Sunday, 25 October 2009

Key Dates of European History: 330 BC

I admit this one is a bit of a placeholder date. 330 BC marks the year in which Alexander the Great assumed the throne of the Persian Empire, arguably founding a joint Greek-Iranian monarchy. I could have included any given date that is in relation to Alexanders campaign: 334 (start of the campaign), 331 (Battle of Gaugamela), 323 (death of Alexander)... there would be many possibilities. What matters is the deeper meaning of Alexander's campaigns per se. The political entity Alexander created is of little importance, because it fell apart right after his death. But Alexanders lasting creation is what is called the Age of Hellenism.

The term "Hellenism" was coined by the Prussian historian Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-1884) and describes the era in Greek and Middle Eastern history between the campaigns of Alexander (started 334 BC) and total Roman domination in the Greek world (30 BC). It is meant to denote the vast political, cultural, social and economical changes that occured in the wake of Alexander's conquests.

Until this point, Greece had been dominated by small city states such as Sparta, Athens or Thebes, which struggled to gain hegemony over the Greek world. The cultural significance of Classical Greece has been pointed out in a previous post. But what exactly did Alexander change?

First off, he expanded the geographical scope of the Greek world. No longer was "Greece" restricted to the Aegean world, southern Italy and various other bits of the Mediterranean and Black Sea; suddenly, huge new Greek kingdoms appeared in Egypt, in Asia Minor, Syria and Mesopotamia. This extension of the Greek world had a good number of consequences. Had the Greek and Middle Eastern worlds previously been more or less clearly separated - Independent Greek cities here, Persian Empire there - they were now one. Anatolia, Syria and Egypt were now part of the Greek world, and the identity of these countries now merged. While the Greek culture more or dominated these areas in the centuries to come, Middle Eastern elements were now also adopted in Greek, and by extension, Roman and European culture. Christianity is the prime example of this: an oriental religion, enriched with Greek philosophy and Roman spirituality.

I will come to the individual 'oriental' elements of Christianity in a later post, but I will say as much as that it was basically the perfection of an already happening symbiosis of original Jewish and Iranian - more precisely, Zoroastrian - thought, and it would not have been accepted as readily as it was had the people of the Mediterranean world not accepted the Levant as part of their own.

New ideas emerged within the West, if you want to use this term, as well, and the ideas of what art and literature were supposed to represent changed profoundly. Artists now sought to better capture reality, and not always, though sometimes, idealise it. More liberty was granted in intellectual discourse, and opposing ideas were allowed to spread more freely than before. People could travel more freely and write more about their impressions of lands previously out of reach. Books about regions ranging from Britain to India were written, and the wisdom of these countries was received. Knowledge was considered something that was to be preserved- a great Hellenistic capital such as Pergamon or Alexandria was not complete without a great, famous library.

What is sometimes forgotten is how far Greek culture traveled. Today, Greek ruins can be seen in Tajikistan and Pakistan. Greek colonies were founded throughout the territories conquered by Alexander, and lasted for centuries. Even the first kings of Sasanian Persia considered the Greek language to be of such importance in Iran that inscriptions were written in Greek in the early 3rd century AD. The Buddhist Gandhara culture, which lasted until the 6th century AD was deeply and visibly influenced by the Greeks- the most famous testament of this were the Buddha statues of Bamiyan.

Of course, Hellenism was also an age of War. Antigonid Macedonia sought to dominate Aegean Greece, Seleucid Syria and Ptolemaeic Egypt struggled fiercly and bitterly for the Levant. Attalid Pergamon appeared as a predator in Asia Minor. In the east, the Parthians steadily expanded at the cost of the Seleucid and Graeco-Bactrian empires. The great Hellenist kingdoms weakened themselves so greatly that soon the Romans could pick provinces in the east like ripe fruits.

All in all, Hellenism was an era in which West and East, for one priceless moment, grew together. The possibilities that lay in this symbiosis were endless, and both benefited greatly from it. Sadly, it was not to last, and this fragile building gradually fell apart due to ignorance and bigotry from both sides.

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