Rome and the Transformation of Hellenism

The emergence of Rome as the preeminent power in the eastern Mediterranean basin was rapid. In the half century between the outbreak of the Second Macedonian War (200-197 B.C.) and the sack of the Greek city of Corinth (146 B.C.), Rome crushed the kingdom of Macedon, humbled the once mighty Seleucid kingdom, and reduced Ptolemaic Egypt and the other states of the region to little more than clients incapable of independent action. It is not surprising, therefore, that Roman domination of the Hellenistic East is predominantly associated with negative images that belied the promise of "freedom" held out to the Greeks at Isthmia in 196 B.C. Prominent among these images are the enslavement of 150,000 Epirotes by the army of Aemilius Paulus in 168 B.C. and the humiliation of Rhodes the same year; Roman soldiers using valuable paintings as gameboards during the sack of Corinth in 146 B.C.; Sulla's devastation of Attica in 86 B.C.; and Plutarch's ancestors at Chaeronea being drafted as baggage carriers during the civil wars of the forties and thirties B.C. The magnitude of the disruption of Greek life during the almost two centuries required for Rome to consolidate its rule over the eastern Mediterranean should not be underestimated. But that reality should not be allowed to obscure the almost equally important fact noted by every observant tourist and increasingly recognized by scholars, namely, that a remarkable cultural renaissance took place in the Greek cities of old Greece and the Near East during the first two centuries of the Christian Era.52 Evidence of this renaissance is visible in the ruins of the splendid public buildings erected during the Principate that everywhere in the eastern Mediterranean dominate the ruins of Greek cities and in the innumerable honorary statues and inscriptions from this period that crowd our museums.

There was, therefore, considerable justice in the second-century A.D. orator Aelius Aristides's enthusiastic praise of the benefits of the Pax Romana , although a conscientious Roman governor like Pliny the Younger, who was sent to the province of Bithynia in northern Turkey by the Emperor Trajan (A.D. 98-117) in A.D. 110, might grumble at the fiscal chaos caused by the ambitious building projects undertaken by the cities in their constant struggle to outdo each other in public splendor and distinction.53 The renaissance was not limited to architecture and the visual arts. During the second and third centuries A.D., there was a remarkable upsurge of Greek literary activity that historians of Greek literature call the Second Sophistic. Although named after its most characteristic feature--the enormous cultural and sometimes even political prestige of the great public orators such as Aelius Aristides and Herodes Atticus54 --the renaissance was not confined to rhetoric. New works appeared in almost every genre of Greek literature, and many of them, including the biographies and essays of the moralist Plutarch and the histories of Arrian and Dio Cassius, were works of considerable distinction.

Science and philosophy also flourished during these centuries. Galen and Ptolemy compiled syntheses of Greek medicine, astronomy, and geography that remained authoritative for more than a millennium. The Egyptian Neo-Platonist Plotinus created the last great philosophical system of antiquity, a philosophical mysticism based loosely on the works of Plato that was Christianity's most formidable intellectual rival. Only in one area of Greek life--in the civic and political culture of Greek cities themselves--was there no renaissance. On the contrary. It was during these same two centuries that the last vestiges of the polis tradition of self-government began to disappear.

Officially, the cities continued to be treated as self-governing entities. Epigraphical records of their government's activities are not uncommon, but the spirit was gone. City assemblies no longer met, and city councils were controlled by narrow aristocratic oligarchies.55 Even the freedom of action of these oligarchic regimes was increasingly limited by the Roman government's practice of using officials such as Pliny the Younger to monitor their conduct of affairs. Plutarch candidly assessed the situation in an essay written in response to a young friend's request for advice about a possible political career. "Nowadays," he wrote, "when the affairs of the cities no longer include leadership in wars, nor the overthrowing of tyrannies, nor acts of alliances, what opening for a conspicuous and brilliant public career could a young man find?" Plutarch answered his own question by pointing out that "there remain the public lawsuits, and embassies to the Emperor."56 For Greek patriots such as Plutarch, for whom holding the traditional magistracies in his home city of Chaeronea was a sacred obligation, the contrast with the freedom of fifth-and fourth-century B.C. Greece was painful. Faced with such limited opportunities in their homes, other Greeks turned their back on the polis and sought and found rewarding careers in the service of Rome. Among the men who did so were Arrian, governor of Cappadocia under the Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) and historian of Alexander, and Dio Cassius, consul, praetorian prefect during the early third century A.D., and historian of Rome.

While Greek culture enjoyed a renaissance in the early centuries of the Christian Era, the same was not true of the non-Greek cultures of Egypt and the Near East, and the reason is clear. Unlike the Hellenistic kings, who had needed the support of both Greek and native elites to rule their multiethnic kingdoms, the Roman emperors relied almost entirely on the Greek cities of the eastern Mediterranean to provide the essential infrastructure of imperial administration. The result was a system in which Greek culture and Roman citizenship were specially privileged, the former as the key to social and cultural prestige and the latter as the means to a political career and its rewards. Non-Greek cultural traditions and institutions were not persecuted, but they were devalued. The cultural implications of the new regime were clearly expressed by the second-century A.D. Syrian writer Lucian, who observed in his autobiographical essay, "The Dream," that without a Greek education a man could only be an "artisan and commoner, always envying the prominent and fawning on the man who was able to speak . . . ," while the educated man was "honored and praised, in good repute among the best people, well regarded by those who are preeminent in wealth and breeding . . . and considered worthy of public office and precedence."57 Lucian's calculation was correct. A Greek education and his literary skill brought him fame and a lucrative post on the staff of the Prefect of Egypt.

Some groups, such as the Jews, resisted, sometimes violently, the assimilatory pressures of Roman imperial society; for others, the growing Christian church offered new opportunities for the satisfaction of their ambitions. Not surprisingly, however, over time increasing numbers of non-Greeks followed Lucian's example and sought to acquire the advantages of Greek status, especially after the Constitutio Antoniniana of A.D. 212 erased the legal barriers between Greeks and non-Greeks by conferring Roman citizenship on virtually all inhabitants of the empire.58 The process of cultural assimilation was not always free of friction. Complaints of Greek prejudice and cultural chauvinism are easy to find in the writings of Hellenized non-Greeks. The Hellenized Syrian rhetorician Tatian, for example, urged Greeks not to despise non-Greeks and their ideas since most Greek practices "took their origin from barbarian ways."59

By late antiquity a significant but unfortunately unquantifiable portion of the social and intellectual elite of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire consisted of Hellenized non-Greeks. The local languages of the region survived in the vernacular speech of the urban and rural lower classes and even found new written expression in the literatures of Syriac and Coptic Christianity, but the traditional cultures of Egypt and the Near East, deserted by the native elites that had patronized them for millennia and harassed by the government of the Christian Roman emperors, continued to exist only in the esoteric knowledge of the priests of a few remote and impoverished temples.60 Meanwhile, the dominant strand in the intellectual life of the eastern Mediterranean basin was what scholars call "Hellenism," essentially a cosmopolitan form of Greek culture loosely based on the canon of the pre-Hellenistic Greek literary classics that formed the basis of both pagan and Christian education and thought, but stripped of any remaining vestiges of the civic culture of the Greek city-states that had given birth to it almost a millennium earlier.61 It was in this form that Greek culture survived in the lands conquered by Alexander the Great to be encountered by the Medieval civilizations of Byzantium and Islam, but that is another story.

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