It was all Greek to them. No, literally.

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I left off in my thread on the general historical backdrop to the main story in my forthcoming book with a nod to Hellenism. That is because my main characters, Hannibal (Carthage) and Scipio (Rome), clashed, with consequences for us today, during the third century BCE, the height of the so-called Hellenistic era.

This may sound weird. Hellenism is named after Hellas, Greece, but what we know about this epic clash is that it happened between the two superpowers of the day, Rome and Carthage. What does Greece have to do with this?

This is what I want to explain, briefly and simply, in this post.

“Greece” was never, in antiquity, a country. Even Homer, writing about the Trojan War that was the mythological foundation for all Greeks, never once used the word Greeks! (Instead, he called the Greeks Argives, Achaeans, Aetolians, and so on.) During the Classical era, the Greeks had independent city states (Athens, Sparta, Thebes etc) that constantly fought against, or allied with, one another.

But although they never thought of themselves as a country, they always thought of themselves as a civilization. The definition of Greekness was simple: if you were allowed to send competitors to the Olmpic Games, you were Greek. And who was allowed? Broadly, those who spoke Greek. All other languages sounded to the Greeks like “bar bar bar bar”, hence barbarian.

Then, in the fourth century BCE, something big happened: While the Greek cities kept fighting each other about rather petty things, as usual, a new power rose to the north. This was Macedonia. Whether the Macedonians were Greek was at first controversial, but might made right, and Philip, then his son Alexander, became not only Macedonian but also Greek.

Alexander, completing the dream his father had dreamt when he was murdered, then swept ferociously across the Hellespont to the east, reversing the direction of the earlier Persian invasions, and conquering most of the known world. In the process he brought Greek language, culture, philsophy, theater, art and architecture to the entire “Middle East”. His name lives on in many garbled city names, such as Kandahar.

Then Alexander died, prematurely. His generals carved up his huge empire and for the next couple of centuries, huge and powerful kingdoms with Greek aristocracies ruled the area. The two biggest were the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic empires. The last Greco-Macedonian queen was, of course, Cleopatra (who happens to be another of the characters in my book.)

What did this mean? It meant that in the whole Mediterranean and “Middle East”, there was one cosmopolitan, urban culture, which was Greek–ie, Hellenistic. There were lots and lots of other peoples–Phoenicians, Romans, Gauls, Numidians, Illyrians etc–who abutted on this Greek pond from all sides, and they each had their own culture and language. But the haute couture, the lingua franca, the aesthetic style, the entire outlook and sensibility of the era–all this was Greek.

There are no perfect parallels in history for this astonishing cultural dominance. The reach of Han Chinese culture during the Tang Dynasty and “Anglo-Saxon” culture today (from English-as-a-second-language to Hollywood films) are the two that seem to come closest.

So there. Hannibal spoke Punic, Scipio spoke Latin, but both of course also spoke Greek. Scipio, in fact, loved Greek culture so much that his political enemy, Cato the Elder, a sort of Roman Joe McCarthy, even tried to spin a scandal out of it.

It was a culturally refined and complex era. A fascinating era.

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2 thoughts on “It was all Greek to them. No, literally.

  1. Hi I just discovered your site and I really like it. I always thought that in order to take part in the Olympics the person had to prove he was of greek descent? Or was it really just a matter of speaking greek as you have written? Hellenic/Hellenistic civilization was indeed a fascinating era and in a way it sort of never really left us in as much as the west looks to classical and hellenistic culture for inspiration(although I would say that the west does tend to view Hellas in a very distorted manner) best regards!

  2. Hi, Jason, and thanks.
    Perhaps those two–speaking Greek vs being of Greek descent–were largely synonymous at the time. And proving descent was more fluid/corrupt than we might imagine today. Alexander, for example, was Macedonian on one side, but Epirote (Greek) on his mother’s side, but also claimed, or allowed others to believe, that his real father might have been Zeus.

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