Hellenistic Greece

The Hellenistic World


And what happened next? In this enquiry into barbarism and civilisation, there is a constant question as to the forms of society and the nature of government: what works and what does not? And in trying to elucidate what really happened after the momentous events of the Fifth Century, we come to one of the most difficult narratives of all. In a way it should be the story of the great triumph – how the Greek civilisation spread over much of the then known world, spreading from Greece to India and down into Egypt.

Capitoline Venus 0633

In the fourth century, Greek sculpture reached its peak and the top sculptor was Praxiteles. His most famous carving was the Venus of Knidos – this is a Roman copy in the British Museum. He was the first to carve a female in the nude – it was all right to carve naked men but not naked women, – but when he was commissioned by the island of Kos to carve a statue of Venus, he carved two statues, one clothed, one unclothed. The good inhabitants of Kos were shocked by the nude statue and rejected it, and it was promptly bought up by the neighbouring island of Knidos. What happened to the clothed copy is unknown but the naked statue became one of the most famous pictures of antiquity and a lively source of tourist income for Knidos.

Yet somehow, the straight thread of the story is crooked: there is a sense almost of anti-climax. The central part of the story is the amazing career of Alexander the Great, who conquered the whole of the known world by the age of 32 – and then died. And how his Empire then split up but staggers on, only to be assumed within the Roman Empire – though leaving behind half his Empire to become a newly revived Persian empire. Yet how far was Alexander Greek? And how far was his Empire Greek, and how far did it foreshadow the eventual achievements of the Roman empire? This is a rather more interesting story than the one that is told in the conventional accounts.

The fifth century ended with the defeat of Athens by the Spartans, but the Spartans were magnanimous in victory and simply insisted that the Athenians pull down their Long Walls and install a sensible form of government, not the stupid idea of democracy. Throughout the Greek world, Sparta installed sensible government, that is a group of ten men – the Elders – who would govern wisely. But Athens was rather big so they installed a group of thirty men who became known as the Thirty Tyrants and who ruled, well, tyrannically. They did not last long. Thebes a city famed in mythology which lay fifty miles north west of Athens, came to its help, the Thirty Tyrants were expelled, democracy of sorts was reintroduced and promptly showed the stupidity of democracy by executing its most prominent thinker and philosopher, a political agitator called Socrates. He had long been corrupting the youth by encouraging them to think for themselves and to challenge the ideas of their elders and betters, so he was therefore charged with corrupting youth before a jury of the usual 501 citizens. Socrates defended himself provocatively, was condemned by a small minority, and instead of fleeing into exile, determined to defy his accusers by staying in Athens and drinking the hemlock poison, thereby proving the stupidity of democracy.

Messene Stadion-118_150

‘Smarter than Sparta’: following the defeat of Sparta in 370 BC, Messene became a fine city. This is the stadium with Mount Ithome looming in the background.

The next thirty years were to be the glory years of Thebes, which rose to pre-eminence under enlightened leadership and good generalship, challenged Sparta and won: unlike Athens, they defeated the Spartan army decisively at the battle of Leuctra in 370 BC. They then marched down into Messenia and freed the Messenians who for the past 400 years had been the Helots, who farmed the fields and provided the Spartans with their food. A new city of Messene was founded which flourished exceedingly and soon became ‘smarter than Sparta’. Today Messene – which lies fifteen miles from modern Messene – is one of the finest ancient towns in Greece to visit, quite unlike Sparta where the main remains are the Roman theatre.

Another town was founded fifty miles to the north at Megalopolis, which was the centre of a new form of Greek setup – the Arcadian League which was to be the forerunner of several leagues or groupings of cities which flourished in Greece in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC before they were all swept up by Rome.

The Theban supremacy did not last long until it was challenged by a rising power to the north: Macedonia. It is always a bit of a problem to know how far the Macedonians were Greeks: the Macedonians thought that they were Greeks, the Athenians definitely thought that they were not. But unusually Macedonia had two great rulers, father and son who between them totally reshaped the story of Greek history: their names were Philip and Alexander.

Philip II

Philip II: statue in Copenhagen. (Wikipedia)

It was Philip who really established Macedonia as a major power. Philip was born in 382 BC and spent his early years as a hostage in Thebes – which turned out to be a very good education. In 364 BC at the age of twenty four he returned to Macedonia, and three years later he grabbed the throne. Then year after year, he spent most of his time fighting, losing an eye in the process. There were enemies to the west, to the north, and to the east, but one by one he defeated them all.

Vergina tomb P732

The huge tumulus at Vergina, thought to be the burial place of Philip of Macedon. It has been totally excavated, and restored as a museum.

The big problem was Athens, to the south, where one of the world’s greatest orators, Demosthenes was violently anti-Macedonian, and his finest speeches – still studied as superb examples of classical Greek were delivered against Philip, – indeed the term Philippic is still sometimes used for virulent invective. But eventually words changed to deeds, and speeches were replaced by war: Philip was a general of genius at the head of a seasoned army and the Athenians were a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs and at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC Philip won and Athens lost. But Philip admired the Athenian traditions, so he spared Athens and Athens flourished. Philip however was less fortunate and two years later he was assassinated by a member of his bodyguard when about to participate in a lovefest at his capital city of Aigai, modern Vergina where his tomb complex has recently been excavated. His kingdom would probably have disintegrated was it not for the fact that his twenty year old son, Alexander was one of the most ambitious and greatest generals of all time.



Alexander P877

Alexander the Great: portrait head in the museum at Pella.

Alexander had the best of all educations: he had a private tutor who was none other than Aristotle, the greatest philosopher of all time, and it is just possible that some of Aristotle’s teaching may have been responsible for some of his future success as an administrator. Alexander lost no time in making it clear that he was his father’s successor and ruler of Macedonia, and in two years he established his control not only in Macedonia, but also in the whole of Greece apart from Sparta, which was left independent but impotent.

Alexander at Battle of Issus Pompeii mosaic

Alexander at the Battle of Issus. This famous mosaic from Pompeii shows Alexander (left) facing the Persian King Darius on the right. This mosaic is a copy of a lost painting.

Alexander mosaic detail

Detail from the Alexander mosaic showing Alexander facing the Persians.

He then set out to complete his father’s work of confronting the Persian Empire in revenge for their earlier attack on Greece. In 334 BC at the age of twenty-two he crossed the Hellespont into Asia with a large army and at the Battle of Granicus he won his first major battle over the Persians and captured Sardis and with it the whole of northwest modern Turkey. He then raged across the whole of Anatolia (Turkey) down to the south, diagonally to the northeast, and then down to the south again to the borders of north Syria, where he fought his second major battle at Issus. At the previous battle at Granicus he had been fighting against one of the Emperor’s generals, but here he faced an army commanded by the Emperor Darius himself. It was the top Persian army and Alexander won a stunning victory. Darius fled but Alexander captured his wife and his daughters and subsequently married the prettiest daughter. (This shows how clever Alexander was – you have not just got to win the war, you have got to win the peace too, and how better than by marrying the King’s daughter?).

Macedon Empire

Map to show Alexander’s campaigns starting with the Battle of Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela and then his further campaigns in Bactria (top right) and down into India. Map courtesy of Wikipedia – double click to see details.

Alexander then set off to the south, to Egypt, capturing on the way the major settlement of Gaza after a short siege and then rapidly making himself master of Egypt which had been a Persian province. He founded a new town modestly calling it Alexandria, which was soon to become one of the greatest towns in the world. Then back to Mesopotamia to the heart of the Persian Empire where in 331 BC he won the biggest and most decisive victory of all at Gaugamela which was followed by the capture of Babylon. Darius fled but was soon after assassinated by one of his friends with whom he had taken refuge. Alexander marched on, and in 330 BC captured Persepolis which he burnt to the ground.

Journey's End. Column erected at Hund in Pakistan to mark the furthest point of Alexander's campaigns

Journey’s end. The sun sets over the River Indus, the furthest point of Alexander’s venture, where his troops went on strike and reluctantly he had to turn for home.  This column has been erected in the grounds of the museum at the Gandharan settlement of Hund near Peshawar, which, they would like to believe, marks the furthest point of Alexander’s campaign

He then set off to the east and the next four or five years were spent rampaging round the huge area of modern Persia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, fighting battles, subduing kingdoms and above all founding new cities; and it was in the foundations of these cities that he perhaps left his biggest influence. Eventually he reached the banks of the River Indus and here his adventures came to an end. The army went on strike, they had had enough. They had been fighting and campaigning for nearly ten years now and they wanted to go home to see their wives and their families again and to take a bit of a rest. Alexander regretfully was forced to agree but he then spent a couple of years marching back along the southern route through the deserts until eventually in 323 BC he reached Babylon and here after a drunken orgy he fell into a stupor – perhaps he was poisoned – and ten days later at the age of 32, he died. The army staggered home, laden with loot. The adventure was over.


The Successor Kingdoms

At this point, conventional history sees decline and fall: but was it? Alexander’s empire rapidly split up into the empire of the ‘successors’. Macedonia became the smallest, but still the core kingdom; Egypt soon split off to become the Egyptian Empire which became the most successful or at least the richest kingdom of all. But the biggest kingdom was the Seleucid Kingdom which comprised virtually all the former Persian Empire, and which now entered a time of considerable prosperity.

Palace at Aigai modern Vergina

Corner of the courtyard of the palace at Aigai, modern Vergina. This was  the original capital of the Macedonian empire

But how far were these kingdoms ‘Greek’? Much of the structure was taken over from the Persian empire – but how far did they also participate in Greek culture? Were they still palace towns based on a tribute economy, or did they take on some of the characteristics of a Greek polis? The secret of the polis was that it combined market economy with democracy, which produced a new way of thinking, a new sense of entrepreneurship, a new relationship between patron and producer. Certainly in the successor kingdoms a lot was taken over from the Persian Empire: but is there also a new spirit, new artistic ideas, a new outburst of vigour? We need to investigate how the actual structure of society worked.

The smallest but most prestigious of the successor kingdoms was Macedonia itself which was seized by Antipater, one of Alexander’s generals. The question remained as before – how far was Macedonia Greek? Here archaeology can begin to offer some interesting answers.

There were two centres of power in Macedonia: at Aigai and at Pella. The old capital was at Aigai – modern Vergina – thirty miles inland from the sea and fifty miles west of modern Thessalonica.   Here numerous rich tombs have been discovered going back to the 10th or 12th century BC. The earlier ones revealing a culture that owes more to the Balkans than to sub-Mycenaean Greece, but according to legend Macedonia was conquered by the Greeks in the seventh century. The tombs culminate in a huge tomb excavated in the 1970s which may or may not be the tomb of Philip II, the father of Alexander. However there is also a palace complex based round a formal courtyard and also the theatre where Philip was assassinated. It remained the ritual centre of the kingdom.

Pella: Agora (market place)

The rows of shops along one side of the agora at Pella. These have now been excavated and are being rigorously restored

However around 400 BC a new capital was constructed at Pella, forty miles to the north east, at the head at what was then an inlet to the sea, now long silted up. However at Pella, Macedonian schizophrenia was displayed to the full: was it a palace-based society, or was it centred round a market place? Pella had both. On the top of the hill was a large palace based round three courtyards and this is where Alexander was born. However to the south was rather a large agora or market place which formed the centre of a block of rather posh town houses, many with fine mosaics. The agora was surrounded on three sides by shops and on the fourth side there was an administrative complex, housing the city magistrates and also the public archives where scores of clay seals were found and broken pens and inkwells. But it is all a little bit too neat and tidy – it was a city laid out artificially; interestingly, one of the main sanctuaries was dedicated to Darron, a god of healing who has no place among the Greek gods who lived on Olympus. Pella tried hard to be a proper Greek town, but somehow it always remained a little bit below the salt.

But how about Greece itself? Following the death of Alexander, the story of Greece is rather an anti-climax. For the next hundred years the history is a chaotic story of Macedonia versus the rest with the rest of Greece forming and reforming into various leagues, with the Aeolian and the Achaean leagues being particularly prominent. At Sparta there was a population crisis as the number of full bloodied Spartiates declined, but King Cleomenes III carried out major reforms and made Sparta almost normal – he even introduced coinage.

But increasingly Rome was hovering in the wings. For much of the third century, Rome was indeed preoccupied with fighting Carthage, but in 202 BC Carthage was finally defeated and Rome turned its attention to sorting out Greece. In 197 BC the last semi-competent Mycenaean King, Philip V was defeated at the Battle of Cynoscephalae, but the Romans greatly admired Greece – and they were very clever diplomats – so instead of making Greece a province, they declared it ‘free’.

The details are interesting. Flamininius was a highflyer appointed consul before he was 30, and he proved to be not only a good general who worked out how to neutralise the Macedonian phalanx, but was also a master of public relations. He announced the new settlement very publicly at the Isthmian games in 196 BC which were held regularly at Corinth, in which Romans were allowed to take part. The historian Appian sets the scene:

When the stadium was full of people, he commanded silence by trumpet and directed the herald to make this proclamation, “The Roman people and Senate, and Flamininus, their general, having vanquished the Macedonians and Philip, their king, order that Greece shall be free from foreign garrisons, not subject to tribute, and shall live under her own customs and laws.”

Thereupon there was great shouting and rejoicing and a scene of rapturous tumult; and groups here and there called the herald back in order that he might repeat his words for them. They threw crowns and fillets upon the general and voted statues for him in their cities. They sent ambassadors with golden crowns to the Capitol at Rome to express their gratitude, and inscribed themselves as allies of the Roman people. Such was the end of the second war between the Romans and Philip.

What made him so popular was that he was giving them their ‘freedom’. But note just what this ‘freedom’ involved: it was freedom from foreign garrisons, freedom from paying tribute, and being allowed to live ‘under their own customs and laws’. Democracy was not mandated, but they were allowed to choose their own form of government. Garrisons were left at Corinth and at Chalcis, but eventually the system broke down and in 146 the Romans won a major battle, and Corinth was razed to the ground and remained uninhabited until it was re-founded by Caesar in 44 BC. Greek history comes to an end – though Greek affluence begins.


What happened in Egypt

The wealthiest of the successor kingdoms was in Egypt, where one of Alexander’s generals founded the Ptolemaic dynasty. Ptolemy was one of Alexander’s leading generals, eventually becoming one of Alexander’s personal bodyguards. But on Alexander’s unexpected death, he was one of the ones who insisted that the Empire should be split up and that he should have what he considered to be the best part, that is Egypt. He also managed to steal Alexander’s body and have it buried in Alexandria rather than in Macedonia. But if Alexander had founded Alexandria, it was Ptolemy who decided that it was to be the capital of Egypt and who built it up to become not only the greatest city in Egypt, but the greatest city in the Greek world, second only to Rome in the Roman world.

Ptolemy I Soter Louvre

Ptolemy I was one of Alexander’s generals who seized Egypt after his death and founded a dynasty which lasted nearly 300 years. Bust in the Louvre, courtesy of Wikipedia

His biggest innovation was to make Alexandria the tops in the intellectual and cultural world and he did this by founding a library which soon became the biggest library in the world. Attached to it was a home for all the scholars: this was called the ‘home of the muses’ or the Mouseion, hence our word museum – though in many ways it should be considered the world’s first university – there were said to be over 1,000 scholars there.    This was a really brilliant idea for he soon attracted not only the top poets, Theocritus, Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes, but also the top scientists, including Archimedes and Euclid. He also built a huge lighthouse at the entrance to the harbour. The Pharos, three stories – nearly 400 ft high – the second tallest building in the world after the Pyramids.

Statue of Cleopatra nude

Cleopatra VII, the last Pharoah of Egypt, who bedded both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. Note the elaborate wig. In Egyptian art it is quite alright to be naked providing you are wearing a good wig, and although Cleopatra was wholly Greek, she wanted to show that she was a good Egyptian. This statue is in the Hermitage, in St Petersburg, photographed while on display in London

The history of Ptolemaic Egypt is very simple: it began with three good emperors – Ptolemy I, II, and II, after which it declined for two centuries of unremarkable pharaohs, though it tended with one of the most capable of them all, a woman called Cleopatra. Like all the other Ptolemies she was purely Greek, but she was the only one who bothered to learn the Egyptian language. However she realised that success lay in bedding the right Roman, but she did not always get her Romans right. She first bedded Julius Caesar by whom she had a son – Caesarion – later murdered by Augustus; and then she bedded Mark Anthony, again the wrong choice because he was to be defeated by Augustus. She hoped to seduce Augustus but Augustus was not interested, so at the age of thirty-nine she committed suicide by clasping an asp to her bosom – or so it is said.  So ended the history of Egypt, – though the beginning of its success as a Roman province and the bread basket of Rome.

Alexandria which became the capital of Egypt was founded as a new town by Alexander. But how far was it a Greek city or how far was it essentially Egyptian? We must look at the architecture and ask whether they set up a Greek style polis, or an Egyptian Palace town. According to Alexander’s biographer Arrian, Alexander himself marked out where the city’s market place or agora was to be built, and how many temples there should be, both Greek and Egyptian. So Alexander clearly knew what a Greek town should be like. However no trace of an agora has been found, though Judith MacKenzie tentatively marked out an insula as a possibility. However Diodorus Siculus says that Alexander also gave orders to build a palace ‘marvellous for its size and the massiveness of its works’: no single room survives of the Palace though its position is known and traces of huge foundations have been found on its presumed site. The big part of the Palace was clearly the adjacent Library and Museum though it appears that there was also a stadium and a colonnaded courtyard ion the Palace that was used for public gatherings. It seems that in practice, Alexandria was more Egyptian than Greek.

What was the secret of the Ptolemies’ success? Much indeed must be due to the second Ptolemy, who unlike his father and his son did not like fighting, but was an intellectual, who built up the library and the museum and made Alexandria into the cultural powerhouse of the Greek world, challenging even Athens. However a big part of the success was due to the monetisation of the Egyptian economy.

A lot is known about the Egyptian economy because the dry conditions in the desert preserved the papyrus documents. A particularly rich source comes from the Oxyrhynchus – the City of Sharp Nosed Fish (as Peter Parsons translated it) , where in the 1890s massive rubbish heaps full of papyrus were discovered and excavated and taken back to Oxford where they are still being read. These are to some extend unrepresentative because Oxyrhynchus lies on the Fayum where a branch of the Nile leads off into a lake in the desert where it dries up: it was an area brought into cultivation by the early Ptolemies where they resettled some of their Greek soldiers. But there is also a valuable collection of documents from a 6,000 acre model farm administered by Zenon, which gives valuable information about the big farm economy.

Ptolemy III

Coin of Ptolemy III now in the Louvre. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Money had in fact been used in Egypt ever since the foundation of the Greek colony at Naucratis in the 6th or 7th century BC. But the use of money expanded enormously under the Ptolemies, spreading right down into the southern parts of Egypt. The Egyptian money system was a closed system. They did not use the Alexander coinage that circulated in the rest of the empire, but had their own special coinage and traders were constantly complaining that when they arrived in Greece they had to change their money and have their Greek coins melted down to be replaced by the Ptolemaic coinage. But the early Ptolemies pushed the monetisation of the Egyptian economy. To some extent it was a bipolar economy. The Greeks who formed the top 10 per cent of the population used money, but the other 90 per cent, the Egyptian peasants who farmed the land and produced the corn, to a large extent continued to use corn as a symbol of value.

But there was also a substantial amount of credit in use. The use of credit has been controversial in the academic world ever since the American Moses Finley both introduced the idea that the ‘ancient’ (gift exchange) economy was different from ‘modern’ (market-based) economy, but at the same time over emphasised the continuation of the ancient economy into the market economy of Greece and Rome. But the Egyptian documents make it clear that there was an extensive use of credit, often in the form of borrowing seeds in the spring to be repaid from the harvest in the autumn. There was also an extensive existence of money drafts, a letter from a bank in one place which could be cashed in another.

Nevertheless the use of money was pushed quite aggressively, particularly in the payment of the salt tax which became in effect a poll tax which had to be paid in money. And even if much of life in the villages could be lived in self-sufficient family units, money was still needed for the occasional purchase of oil, wine, fine bread, shoes, cloths, – and donkeys. However one of the core characteristics of the ‘ancient’ pre-money economy is the use of corvée labour, where you had to work ten days a year on public service – constructing dykes and canals – which was commuted into a monetary payment, and labourers were actually paid for repairing the dykes.

The economy clearly flourished under the early Ptolemies. The land of Egypt is incredibly fertile with the soil being replenished every year at the annual flooding of the Nile. But the Ptolemies were able to extract a huge surplus to fund all their extravagancies – the library, the museum, the huge lighthouse, to say nothing of the building of Alexandria itself, and the funding of their military adventures overseas. Did the monetisation itself bring about his great economic leap forward? I would like to think so, – it would fit in very well with my theory. There was certainly a great increase in efficiency and wealth.


The Seleucid dynasty

The largest of the successor kingdoms was that formed by the Seleucid dynasty, which took over the core of the Persian Empire, a huge area stretching from the Aegean right across to India. To a large extent, they took over the structures of the Persian Empire but added Greek ideas at the top. Perhaps the best idea as to how it worked is to look at a book by one of Aristotle’s successors called ‘Economics’ which is a very short book which has launched a very big subject.

In the very short Chapter 2, the author deals very briefly with four different types of administration – the administration of a king; the administration of the governors or satraps under him; the administration of a ‘polis’ the city-state; and that of a private citizen. The interesting thing here is that royal economics exists side-by-side to the economics of a polis, and the secret of the successor kingdoms was that although they were in effect kingdoms and the last word was always that of the king or ruler, in practice the city state still continued with its council and the councillors erected the main buildings at their own expense. It was a model taken over with great success by the Romans and applied to their provinces. Indeed here in Britain we can see how the Romans reorganised the tribes into cantons, each with a capital city and these cities did indeed have a very substantial degree of local self-government.

The capital of the Seleucid Empire was at Antioch, in the corner of the Mediterranean between Turkey and Syria. It became one of the largest towns in the Roman Empire but unfortunately it is today covered by a modern town and its archaeology is little known – though it has produced some fine mosaics. It is known that the Palace lies on an island in the middle of the river, but the position of most of the other buildings is unknown.


Ephesus Library of Celsus

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus as reconstructed by the Austrian Archaeological Institute

The best known city is probably Ephesus, which was very much a Greek town on the Aegean coast which varied between the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic empires – indeed it became part of the kingdom built up by King Attalus of Pergamum in his fight against the Gaulish invaders.

Ephesus is in many ways the ideal archaeological site, for there are two sites there – three if you include the modern town. We have already dealt with the original site in an earlier chapter, but at the end of the third century the harbour silted up and the site became swampy, so Lysander refounded the town on new site a mile away. This in its turn was abandoned at the beginning of the Middle Ages when the harbour silted up and again the site became malarial so it was abandoned until the Austrian School began excavating there in 19th century and had done a splendid job of restoration.

Ephesus was in effect a two centre town. By the harbour there are splendid harbour buildings but the administrative facilities were at the top end of the town, linked by a road on a steady incline lined with rich buildings of which the best known is the Library of Celsus, now magnificently restored. But the administrative centre had all the right things – a proper Agora, a semi-circular Council chamber which also served as a concert hall, and adjacent to it the prytaneum, where the executive committee met, and judging by the inscriptions, was the most prestigious body to belong to. The set up we see as restored by the archaeologists is that re-vamped , or indeed built by Augustus, but judging by the inscriptions, it continued to operate well down into the third if not the fourth century.

Ephesus theatre panorama

The huge theatre at Ephesus used for public meetings and where St Paul was nearly lynched

But the best insight into how the town really worked comes from an unexpected source – the Bible, for in the Acts of the Apostles we read that St Paul spent no less than three years in Ephesus. For his first three months he stayed with his fellow Jews in the synagogue till they threw him out. He then had a very successful essay at sympathetic magic, where his magic proved to be more powerful than the magic of his rival pagan magicians, but the climax came when he caused a riot, for the silversmiths who made their living selling small shrines were worried that Paul was taking their business away, so they rioted and a lynch mob assembled in the theatre where they were eventually dispersed by the town clerk, who told them that if they had any evidence of wrongdoing they could take it to the courts or to the proconsul.

There are several points of interest here. Firstly the main place to assemble was the theatre, which was at the lower end of the town down by the harbour, and not in the agora at the top end of the town. The person who defused the riot was the Grammateus, or town clerk, who was a functionary of the town council, and who was clearly the person in charge of the day-to-day running of the town. Thirdly, the courts still functioned. And then there is the glancing reference to the proconsul as the last resort. But the really interesting question is the negative one: where was the proconsul living? Where was the Governor’s Palace? The answer is that there wasn’t one. There is indeed a rather odd Governor’s Palace with a large reception hall and splendid baths but no accommodation, but this was only built in the sixth century A.D. There was certainly no palace quarter, no palace dominating the economy, and if there was a Roman official living there, he must have lived in an inconspicuous house that has not been discovered – or identified. The ‘polis’, the city state was still alive and functioning in the first century A.D.


The Indian venture

We cannot leave the story of Alexander the Great without looking briefly at his adventures in the East and the surprising influence he left behind of Greek culture in India. This comes in two parts, first the emergence of a Greek-influenced kingdom in Bactria, and then the surprising influence of Greek Sculpture in India itself.

The Persians had extended their empire over the desert beyond Arabia and down into India and they established satraps or provinces, even down into India. Alexander was determined to conquer them all.

Bactria Map

Map of Bactria, a fertile enclave at the foot of the Himalayas where the River Oxus flows down from the Hindu Kush (Wikipedia)

The most important turned out to be Bactria which is a surprisingly fertile, though little known country situated on the north west side of the Himalayas, around the river Oxus, or the Amu Darya, which flows down from the Himalayas through what is today Uzbekistan and Northern Afghanistan and ends up in what remains of the Aral Sea. The land is surprisingly fertile but Alexander got rather bogged down here and spent nearly two years conquering it and the neighbouring Sogdiana. Conquering Persia was comparatively easy, for Persia was a unified empire – fight three battles and win them and then you have mastered the lot. But when there is a country with lots of petty chieftains, you have to defeat them all one by one.

Bactria is one of the most interesting of Alexander’s conquests. When the British first began studying the history of India and Afghanistan, they began finding numerous coins of the Bactrian kingdom, many of them gold. These showed portraits of a number of kings from which the history of Bactria could be determined, helped by a couple of references in the Greek literature and also the Chinese literature.

Ay Khanum map

Map of Ay Khanum, a Greek town in Bactria.  (Courtesy of Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient WorldBritish Museum

It became rather more difficult to track down the remains of a Greek kingdom in Bactria itself, but eventually some well-preserved remains of one of the Bactrian towns was discovered at Ay Khanum in the upper valley of the Oxus River, which was extensively excavated by a French team under Paul Bernard between 1965 and 1978. This was very much a Greek town in the Asiatic style centred round a palace, but with a gymnasium and a theatre which must I suppose be good evidence for Greek culture; though there were no signs in the excavated area of an agora or civic buildings – though the main temple was in Persian rather than Greek style.




Tillya Tepe crown

Tillya Tepe crown excavated by Soviet archaeologists in a cemetery of the ‘Barbarian’ princes of Bactria

Coin of Eucratide

Coin of Eucratides, King of Bactria in the Louvre. This is reputed to be the largest coin from the Classical world and shows the remarkable skill of the dye cutters in the Bactrian kingdom (Wikipedia)

The extent of Hellenisation has been much debated: side-by-side with the Greek remains are the native remains of rich Afghan tombs such as found at Tillya Tepe by Soviet archaeologists in 1978-79, where over 20,000 pieces of gold were discovered, perhaps representing the nomadic tribes who destroyed the Bactrian empire. However the largest Greek coin of all time is a Bactrian coin of King Eucratides, – though it has been pointed out that the Greek lettering is far from perfect. Perhaps the Greeks only formed a small part of the population, but their influence was remarkably strong: they represented ‘civilization’ and the Bactrians wanted to be part of it.

Ashoka inscription

An inscription, one of many set up by Asoka, the  king of the Mauryan Empire, carved on a rock at Shahbaz Garhi

There was an interesting aftermath in India itself. Alexander’s incursion was followed by the spread of a remarkable Indian Empire that rivalled Alexander’s for size. This was the Mauryan Empire which began on the other side of India in the north east, centred on the River Ganges, but which under the inspired leadership of its king, Chandragupta soon spread right across India into the territory of the rival river, the Indus. The Empire was spread by his grandson Asoka (ruled 268-232 BC) who was entirely lost to history until the British rediscovered him. He set up pillars and rock carvings proclaiming his virtues, saying that he began as a blood thirsty warrior, but then discovered Buddhism and became a peaceful and enlightened ruler. However after a little more than a century, the Mauryan Empire collapsed and the Greek-influenced kings of Bactria succeeded in pushing down into India again, and in 180 BC established a Greco-Indian Empire, which lingered on for nearly a century.

Taxilla street in town

Taxila: a street in the town as excavated by Sir John Marshall. This is the second town known as Sirkap, laid out by the Bactrian king Demetrius in around 190 BC on a Greek chessboard pattern: it flourished for some three centuries.

Buddha in Peshawar Museum

This statue of the Buddha in the Peshawar Museum shows the influence of  Greek art in the elaborate folds of the drapery

However this Greco-Indian empire soon succumbed to barbarian invaders from the north – first the Scythians and then the Yuezhi, nomads who rapidly became Hellenised and adopted the Greek alphabet and minted Greek coins. They established the Gandhara Empire based on Peshawar and the archaeological site at Taxila, discovered by the British and meticulously excavated by Sir John Marshall. The Gandharan Empire produced a remarkable amalgam of religions, bringing together the Hindu, Buddhist and Greek religions – it is said that over thirty gods have been identified from the coins and other inscriptions. But from our point of view the most interesting aspect is their sculpture, where large stone statues were carved – and the idea of large stone statues seems to have come from Greece – which often portrayed the Buddha, clothed in flowing Greek drapery, a style which he has maintained ever since. Is this the result of Greek influence?

Terracotta army

The Terracotta army at Xian in China. Did the idea of life size realistic figures come from Greece?

There is one final question: did the Greek influence even reach as far as China? The Terracotta Warriors buried with the Emperor Jean pose an interesting question for Chinese art historians: where do they come from? There is little evidence for full-size sculpture in China before hand, and similarly little evidence for the realistic depiction of human figures. Had some Chinese Ambassador been to Greece or the Greek world and brought back reports of full-size Greek statues? And did the Emperor arranged for the mass production of these remarkable figures to be buried with him? It is an interesting speculation.



The Hellenistic period is a difficult one to understand: it is not so much decline and fall, but rather decline and rise, for Greece became wealthier and its influence spread much wider in the 5th century. Perhaps the most remarkable Hellenistic figure was the philosopher Aristotle who was Plato’s successor. Aristotle was somehow much more down-to-earth and much more influential than Plato. Plato’s most famous work was his ‘Republic’ where he debated his way through an ideal republic with little reference to contemporary realities. When Aristotle wrote his book on ‘Politics’ – and the name of his book has given its name to the whole subject – he began by setting his pupils to collect the constitutions of some 158 Greek states. Only that of Athens has survived,  but his analysis was based on these very real constitutions. But the breadth of his learning was astounding and he has given the name to a whole range of subjects – ethics, for instance and poetics, to say nothing to numerous works on biology and medicine. His works do not have the rhetorical lure of Plato whose question and answer dialogue make them all a delight to read, but Aristotle is the one who has had the most influence. His experimental techniques and power of description and his technique of trying to categorise everything comes very close to the secrets that underlie the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism.

But what happened to the great ideals of freedom and democracy that illuminate the 5th century? Freedom as a concept certainly survived but it took on a new meaning. Democracy only survived at Athens, but the ideals of the polis, the city state, become very influential. The new polis tended to combine both a civic centre with town hall and law courts and theatre, together with the existence of a palace, even though the palace plays little part in the economy, and does not dominate the lives of citizens as in the palatial economy. In many ways it foreshadows what happened in Rome when Rome was changed from a republic to an empire, when Roman towns became city states, centred around a forum and town hall, and the citizens in the high empire really did have that entrepreneurial feeling that is the great benefit of freedom. And it is to the Roman conquest, or rather takeover of Greece that we must now turn.


Roman Greece – and later


12th February 2016