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Overview of Late Antiquity--The Classical Prologue

Section 5: Ideology, Identity and Empire -- The Greeks

Steven Muhlberger



The development of urban communities between 800 B.C. to A.D. 300 posed two problems for those who lived in them: first, how to keep the peace within towns that were no longer villages; and second, how to keep the peace between towns that, by virtue of their trading links, had to deal with each other continuously.

In this millennium-long period, various ideologies were devised to defuse inevitable conflicts and foster cooperation. These ideologies can be seen as religions or as political strategies, or as both. All sought to include large numbers of people in a social compact that might otherwise elude them. Yet the same ideologies had an exclusive element. Those included were meant to gain advantages that were denied, by the ideology itself, to outsiders. The ideology identified a privileged group and consecrated their privileges. When an ideology was new, it tended toward inclusion and integration of a wide social group; as it got older, those who had already gained advantages usually limited access to their group. Often a new inner group was created which held real power, while the wider formal membership lost most of its former meaning. Thus there was something of a cycle in which new problems led to the creation of an inclusive ideology, which hardened into a definition of privilege, which provoked conflicts that eventually inspired a newer ideology.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the so-called universal religions which dominate the late ancient and early medieval period, were ideologies that were very successful in providing models of community and rules for cooperation to the people who committed themselves to them. To understand their emergence, we must look at earlier attempts to do the same thing: the development of Greek and Roman ideologies in the period before A.D. 300.

To be a Greek or a Roman in the ancient world was, no less than being a medieval Christian or Muslim or Jew, to have a religious, political and social identity. It made one part of a wide community, provided a language with which one could communicate with other Greeks or Romans, and gave one prestige vis--vis outsiders. The strengths and failures of the concepts of Greekness and Romanness in the ancient period are thus worth investigation. This investigation will also explain why in A.D. 300 the Mediterranean was surrounded by Greek and Roman cities.

We are fortunate to be able to trace both the Greeks and the Romans from the point where they were insignificant village folk The starting point for each was around 800 B.C., at the beginning of the great Mediterranean boom. In that year, the Greeks lived in a number of small farming and fishing settlements around the Aegean Sea; the Romans, according to the traditional chronology, did not exist as a separate people, but their Latin ancestors lived in central Italy in much the same conditions as the Greeks did.

The small Mediterranean communities of that time were each dominated by a royal dynasty and a few clan leaders. The aristocrats were both war leaders and the priests of the communal religious cults. In these settlements, the maintenance of proper relations with the gods was a public matter of great importance. The gods, visualized by most ancient peoples in the image of themselves, were powerful, capricious, not to be crossed. Every community sought to mollify them with a distinctive mix of processions, festivals, and rites. That mix was an important part of the community's identity.

When the Greek communities grew into dynamic and economically diverse towns, between 800 and 600 B.C., village-style monarchy and aristocracy broke down. Too many people were economically and militarily significant to be excluded from public affairs. In response to this situation, both politics and religion were democratized. The great festivals of Athens, for instance, were elaborated by leaders appealing for popular support. The most dynamic cities in the period before Alexander (337 B.C.) tended to produce strong democratic feeling, which often if not always had a practical political effect. Of course Greek democracies were at all times quite oligarchic. The ones with the widest franchises restricted political participation to free-born men of native stock: all women, slaves, and free men whose ancestors had been outsiders had no public role. Many cities had much narrower franchise. But at the time, the degree of popular participation in Greek civic life was astonishing.

The Greek response to the internal problems of urban growth was democracy. What about the problems of relations between cities? The answer here was cultural solidarity between Greek communities against non-Greeks. Greekness was defined by the use of the Greek language and by common religious rituals. Those who shared in language and sacrifice were in some way equals, and could deal with each other on basis of moral equality. Solidarity had its practical advantages. For instance, Greek colonization gave Greek travelers and merchants friendly ports of call on most coasts of the Mediterranean and the Black Seas. In these ports, they could deal with people whom they could understand and to some degree trust. The ticklish relations with non-Greek villagers were left to the colonists. For similar reasons, there were also Greek trading colonies in more civilized countries.

Traditional Greek solidarity was, however, fairly weak, once questions of religion and culture were left behind. There never was a common Greek citizenship, for instance: a man whose grandparents had moved from Corinth to Athens would, in the normal course of events, never become a citizen of Athens, even if he was born in Athens and had lived there all his life. Greek cities, despite their common ties, often fought each other in devastating wars.

During the fourth century B.C., a new political structure grew up in response to this situation: hereditary monarchy, in which the monarch was a warlord not tied to any single city, who thus could be equally master of them all. Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great (337-323 B.C.) successfully implemented this political strategy (which of course was only new to the Greeks, not to the world at large). Not only did the Macedonian dynasty unify the cities of Greece, they used their considerable military energies to destroy the Persian monarchy and conquer the older civilized countries of Southwest Asia that the Persians ruled: Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran. Greeks colonists became the ruling race over a large part of the world, and their colonial cities, both in the Mediterranean and Asia, flourished: Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, Seleucia in Iraq, Syracuse in Sicily were the pacesetters. Neighboring cultures were torn between resistance through a retreat into the traditional past, and emulation.

The Greeks were quite satisfied with their position as the new aristocracy of the civilized world. They never tried to come up with an idea that would unify the Greek and non-Greek populations of the cosmopolitan cities that they had created. As far as possible, non-Greeks, those who spoke other languages ("barbarians") and worshipped other deities, were to be kept in their place. They could have their own gods, and temples, and even community organizations, but they were never allowed to forget that they were subjects. A Hellenistic city was therefore never a single community, as classical and archaic Greek cities had been: it was a collection of ethnic groups, one of which maintained a permanent superiority over the others.

Political unity among Greeks was not much stronger than it had been before Alexander. Once established, Hellenistic cities quickly became very miserly in granting citizenship, even to fellow Greeks. The competing Greek monarchs of the period were a very imperfect manifestation of Greek unity. Like the Persian and Assyrian monarchs of the past, they claimed to represent divine order. In fact, they were just warlords without roots, whose dynasties were no stronger than the king of the moment. The Greek civic aristocracies were willing to obey monarchs when they were strong, but they were not committed to any idea of Greek empire. If one king or dynasty fell, the cities would accommodate themselves to the successor. Thus Hellenistic kingdoms were not stable, or very vigorous. They generally expanded only at the expense of one another. The Greek-ruled area conquered and colonized by Alexander never grew significantly after his death; rather it slowly shrank in the face of nativist revolts in the east and Roman annexation in the west. Greek cities accommodated themselves to these developments, too.


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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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