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334-197 BC - Hellenistic Greece

Weakness in the established states promoted the rise of a new power, Macedonia, under the inspired military leadership of Alexander the Great. Alexander left no legacy of stable governance, however, and the Macedonian Empire that he created fragmented shortly after his death into a shifting collection of minor states.

It was in the year 500 BC that the Ionian cities of Asia Minor revolted against the Persian power, and precipitated that conflict which had for its chief result the bringing of the Greek nation, for the first time, into prominence as a world power. From this memorable date to the death of Alexander in 323 BC, is a period of 177 years; and, as it happened, another period of exactly the same length intervened between the death of Alexander and the final overthrow of Greece by the Romans, culminating in the destruction of Corinth in the year 146 BC. But while equally extended in point of time, how utterly different are these two periods in world-historic import! Into the first of them were crowded the events which have made the name of Greece famous for all time; the second was a mere period of senility, in which a once powerful and still proud people struggled in vain to regain its former status, and finally collapsed utterly under the blows of a superior power.

On the fringes of the Greek world, Macedonia's people spoke a form of Greek, but the country had different customs and social organization. Macedonia had not followed its southern neighbors in the evolution of the polis, but had retained a chiefdom form of society in which local headmen still wielded considerable power. In a period of twenty-five years, however, Macedonia became the largest empire yet in antiquity, solely as a result of the genius of Philip II and his son, Alexander. A man of exceptional energy, diplomatic skill, and ruthlessness, Philip totally reformed the Macedonian army when he came to power in 359 B.C. Wielding this new weapon, he conquered all the peoples of the southern Balkans, culminating in the defeat of Athens and Thebes in 338. As he was planning to invade Asia, Philip was assassinated in 336. The task of expanding the empire eastward was left to his son.

At the death of his father, the twenty-year-old Alexander became king. A natural warrior, he also received a formal education under the philosopher Aristotle. Alexander lived only thirteen years after his accession to the throne, but in that time he created the largest empire ever seen, and he had perhaps a greater impact on Western civilization than any other man of the ancient world. As with many great men, his life is shrouded in myth and legend.

In this period, parts of Greece were able to achieve some degree of autonomy within confederacies or leagues, most of which were governed by oligarchies. As the leagues became dominant, smaller political units, such as Athens, lost most of their political power. In this process, states of larger size and greater complexity replaced the polis.

The Hellenistic kingdoms mingled elements of Greek culture with Near Eastern cultures. Some of the kings founded colonies to establish garrisons in foreign territory, and in such places intermarriage between Greeks and non-Greeks became common. The Greek language spread and was used as the lingua franca for culture, commerce, and administration throughout the Near East. Greek art forms also became prevalent in the region. The old rigid form of social organization characteristic of the polis was discarded. Greek towns were now a part of a larger entity, based not on kinship or residence but on power and control. A new power elite arose, made wealthy by the conquests of vast new territories and the payment of tribute. At the same time, peasants suffered greatly from higher levies to support the upper class. The weakness of the agricultural producers combined with constant warfare among kingdoms to make the Greeks vulnerable to a new Mediterranean power, Rome.

In 334 BC, after securing his base in Greece, Alexander invaded Asia Minor with 30,000 troops, quickly capturing the Turkish coastline to deprive the Persian fleet of its ports. Using brilliant tactics, he then defeated a much larger Persian army under Darius in a series of battles in northern Syria. Alexander then captured Egypt and Mesopotamia, defeating 100,000 Persians in a climactic battle at Guagamela in 331 B.C. Before dying of a malarial fever at age thirty-three, Alexander conquered Afghanistan and parts of India as well.

Alexander used both military and administrative skills to build his empire. He was able to integrate the various peoples he had conquered into a unified empire by devising appropriate forms of administration in each region. In Egypt he became the pharaoh. In Mesopotamia he became the great king. In Persia, however, he kept the indigenous administrative system intact under joint Persian and Macedonian rule. He founded hundreds of new settlements, encouraging his men to marry local women. And he manipulated the local religions to legitimize his own rule. In creating his empire, Alexander changed the face of the world.

In twelve years the youth Alexander had made himself absolute master of wider territories than were probably ever ruled before by any one man in recorded history; but, almost before the breath of life had left his body, and literally before that body had been laid in the tomb, a strife had begun among the followers of the great captain, which was to lead to almost immediate dismemberment of his empire.

Papers had been found in Alexander's cabinet, containing the outlines of some vast projects. It would seem that they might easily have been suppressed; but it was known that they corresponded in part with the instructions which had been given to Craterus, and therefore they could not safely be neglected without the general consent. Some related to the equipment of a great armament — a thousand galleys, it is said, of the largest size — destined for the conquest of Carthage, and of the whole coast of Africa on the Mediterranean as far as the Straits, and those of Spain and the adjacent maritime regions, as far as Sicily: for which end a road was to be made along the African shore. Others were plans for new colonies, to be planted in Asia with Europeans, and in Europe with Asiatics. There were also directions for six new temples to be built in Europe — at Delos, Delphi, Dodona, Dium, Amphipolis, and Cyrrhus — each at the cost of fifteen hundred talents, beside one of extraordinary magnificence to the goddess of Ilium, and for a monument to his father in Macedonia, which was to equal the largest of the Egyptian pyramids in its dimensions. It must be owned, that there are some points in these schemes which look suspicious, and which, even if they had crossed Alexander's mind, we should not have expected he would have committed to writing.

It is one of the surest tests of a great leader of men to be able to gather about him great men as his assistants. Judged by this test Alexander looms large indeed, for he had among his generals, as after events were to prove, a whole company of men, each of whom acknowledged himself subordinate to Alexander, but declined to bow to any lesser power; each of whom, indeed, believed himself worthy to be a king, and determined to make that belief good in practice, now that the great king was no more. Antipater and Craterus, and Antigonus, and Cassander, and Ptolemy, and Eumenes—these are but a few of the leaders among the men who at once began to quarrel about Alexander's possessions, even to the neglect of the burial of •Alexander's body. It seems that Alexander had foreseen the inevitable faction, for the story was told that on his death-bed, he had been asked to whom he wished his empire to fall, and he had feebly answered, "to the best man."

There was, indeed, a pretence of preserving the empire for Alexander's son, borne by Roxane after his death, and given the name of Alexander the Younger; but a score of years is long to wait for a ruler of a newly formed empire, which has within it so many elements of discord as were to be found in the empire of Alexander; and, however sincere a certain number of the leaders may have been, their original intentions of holding the empire for the heir of its founder had vanished from the minds of every one almost before that heir was born. There was indeed a royalist party, which for a time attempted, perhaps in good faith, to uphold the rights of the royal family of Macedonia; but, in the course of the intricate series of revolts and wars in which the entire empire was soon involved, it became difficult, if not impossible, to trace the motives that influenced the various principal actors. But, whatever these motives, the results were very tangible and unmistakable. Alexander's heir was never destined to reach manhood. Both he and his mother were ruthlessly killed by Cassander. Olympias, the mother of Alexander, who, for a time, took an active part in the contests, evincing qualities which explained many of the traits of her great son, met a like fate.

The generals and satraps of Alexander, called in Greek the Diadochi ["successors"], were about twenty in number; none of them was inclined to play a subordinate part, but a great many could not entertain the thought of assuming supreme power. Some of them, therefore, at first kept aloof from the disputes; these were the men who had no great expectations for themselves. The great rupture at the beginning was between Perdiccas on the one hand, and Antipater and Ptolemy on the other. Perdiccas claimed the supreme power, because Alexander, by giving him his seal-ring, had conveyed it to him; and Antipater claimed it as regent of Macedonia, because he looked upon himself in that capacity as the representative of the nation. He was joined by Ptolemy because he was far off, for if they had been near each other, Antipater and Ptolemy could never have become allies. But as it was, Ptolemy in a distant and inaccessible kingdom considered himself safe, and Antipater could have no inclination to deprive him of his kingdom. Perdiccas undertook an expedition against Ptolemy, but a rebellion broke out among his men, and he was murdered by his own troops in 321 BC. His power had lasted three years.

Alexander's death resulted in a twenty-year power struggle that divided his empire into several parts, including mainland Greece and Macedonia, Syria and Mesopotamia, and Egypt. By 280 BC, new Hellenistic monarchies, whose leaders ruled by force and lacked Alexander's organizational ability, were fighting each other and suffering internal struggles as well.

Of this Niebuhr says: "The disputes among the generals of Alexander are to me the most confused events in history. I have very often read them attentively, in order to gain a clear insight into them; but, although I have had a tenacious memory from my early youth, I never was able to gain a distinct recollection of the detail of those quarrels and disputes: I always found myself involved in difficulties. And such is the case still; I find it impossible to group the events in such a manner as to afford an easy survey. This confusion arises from the fact that we have to deal with a crowd of men among whom there is not one that stands forth prominently on account of his personal character. The question always is, whether one robber or another is to be master, and it is impossible to take pleasure in any one of them. One is, indeed, better than another, and Ptolemy is, in my opinion, the best: he was a blessing to Egypt, which under him became happy and prosperous, for his government was rational; but still he is morally a man in whom we can take little interest. His personal character leaves us quite indifferent, when we have once formed a notion of him. Eumenes is the only one who is important on account of his personal character; all the rest are imposing through their deeds of arms alone.

"In the earlier history of Greece we like to follow the great men step by step; but all these Macedonians leave us perfectly indifferent; we feel no interest whether the one is defeated or the other; not even the tragic fall of Lysimachus can make an impression upon us; I look upon it with greater indifference than I should feel at a bull-fight, in which a noble animal defends itself against the dogs that are set at it. I could wish that the earth had opened and swallowed up all the Macedonians. Everyone intimately acquainted with ancient history will share this feeling of indifference with me. And when we are under the influence of such a feeling, it is not easy to dwell upon a history like this; it does not impress itself upon our mind."

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Page last modified: 20-11-2012 16:22:28 ZULU