|THE RISE OF THE GREEK EMPIRE
The origins of Greece are shrouded in mystery and date back to the time of Abraham, 18th century BC, or perhaps even earlier. Historians disagree as to where the Greeks came from. They could have been people migrating down from Asia down through Europe and settling in the Greek Isles, or they could have been seafaring people who settled along the coast. Whoever they were, the earliest inhabitants of mainland Greece (called Mycenaeans after excavations found at Mycenae) developed an advanced culture. But, around 1100 BC, the Mycenaeans were invaded by barbarians called Dorians and all their civilization disappeared. Greece went into a “Dark Age” to re-emerge hundreds of years later.
The classical Greek period begins as early as 7th century BC, though we tend to be more familiar with its history in the 5th century when Greece consists of a group of constantly warring city-states, the most famous being Athens and Sparta. The Greek victory at the Marathon (490 BC), the destruction of the Persian fleet at Salamis (480 BC) and the victory at Plataea (479 BC) brought and end to the Persian Empire’s attempts to conquer Greece. During the last three decades of the 5th century, Athens and Sparta waged a devastating war (Peloponnesian War 431-404 BC) which culminated in the surrender of Athens. More inter-Greek fighting followed in the 4th century but later in that century all of Greece would succumb to Phillip II of Macedon, who paves way for his son, Alexander the Great, to spread the Greek civilization across the world.
While admiring the Greek contributions to civilization—its politics, philosophy, art and architecture - it is easy to forget what Greek society was really like. For example, we’ve heard of the “Spartan lifestyle,” but what did that mean in practice? Well, for starters, at the age of seven, Spartan boys were separated from their parents; they lived in military barracks where they were beaten, and not even given minimal food to encourage them to steal. To be Spartan meant to be tough.
In warfare, the Greeks invented the “pitched battle”—with thousands of foot soldiers colliding with the enemy, slaughtering and being slaughtered as they advanced. (The 80 pounds of armor and weaponry carried by the average Greek hoplite (infantry man) also necessitated a pitched battle since after about 30 to 45 minutes the soldiers were all exhausted) While we think today of the Greeks as cultured and noble, it is shocking to learn how brutal their civilization (like all ancient civilizations) could be at times.
The other great Greek innovation was the phalanx. Instead of the undisciplined,” free for all” combat common in ancient warfare, the Greeks fought in disciplined battle lines; infantry advanced with shields and spears. A well-disciplined phalanx created a formidable wall of shields and extremely long pikes (spears which may have been as long as 21 feet/ 3 meters.) These pike-men moved in giant squares called a phalanx, shields locked together, 16 men across and 16 deep-the first five rows of pikes pointed straight ahead creating a lethal mass of spear heads used with deadly efficiency.
ALEXANDER THE GREAT
Alexander, born in 356BC, was the son of Phillip II (382-336BC), the King of Macedonia in northern Greece. Considered a barbarian by the southern Greek city-states, Phillip created a powerful army which forcibly united Greece into one empire. From an early age, Alexander, displayed tremendous military talent and was appointed as a commander in his father’s army at the age of eighteen. Having conquered all of Greece Phillip was about to embark on a campaign to invade the Persian Empire. Before he could invade Persia he was assassinated, possibly by Alexander, who then became king in 336BC.
In 334BC, Alexander crossed the Hellespont (in modern-day Turkey) with 45,000 men and invaded the Persian Empire. The backbone of Alexander’s Macedonian army was his infantry. In many battles, Alexander brilliantly (and often recklessly) led his army to victory against Persian armies that may have outnumbered his own as much as ten to one. His chief tactics were to always be on the offense and always do the unexpected.
By 331 BCE the Persian Empire was defeated, the Persian Emperor Darius was dead, and Alexander was the undisputed rival of the Mediterranean. His military campaign lasted 12 years and took him and his army 10,000 miles to the Indus River in India. Only the weariness of his men and his untimely death in 323BC at the age of 32 ended the Greek conquest of the known world. At its largest, Alexander’s empire stretched from Egypt to India. He built six Greek cities in his empire, named Alexandria. (Today the best known is the city of Alexandria in Egypt at the Nile delta.) These cities and the Greeks who settle in them brought Greek culture to the center of the oldest civilizations of Mesopotamia.
The Greeks were not only military imperialist but also cultural imperialist. Greek soldiers and settlers brought their way of life: their language, art, architecture, literature, and philosophy, to Middle East. When Greek culture merged with the culture of the Middle East it created a new cultural hybrid-Hellenism (Hellas is the Greek word for Greece) whose impact would be far greater and last for far longer than the brief period of Alexander’s empire. Whether through the idea of the pitched battle, art, literature, drama, poetry, music, sculpture, architecture or philosophy, Hellenism’s influence on the Roman Empire, Christianity, and the West was monumental.
The Greeks showcased all human talents; they glorified the beauty of the human body, displaying athletic prowess in the Olympics. Nothing regarding the human body was considered embarrassing, in need of hiding, or private for that matter. Athletic competitions were often performed in the nude in ancient Greece. Our modern word “gymnasium” is derived from the Greek word “gumnos” which means naked. Even Greek gods were described in human terms and were often bested by human beings in Greek mythology; with time, it became the style of intellectual Greeks to denigrate their gods and speak of them with biting cynicism and disrespect. In short, the Greeks introduced into human consciousness an idea which is going to come into play as one of the most powerful intellectual forces in modern history - humanism. The human being is the center of all things. The human mind and its ability to understand and observe and comprehend things rationally is the be-all-and-end-all, an idea which comes from the Greeks.