Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The End of Greek Power

Bust of Alexander the Great

Shifting alliances

The historian Robin Lane Fox states:
‘The forty years or so which followed the Spartans’ unlikely victory over the Athenians are a kaleidoscope of wars, ever-changing alliances and brief bouts of supremacy for one or other major power in Greece.’  
The great days of Athens were over. By 403 perhaps half of her male citizenry was dead, down to around 25,000.  The city was no longer a magnet for visiting intellectuals. However the ideals of Athens did not die. The Athenian achievements in sculpture and the theatre spread to other parts of Greece and other states attempted to copy the democratic model. 

Victory in the Peloponnesian War had restored Sparta to the leadership of Greece. However, in the next thirty years it threw away its gains by repeating the mistakes Athens had made: its arrogant behaviour aroused the hostility of the other Greek states. The victorious king, Lysander, imposed puppet oligarchies in many of the cities, slaughtering many democrats in the process, and the Spartans took for themselves all the war booty that their allies had gained.

Above all Sparta was drawn into conflict with Persia. Darius II died in 405/6 and a civil war broke out between his sons, Ataxerxes and Cyrus. Sparta unofficially supported Cyrus by sending a force to join the Greek mercenaries already fighting for him. These mercenaries included Socrates’ pupil, Xenophon. In 401 Cyrus was killed and his army defeated near Babylon and Xenophon’s Anabasis describes the homeward march of the 10,000 Greeks from the heart of the Persian Empire. The most famous part of this account is his description of their arrival at the Black Sea and their joy at the sight of open water.

From 396 to 390 the Spartans were at war with a league that included Corinth and Athens, with the Persians aiding the anti-Spartan forces in revenge for the Spartans’ support of Cyrus. With the ending of the war in 386 the Spartans allowed the Persians to recover the Greek cities of Asia Minor that they had lost in the fifth century. 

Once more Spartan arrogance led to the formation in 377 of an anti-Spartan coalition led by Athens. As Sparta became increasingly beleaguered the influence of Thebes grew and they defeated the Spartans at Leuctra in Boeotia in 371, the worst military defeat Sparta had ever experienced. In the winter of 470 the Thebans under Epaminondas invaded Sparta and the enslaved helots were able to group themselves as a free community. 

However, the Athenians found the conquering Thebans no more acceptable than the Spartans.  In 369 they allied with Sparta and in 362 Epaminondas was killed at the indecisive battle of Mantinea in the Peloponnese. The next decade saw the revival of Athens as a major naval power. The Athenian League of 357 seemed like a re-run of the Delian League and once more Athens was behaving like an imperial power.

The main lesson of this period of leagues and ever-changing alliances was that political (as opposed to cultural) pan-Hellenism was an unrealistic aspiration. The Greek states were never going to unite. While the Greeks were quarrelling among themselves, a new power was rising in the north.

Philip of Macedon

In 360/59, while the Greek states were distracted by their wars, the twenty-four year old King Philip II came to power in Macedon. Macedon, with its capital at Pella, was a patchwork of little kingdoms. The Macedonians were Greek in origin and though regarded as backward by the other Greeks who sometimes referred to them as barbarians because they found their version of Greek hard to follow.  Archaeology has shown that their dominant culture was Greek, though it had incorporated barbarian elements, such as the gift of a gold cup to reward a barbarian ally who cut of an enemy’s head in battle. Unlike contemporary Greeks, Philip was polygamous. He eventually had seven wives, three of whom were non-Greek. His final infatuation was with the young Macedonian, Cleopatra.

Philip soon showed himself a capable ruler. His highly trained armies defeated the fractious neighbouring tribes and went on to secure his border territories.  His conquests gave him access to precious metals and increased his sources of military manpower. By 338 BC his power extended from the Danube to southern Greece and he began an invasion of the Persian Empire. ‘ In 356 his principal wife Olympias, gave birth to a son, Alexander, and he founded a new town, named Philippi, in eastern Macedonia, one of a cluster of new settlements set up to strengthen his position. He was the undisputed ruler of a newly united kingdom. He had built up an army that included more than 5,000 cavalrymen and had annexed the gold and silver mines on his frontiers. He was the first Greek monarch to circulate his own coinage.

From 350 BC the Athenian speech-writer and advocate Demosthenes (384-322) tried to arouse the Athenians to the threat from Macedon.  He had earlier won his reputation for speeches in private legal suits and many of these survive.  But his real rise to fame came with his attacks on Philip. ‘Philippics’ became a general title for speeches of invective.

In August 338 BC Philip defeated a combined Theban-Athenian force at Chaeronea in Boeotia in central Greece. The famous 20 foot tall Lion of Chaeronea still marks the tomb of the Thebans killed there. [It was rediscovered by English travellers in 1818 and reassembled in 1902.]

Philip followed up his victory by establishing a confederation of Greek states under his presidency. This confederation did not survive Philip’s death but the fact that such a league had been imposed on the Greek cities by a Macedonian king announced the approaching end of the system of independent city-states. With the rise of  Macedon the classical age came to an end; the age of democrats was replaced by the rule of kings and their courtiers. 
Macedon and its neighbours at the
time of the death of Philip

Alexander the Great

In 336 BC the twenty-year old Alexander succeeded his assassinated father. His first aim was to maintain Philip’s dominating position in Greece, but from this he removed Persian domination in the Mediterranean. After two years’ campaigning against the peoples of the north-western frontiers he crossed the Hellespont with an army of 37,000 men, including 5,000 cavalry. This was a transforming moment in the history of Europe and Asia. 

Alexander asserted his control of the Greek cities of Asia Minor, and defeated Darius III at Issus in southern Anatolia. The battle marked the beginning of the end of Persian power. Alexander then marched into Egypt and founded what was to be one of the world’s greatest cities, called Alexandria.

In 331 he marched north and east and defeated an army of probably 300,000 Persians at Gaugamela on the Tigris (near the present northern Iraqi city of Irbil). Darius fled, leaving Babylon and a treasure of 50,000 gold talents to the victor.

From Babylon Alexander advanced in 330 to Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire, and burned the palaces. 

A recreation of Persepolis in modern Iran
In 330 Darius was murdered and Alexander assumed the title, King of Asia. In December he reached Kabul. He spent 329 and 328 in what is now Tajikistan. In 327 he crossed the Indus into India bound (according to some historians) for the Outer Ocean which he believed encircled the world. But his troops refused to go any further and he had to turn back, though he was now leading an army of 120,000 men, the biggest force in western history, the majority of whom were non-Greek. He arrived at Susa in 325-324, where he and his officers took Persian wives during an extraordinary mass wedding ceremony. He was beginning to turn himself into an oriental ruler, something profoundly offensive to democratic Greek sensibilities. He received embassies from many parts of the Greek world and was planning various campaigns, including an expedition to the Caspian Sea, when he died suddenly in Babylon on 13 June 323, aged thirty-two.

Map of Alexander's empire at its height

The Hellenistic age

The period after Alexander's death is known as the Hellenistic age, a period when Graeco-Macedonian autocrats dominated the cities of the former Persian Empire. These territories were given unity by the koine, the common tongue, a language based on Attic Greek.  The central position was held by the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt and the outlying territories.

The fall of Athens

Sulla (minus nose)
By 87 BC Asia was occupied by the forces of Mithridates, the King of Pontus, and Athens was ruled by a Mithridatic puppet, the tyrant, Ariston. The Romans were engaged in a war with Mithridates, and the general Lucius Cornelius Sulla was given the command of the forces against him. In the spring of 87 Sulla began to besiege Athens.  While Athens slowly starved, Sulla was able to breach the walls on the south-west side of the city, by the Sacred Way that led to Eleusis. Ariston fled to the Acropolis for sanctuary but he was dragged to execution from the altar of Athena, an act of impiety that shocked contemporaries. Athens was sacked and Piraeus was burned to the ground.

The great days of Athens were finally over and a new power had risen in the eastern Mediterranean.