Monday, December 31, 2012

Colonialism Sucks
Book Cover

It is a truism that the context in which a particular historical period is viewed affect how a particular historical epoch is viewed by then contemporary scholarship. 

A classic example is how the Hellenistic period. It is interesting to see how the way the period is viewed know as compared to 50 or 100 years ago. 

Thus almost 100 years ago the great English Classicist W. W. Tarn viewed the Greeks of the Hellenistic period as ancient precursors of the English in Asia who were supposedly on a civilizing mission. Like the English colonialists in India the Greeks of the Hellenistic period were on a mission to civilize the “native” and bring them a “higher” culture. In other words the Greeks of the Hellenistic age were colonialists spreading the new “religion” of Hellenism. 1 

It now seems rather quaint and frankly silly. 

In fact one of the most salient features of this literature by Classicists is the studied ignorance of the cultures “civilized”, “uplifted” by the Greeks. One thing we can rest assured of is that Tarn2 for example had only the most superficial awareness of the massive Indian literature related to the4 history and culture of India during the years of Hellenistic influence. It is striking that someone could write a book about the Greeks in India and base it almost entirely on Greco-Roman sources and show virtually no awareness of the extensive and massive Indian material. It makes about has much sense as describing the American Revolution using mainly French sources and only a few, in translation American sources.

To show how things have changed since Tarn wrote his very one sided books, we have this door stop of a books. Peter Green’s massive tome3 is quite different from the rah – rahing of books by people like Tarn. Simply it has been shifted through our past century of disillusion and terror and the horror of good intentions gone bad.

The author, although a Classicist, has made an effort to understand the cultures of the peoples conquered by the Greeks and has not accepted that prima facie that Greek culture was “superior” neither has he accepted the notion that the Greeks were spreading a superior culture  like a missionary religion.
Thus Green clearly points out that for the great bulk of the population the change of masters meant very little.4 The life of the bulk of the population peasants who lived in rural areas changed very little. The “superior” culture of the Greeks remained largely confined to the new elite and urban areas. 

In fact the lack of a real sustained impact is pretty remarkable. The Greek conquers became in much of the area conquered by Alexander the Great a new exploiting elite. The “new” urban culture brought by the Greeks remained largely confined to the cities founded by the Greeks. 

In these cities Greek settlers tried their level best to recreate the  Hellenic culture and stove to imitate as closely as possible the home culture of Greece. Meanwhile the vast rural landscape that the Greek cities, founded by the conquers were embedded in remained resolutely non Greek. It also appears that in much of the east the local aristocracy, largely rural, remained attached to non-Greek forms of belief and culture.5 

Thus the Egyptian “Chora” (countryside), remained resolutely Egyptian. The old patterns of behavior, customs etc., of Egypt remained unchanged. It would take the advent of Christianity and then Islam to fundamentally change the culture of rural Egypt.6 

Attempts to create syncretistic deities or faiths generally failed among the natives. Thus we have the created deity Serapis which was a sort of Greco-Roman version of the Egyptian God Osiris. We also have a Hellenized form of Isis. It is interesting to record that these syncretic deities achieved great success among the Greco-Romans but very little among native Egyptians.7 

Away from the new cities life continued in its older fashion. And just why was that. Mr. Green is actually quite clear about it. It is because the new dominant Hellenic culture had little real attraction to these well established and old cultures and so was largely ignored. 

Compounding this was the fact that basically the new Greek conquerors simply took over the old means of political control and economic domination. In terms of political control and economic exploitation with one exception they brought little that was new. In this case the colonization of the Hellenistic period differs hugely from 19th century colonialism.8  

The one difference is the large number of cities founded by the new monarchs based on the model of the Greek polis, along with settling in them large numbers of Greek settlers. Not surprisingly this along with initial release of the vast horde of treasure from the treasuries of the Persian Kings stimulated trade and commerce.9 Of course showing how little things had actually changed the new Hellenistic monarchies went right back to hording vast amounts of wealth. 

However it should not be forgotten that cities remained to a large extent parasitic in that landowners, generally at least initially largely Greek, living the cities spent much of the money earned by and extracted from peasants on the lands they owned in the cities. Thus the cities economically exploited the countryside around them and gave, at least economically, little in return.10 

In other words empire was a money making enterprise in which one group of exploiters was replaced by another and in this case largely foreign class of exploiters. The various native aristocracies that survived remained largely rural. It was mainly those who sought to “make it” who were “Hellenized”; learning Greek and aping Greek manners was the way to get ahead. The similarities with classic modern colonialism are obvious. 

In fact as Green explains the most successful “Hellenization” of all owed nothing to Greek conquest and everything to cultural emulation. That is of course the “Hellenization” of Rome. Italy was deeply affected by Greek culture mainly through cultural contacts. First the Etruscans and then the Roman adopted, borrowed and emulated Greek culture and forms. The result of this non-coercive “Hellenization” was a far deeper and important cultural fertilization. The fact that this “Hellenization” was not i8mposed by force probably played a very important part in the process.11

Thus by far the most important part of the process of Greek culture affecting the world and later history had little or nothing to do with Greek conquest of “inferior” others and everything to do with cultural emulation. 

In fact in much of the east the effect of Greek culture was perhaps not so surprisingly very limited and after a few hundred years disappeared entirely.12 

Thus we get the Ptolemies of Egypt, who until the very last of the Ptolemaic rulers (Cleopatra VII – Yes the famous one.), didn’t bother to learn Egyptian who took over the old pharaonic system of governing in order to extract riches remained most of the time not quite at home in Egypt. slowly over the centuries, political calculation and internal revolt forced the Ptolemies to compromise with the natives, especially the powerful Egyptian Priesthood. And the old native ways slowly permeated even into Alexandria.13 It is passing ironic that the last ruler of the Ptolemies, the famous Cleopatra was probably the only Ptolemaic monarch to have achieved real popularity through out Egypt including the countryside. Cleopatra was able to do this by her deliberate cultivation of native Egyptian ways and religion, certainly her learning Egyptian played a role in that. Also Cleopatra quite deliberately promoted native Egyptians to high office. The result was unheard of popularity.14 

Thus we get native monarchs like the kings of Pontus using Greek culture has points of propaganda in their games of political calculation with other monarchs and such “Hellenization” is very superficial. 

In the end the effort to impose Greek ways faltered and was turned back and the natives took what they wanted and disregarded the rest. The Greeks ruled over foreign lands has a new ruling class and like foam on the sea disturbed little the depths below. 

At a later time I will discuss other aspects of Green’s book.  

1. See Tarn, W. W., The Greeks in Bacteria and India, 2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1951.

2. IBID.

3. Green, Peter, Alexander to Actium, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1990.

4. IBID, pp. 312-335.

5. IBID.

6. IBID.

7. IBID, pp. 396-413.

8. IBID, pp. 187-200.

9. IBID, pp. 362-381.

10. IBID.

11. IBID, pp. 312-335, Ogilvie, R. M., Early Rome and the Etruscans, Fontana Books, London, 1977.

12. Green, pp. 330-335.

13. IBID, pp. 396-413.

14. IBID, pp. 647-682.

Pierre Cloutier

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