Thursday, July 25, 2013

Hellenic Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean

1. Struggle for control (323-280 BC)
Alexander, rightly called “the Great” by Olympian tradition, died suddenly, shortly after his return to Babylon from Incognita, in 323 BC. A struggle for power followed. Four of his generals fought one another to define their respective areas of control. Their struggles lasted about 40 years. By 280 BC, four relatively stable states had been created. The first controlled southern Hellenia; the second, northeastern Hellenia and western Anatolia; the third, eastern Anatolia, most of Levantia, and lands to the east in Incognita; the fourth, Egypt and south-central Levantia.

We may note here that, while all this excitement was going on in eastern Olympia, similar excitement was about to occur in western Olympia as well. In 264 Rome and Carthage would begin their decades of struggle for supremacy in the west. Once Rome emerged victorious, rulers there would move their soldiers eastward to challenge the control of Hellenian rulers with strong but deceptive memories of being unbeatable.

2. Impact of Hellenian culture
When Alexander moved east from Hellenia, tens of thousands of Hellenian soldiers went with him. Some returned but many didn't. They were followed by tens of thousands of Hellenia's brightest and most adventurous young adults. These traveled east in search of greater excitement and advancement than Hellenia could provide them.

Two factors define the culture of any ethnic group: religion first but also language. When all these Hellenians moved east, they took their religion and language with them. Because they were successful conquerors, their religion, language, and other cultural meanings were widely adopted by local leaders and ambitious youth in the eastern Olympian lands controlled by them.

Hellenians, of course, as exemplified by Alexander himself, were Olympians. They devoted themselves to Jupiter (Zeus) god of politics, Mars (Ares) god of war, Vulcan (Hephaestus) god of technology, Venus (Aphrodite) goddess of sex, Pluto (Hades) god of money, and Bacchus (Dionysus) god of consumption. Hellenian leaders had temples built to honor their gods. Because of the universal importance of these gods, local leaders could easily identify the local names used for the same gods. They could also easily identify with these new foreign rulers as participants in the same religion.

Because Hellenians after Alexander ruled eastern Olympia, learning their language became important. Anyone wanting to make money had to do business with them in their language. Anyone learning their language also advanced in status relative to everyone who remained ignorant of it. Soon this Koiné ("Common") Greek was spoken all over eastern Olympia.

The Great Library of Alexandria hosted the translation of Jewish Scripture from Hebrew and Aramaic into Koiné Greek around 250. The Septuagint remains the version of the Old Testament used by the Orthodox Church today. It was also the version of Jewish Scripture known by the apostle Paul and quoted by him. Paul's letters were also written in Koiné Greek as were the other books of the New Testament.

Because Hellenians were Olympians, they honored Vulcan by building new cities. Their two most important new cities were Alexandria, started by Alexander himself in 331, and Antioch (in today's Syria), started by Alexander's general Seleucus in 293. Cities of eastern Olympia in general, and these two cities in particular, became centers of Hellenian cultural development.

3. Hellenian culture in Egypt and Jerusalem
Ptolemy, who had studied under Aristotle with Alexander, became ruler of Egypt in 323 and managed to maintain control of that geocultural province, and of south-central Levantia, including Jerusalem, until he died of old age in 285. He was the founder of a dynasty which lasted until the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC.

Alexandria grew continually following its founding by Alexander in 331. It replaced Tyre, destroyed by Alexander, as the most important port in the eastern Mediterranean and grew increasingly wealthy. By 280, it had become the largest city in Olympia.

To his eternal credit, Ptolemy 1st built the Great Library in Alexandria and purchased its first set of scrolls. 

Ptolemy 2nd (r. 285-246), his son and successor, supported the library even more strongly. He hired as many as fifty men, highly-educated in Hellenian culture, to do research and to teach there. He also provided lavish funds for the purchase and copying of scrolls. By 240, the library had become the largest in Olympian with over 500,000 scrolls. By then Alexandria, with the generous support of the Ptolemies, its own commerical prosperity, and its Great Library, had replaced even Athens as the most creative center of Hellenian culture in all of Olympia.

As a center of Hellenian learning, the library supported the studies of men like Herophilos (335-280), the first scientific anatomist; Euclid (ca 325-265), whose book on geometry was the standard textbook in the Olympia on that subject for 2,000 years; Callimachus (310?-240), creator of the first library catalogue; Archimedes (287-212), mathematician and scientist; Eratosthenes (276-194), geographer and historian; and Hipparchus (ca 190-ca 120), astronomer.

In addition to being the Olympian center of Hellenian culture, Alexandria became home to the largest and richest Jewish community in Olympia between 250 BC and AD 115. It was this community that desired and financed the translation of Jewish Scripture from Hebrew and Aramaic into Koiné Greek. This community also provided the context for Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-AD 50) whose books blend Jewish religion with Hellenian philosophy.

4. Hellenian culture in Levantia
Seleucus, general of Alexander, won control of eastern Anatolia, most of Levantia, and lands to the east in Incognita after Alexander's death. He founded Antioch in 293 as his capital. It became second only to Alexandria as a creative center of Hellenian culture.

By the first century AD, Antioch had grown to become the third largest city in Olympia after Rome and Alexandria. It was in this large and prosperous city that followers of Jesus were first called Christians. Peter the apostle personally knew these people. They were also the ones who had the insight to send the apostle Paul on his first and second missionary journeys. With Alexandria, Antioch remained a significant center of Christian creativity for centuries.

Jews living in Levantia, especially in Jerusalem, did not escape a confrontation with the new, widespread, and strongly enticing culture of Hellenia. Religious leaders in Jerusalem argued with one another about the degree to which one might adopt or adapt to this Hellenian culture while still remaining meaningfully Jewish. A Seleucid ruler named Antiochus (r. 175-164) pressed the issue by banning significant Jewish practices and triggering a major rebellion, led by the Maccabees, in response.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.