Alexander the Great on Horseback. In conquering the lands from Greece to India, Alexander the Great displayed a military genius that would fascinate commanders from Caesar to Napoleon.

Chapter 5

Chapter Introduction

Alexander the Great on Horseback. In conquering the lands from Greece to India, Alexander the Great displayed a military genius that would fascinate commanders from Caesar to Napoleon.

 

(Alinari/Art Resource, N.Y.)

Greek civilization, or Hellenism, passed through three distinct stages: the Hellenic Age, the Hellenistic Age, and the Greco-Roman Age. The Hellenic Age began about 800 b.c. with the early city-states, reached its height in the fifth century b.c., and endured until the death of Alexander the Great in 323 b.c. At that time, the ancient world entered the Hellenistic Age, which ended in 30 b.c., when Egypt, the last major Hellenistic state, fell to Rome. The Greco-Roman Age lasted five hundred years, encompassing the period of the Roman Empire up to the collapse of the Empire’s western half in the last part of the fifth century a.d.

Although the Hellenistic Age absorbed the heritage of classical (Hellenic) Greece, its style of civilization changed. During the first phase of Hellenism, the polis was the center of political life. The polis gave Greeks an identity, and only within the polis could Greeks live a good and civilized life. With the coming of the Hellenistic Age, this situation changed. Kingdoms and empires eclipsed the city-state in power and importance. Cities retained a large measure of autonomy in domestic affairs but lost their freedom of action in foreign affairs. Dominated by monarchs, cities were no longer self-sufficient and independent communities as they had been in the Hellenic period. Monarchy—the essential form of government in the Hellenistic world—had not been admired by the Greeks of the Hellenic Age. They agreed with Aristotle that monarchy was suitable only for non-Greeks, who lacked the capacity to govern themselves.

As a result of Alexander, the Great’s conquests of the lands between Greece and India, tens of thousands of Greek soldiers, merchants, and administrators settled in eastern lands. Their encounters with the different peoples and cultures of the Near East widened the Greeks’ horizon and weakened their ties to their native cities. Because of these changes, the individual had to define a relationship not to the narrow, parochial society of the polis, but to the larger world. The Greeks had to examine their place in a world more complex, foreign, and threatening than the polis. They had to fashion a conception of a community that would be more comprehensive than the city-state.

Hellenistic philosophers struggled with these problems of alienation and community.They sought to give people the inner strength to endure in a world where the polis no longer provided security. In this new situation, philosophers no longer assumed that the good life was tied to the affairs of the city. Freedom from emotional stress—not active citizenship and social responsibility—was the avenue to the good life. This pronounced tendency of people to withdraw into themselves and seek emotional comfort helped shape a cultural environment that contributed to the spread and triumph of Christianity in the Greco-Roman Age.

Battle of Issus, Roman Mosaic

The subject of the mosaic is believed to be Alexander’s victory over the Persian king Darius III in 333 b.c. at the battle of Issus. On the right side of the mosaic, we see a realistic battle scene filled with both commotion and emotion.

(Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali/Art Resource, N.Y.)

In the Hellenic Age, Greek philosophers had a limited conception of humanity, dividing the world into Greeks and barbarians. In the Hellenistic Age, the intermingling of Greeks and peoples of the Near East—the fusion of different ethnic groups and cultures scattered over great distances—caused a shift in focus from the city to the oikoumene(the inhabited world); parochialism gave way to cosmopolitanism and universalism as people began to think of themselves as members of a world community. Philosophers came to regard the civilized world as one city, the city of humanity. This new concept was their response to the decline of the city-state and the quest for an alternative form of community.

By uniting the diverse nationalities of the Mediterranean world under one rule, Rome gave political expression to the Hellenistic philosophers’ longing for a world community. But the vast and impersonal Roman Empire could not rekindle the sense of belonging, the certainty of identity, that came with being a citizen of a small polis. In time, a resurgence of the religious spirit, particularly in the form of Christianity, helped overcome the feeling of alienation by offering an image of community that stirred the heart.

5-1Alexander the Great

After the assassination of Philip of Macedon in 336 b.c., his twenty-year-old son, Alexander, succeeded to the throne. Alexander inherited a proud and fiery temperament from his mother. From his tutor Aristotle, Alexander gained an appreciation for Greek culture, particularly the Homeric epics. Undoubtedly, the young Alexander was excited by these stories of legendary heroes, particularly of Achilles, and their striving for personal glory. Alexander acquired military skills and qualities of leadership from his father.

Alexander also inherited from Philip an overriding policy of state: the invasion of Persia, the greatest power yet to emerge in the ancient world. Such an exploit attracted the adventurous spirit of the young Alexander. A war of revenge against the Persians, who were masters of the Greek city-states of Asia Minor, also appealed to his Pan-Hellenic sentiments. Alexander was heir to the teachings of the fourth-century orator Isocrates, who urged a crusade against Persia to unite the Greeks in a common cause. Philip had intended to protect his hold on Greece by driving the Persians from Asia Minor. But Alexander, whose ambition knew no bounds, aspired to conquer and extend his rule over the entire Persian Empire. He possessed the irrepressible energy of a romantic adventurer. Among his military virtues were audacity—he took risks that were almost always successful; bravery—a fearless warrior, he sustained several wounds in battle; military acumen—he quickly sized up battlefield situations and made the correct adjustments; and charisma—his men adored him and respected his leadership.

With an army of thirty-five thousand men, including highly skilled cavalrymen, Alexander crossed into Asia Minor in 334 b.c.; and with thousands of additional warriors, many recruited from conquered regions, advanced all the way to India. In his military campaigns, which covered about ten thousand miles, Alexander proved himself to be a superb strategist and leader of men. Winning every battle, Alexander’s army had carved an empire that stretched from Greece to India. Future conquerors, including Caesar and Napoleon, would read of Alexander’s career with fascination and longing.

A Walk-Through Persepolis at the Time of Alexander

Video supplied by BBC Worldwide Learning.

The world after Alexander differed sharply from that existing before he took up the sword. His conquests brought West and East closer together, marking a new epoch. Alexander himself helped implement this transformation, whether intentionally or unwittingly. He took a Persian bride, arranged for eighty of his officers and ten thousand of his soldiers to marry Asian women, and planned to incorporate thirty thousand Persian youths into his army. Alexander founded Greek-style cities in Asia, where Greek settlers mixed with the native population.

As Greeks acquired greater knowledge of the Near East, the parochialism of the polis gave way to a world outlook. As trade and travel between West and East expanded, as Greek merchants and soldiers settled in Asiatic lands, and as Greek culture spread to non-Greeks, the distinctions between barbarian and Greek lessened. Although Alexander never united all the peoples in a world-state, his career pushed the world in a new direction, toward a fusion of disparate peoples and the intermingling of cultural traditions.

Hellenistic Society

5-2aCompeting Dynasties

In 323 b.c., Alexander, not yet thirty-three years old, died after a sickness probably exacerbated by excessive drinking. He had built an empire that stretched from Greece to the Punjab of India, but he was denied the time needed to organize effective institutions to govern these vast territories. After Alexander’s premature death, his generals engaged in a long and bitter struggle to see who would succeed the conqueror. Since none of the generals or their heirs had enough power to hold together Alexander’s vast empire, the wars of succession ended in a stalemate. By 275 b.c., the empire was fractured into three dynasties: the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucids in western Asia, and the Antigonids in Macedonia. Macedonia—Alexander’s native country—continued to dominate the Greek cities, which periodically tried to break its hold. Later, the kingdom of Pergamum, in western Asia Minor, emerged as the fourth Hellenistic monarchy. These Hellenistic kings were not native rulers enjoying local support (except in Macedonia) but were foreign conquerors. Consequently, they had to depend on mercenary armies and loyal administrators.

In the third century b.c., Ptolemaic Egypt was the foremost power in the Hellenistic world. The Seleucid Empire, which stretched from the Mediterranean to the frontiers of India and encompassed many different peoples, defeated the Ptolemaic forces and established Seleucid control over Phoenicia and Palestine.

Rome, a new power, became increasingly drawn into the affairs of the quarrelsome Hellenistic kingdoms. By the middle of the second century b.c., it had imposed its will on them. From that time on, the political fortunes of the western and eastern Mediterranean were inextricably linked.

5-2bCosmopolitanism and Urbanism

Hellenistic society was characterized by a growing cosmopolitanism—a mingling of peoples, an interchange of cultures, and a broad outlook. Greek traditions spread to the Near East, while Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hebrew, and Persian traditions—particularly religious beliefs—moved westward. A growing cosmopolitanism replaced the parochialism of the city-state. Although the rulers of the Hellenistic kingdoms were Macedonians and their high officials and generals were Greeks, the style of government was modeled after that of the ancient Middle Eastern kingdoms. In the Hellenic Age, the law had expressed the will of the community, but in this new age of monarchy, the kings laid down the law. To promote loyalty, the Macedonian rulers encouraged the Near Eastern cultic practice of worshiping the king as a god or as a representative of the gods. In Egypt, for example, the priests conferred on the Macedonian king the same divine powers and titles traditionally held by Egyptian pharaohs. In accordance with ancient tradition, statues of the divine king were installed in Egyptian temples, suffusing political power with supernatural authority, in marked contrast to the democratic spirit of the Greek Assembly.

Following Alexander’s lead, the Seleucids founded cities in the east patterned after the city-states of Greece. The cities, which were often founded to protect trade routes and as fortresses against hostile tribes, adopted the political institutions of Hellenic Greece, including a popular assembly and a council. Hellenistic kings generally did not intervene in the cities’ local affairs. Thousands of Greeks settled in these cities, which were Greek in architecture and contained Greek schools, temples, costly constructed theaters where performances of classical plays were staged, and gymnasia. Gymnasia were essentially places to exercise, train in sports, and converse, but some had libraries and halls where public lectures and competitions of orators and poets were held. Hellenistic kings brought books, paintings, and statues from Greece to their cities. Hellenistic cities, inhabited by tens of thousands of people from many lands and dominated by a Hellenized upper class, served as centers and agents of Hellenism, which non-Greeks adopted. The ruling class in each Hellenistic city was united by a common Hellenism, which overcame national, linguistic, and racial distinctions. Koine (or shared language), a form of spoken Greek spread by soldiers, administrators, merchants, teachers, and others, became a common tongue throughout much of the Mediterranean world. Greek was the language both of government and culture.

Hellenistic cities engaged in economic activity on a much greater scale than the classical Greek city-states. Increased trade integrated the Near East and Greece into a market economy, and business methods became more developed and refined. The middle and upper classes enjoyed homes, furniture, and jewelry more elegant than those of Periclean Athenians, and some people amassed great fortunes. In contrast to the ideal of citizenship, which distinguished the fifth-century polis, many Greeks who settled in Egypt, Syria, and other eastern lands ran roughshod over civil law and moral values and engaged in competitive struggles for wealth and power.

The greatest city of the time and the one most representative of the Hellenistic Age was Alexandria, in Egypt, founded by Alexander. Strategically located at one of the mouths of the Nile, it became a hub of commerce and culture. The most populous city of the Mediterranean world, Alexandria had about 300,000 inhabitants fifty years after its founding. At the beginning of the Christian era, it contained perhaps a million people: Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, Syrians, Ethiopians, and Arabs.

Map 5.1 The Division of Alexander’s Empire and the Spread of Hellenism

None of Alexander’’s generals could hold together the vast empire, which fractured into competing dynasties.

Copyright © Cengage Learning.

Alexandria was an unrivaled commercial center; goods from the Mediterranean world, eastern Africa, Arabia, and India circulated in its marketplaces. Two handsome boulevards, squares, fountains, and great temples added to the city’s beauty. Its library, created by the first two Ptolemies and often headed by distinguished scholars, had about half a million books. The library was part of a larger complex, the museum, which contained an astronomical observatory and botanical and zoological gardens. Some of the greatest poets, philosophers, physicians, and scientists of the Mediterranean world utilized these facilities. Athens and other classical Greek cities seemed like provincial towns compared to Alexandria, from which Hellenism radiated.

Aside from the proliferation of Greek urban institutions and ideas, Hellenistic cosmopolitanism expressed itself in an increased movement of peoples, the adoption of common currency standards, and an expansion of trade. International trade was made easier by improvements in navigation techniques, better port facilities, the extension of the monetary economy at the expense of barter, and the rapid development of banking. The makeup of Hellenistic armies also reflected the cosmopolitanism of the age. Serving the Hellenistic kings were men from lands stretching from India to the little-known areas north of the Danube. In Egyptian and Syrian cities, a native elite emerged who spoke Greek, wore Greek-style clothes, and adopted Greek customs. Cultural exchange permeated all phases of cultural life. Sculpture showed the influence of many lands. Historians wrote world histories, not just local ones. Greek astronomers worked with data collected over the centuries by the Babylonians. Greeks increasingly demonstrated a fascination with Near Eastern religious cults.

Nike, the Goddess of Victory, on a Gold Earring, Hellenistic Period

The calm, timeless, idealized forms of classical period sculpture gave way to a new style—the Hellenistic, marked by more dynamic, emotion-laden realism. This new aesthetic form reflected the cosmopolitan character of the Greek culture that emerged from Alexander’s conquests.

 

(Photograph © 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Henry Lillie Pierce Fund, 98.788.)

Like other Near Eastern people, the Jews—both those in Judea and the Diaspora (Jews who lived outside Palestine)—came under the influence of Hellenism. Some Jewish scholars, admiring Greek learning, expressed Jewish religious ideas in philosophical terms; God was identified with reason, and Moses’ Law with the rational order of the universe. They wanted to show that Mosaic Law, revealed by God, was compatible with the truth discovered by natural reason. The Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek—the Septuagint—for use by Greek-speaking Jews living in Alexandria and other areas outside of Judea. Greek words entered the Hebrew language, and newly constructed synagogues employed Hellenistic architectural styles. Jews served in Hellenistic armies where they acquired Greek values and ways. Some Jews gave their children a Greek education. Clinging tenaciously to their ancient faith, many Jews rejected Greek learning and ways.

Philosophers helped break down the barriers between peoples by asserting that all inhabit a single fatherland. As the philosopher Crates said, “My fatherland has no single tower, no single roof. The whole earth is my citadel, a home ready for us all to live in.”

The spread of Greek civilization from the Aegean to the Indus River gave the Hellenistic world a cultural common denominator, but Hellenization did not transform the East and make it one with the West. Hellenization was limited almost entirely to the cities, and in many urban centers it was often only a thin veneer. Many non-Greeks learned Greek and received a Greek education, which was a necessity for advancement in the state bureaucracy, and some assumed Greek names. But for most, Hellenization did not go much deeper. The countryside lacked even the veneer of Greek culture. Retaining traditional attitudes, the countryside in the East resisted Greek ways. In the villages, local and traditional law, local languages, and family customs remained unchanged; religion, the most important ingredient of the civilizations of the Near East, also kept its traditional character, even if ancestral gods were given Greek names.

To be sure, Hellenistic society was male dominated, but the status of women did show some improvement over the classical period. Considerably more than Athenian women in the Hellenic Age, Alexandrian women were able to accumulate and dispose of property. Some royal mothers and daughters exercised political power, even if behind the scenes, and royal women had access to great wealth as indicated by their cash contributions to cities. Some nonroyal ladies held important priestly offices, and far more than in the classical era, women contributed to high culture as poets, harpists, artists, and architects. Two of the new schools of philosophy, Epicureanism and Cynicism, welcomed female participation.

 

 5-3Hellenistic Culture

5-3aLiterature, History, and Art

The Hellenistic Age saw a great outpouring of literary works. Callimachus (c. 305–240 b.c.), an Alexandrian scholar-poet, felt that no one could duplicate the great epics of Homer or the plays of the fifth-century b.c. dramatists. He urged poets to write short, finely crafted poems instead of composing on a grand scale. A student of his, Apollonius of Rhodes, took issue with him and wrote the Argonautica. This Homeric-style epic tells the story of Jason’s search for the Golden Fleece.

Old Market Woman, c. 2nd century b.c.

Hellenistic genre sculpture depicted people in everyday situations as individuals, rather than as types. Her stooped shoulders, weighed down by her groceries, also suggest the harsh physical conditions that have worn her down over the years.

 

(© The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, N.Y.)

The poet Theocritus (c. 315–250 b.c.), who lived on the island of Sicily, wrote pastorals that showed great sensitivity to natural beauty. He responded with uncommon feeling to the sky and wind, to the hills, trees, and flowers, and to the wildlife of the countryside.

The Athenian playwright Menander (c. 342–291 b.c.) depicted Athenian life at the end of the fourth century. Menander’s plays, unlike Aristophanes’ lampoons of inept politicians, dealt little with politics. Apparently, Menander reflected the attitude of his fellow Athenians, who, bored with public affairs, had accepted their loss of freedom to Macedonia and were preoccupied with their private lives. Menander dealt sympathetically with human weakness and wrote about stock characters: the clever slave, the young playboy, bragging soldiers, compassionate prostitutes, the elderly seducer, the heroine in trouble. Menander also expressed a warm concern for people, urging them to recognize the humanity of their fellows—whether Greeks, barbarians, or slaves—and to treat one another with kindness and respect.

The leading historian of the Hellenistic Age was Polybius (c. 200–118 b.c.), a Greek, whose history of the rise of Rome is one of the great works of historical literature (see Primary Source box). Reflecting the universal tendencies of the Hellenistic Age, Polybius endeavored to explain how Rome had progressed from a city-state to a world conqueror.

Primary Source

Epicureanism: Living Well

Epicureanism was named for its founder, Epicurus, who established a school at Athens in 307 or 306 b.c. To achieve peace of mind, taught Epicurus, one should refrain from worrying about death or pleasing the gods, avoid intense involvements in public affairs, cultivate friendships, and pursue pleasure prudently. The following excerpts from Epicurus’ works reveal his prescription for living well in a world grown more complex.

… We must grasp this point, that the principal disturbance in the minds of men arises because they think that these celestial bodies are blessed and immortal, and yet we have wills and actions and motives inconsistent with these attributes; and because they are always expecting or imagining some everlasting misery (inflicted on them by the gods), such as is depicted in legends, or even fear the loss of feeling in death … and, again, because they are brought to this pass not by reasoned opinion, but rather by some irrational presentiment … and, by learning the true causes of celestial phenomena and all other occurrences that come to pass from time to time, we shall free ourselves from all which produces the utmost fear in other men.

It is vain to ask of the gods what a man is capable of supplying for himself.

But the many at one moment shun death as the greatest of evils, at another yearn for it as a respite from the evils of life. But the wise man neither seeks to escape life nor fears the cessation of life, for neither does life offend him nor does the absence of life seem to be any evil.

A man cannot dispel his fear about the most important matters if he does not know what is the nature of the universe but suspects the truth of some mythical story. So that without natural science it is not possible to attain our pleasures unalloyed.

When, therefore, we maintain that pleasure is the end, we do not mean the pleasures-of-profligates and those that consist in sensuality, as is supposed by some who are either ignorant or disagree with us or do not understand, but freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind.

Of all the things which wisdom acquires to produce the blessedness of the complete life, far the greatest is the possession of friendship.

We must release ourselves from the prison of affairs and politics.

A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs….

The noble soul occupies itself with wisdom and friendship….

Questions for Analysis

  1. What did Epicurus believe were the chief causes of emotional distress among human beings?
  2. What advice did he offer for achieving inner peace and happiness? Does his advice have any value for us today?

Epicurus: The Extant Remains translated by Cyril Bailey (1926), pp. 53–119, passim. By permission of Oxford University Press.

Hellenistic art, like Hellenistic philosophy, expressed a heightened awareness of the individual. Whereas Hellenic sculpture aimed to depict ideal beauty—the perfect body and face—Hellenistic sculpture, moving from idealism to realism, captured individual character and expression, often of ordinary people—an old fisherman, a crippled man, a drunken lady, a dwarf. Scenes of daily life were realistically portrayed. Wealthy merchants commissioned artists to embellish their private homes. Monarchs, eager to glorify their reigns, sought the services of eminent artists to produce royal portraits, victory monuments, paintings of great battles, temples, and tombs. Continuing a practice initiated during the Hellenic Age, Hellenistic cities commissioned artists. What was new, however, was the proliferation of portrait statues honoring prominent civic leaders, orators, poets, philosophers, and playwrights.

 

5-2bCosmopolitanism and Urbanism

Hellenistic society was characterized by a growing cosmopolitanism—a mingling of peoples, an interchange of cultures, and a broad outlook. Greek traditions spread to the Near East, while Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hebrew, and Persian traditions—particularly religious beliefs—moved westward. A growing cosmopolitanism replaced the parochialism of the city-state. Although the rulers of the Hellenistic kingdoms were Macedonians and their high officials and generals were Greeks, the style of government was modeled after that of the ancient Middle Eastern kingdoms. In the Hellenic Age, the law had expressed the will of the community, but in this new age of monarchy, the kings laid down the law. To promote loyalty, the Macedonian rulers encouraged the Near Eastern cultic practice of worshiping the king as a god or as a representative of the gods. In Egypt, for example, the priests conferred on the Macedonian king the same divine powers and titles traditionally held by Egyptian pharaohs. In accordance with ancient tradition, statues of the divine king were installed in Egyptian temples, suffusing political power with supernatural authority, in marked contrast to the democratic spirit of the Greek Assembly.

Following Alexander’s lead, the Seleucids founded cities in the east patterned after the city-states of Greece. The cities, which were often founded to protect trade routes and as fortresses against hostile tribes, adopted the political institutions of Hellenic Greece, including a popular assembly and a council. Hellenistic kings generally did not intervene in the cities’ local affairs. Thousands of Greeks settled in these cities, which were Greek in architecture and contained Greek schools, temples, costly constructed theaters where performances of classical plays were staged, and gymnasia. Gymnasia were essentially places to exercise, train in sports, and converse, but some had libraries and halls where public lectures and competitions of orators and poets were held. Hellenistic kings brought books, paintings, and statues from Greece to their cities. Hellenistic cities, inhabited by tens of thousands of people from many lands and dominated by a Hellenized upper class, served as centers and agents of Hellenism, which non-Greeks adopted. The ruling class in each Hellenistic city was united by a common Hellenism, which overcame national, linguistic, and racial distinctions. Koine (or shared language), a form of spoken Greek spread by soldiers, administrators, merchants, teachers, and others, became a common tongue throughout much of the Mediterranean world. Greek was the language both of government and culture.

Hellenistic cities engaged in economic activity on a much greater scale than the classical Greek city-states. Increased trade integrated the Near East and Greece into a market economy, and business methods became more developed and refined. The middle and upper classes enjoyed homes, furniture, and jewelry more elegant than those of Periclean Athenians, and some people amassed great fortunes. In contrast to the ideal of citizenship, which distinguished the fifth-century polis, many Greeks who settled in Egypt, Syria, and other eastern lands ran roughshod over civil law and moral values and engaged in competitive struggles for wealth and power.

The greatest city of the time and the one most representative of the Hellenistic Age was Alexandria, in Egypt, founded by Alexander. Strategically located at one of the mouths of the Nile, it became a hub of commerce and culture. The most populous city of the Mediterranean world, Alexandria had about 300,000 inhabitants fifty years after its founding. At the beginning of the Christian era, it contained perhaps a million people: Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, Syrians, Ethiopians, and Arabs.

Map 5.1 The Division of Alexander’s Empire and the Spread of Hellenism

None of Alexander’s generals could hold together the vast empire, which fractured into competing dynasties.

Copyright © Cengage Learning.

Alexandria was an unrivaled commercial center; goods from the Mediterranean world, eastern Africa, Arabia, and India circulated in its marketplaces. Two handsome boulevards, squares, fountains, and great temples added to the city’s beauty. Its library, created by the first two Ptolemies and often headed by distinguished scholars, had about half a million books. The library was part of a larger complex, the museum, which contained an astronomical observatory and botanical and zoological gardens. Some of the greatest poets, philosophers, physicians, and scientists of the Mediterranean world utilized these facilities. Athens and other classical Greek cities seemed like provincial towns compared to Alexandria, from which Hellenism radiated.

Aside from the proliferation of Greek urban institutions and ideas, Hellenistic cosmopolitanism expressed itself in an increased movement of peoples, the adoption of common currency standards, and an expansion of trade. International trade was made easier by improvements in navigation techniques, better port facilities, the extension of the monetary economy at the expense of barter, and the rapid development of banking. The makeup of Hellenistic armies also reflected the cosmopolitanism of the age. Serving the Hellenistic kings were men from lands stretching from India to the little-known areas north of the Danube. In Egyptian and Syrian cities, a native elite emerged who spoke Greek, wore Greek-style clothes, and adopted Greek customs. Cultural exchange permeated all phases of cultural life. Sculpture showed the influence of many lands. Historians wrote world histories, not just local ones. Greek astronomers worked with data collected over the centuries by the Babylonians. Greeks increasingly demonstrated a fascination with Near Eastern religious cults.

Nike, the Goddess of Victory, on a Gold Earring, Hellenistic Period

The calm, timeless, idealized forms of classical period sculpture gave way to a new style—the Hellenistic, marked by more dynamic, emotion-laden realism. This new aesthetic form reflected the cosmopolitan character of the Greek culture that emerged from Alexander’s conquests.

 

(Photograph © 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Henry Lillie Pierce Fund, 98.788.)

Like other Near Eastern people, the Jews—both those in Judea and the Diaspora (Jews who lived outside Palestine)—came under the influence of Hellenism. Some Jewish scholars, admiring Greek learning, expressed Jewish religious ideas in philosophical terms; God was identified with reason, and Moses’ Law with the rational order of the universe. They wanted to show that Mosaic Law, revealed by God, was compatible with the truth discovered by natural reason. The Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek—the Septuagint—for use by Greek-speaking Jews living in Alexandria and other areas outside of Judea. Greek words entered the Hebrew language, and newly constructed synagogues employed Hellenistic architectural styles. Jews served in Hellenistic armies where they acquired Greek values and ways. Some Jews gave their children a Greek education. Clinging tenaciously to their ancient faith, many Jews rejected Greek learning and ways.

Philosophers helped break down the barriers between peoples by asserting that all inhabit a single fatherland. As the philosopher Crates said, “My fatherland has no single tower, no single roof. The whole earth is my citadel, a home ready for us all to live in.”

The spread of Greek civilization from the Aegean to the Indus River gave the Hellenistic world a cultural common denominator, but Hellenization did not transform the East and make it one with the West. Hellenization was limited almost entirely to the cities, and in many urban centers it was often only a thin veneer. Many non-Greeks learned Greek and received a Greek education, which was a necessity for advancement in the state bureaucracy, and some assumed Greek names. But for most, Hellenization did not go much deeper. The countryside lacked even the veneer of Greek culture. Retaining traditional attitudes, the countryside in the East resisted Greek ways. In the villages, local and traditional law, local languages, and family customs remained unchanged; religion, the most important ingredient of the civilizations of the Near East, also kept its traditional character, even if ancestral gods were given Greek names.

To be sure, Hellenistic society was male dominated, but the status of women did show some improvement over the classical period. Considerably more than Athenian women in the Hellenic Age, Alexandrian women were able to accumulate and dispose of property. Some royal mothers and daughters exercised political power, even if behind the scenes, and royal women had access to great wealth as indicated by their cash contributions to cities. Some nonroyal ladies held important priestly offices, and far more than in the classical era, women contributed to high culture as poets, harpists, artists, and architects. Two of the new schools of philosophy, Epicureanism and Cynicism, welcomed female participation.

 

5-3Hellenistic Culture

5-3aLiterature, History, and Art

The Hellenistic Age saw a great outpouring of literary works. Callimachus (c. 305–240 b.c.), an Alexandrian scholar-poet, felt that no one could duplicate the great epics of Homer or the plays of the fifth-century b.c. dramatists. He urged poets to write short, finely crafted poems instead of composing on a grand scale. A student of his, Apollonius of Rhodes, took issue with him and wrote the Argonautica. This Homeric-style epic tells the story of Jason’s search for the Golden Fleece.

Old Market Woman, c. 2nd century b.c.

Hellenistic genre sculpture depicted people in everyday situations as individuals, rather than as types. Her stooped shoulders, weighed down by her groceries, also suggest the harsh physical conditions that have worn her down over the years.

 

(© The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, N.Y.)

The poet Theocritus (c. 315–250 b.c.), who lived on the island of Sicily, wrote pastorals that showed great sensitivity to natural beauty. He responded with uncommon feeling to the sky and wind, to the hills, trees, and flowers, and to the wildlife of the countryside.

The Athenian playwright Menander (c. 342–291 b.c.) depicted Athenian life at the end of the fourth century. Menander’s plays, unlike Aristophanes’ lampoons of inept politicians, dealt little with politics. Apparently, Menander reflected the attitude of his fellow Athenians, who, bored with public affairs, had accepted their loss of freedom to Macedonia and were preoccupied with their private lives. Menander dealt sympathetically with human weakness and wrote about stock characters: the clever slave, the young playboy, bragging soldiers, compassionate prostitutes, the elderly seducer, the heroine in trouble. Menander also expressed a warm concern for people, urging them to recognize the humanity of their fellows—whether Greeks, barbarians, or slaves—and to treat one another with kindness and respect.

The leading historian of the Hellenistic Age was Polybius (c. 200–118 b.c.), a Greek, whose history of the rise of Rome is one of the great works of historical literature (see Primary Source box). Reflecting the universal tendencies of the Hellenistic Age, Polybius endeavored to explain how Rome had progressed from a city-state to a world conqueror.

Primary Source

Epicureanism: Living Well

Epicureanism was named for its founder, Epicurus, who established a school at Athens in 307 or 306 b.c. To achieve peace of mind, taught Epicurus, one should refrain from worrying about death or pleasing the gods, avoid intense involvements in public affairs, cultivate friendships, and pursue pleasure prudently. The following excerpts from Epicurus’ works reveal his prescription for living well in a world grown more complex.

… We must grasp this point, that the principal disturbance in the minds of men arises because they think that these celestial bodies are blessed and immortal, and yet we have wills and actions and motives inconsistent with these attributes; and because they are always expecting or imagining some everlasting misery (inflicted on them by the gods), such as is depicted in legends, or even fear the loss of feeling in death … and, again, because they are brought to this pass not by reasoned opinion, but rather by some irrational presentiment … and, by learning the true causes of celestial phenomena and all other occurrences that come to pass from time to time, we shall free ourselves from all which produces the utmost fear in other men.

It is vain to ask of the gods what a man is capable of supplying for himself.

But the many at one moment shun death as the greatest of evils, at another yearn for it as a respite from the evils of life. But the wise man neither seeks to escape life nor fears the cessation of life, for neither does life offend him nor does the absence of life seem to be any evil.

A man cannot dispel his fear about the most important matters if he does not know what is the nature of the universe but suspects the truth of some mythical story. So that without natural science it is not possible to attain our pleasures unalloyed.

When, therefore, we maintain that pleasure is the end, we do not mean the pleasures-of-profligates and those that consist in sensuality, as is supposed by some who are either ignorant or disagree with us or do not understand, but freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind.

Of all the things which wisdom acquires to produce the blessedness of the complete life, far the greatest is the possession of friendship.

We must release ourselves from the prison of affairs and politics.

A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs….

The noble soul occupies itself with wisdom and friendship….

Questions for Analysis

  1. What did Epicurus believe were the chief causes of emotional distress among human beings?
  2. What advice did he offer for achieving inner peace and happiness? Does his advice have any value for us today?

Epicurus: The Extant Remains translated by Cyril Bailey (1926), pp. 53–119, passim. By permission of Oxford University Press.

Hellenistic art, like Hellenistic philosophy, expressed a heightened awareness of the individual. Whereas Hellenic sculpture aimed to depict ideal beauty—the perfect body and face—Hellenistic sculpture, moving from idealism to realism, captured individual character and expression, often of ordinary people—an old fisherman, a crippled man, a drunken lady, a dwarf. Scenes of daily life were realistically portrayed. Wealthy merchants commissioned artists to embellish their private homes. Monarchs, eager to glorify their reigns, sought the services of eminent artists to produce royal portraits, victory monuments, paintings of great battles, temples, and tombs. Continuing a practice initiated during the Hellenic Age, Hellenistic cities commissioned artists. What was new, however, was the proliferation of portrait statues honoring prominent civic leaders, orators, poets, philosophers, and playwrights.

 

Science

During the Hellenistic Age, Greek scientific achievement reached its height. When Alexander invaded Asia Minor, the former student of Aristotle brought along surveyors, engineers, scientists, and historians, who continued with him into Asia. The vast amount of data in botany, zoology, geography, and astronomy collected by Alexander’s staff stimulated an outburst of activity. To integrate so much information, scientists had to specialize in the various disciplines. Hellenistic scientists preserved and expanded the tradition of science developed in the Hellenic Age. They attempted a rational analysis of nature; they engaged in research, organized knowledge in logical fashion, devised procedures for mathematical proof, separated medicine from magic, grasped the theory of experiment, and applied scientific principles to mechanical devices. Hellenistic science, says historian Benjamin Farrington, stood “on the threshold of the modern world. When modern science began in the sixteenth century, it took up where the Greeks left off.”

Although Alexandria with its Museum was the principal center of scientific research, Athens still retained some of its former luster in this area. After Aristotle died in 322 b.c., he was succeeded as head of the Lyceum by Theophrastus and then by Strato. Both wrote treatises on many subjects—logic, ethics, politics, physics, and botany. Theophrastus systematized knowledge of botany in a manner similar to Aristotle’s treatment of animals. Strato is most famous for his study of physics. It is likely that Strato, in his investigation of physical problems, did not rely on logic alone but performed a series of experiments to test his investigations.

Because of its library, the finest in the ancient world, and its state-supported museum, Alexandria attracted leading scholars and superseded Athens in scientific investigation. The museum was really a research institute—the first institution in history specifically established for the purpose of scientific research—in which some of the best minds of the day studied and worked.

Alexandrian doctors advanced medical skills. They improved surgical instruments and techniques and, by dissecting bodies, added to anatomical knowledge. Through their research, they discovered organs of the body not known until then, made the distinction between arteries and veins, divided nerves into those comprising the motor and the sensory system, and identified the brain as the source of intelligence. Their investigations advanced knowledge of anatomy and physiology to a level that was not significantly improved until the sixteenth century a.d.

Knowledge in the fields of astronomy and mathematics also increased. Eighteen centuries before Copernicus, Alexandrian astronomer Aristarchus (310–230 b.c.) said that the sun was the center of the universe, that the planets revolved around it, and that the stars were situated at great distances from the earth. But these revolutionary ideas were not accepted, and the belief in an earth-centered universe persisted. In geometry, Euclid, an Alexandrian mathematician who lived around 300 b.c., creatively synthesized earlier developments. Euclid’s hundreds of geometric proofs, derived from reasoning alone—his conclusions flowed logically and flawlessly from given assumptions—are a profound witness to the power of the rational mind.

Alexander’s expeditions had opened the eyes of Mediterranean peoples to the breadth of the earth and had stimulated explorations and geographic research. Eratosthenes (c. 275–194 b.c.), an Alexandrian geographer, sought a scientific understanding of this enlarged world. He divided the planet into climatic zones, declared that the oceans are joined, and with extraordinary ingenuity and accuracy measured the earth’s circumference.

A Look at the Remains of Susa and Its Stories

 

 

Video supplied by BBC Worldwide Learning.

Archimedes of Syracuse (c. 287–212 b.c.), who studied at Alexandria, was a mathematician, a physicist, and an ingenious inventor. His mechanical inventions, including war engines, dazzled his contemporaries. However, Archimedes dismissed his practical inventions, preferring to be remembered as a theoretician. In one treatise, he established the general principles of hydrostatics, a branch of physics that deals with the pressure and equilibrium of liquids at rest.

Philosophy

Hellenistic thinkers preserved the rational tradition of Greek philosophy. Like their Hellenic predecessors, they regarded the cosmos as governed by universal principles intelligible to the rational mind. For the philosophers of both ages, a crucial problem was the achievement of the good life. Also, both Hellenic and Hellenistic thinkers sought rules for human conduct that accorded with rational standards; both believed that individuals attain happiness through their own efforts, unaided by the gods. In the tradition of Socrates, Hellenistic thinkers taught a morality of self-mastery. But although they retained the inheritance of the classical age, they also transformed it, for they had to adapt thought to the requirements of a cosmopolitan society.

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Polybius

Rome’s expansion from a city-state to a world empire that embraced many different nationalities and the extension of citizenship to non-Romans exemplified the universalism and cosmopolitanism of the Hellenistic Age. So too did Polybius’ Histories, which sought to account for Rome’s unprecedented accomplishment.

In 168 b.c. at the battle of Pynda, the Romans defeated Macedonia, which ruled Greece, ending its independence. After the battle, Polybius, along with a thousand other Greeks who had shown sympathy for Macedonia, was deported to Rome to be questioned. Protected by an influential Roman family, no harm came to him.

In the tradition of Thucydides, Polybius believed that a historian had a duty to teach moral lessons and to enlighten by pointing to general principles governing the course of historical events. Like Thucydides, he believed that there are lessons to be learned from a study of history and that his work would instruct current and future officials regarding the proper course of action under given circumstances. But whereas Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War, which involved the Greek city- states, Polybius, reflecting the spirit of the Hellenistic Age, took the entire Mediterranean world as his subject. His aim was to recount how “the Romans succeeded in less than fifty- three years in bringing under their rule the whole inhabited world, an achievement which is without parallel in human history.” No question was of greater importance, he said, than to understand how Rome acquired this supremacy. Polybius stated explicitly that, unlike his predecessors who wrote specialized narrow studies dealing with aspects of Greek or Persian history, he was attempting a unique project— a systematic world history that “examine[s] the general and comprehensive scheme of events.” Such a study, he held, was an avenue to a wisdom closed to historians who write monographs on parochial, insignificant, and obscure topics.

Among the reasons Polybius gave for Rome’s success was its political system, which balanced aristocratic and democratic elements: the Senate, representing the aristocracy, wielded great power, but the Assembly, representing the commoners, also played an important role in political life. Polybius held that such a political balance promoted loyalty and effective government. Polybius was greatly impressed with the Roman army. The discipline and dedication of citizen soldiers, he said, help explain Rome’s success in creating a world empire.

In the Hellenic Age, the starting point of philosophy was the citizen’s relationship to the city; in the Hellenistic Age, the point of departure was the solitary individual’s relationship to humanity and the individual’s personal destiny in a larger and more complex world. Philosophy tried to deal with the feeling of alienation—of not belonging—resulting from the weakening of the individual’s attachment to the polis and to arrive at a conception of community that corresponded to the social realities of a world grown larger. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, Hellenistic philosophers were moralists, not great speculators and theorists. The Hellenistic schools of philosophy, in contrast to their predecessors, were far less concerned with the scientific understanding of nature. Also in contrast to earlier Greek thinkers, they were less concerned with political organization. Philosophy was now chiefly preoccupied with providing the individual with practical guidelines for living; it tried to alleviate spiritual uneasiness and loss of security. It aspired to make people ethically independent so that they could achieve happiness in a hostile and competitive world. As the philosopher Epicurus said: “Empty are the words of that philosopher who offers no therapy for human suffering. For just as there is no use in medical expertise if it does not give therapy for bodily disease, so too there is no use in philosophy if it does not expel the suffering of the soul.” To “expel the suffering of the soul”—to conquer fear and anxiety and to achieve happiness—said Hellenistic philosophers, people must not allow themselves to be troubled by cares and concerns that are ultimately trivial.

In striving for tranquility of mind and relief from conflict, Hellenistic thinkers reflected the general anxiety that pervaded their society. They retained respect for reason and aspired to the rational life, but by stressing peace of mind and the effort to overcome anxiety, they were performing a quasi-religious function. Philosophy was trying to provide comfort for the individual suffering from feelings of loneliness and insignificance. This attempt indicated that Greek civilization was undergoing a spiritual transformation. (We examine the full meaning of this transformation in Chapters 7 and 8.) The gravitation toward religion in an effort to relieve despair gathered momentum in the centuries that followed. Thus, Hellenistic philosophies helped prepare people to accept Christianity, which promised personal salvation. Ultimately, the Christian answer to the problems of alienation and the need for community would predominate over the Greco-Roman attempt at resolution.

The Hellenistic world gave rise to four principal schools of philosophy: Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Cynicism.

Epicureanism

In the tradition of Plato and Aristotle, Epicurus (342–270 b.c.) founded a school in Athens at the end of the fourth century b.c. He broke with the attitude of the Hellenic Age in significant ways. Unlike classical Greek philosophers, Epicurus, reflecting the Greeks’ changing relationship to the city, taught the value of passivity and withdrawal from civic life. To him, citizenship was not a prerequisite for individual happiness. Wise persons, said Epicurus, would refrain from engaging in public affairs, for politics is marred by clashing factions and treachery that deprive individuals of their self-sufficiency, their freedom to choose and to act. Nor would wise individuals pursue wealth, power, or fame, as the pursuit would only provoke anxiety. For the same reason, wise persons would not surrender to hate or love, desires that distress the soul. A wise person would also try to live justly, for one who behaves unjustly is burdened with troubles. Nor could there be happiness when one worried about dying or pleasing the gods.

To Epicurus, dread that the gods punished people in this life and could inflict suffering after death was the principal cause of anxiety. To remove this source of human anguish, which he regarded as pure superstition, he favored a theory of nature that had no place for supernatural intervention in nature or in people’s lives. Therefore, he adopted the physics of Democritus, which taught that all things consist of atoms in motion. In a universe of colliding atoms, there could be no higher intelligence ordering things; there was no room for divine activity. Epicurus taught that the gods probably did exist but that they could not influence human affairs; hence, it was pointless to worry about them. Individuals should order their lives without considering the gods. Epicurus embraced atomism, not as a disinterested scientist aspiring to truth, but as a moral philosopher seeking to liberate emotional life from fear of the gods.

People could achieve happiness, said Epicurus, when their bodies were “free from pain” and their minds “released from worry and fear.” Although Epicurus wanted to increase pleasure for the individual, he rejected unbridled hedonism—an accusation directed at him by his critics. Because he believed that pleasure and happiness must be pursued wisely, he thought that the merely sensuous pleasures with unpleasant aftereffects (such as overeating and excessive drinking) should be avoided. In general, Epicurus espoused the traditional Greek view of moderation and prudence. Most important for achieving the good life, said Epicurus, was the company of friends.

By opening his philosophy to men and women, slave and free, Greek and barbarian, and by separating ethics from politics, Epicurus fashioned a philosophy adapted to the post-Alexandrian world of kingdoms and universal culture.

Stoicism

Around the time of the founding of Epicurus’ school, Zeno (335–263 b.c.) also opened a school in Athens. Zeno’s teachings, called Stoicism, became the most important philosophy in the Hellenistic world. Epicurus backed away from civic participation and political life as snares that deprived the individual of self-sufficiency. Stoics, however, developed a new formula for the individual’s membership in a political community. By teaching that the world constituted a single society, Stoicism gave theoretical expression to the world-mindedness of the age. By arriving at the concept of a world-state, the city of humanity, Stoicism offered an answer to the problem of community and alienation posed by the decline of the city-state. By stressing gaining control over one’s inner life in dealing with life’s misfortunes, Stoicism offered an avenue to individual happiness in a world fraught with uncertainty.

At the core of Stoicism was the belief that the universe contained a principle of order, variously called Divine Reason (Logos), the Divine Fire, or God—more the fundamental force of the universe than a living being. This ruling principle underlay reality and permeated all things; it ordered the cosmos according to law. The Stoics reasoned that, being part of the universe, people too shared in the Logos that operated throughout the cosmos. Inherent in every human soul and discovered through reason, the Logos enabled people to comprehend the principles of order that governed nature and to act virtuously and intelligently. This natural law provides human beings with an awareness of what is and is not correct behavior, especially when dealing with other human beings. Living in accordance with natural law, that is, living in agreement with nature, is the avenue to both virtue and happiness; it is our highest good. Natural law alone commands our ultimate obedience, for it teaches us and gives us the discipline to regulate our lives in the right way. And it is our capacity to reason that enables us to govern our lives correctly.

Since reason was common to all, human beings were essentially brothers and fundamentally equal. Reason gave individuals dignity and enabled them to recognize and respect the dignity of others. To the Stoics, all people, Greek and barbarian, free and slave, rich and poor, were fellow human beings deserving of respect, and one law, the law of nature, applied to all of them. What people had in common as fellow human beings far outweighed differences based on culture. All rational human beings were fellow citizens of a cosmopolis, a world community. Thus, the Stoics, like the Hebrews, arrived at the idea of a common humanity subject to the same moral obligations.

Pericles had spoken of the Athenians’ obligation to abide by the laws and traditions of their city; Stoics, viewing people as citizens of the world, emphasized the individual’s duty to understand and obey the natural law that governed the cosmos and applied to all. Socrates had taught a morality of self-mastery—reason exercising control over feelings; the Stoics spread Socrates’ philosophy beyond Athens, beyond Greece, and enlarged it, offering it as a way of life for all. Like Socrates, the Stoics believed that a person’s distinctive quality was the ability to reason and that happiness came from the disciplining of emotions by the rational part of the soul. Also like Socrates, the Stoics maintained that individuals should progress morally, thus perfecting their character.

Marble Portrait of Epicurus

The direct gaze and inner calm of the philosopher suggest the essence of his teachings. Epicurus believed that happiness came from a rationally ordered life. He urged his followers to disengage from the uncertainties and stress of politics, business, family, and religion.

 

(The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, N.Y.)

In the Stoic view, wise persons ordered their lives according to the natural law—the Logos, or law of reason—that underlay the cosmos. To live in agreement with nature—that is, to follow the dictates of reason—was the aim of moral activity. This harmony with the Logos would give these individuals the inner strength to resist the torments inflicted by others, by fate, and by their own passionate natures. Self-mastery and inner peace, or happiness, would follow. Such individuals would remain undisturbed by life’s misfortunes, for their souls would be their own. Even slaves were not denied this inner freedom; although their bodies were subjected to the power of their masters, their minds still remained independent and free.

Stoicism had an enduring influence on the Western mind. To some Roman political and legal thinkers, the Empire fulfilled the Stoic ideal of a world community, in which people of different nationalities held citizenship and were governed by a worldwide law that accorded with the law of reason, or natural law—a moral order operating throughout the universe. Stoic beliefs—that by nature we are all members of one family, that each person is significant, that distinctions of rank and race are of no account, and that human law should not conflict with natural law—were incorporated into Roman jurisprudence, Christian thought, and modern liberalism. There is continuity between the Stoic idea of natural law and the principle of inalienable rights, rights to which all are entitled by nature, stated in the American Declaration of Independence. In the modern age, the principle of natural law provided theoretical justification for human rights that are the birthright of each individual.

Skepticism

The Epicureans tried to withdraw from the evils of this world and to attain personal happiness by reducing physical pain and mental anguish. The Stoics sought happiness by actively entering into harmony with universal reason, that is, with nature. Both philosophies sought peace of mind, but the Stoics did not disengage themselves from political life and often exerted influence over Hellenistic rulers. Skepticism, another school of philosophy, attacked the Epicurean and Stoic belief that there is a definite avenue to happiness. Skeptics held that one could achieve spiritual comfort by recognizing that none of the beliefs by which people lived were true or could bring happiness. Holding that human reason was grievously flawed, skeptics argued that nothing can be known with certainty. Therefore, suspending judgment—that is, recognizing the existence of alternative viewpoints and disdaining a commitment to dogmatic beliefs—calms the mind and brings contentment.

Some Skeptics taught indifference to all theory and urged conformity to accepted views whether or not they were true. This attitude would avoid arguments and explanations. Gods might not exist, said the Skeptics, but to refuse to worship them or to deny their existence would only cause trouble; therefore, individuals should follow the crowd. The life of the mind—metaphysical speculation inquiring into the origin of things, and clever reasoning—did not bring truth or happiness, so why should one bother with it? Suspending judgment, recognizing the inability to understand, not committing oneself to a system of belief—by these means one could achieve peace of mind. Instead of embracing doctrines, said the Greek writer Lucian, individuals should go their way “with ever a smile and never a passion.” This was the position of those Skeptics who were suspicious of ideas, particularly all encompassing rational systems, and hostile to intellectuals.

The more sophisticated Skeptics did not run away from ideas but pointed out their limitations; they did not avoid theories but refuted them. In doing so, they did not reject reason. Rather, they focused on a problem of reason: whether indeed it could arrive at truth. Thus, Carneades of Cyrene (213–129 b.c.) insisted that all ideas, even mathematical principles, must be regarded as hypotheses and assumptions, not as absolutes. Just because the universe showed signs of order, Carneades argued, one could not assume that it had been created by God. Since there was never any certainty, only probability, morality should derive from practical experience rather than from dogma.

Cynicism

The Cynics were not theoretical philosophers but supreme individualists who rebelled against established values and conventions—against every barrier of society that restrained individuals from following their own natures. Cynics regarded laws and public opinion, private property and employment, and wives and children as hindrances to the free life. Extreme individualists, the Cynics had no loyalty to family, city, or kingdom and ridiculed religion, philosophy, and literature. They renounced possessions and showed no respect for authority. When Diogenes Of Sinope, a fourth-century b.c. Cynic, met Alexander the Great, he is supposed to have asked only that the great conqueror get out of his light.

An Itinerant Cynic

Cynics renounced possessions, showed no loyalty to city or kingdom, dismissed philosophy and religion as nonsense, and lived ascetically, often wandering from place to place. The following image shows an itinerant Cynic, lantern in hand.

 

(RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, N.Y.)

Cynics put their philosophy into practice. They cultivated indifference and apathy and scorned wealth, fame, and noble birth. To harden themselves against life’s misfortunes, they engaged in strenuous exercise, endured cold and hunger, and lived ascetically. Not tied down by property or employment, Cynics wandered shoeless from place to place, wearing dirty and ragged clothes and carrying staffs. To show their disdain for society’s customs, Cynics grew long scraggly beards, used foul language, and cultivated bad manners. Diogenes supposedly said: “Look at me, … I am without a home, without a city, without property, without a slave; I sleep on the ground; I have neither wife nor children, no miserable governor’s mansion, but only earth, and sky, and one rough cloak. Yet what do I lack? Am I not free from pain and fear, am I not free?”

In their attack on inherited conventions, Cynics strove for self-sufficiency and spiritual security. Theirs was the most radical philosophical quest for meaning and peace of soul during the Hellenistic Age.

 

The Hellenistic Legacy

The Hellenistic Age encompassed the period from the death of Alexander to the formation of the Roman Empire. During these three centuries, Greek civilization spread eastward as far as India and westward to Rome. As Greeks settled in the Near East and intermingled with Egyptians, Syrians, Persians, and others, the parochialism of the Greek polis gave way to a new cosmopolitanism, an interest in the culture of other ethnic groups, and to universalism, an awareness that people were members of a world community that transcended citizenship in one’s native city. Both philosophy and the arts reflected these new concerns.

Rome, conqueror of the Mediterranean world and transmitter of Hellenism, inherited the universalist tendencies of the Hellenistic Age and embodied them in its law, institutions, and art. So too did Christianity, which welcomed converts from every ethnic background and held that God loved all people and that Christ died for all humanity. The Stoic idea of natural law that applies to all human beings and its corollary that human beings are fundamentally equal were crucial to the formulation of the modern idea that the individual is endowed with natural rights that no government can violate. A parallel can be drawn between the Hellenistic Age, in which Greek civilization spread to the Near East and as far away as India and China, and our own age, in which the ideas, institutions, and technology of Western civilization have been exported throughout the globe.

Chapter 6

Chapter Introduction

A Roman Warship with Legionnaires on a Relief from the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia, First Century b.c. Roman soldiers fought on sea as well as on land, conquering nations throughout the Mediterranean area during the eras of the Republic and the Empire.

(Scala/Art Resource, N.Y.)

Rome’s great achievement was to transcend the narrow political orientation of the city-state and to create a world-state that unified the different nations of the Mediterranean world. Regarding the polis as the only means to the good life, the Greeks had not desired a larger political unit and had almost totally excluded foreigners from citizenship. Although Hellenistic philosophers had conceived the possibility of a world community, Hellenistic politics could not shape one. Rome overcame the limitations of the city-state mentality and developed an empire-wide system of law and citizenship. The Hebrews were distinguished by their prophets and the Greeks by their philosophers. The Romans produced no Amos or Isaiah, and no Plato or Aristotle; their genius found expression in law and government and in the transmission of the Greek cultural achievement.

Historians divide Roman history into two broad periods: the period of the Republicbegan in 509 b.c. with the overthrow of the Etruscan monarchy; the period of the Empirebegan in 27 b.c., when Octavian (Augustus) became in effect the first Roman emperor, ending almost five hundred years of republican self-government. By conquering the Mediterranean world and extending Roman law and, in some instances, citizenship to different nationalities, the Roman Republic transcended the parochialism typical of the city-state. The Republic initiated the trend toward political and legal universalism, which reached fruition in the second period of Roman history, the Empire.

6.1

Evolution of the Roman Constitution

By the eighth century b.c., peasant communities existed on some of Rome’s seven hills near the Tiber River in central Italy. To the north stood Etruscan cities and to the south Greek cities. The more advanced civilizations of both Etruscans and Greeks were gradually absorbed by the Romans.

The origin of the Etruscans remains a mystery, although some scholars believe that they came from Asia Minor and settled in north-central Italy. From them, Romans acquired architectural styles and skills in road construction, sanitation, hydraulic engineering (including underground conduits), metallurgy, ceramics, and portrait sculpture. Symbols of authority and rule—purple robes, ivory-veneer chariots, thrones for state officials, and a bundle of rods and an ax held by attendants—were also borrowed from the Etruscans. Etruscan words and names entered into the Latin language, and Roman religion absorbed Etruscan gods.

Chronology 6.1

The Roman Republic

  • 509 c.

Expulsion of the Etruscan monarch

  • 450

Law of Twelve Tables

  • 287

End of the Struggle of the Orders

  • 264–241

First Punic War: Rome acquires provinces

  • 218–201

Second Punic War: Hannibal is defeated

  • 149–146

Third Punic War: destruction of Carthage

  • 133–122

Land reforms by the Gracchi brothers; they are murdered by the Senate

  • 88–83

Conflict between Sulla and the forces of Marius; Sulla emerges as dictator

  • 79

After restoring rule by Senate, Sulla retires

  • 73–71

Slave revolt is led by Spartacus

  • 58–51

Caesar campaigns in Gaul

  • 49–44

Caesar is dictator of Rome

  • 31 c.

Antony and Cleopatra are defeated at Actium by Octavian

The Etruscans had expanded their territory in Italy during the seventh and sixth centuries b.c., and they controlled the monarchy in Rome. However, defeated by Celts, Greeks, and finally Romans, the Etruscans had ceased to exercise any political power in Italy by the third century b.c.

Rome became a republic at the end of the sixth century b.c.—the traditional date is 509 b.c.—when the landowning aristocrats, or patricians, overthrew the Etruscan king. In the opening phase of republican history, religion governed the people, dictated the law, and legitimized the rule of the patricians—aristocrats by birth who regarded themselves as the preservers of sacred traditions. Gradually, the Romans loosened the ties between religion and politics and hammered out a constitutional system that paralleled the Greek achievement of rationalizing and secularizing politics and law. In time, the Romans, like the Greeks, came to view law as an expression of the public will and not as the creation of god-kings, priest-kings, or a priestly caste.

The impetus for the growth of the Roman constitution came from a conflict—known as the Struggle of the Orders—between the patricians and the commoners, or plebeians. At the beginning of the fifth century b.c., the patrician-dominated government consisted of two annually elected executives called consuls, the Centuriate Assembly, and the Senate. Patricians owned most of the land and controlled the army. The two consuls, who came from the nobility, commanded the army, served as judges, and initiated legislation. To prevent either consul from becoming an autocrat, decisions had to be approved by both of them. In times of crisis, the consuls were authorized by the Senate to nominate a dictator; he would possess absolute powers during the emergency, but these powers would expire after six months. The consuls were aided by other annually elected magistrates and administrators. The Centuriate Assembly was a popular assembly but, because of voting procedures, was controlled by the nobility. The Assembly elected consuls and other magistrates and made the laws, which also needed Senate approval. The Senate advised the Assembly but did not itself enact laws; it controlled public finances and foreign policy. Senators either were appointed for life terms by the consuls or were former magistrates. The Senate was the principal organ of patrician power.

The tension between patricians and commoners stemmed from plebeian grievances, which included enslavement for debt, discrimination in the courts, prevention of intermarriage with patricians, lack of political representation, and the absence of a written code of laws. Resenting their inferior status and eager for economic relief, the plebeians organized and waged a struggle for political, legal, and social equality. They had one decisive weapon: their threat to secede from Rome, that is, not to pay taxes, work, or serve in the army. Realizing that Rome, which was constantly involved in warfare on the Italian peninsula, could not endure without plebeian help, the pragmatic patricians begrudgingly made concessions. Thus, the plebeians slowly gained legal equality.

Early in the fifth century, the plebeians won the right to form their own assembly (the Plebeian Assembly, which was later enlarged and called the Tribal Assembly). This Assembly could elect tribunes, officials who were empowered to protect plebeian rights. As a result of plebeian pressure, in about 450 b.c., the first Roman code of laws was written. Called the Twelve Tables, the code gave plebeians some degree of protection against unfair and oppressive patrician officials, who could interpret customary law in an arbitrary way. Other concessions gained later by the plebeians included the right to intermarry with patricians; access to the highest political, judicial, and religious offices in the state; and the elimination of slavery as payment for debt. In 287 b.c., a date generally recognized as the termination of the plebeian–patrician struggle, laws passed by the Tribal Assembly no longer required Senate approval. Now the plebeians had full civil equality and legal protection, and their assembly had full power to enact legislation.

Despite these reforms, Rome was still ruled by an upper class. The oligarchy that now held power consisted of patricians and influential plebeians who had joined forces with the old nobility. Marriages between patricians and politically powerful plebeians strengthened this alliance. Generally only wealthy plebeians became tribunes, and they tended to side with the old nobility rather than defend the interests of poor plebeians. By using bribes, the ruling oligarchy of patricians and wealthy plebeians maintained control over the Assembly, and the Senate remained a bastion of aristocratic power.

A patron–client relationship extending back to the days of the monarchy reinforced upper-class rule. In early Rome, a plebeian seeking protection for himself and his family in the courts looked to a patrician for assistance. In return, the plebeian gave his patrician patron both military and political support. Enduring over the centuries, the patron–client relationship assured powerful nobles of their commoner clients’ support in the Assembly, and it provided clients with food, money, and protection.

Thus, from beginning to end, an upper class—sometimes expanded to allow entry of new talent and wealth—governed the Roman Republic. This aristocracy’s view of liberty always remained elitist: freedom for Rome’s best men to achieve virtue (virtus), dignity (dignitas), and fame (fama) by competing with one another for political power and privilege. Cicero (see below), himself a member of the ruling elite, aptly summed up its outlook: “the safety of the State depends upon the wisdom of its best men, especially since Nature has provided not only that those men who are superior in virtue and in spirit should rule the weaker, but also that the weaker should be willing to obey the stronger.”  Like others of the upper class, Cicero held that “the perversity and rashness of popular assemblies” precluded them from governing effectively.  In the Greek cities, tyrants had succeeded in breaking aristocratic dominance, thereby clearing a pathway for democratic government. But in the Roman Republic, the nobility maintained its tight grip on the reins of power until the civil wars of the first century b.c.

Deeming themselves Rome’s finest citizens, the ruling oligarchy led Rome during its period of expansion and demonstrated a sense of responsibility and a talent for statesmanship. In noble families, parents and elders prepared the young for public service. They recounted the glorious deeds of ancestors who had served Rome, and they reminded youngsters of their responsibility to bring additional honors to the family by winning distinction as a commander, orator, or jurist. In this way, a son would prove his worth as a man and as a Roman.

Statue Portrait, First Century a.d.

The Romans valued family, city, and tradition. Here a noble proudly exhibits the busts of his ancestors.

 

(Scala/Art Resource, N.Y.)

During their two-hundred-year class struggle, the Romans forged a constitutional system based on civic needs rather than on religious mystery. The essential duty of government ceased to be the regular performance of religious rituals and became the maintenance of order at home and the preservation of Roman might and dignity in international relations. Although the Romans retained the ceremonies and practices of their ancestral religion—correct observance was a way of showing respect for tradition—public interest, not religious tradition, determined the content of law and was the standard by which all the important acts of the city were judged. When Romans chose a course of action in public life, they rarely took into consideration the fear of displeasing the gods. By the late Republic, Romans did not seem concerned about divine intervention in their daily lives; the prospect of divine punishment seemed quite remote. In the opening stage of republican history, law was priestly and sacred, spoken only by priests and known only to men of religious families. Gradually, as law was written, debated, and altered, it became disentangled from religion. Another step in this process of secularization and rationalization occurred when the study and interpretation of law passed from the hands of priests to a class of professional jurists, who analyzed, classified, systematized, and sought commonsense solutions to legal problems.

The Roman constitution was not a product of abstract thought, nor was it the gift of a great lawmaker such as the Athenian Solon. Rather, like the unwritten British constitution, the Roman constitution evolved gradually and empirically in response to specific needs. The Romans, unlike the Greeks, were distinguished by practicality and common sense, not by a love of abstract thought. In their pragmatic and empirical fashion, they gradually developed the procedures of public politics and the legal state.

Undoubtedly, the commoners’ struggle for rights and power did arouse hatred on both sides. But in contrast to the domestic strife in Greek cities, Rome’s class conflict did not end in civil war. This peaceful solution testifies to the political good sense of the Romans. Fear of foreign powers and the tradition of civic patriotism prevented the patrician–plebeian conflict from turning into a fight to the death. At the time of the class struggle, Rome was also engaged in the extension of its power over the Italian peninsula. Without civic harmony and stability, Rome could not have achieved expansion.

 

6.2

Roman Expansion to 146 b.c.

By 146 b.c., Rome was the dominant state in the Mediterranean world. Roman expansion occurred in three main stages: the uniting of the Italian peninsula, which gave Rome the forces that transformed it from a city-state into a great power; the collision with Carthage, from which Rome emerged as ruler of the western Mediterranean; and the subjugation of the Hellenistic states, which brought Romans in close contact with Greek civilization. As Rome expanded territorially, its leaders enlarged their vision. Instead of restricting citizenship to people having ethnic kinship, Rome assimilated other peoples into its political community. Just as Roman law had grown to cope with the earlier grievances of the plebeians, so too it adjusted to the new situations resulting from the creation of a multinational empire. The city of Rome was evolving into the city of humanity—the cosmopolis envisioned by the Stoics.

The Uniting of Italy

During the first stage of expansion, Rome extended its hegemony over Italy, subduing in the process neighboring Latin kinsmen, semicivilized Italian tribes, the once-dominant Etruscans, and Greek city-states in southern Italy. At the beginning, Roman warfare was principally motivated by the hunger for more farmland. As Rome expanded and its territory and responsibilities increased, it was often drawn into conflict to protect its widened boundaries and its allies. Also fueling Roman expansion was an aristocratic ethos, which placed the highest value on glory and reputation. Demonstrating prowess in war, aristocrats believed, was the finest way to win the esteem of fellow Romans, bring honor to their families, and enhance their own political careers.

Rome’s conquest of Italy stemmed in part from superior military organization, grueling training, and iron discipline. From the Greeks they acquired the most advanced methods of siege craft. Also copying the Greeks, the Romans organized their soldiers into battle formations; in contrast, their opponents often fought as disorganized hordes, which were prone to panic and flight. Fighting as part of a unit strengthened the courage and confidence of the Roman soldier, for he knew that his comrades would stand with him. Roman soldiers who deserted their posts or fled from battle were punished and disgraced, an ordeal more terrible than facing up to the enemy. The promise of glory and rewards also impelled the Roman soldier to distinguish himself in battle.

Ultimately, Rome’s success was due to the character of its people and the quality of its statesmanship. The Roman farmer-soldier was dedicated, rugged, persevering, and self-reliant. He could march thirty miles a day laden with arms, armor, and equipment weighing sixty pounds. In the face of danger, he remained resolute and tenacious, obedient to the poet Virgil’s maxim: “Yield you not to ill fortune, but go against it with more daring.” Romans willingly made sacrifices so that Rome might endure. In conquering Italy, they were united by a moral and religious devotion to their city strong enough to overcome social conflict, factional disputes, and personal ambition.

Despite its army’s might, Rome could not have mastered Italy without the cooperation of other Italian peoples. Like other ancient peoples, Rome plundered, enslaved, and brutalized, at times with great ferocity. But it also endeavored, through generous treatment, to gain the loyalty of those it had conquered. Some defeated Italian communities retained a measure of self-government but turned the conduct of foreign affairs over to Rome and contributed contingents to the army when Rome went to war. Other conquered people received partial or full citizenship. In extending its dominion over Italy, Rome displayed a remarkable talent for converting former enemies into allies and eventually into Roman citizens. No Greek city had ever envisaged integrating nonnatives into its political community.

Primary Source

Polybius: The Roman Army

The discipline and dedication of the citizen soldiers help explain Rome’s success in conquering a world empire. In the following account, Polybius (see Profile in Chapter 5) tells how the commanders enforced obedience and fostered heroism.

A court-martial composed of the tribunes immediately sits to try him [a soldier], and if he is found guilty, he is punished by beating (fustuarium). This is carried out as follows. The tribune takes a cudgel and lightly touches the condemned man with it, whereupon all the soldiers fall upon him with clubs and stones, and usually kill him in the camp itself. But even those who contrive to escape are no better off. How indeed could they be? They are not allowed to return to their homes, and none of their family would dare to receive such a man into the house. Those who have once fallen into this misfortune are completely and finally ruined. The optio [lieutenant] and the decurio [sergeant] of the squadron are liable to the same punishment if they fail to pass on the proper orders at the proper moment to the patrols and the decurio of the next squadron. The consequence of the extreme severity of this penalty and of the absolute impossibility of avoiding it is that the night watches of the Roman army are faultlessly kept….

The Romans also have an excellent method of encouraging young soldiers to face danger. Whenever any have especially distinguished themselves in a battle, the general assembles the troops and calls forward those he considers to have shown exceptional courage. He praises them first for their gallantry in action and for anything in their previous conduct which is particularly worthy of mention, and then he distributes gifts such as the following: to a man who has wounded one of the enemy, a spear; to one who has killed and stripped an enemy, a cup if he is in the infantry, or horse-trappings if in the cavalry—originally the gift was simply a lance. These presentations are not made to men who have wounded or stripped an enemy in the course of a pitched battle, or at the storming of a city, but to those who during a skirmish or some similar situation in which there is no necessity to engage in single combat, have voluntarily and deliberately exposed themselves to danger.

At the storming of a city the first man to scale the wall is awarded a crown of gold. In the same way those who have shielded and saved one of their fellow-citizens or of the allies are honoured with gifts…. The men who receive these trophies not only enjoy great prestige in the army and soon afterwards in their homes, but they are also singled out for precedence in religious processions when they return. On these occasions nobody is allowed to wear decorations save those who have been honoured for their bravery by the consuls, and it is the custom to hang up the trophies they have won in the most conspicuous places in their houses, and to regard them as proofs and visible symbols of their valour. So when we consider this people’s almost obsessive concern with military rewards and punishments, and the immense importance which they attach to both, it is not surprising that they emerge with brilliant success from every war in which they engage.

Question for Analysis

  1. How did the Romans ensure good discipline and promote bravery among their soldiers?

Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 332–334.

The Italian Confederation formed by Rome was a unique and creative organization that conferred on Italians a measure of security and order previously unknown. Rome prevented internecine wars within the peninsula, suppressed internal revolutions within city-states, and protected the Italians from barbarians (Gallic invaders from the north). In the wars of conquest outside Italy, a share of the glory and plunder fell to all Italians, another benefit of the confederation.

By 264 b.c., Rome had achieved two striking successes. First, it had secured social cohesion by redressing the grievances of the plebeians. Second, it had increased its military might by conquering Italy, thus obtaining the human resources with which it would conquer the Mediterranean world.

 

6-2bConquest of the Mediterranean World

When Rome finished unifying Italy, there were five great powers in the Mediterranean area: the Seleucid monarchy in the Near East, the Ptolemaic monarchy in Egypt, the kingdom of Macedonia, Carthage in the western Mediterranean, and the Roman-dominated Italian Confederation. One hundred twenty years later, by 146 b.c., Rome had subjected the other states to its dominion—“an event for which the past affords no precedent,” said the contemporary Greek historian Polybius.

Roman expansion beyond Italy did not proceed according to predetermined design. Indeed, some Roman leaders considered involvement in foreign adventures a threat to both Rome’s security and its traditional way of life. But it is difficult for a great power not to get drawn into conflicts as its interests grow, and, without planning it, Rome acquired an overseas empire.

Shortly after asserting supremacy in Italy, Rome engaged Carthage, the other great power in the western Mediterranean, in a prolonged conflict. Founded about 800 b.c. by Phoenicians, the North African city of Carthage had become a prosperous commercial center. Its wealth was derived from a virtual monopoly of trade in the western Mediterranean and along the western coasts of Africa and Europe. The Carthaginians (Poeni in Latin) had acquired an empire comprising North Africa and coastal regions of southern Spain, Sardinia, Corsica, and western Sicily.

War between the two great powers began because Rome feared Carthage’s designs on the northern Sicilian city of Messana. Rome was apprehensive about the southern Italian city-states that were its allies, fearing that Carthage would use Messana either to attack them or to interfere with their trade. Rome decided that the security of its allies required intervention in Sicily.

The two powers had stumbled into a collision, the First Punic War (264–241 b.c.), that neither had deliberately sought. Although Rome suffered severe losses—including the annihilation of an army that had invaded North Africa and the destruction of hundreds of ships in battle and storms—the Romans never considered anything but a victor’s peace. Drawing manpower from loyal allies throughout Italy, Rome finally prevailed over Carthage, which had to surrender Sicily to Rome. Three years later, Rome seized the islands of Corsica and Sardinia from a weakened Carthage. With the acquisition of these territories beyond Italy, which were made into provinces, Rome had the beginnings of an empire.

Carthaginian expansion in Spain in order to recoup wealth—Spain was rich in metals—and to obtain manpower for the depleted Carthaginian forces precipitated the Second Punic War (218–201 b.c.). Coming from Spain, the Carthaginian army was commanded by Hannibal (247–183 b.c.), whose military genius astounded the ancients. Hannibal led a seasoned army, complete with war elephants for charging enemy lines, through passes in the Alps so steep and icy that men and animals sometimes lost their footing and fell to their deaths. Others died fighting hostile mountain tribes or succumbed to the cold, but desertion was the principal reason for the diminution of Hannibal’s army. Some twenty-six thousand men survived the crossing into Italy; fifteen thousand more were recruited from Gallic tribesmen of the Po valley. At the battle of Cannae (216 b.c.), 50,000 Carthaginian, many of them mercenaries—principally Libyans, Numidians, Gauls, and Spaniards—faced some 80,000 Roman citizen-soldiers. In a brilliant encircling maneuver, the Carthaginian forces completely destroyed the largest army Rome had ever put into the field. The butchering by hand of the trapped Roman soldiers lasted for hours. Some 50,000 corpses littered the open plain, the most costly battle in the ancient world.

Romans were in a state of shock. Mixed with grief for the dead was the fear that Hannibal would crown his victory with an attack on Rome itself. To prevent panic, the Senate ordered women and children indoors, limited mourning to thirty days, and prepared to raise a new army. Adding to Rome’s distress was the defection of many southern Italian allies to Hannibal.

These were the Republic’s worst days. Nevertheless, says the Roman historian Livy, the Romans did not breathe a word of peace. Hannibal could not follow up his victory at Cannae with a finishing blow, for Rome wisely would not allow its army to be lured into another major engagement. Nor did Hannibal possess the manpower to capture the city itself, with its formidable fortifications. In addition, most of Rome’s Italian allies remained loyal, although some south Italian cities went over to Hannibal. Rome quickly raised and equipped new legions, even enlisting seventeen-year olds and promising freedom to slaves and amnesty to criminals who volunteered to serve. To finance the army, taxes were doubled and women surrendered their jewelry to the state. Most important, the Roman fleet prevented supplies from reaching the Carthaginians.

Cast Made from Trajan’s Column

Emperor Trajan (a.d. 98–117) constructed a column to commemorate his campaigns. One of the reliefs depicts a Roman fleet landing at the port of Acona. During the First Punic War, Rome had become a naval power able to counter Carthage’s fleet.

 

(DeA Picture Library/Art Resource, N.Y.)

When Rome invaded North Africa, threatening Carthage, Hannibal was forced to withdraw his troops from Italy in order to defend his homeland. Hannibal, who had won every battle in Italy, was defeated by Scipio Africanus at the battle of Zama in North Africa in 202 b.c., ending the Second Punic War. Carthage was compelled to surrender Spain and to give up its elephants and its navy. Sheer determination, its vast reserves of manpower, and the state’s willingness to garner its wealth to strengthen its legions explain Rome’s victory.

The Second Punic War left Rome as the sole great power in the western Mediterranean; it also hastened Rome’s entry into the politics of the Hellenistic world. In the year after Cannae, during Rome’s darkest ordeal, Philip V of Macedonia formed an alliance with Hannibal. Fearing that the Macedonian ruler might have intentions of invading Italy, Rome initiated the First Macedonian War and won it in 205 b.c. To end Macedonian influence in Greece, which Rome increasingly viewed as a Roman protectorate, the Romans fought two other wars with Macedonia. Finally, in 148 b.c., Rome created the province of Macedonia.

Intervention in Greece led to Roman involvement in the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Near East and Asia Minor—Seleucia, Egypt, and Pergamum. The Hellenistic states became client kingdoms of Rome and consequently lost their freedom of action in foreign affairs.

Roman imperialism is a classic example of a great power being snared into overseas adventures. To achieve security, Rome protected its allies, prevented endemic warfare, and thwarted any would-be conquerors of Italy. In the course of these actions came considerable spoils of war, but Rome’s principal motives for expansion were strategic and political, not economic.

In 146 b.c., the same year that Rome’s hegemony over the Hellenistic world was assured, Rome concluded an unnecessary Third Punic War with Carthage. Although Carthage was by then a second-rate power and no longer a threat to Rome’s security, Rome had launched this war of annihilation against Carthage in 149 b.c. The Romans were driven by old hatreds and the traumatic memory of Hannibal’s near conquest. In what could be called genocide, the Romans massacred the Carthaginians, sold survivors into slavery, obliterated the city by fire (which burned for seventeen days), and turned the territory into the Roman province of Africa. Rome’s savage and irrational behavior toward a helpless Carthage was an early sign of the deterioration of senatorial leadership; there would be others.

Rome had not yet reached the limits of its expansion, but there was no doubt that by 146 b.c. the Mediterranean world had been subjected to its will. No power could stand up to Rome. From 220 b.c., the start of the Second Punic War to 167 b.c., wrote Polybius “the Romans succeeded in less than fifty-three years in bringing under their rule almost the whole of the inhabited world, an achievement which is without parallel in human history.”


Consequences of Expansion

As a result of Rome’s eastern conquests, thousands of Greeks came to Rome; many were educated persons who had been enslaved because of the conquests. This influx accelerated the process of Hellenization—the adoption of Greek culture—which had begun earlier with Rome’s contact with the Greek cities of southern Italy.

A crucial consequence of expansion was Roman contact with the legal experience of other peoples, including the Greeks. Roman jurists, demonstrating the Roman virtues of pragmatism and common sense, selectively incorporated into Roman law elements of the legal codes and traditions of these nations. Thus, Roman jurists empirically fashioned the jus gentium, the law of nations, or peoples, which gradually was applied throughout the Empire (see “Law,” in Chapter 7).

Rome’s conquests also contributed to the rise of a business class, whose wealth was derived from trade, army supply contracts, construction, and tax collecting in the provinces. Rome had no professional civil service, and the collection of public revenues was open to bidding—the highest bidder receiving a contract to collect customs duties, rents on public lands, and tribute in the provinces. The collector’s profit came from milking as much tax money as he could from the provincials. These financiers belonged to a group called the Equites, which also included prosperous landowners. Generally, the interests of the Equites paralleled those of the ruling oligarchy. At times, however, they did support generals—notably Julius Caesar—who challenged senatorial rule.

The immense wealth brought to Rome from ransacked eastern cities and overworked Spanish silver mines gave the upper classes a taste for luxury. The rich built elaborate homes, which they decorated with fine furniture and works of art and staffed with servants, cooks, and tutors. They delighted in sumptuous banquets, which contained all types of delicacies. Wealthy matrons wore fancy gowns and elaborate hairstyles. These excesses prompted Roman moralists to castigate the people for violating traditional values. Moralists lamented that the new prosperity deteriorated the Roman character.

Roman conquerors had transported to Italy hundreds of thousands of war captives, including Greeks, from all over the Empire. The enslavement and deportations would continue in the first century b.c. (Julius Caesar, for example, enslaved some one million Gauls.) It is estimated that between 80 and 8 b.c. more than two million enslaved aliens were transported to Italy. By the middle of that century, slaves constituted about one-third of Italy’s population, compared with about 10 percent before the Second Punic War. The wars of conquest had made the slave trade a vast and lucrative commercial venture. Increasing the number of slaves was the sale of people kidnapped by pirates and of children sold to slaver traders by poor parents. At slave markets, human chattel was auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Like the Greeks, Romans considered slavery indispensable for the preservation of civilized life. Roman jurists and intellectuals regarded the division of humanity into masters and slaves as a rule of nature and viewed the slave as an animate tool, an object that produced and served; like other forms of property, slaves could be sold or rented out by their masters. The more fortunate or more capable slaves worked as domestic servants, artisans, bookkeepers, scribes, and administrators; the luckless and more numerous, branded and chained, toiled from dawn to dusk on the growing number of plantations or died early laboring in mines under inhuman conditions. So brutal was their existence that they begged for death, reported a Roman observer. Except for the very poor, every free Roman owned at least one slave. Roman masters often treated their slaves brutally: torture was common, and masters sexually exploited both male and female slaves for their own pleasure or compelled them to work as prostitutes. But strong personal bonds between master and slave also existed—for example, there are accounts of slaves enduring torture and death to protect their masters from enemies.

Although slave uprisings were not common, their ferocity terrified the Romans. In 135 b.c., slaves in Sicily revolted and captured some key towns, defeating Roman forces before being subdued. In 73 b.c., gladiators led by Spartacus broke out of their barracks and were joined by tens of thousands of runaways. Spartacus aimed to escape from Italy to Gaul and Thrace, the homelands of many slaves. The slave army, which grew to some 150,000, defeated Roman armies and devastated southern Italy before the superior might of Rome prevailed. Some 6,000 of the defeated slaves were tortured and crucified on the road from Capua to Rome.

Republican Rome treated the people in overseas lands differently from its Italian allies. Italians were drafted into the Roman army, but provincials as a rule served only in emergencies, for Rome was not certain of their loyalty or of their readiness to meet Roman standards of discipline. Whereas Rome had been somewhat generous in extending citizenship to Italians, provincials were granted citizenship only in exceptional cases. All but some favored communities were required to pay taxes to Rome. Roman governors, lesser officials, and businessmen found the provinces a source of quick wealth; they were generally unrestrained by the Senate, which was responsible for administering the overseas territories. Exploitation, corruption, looting, and extortion soon ran rampant. “No administration in history has ever devoted itself so whole-heartedly to fleecing its subjects for the private benefit of its ruling class as Rome of the last age of the Republic,” concludes E. Badian.  The Roman nobility proved unfit to manage a world empire.

Despite numerous examples of misrule in the provinces, Roman administration had many positive features. Rome generally allowed its subjects a large measure of self-government and did not interfere with religion and local customs. Usually, the Roman taxes worked out to be no higher, and in some instances lower, than those under previous regimes. Most important, Rome reduced the endemic warfare that had plagued these regions.

Map 6.1 Roman Conquests During the Republic

The conquest of Italy gave Rome the manpower to expand throughout the Mediterranean world. In the Second Punic War, Rome defeated its greatest rival, Carthage.

Copyright © Cengage Learning.

Essentially, Rome used its power for constructive ends: to establish order; to build roads, aqueducts, and public buildings; and to promote Hellenism. When Rome destroyed, it rebuilt creatively; when it conquered, it spread civilization and maintained peace. But no doubt its hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war, uprooted, enslaved, and degraded, did not view Roman conquest as beneficial; nor did the butchered Spanish tribesmen or the massacred Carthaginians. To these hapless victims, Rome appeared as an evil oppressor, not as the creator of a cosmopolis that brought order and security.

Ruins in Spain

This Roman aqueduct in Spain stands as an impressive reminder of the ancient Romans’ engineering skills.

 

6-3Culture in the Republic

One of the chief consequences of expansion was increased contact with Greek culture. During the third century b.c., Greek civilization started to exercise an increasing and fruitful influence on the Roman mind. Greek teachers, both slave and free, came to Rome, many of them as guests of the Roman aristocracy, and instructed Romans in Greek language, literature, philosophy, and art. As they conquered the eastern Mediterranean, Roman generals began to ship libraries and works of art from Greek cities to Rome. Roman sculpture and painting imitated Greek prototypes. In time, Romans acquired from Greece knowledge of scientific thought, philosophy, medicine, and geography. Roman writers and orators used Greek history, poetry, drama, and oratory as models. The Elder Pliny (a.d. 23–79), who wrote on many topics but is most famous for Natural History, refers to Homer’s poetry as “the most valuable work of the human mind.”  Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator, tells us that ambitious young men eager to learn the art of oratory but unaware of the existence of any “course of training or any rules of art … attain[ed] what skill they could by means of their natural ability…. But later, having heard the Greek orators, gained acquaintance with their literature and called in Greek teachers, our people were fired with a really incredible enthusiasm for eloquence.”

Adopting the humanist outlook of the Greeks, the Romans came to value human intelligence and eloquent and graceful prose and poetry. Wealthy Romans retained Greek tutors, poets, and philosophers in their households and sent their sons to Athens to study. By the late Republic, educated Romans could speak and read Greek. Thus, Rome creatively assimilated the Greek achievement and transmitted it to others, thereby extending the orbit of Hellenism. To be sure, some conservative Romans were hostile to the Greek influence, which they felt threatened traditional Roman values that had accounted for Roman greatness. Cato the Elder (234–149 b.c.) and other Roman moralists denounced Socrates for undermining respect for Athenian law and warned that Greek philosophy might lure Roman youth into similar subversive behavior. Moreover, said these moralists, Greek philosophy, with its endless discussions of abstract themes, contrasted with the virtue most cherished by Romans—gravitas, or seriousness, which enabled Romans to conduct public affairs effectively. Philosophy seemed designed for a life of leisure and inaction, whereas a virtuous Roman was actively involved in practical civic matters. But the tide of Hellenism could not be stemmed.

Plautus (c. 254–184 b.c.), Rome’s greatest playwright, adopted features of fourth- and third-century Greek comedy. His plays had Greek characters and took place in Greek settings; the actors wore the Greek style of dress. His characters resembled those found in Menander’s comedies: a cunning slave, a lovesick youth, a foolish old man, a braggart soldier. The plots often consisted of a struggle between two antagonists over a woman or money, or both. The plays usually had the ending desired by the audience: the “good guy” won, and the “bad guy” received a fitting punishment. The pains of love were a common theme.

Not the throes of all mankindEqual my distracted mind.I strain and I tossOn a passionate cross;Love’s goad makes me reel,I whirl on Love’s wheel,In a swoon of despairHurried here, hurried there—Torn asunder, I am blindWith a cloud upon my mind.

Terence (c. 185–159 b.c.), another playwright, was originally from North Africa and was brought to Rome as a slave. His owner, a Roman senator, provided the talented youth with an education and freed him. Terence demonstrated humaneness, a quality that can be seen in his attitude toward child rearing.

I give—I overlook; I do not judge it necessary to exert my authority in everything…. I think it better to restrain children through a sense of shame and liberal treatment than through fear…. This is the duty of a parent to accustom a son to do what is right rather of his own choice, than through fear of another.

Catullus (c. 84–c. 54 b.c.) is generally regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets in world literature. He was a native of northern Italy whose father had provided him with a gentleman’s education. In his early twenties, Catullus came to Rome and fell in love with Clodia; she was the wife of the governor of Cisalpine Gaul, who was away at the time. For the older Clodia, Catullus was a refreshing diversion from her many other lovers. Tormented by Clodia’s numerous affairs, Catullus struggled to be “free from insane desire … Let me forget.”

Lucretius (c. 96–c. 55 b.c.), the leading Roman Epicurean philosopher, was influenced by the civil war fostered by two generals, Marius and Sulla, which is discussed later in this chapter. Distraught by the seemingly endless strife, Lucretius yearned for philosophical tranquility. Like Epicurus, he believed that religion prompted people to perform evil deeds and caused them to experience terrible anxiety about death and eternal punishment, a cruel feeling that precludes people from embracing life fully. In his work On the Nature of Things, Lucretius expressed his appreciation of Epicurus. Like his mentor, Lucretius denounced superstition and religion for fostering psychological distress and advanced a materialistic conception of nature, one that left no room for the activity of gods—mechanical laws, not the gods, governed all physical happenings. (The rediscovery in the fifteenth century of Lucretius’ great work helped to promote a secular and scientific outlook that is characteristic of the modern world.) To dispel the fear of punishment after death, Lucretius marshaled arguments to prove that the soul perishes with the body. He proposed that the simple life, devoid of political involvement and excessive passion, was the highest good and the path that would lead from emotional turmoil to peace of mind. Epicurus’ hostility to traditional religion, disparagement of politics and public service, and rejection of the goals of power and glory ran counter to the accepted Roman ideal of virtue. On the other hand, his glorification of the quiet life amid a community of friends and his advice on how to deal with life’s misfortunes with serenity had great appeal to first-century Romans like Lucretius, who were disgusted with civil strife.

Rome’s finest orator, as well as a leading statesman, Cicero (106–43 b.c.) was an unsurpassed Latin stylist and a student of Greek philosophy. His letters, more than eight hundred of which have survived, provide modern historians with valuable insights into the politics of the late Republic. His Senate speeches have been models of refined rhetoric for all students of the Latin language. In the fifteenth century, Renaissance humanists idolized Cicero’s elegant Latin style which they attempted to emulate. Cicero’s discussion of such topics as republicanism, citizenship, friendship, virtue, duty, and justice had an enduring influence on Western moral and political thought. Dedicated to republicanism and public-spiritedness, Cicero sought to prevent one-man rule and in his writings exhorted fellow Romans to serve their city.

Cicero was drawn to Stoicism, the most influential philosophy in Rome. Stoicism’s stress on virtuous conduct and performance of duty coincided with Roman ideals, and its doctrine of a natural law that applies to all nations, regardless of ethnicity or culture, harmonized with the requirements of a world empire. Cicero admired the Stoic goal of the self-sufficient sage who sought to accord his life with standards of virtue inherent in nature. Natural law commands people to do what is right and deters them from doing what is wrong, and our gift of reason enables us to abide by its commands. Thus, knowledge and virtue are closely linked. Cicero adopted the Stoic belief that the law of the state should conform to the rational and moral norms embodied in natural law, for adherence to such rationally formulated law creates a moral bond among citizens. All nations are subject at all times to natural law which is changeless and everlasting. No human legislation can override or supersede natural law. Implied in Cicero’s Stoicism is the humanistic conviction that all human beings have dignity and value which should be respected.

He also shared the Stoic view that because natural law applies to all, we are all citizens of a single commonwealth and belong to a society of humanity. As he expressed it,

there is no difference in kind between man and man; for Reason, which alone raises us above the level of the beasts and enables us to draw inferences, to prove and disprove, to discuss and solve problems, and to come to conclusions, is certainly common to us all, and though varying in what it learns, at least in the capacity to learn it is invariable…. In fact, there is no human being of any race who, if he finds a guide, cannot attain virtue.

In the eighteenth century, the Founding Fathers of the United States praised Cicero’s natural law philosophy, which coincided with their belief in inalienable rights; his condemnation of tyranny; and his advocacy of liberty, republicanism, and constitutional government.

6-4Collapse of the Republic

In 146 b.c., Roman might spanned the Mediterranean world. After that year, the principal concerns of the Republic were no longer foreign invasions but adjusting city-state institutions to the demands of empire and overcoming critical social and political problems at home. The Republic was unequal to either challenge. Instead of developing a professional civil service to administer the conquered lands, Roman leaders attempted to govern an empire with city-state institutions that had evolved for a different purpose. The established Roman administration proved unable to govern the Mediterranean world effectively. In addition, Rome’s ruling elites showed little concern for the welfare of their subjects, and provincial rule worsened as governors, tax collectors, and soldiers shamelessly exploited the provincials.

Forum in Rome

The forum, a large rectangular space that served as a marketplace, was the center of a Roman city. In Rome itself, the forum evolved into a political center surrounded by large public buildings.

(Hiroshi Higuchi/Getty Images.)

During Rome’s march to empire, all its classes had demonstrated a magnificent civic spirit in fighting foreign wars. With Carthage and Macedonia no longer threatening Rome, this cooperation deteriorated, as Cato the Elder had forewarned: “What was to become of Rome, when she should no longer have any state to fear?”  Internal dissension tore Rome apart as the drive for domination formerly directed against foreign enemies turned inward against fellow Romans. Civil war replaced foreign war.

Rome: Concrete Architecture

Video supplied by BBC Worldwide Learning.

The Romans had prevailed over their opponents partly because of their traditional virtues: resoluteness, frugality, and willingness to sacrifice personal interests for the good of Rome. But the riches flowing into Rome from the plundered provinces caused these virtues to decay, and rivalry for status and a frenzied pursuit of wealth overrode civic patriotism. This “perverted greed” and “lack of principle,” said the poet Horace (65–8 b.c.), had caused “impious slaughter, … intestine [domestic] fury, … and lawless licence.”  And the masses, landless and afflicted with poverty and idleness, withdrew their allegiance from the state.

In this time of agony, both great and self-seeking individuals emerged. Some struggled to restore the social harmony and political unity that had prevailed in the period of expansion. Others, political adventurers, attacked the authority of the Senate to gain personal power. The Senate, which had previously exercised leadership creatively and responsibly, degenerated into a self-serving oligarchy that resisted reform and fought to preserve its power and privilege.

Neither the Senate nor its opponents could rejuvenate the Republic. Eventually it collapsed, a victim of class tensions, poor leadership, power-hungry demagogues, and civil war. Underlying all these conditions were the breakdown of social harmony and the deterioration of civic patriotism. The Republic had conquered an empire only to see the character of its citizens decay. In a high moral tone, the historian Sallust (c. 86–34 b.c.) condemned the breakdown of republican values.

Growing love of money, and the lust for power which followed it, engendered every kind of evil. Avarice destroyed honor, integrity, and every other virtue, and instead taught men to be proud and cruel, to neglect religion, and to hold nothing too sacred to sell. Ambition tempted many to be false…. At first these vices grew slowly and some times met with punishments; later on, when the disease had spread like a plague, Rome changed: her government, once so just and admirable, became harsh and unendurable.

 

Crisis in Agriculture

The downhill slide of the Republic began with an agricultural crisis. During the long war with Hannibal in Italy, each side had tried to deprive the other of food supplies; in the process, they ruined farm land, destroyed farmhouses and farm equipment, and slaughtered animals. With many Roman soldier-farmers serving in the army for long stretches of time, fields lay neglected. Returning veterans with small holdings lacked the wealth to restore their land. They were forced to sell their farms to wealthy landowners at low prices.

Another factor that helped to squeeze out the owners of small farms was the importation of hundreds of thousands of slaves to work on large plantations called latifundia. This massive use of slaves was unprecedented in Roman history. Farmers who had formerly increased their meager incomes by working for wages on neighboring large estates were no longer needed. Sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt, farmers gave up their lands and went to Rome, seeking work. The dispossessed peasantry found little to do in Rome, where there was not enough industry to provide them with employment and where much of the work was done by slaves. Congregated in rundown, crime-ridden slums and chronically unemployed, the urban poor faced a daily struggle for survival. The once sturdy and independent Roman farmer, who had done all that his country had asked of him, was becoming part of a vast urban underclass—destitute, embittered, and alienated. The uprooting of a formerly self-reliant peasantry was Hannibal’s posthumous revenge on Rome; severing the civic bond, it would prove even more deadly than Cannae.

The Gracchan Revolution

In 133 b.c., Tiberius Gracchus (163–133 b.c.), who came from one of Rome’s most honored families, was elected tribune. Distressed by the injustice done to the peasantry and recognizing that the Roman army depended on the loyalty of small landowners, Tiberius made himself the spokesman for land reform. He proposed a simple and moderate solution for the problem of the landless peasants: implementing an old law barring any Roman from using more than 312 acres of the state-owned land obtained in the process of uniting Italy. For many years, the upper class had ignored this law, occupying vast tracts of public land. By reenacting the law, Tiberius hoped to free land for distribution to landless citizens.

Rome’s leading families viewed Tiberius as a revolutionary threatening their property and political authority. They thought him a dangerous democrat who would undermine the Senate, the seat of aristocratic power, in favor of the Assembly, which represented the commoners. When Tiberius sought reelection as a tribune, a violation of constitutional tradition, the senators were convinced that he was a rabble-rouser who aimed to destroy the republican constitution and become a one-man ruler. To preserve the status quo, with wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few hundred families, senatorial extremists killed Tiberius and some three hundred of his followers, dumping their bodies into the Tiber.

The cause of land reform was next taken up by Gaius Gracchus (153–121 b.c.), a younger brother of Tiberius. An emotional and gifted speaker, Gaius won the support of the city poor and was elected tribune in 123 b.c. A more astute politician than his brother, Gaius increased his following by favoring the Equites, the new class of plebeian businessmen, and by promising full citizenship to all Italians. He aided the poor by reintroducing his brother’s plan for land distribution and by enabling them to buy grain from the state at less than half the market price. But like his brother, Gaius aroused the anger of the senatorial class. Fearing that he was stirring up a violent class struggle that would culminate in one-man rule, the senators ordered his murder. After his death, three thousand of his followers were executed without trial.

By killing the Gracchi, the Senate had substituted violence for reason and made murder a means of coping with troublesome opposition. Soon the club and the dagger became common weapons in Roman politics, hurling Rome into an era of political violence that ended with the destruction of the Republic. Though the Senate considered itself the guardian of republican liberty, in reality it was expressing the determination of a few hundred families to retain their control over the state. This is a classic example of a once-creative minority clinging tenaciously to power long after it has ceased to govern effectively or to inspire allegiance. The Senate, which had led Rome to world dominance, became a self-seeking, unimaginative, entrenched oligarchy that was dragging the Republic and the Mediterranean world into disaster.

Rome in the first century b.c. was very different from the Rome that had defeated Hannibal. Entranced by luxuries flowing into Rome from its eastern conquests and determined to retain oligarchic rule, the senatorial families neglected their responsibility to the state. Many upper-class Romans, burning to achieve the dignity and glory that would mark them as great men, tried to climb onto the crowded stage of Roman politics, but the best roles were already reserved for members of the senatorial families. With so few opportunities, aspirants to political power stopped at nothing.

Roman politics in the century after the Gracchi was bedeviled by intrigues, rivalries, personal ambition, and violence. Political adventurers exploited the issue of cheap grain and free land in order to benefit their careers. Whereas the Gracchi were sincere reformers, these later champions of social reform were unscrupulous demagogues who cleverly charmed and manipulated the city poor with bread and circuses: low-cost food and free admission to games. These demagogues aspired to the tribunate of the plebes, an office possessing powers formidable enough to challenge the Senate and not too difficult to obtain since ten tribunes were elected each year. By riding a wave of popular enthusiasm, these political adventurers hoped to sweep aside the Senate and concentrate power in their own hands. The poor, denied land and employment, demoralized, alienated, and lulled into political ignorance by decades of idleness, food handouts, and free entertainment, were ready to back whoever made the most glittering promises. The Senate behaved like a decadent oligarchy, and the Tribal Assembly, which had become the voice of the urban mob, demonstrated a weakness for demagogues, an openness to bribery, and an abundance of deceit and incompetence. The Roman Republic had passed the peak of its greatness.

6-4cRival Generals

Marius (157–86 b.c.), who became consul in 107 b.c., adopted a military policy that eventually contributed to the wrecking of the Republic. Until about 100 b.c., soldiers served essentially at their own expense, paying for their arms, armor, and food. This meant that only men of some substance could serve. Short of troops for a campaign in Numidia in North Africa, Marius disposed of the traditional property requirement for entrance into the army and filled his legions with volunteers from the urban poor, a dangerous precedent. These new soldiers, disillusioned with Rome, served only because Marius held out the promise of pay, loot, and land grants after discharge. In effect, they were Marius’s clients. Their loyalty was not to Rome but to Marius, and they remained loyal to their commander only as long as he fulfilled his promises.

Marius set an example that other ambitious commanders followed. They saw that a general could use his army to advance his political career, that by retaining the confidence of his soldiers he could cow the Senate and dictate Roman policy. The army, no longer an instrument of government, became a private possession of generals. Seeing its authority undermined by generals appointed by the Assembly, the Senate was forced to seek army commanders who would champion the cause of senatorial rule. In time, Rome would be engulfed in civil wars as rival generals used their troops to strengthen their political affiliations and to further their own ambitions.

Meanwhile, the Senate continued to deal ineffectively with Rome’s problems. When Rome’s Italian allies—who had provided the manpower needed to conquer the Empire—pressed for citizenship, the Senate refused to make concessions. The Senate’s shortsightedness plunged Italy into a savage war known as the Social War. As it ravaged the peninsula, the Romans reversed their policy and conferred citizenship on the Italians. The unnecessary and ruinous rebellion petered out.

While Rome was fighting its Italian allies, Mithridates, king of Pontus in northern Asia Minor, invaded the wealthy Roman province of Asia. In 88 b.c., he incited the local population to massacre eighty thousand Italian residents of the province, a devastating blow to Rome’s economy and prestige. Mithridates and his forces crossed into Greece and occupied Athens and other cities. Faced with this crisis, the Senate entrusted command to Sulla (138–78 b.c.), who had distinguished himself in the Social War. But supporters of Marius, through intrigue and violence, had the order rescinded and the command given to Marius.

Sulla refused to accept his loss of command, which deprived him of honor and opportunity for riches; with his loyal troops, he proceeded to the capital. This was a fateful moment in Roman history: the first march on Rome by a Roman legion, the first prolonged civil war, and the first time a commander and his troops defied the government. The competition for honor, the overriding concern of Roman aristocrats, had taken Rome down a perilous path. Sulla won the first round. But when Sulla left Rome to fight Mithridates in Greece, Marius and his troops retook the city and, in a frenzy, lashed out at Sulla’s supporters. The killing lasted for five days and nights.

Marius died shortly afterward. Sulla, on his return, quickly subdued Marius’s supporters and became dictator of Rome. He instituted a terror that far surpassed Marius’s violence. Without legal sanction and with cold-blooded cruelty, Sulla marked his opponents for death; the state seized their property and declared their children and grandchildren ineligible for public office.

Sulla resolved to use his absolute power to revive the Senate’s rule and make it permanent. He believed that only rule by an aristocratic oligarchy could protect Rome from future military adventurers and assure domestic peace. Therefore, he restored the Senate’s right to veto acts of the Assembly, limited the power of the tribunes and the Assembly, and, to prevent any march on Rome, reduced the military authority of provincial governors. To make the Senate less oligarchic, he increased its membership to six hundred. Having put through these reforms, Sulla retired.

 

Julius Caesar

The Senate failed to wield its restored authority effectively. The Republic was still menaced by military commanders who used their troops for their own political advantage, and underlying problems remained unsolved. In 60 b.c., a triumvirate, a ruling group of three—consisting of Julius Caesar (c. 100–44 b.c.), a politician; Pompey, a general; and Crassus, a wealthy banker—conspired to take over Rome. The ablest of the three was Caesar. Descended from an ancient noble family, Caesar had first gained public recognition for his demonstration of conspicuous bravery in Rome’s assault on the rebellious Greek city of Mytilene. Upon returning to Rome, he distinguished himself as an orator—his star was rising.

Recognizing the importance of a military command as a prerequisite for political prominence, Caesar gained command of the legions in Gaul in 59 b.c. The following year he began the conquest of the part of Gaul not under Roman control, bringing the future France, Belgium, Germany, west of the Rhine, southern Holland, and Switzerland into the orbit of Greco-Roman civilization. Lasting eight years, the Roman conquest of Gaul was marked by brutal mutilations and massacres. Hundreds of thousands of Gauls were killed and hundreds of thousands more enslaved. The campaign was brilliantly described in his Commentaries, although, to be sure, the work was a deliberate attempt to apprise the Roman public of his military prowess. The successful Gallic campaigns and the invasion of Britain revealed Caesar’s exceptional talent for generalship: he acted decisively and demonstrated a superior intellect and a resolute will; moving troops rapidly, he surprised and panicked the enemy; he gained the respect, if not love, of his men, who admired his battlefield skills and courage and were grateful for the material awards he distributed to them. By plundering Gaul, he also acquired a fortune that would be used to further his political career, particularly bribing Roman officials. Indeed, Caesar’s victories alarmed the Senate, which feared that the popular general would use his devoted troops and soaring reputation to seize control of the state.

Meanwhile, the triumvirate had fallen apart. In 53 b.c., Crassus had perished with his army in a disastrous campaign against the Parthians in the East. The bonds between Pompey and Caesar were weak, consisting essentially of Pompey’s marriage to Caesar’s daughter Julia. After her death in 54 b.c., Pompey and Caesar grew apart. Pompey, who was jealous of Caesar’s success and eager to expand his own power, drew closer to the Senate. Supported by Pompey, the Senate ordered Caesar to relinquish his command. Caesar realized that without his troops he would be defenseless; he decided instead to march on Rome. After Caesar crossed the Rubicon River from Gaul into Italy in 49 b.c., civil war again ravaged the Republic. Pompey proved no match for so talented a general; the Senate acknowledged Caesar’s victory and appointed him to be dictator, a legal office, for ten years.

Caesar realized that republican institutions no longer operated effectively and that only strong and enlightened leadership could permanently end the civil warfare destroying Rome. His reforms were designed to create order out of chaos. Caesar responded to the grievances of the provincial subjects by lowering taxes, making the governors responsible to him, restraining Roman businessmen from ruthlessly draining the provinces’ wealth, and generously extending citizenship. To gain greater support for Rome, he also granted citizenship to more Italians. To aid the poor in Rome, he began a public works program, which provided employment and beautified the city. He also relocated more than a hundred thousand veterans and members of Rome’s lower class to the provinces, where he gave them land. To improve administration, he reorganized town governments in Italy, reformed the courts, and planned to codify the law. He attempted to conciliate the senatorial class by treating former enemies with moderation and generosity.

Bust of Caesar

Julius Caesar tried to rescue a dying Roman world by imposing strong rule. He paved the way for the transition from republican to imperial rule.

 

(Scala/Art Resource, N.Y.)

In February 44 b.c., Rome’s ruling class—jealous of Caesar’s success and power and afraid of his ambition—became thoroughly alarmed when his temporary dictatorship was converted into a lifelong office. The aristocracy saw this event as the end of senatorial government and their rule, which they equated with liberty, and as the beginning of a Hellenistic type of monarchy. A fundamental principle of republican political thinking was that no one person, no tyrant, should ever rule Rome. On March 15 of that year, a group of aristocrats, regarding themselves as defenders of centuries-old republican traditions and institutions, assassinated Caesar. The group included the general and orator Marcus Junius Brutus. Cicero expressed the feeling that motivated the conspirators.

Our tyrant deserves his death, [for his] was the blackest crime of all. [Caesar was] a man who was ambitious to be king of the Roman people and master of the whole world…. The man who maintains that such an ambition is morally right is a madman, for he justifies the destruction of law and liberty.

 

The Republic’s Last Years

The assassination of Julius Caesar did not restore republican liberty but plunged Rome into renewed civil war. Thousands more died in battle or were killed in the proscriptions—lists of Roman citizens declared by their political enemies to be outlaws. Those proscribed had their property confiscated and could be executed. Two of Caesar’s trusted lieutenants, Mark Antony and Lepidus, joined with Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son, and defeated the armies of Brutus and Cassius, two conspirators in the plot against Caesar. After Lepidus was forced into political obscurity, Antony and Octavian fought each other, with control of Rome as the prize. In 31 b.c., at the naval battle of Actium in western Greece, Octavian crushed the forces of Antony and his wife, Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra (who had earlier borne Julius Caesar’s son). Octavian emerged as master of Rome and four years later became, in effect, the first Roman emperor. The Roman Republic, whose death throes had lasted for decades and kept the Mediterranean world in turmoil, had finally perished.

The Roman Republic, which had amassed power to a degree hitherto unknown in the ancient world, was wrecked not by foreign invasion but by internal weaknesses: the personal ambitions of power seekers; the degeneration of senatorial leadership and the transformation of political rivalry into violence and terror, in which opponents were condemned to death and their property confiscated; the formation of private armies, in which soldiers gave their loyalty to their commander rather than to Rome; the transformation of a self-reliant peasantry into an impoverished and demoralized city rabble; and the deterioration of the ancient virtues that had been the source of the state’s vitality. Before 146 b.c., the threat posed by foreign enemies, particularly Carthage, had forced Romans to work together for the benefit of the state, and the equilibrium achieved during the patrician–plebeian struggle was maintained. This social cohesion broke down when foreign danger diminished. In the ensuing century of turmoil, the apparatus of city-state government failed to function effectively.

Thus, the high point of Roman rule was not achieved under the Republic. The city-state constitution of the Republic was too limited to govern an immense empire. Rome first had to surpass the narrow framework of city-state government before it could unite the Mediterranean world in peace and law. The genius of Augustus (Octavian), the first emperor, made this development possible.

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Cleopatra

Cleopatra (69–30 b.c.), the Greek queen of Egypt, belonged to the Ptolemaic family, the Macedonian Greeks who ruled Egypt during the Hellenistic Age. Cleopatra spoke Greek, received a Greek education, and viewed herself as Greek, but in contrast to her Ptolemaic predecessors, she also learned to speak the Egyptian tongue. Aspiring to revive Ptolemaic power, which had once extended into Palestine and Lebanon, she had the political good sense to realize that this could not be accomplished by antagonizing Rome, which dominated the Mediterranean world.

Cleopatra became Julius Caesar’s mistress when the Roman leader stopped at Alexandria. In 47 b.c., she bore a son, declaring that Caesar was the father, and in the next year she followed Caesar to Rome. Three years after Caesar’s assassination, she became Mark Antony’s lover and bore him twins. She worked closely with Antony, who competed with Octavian for control of the Roman world. At the naval battle of Actium in 31 b.c., Antony and Cleopatra escaped to Egypt, where Octavian pursued them. When Antony’s forces either surrendered to Octavian without a fight or fled, Cleopatra barricaded herself inside her mausoleum. Thinking that she had killed herself, Antony plunged a sword into his body. A messenger told the dying Antony that Cleopatra was still alive and wished to see him. Slaves carried him to her. Because the mausoleum’s doors were sealed, he had to be hoisted with great difficulty to an opening in the wall by Cleopatra and her female servants. Plutarch, the ancient biographer, described the scene:

Those that were present say that nothing was ever more sad than this spectacle, to see Antony, covered all over with blood and just expiring, thus drawn up, still holding up his hands to her, and lifting up his body with the little force he had left…. When she had got him up, she laid him on the bed, tearing all her clothes, which she spread upon him; and beating her breast with her hands, lacerating herself, and disfiguring her own face with the blood from his wounds, she called him her lord, her husband, her emperor.

Antony died shortly afterward. Captured by the Romans, Cleopatra feared that Octavian would parade her in a victory celebration at Rome. To avoid such a humiliation, the proud Cleopatra poisoned herself, ending the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. In a last letter, she requested to be buried beside Antony.

Cleopatra’s life and death have intrigued historians; writers, including Shakespeare; and Hollywood producers. Her true character remains elusive. She had sufficient allure to attract both Caesar and Antony and sufficient ruthlessness to murder her younger brother, and co-ruler, in order to make her son co-ruler. No doubt her determination and ambition made her an equal partner with Antony in their political quest.

 

 

 

 

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