Egypt And The Near East

In Egypt and the Near East the situation was different. Throughout the late fourth and early third centuries Greeks moved east to populate Alexandria, Antioch, and the other new cities that Alexander and his successors, especially the Seleucids, founded in order to better control their new realms. These cities prospered. Alexandria18 and Antioch19 in particular grew to enormous size with populations in the hundreds of thousands and with splendid public buildings and amenities unknown to the cities of old Greece. Although little remains of Hellenistic Alexandria and Antioch, some idea of their splendor and prosperity can be gained from Ai Khanum, possibly Alexandria on the Oxus, in northern Afghanistan, where French archaeologists discovered a large city with broad streets, monumental temples, a large gymnasium and theater, and elegant mansions. It is not surprising that Heracleides Creticus, author of a brief travel guide to Greece, felt it necessary to warn travelers from the east against being disappointed at their first impressions of Athens and the other famous cities of the Greek homeland with their old-fashioned streets and shabby houses.20

Splendid though they were, the new cities of Asia were but islands of Greek domination and culture in a predominantly non-Greek world. The early Hellenistic historians viewed the Hellenistic cities as "melting pots" in which Greek and non-Greek cultures and peoples met and blended to form a new cosmopolitan civilization. In the 1970s and 1980s some scholars proposed a much harsher interpretation of Hellenistic social relations, one that is surprisingly close to the fourth-century B.C. Athenian rhetorician Isocrates's dream of a conquered Asia in which natives worked like Sparta's helots to support the new Greek colonists and their Macedonian masters. In this view, Greek and native societies tensely coexisted in the Macedonian kingdoms with little or no interaction instead of blending to form a new culture. For these scholars the Hellenistic world was one in which status was determined by ethnicity--and the ethnic affiliations that counted were Macedonian and Greek. It is not known for certain whether or not Alexander hoped that a mixed elite of Macedonians, Greeks, and non-Greeks would rule his empire. But in Ptolemaic Egypt and in Seleucid Asia, Macedonians and Greeks--who together comprised less than 10 percent of the total population--alone belonged to the ruling elite.21

Evidence that seems to support this interpretation of the social structure of the Hellenistic kingdoms is easy to find. As always, it is Egypt that provides the fullest evidence.22 There throughout the Hellenistic period separate legal systems were maintained for Greeks and Egyptians. Ethnic prejudices and tensions are well documented in the sources. The Ptolemaic court poet Theocritus characterizes petty street crime as an "Egyptian game" and an agricultural worker complains that his supervisors hold him in contempt and refuse to pay him "because I am an Egyptian." Similarly, the personal papers of a Greek recluse at Memphis are filled with stories of personal harassment by his Egyptian neighbors. Hellenistic Egypt also provides evidence both of the existence of a resistance literature that looked forward to the end of foreign rule and repeated rebellions intended to achieve that goal.

Although the evidence is less abundant, what there is suggests that the situation in the Seleucid kingdom was similar. An analysis of the origins of known Seleucid officials revealed that fewer than five percent were of non-European origin, and native rebellions in Judaea and Iran are well documented. Archaeological evidence suggesting actual physical separation of the Greek and native sections of Ai Khanum indicates that a similar strict division between privileged Macedonians and Greeks and subject natives existed even on the far eastern frontier of the Hellenistic world.

In spite of this evidence, contemporary Hellenistic historians are coming to believe that this picture of the Hellenistic world as divided into two almost totally isolated societies, one Greek and the other non-Greek, is almost as great a distortion of ancient social reality as the idealistic image of a harmoniously mixed Hellenistic civilization that it is intended to replace. The problems are threefold: first, the divided view of Hellenistic society is based primarily on Greek textual evidence, which tends to ignore non-Greek subjects; second, it exaggerates barriers to contact between Greeks and non-Greeks in the Hellenistic kingdoms; and third, it minimizes the social divisions and conflicts within the native populations of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Part of the problem is that substantial social isolation did characterize the life of the one portion of the native population that is most visible in the Greek sources, the rural poor. Studies of the population of Egyptian villages like Kerkeosiris and Soknopaiou Nesos reveal an almost total absence of either Greek residents or Greek influence on daily life, and the admittedly limited evidence for rural life in the Near and Middle East suggests a similar situation.

Egyptian and cuneiform sources draw a very different picture, however, of the life of the non-Greek aristocracies. In the theocratic monarchies of the ancient Near East, support of the gods and their priesthoods had been essential to the security of the state, and that continued to be true during the Hellenistic period. In Egypt the Ptolemies subjected the great temples to greater control than their Pharaonic predecessors had, but they also maintained and even expanded the scale of state subsidy of religion as can be seen from the vast extent of temple building sponsored by the Ptolemies. Study of the extensive Egyptian evidence for the Hellenistic period is only in its infancy, but already it has revealed that under the Ptolemaic regime the priestly families prospered, accumulating large estates and actively engaging in business transactions of all kinds, while expending large sums on the traditional Egyptian indicators of personal success: dedications to the gods and lavish tomb furnishings.23 Nor were opportunities limited to the religious elite. Analysis of the personal archives of village officials, individuals dismissed by early Hellenistic historians as lowly figures of little influence, has shown that such figures could grow rich by exploiting their role as essential intermediaries between the Greek-speaking central government and its Egyptian subjects.24 Not surprisingly, priests and local officials were loyal supporters of the Ptolemaic regime, and both were singled out for reprisal during the native uprisings of the late third and second centuries B.C. The 1981 study of the temples of Hellenistic Babylonia by Gilbert J. P. McEwan suggests that a similar pattern of royal patronage for the great temples and priestly prosperity characterized Seleucid policy also.25 The evidence is less clear for the Greek kingdoms in Bactria and India, but the small amount of evidence available--Hindu and Buddhist dedications by Greek officials and the classification of the Greeks as Kshatriya (warriors) by Indian thinkers --indicates that conditions were similar there as well.

Equally important is the increasing ease with which non-Greeks could join the Greek political elite as time passed. Membership in the political elite required certification as a Greek citizen, but obtaining that certification was not difficult. At the beginning of the Hellenistic period intermarriage was likely to have been relatively common since the bulk of Greek immigration was military in character and therefore predominantly male. Moreover, as Roger Bagnall has shown in a careful study of Greek immigration to Egypt, a kingdom that actively recruited settlers, the actual number of immigrants was relatively small. And most immigrants came in the early years of Macedonian rule,28 so the number of ethnic Greeks can never have been large. Similar studies are lacking for the other Hellenistic kingdoms, but there is little reason to believe that the results would be different. The implications are clear. Since apartheid was not characteristic of Greek society at any time, the need of the Hellenistic kings for a Greek elite to provide a reliable base of support for their rule meant in practice that as time passed, the citizen bodies of some so-called Greek cities in the Near East were more and more composed not so much of persons of Greek birth as of Greek culture: that is, of those who had received a Greek education and adopted a Greek lifestyle and often a Greek name. All others were subjects. Just as has happened with regard to the study of other aspects of Hellenistic history, therefore, the major achievement of contemporary Hellenistic social history has been to reveal the complexity of the Hellenistic world.

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