acquiring culture without a grain of originality: rather too fond of good food and drink, and suffering from the residual Angst and self-dramatizing guilt liable to beset those with more money than talent, who find time hanging heavy on their hands—the epitome, in short, of agonized sensibility bankrolled by a large private income, and exploring the variations of sensuality with the wearily obsessional gourmandise of a Cavafy.
Those ubiquitous rentiers!
A last instance. King Attalus of Pergamon commemorated his own exploit of defeating Gaulish marauders by setting up a great monument with statues of victors and vanquished. We have copies of some of these statues: a Dying Gaul, and a group sculpture of a Gallic chieftain who has just stabbed his wife and who now, still supporting her body, plunges his sword into his own throat. (See page 57.) These are powerful works: the Gauls, though barbaric, are presented as impressive in defeat and death. Green remarks perceptively that “the mood is melodramatic, the expressionism violent, yet the human dignity overwhelming.” But as if this were insufficiently cynical, he immediately goes on:
Here—among other things—we see the beginning of that long, frequently disastrous, at times ridiculous obsession with earthy, primitive, peasant values that has bedeviled urban intellectuals down the ages: D.H. Lawrence’s ithyphallic gamekeeper, even that appalling old village bore, Kazantzakis’s Zorba, stand, at however many removes, in the same tradition. There is an element of guilt involved….
Mellors the gamekeeper and Zorba the Greek have had to be summoned from a great distance to add aggression at such a moment.
The bulky book of Green deals with the Hellenistic period from 323–31 BC. Its polar opposite, in more senses than one, is the short book of Professor G. W. Bowersock, of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, on the survival of Greek elements in the very late period, down to the fifth and sixth centuries AD and the coming of Islam. Bowersock is a master of the short volume, and this one, which is the published form of the Jerome Lectures given in 1989 at Ann Arbor and at the American Academy in Rome, contains seventy-nine pages of text, plus indices and sixteen plates, fourteen of them in color. He is in touch with the very latest discoveries in the archaeology of the Eastern Empire and the areas on its fringes, and his book will be welcome as publishing in an accessible place some highly important recent finds: the marvelous mosaics found at New Paphos in Cyprus and first published (in German) in 1985, the mosaic discovered at Sepphoris in Palestine in 1987, the remarkable textiles now in Riggisberg, Switzerland, which were made known—again in German—in a pamphlet published in 1987, wall paintings discovered in the city of Faw in Arabia in the early 1980s, and a mosaic of the year 785 AD discovered in the mid-1980s at a site in Jordan and first published (in Italian) in 1987. It is a notable service to have these works of art, some of which are very fine, assembled and discussed.
The study of the ancient world needs books of both these kinds. Green’s work does not depend importantly on new discoveries but on the interpretation of a great mass of material, hard to master and to see coherently; Bowersock’s brings to bear the very latest evidence to cast a sharper and narrower light on particular problems which have a relevance to important general issues. Different as their procedures are, there is one question on which they both concentrate: What were the meaning and content of Greek culture when it came in contact with, or was imposed upon, the local cultures of the East?
Green presents the Greeks as succeeding, or rather (he insists) failing, to impress their culture on the mass of the population: Hellenization, that is, with or, without lasting effect. He prefers to point out instances where the local culture affected or absorbed that of the Greeks, as victories for the native peoples. Bowersock wants to get away from this conception of antagonism and domination and to talk, not of Hellenization but of Hellenism: the Graeco-Roman culture with its high literary forms and literary language, and with its pagan cults and ceremonies, as it flourished and developed in interaction with local, non-Greek, elements.
He argues successfully that in the Roman Imperial period there was in general a fusion of religious practice. Deities which were in origin pre-Greek were widely worshiped under Greek names; Greek-type stories were told as their sacred myths, and told in the Greek language, even when the original nature of the cult was still visible in such non-Greek shapes as that of the worship of sacred trees. Throughout Asia Minor, southern Syria, and even Egypt, people spoke of their gods in the international language of cultural communication, namely Greek. It is a striking example of the fluidity of all this that the great Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, patron of Greek intellectuals, who fought against Rome in the third century AD, was treated by the Romans as a dynast (and usurper) in the Graeco-Roman tradition, but was remembered in the Arab versions as a kind of Arab leader. The two were not felt to be sharply opposed to each other as scholars are often tempted to suppose—a point that does, I think, blunt some of the antitheses dwelt upon by Green.
Bowersock goes on to argue that “Hellenism” remained alive and potent in the East much longer than is believed. Two or three hundred years after the victory of Christianity with the Emperor Constantine, pagan cults were widespread, with Greek names and myths, and pagan cult centers that communicated with each other in Greek; this was the vital language that enabled local and inarticulate cults to achieve definitive form and to take on clear and intelligible outlines. The originally nonanthropomorphic deities of pre-Islamic Arabia came to acquire faces and bodies only under the influence of Greek polytheism; Greek pagan cult was still widespread in Edessa up to the end of the sixth century AD; pantomime performances, of a very lewd character according to indignant Christian sources, were still being given in the theaters of Syrian cities in the sixth century on the amours of the pagan gods and goddesses. “On the eve of Islam, Hellenism continued to be a powerful force,” and the inescapable use of the Greek language carried with it pagan cults and beliefs.
In late antiquity some pagans began to react to the monolithic Christian church by trying to turn paganism into something which it never had been: a kind of anti-church, with an orthodoxy. The Emperor Julian the Apostate, in the AD 360s, seems to have had some idea of the sort. Bowersock emphasizes that Julian had been brought up as a Christian and wanted to make paganism into a mirror image of the church he hated. It is often Dionysus, god of wine, who is the chief and linking deity, made to serve as the unifying figure of the many separate local cults, and as the redeemer of all mankind. The new Cypriot mosaics show a scene with the newborn god sitting on the knee of Hermes, surrounded by female figures with such names as Theogonia (“Birth of a God”), and Anatrophe (“Upbringing”). Adoring worshipers stretch out their hands to the infant god in the posture of the Magi at the Nativity of Christ.
The Egyptian poet Nonnus, in the fifth century, wrote two long works in Greek hexameters, both still extant: one is an epic in forty-eight books on the conquest of the world by the god Dionysus, the other a verse paraphrase of the Gospel according to St. John. That one man should have written both has always been a puzzle, but evidence is beginning to appear that the two religions might not have been, at a certain sophisticated level, felt as so completely incompatible. Educated Christians still were inescapably attached to the old culture and what went with it. In Egypt we find numerous poets, as late as the sixth century, composing verse which was pagan in theme and style, yet mingling without apparent strain in the Christian society of their time. We need to reconsider, as Bowersock emphasizes,
the old and unworkable notion of a struggle to the death between paganism and Christianity—a notion implanted and nourished by the church fathers and until recently part of the conceptual framework within which everyone has examined the centuries after Constantine’s conversion.
More daring are his final arguments, that it was under the influence of Greek polytheism and Greek systematizing that the cults of the Arabs took on, before the time of the Prophet, for the first time a standardized form: in response to the pan-Hellenic culture of the Greeks, a pan-Arab culture came into existence. And indeed
without the cohesion fostered by the religious observances of the pagan Arabs in late antiquity, it is arguable that the Prophet would have had no audience for his great message.
Greek culture, we might add, would thus be seen as playing a similar role for the spread of Islam to that which the Roman Empire played in uniting the world and facilitating the spread of Christianity. Wall paintings and mosaics show that even after the Islamic conquest, unmistakably Greek motifs survived, even to the depiction, on the walls of a luxurious bath-house—in frank defiance of Islamic prohibitions—of animals, Greek myths, and naked women; and of hunting scenes in which “a Greek visual language is employed to commemorate an Arab way of life.”
Bowersock’s argument, and the illustrations, are seductive; but we need to bear two reservations in mind. One is that there exists a great deal of evidence for real hostility—sometimes deadly enmity—between Christianity and paganism. The new and exciting material Bowersock presents must not be allowed wholly to eclipse all that. The other is that it is a very slippery business to argue from the survival of motifs in art to the beliefs and habits of thought of a society. Otherwise the presence of totem poles outside restaurants in Twin Peaks, or of classical statuary in hotels in Manhattan, might license some very misleading inferences about the mental world of their clients.
Loeb translation by H. Rackham (Harvard University Press, 1932). ↩