Thursday, December 29, 2011

Outline of Ancient Greece

A news item published by the Associated Press this week caught my attention:

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's top prosecutor on Tuesday ordered an emergency inquiry into a Turkish newspaper report that Turkish government-funded agents set forest fires in Greece in the mid-1990s….
Tensions between traditional rivals Greece and Turkey were running high at the time referred to in the newspaper report, with the two countries coming to the brink of war in 1996 over disputed sovereignty of a tiny island in the Aegean Sea….


Of course, Homer’s Trojan War, occurring shortly after 1200 B.C. was a conflict between the people of Greece and the people of Troy, on the western coast of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). The rivalry between the people living on either side of the Aegean Sea is an old, old story.

Homer, if Homer existed, and if he was present around 850 B.C., appeared at a pivotal time in Greek history.

The Greek mainland and isles were settled by Indo-Europeans arriving from the Balkans to the north around 2000 B.C. In the subsequent centuries, the Mycenaean Greek culture rose in power and prominence during the Bronze Age. The art, economy and culture of this era reached its zenith around the time of the Trojan War, and went into decline shortly thereafter, possibly due to the invasion of the Doric-speaking Greeks who overran the Greek cities ruled by kings (such as Ithaca in Homer’s epic).

The decline of the Mycenaeans ushered in the Dark Age of Greece (roughly 1100 B.C. – 800 B.C.) marked by economic and cultural deterioration. Homer appeared around the time that the Dark Age gave way to a Greek Renaisassance of commerce, culture, poetry and art. Though Homer’s timespan is uncertain, he was more or less contemporary with the establishment of the Olympic games in 776 B.C., a panellenic competition of athletic prowess. Although the Greeks had no church to speak of as a dominant force in society, it is thought that the games had roots in religion and worship of their many gods.

Greek civilization continued its rise in power, and by 500 B.C. the Greeks had colonized much of the coastal regions of the Mediterranean and Aegean. Most of the Greek writers and thinkers whose works have become classics of the western world were active from around 500 – 300 B.C.

The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 B.C.) reshaped the Ancient Greek world and the city-states engaged in warfare. By the end of the war, the once mighty Athens had been surpassed by Sparta as the leading power of Greece. The following decades were marked by chronic hostility between the rich and the poor in most Greek cities. Historian Walther Kirchner writes:

Economic changes, including a great expansion in commerce and banking and the growth of a wealthy “bourgeoisie,” hastened the disintegration of society…The old simplicity in habits and manners was replaced by a love of luxury which sapped the strength of the country. The initiative and imagination of earlier times was lost. Even where democratic institutions endured, they proved no safeguard against the domination of society and the direction of public will by a small group of ambitious aristocrats, rich merchants, or professional politicians and demagogues.

Sound familiar?

In the past, citizen armies had helped to defend the sovereignty of individual city-states, but fractures in the social order undermined attempts to maintain effective militias, giving way to professional armies that operated on a larger scale. Local interest took a back seat to national interest.

The trend toward consolidation of power came during the time of Philip of Macedonia. Just to the north, Macedonia had close cultural and economic ties with the Greek city-states, but was considered semi-barbaric by its southern neighbors. With Athens and Sparta weakened, Philip conquered Greece in 338 B.C.

Empire-building reached a high point during the reign of Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, from 336 – 323 B.C. Intent on conquering the whole world, Alexander marched against the Persians in 334 B.C. and expanded the Greek Empire far to the east. Although the Greece of old was never the same, it was during the Hellenistic period (323 – 30 B.C.) that Greek culture was disseminated throughout the Near East, in the kingdoms won by Alexander. After his death, Alexander’s general fell into conflict among themselves, and three factions emerged, one centered in Macedonia, another in Asia and a third in Egypt. Thousands of Greeks migrated from their homelands hoping to find better opportunities in the distant reaches of the empire. During the flowering of Greek culture, farmers and city folk were closely linked but as the gap widened between the urban elites and the rural peasants, the old social order broke down. Farms were abandoned. Villages were deserted.

The torch was passing to the Romans. Milestones in the rise of the Roman empire (and the diminution of the Greek empire) were the conquest of Macedonia and Greece in 146 B.C., the Asian provinces in 64 B.C., and Egypt in 30 B.C.

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