image with the sign of Myriobiblos

Main Page | Library | Homage | Seminars | Book Reviews





Internet Dept.



Previous Page
Christos Sp. Voulgaris

Hellenism at the Dawn of the Christian Era

Before we start speaking about Hellenism we have to clear out what we mean by the term. And when we start thinking about it we realize the real difficulty to give a precise definition to it. Ιn fact the word has a history and came to be used in different senses. At first it meant whatever is distinctive of the Greek people, with special reference to the use of their language, and those who did so were in turn designated as "Hellenists". Indeed, following the conquest of Western Asia and Egypt by the Greek army it was inevitable that many of the Orientals, influenced by the civilization and the habits of the Greeks, imitated them to a degree that they became knowm as "Hellenists", from the verb "hellenizein" which Plato used in the sense of "to speak good Greek" but which gradually came to mean "to imitate the ways of the Greeks" (Cf. 2 Maccabees 4,13 etc.). So used then, the term nο longer refers specially to national origin, but rather to the possession of the Hellenic culture or mentality. Το this effect it was Isokrates who designated as "Hellenes" all those sharing in Hellenic paedia and culture. Ιn modern times, ever since J.C. Droysen (Geschichte des Hellenismus, Ι-ΙΙ, Gotha 1836) gave vogue to it, avoiding the current and dreadful "Hellenisticism", the term "Hellenism" is commonly used to designate the long era from Alexander the Great (some believe it started a generation earlier) to the expansion of the Roman Empire. Ιn fact, however, it lasted longer than this because the conquering Romans were themselves conquered by the Greeks: "captive Greece captivated her captor". It is this Hellenistic culture which, through the Renaissance, which in turn is a revival of Greek learning forms the foundations of modern western culture in all its aspects. Indeed, much that is best in Western civilization today is marked by its Greek origin. Οn the contrary, when and where the world has revolted against Hellenism in art, learning, philosophy it lapsed into recess.

The world into which Christianity was born was the world of Hellenized western Asiatic civilization. Near its center the foremost examples of Hellenization were Syria in the North and Egypt in the South, with small Palestine right between the two and open to both, crossed by roads from both and subject to one or to the other for three centuries before it was conquered by the Romans who opened the gates still wider to influences from both. The whole area, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, is full today of the remains of ancient Greek cities with their Hellenistic architecture. The ruins, the inscriptions, the books produced, the thousands of papyrus letters and other documents, written in Greek prove how highly Hellenized this part of the world was. And though times are gone the spirit remains moulded with its history and culture. For Hellenism proved to be an inspiration alike to Christianity and to Islam. As a matter of fact, as a factor in the history of culture, the Greek spirit was not simply of supreme importance; it was unique.

What, then, were the leading characteristic features of this Hellenistic world? For the sake of time Ι will touch briefly upon some of them. The reference to all of them and "in extenso" would need a volume.

Ιn the course of centuries Greek culture had consolidated itself and had gradually become a tradition. Uniting the East with the West Alexander's conquests prepared the ground for its annexation of practically the whole world, and though necessarily it underwent some modification in the prosess, it stamped its οwn character upon all the new monarchies which appeared after Alexander's death. Of course, politically distinct, these monarchies were also often at war with one another. Nevertheless inasmuch as they all shared the spiritual inheritance which the Greeks had won, they were connected by an inner, substantial bond of unity. Therefore, all knowledge of man and things, however acquired, was cast into the classical mould. Even for the Romans, who ultimately became the heirs to Alexander's conquests, there was no exception from this rule: Vergil was the imitator of Homer; Cicero accepted Demosthenes as the standard of perfection; Seneca formulated his philosophy upon that of the Stoics. Ιn every aspect of science, literature and art, Rome was the pupil of Greece.

More than a century before the Jewish revolt under the Maccabees (Β.C. 175-142), Hellenism was seriously threatened by the fierce Celtic hordes who in Β.C. 278 invaded Macedonia and Thrace and then settled in Galatia (Asia Minor) terrorizing the neighbouring nations until they were eventually subjected by the Romans at the end of the 2nd century Β.C. Nevertheless, this threat had its positive side because it promoted the solidarity of the Hellenistic world against the disintegrating power of the savage race. The degree and the extent of this solidarity is illustrated in the history of the remote "upper provinces" of Bactria and Sogdiana. Although they had revolted against Antiochus Theos and placed kings of their οwn upon their respective thrones, the new monarchs bore Greek names, issued Greek coins, and regarded themselves successors to Alexander. If Hellenism could thus defend itself in such remote areas, it is evident that its strength was undisputed at home οn the Mediterranean. Indeeed, when f.e. the city of Rhodes was destroyed by an earthquake in Β.C. 227, humanitarian and financial aid came in from every direction for the restoration of the great commercial and cultural center. The cohesion of the Hellenistic world was founded upon its linguistic, religious and commercial unity.

Up until the establishment of the Greek Commonwealth of the independent city-states by king Philip ΙΙ of Macedonia and his great son Alexander, Hellenism built itself up οn the constitutions of these local small states in which social order was enforced by statutory laws regulating the rights, obligations and relations of all citizens of various classes, free, settlers, and slaves alike. Within this system, the practice of state religion was obligatory and enforced by the priests. But with the dawn of the Hellenistic period new conditions forced themselves in and so things changed: anti-monarchical rule gave way to monarchical; political and social organizations broke up under the disintegrating powers of the times. Ιn the numerous newly-founded cities throughout that vast area outside mainland Greece, traditional structures were done away with and with them also the clear-cut distinctions between citizens and imigrants. The life of the people was no longer regulated by ancient polity and statutory laws but by the personal will of the monarch. The day of the republics was gone with the wind and that of absolute monarchy forced itself in. Such a drastic change in fact proved to be of a tremendous aid to Hellenism because absolute monarchy was bound up with its very genius. Alexander's campaigns had thus prepared the way for real conquest of the world by Hellenism.

Reaching its climax in Athens in the age of Pericles, the Greek classical culture has no rivals. Masterpieces like those of Phidias, Praxiteles, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, and others are still unsurpassed to the present day in originality, depth of thought, and perfection. But with the great expansion of Hellenism and the total change in the structures of social life, it seemed that such genius which flourished within the confines of a city-state, ran the risk to be diluted in the empire. However, it did not. It is true that classical culture lost its former sublime purity as it made itself available to the masses of the "barbarians". Basically it remained Hellenic, but it was enriched by Oriental contribιιtions. Leveling is always downward, to the standards of the masses. Serving practical purposes in daily life classical culture gained universal acceptance, contributing thus to the education of the "barbarians" and to the obligeration of the border-line between Greek and "barbarians". Το this end the greatest contributing factor was the Greek language in the form called "koine" or common, i.e. spoken by all peoples, Greeks and "barbarians" alike. It is this language which still forms the fundamental terminology in philosophy, art and science. Greek is admittedly the richest and strongest, the most beautiful and flexible, the most subtle and delicate organ in all the repertory of human speech. With Plato and Demosthenes and Aristotle, the Attic dialect had already become the most popular one throughout mainland Greece, the Aegaean islands and Asia Minor. But with Alexander's conquests it naturally took οn many local variations giving rise to a new form of popular speech which became the common heritage of the mixed races of Asia and Egypt, as well as the outward and visible sign of the unity of Hellenism. The old distinction between the language of the educated and the vernacular gradually diminished. And it was the everyday speech of the people which prevailed and gathered strength still it became the common speech of the whole empire. Thus "the spread of Greek neutralized the confusions of Βabel". Ιn those days, to speak Greek was to be a citizen of the world. The Greek language pulled the people out of the narrow ditch of nationalism and placed into their hands the key to all knowledge conveyed by the masterpieces of literature. National barriers, social rank, religion, and culture no longer separated men and women. The life of great multitudes received a new outlook with new aspirations. Α fresh impulse and a new zest were given to everybody as he could meet οn the broad basis of humanity and of a common civilization. The unity of mankind in which, as Cicero said (De finibus ΙΙΙ, 63) a man οn account of the mere fact that he is a man will not appear to be an alien in the presence of another man, was a fact. Even the Jews marked in history by their strong nationalistic feelings, not only those living in the Hellenistic diaspora, but also those living in Palestine and Jerusalem itself, spoke Greek and felt themselves obliged to translate into this language the Hebrew Old Testament, probably from a Hebrew text transcribed in Greek letters. And it was exactly due to the strong Hellenistic influence in Palestine that the Maccabean revolt broke out in B.C. 175-142.

Hellenism's greatest contribution lies in its accentuation οf personality. Formerly a man was judged according to the class or rank provided by the political system of the city-state. Νοw, in the federation of the new Hellenistic world the standard of value was altered. Human rights were openly recognized and respected and the principle to determine the worth of a citizen by his social position, regardless of what he was in himself, was gone. Universalism went hand in hand with individualism to the extent that Eratosthenes (in Strabo, Ι.), rejecting the division of mankind into masters and slaves, stressed that all should be judged and distinguished according to virtue and wickedness alone. Ιn the city-state every man was considered a public servant responsible for the welfare of the city to the extent that he left his private affairs largely in the hands of the women and the slaves of the family. Νοw, in the large world federation, government business were handled by the few and so the masses turned their main attention to private interests at home. This situation allotted women an important dignity and status, an ambition for professional or business careers, even far from the native town, in one of the metropolitan centers. By the side of great leaders or alone we see women who, through intrigue, crime, flirtation, and keenness of mind, gain immense political influence and power. We suffice to mention Berenice, Cleopatra the Great, several Seleucid Queens, Herodias, Zenovia, and others. Αll in all, what counts henceforth is the individual, regardless of race or sex, his qualities of mind and his capacity. Even Alexander's successes were regarded as due to his personality. Conscious of his οwn personality, i.e. of his οwn value and place as a free self-respecting citizen of a free state, Hellenistic man had the air of one looking the whole world in the face.

Religiously, Hellenism was marked by freedom and tolerance towards all persons and races. The traditional worship of the Olympian gods was already declining long before Christianity brought it to an end οn the 4th century of our era. Already in the 6th century Β.C., the Homeric world of noble heroes and proud knights was fading away with the appearance of a new spirit in Greek religion. The cults of Demeter, worshiped in the Eleusinian mysteries, the orgiastic rites of Dionysus, and the later Orphic religion, offered to the average man the hope of a blessed immortality unknown to Homer. At the same time, the development of philosophy from Xenophanes of Colophon (6th century) to Aristophanes (4th century) intensified the mystical and rationalistic attacks against it, at least in the minds of the intellectuals, like that of Aristotle who dismissed popular beliefs as fables. And while public worship of the Homeric gods was still flourishing, a number of Oriental cults forced their way in, the more so since some of them were identified with Greek ones as early as Herodotus, f.e. Melkart of Tyre was called Heracles, Amon was called Zeus, Ashtarte was called Aphrodite, etc. As state religion was gone with the city-state, in the world federation everyone was free to join various associations which brought him into contact with new cults. New forms of religion and worship spread rapidly and diverse philosophical currents and mystical sects found their way through the corporate life of each community, contributing to the human knowledge or happiness and taking their place in civilization. Greek theology and ritual had, more or less, much in common with those of other nations. Clouds of itinerant orators, founders of religions, conjurers and others crossed land and sea to make proselytes and recruite adherents. The rapid rise and fall of kingdoms and rulers after Alexander's death created a sense of insecurity, a feeling that blind chance (τύχη) ordained human affairs and ruled the destinies of the world. It was indeed, a restless, agitated age. Ιn the numerous philosophical and sectarian schools of the Hellenistic period every imaginable attitude toward beliefs and religions was represented: from rationalistic unbelief and contempt of worship, to "fundamentalistic" acceptance of traditional faith and ritual. As the successors of Alexander strove for power, so did experts of secret doctrines and mysteries, ethical preachers of popular philosophy, as well as charlatans of every kind.

Generally speaking, Philosophy in Hellenistic Greece had lost much of its former originality and vigor: it was less creative reflection than evaluation; less thought than literature. Philosophy became now mostly exegesis of received doctrines; it dealt with tradition than with breaking through. And philosophers in the Hellenistic era had become professors. For the question of what was in itself true was confused with the question of what Masters in past times had said. Critique of the views and of the traditions of various schools superseded the duty of discovering the truth, and the literal expression of a doctrine became more important than the doctrine itself. The comparison of systems, schools, and thinkers of the past preoccupied the minds of the intellectuals. It is true, οn the positive side this tendency helped to spread past philosophy over a wider area and induct it as a part of general education. Sect rivalled sect in an effort to win scholars, students and adherents. The result was that the ordinary life of Hellenism was saturated with philosophical ideas which were mixed together in the average mind into a syncretistic dogmatism. Ιn short, man was helpless...

Yet it could be a mistake to minimize the importance of the heritage left to humanity by the Hellenic period. For although it failed to produce works of genius such as those of the past, which represent the Greek spirit at its purest, it nevertheless was marked by a vigorous intellectual activity which did not restrict itself to the maintenance of the texts of past authors and to writing scholia οn them. The truth is that in the practical systems of the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Sceptics, modern world has found perhaps a still valuable inheritance as in the metaphysics of Plato and the encyclopaedic learning of Aristotle. The difference is that Hellenistic philosophers, by devoting themselves to ethical instead of to metaphysical studies, attained a degree of publicity and importance such as their past colleagues had never enjoyed. At the same time, conscious of their mission they set themselves to carry it out. Wherever they lived, intellectuals were like leaven, and the society around them was like a dough. They were out to provide the people with a philosophy of life. Plato and Aristotle had taught the Greeks in the past how to carry out the duties of citizenship. But the Hellenistic individual was no longer a citizen in the platonic or aristoteleian sense within the narrow confines of the city-state. He needed a new scheme of life suited to his new world citizenship. Discussions around this problem gave rise to conflicting schools of thought, all of which had the individualistic ethical end in view. They differed only as to the means by which this was to be achieved. The three leading philosophical sects in this respect were the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Sceptics. As time runs out, Ι will give here only a brief sketch of their doctrine.

The Stoic school was founded by Zeno, an emigrant to Athens from Citium in Cyprus, about Ε.C. 320. The school took its name from the "ποικίλη" Stoa where Zeno lectured. He was succeeded by Cleanthes whom St. Ρau1 quots in his Areopagus speech, and afterwards by Chrysippus of Soli who developed the system and adapted it to the temper of the times. The Stoics offered the most acceptable solutions to the problem how to overcome the dualism of Plato and Aristotle as well, as to the practical problem how to attain the peace of mind which was the goal set by the ethical teaching of most philosophical schools. For the Stoics the goal of philosophy is wisdom (σοφία) defined as the knowledge of divine and human things and their causes. Wisdom then is subdivided into Logic, Natural Science (Physics), and Ethics. Logic is the study of Logos as both word and reason which dumb animals lack, but men share it with the gods. The human Logos is identical with the cosmic logos which forms matter into natural objects. With respect to physics the Stoics advanced beyond the Platonic and Aristoteleian dualism between God and the world. God, for them, is material and existed from eternity in the primeval fire out of which he created the world. Ιn the world itself God functions as its mind and soul, being the cosmic logos through his inumerable seminal logoi (λόγοι σπερματικοί) or powers (δυνάμεις). Since God is immanent in the worlds, reality is one, an organism in which body and soul are inseparable. As a practical philosophy the Stoic's real concern was with man's moral conduct. Το this end they put forward two main propositions: 1) that virtue consists in living according to nature or Logos (reason); 2) that all things and events have been predetermined by the Logos, i.e. they take place according to the divine order. Starting from the fundamental principle that the supreme good consists in conforming to nature and the Logos, the Stoics emphasized that man's happiness is utterly connected with virtuous conduct. Therefore, metaphysics has no place in ethics. What really counts is the practical ideal figure of the wise man (σοφός, as prescribed by Socrates, comprising in himself all virtue, free from emotions and passions.

Contemporary with Zeno and his Stoa was Epicurus of Samos (B.C. 342-270), who also established his school in Athens. As a young man he was impressed by the atomism of Democretos of Abdera (4th century B.C.) and the impassiveness (αταραξία) of Pyrrho. Epicurus recognized only two disciplines in philosophy: physics and ethics. Το the latter he subordinated metaphysics which he viewed from a materialistic point of view. Ιn his ethical teaching he followed Aristippus of Cyrene (died ca. 360) whose conception of life was completely hedonistic, with virtue as the capacity to enjoy it. Nevertheless, in contrast to Aristippus, Epicurus did not connect pleasure with the senses, but rather with the practice of virtue which results in freedom from bodily pain and want and in mental tranquillity in the midst of misfortunes. Ιn his effort to achieve this state Epicurus abstained from public life and cultivated private friendship. The study of nature is important as leading to man's freedom from superstition, while learning, culture, power and social life contribute nothing to human happiness.

Α reaction against the disputes of the rival philosophical schools was expressed by the Sceptics, whose school was founded by Pyrrho of Elis and whose teaching is mainly known through his pupil Timor of

Phlius. The Sceptics agreed with the Stoics and the Epicureans in a teaching supreme value to impassiveness (αταραξία), but differed from both as to the means of achieving it. According to them, man knows nothing, in reality, about the nature of external things and for the reason the only way to be happy is to maintain perfect neutrality of mind and abstain from conferring value judgements. Self-sufficiency of the individual, therefore, and total indifference to external happenings is the ideal goal of the Sceptics. Looking at the world of Hellenism with all its peculiarities and characteristics, we come to admit that the conquests of Alexander and the rule of his successors were less significant politically than culturally in the history of this part of the world. Politically, the transition from the Persian to the Greek rule did not affect the life of the people long used to foreign rule. Αn additional foreign ruler did not make the difference. Some of the Persian satraps were even kept in office by Alexander until he found Greek substitutes. What really made the difference in this world upheaval was that the Greeks felt themselves charged with the expansion of their civilization, the highest one that the world had ever known. The idea behind Alexander's great campaign was to hellenize the peoples of Asia and thus transform them into friends. We should never forget that the mandate given to Philip, his father, by the federation of the sovereign city-states at Corinth in B.C. 337 and which was transferred to Alexander after Pbilip's assassination a year later, was to extinguish the threat of the Persian Empire which had undertaken three campaigns against Greece from B.C. 492-479. Α pupil of Aristotle this great Macedonian Greek was accompanied in his campaign by Greek scholars and artists, geographers, botanists, historians, ethnographers, and others. It is unfortunate that the mass of this important material collected by them has been lost, except the botanical information of Theophrastus. It was thus inevitable that the Greek culture should make a great impression upon all populations reached by Alexander's armies. The long dream of Greek thinkers to spread Greek culture and paedeia abroad and make the "barbarians" share in their ιntellectual treasures, finally came true. And "occasione data" they set themselves to hellenize the Oekumene or to "oecumenize" Hellenism. Greece's gift became available to all peoples of all times. Ιn the course of history, never the name of a particular people acquired such a worldwide, universal significance. "Hellen" ("Ελλην) is the name of a people whο alone breaks the limits of its national locality and becomes international. From now on, "Hellen" is every man, everywhere who in spirit and soul identifϊes himself with the spirit and soul of ancient Greece. Therefore, in this supernational cultural sense, "Hellenes" are nο longer regarded those according to the flesh, but those who share in and live by the high humanitarian values of Greek civilization, regardless of racial descent or national origin. Ιn the same capacity, "barbarians" are from now οn regarded all those who have nο share in Greek civilization, even those of Greek descent according to the flesh.

At the same time, absolute monarchy and Despotism, as well as the sudden acquisition of wealth led to demoralizing of the masses who had small or nο appreciation for art or learning. Interchange of populations resulted not only to the interchange of ideas and beliefs, but of habits and customs and manners, as well. Corruption, indolence, sensual life and idlessness were exchaged for the old industrious and virtuous way of life. Marriage was devaluated, divorces were increased and a1most every vice was unrestrained: immorality, paiderastia, infanticide avarice, cruelty, suicide, indecency in public places, etc., and above all the prevalence of slavery connected with cruel mutilation of slaves for paltry offences, almost comparable to the African slavery abuses of l8th century Europe and l9th century America. Αll in all, as a modern scholar put it, "in its manifold variety and emotional complexity, in the contrasts between pomp and simplicity, sentimentalism and selfishness, puritanism and licentiousness, romanticism and realism, education and propaganda, science and superstition, Hellenistic life is strangely modern, we almost could say 'American' - even though the world was then empty of machines and full of slaves" ( R. Η. Ρfeiffer, History of New Testament Times, Ν. Υ.-Evanston 1949, p. 101). This was the world in which Jesus Christ was born and in which the new religion bearing his name developed putting gradually an end to all ancient pagan religions of the area.

Previous Page