Chronicle 2. IT ALL STARTED HERE…
IT ALL STARTED HERE: in the Mediterranean.
ALTHOUGH BORN supposedly in Africa, man was civilized around the Mediterranean, in the Near East, more specifically in the arc formed by Mesopotamia, the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine) and the Nile valley in Egypt, also extending to Cyprus and Anatolia, as far as the Taurus Mountains: it was the so-called Fertile Crescent, where man made the first giant leap with the Neolithic agricultural revolution. It took millennia until something equal in scope happened again, with the industrial revolution that started in England in the 18th century.
Man made the first giant leap in the Fertile
Crescent with the Neolithic revolution
Despite the view that this second revolution signaled a return to barbarity, let us stick to generally accepted ideas for the time being. Even common sense says the key was the first step, when hunters and gatherers became pastoralists and farmers. This development was probably brought about by women: gathering fruit was their responsibility together with children, while men hunted.(a) Thus, we can reasonably assume that agriculture, especially farming, the main aspect of the emerging rural economy, has been an innovation brought forth by women.(b)
As is well known, a farmer is more bound to the land than a hunter-gatherer or a pastoralist. Thus, the transition to farming led to the creation of permanent settlements that gradually grew: they became villages, some of them towns, or even cities. The latter – as the Hellenic and Latin words polis (πόλις) and civitas indicate – brought about both politics and civilization. Man began his gradual transformation into what Aristotle would much later call a “political animal” to identify a new distinctive feature of Homo sapiens vis-à-vis the other species.
The transition to farming led to the creation of settlements
that gradually grew: they became villages, towns, cities.
The latter brought forth both politics and civilization.
Cities require central authority and hierarchy, imposing monuments, division of labour, specialization. They necessitate the arts and crafts, architecture, pottery, commerce, metallurgy… The Mediterranean periplus began tentatively at that time, in parallel with the caravan routes along land roads that were inaccessible and dangerous. Consequently, so long as man familiarized himself with the sea, he’d rather sail than travel on land. It is an oxymoron that the liquid element is far more “solid” and safe, but that’s how it is. Besides, land roads were largely non-existent at that time.
No need to say, the exchange of commercial goods is accompanied with the exchange of ideas, aesthetic patterns, intellectual “goods”, innovations. That is how the new way of life spread rapidly inside and outside the Mediterranean basin, reaching eastwards as far as the Indian subcontinent and beyond: the Indo-Mediterranean contacts date back to at least the third millennium BCE, or even earlier.
The exchange of commercial goods is accompanied with
the exchange of ideas, aesthetic patterns, innovations.
The conditions were already ripe for the next titanic step: writing. Even though the reasons for this great innovation were initially… bureaucratic (administrative record keeping, transfer of orders and messages), the invention and subsequent simplification of writing with the alphabet was indispensable as a condition for the systematic transfer of knowledge between generations and, of course, for the cultivation of literature and the arts – fields where the Hellenes excelled.
Although the ancient Greeks constitute a universal point of reference, one needs to turn away from every temptation of nationalist simplifications. A “threat from the East” was there even then: it was the Persians. At the same time, knowledge from the East was also there: an aspiring Hellene philosopher wishing to become a sage would go there for his “PhD”! The Orient was the source of innumerable artifacts and ideas, along with their know-how. However, everything imported and adopted, had to be adapted according to the local needs and tastes; and some went by the wayside…
One of the several historical oxymora in this period e.g. concerns the differences between the Aegean and the Orient in their political structures. The decentralized Grecian city-states that flourished in the Iron Age, i.e. in classical times, had few Oriental equivalents: the Sumerian and Phoenician cities. On the contrary, the prevailing state entities in the East were centralized empires of both the Bronze and Iron Ages. Be that as it may, the mighty Achaemenid Empire was repeatedly defeated and humiliated by the “Amphictyony” of Hellenes – except the Thebans and some other so-called medísantes (μηδίσαντες) “Quislings”: i.e. all those who surrendered to the Persians-Medes and fought on their side.
● “Except the Thebans”: it is a reference to the subsequent and far more well-known “except the Lacedaemonians”, from the famous victorious inscription on the Battle of the Granicus river in 334 BCE: “Alexander, son of Philip, and the Hellenes except the Lacedaemonians”! In the previous year, the Spartans, spoiled during the “Median” or Graeco-Persian Wars, as they had always been in command, refused to participate in Alexander’s campaign, because there would not be… a king of Sparta in command! Constantine Cavafy poetically commented:
In the Year 200 B.C.
“Alexander, son of Philip, and the Greeks except the Lacedaemonians…”
We can very well imagine
how completely indifferent the Spartans would have been
to this inscription. “Except the Lacedaemonians” –
naturally. The Spartans
weren’t to be led and ordered around
like precious servants. Besides,
a pan-Hellenic expedition without
a Spartan king in command
was not to be taken very seriously.
Of course, then, “except the Lacedaemonians.”
That’s certainly one point of view. Quite understandable.
So, “except the Lacedaemonians” at Granicus,
then at Issus, then in the decisive battle
where the terrible army
the Persians mustered at Arbela was wiped out:
it set out for victory from Arbela, and was wiped out.
And from this marvelous pan-Hellenic expedition,
triumphant, brilliant in every way,
celebrated on all sides, glorified
as no other has ever been glorified,
incomparable, we emerged:
the great new Hellenic world.
We the Alexandrians, the Antiochians,
the Seleucians, and the countless
other Greeks of Egypt and Syria,
and those in Media, and Persia, and all the rest:
with our far-flung supremacy,
our flexible policy of judicious integration,
and our Common Greek Language
which we carried as far as Bactria, as far as the Indians.
Talk about Lacedaemonians after that!…
● So much for the phrase “except the…”, that’s always been very “trendy” in Hellas. As for the “medísantes” (derived from the Medes, Media, mentioned by Cavafy), they have flooded the land, indeed! Among others, they include even Themistocles, the man who triumphed supreme in the battle of Salamis! His successors have so much ballooned that a list of their names is almost impossible. They are well-known and visible, nevertheless: they mostly crowd the corridors and salons of the ruling elite…
But why In the Year 200 B.C.? Why Cavafy alludes in his title to such a later date? We ignore the poet’s intentions… At any rate, that year the 2nd Macedonian War broke out ending three years later with Rome’s victory over Macedon. It was the beginning of the end because since then Greece fell under full Roman control.
It was not so much that the Hellenes did not want, but rather did not
need an imperial government, as a result of objective conditions…
“THE NECK OF A GREEK the yoke will not abide”, one could say. OK, but this was a result of objective conditions. It was not so much that the Hellenes did not want, but rather that they did not need an imperial government. What for them was an extraordinary situation requiring collective and comprehensive effort, for the Easterners was an everyday struggle with an opponent much more powerful than the mightiest empire: Nature itself…
Expanding his presence in an environment of rather great contrasts, a land that would be barren without the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, with abundant waters but also with floods and cataclysms lurking, the Easterner realized the need for coordination of the efforts of all communities. Next to deserts, symbolizing the constantly present, absolute evil, these rivers were a blessing from heaven but had unpredictable behaviour: thus, they should be tamed. Major public works, especially for irrigation and drainage, were a prerequisite for human survival; commerce, as well, for the supply of the communities with absolutely necessary raw materials, but also luxury goods.
Well, these basic networks of irrigation, and also of state-run trade, necessitated centralized power that should inspire fear. Obviously, all those in power needed law-enforcement agencies: the army and clergy; they needed imposing, majestic palaces, monuments, temples. It’s what Karl Marx has called the “Asiatic mode of production”, and is a key to understand Oriental despotism. A by-product is the relative – or ostensible, as others say – stagnation, or even immobility, that has characterized these societies for millennia until now.
Irrigation and trade necessitated centralized power inspiring fear.
Law-enforcement agencies, the army and clergy, were necessary.
It was impossible for democracy to grow on Babylonian soil.
Let us not forget, however, that these societies cultivated astronomy, geometry, mathematics – for the same reasons they invented writing; societies that created wonders, like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – though hanging from a thread: the infrastructure that had made them great was also their Achilles’ heel. You realize that with just a look at the ruins of Babylon conquered and pillaged by time.(c) It was absolutely impossible for democracy to grow on Babylonian soil.
The Oriental despots, satraps and tyrants were “necessary evils”. And, because there is always a match between worldly and heavenly powers (the concept of monarchies held “by the Grace of God” is in fact quite ancient), equally almighty and omnipotent, terrible and frightful, have been the Oriental gods; especially since they’ve been left alone with no competition at all, after their antagonists had been “dealt with” by the clergy of the new monotheistic religions.(d)
The Oriental despots, satraps and tyrants were “necessary evils”. Equally almighty, terrible and frightful were the Oriental gods. No comparison
with the Olympians, who were full of shortcomings: they were human.
No comparison whatsoever with the Olympians, who were full of shortcomings, as they were human, made in the image of the mortals that had created them, the Hellenes, their way of life, their society – or, rather: societies, for Greece, its topography, generated decentralization. The land was most beautiful, indeed, but not a paradise on earth. Living standards could improve through conquest, but also through expansion, colonization. Either way, each option contributed to an even greater decentralization.
Life, therefore, was not a “test for some happy afterlife” – an idea the common people of the “Asiatic mode of production” should necessarily entertain. The Greeks were shaped and inspired by Hellenic Nature. They philosophized and discussed public issues under her beneficial influence. She “dictated” the forms of their state and political organizations – regardless if they both fomented discord. Their model was the city-state, polis; democracy was their ideal; and freedom their highest virtue – regardless if they lived in a slave and “male” society. It seems contradictory… Moreover, their democracy was pure, direct; today’s so-called “democracy” is the so-called “representative”, where power is not exercised by the people anymore, but by their so-called “representatives”, contrary to the very definition of democracy. (See the additional Chronicle 4 on Democracy). More and more oxymora and paradoxa…
Living in this ambience, the Greeks have not only summarized, but humanized, as well, the ancient world. They have shown what measure, proportion, harmony is. They have turned knowledge and culture into every free citizen’s right, and not that of a privileged closed caste. They have also left their invaluable heritage systematized and documented for future generations. However, just like their gods, they have been full of shortcomings, born out of the same environment that has fostered their virtues, with individualism underlying all. They are called les enfants terribles de l’antiquité. Rather, of human history, I would say…