is said to be a wonderful thing. It brings to mind Alexander the
Great, widely praised by historians earlier in this – I mean the
late – century, as a heroic founder of 'universalism.' The praise
came because he made his officers take Persian brides, as did he,
to cement the ties between conquerors and conquered, etc., etc.
He also knocked over the Achaemenid treasury. Naturally, the victors
began spending the Persian king's money, setting off one of the
few inflationary cycles in history involving a metal-based money
supply. The only other one, ever, of which I can think offhand,
arose from Spanish conquests in Mexico and Peru. I should think
these are clear-cut cases of state intervention in the economy.
Keynesian terms, the Persian, Aztecan, and Incan treasurers
were 'hoarders' and needed to learn the wisdom of
the serpent, or at the very least, the wisdom of Alan
Greenspan. Alexander, Cortez and Pizzaro were public
spirited fellows whose activities created effective
demand and made the economy boom.
there is more. Alexander's conquests, while they did
not create a lasting and unified Greek empire stretching
from Macedonia in the west, Bactria in the east, and
Egypt in the south, did leave behind a set of clunky
successor states. These included the Seleucid and
Macedonian states, as well as the Ptolemaic kingdom
of Egypt. The latter, of course, is justly famous
for Cleopatra. In reaction to Greek intrusion, Chandragupta
Maurya went on a binge of state-formation in northern
India, which I'm sure made everyone much happier.
I should add that Bactria, as such, has little to
exploits of Aristotle's most famous pupil made for
far too many cities called Alexandria. The Hellenic
successor states, hereinafter called 'Hellenistic,'
had Greek-speaking ruling classes (bureaucrats and
soldiers) and attracted Greek merchants, professionals,
and hangers-on to the new states. This was a massive
frontier movement of Greeks seeking new opportunities.
The Greek Horace Greeley, if there was one, was crying
'Go east, young man' at the top of his lungs.
the new states were a departure from Hellenism proper,
which had rested on the small-scale city-state or
republic. The Hellenistic states were large, territorial
operations, and oppressive ones. The Loeb Classical
Series volume of documents from Hellenistic Egypt
underlines the Ptolemaic bureaucracy's program of
state-mercantilism, undertaken for revenue and control.1
This included a very early oil monopoly – PTOLEO –
which, I admit, only involved olive oil. I mention
in passing that the famous Rosetta Stone – key to
the early 19th decipherment of hieroglyphic
Egyptian – was actually the text of a decree granting
tax relief. (And you thought Rosetta Stone was an
English rock singer.)
where's the universalism? you might well ask. (John
Lennon would have.) Well, each conquered region got
a Greek-speaking ruling class, Greek-speaking professionals
and merchants, Greek-speaking teachers and intellectuals….
You get the idea. Everyone was united on Greek terms.
A real case of sharing, even if was a bit one-sided.
get me wrong I have nothing against the spread of
Hellenism as such. At this late date it's a bit hard
to sort out the right and wrong of it. I sentimentally
prefer that cultures be spread by peaceful means such
as trade and the like. But what's done is done, and
even the current Left can't realistically demand that
we tear down the Hellenistic statues and rename all
the Hellenistic schools, highways, and cities. Or
can they? Probably not. Time itself has torn down
most of those oppressive objects and deconstructed
their texts; the remains are now the province of the
archaeologists. Besides, who now knows what the oppressed
natives' name for Alexandria was? Very likely it was
'potentially lucrative seashore location with no city
on it yet,' whatever that might be in ancient Coptic
while I'm quite certain it's no big job to right all
the wrongs and reverse all the oppressions dating
from 1492 through verbal legerdemain, it is doubtless
technically unfeasible to do so for the third century
B.C. Too bad, really. If we had the world-improvers
working on that, they might overlook a monument or
two at home. And flags.
PITFALLS OF HISTORY
the height of British power that is, right
around the second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1903)
a number of well-placed British scholars ransacked
Greek history for useful lessons. Equating democratic,
commercial Athens with Britain, they saw a warning
in the short-lived Athenian Empire, which preceded
our pal, Alexander, in time. Its heavy-handed methods
led to unnecessary wars, the collapse of Athenian
power, and the rise of Macedonia. Thus, Britain must
convert its empire into a commonwealth, granting self-government
(where appropriate) to its colonies, to prevent dissension
and the triumph of barbarous forces. For 'barbarous
forces' we can read Germany.2
was another analogy on hand, perhaps not so popular,
which equated Britain with Carthage, a commercial
empire, in conflict with Rome, which doubtless stood
in for the Germans again. Fortunately, the pro-Carthaginians
did not call for a return to the most famous Punic
cultural practice. That was left to American jurists.
sociologist Lewis S. Feuer was responsible for a strange
entry in the pro-imperial sweepstakes in 1986. His
and the Anti-Imperialist Mind, was a sustained
attack on critics of British imperialism as crazed
neurotics. This was an extension of the questionable
psycho-smear method which the American center-left
had wielded against the 'radical right' from the 1950s
onwards. Feuer was at pains to distinguish good empires
from bad ones. The good ones were the Roman, British,
and American empires. They were so 'inclusive.' All
others, presumably, were bad.
very fashionable Cold War reading of classical history
equated the United States with the lovable, open Athenians.
This meant the Soviets were Sparta. Unluckily, this
analogy had some flaws. Upon further investigation,
the serious student of history was likely to find
the backward, authoritarian Spartans less aggressive
than the prosperous, democratic Athenians. Prosperous
societies could better afford imperialism,
something New Left critics of the American empire
seldom failed to point out.
readings of classical history 'proving' the necessity
and rightness of US imperialism can still be met with.
This good work keeps many a Neo-Conservative off the
streets and gets him home in time for supper. I won't
mention any of these writers, but their name is legion.
ES EIGENTLICH GEWESEN'
let us flee from these present-minded analogies and
summarize what 'actually happened.' Very briefly,
the Macedonians' universalist project failed. Alexander's
empire of conquest hardly survived his own death.
In the end, it fell to the aggressive Roman Republicans
to inflict unity and 'good government' on the territories
previously Hellenized by the political and commercial
efforts of the Greeks.
say that the heart was already gone from Hellenistic
civilization well before Romans brought order to the
Greek world. The term Late Hellenistic Despair sometimes
comes up. The Greeks' ideal balance between reason
and emotion had broken up, with the Stoics and Epicureans
pursuing a rather sterile rationalism while various
mystery-and-salvation religions took up the emotional
side of things. Christianity, it could be said, reintegrated
reason and emotion, but it would take us far afield
indeed to look into that.
of Rome itself, the bearer of the imperial 'universal
mission'? Some, like the renegade Celt Virgil, extolled
the imperial people and their achievements. Great
poetry often goes with bad politics. Think of our
own Walt Whitman, who just couldn't get enough Yankee
aggression. Not every Roman embraced Rome's mission.
Writing of the first century or so under empire, Henry
Bamford Parkes noted, "The greatest energy was
displayed by those Latin writers who still clung to
the tribalistic traditions of the republic and hated
the principate not only because of its suppression
of Roman liberties, but also because of its universalist
PITS, MORE FALLS?
suppose someone could say that with trade and communications
'uniting' mankind as never before, universal values
exist, or are emerging, or something. Westernization
of nonwestern societies superficial or otherwise
– contributes to this notion. Today's phony-baloney
international law, cobbled together out of US imperial
rescripts, UN resolutions, and decrees from Brussels,
adds to the illusion.
yet major differences between state-level societies
persist in basic world outlook, as well as felt interest.
This sort of thing unhinges Oxford dons, leads them
to despair of the 'liberal project' of universal rights
and the like, and drives them into the arms of Tony
Blair and all those Third Way guys. We cannot resolve
such high matters today in this space. Suffice it
to say that, whether or not universal rights exist,
one should regard with utmost skepticism the claims
of any imperialist power which sets about 'enforcing'
them with or without depleted uranium.
Einaudi, 'Greatness and Decline of the Planned Economy
in the Hellenistic World,' Kyklos, II (1948).
Anglo-American Establishment (New York:
Books in Focus, 1981), pp.133-37.
Bamford Parkes, Gods
and Men: The Origins of Western Culture
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959), p. 344.