Culture Of Hellenistic Egypt And The Near And Middle East

By contrast, the culture of Hellenistic Egypt and the Near and Middle East was a colonial culture, that is, a simplified and incomplete version of Greek culture.35 It included only those components that were sufficiently common to all Greeks to withstand transportation to a new and alien environment. In their new environments, members of the comparatively small and heterogeneous Greek immigrant population shared only a vague sense of common Greekhood and their hopes of a better future in the conquered lands. Cults strongly identified with particular cities or regions, therefore, tended not to survive, but those without such local connections, like the cults of Dionysus and Aphrodite, flourished, as did such new deities as Tyche , or Chance, the personification of the hidden order that ruled the life of all men.

Similarly, the numerous local dialects of the mother country quickly faded in the new kingdoms with their heterogeneous populations. Koine , the common language, a simplified form of Attic Greek, became the language of government, literary, and religious culture in the Hellenistic East and remained so throughout the rest of antiquity and well into the Middle Ages.36 The process of cultural selection was even more rigorous in the area of intellectual culture, since in the Hellenistic East intellectual life had to be consciously re-created: books and art objects or their creators had to be imported, and a tradition of education had to be encouraged to perpetuate the culture. A recently discovered inscription from Ai Khanum vividly illustrates the kind of individual initiative that was required to transplant the Greek intellectual tradition to the remote new lands won by Alexander the Great. In the shrine of city's heroized founder, a certain Clearchus (possibly Aristotle's far-traveled student and colleague, Clearchus of Soli) proudly recorded his gift to the city and its founder of a collection of Delphic maxims, which he claimed to have transcribed personally at Delphi and transported to Bactria.37 The same sense of the precariousness of Greek culture on this far eastern frontier of the Greek world is suggested by the discovery of fragments of a treatise on Aristotelian philosophy and a page of Greek poetry in the ruins of the city's treasury building. But what of the settlers' relationship to the culture of their new homes?

At the heart of the traditional approach to Hellenistic history was the belief that Hellenistic civilization was the product of a synthesis of Greek and ancient Near Eastern intellectual traditions, and undoubtedly some interchange of ideas took place in the new cosmopolitan cities of the Hellenistic East, such as Alexandria, where Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, and Syrians, not to mention such exotic peoples as Nubians and Indians, mingled. Greeks did patronize the temples of Egypt and the Near East, and Egyptian deities like Isis and Osiris; various forms of the Syro-Anatolian Great Mother, such as Cybele; and the hybrid Graeco-Egyptian god Sarapis all found wide followings in the Greek world.

Efforts were also made to win the interest and sympathy of the Greek colonists for the cultures of their new homes by native intellectuals. In the early third century B.C. both the Babylonian priest Berossus and the Egyptian priest Manetho composed histories of Babylon and Egypt in Greek.38 Sometime in the reign of Ptolemy I (305-282 B.C.) Manetho also joined forces with an Athenian priest and theologian named Timotheus to create out of a mixture of Greek and Egyptian elements a new patron god for Alexandria, Sarapis. At about the same time, the Buddhist ruler of northern India, Ashoka (ca. 269-233 B.C.), commissioned Greek translations of his famous Rock Edicts for the edification of the Greek settlers in Afghanistan.39 A century later Jewish apologists and historians also tried to build bridges to their Greek neighbors by recasting the teachings of the Torah in terms of Greek philosophy and discovering supposedly ancient connections between Greek and Jewish history, such as the existence of bonds of kinship between Spartans and Jews! The potential for the development of a muticultural civilization based on the synthesis of the best of the Greek and non-Greek intellectual traditions of the peoples of the former Persian empire seems to have existed, but such a civilization was not realized.

The reasons for that failure were explored by the Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano in an important book, Alien Wisdom . Momigliano pointed out that while non-Greek intellectuals made considerable efforts to learn Greek and to integrate Greek ideas into their work, no comparable effort was made by Greeks.40 In fact, Greek interest in the civilizations of the ancient Near East seems to have quickly faded in the new kingdoms. Few Greek writers appear to have been familiar with "barbarian" ideas; those who were acquainted with them knew them only in a "translated" form that was compatible with Greek ideas and values. Greeks did, of course, recognize and worship the deities of their new homes--that was only prudent. But those non-Greek gods that attracted strong Greek followings, such as Isis, Osiris, and Mithras, did not do so in their native form but only after they had been made the center of mystery cults that emphasized purity, initiation, and salvation. Practices such as mummification and animal worship that too obviously conflicted with traditional Greek religious ideas were purged from these cults, and what few authentic native elements remained attached to the deities merely served to add an exotic flavor to what were essentially Greek cults.41 Only in Bactria and India was the situation different. Significant numbers of Greeks living in those regions, exposed for the first time to religious traditions with strong, well-articulated belief systems,42 embraced Indian religions, especially Buddhism. Unfortunately, the detailed history of the Greek encounter with Indian religion is now lost, but clear evidence of it is provided by a handful of surviving epigraphic and literary texts and the Greek-influenced art of the Gandhara school.

In spite of the Greek experience in Bactria and India, most aspects of Greek intellectual life in the Hellenistic East were relatively unaffected by contact with non-Greek cultural traditions. The intellectual life that did emerge in the East was influenced by two factors. The first was the comparative weakness of the polis tradition in the new kingdoms, particularly in Egypt, where there were only three Greek cities--Alexandria, the old colony of Naucratis, and Ptolemais in Upper Egypt--whose powers of self-government were sharply limited by the Ptolemaic government. The second factor was the strong role played by government patronage in determining the direction of intellectual activity in the various kingdoms.

The weakness of the polis tradition in the Hellenistic East is reflected in the comparative lack of literary and artistic forms connected with the polis and the tendency of writers and artists to address their works to patrons or other intellectuals rather than to the general citizen body. Thus, even though history was cultivated in Egypt and Asia, it primarily took the form of ethnographic studies in the manner of Herodotus. Hecataeus of Abdera's history of Egypt and Megasthenes's Indica are examples of such ethnographic studies. The political histories favored by the historians of European Greece did not attract the historians in the Hellenistic East. Similarly, although touring companies of professional actors could find ready audiences for productions of plays by the fifth-and fourth-century B.C. masters, the writing of new plays was limited to the composition of "closet dramas," literary exercises intended not for public production but for recitation before small audiences of cognoscenti. The only extant Hellenistic tragedy, the Alexandra of the third-century B.C. Alexandrian poet Lycophron, is a dramatic monologue spoken by Cassandra, the daughter of Priam, in a maddeningly obscure style appropriate to the utterances of a prophetess cursed with the gift of true prophesy but fated to have no one believe her. The pastoral, the only new poetic genre to emerge in the Hellenistic period, reached the level of great poetry in the hands of the Syracusan poet Theocritus. But with its idealization of rural simplicity, the pastoral suggests not merely isolation but even alienation from the polis tradition. In the visual arts the same sense of alienation from the traditions of the Classical polis can be seen in the interest in exploring novel subjects. There were, for instance, numerous sculptural studies of what, given the Classical emphasis on youth and physical beauty, can only be called the ugly--drunken old women, aged peasants, and broken-down athletes and slaves.

When Alexander included in his entourage Greek artists and intellectuals such as Aristotle's nephew, Callisthenes, his court historian, he was acting in accordance with a tradition of Macedonian royal patronage of Greek culture that reached back to the fifth century B.C. His example was followed by all his successors but by none to such effect as the Ptolemies. "Come to Egypt," sang Ptolemy II's court poet, Theocritus, because "Ptolemaios is the best paymaster for a free man."43 Theocritus's immediate reference was to Ptolemy's interest in recruiting soldiers in Greece and Greek Italy for his wars with his Seleucid rivals. With the enormous wealth of Egypt at their disposal, however, the Ptolemies could afford to subsidize intellectuals and to encourage their work by establishing cultural institutions of a new type. The principal institution of this sort was the Museum where distinguished scholars, supported by government stipends, pursued their studies in congenial surroundings. Connected to the Museum was the royal library, whose collection is said to have ultimately reached seven hundred thousand papyrus rolls and to have included copies of virtually every book written in Greek. The library offered unprecedented resources for scholarly research in every field of intellectual endeavor. An envious rival might sneer at the successful occupants of Ptolemy's "bird coop" (i.e., "the Museum"), and with some justification, since subsidized intellectuals were expected to earn their keep.44 Thus, doctors and writers receiving government stipends served as physicians and tutors to members of the royal family and celebrated its achievements, as did the scholar-poet Callimachus, whose The Lock of Berenice commemorated the naming of a constellation in honor of the wife of Ptolemy III (246-222 B.C.). In Idyll 17 the Syracusan poet Theocritus similarly praised in extravagant terms the first decade of Ptolemy II's reign.

In spite of any sneering that may have taken place, the roll call of Alexandrian intellectuals is long and distinguished, particularly in the fields of literary scholarship and applied science, where their achievements remained unmatched during the rest of antiquity. Scholars such as Callimachus and the philologists Zenodotus and Aristarchus founded the scholarly study of Greek literature and the Greek language and prepared standard texts of Homer and the other poets that are the ancestors of those we still use. The mathematician and geographer Eratosthenes, relying on evidence provided by Ptolemaic explorers, established the principles of scientific cartography and produced a strikingly accurate estimate of the circumference of the earth. According to the Roman medical writer Celsus, the Ptolemies aided the researches of the doctors Herophilus and Erisistratus by providing them not only with corpses to dissect but also live convicts for vivisection, thereby enabling them to make fundamental discoveries about the nature and functions of the human nervous and digestive systems. The physicist Ctesibius did pioneering work in the study of ballistics and the use of compressed air as a source of power. As in Greece, the Hellenistic period in the East was marked by significant cultural achievements, although it is true that subjects that did not receive royal largess tended to stagnate. Thus, apart from the works of Euclid, whose Elements was still being used to introduce students to geometry in the early twentieth century, the Alexandrian contribution to formal philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, which were of limited interest to the Ptolemies, was undistinguished in quality and limited in quantity.

The general lack of interest among Greeks in the cultures of their native neighbors, and the affirmation of ties with the artistic and literary traditions of European Greece evident in the works of Greek intellectuals and artists living in the Hellenistic kingdoms, have numerous parallels in the behavior of colonial artists throughout history. Less clear is the situation concerning the non-Greek cultures of the Hellenistic world and the attitudes of their intellectuals to Greek culture.

Serious scholarly study of these cultures is only just beginning.45 Only in the case of Hellenistic Jewish culture does a long scholarly tradition exist, but many of the assumptions that have guided the study of Hellenistic Judaism are currently undergoing fundamental revision. Hellenistic Jewish literature can be divided into two broad categories. The first category includes the so-called Apochrypha and Pseudepigrapha , noncanonical books written originally in Hebrew or Aramaic and in traditional Jewish literary forms such as psalms, royal chronicles, wisdom texts, and apocalypses, but preserved only in Greek translations; the second category encompasses works written originally in Greek and using Greek literary forms such as tragedy, epic, and history to treat Jewish themes. The bifurcated character of Hellenistic Jewish literature has traditionally been explained as being the result of literary activity by Jews living in two distinct environments, the former reflecting the traditional Jewish ambiance of Hellenistic Judaea and the latter the experience of Hellenized Jews living in the cosmopolitan environment of Ptolemaic Alexandria.46

This interpretation conforms closely to the model of cultural separatism that has dominated Hellenistic studies in recent years. It is supported by the prominence of themes critical of Greek culture in the Apochrypha and the Pseudepigrapha as well as in the recently discovered body of texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls , on the one hand, and by the efforts to reconcile Greek and Jewish thought in the works of authors such as the second-century B.C. historian Artapanus and the early-first-century A.D. Alexandrian philosopher-theologian Philo, on the other hand. However, the outlines of a more nuanced interpretation of relations between Hellenistic Greek and Jewish culture has recently begun to emerge. This interpretation recognizes the existence of tension between the two cultural traditions but nevertheless allows for significant interaction between them. Central to this new approach to the study of Hellenistic Judaism is the demonstration by Ben Zion Wacholder47 and Martin Hengel48 that the sharp distinction between a Hellenized Jewish diaspora and a Judaean Jewish society ignorant of and hostile to Greek culture is false, and that evidence of familiarity with Greek literature comparable to that characteristic of diaspora authors is present also in works written in Hellenistic Judaea. The full implications of this discovery have yet to be completely worked out. An indication of the possibilities opened up by it, however, is provided by E. J. Bickermann's brilliant analysis of the Jewish school system created by the Pharisees in the third and second century B.C.--a development for which there was no precedent in previous Jewish history. Bickermann explains that the school system was developed as a direct response to the challenge to the survival and integrity of Judaism posed by the patronage of Greek schools by the Jewish elite of Hellenistic Judaea.49

The contrast between the Greek intellectuals' conscious effort to distance themselves from the native cultures of the Hellenistic kingdoms and the non-Greek thinkers' ambivalent attitude toward the dominant Greek culture is particularly well documented in the case of Hellenistic Judaism. The evidence is less clear with regard to the native cultures elsewhere in the Hellenistic world, but the general situation seems to have been similar. In Egypt the production of works critical of foreign rule in Egypt written in Demotic and in traditional Egyptian genres, such as the short story and the prophetic text, was balanced by the simultaneous appearance of new literary forms influenced by Greek literature, such as the epiclike prose narratives about the early-first-millennium B.C. king Petubastis, which show clear Homeric influence. An old literary form, the instruction text, was also revived and renewed through the incorporation of compositional strategies and themes borrowed from such popular Hellenistic literary forms as the gnomologia , or collection of maxims, and the diatribe.50 The gradual replacement of cuneiform by Aramaic, which was written in an alphabetic script on perishable materials, has deprived historians of most of the source material for the study of the cultural life of Seleucid Babylonia, but the little evidence there is points to a similar pattern of the revival of traditional literary forms combined with innovation sparked by contact with Hellenism.

How far this process of cultural appropriation and adaptation might have gone is unknown. Essential to the prestige of Greek culture in the Hellenistic period was the patronage it received from the Macedonian and Greek rulers of the Near and Middle East. That patronage ended with the disappearance of the Hellenistic kingdoms in the late second and first centuries B.C. The causes of this disappearance varied. The Bactrian and Indian Greek kingdoms fell victim to invasions by central Asian nomads fleeing the growing power of Han China; the Ptolemaic and Seleucid states, weakened by bitter dynastic strife, succumbed to the aggresive new empires of Rome and Parthia. Whatever the particular circumstances may have been in each individual case, the results were usually the same. Deprived of political support, Greek culture gradually disappeared as a coherent cultural force over much of the Hellenistic world. The new rulers of the Near East and Middle East--Parthians, Saka, and Kushans--patronized local cultural traditions in an effort to rally support for their regimes from the non-Greek elites of their territories.51 Only in the western part of the Hellenistic world was the outcome different. There, the substitution of Roman for Macedonian rule in Egypt and Syria-Palestine abruptly ended the relative prosperity the native elites of those areas had enjoyed for much of the third and second centuries B.C

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