Late 19th Century Imperialism
in the Hellenistic World
|Map of Hellenistic World|
A perfect example of the interplay of contemporary celebrations of "development" brought on by coercive imperialism and scholarship is attitudes towards Hellenistic culture and the Hellenistic states that emerged after the conquests of Alexander the Great.
In the late Victorian period and into the 1930's British scholars like Tarn modelled their view of Conquests of Alexander the Great on European and especially British Imperialism and Empire. Like the expansion of the British Empire, Alexander's conquests were held to have spread civilization, culture and "progressive" development throughout the areas conquered.1
Further Tarn argued that Alexander's aim was to create a "Brotherhood of Man", through the union of East and West. This of course owed vastly more to the Empire fantasies of those promoting the British Empire than to reality. It is true that Alexander did endeavour to incorporate Persians into his system of rule, but the fantasy of the "Brotherhood of Man" must be dismissed has an absurd notion.2
Alexander's conquests were a succession of slaughters and massacres; the reams and reams of dead, the vast piling on of heaps of dead men, women and children were prodigious. The large number of cities sacked and lands devastated by his truly ruthless and effective soldiers is enormous. In fact Alexander's march back through the Indus valley of India on his return to Iraq is a long catalogue of butcheries, massacres, burnings, devastations and crimes. Including the deliberate slaughter of Indian priests.3 It makes for truly sickening reading. How such a heap of horror would create the "Brotherhood of Man" is questionable in the highest degree. But then perhaps has convinced Imperialists scholars like Tarn had no problem with the idea of the "Brotherhood of Man" erected on a huge hecatomb of human corpses.
It is amazing that modern rational men would think it remotely possible to erect a state based on "Human Brotherhood" on a truly gargantuan heap of corpses. What Alexander's actual aims were is of course in actual fact hard to recover and were probably both complicated and changing. That he himself was a hard to fathom man is obvious, however the notion of him has a dreamer of unifying men in brotherhood and love is a fantasy. Of course it is hard to see how men will be united by love and brotherhood through, burning cities, creating heaps of the corpses of men, women and children, raping women and devastating lands. How this will help create brotherhood and love is a bit mysterious.
One of the basic principles of politics is that the means used will affect the aim. Which includes the ability to achieve the aim. The classic example of how the means can affect the ends / aims is the Bolshevik Revolution. The aim of the Bolsheviks was to create a classless society free from coercion with plenty for everyone. The means used were repressive coercion, terror and violence. All this helped to make the Bolshevik aim impossible to achieve and created a brutal tyranny that eventually collapsed from its own ineptitude. In the process it created a state that pushed the limits of terror and horror to depths few thought possible.4
In a like way even if you assume that Alexander was aiming at creating a "Brotherhood of Man", the use of slaughter, terror, war etc., would strongly help to ensure, in fact virtually guarantee, that it would most definitely NOT be attained by him or his successors.
However to this day the turn of the century (19th/20th) attitude persists in some quarters and thus books that look critically at the Hellenistic Monarchies and Alexander the Great are attacked for being too negative for not pointing out the positive features of the conquest etc.5 Thus some authors still repeat in a disguised form the justification of the late 19th century for European imperialism. They thus deny any legitimacy to the resistance to the conquest or the Hellenistic monarchies. For the Hellenistic monarchies represent "progress" and more or less serve has proxies for modern day European powers spreading "progress" and "enlightenment".
One of the features of this attitude of Western Classicalists, (Those who specialized in the history etc., of Greece and Rome.), was their close to zero knowledge of the civilizations and cultures of the "east". Men like Tarn were frankly thoroughly ignorant of the cultures of Iraq, Egypt, Persia etc. This did not in the least stop them from assuming as a matter of course that Alexander and the successor Greek states brought "civilization" and culture to the "Barbarian" east. The number of Classicalists vastly exceeds the number of experts in the Achaemenidian Persian Empire (c. 550-330 B.C.E.). But that doesn't stop the assumption of superiority from being made. Thus such experts on the Hellenistic period talk about the founding of cities, the spread of culture etc., by the Hellenistic Monarchies with absolutely no awareness of the Persian background. The idea is quite simply that the Persians were "Barbarians" in need of "uplift".
Of course it is debatable whether or not the Persians, Egyptians, Iraqi etc., were in fact less civilized than the Greeks who conquered them. They had their own cities, religions, cultures and literature all of which were doing quite well without the Greeks. I rather doubt that a Persian nobleman on his country estate thought of Greek culture has intrinsically superior to his own. Certainly it is likely that he found aspects of Greek culture attractive but that is a far cry from accepting that Greek culture was "better". It was simply different.
In fact one thing is abundantly clear from the archaeological record and that is how little impact the Greek Conquest had on ordinary life. It was basically a change of masters and if anything what changed was the intensity of exploitation by the state and elite. The Greeks turned out to be more ruthless and efficient at extracting what Marxists would call "surplus value" from the peasantry. Conquest brought overall no improvement in life but in fact likely a deterioration for most people. Certainly the new Greek ruling class in Egypt taking over the old Pharaonic bureaucratic machine proved to be even more ruthless and grasping.5
Another feature of the new ruling class was its cultural imperialism. The Greeks were very much in love with themselves and their culture and way of life. The result was a deliberate and studied avoidance of the cultures of the people they conquered. Instead the new Greek style cities founded became little Greece's cut off culturally to a large extent from the surrounding sea of non-Greeks. Thus the cultural richness of the areas the Greeks conquered was ignored by the Greeks has they naval gazed at themselves. The big exception to this cultural arrogance was religion. The Greeks strongly tended to absorb and copy, after more than a bit of Hellenization the religions of the people they lived among. A corollary of this cultural arrogance was that non-Greeks were expected to become Hellenized and thus largely separate out from the larger outside society.6
We know that for example native writers like Manetho of Egypt and Berossus of Babylonia / Iraq who wrote in Greek and tried to give the Greeks some awareness of the cultural richness of their lands were largely ignored. The Greeks strongly tended to prefer the fantasy tales of the east written by Greek authors. Thus the literary riches of the East remained a closed book to the Greeks and Romans. Thus for example the astronomical and mathematical achievements of the Babylonians remained entirely unknown to the Greeks.7 If it wasn't written by a Greek it wasn't worth knowing it seems.(Snark)
Thus although Egypt teemed with temples replete with inscriptions, to say nothing of the archives and libraries in various temples, the Greeks seem to have had little interest in learning Egyptian hieroglyphs and copying the inscriptions or translating them.
The one area in which the Greeks copied the natives was religion. Especially in countries like Egypt with its well developed culture, theology and economy of Priests and Temples the copying of Egyptian religion was quite through. Sadly it does not seem to have much diminished the cultural arrogance of the Greeks very much or the fact that throughout the East they continued to live in settlements tightly sealed off culturally from the surrounding native world. The result was that in much of the east the Greek impact was ephemeral and vanished like smoke after a few centuries. Thus the Greek Bactrian kingdom quite simply had close to zero effect on its subject population. In the end throughout much of the east the impact of the Greek conquest was not great. The vast swaths of the countryside remained resolutely "native", and the Greek cities very much alien implants.8
The native Egyptians and Babylonians and Persians with their well developed cultures, long histories, literature's and achievements were simply not awed by the Greeks the way some modern writers who see the ancient Greek conquerors through the lens of late 19th century European Imperialism expect the "natives" to see the Greeks.
An excellent example of this sort of bias is a book written by a Prof. Samuel K. Eddy, entitled The King is Dead,9. The great bulk of the book is a look at the sources, development and history of resistance to Hellenism in the territories conquered by Alexander the Great. The work is almost throughout clear, balanced and informative but in the last few pages the author whines about the ungrateful natives who don't appreciate the benefits of being conquered; who dare to resist the "superior" civilization. The author works himself into a holy lather over it.10
Thus we get the author comparing the religious resistance of the "natives" to Hellenism to the Mau Mau in Kenya etc. Further the author whines about how these resistance movements weakened the various Hellenic monarchies making them easier prey to Rome. The author neglects his own work which reveals that the native revolts in Egypt succeeded in in getting at least some of the natives into the upper reaches of state power. Thus our author whines as follows:
While the Oriental resistance undoubtedly fought against real oppression inflicted by the Greeks it also fought against real benefits that the Greeks brought. One can easily compile a list of complaints against Greek governors from the Papyri; we even have a published collection of such. But how can one compile a list of thanks to them? People rarely offer their congratulations.11No imperialist could write a better whine about the ungrateful conquered. Let us deconstruct it. First for the overwhelming majority life did not change much at all. In fact, except that the new overlords were more effective / ruthless at exploiting the population, life did not change at all. There were for the vast majority no benefits and in fact some detriments from being conquered by the Greeks. For a classicalist this author while whining about lack of gratitude, seems remarkably unaware of the vast amount of suck up material written to monarchs, provincial governors, local bureaucrats that pollute the papyri. The suck up material is quite prodigious in amount and stomach turning in content.12 But then the point is that the natives were horrible and ungrateful and even worst dared to resist disposition and second class status, all a horrible crime. (Snark).
The author continues:
But Hellenism did confer great benefits on the east. As Plutarch said, Alexander spread civilization among the Oriental peoples, and established Greek cities in those foreign nations. Such cities could have been a means by which ignorant and downtrodden peoples could have learned self-respect and responsibility through the functioning of democratic Greek magistracies.13Well I would like to know what these "great benefits" were because frankly for the great majority of people I see that very little changed except exploitation was greater. As for Alexander bringing civilization does it have to be pointed out the "natives" were already civilized and didn't need civilization brought to them with fire, sword and slaughter. In other words they already had it and didn't need a European conqueror to bring it to them.
And of course just how the establishment of ethnic enclave settlements dominated by a ethnic elite that strove to maintain its exclusivity would teach the natives "responsibility" etc, is a little mysterious. The very fact that this elite was culturally separate and strove to maintain its separateness along with being exclusive and exploiting severely inhibited its ability to have much of an impact. Further those natives who could participate in city life tended to adopt Greek culture and remove themselves from native society diluting the impact. The statement about democratic Greek Magistrates aside from the acknowledgement that they would be Greek and thus strongly tend to exclude natives faces the problem that "Democracy" in the Greek Hellenistic states and cities was bluntly a meaningless sham about as "democratic" as previous native forms of city administration. So I doubt the natives would have learned much from those sham practices.14
As for self-respect and responsibility? Well I doubt the natives needed patronising Greek conquerors to learn the meaning of those concepts. But then the mind of the colonialist is condescension personified.
And of course under the Greeks the people remained downtrodden and ignorant only it appears more so.
Then our author says:
The East, Plutarch said, was taught to respect marriage, to support its parents, to marry persons other than brothers or mothers, and to learn Homer, Eurpides and Sophokles. Plutarch was wrong this didn't happen. But it might have.15Sadly our author seems to think Plutarch's regurgitations of infantile, puerile bigoted points are worth reciting. But then they agree with the colonialist cliches he utters. First contrary to Plutarch's ignorant and contemptible claim the east did respect marriage and thought supporting parents in old age etc., was a good thing as any look at the traditional literature of places like Egypt, Iraq etc., would indicate. But then Plutarch was thoroughly ignorant of such literature which didn't stop him from pontificating about societies he didn't know much about. A model of colonial know nothingness. One of the Greek fantasies about the east was that supposedly Orientals were mad about incest. This came from the practice of Royal incest among the Native Egyptian rulers and the practice of occasional incest among the Persians. But other than that legal royal incest, incest seems to have been very rare. However ironically the Greeks in Egypt and apparently in some of their settlements in Iran took to incest. Turning a practice that had been extremely rare and confined to royal families if it happened at all and made it socially widespread. This is not to even consider the widespread royal incest of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt. Thus Plutarch has it backwards it was the Greeks who taught the Orientals that it was just fine to marry very close relatives.16
As for reading Homer et al. That might have happened if the Greeks had bothered to translate them but they weren't interested. Greek culture had to remain exclusive and not translating it helped to maintain the exclusivity.
The author then admits that the oppression of the Greeks was the same as the previous native oppression but then he says:
In fact in the free, rational atmosphere of numerous Hellenic poleis there was some release from the irrational past,...17One of the whines of the late 19th century European Imperialists was about how irrational the natives were. Here we see the same ideological nonsense. Does our author really believe that Greek culture with its many irrational elements, saturated with faith and religion was more "rational" than a native culture? A decent reading of Greek culture shows the extraordinary amount of sheer irrationality in it. The rational aspects of Greek culture remained confined to a tiny elite. There is also in this ideological construction the notion that the natives are trapped in a irrational past and incapable of rationality without their conquerors giving it to them. No doubt Alexander the Great was the essence of rationality (Snark). Sorry the natives were just has rational as the Greeks and needed no lessons in everyday rationality. the higher rationality of scholars remained confined to such scholars and had little impact on the masses Greek or Native.18
The climax of our author's is the following cry:
If it was necessary to oppress some peasants in Egypt in order to know the things such men discovered, [Greek Scientists Eratosthenes, Lampsakos, Aristarchos] it was better that the peasants be oppressed than they hound Aristarchos out of Alexandria and give the Museum over to fisherfolk, as the Potter hoped.19One of the most dull of human traits is the willingness to say that other peoples suffering / deaths are worth while. The fact that these people lived a very long time ago and were strange Orientals no doubt made it easy for our author to sacrifice them and deem their suffering worth while. Summed up other peoples suffering is worthwhile if you benefit. Such a position is hard to swallow. I will respect the author only if he is willing to sacrifice himself and his nearest and dearest and to declare that his and their suffering is indeed worthwhile and good if it advances "progress" etc. Not a word of complaint from him will be allowed; he must cheerfully accept that his oppression and even his death is worth while under such circumstances.
Of course it is debatable whether or not the discoveries made by Greek scientists in fact required oppressing peasants anyway.
The author then declares that the Orient had much to learn from the Greeks while neglecting the obvious that the Greeks had much to learn from the Orient and both sides bluntly largely failed to do so. But then the colonialist typically sees learning as only going one way from the "superior" to the "inferior". And in this case the author quite simply refuses to see that it is questionable whether Greek Culture was in fact superior to the cultures of Egypt, Iraq, Persia etc.
The author then whines that "...more respect was owed to Alexandria or to Antiocheia-Jerusalem than was given it." The whine of conquerors that the conquered are just not sucking up enough. One must learn not just to obey the new lords of the earth but to fill their ears with words of praise. I note that the author "forgets" the reams of suck up praise given to the Hellenistic monarchs. The author complains yet again that the conquered are just not grateful enough. The conquered are such ingrates!(snark)
Finally we get the following condemnation:
As for those Persians, Egyptians and Jews who clapped hand to sword and prepared to make blood flow - ' He who ruleth his spirit is greater than he who taketh a city.'20How dare the conquered physically resist conquest by their "superiors" it is immoral and wicked. (Snark) Instead the author counsels passivity and the cultivation of private virtues, because violence in opposition to "progressive" conquest is well - evil. Of course the rank hypocrisy of this position of telling the conquered to just accept it and not resist is obvious.
It is clear that Alexander the Great and the Greeks / Hellenistic monarchies did not accept this advice. They took up the sword, they undertook to make blood flow. They imposed themselves by force and violence. They took cities. Yet somehow the conquered are to blame for resisting. The Greek rulers also did not rule their spirits, they resorted to violence and conquest instead. As is typical of colonialist rhetoric the conquered are bided to just accept and not resist and of course if they resist they are responsible for all the blood that will flow and the conquerors bear little or no responsibility for that. That is the typical ideological rhetoric of conquerors. Resistance is considered by definition illegitimate by such thinking and by this author also.
The fact is conquest by its very nature especially if it is coupled with dispossession will engender resistance if the Greeks didn't want to deal with native resistance they should not have conquered the East in the first place.
At another time I will discuss the attractive features, (many) of Classical Greek culture but here I will merely note that the very fact that Greek culture was spread by conquest and imposed top down by a new ethnically distinct elite was bound to create resistance and likely to blunt its impact. Such top down efforts, especially if there is no clear distinction that one culture is more "advanced" than another bound to largely fail.
In contrast the most successful Hellenization was of Italy which was brought about by trade and cultural contact. Certainly Greek cities were established but the Hellenization of the Etruscans and Romans was achieved via trade and other contacts not by conquest. And it proved to be via the Romans and their Empire the most successful Hellenization and the most through. Probably precisely because it was not by conquest but by emulation. And in much of the East emulation by local native dynasts frequently proved to be more successful at Hellenization than Greek conquerors.21
And when the Romans established their empire their practice of incorporating local elites into their system of government etc, proved to remarkably successful in spreading Hellenic culture. Certainly it was vastly more effective than the culturally isolated ethnic, top down Greek elite imposed by the Hellenistic monarchies.
In the end it is remarkable how Imperial attitudes of one era affect views of another ages imperialism.
1. See Tarn, W. W., Alexander the Great and the Unity of Mankind, Humphrey Milford, London, 1933.
3. See Bosworth, A. B., Alexander and the East, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996. See also his Conquest and Empire, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988.
4. The literature is vast but a good place to start is Applebaum, Anne, Gulag, Anchor Books, New York, 2003.
5. Green, Peter, Alexander to Actium, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1990, pp. 368-369. For Persia see Briant, Pierre, From Cyrus to Alexander, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake IND, 2002, and Olmstead, A. T., History of the Persian Empire, University of Chicago Press, Chicago ILL, 1948.
6. IBid, pp. 396-413. Although it is of the Roman period Frankfurter, David, Religion in Roman Egypt, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1998 is pretty good guide to how Greeks assimilated Egyptian religion.
7. I have done posts on Berossus and Manetho see Here and Here. For late Babylonian mathematics, including the zero see Roux, Georges, Ancient Iraq, Third Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1992, pp. 362-366. Note - the Greeks did accept the Babylonian Religious pseudoscience of Astrology.
8. Green, pp. 187-200, 362-381.
9. Eddy, Samuel K., The King is Dead, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln NB, 1961.
10. Ibid, pp. 339-342.
11. Ibid, p. 341. For how the native Egyptians at least partially changed their second class status see Eddy, pp. 257-323.
12. See Green for many examples.
13. Eddy, p. 341.
14. Green, pp. 187-200.
15. Eddy, p. 341.
16. See Green, pp. 82, 88, 145, 180, 190, 241, 404, 443, 538, 555. See also the following posting that includes a brother sister marriage among ordinary / non royal Greeks in Egypt Here.
17. Eddy, p. 341.
18. See Green, pp. 396-413, 586-601. See also Dodds, E. R., The Greeks and the Irrational, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1951.
19. Eddy, p. 342.
21. Green, pp. 312-335, 547-565. For Rome see Wells, Colin, The Roman Empire, Second Edition, Fontana, London, 1992, pp. 149-151, 223-254, 311-313.