From Polis to Cosmopolis: Alexander the Great
|There is little doubt that the
Peloponnesian War ultimately signified the end of the city-state as a creative force which
fulfilled the lives of the citizenry (on the Peloponnesian War, see Lecture
7). Throughout the 5th and 4th
centuries, the political history of the Greek world degenerated into oligarchy. Athenian direct democracy became a spent force as Athens lost its leadership
in the Greek world after its defeat at the hands of the Spartans. But Spartan domination
did not last very long. Full of arrogance and pride, Sparta found itself engaged in war
after war. The three leading city-states of Athens, Sparta and Thebes traded positions of
influence and power, sometimes two states joining against the other for protection.
Although Athens was rebuilding itself and Sparta had been invaded by victorious Theban armies, the real center of Greek power in the first half of the 4th century Greek world came from the Macedonian kingdom to the north, an area to which the Attic Greeks regarded with disdain since that kingdom was inhabited by barbaroi.
Philip of Macedon
In 338, Philip announced that he would marry Cleopatra, the daughter of a wealthy Macedonian family. This is interesting since Philip was already married to Olympias! Alexander was Philip's first born son and had the claim to the throne. But Philip confined Olympias on the grounds that she had committed adultery and encouraged rumors that Alexander was illegitimate. Philip then arranged for a wedding feast it turned out to be an intense affair. Alexander entered the room and sat next Philip and said: "when my mother gets married again I'll invite you to her wedding." Such a remark did nothing to improve anyone's temper.
Throughout the evening enormous quantities of wine were drunk. At last, Attalus, the bride's uncle arose, a bit unsteady, and proposed a toast. He called upon the gods that there might be born a legitimate successor to the Macedonia Kingdom. Infuriated, Alexander jumped to his feet and said: "are you calling me a bastard?" He then threw his cup of wine in the face of Attalus, who then did the same to Alexander. Philip stood, very drunk, and lunged forward with his sword drawn. His target was not Attalus but Alexander. However, Philip missed, tripped over a foot stool, and fell face first on the floor. Alexander looked about him looked at his father's worthless favorites and said: "That, gentlemen, is the man who's been preparing to cross from Europe into Asia, and he can't even make it from one couch to the next!" Here was the moment of crisis. Who would succeed Philip?
By this time, Olympias had clearly sided with her son Alexander. The night before her wedding to Philip, Olympias had a dream that her child would be a divine king. And she had always taught him that he was not merely the next in line, but from his youth, she told him to think he was a king in his own right. There is little doubt that Alexander and Olympias wished Philip out of the way. And that opportunity appeared in 336 B.C.
Philip arranged a massive festival to honor the marriage of Alexander's sister. With perfect timing, Philip's young wife Cleopatra had just given birth to a son. Meanwhile, Alexander had been all but isolated from his father's court. On the second day of the festivities, Philip was murdered by member of his own bodyguard. As the king entered the arena, a man drew a short, broad-bladed Celtic sword and thrust it into Philip's chest. Philip died immediately. Philip's murderer was Pausanias, who was also Philip's lover. Philip jilted Pausanias the year before for another young boy so the cause of Philip's murder was not really political, but sexual. However, evidence exists that connects Pausanias to Olympias, who promised him rewards and high honors if he killed Philip.
But Pausanias knew too much although Olympias promised him an escape after he had done the dirty deed, the fact is that Olympias had to get rid of Pausanias as well. He was killed minutes after Philip was murdered by three soldiers loyal to Alexander and his mother. This is a bit of intrigue which, as we shall see, shall be repeated throughout the history of the Roman and Byzantine empires.
Alexander the Great
Regardless, his illustrious career as leader and military strategist came to an end in 323 B.C., when he died from fever after a particularly wild party. He was 33 years old. Alexander has been portrayed as an idealistic visionary and as an arrogant and ruthless conqueror. Well, how did he view himself? He sought to imitate Achilles, the hero of Homer's Iliad. He claimed to be descended from Hercules, a Greek hero worshipped as a god. In the Egyptian fashion, he called himself pharaoh. After victories against the Persians, he adopted features of their rule. He called himself the Great King. He urged his followers to bow down before him, in Persian fashion. He also married Roxane, a Persian captive, and arranged for more than 10,000 of his soldiers to do the same. He wore Persian clothes and used Persians as administrators. By doing this, Alexander was trying to fuse the cultures of East and West, of Asia Minor and Greece. This fusion, and all that it came to represent, is what historians mean by the expression Hellenization.
He was loved by his loyal soldiers but his fellow Macedonians often objected to him. More than one assassination attempt was made on his life. The cultural legacy of Alexander was that Hellenic art, drama, philosophy, architecture, literature, and language was diffused throughout the Near East. The cities he founded became the spring boards for the diffusion of Hellenistic culture. Of the 60 to 70,000 mercenaries he summoned from Greece, nearly 40,000 remained to inhabit these cities. His vision of empire no doubt appealed to the Romans, a people who would eventually inherit Alexander's Empire and, as we shall see, quite a bit more. However, when Alexander died in 323 B.C., the classical age of Greece came to an abrupt end. Something very different was about to emerge.
From Polis to Cosmopolis
On a spiritual level, the 4th century witnessed a permanent change in the attitudes of all Greeks. What resulted was a new attitude toward life and its expectations a new world view. In the classical world of the polis, public and private lives were fused. Duty to the city-state was in itself virtuous. But in the Hellenistic world, public and private lives were made separate, and the individual's only duty was to himself. In art, sculpture, architecture, or philosophy or wherever we choose to look, we see more attention paid to individualism and introspection. Universal principles of truth Plato's Ideas and Forms were rejected in favor of individual traits. By the 4th century, Greek citizens became more interested in their private affairs rather than in the affairs of the polis. For example, in the 5th century, we will find comedies in which the polis is criticized, parodied and lampooned. But in the 4th century, the subject matter has changed and has turned to private and domestic life. In other words, whereas 5th century comedies focused on the relationship between the citizen and city-state, 4th century comedies made jokes about cooks, the price of fish, and incompetent doctors.
But, the question remains how do we account for the DECLINE OF THE POLIS? Why was this brilliant experiment in direct democracy destined for failure?
In general, the democracy of the city-state was made for the amateur and not the professional. The ideal of the polis was that every individual was to take a direct role in political, economic, spiritual and social affairs. But perhaps this was just too much responsibility to place on the shoulders of the citizens. For instance, we have Socrates, the most noble Athenian. He spent his entire life trying to fathom the mysteries of life: what is virtue? what is justice? what is beauty? what is the best form of government? what is the good life? He didn't know the answer to these questions but he tried to find out by asking as many people as many questions as possible. What Socrates found was that no Athenian citizen could give him a definition of any moral or intellectual virtue that would survive ten minutes of his questioning. The effect of such a discovery on the part of the young men of Athens was profound. Faith in the polis was shattered for how could the polis train its citizens to be virtuous if no one knew what it meant to be virtuous.
With this story of Socrates in mind, we turn to his most brilliant student, Plato. His Republic, his dialogue on the education required to fashion a new state, rejects both the polis and the idea of direct democracy. Just the fact that Plato was thinking in terms of an ideal state should tell you something people don't think of ideal societies when times are good. Obviously, something was very wrong. Plato's solution was that the training of citizens in virtue should be left to those who understand the universal meaning of virtue, and in Plato's mind, that meant those people who had emerged from the cave of illusion and who had seen the light of reality, that is, a Philosopher-King. This is indeed a far cry from the ideal of direct democracy and the city-state as embraced by a Solon, a Cleisthenes or a Pericles.
The history of the Greek world following the death of Alexander is one of warfare and strife as his generals struggled for control of Alexander's empire. By 275 B.C., Alexander's world had been divided into the three kingdoms of Macedonia (Antigonids), Western Asia (Seleucids) and Egypt (Ptolemaic). The kingdom of Pergamum (southern Asia Minor) was soon added as the fourth Hellenistic monarchy.
Hellenistic Greece was a predominately urban culture. The cities founded by Alexander were centers of government and trade as well as culture. These were large cities by ancient standards. For instance, Alexandria in Egypt contained perhaps 500,000 people. The Greeks brought their temples, their theatres and schools to other cities, thus exporting their culture and Greek culture became a way of life. The library at Alexandria is said to have contained some half a million volumes. The upper classes began to copy the Greek spirit. They sent their children to Greek schools and the Greek language (Koine) became a common, almost international language, in the same way that Latin was for Europe for fifteen centuries, or French in the 19th century.
What the breakdown of Alexander's empire had accomplished was nothing less than the Hellenization of the Mediterranean world. Cultures once foreign to the Hellenic world now became more Greek-like they were Hellenized. One of the most important developments in association with this process of Hellenization, was the shift from the world of the polis to the new world of the cosmopolis. Such a shift was decisive in creating the Hellenistic world as a world of conflicting identities, and when identities are challenged or changed, intense internal conflicts are the result.
We can identify this sense of conflict in the transition from Classical to Hellenistic philosophy. Classical Greek philosophy, the philosophy of the Sophists and of Socrates in the 5th century, was concerned with the citizen's intimate relationship with the polis or city-state. You can see this clearly in the philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Big questions such as what is the good life, what is the best form of government and what is virtue loomed large in their thinking. When we enter the world of the Hellenistic philosopher we encounter something very different. We must ask why?
The world of the polis had clearly given way to the world of the cosmopolis. And with that change from the smallness of the city-state to the immensity of the world-city, there were corresponding changes in the world view. The city-state was no longer run by citizens, citizens whose private and public duties were identical. In the world-state, bureaucrats and officials took over the duties formerly given over to citizens. Citizens lost their sense of importance as they became subjects under the control of vast bureaucratic kingdoms. From the face-to-face contact of the Athenian public Assembly, the people now became little more than numbers. As a result, they lost their identity.
It was EPICURUS (341-270) who founded the school of Epicureanism at the end of the fourth century. Epicurus taught the value of passivity and withdrawal from public life altogether. Individual happiness could be found anywhere, and not just within the confines of the polis. What politics did was to deprive the citizen of his self-sufficiency and his freedom to choose and to act. Wealth and power did little more than provoke anxiety. Epicurus argued that people should strive for inner peace and tranquility and live pleasurable lives while avoiding mental and physical pain. The wise person should withdraw from the world and study philosophy and enjoy the companionship of a few close friends.
Epicurus suggested a theory of nature that had no place for the activity of gods. That the gods could inflict suffering after death was the major cause of human anxiety. Epicurus adopted the atomic theory of Democritus, who taught that in a universe of colliding atoms there could be no room for divine activity (see Lecture 8). While he perhaps accepted the existence of gods, he said it was pointless to worry about them.
People could achieve happiness when their bodies were free from pain and their minds "released from worry and fear." Of course, Epicurus did not mean that the individual ought to indulge in senseless hedonism. Together with Aristotle, the motto of Epicurus could have been something like, "nothing to excess." By opening his philosophy to all men and women, as well as slaves, Epicurus created a therapy keenly adapted to the Hellenistic world of cosmopolitan kingdoms.
The school of Stoicism was founded by Zeno (c.336-c.265 B.C.) in the late 4th century. Zeno was born at Citium, a small Phoenician-Greek city on Cyprus. His father, Mnaseas, was a merchant and, according to Diogenes Laertius (fl. 2nd century A.D.), he brought back many Socratic books to Zeno when he was still a boy. At the age of twenty-two Zeno went to Athens and in 300 he started his school, first called the Zenonians and later called the Stoics because he gave his lectures in the Stoa Poikile, or Painted Colonnade, where he soon became a familiar part of Athenian intellectual life. His followers were known as the Stoics or "Colonnaders." Diogenes Laertius relates that Zeno
Zeno taught that a single, divine plan governed the universe. To find happiness, one must act in harmony with this divine plan. By cultivating a sense of duty and self-discipline, one can learn to accept their fate they will then achieve some kind of inner peace, freedom and tranquility. The Stoics believed that all people belong to the single family of mankind and so one should not withdraw from the world, but try to make something of the world. The Stoics believed that the universe contained a principle of order, called the Divine Fire, God or Divine Reason (Logos). This was the principle that formed the basis for reality -- it permeated all things. Because men was part of the universe, he too shared in the Logos. Since reason was common to all, human beings were essentially brothers -- it made no difference whether one were Greek, barbarian, free man or slave since all mankind were fellow citizens of a world community. It was the Stoics who took the essentials of Socratic thought -- a morality of self-mastery based on knowledge -- and applied it beyond the Athenian polis to the world community.
By teaching that there was a single divine plan (Logos), and that the world constituted a single society, it was Zeno who gave perfect expression to the cosmopolitan nature of the post-Alexandrine world. Stoicism, then, offered an answer to the problem of alienation and fragmentation created by the decline of the polis. Surrounded by a world of uncertainty, Stoicism promised individual happiness.
Both Epicureanism and Stoicism are therapies which reflected the change in man's social and political life during the Hellenistic Age. On the one hand, both therapies suggest a disenchantment with the overtly political world of a Pericles or Thucydides, Athenian or Spartan. So, they can be seen as direct reactions to the philosophy of both Plato and Aristotle. On the other hand, the Stoics and Epicureans also reflect profound social changes within Greece itself. Greek society had become more complex and more urban as a result of Alexander's conquests. Politics fell into the hands of the wealthy few and the citizens were left with nothing. And Hellenistic politics became little more than an affair of aristocrats and their bureaucratic lackeys and experts.
In a way, much of what I have said is similar to our own times. Our government has grown too complex and too large. Despite our democratic institutions, our society is ordered and controlled by wealthy elites and bureaucrats, many of whom we cannot even identify because their existence is not individual but corporate. Modern society has become and remains impersonal, bureaucratic and authoritarian. We believe we are in control. In reality, we are still prisoners in Plato's cave where our illusions are fed to us by digital technology.
Hellenistic philosophers questioned such an order and in general, turned to the inner harmony of the individual a form of therapy with which to deal with an increasingly cold and impersonal world. This is an ironic situation. A culture congratulates itself that it has been able to progress from simplicity to complexity. But with complexity improvement? progress? the control of one's life seems to fall away. We are not in control since control is in the hands of unidentifiable entities.
Given this, Hellenistic Greeks turned to personal philosophies therapies for comfort and, if you will, salvation. What do we turn to? Do we turn inward? No! the majority of us "find ourselves" reflected in things external to us. We become members of "the club," losing our own identity in collective identities. We are asked to say, "don't worry, be happy." In the Hellenistic world, Stoicism became the point of view and therapy of choice for individuals who were still trying to bring order out of the chaos of Hellenistic life. The Epicureans appealed to those people who had resigned themselves to all the chaos and instead turned to the quest for pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
However, Stoicism and Epicureanism were not the only two therapies available for those who needed them. The SKEPTICS simply denied that there was anything close to true knowledge. According to the 4th century Skeptic Cratylus, since everything is changing, one cannot step once into the same river, because both that river and oneself are changing. Cratylus took his brand of skepticism to an alarming degree, arguing eventually that communication was impossible because since the speaker, listener and words were changing, whatever meaning might have been intended by the words would be altered by the time they were heard. He is therefore supposed to have refused to discuss anything and only to have wiggled his finger when someone spoke, to indicate that he had heard something but that it would be pointless to reply, since everything was changing.
Whereas the Epicureans withdrew from the evils of the world, and the Stoics sought happiness by working in harmony with the Logos, the Skeptics held that one could achieve some kind of spiritual equilibrium only by accepting that none of the beliefs by which people lived were true or could bring happiness. Speculative thought did not bring happiness either. For the most part, the Skeptics were suspicious of ideas and maintained no great love for intellectuals.
The Cynics rejected all material possessions and luxuries and lived simple lives totally divorced from the hustle and bustle of the Hellenistic world-city. The most famous of the Cynics was Diogenes the Dog (412-323 B.C.). Diogenes lived in a bath tub. He carried a lantern in daylight, proclaiming to all that he was looking for a "virtuous man." It is said that one day Alexander the Great approached Diogenes, who was near death, and asked if there was anything that he could do for him. Diogenes is said to have replied, "would you mind moving you are blocking the sun." Plato described Diogenes as "Socrates gone mad." He called himself "citizen of the world and when asked what the finest thing in the world might be, replied "freedom of speech." Diogenes was a serious teacher who, disillusioned with a corrupt society and hostile world, protested by advocating happiness as self-mastery of an inner spiritual freedom from all wants except the barest minimum. In his crusade against the corrupting influence of money, power, fame, pleasure and luxury, Diogenes extolled the painful effort involved in the mental and physical training required for self-sufficiency.
And finally, there were the Neo-Platonists who combined Plato's ideas with the ancient religions that flourished in Asia Minor. The Neo-Platonists used the Allegory of the Cave as their point of departure. They took the Allegory and "socialized" it by arguing mankind can overcome this material world by mastering the sacred lore and special knowledge contained in the mystery cults.
From Epicurean to Stoic and from Skeptic and Cynic to Neo-Platonist, none of these therapies provided any sort of relief for the ordinary man and woman. After all, these therapies were specifically "upper class" philosophies, intended for citizens feeling the burdens of the cosmopolis upon their social, political and economic life. In other words, one studied with Zeno or Diogenes or they read the books of Epicurus or the Neo-Platonists. The common person required something more concrete, more practical and less demanding as well as more helpful than the philosophic therapists could offer. They found what they wanted in the mystery cults, cults which could explain their suffering in less complex and more down-to-earth terms.
The most popular cults were those associated with a mother-goddess such as Ishtar (Sumer) or Isis (Egypt) or those that taught the coming of a savior such as Osiris and Mithra. The savior would come to deliver man from the forces of darkness which had threatened to consume him. The mother-goddess cult taught that one should take comfort in the love that the mother figure offered and await with patience for one's death when one would be reunited with the mother-goddess. The savior cult invited one to worship a hero-god who would then offer protection from evil. Many of these cults offered beliefs in the resurrection of the body after death. Hopefully you can see that these cults were an amalgamation of Hebrew monotheism and Egyptian and Sumerian polytheism. We should also not forget that although faith in the pantheon of gods and goddesses declined during the Hellenic or Classical age of Greece, its decline was felt most strongly amongst the citizenry and not the common people, who continued to maintain their traditional beliefs of gods and goddesses of the hearth.
The mystery cults usually enforced certain dietary rules and also required participation in various rites. The cults were not exclusive and therefore anyone could join at will. The mystery cults afforded a community of feeling and aspiration that took the place of the now defunct polis. When it first appeared in the Roman world, Christianity was identified by the Romans as merely another mystery cult. Only gradually did it dawn on the Romans that they were facing a completely new religious phenomenon. And I mention this now in order to suggest that the mystery cults would contribute to the overall Christianization of the Roman Empire. In other words, when Christianity did make its appearance, the mystery cults had already prepared the groundwork for its acceptance by the Roman people.
There was one distinct culture that knew the Greeks most intimately the Romans. The Romans had built a stable political and social order in central Italy while the Greeks were witnessing the decline of the city-state during the Hellenistic Age. The Romans resembled the Greeks in many respects with one important difference. The Romans successfully created the kind of cosmopolitan world order the Empire of which the Greeks had only dreamed.
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copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis