Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Gen Eds H9a: Greeks and the Hellenistic Age

The ninth unit of world history in this series is "Waves of Conquest." We start off with the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Greeks that were before him.

This is part of my "General Education in a Nutshell" series. The series consists of ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. The first topic in the overall series was philosophy. So far in the world history section:
Alexander the Great
1. In the year 323BC, Alexander the Great died. He was almost 33 years old and in his short life had conquered the world all the way from Macedonia (above Greece) to the Indus River (in present day India). The world had never been connected in this configuration before, from Greece to India.

To be sure, the east had tried to stretch to Greece during the Persian wars of the early 400s BC. The Persian king Xerxes (husband of Esther in the Bible, ruled 519-466BC) tried to conquer Greece. But he failed, as we will mention below.

With the death of Alexander the Great, the Hellenistic Age began, the age of the Greek. Greek became the lingua franca, the "business language" of the world. This would continue throughout the Roman period. It is no surprise that when the apostle Paul writes Rome, he writes in Greek, not Latin. In fact, the Roman poet Horace (65-27BC) once wrote, "Captured Greece took captive her ferocious conqueror." [1] Rome may have taken over Greece militarily, but Greek language and ideas filled in the gaps of Roman culture.

When he was young, Alexander's father, king Philip of Macedon, hired the great philosopher Aristotle (385-23BC) to tutor his son. Under Aristotle's influence, Alexander took "scientists" of a sort on his military conquests to investigate the kinds of life they would encounter.

The Seleucids and the Ptolemies
2. After the premature death of Alexander, his kingdom was divided among his generals. Ptolemy I took Egypt (ruled 323-282BC). The native Egyptian leadership was displaced, meaning that the upper class of Egypt from this time on were Greek-speakers. Egypt was largely in control of Palestine also until the year 201BC.

The Jews were generally on good terms with these Greek Egyptians throughout this period. There had been a Jewish settlement in Egypt, even a Jewish temple at Elephantine there from the time of the Babylonian captivity in the 500s. [2] It was likely at Alexandria in Egypt that the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, were first translated into Greek. [3] This took place around the year 250BC.

3. A second general of Alexander, Seleucid I then took the eastern part of Alexander's conquests, from Babylon and Persia in the East eventually to Anatolia in the west (ruled from 305-281BC). He founded the city of Antioch in Syria that played such a key role in the earliest church (e.g., Acts 13:1).

The Seleucids tried to take Palestine more than once from the Egyptians but did not succeed until 301BC. [4] Jerusalem was thus largely under Greek-speaking Syrian influence until the Romans took control in 63BC. In the early 200s BC, Jerusalem was highly "hellenized" or Greek-ified. It was in danger of blurring into the broader culture of the day.

It was during this time that the Maccabean crisis took place. Daniel 11 describes many of the events of the early 100s BC in allusive terms. The book known as 1 Maccabees is the best historical source of information for these events. In 167BC, the Syrians demanded that the Jews stop observing the ethnic particulars of the Law, such as circumcision. The temple was defiled with pagan sacrifices.

A three year struggle of guerrilla warfare ensued, with a family that came to be known as the Maccabees the principal actors (macabee means "hammer"). Although they did not completely throw off Syrian rule, they did secure greater independence for Israel, with their family ruling as client kings under the Syrians down until the Romans took over in 63BC.

The temple was rededicated in 164BC, with Hanukkah (or the Feast of Dedication, see John 10:22) instituted to remember this restoration. This event is essential background for understanding the climate of Israel at the time of the New Testament. When Paul speaks of zeal for the law (e.g., Rom. 10:2), an image of the Maccabees should come to mind. If it were not for this crisis, we can wonder whether any Jews would have been paying any attention to their Scriptures at all at the time of Christ.

The Peloponnesian Wars
4. In Greece, the century leading up to the conquests of Alexander was one in which power shifted several times. The 300s BC began with Sparta in control. But it shifted to Thebes and eventually to Macedon under Alexander the Great's father, Philip of Macedon.

The late 400s BC had seen several decades of war between Athens and Sparta. Athens had been in control of most of Greece in the 400s, but it had been overly zealous in its thirst for control. This led to an intermittent war between Athens and Sparta from 431-404BC, from which the Spartans emerged victorious. [5] This briefly ended the democracy for which Athens is so well known. It also ended the Golden Age of Greece.

5. Nevertheless, it was during the 300s that Greek philosophy was at its high point. Socrates was commanded to commit suicide by drinking hemlock in 399BC. In the decades that followed, Plato would set up his Academy in Athens (in 387BC). After his death, Aristotle would set up his own school, the Lyceum, there (in 335BC).

After these two, the greatest philosophers of Greek history, the 200s would see several more philosophical schools founded. Zeno founded the Stoics around 300. They were known for the "stoa" where they met. Epicurus started his movement in a garden at about the same time.

The Persian Wars
6. Athens had come to dominate Greece in the early 400s because it had led "the Delian league" to defend Greece against the invasions of the Persians. [6] Sparta was also a key power in the defeat of the Persians.

In 490, the Persian king Darius (cf. Haggai 2; Zechariah 1; Ezra 6; Daniel 6) invaded Greece and confronted the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon. [7] Although they were vastly outnumbered, the Athenians were victorious.

Ten years later, Xerxes returned. In 481, a league was founded with the Spartans in control of the armies on land and the Athenians in charge of a fleet of ships by sea. Both were victorious. The Spartans (the 300) stopped the advance of Xerxes at a narrow pass at Thermopylae, while the Athenians beat the Persians in the waters around Athens in the Battle of Salamis.

The Persians were finally defeated for good in 479BC at the Battle of Plateia.

7. In the years that followed, Athens would set up the Delian League in 478 and be the dominant force in Greece during this period. They would however abuse this power leading to the Peloponnesian War and Athens' ultimate defeat by the Spartans in 404.

The dominant leader in Athens in this "Golden Age" was Pericles, who was the dominant political leader of Athens from about 461-29BC. It was he that had the Parthenon build on the Acropolis. And he fostered democracy among the males of the city to an extent that would not repeat itself until modern times. He is known for being a great orator.

It was also during this period that the great dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were performed in Athens at yearly festivals.

The Trojan War
8. In the same period that Rome was shifting from kings to a republic, Athens was slowly empowering its people. It has some harsh rulers in the 600s and 500s. We get the word "draconian" from Draco, a ruler in the 600s known for his harshness. In the early 500s, Solon is known as the great lawgiver of Athens, who gave voice to the lower classes of Athenian society. They were now able to vote in the "ekkesia," the Greek assembly.

But it would not be until Cleisthenes in 510 that democracy would truly stick. It was briefly interrupted in 411 and 404, but would continue until Philip of Macedon took control of all Greece in 337BC.

9. But there are of course tales of Greece from even earlier times. The Mycenaean Age was the age of the Trojan Wars (ca. 1200BC) between Greece and Troy, which was located on the northwest tip of Anatolia (Turkey). This was Bronze Age Greece, which came to an end around 1100BC, starting a kind of "Dark Ages" in Greece history down until the time of classical Greece.

In the Mycenaean period, Greece consisted of a number of "city-states" ruled by kings. Key cities include of course Mycenae, but also Thebes, Corinth, and Athens, which was not a dominant city at this time. It is about this period that "Homer" wrote in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Of course these stories were no doubt passed on orally for generations and only written down in their current form around 700 BC. Whether the genius who finally gave them their current form was named Homer, we cannot say for certain. 

In the story of the Trojan War, the wife of Menelaus is abducted by one of the sons of the Trojan king and taken back to Troy. A war ensues for her recovery. After ten years, the Greeks pretend that they are leaving but leave a wooden horse as a gift to the goddess Athena. The Trojans take the horse into the city not knowing that there are Greeks inside. At night, the Greeks open the gate and allow the Greek army in, resulting in the destruction of the city and the victory of the Greeks. From this we get the expression, a "Trojan horse."

10. The exact causes of the collapse of Mycenaean culture is not exactly known. [8] Some refer to a "Dorian" invasion that would especially take root in the Peloponnese of southern Greece. Others refer to the conquests of the "sea peoples" that we know as the Phoenicians. They are likely the peoples we know from the Bible as the Philistines, and they would settle north Africa at Carthage. They would seem to be a Semitic people.

We know that these sea peoples used iron, and thus were technologically more advanced than the users of bronze they conquered. Some of the conflicts in the books of Samuel in the Old Testament reflect this transition.

  • Guys like to go to war. Deal with it or else get defeated by the next Cro-Magnon to come along.
  • Movements often disappear on their own by natural attrition as their initial enthusiasts die off. They are often strengthened or reinvigorated by opposition.
  • People fight harder to defend their own lands and families than to conquer some distant one.
  • If you ever gain power, don't abuse it. If you treat those who are vulnerable to your power with respect (without making yourself vulnerable), you will reign long.
  • Technological advances often accompany historical victors.
Next Week: History 9b: Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians

[1] Epistles 2.1

[2] A simplistic version of Jewish history might find it odd that Jews would accept a temple somewhere other than Jerusalem. But it is not likely that the doctrine of one temple was firmly established at the time when Jerusalem was destroyed in 586BC, the time when the Diaspora or scattering of Jews was most strongly taking place. We should not think that the typical Diaspora Jew had the fully mature theology of the Old Testament as we know it. In fact, it is unlikely that the Pentateuch was in its current form at that time, let alone the other parts of the Old Testament.

[3] Called the "Septuagint" for the legend that seventy old men translated it. The earliest version of this legend is found in the pseudonymous, Letter of Aristeas. Pseudonymous means written under a fictive name.

[4] The Romans were already powerful enough in the year 175BC to keep the Seleucids from completely conquering Egypt. Egypt would quickly become Rome's main supplier of grain.

[5] The Greek historian Thucydides tells of the conflict in great detail in his Peloponnesian Wars.

[6] Herodotus, sometimes called the father of history writing, records these wars in his The Histories.

[7] The marathon gets its name from the fact that Phidippides ran the 26.2 miles from Marathon back to Athens to give news of the victory. According to the legend, he died after delivering the news.

[8] Minoan culture, on the island of Crete south of Greece, had ended around 1400, also for unknown reasons.

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