Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 2: The Hellenistic Era - Greeks, Romans, and Jews

Copyright ©2010, 2011by T. Pavlidis

After Alexander's Conquests

After his victories, Alexander married a Persian woman and encouraged his generals to also marry Persian women. He also insisted that he be given similar honors as the Persian king used to receive. This set a pattern for the region where the conqueror of a big empire lays claim to the honors that used to given to the defeated emperor. Most notably, it recurred after the conquest of the Byzantine Empire by the Ottomans in 1453CE.

Alexander died very young and the lands he conquered were divided into several kingdoms ruled by his generals. Notable kingdoms were those of Syria (with first ruler Antiochus) and Egypt (with first ruler Ptolemy). While the easter parts of the conquest were lost to a resurgent Persian dynasty, the western parts remained for the most part outside Persian control. Greek rule continued for two more centuries in the lands of the following modern counties: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece.

Alexander's World
Map of the lands under Greek rule at the time of Alexander's death. (Alexander's empire is shown in light gray while other Greek areas are shown in dark gray or black light.) The map is adapted from Prof. Wiseman's web site (*) where a larger version of the map in color can be found.

Very soon the Greek language became dominant in those lands and it continued to be so after the Roman conquest of the kingdoms. The last kingdom to fall to the Romans was Egypt under the famous queen Cleopatra (69-30BCE), actually the seventh queen of Egypt with that name. (Wikipedia article on Cleopatra VII.) (See bellow) While Latin was the official language of Rome, Greek continued as the prevailing language in the former Hellenistic kingdoms. There were also earlier Greek settlements (colonies) in Sicily, Southern Italy, and parts of North Africa. Thus the Greek language and culture were well established in the Eastern Mediterranean and continued to be so until the Islamic conquests. However, most historians define the Hellenistic period only until the time Christianity became the favorite religion of the Roman emperors, so it lasted for close to 600 years, from around late 4th century BCE to early 4th century CE.

While the conquerors introduced the Greek language and culture in the lands of the Persian empire they were also influenced by the authoritarian Persian methods of government. Greek democracy survived only in the history books. However, the Greek kingdoms did not adopt a monotheistic state religion.

Another influence by the conquered was in terms of religious cults, in particular the Egyptian cult of Isis and the Zoroastrian (Persian) cult of Mithra. The contact with India may also have contributed the introduction of ideas from farther east than Persia. The first appearance of monasticism in countries of the Mediterranean basin was in the Jewish sect of Essenes around the second century BCE. That is well after Hindu and Buddhist monasticism as well as after Alexander's conquests that reached India. Monasticism became very big after Christianity won the favor of Roman emperors. Note that monks and nuns share with the eunuchs the characteristic of not having progeny, therefore they are also likely to be particularly loyal to their organization. Direct Persian influences on the Essenes may include the institution of bishops and the emphasis on the fight between good and evil.

Intellectual Flourishing in the Hellenistic Era

While Greek democracy did not spread, Greek philosophy and mathematics did. Alexandria, the Egyptian city founded by Alexander became a true academic center. One famous Alexandrian is Euclid whose book Elements is the first systematic exposure in mathematics (covering geometry and number theory) where results are derived through logical proofs from a set of axioms. Euclid lived around 300BCE and little is known about his life other than that he lived and worked in Alexandria. See the Wikipedia article on Euclid for more about him.

Another famous Alexandrian mathematician who lived 600 years after Euclid is Pappus who made several contributions to plane and solid geometry. ( Hypatia of Alexandria was a philosopher and mathematician, something quite unusual for a woman in those times. She is also memorable for the horrible death she suffered in the hands of Christian fanatics in 415. For the awful details see Gibbons account [EG, Chapter XLVII, vol. 5, pp. 14-15]. There is also a good Wikipedia entry about her:

Some scholars mark the end of classical antiquity with the death of Hypatia but even in late fifth century Alexandria continued to be an intellectual magnet. The philosopher Proclus (412-485) was born in Constantinople but went to study in Alexandria. (Eventually he moved to Athens, a city that had always been the center of philosophy.)

The Library of Alexandria was renown in antiquity and it was established early in the third century BCE under royal patronage. It lasted for over three hundred years and then it suffered a series of fires, first during Caesar's attack against the city. A major setback occurred during the attack of the Roman emperor Aurelian against the city around 270CE. The establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire (see Chapter 3) did not help, so by the time of the Islamic conquest in the seventh century it is highly unlikely that it existed. Hence the report of its being burned by the new conquerors seems unfounded.

There was intellectually flourishing outside Alexandria. Lucian (Λουκιανος), the famous satirist was born in Samosata (now in southeastern Turkey) and lived in the second century CE. His works have a modern flavor and he is consider to have influence such writers as Rabelais and Swift. (See the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Lucian.)

The Rise of Rome

Rome started humbly as a small kingdom around the eponymous city that was founded according to legend in 753BCE. We may note that the start of the ancient Olympic games is placed at 776BCE in Greece and that the founding of Rome is attributed to the Trojan Aeneas who fled to the Italian peninsula after the sack of Troy by the Greeks. Both Greeks and Romans seem to descend from the same group of "Indo-Europeans" that came from the plains of Ukraine. This is attested by the similarities between ancient Greek and Latin and similarities between the deities of their religion.

The Roman kingdom was followed by the Roman Republic that lasted from about 500BCE to about 30BCE when Octavius Augustus became the first emperor. In effect the end of the Republic came at the hands of Augustus's adoptive father, Julies Caesar. Before Rome became a major power it had to deal with several challenges. One was the invasion of Italy by the Greek king of Epirus, Pyrrhus who defeated the Romans in two battles circa 280BCE but the battles were too costly to him and they gave rise to the expression Pyrrhic victory.

A more serious challenge to Rome was posed by Carthage, in the North Africa (in present day Tunis) that had its start as a Phoenician colony. There were three Punic wars (the name is derived from Phoenician), 264-241BCE, 218-201BCE, and 149-146BCE, The second war features the Carthaginian general Hannibal who crossed the Alps with an army that included elephants and crashed a bigger Roman army at Cannae in 216BCE. Hannibal had place his weak infantry at the center while keeping his cavalry force in the wings. When the Roman cavalry made a wedge attack in the center, Hannibal's cavalry encircled and crashed them. Then the cavalry slaughtered the Roman infantry. The Roman's lost over 50,000 men in that battle. But they had the last word when the Roman Scipio landed in Africa and defeated the Carthaginians at Zama in 202BCE. That earned Scipio the eponymAfricanus. Carthage signed a humiliating treaty with Rome and it was obliterated 50 years later in the third Punic war. That gave Rome a complete control of the Mediterranean sea.

Historical Trivia: The Roman general who was defeated and killed in the battle of Cannae was Lucius Aemilius Paullus. The German general at Stalingrad was Friedrich Wilhelm Ernst Paulus. Both the Roman and, over 2000 years later, the German armies were encircled after failed wedge attacks. It is reported that the similarity of the leaders names was noted by the German officers in Stalingrad. (They had studied the Punic wars in their military academies.)

The defeated Hannibal had sought refuge with the Greek king of Syria and that gave the Romans an excuse to mount a campaign against Greece. Paullus' son, also named Lucius Aemilius Paullus defeated the Macedonians in 168BCE. By 30BCE Rome had completed the conquest of the Greek kingdoms and pretty soon Octavius Augustus was declared emperor.

The Roman Empire reached its greater extent under emperor Trajan in 116CE. There was a syncretism between Greek and Roman culture and a Greco-Roman culture flourish that covered a good part of Europe, North Africa, today's Middle East. The area shown in the map contains close to 50 modern states (with 7 of them being part of the former Yugoslavia). Some parts of the empire (notably North Africa) have seen a downward trend since the Roman times. Libya and Tunisia have Greek/Roman ruins that rival those of Italy and Greece, but their modern development is well below that of the latter countries.

Roman and Greek Influence
Areas that were under Greek or Roman government at any time in Antiquity. Lands east of the double white line reverted to the Persians, so they were under Greek-Roman rule for much shorter time than the rest. Map adapted from Prof. Wiseman's web site (*) where a larger version of the map in color can be found.

Pax Romana - The First Globalization

The peace imposed by the Romans (Pax Romana) and the common Greek language encouraged significant trade and interaction amongst historically diverse people. It was probably the first instant of globalization where trade across the Mediterranean was less hindered than before (or after). Global trade allowed some individuals to become very wealthy. The main source of wealth was still agriculture but the availability of imports allow people to restrict cultivation of their lands with crops that did best in their region and therefore increase the productivity of their land.

Historians place the period of Pax Romana from the start of the Empire around 30BCE to the death of emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180CE, so it lasted for over 200 years. Gibbon places the peak of the empire "during a happy period (98CE-180CE) ... (when) ... the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines." [EG, p. 1] The Antonines Gibbon refers to are Antoninus Pius (138-161CE) and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (161-180CE). The latter wrote a book in Greek titled Meditations (Τα Εις Εαυτον) and he is considered a worthy instance of the philosopher king envisioned by Plato.

Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his son Commodus who turned out to be the opposite of the father. His reign was a disaster and he was assassinated in a "palace coup" in December 31 192CE. He is the Roman emperor featured in the 2000 movie Gladiator. Commodus was succeeded by Pertinax who lasted only three months in the "year of the five emperors." Usually a ruler is toppled by an antagonist who takes over as ruler, but Commodus' end came at that hands of a group that included his mistress Marcia. Marcia served him poisoned food but he threw up and then he was strangled by one of his wrestling partners. As a result there was no obvious successor and a "free-for-all " followed where different generals fought for the crown. The final winner was Septimius Severus who reigned from 193 to 211 but the long decline of the Roman empire had started.

A Paradox? Today it is often said that Democracy is a prerequisite for development. The relative prosperity (compared to previous times) and intellectual life during the Hellenistic period and Pax Roman happened under authoritarian regimes. What seemed to matter was the rule of law (applied not only to the criminals but also circumscribing the actions of the officials) and lack of any official orthodoxy.

Hellenism and Judaism

One of the consequences of Pax Romana was the expansion of Judaism as a religion and the inroads of Greek culture amongst the Jews. These developments facilitated later the spread of Christianity. It is important to understand that in those times it was possible for a person to be at the same time a Jew, a Greek, and a Roman because each of these designations was applicable to a different domain of human experience. (BL95, pp. 30-32) After the Babylonian exile a Jew was a person who followed the religion of Judaism (as it is in modern times) without having to speak Hebrew or live in the land of Israel. A Greek was someone who spoke Greek and, possibly, followed certain cultural customs. After Alexander's conquests It did not imply adherence to the religion of the Olympian deities and it never implied an affiliation with a state. Until the early 19th century  there was no Greek state; there was an Athenian state, a Spartan state, a Theban state, etc but no Greek state. The Roman empire developed for the first time in history the concept of citizenship that could be acquired legally without any presumptions on ethnic origin. Thus someone could be a Jew by religion, a Greek by language, and a Roman by citizenship. (One famous person who was all three was Paul of Tarsus.)

Not only the number of Greeks peaked during the Hellenistic period, so did the number of Jews. According to the article on Proselytes of the Encyclopedia Judaica [EJ2007, vol. 16, pp. 587-594] there was active proselytization in ancient times and even a case of "mass and forced conversion to Judaism of the Edomites by John Hyrcanus". Josephus has written that "the inhabitants of both Greek and barbarian cities evinced a great zeal for Judaism" (Contra Apion, 2:39 as quoted in Encyclopedia Judaica [ibid]). As a result Jews were far more numerous in proportion to the population than they are today. There are estimates that "Jews (were) one tenth of the population of the empire as a whole" [EJ2007, article on Europe, vol. 6, pp. 554-555] and in Greece and Asia Minor the proportion may have been as high as one fifth (according to the historian Salo W. Baron). The modern Jewish attitude towards proselytization is indeed negative [EJ2007, vol. 16, pp. 587-594] because, in contrast to polytheism, the new monotheistic religions "regarded abandonment of their faith and transfer to another religion as a capital offense" [EJ2007, vol. 16, pp. 587-594].

Bernard Lewis [BL95, p. 31-32] points out that Greeks, Jews, and Romans were able to have a large impact in history because each group allowed the inclusion of outsiders. The process for doing so may have been strenuous (learning the Greek language, undergoing conversion to Judaism, qualifying for Roman citizenship) but it was not an impossible task.

A good place to appreciate the integration of Greek and Jewish culture is the Jewish Museum in Rome. The museum contains a large exhibit of ancient tombstones, all of them in Greek that are almost indistinguishable from Greek tombstones that can seen in museums in Athens. In a few cases one can see a depiction of a menorah, otherwise one must read the text to realize that they are Jewish Tombstones. For example, the word ΑΡΧΙΣΥΝΑΓΩΓΟΣ (head of the Synagogue) can be found often. Figure 1 shows an example of Greek-Jewish syncretism.

The biggest monument to Greek-Jewish interaction is the translation of the Jewish Bible into Greek, the Septuagint. The name is derived from the Latin word for 70 because, supposedly, there were 70 translators. The translation was carried out in Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE by Jewish scholars who were, supposedly, convened by the Greek king of Egypt. The Septuagint played a major in Christianity and it is still used by the Greek Orthodox Church.

Figure 1: Greek-Jewish interaction

The picture shown on the left is taken from the cover the book (in Greek) Hellenism and Judaism by M. G. Fougias. The word ACTHP means star in Greek.

Levine's book [LL98] is a good modern source for the interaction between Judaism and Hellenism and the following paragraphs rely on that book. Judaism faced several challenges in dealing with the outside world and the responses can be roughly classified as universalist or conservative. For example, Hillel was a universalist while Shammai was a conservative [ibid, pp. 103-106]. Also there was considerable variance in the architecture and decoration of Synagogues even in the same city [ibid, p. 170]. But the overall thrust was universalist and in tune with the world around. Such central Jewish customs as the Ketubah and the Seder were imports from the Hellenistic world. The ritual of the Seder (including the questions asked) is based on the form of a Greek symposium. The custom of the afikoman has also Greek roots. The word is a corruption of the Greek word αφοικομενοι meaning those who arrive and it refers to a boisterous conclusion of a Greek symposium. So the rabbis wrote "One does not conclude the Passover celebration with the afikoman", etc. [ibid, p. 122]. The word synagogue itself is of Greek origin (it means gathering). Levine makes a good case that women sat with the men in the ancient Synagogues [ibid, pp. 175-176], so the current separation in some Orthodox Synagogues is probably an "innovation" adopted from Christian practice.

It seems that at the end of the fourth century CE Judaism was quite different than at the start of the Hellenistic period, late in the 4th century BCE. The start of the 5th century CE marks the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and the severe persecution of all other religions started. Judaism seems to be the only one of these religions to survive with a significant number of members but it entered into a new phase. Levine points out that universalism was, naturally, opposed in times of trouble [ibid, pp. 103-104]. Therefore the Judaism that developed during the fifteen hundred years of persecutions had to be different from what it existed before the fifth century BCE.

Population Peaks and Modern Heritage

Modern Greeks like to emphasize their descent from Greeks of the classical era. A more realistic lineage is from Greeks of the Hellenistic era when the number of people identifying themselves as Greeks reached its peak. The number stayed high till the Arab conquest of the 7th century CE. That event started a series of steep declines, in particular, those that followed the Seljuk and Ottoman Turk conquests with conversions to Islam and adoption of other languages [SV71]. In the west the Greek population decline came as southern Italy and Sicily became part of Italian kingdoms with Greeks adopting both the western version of Christianity and the Italian language (although Greek was spoken in some villages till the 20th century). Therefore descendants of the Hellenistic period Greeks could be found not only in Greece but also in Italy, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East and Northern Africa. Because of population movements inhabitants of modern Greece descend not only from the Greeks of the classical era but also from Greeks of the largest area of the Hellenistic influence.

We may also ask what happened to the ancient people of Anatolia such as the Hittites, the Phrygians, and the Lydians who all had kingdoms during the 2000BCE to 500BCE period. Croesus (of extraordinary wealth fame) was the last king of Lydia. Gordias (of Gordian knot fame) and Midas (of the golden touch fame) were legendary kings of Phrygia. They all came under Persian rule around 500BCE and under Greek rule two hundred years later. Their descendants almost certainly ended up as Greek speaking subjects of the Hellenistic kingdoms.

This seems to be confirmed by studies of genetic markers. Barbujani and Sokal [BS90] gathered genetic markers from over 3000 European sites and plotted a surface of their distributions. Then they looked for places where there were discontinuities. There is a boundary in the north of Greece separating Greeks from the Slavs. But there are no boundaries along the Ionian or the Aegean seas (even though there is a boundary between Sicily and Malta). In other words, there are no significant genetic differences between Greeks and southern Italians or Greeks and western Turks.

This result is interesting in another way. During the German occupation of Greece during 1941-44, the Germans decreed that modern Greeks were not descendents of ancient Greeks (whom the Germans supposedly admired) but of Slavs, and therefore they could be mistreated accordingly. Of course the Barbujani and Sokal study [ibid] shows that whatever other contributions to modern Greeks exist, they are not Slavic.

While the Greek population remained high until the 7th century CE, the Jewish population started declining from the 4th century CE, when Roman emperors began favoring Christianity. It is not by chance that the largest Jewish populations of the early Middle Ages existed in countries that were beyond the control of the Roman empire. Iran was never part of that empire, Iraq was a disputed land between the Persians and the Romans, and Spain fell to the Vandals in early 5th century CE. In a way that parallels the Greeks, modern Jews descend not only from people of the Jewish kingdoms but also from Jews of the large diaspora during the Hellenistic and early Roman times. Similarly, given the large proportion of Jews in what is now Greece and Turkey, some people in either of these countries must have Jewish ancestors.

Additional Bibliography

BS90 G. Barbujani and R. P. Sokal "Zones of sharp genetic change in Europe are also linguistic boundaries", Proc. Nat. Acd. Sci. USA, vol. 87, pp. 1816-1819, March 1990.
EJ2007 Encyclopedia Judaica, second edition, Tomson Gale publishers, 2007.

First Posted: January 6, 2010. Latest Revision: September 19, 2011.

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