Roman Greece – and after
After the Roman conquest, Greece continued to exercise its fascination. The Romans loved Greece. Horace expressed it well in his epistle to Augustus, outlining the story of Latin Literature . . .
Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artis
Intulit agresti Lati
Captured Greece captured her fierce victor and brought the arts to rustic Latium . . .
– Horace Ep 2.1.156
Athens in particular had immense prestige and flourished as a university town. It took some time to find its niche; in the 80s BC it backed the wrong side and supported Mithridates, and was sacked by Sulla in 86 BC. It backed the wrong side too when it backed Mark Anthony against Augustus, but Augustus soon forgave it and major changes took place. The Agora was transformed: a new market place was begun by Caesar, to the east of the Agora, and the agora itself was turned into something of a museum. A huge Odeion or concert hall built by Agrippa took up most of the south half, , but it collapsed a century later, and had to be re-built on a smaller scale.
Hadrian (AD 117 – 138) too loved Athens, and completed the building of the huge temple to Olympian Zeus which had been begun in the 6th century BC, but had never been completed.
Sparta also flourished by turning itself into a tourist destination. Whereas Athens was the destination for Roman intellectuals, Sparta was the place for the Roman hearties. No less than three sets of games were instituted so Roman visitors could claim they had competed with the best at the Spartan games. The shrine of Artemis Orthia where the ritual whippings took place was renovated, and seating like a theatre was constructed round the outside so that spectators could see the flogging of young boys, who still had to be toughened up. This became a popular spectacle – the Romans loved it.
The geography of Greece was also substantially changed. Whereas mainland Greece had hitherto looked eastwards across the Aegean Sea to the Greek cities of Anatolia (modern Turkey), Greece now began to face westwards to Italy and Rome. Two new towns were founded on the west coast, Patras, which became the main port for sailing to Italy, as it still is today, and then in north western Greece, Augustus founded a new town at Nicopolis (the city of victory), near the site of the Battle of Actium.
Athens continued to flourish as a sort of university town, especially as the home of Neo-Platonism, the most highbrow of the pagan philosophies. By the 3rd century, the history of Greece becomes a story of decline and fall. In AD 267 the Heruli, a Germanic tribe invaded, followed a century later by Alaric and his Goths. The end came in 529 when the emperor Justinian outlawed all paganism and thus effectively brought the intellectual life of Athens to an end. The physical end came in the 580s when the Slavs invaded and some of them at least settled. In the 7th century the Agora was finally abandoned and covered by a thick layer of earth. When three centuries later the area was finally re-occupied, the former layout was entirely lost.
The ‘other’ story of the archaeologists
This then is the conventional story of Roman Greece as derived from the historians. However this is one of the cases where history and archaeology differ, and a rather different story is told by the archaeologists. For whereas in most of the Roman Empire world, the Roman Empire was a time of boom, the archaeology suggests that in Greece, the Roman period was one of decline, one might almost say of economic slump. History does indeed hint at this, for Pausanias, the great travel writer of the 2nd century AD often remarked on depopulation in the countryside, with shrines being derelict. The depopulation seems real enough: there was a massive emigration from Greece to Rome, for Greeks were in great demand in Rome both as teachers of the classics and as administrators and managers. Some may have been brought to Rome as slaves, but many no doubt came of their own free will, seeking high wages and the good life. But the result was that Greece itself became depopulated.
Archaeology fills this out. One of the greatest advances in archaeology in the late 20th century has been the development of field walking surveys. This entails walking in a line across ploughed fields and picking up pottery. Date the pottery, and then you will have the distribution of archaeological sites across the countryside: not just towns and villas, but farms and villages – and even hovels. You will then have the growth and decline, the booms and slumps of all the various periods
The results show a very marked decline in the Roman period, continuing right down into the 3rd or 4th century AD. Then, surprisingly, there is a revival in the 5th and 6th centuries, when there are almost as many sites as in the Classical period. The cause for this is surely the rise of Constantinople. We tend to think that Athens was always the centre of Greece, but following its foundation, Constantinople became the leading Greek city and Athens became a provincial town. As Constantinople flourished, so did Greece as a whole, and to some extent the history of Greece from the 4th to the 14th century is the history of Constantinople. And as the 5th and 6th centuries were the period of the greatest flourishing of Constantinople, so they were for much of mainland Greece. But in the seventh century, the Byzantine Empire shrank, as the forces of Islam advanced, and this meant that in mainland Greece, the last flickering of the glory that was Greece finally came to an end.
And yet something of the greatness of Greece survived. There were two things in particular, firstly, the Greek language, and secondly, Christianity, though it must be said that the relation between Christianity and the classical Greece is often somewhat marginal. Nevertheless, modern Greece self-consciously sees itself as being the descendant of ancient Greece: how did this relationship come about?
The history of Greece now becomes a history of various invasions. The seventh century was the age of the great folk wanderings when the Germanic peoples took over much of Western Europe and the Slavs spread down and took over much of the Balkans. But how far did the Slavs take over Greece?
They certainly caused great disruption; notoriously there is a Slavic cemetery in Olympia of all places, a small cemetery of thirty two cremation burials. However the Greek language, and indeed Christianity survived until the next set of invaders, the crusaders: the Franks, the Normans and the Venetians. Different parts of Greece now had different stories: in particular the Venetians left behind the best evidence for the Middle Ages in Greece.
Perhaps the most interesting story was the surprising revival of Sparta in the form of Mistra. Classical Sparta had always been down in the fertile plain, but in the Middle Ages defense was of the essence, and a new site sprang up in the mountains five miles to the east, known as Mistra. This flourished as part of the Byzantine Empire, as the emperors in Constantinople sent out their sons to be rulers in Mistra, as a stepping stone to becoming emperors in Constantinople.
However in 1458 the Ottoman forces finally stormed Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire came to an end, and the Ottomans became one of the world’s great empires. The Ottomans had their pluses: it was a multi-ethnic society (which is not the same as multi cultural): the Jews flourished, the Christians were tolerated and were allowed to run the courts and the schools. However the Renaissance passed them by and economic activity declined. Horse riding was forbidden which meant in effect that travel was forbidden. The enterprising few immigrated to America or the Balkans, where they flourished.
But in the 19th century the idea arose that Greece should once again be a proud independent country. The idea originally rose in the Greek Diaspora, in the Balkans and around the Black Sea, but it caught on among the Philhellenes in Europe. Lord Byron went out to Greece and died there, but it was not the great thinkers who rose up against the Turks, but the brigands in the Peloponnese, and in 1834 the new country of Greece was formed from the poorest and most backwards parts of the country. The British and the French gave their support: a petty German prince was imported to be the King, and loans were raised to finance the new government. Greece was born proud, poor and in debt.
Greece is one of the most interesting countries in the world. In recent years Greece has been the bad boy of the European Union running up debts and being forced to change its course. How did this come about? The story of Greece in the 19th century and early 20th century revolves round the still slightly controversial figure of Eleftherios Venizelos. Venizelos was a great statesman: he had a charisma and was a superb diplomat but unfortunately the Greeks did not always agree with him.
He came from Crete which was still Turkish, but under him, Crete gradually threw off the Turkish yoke. Macedonia to the north was then added and after the Great War, he negotiated the accession of Thrace and a large part of Western Turkey.
But in 1920, Venizelos lost a general election and fled abroad. Without him, the Greeks blundered. Turkey found a new dynamic leader in Kemal Ataturk who routed the Greek army and ensured that western Turkey became Turkish. But Venizelos returned and negotiated the most dramatic event in modern Greek history: the great exchange of population when all the Greeks who were living in what was Turkey were transported to mainland Greece, and the Turks living in the islands of the Aegean were transported to Turkey. Over a million and a half Greeks were uprooted and 500,000 Turks. Athens doubled in size.
The Second World War was disastrous for Greece, and was followed by a civil war when the Communists came near to taking over Greece. The nationalists supported by the British and Americans fought back, and eventually won, leaving Greece even poorer than before and heavily indebted. Thanks to Marshall aid, Greece recovered but politics were chaotic and led to a military takeover by the Colonels. Then the Colonels blundered over Cyprus which led to the Turkish invasion and the division of Cyprus and the ousting of the Colonels.. The Colonels were followed by Pasok, the Greek socialists. who while carrying out welcome social reforms such as the equality of women, nevertheless introduced political patronage on a big scale so that jobs were given to their supporters rather than to those who were competent. Then in 1981 Greece joined the European Union and a boom followed, and Greece piled on more debt. The Olympic Games in 2004 led to a splendid new airport and a proper metro for Athens: both much needed, but financially disastrous.
Modern Greece is a fascinating country. It has two very different ancestors: on the one hand it has inherited from the Ottomans all the characteristics of a third world country, a population of subsistence farmers, preyed upon by disgruntled warlords. Greece however has also inherited the glory of 5th century Greece and all the ideals of democracy. Thus Greece today is a modern European country with modern European ideals, but a third world economy, so it is finding it difficult to live up to these ideals. When dealing with the third world, economic reform should come first, followed by democracy. But in Greece, democracy has come first. But the Greeks are resilient, and the spirit of the great days of Athens live on. Slowly and surely modern Greece is turning the corner and is reclaiming the glories of Ancient Greece.
9th May 2016, revised 22nd April 2021