The Age of Greece

I have been reading recently about “Hellenistic Civilization”–that is, the greater Greek cultural zone that began in Greece proper around 700 BC, then radiated to the rest of the Mediterranean and of course, due to Alexander the Great, all the way to India. Aside from the short-lived empire, Greek civilization was rarely unified under a single military or political entity, making it somewhat difficult to talk about. If I refer to the “Roman Empire” you won’t be terribly surprised to find out that I am talking about somewhere in Gaul rather than Rome proper, but if I refer to Archimedes as Greek, you may be surprised to learn that he lived in Sicily. Herodotus lived in what was then the Persian Empire, but is now Turkey. Euclid lived in Egypt, in Alexander’s famous city of Alexandria.

Here is a map that shows some of the important players in the Greek cultural world. Rome is in light blue and Carthage, which was Phoenician, is lavender. (Thewestern Med and Indo-Greek kingdom are not on this map.)

The Greeks first show up in the history books back in the Bronze Age/Homeric era as the marauding “sea peoples” who attacked Egypt/Israel/Troy/etc. They made a splash even then, but might have also helped trigger a dark age, so -1 for bronze age Greek culture.

Greece returned a few hundred years later with the founding of the Greek city states that we all know and love, like Athens and Sparta. The famous Pythagoras was born in 570 BC; by this point, Greek colonies spanned the Mediterranean, from Egypt to Spain. Plato was born a bit later, around 425 BC; his student Aristotle taught Alexander, and Alexander conquered much of the known world.

I think we hear more about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle because Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher, and Alexander went around founding libraries (among other things). If Eratosthenes had been Alexander’s teacher, those libraries would have held more of Eratosthenes’s books and fewer of Aristotle’s.

I have yet to see any good explanation for why Greece basically exploded around 700-600 BC, burned like a beacon for hundreds of years, and then faded away around the year 600 AD. The soils in Greece proper are not, as far as I know, the greatest: not soils you’d expect to generate a sudden population explosion, though perhaps gradual degradation of the soils lead people to try their luck elsewhere. Nor do I believe anything so simple as “the sunlight is better in Greece.” The decline of the Greek cultural zone can’t be attributed to the Romans, really, since it survived their arrival by a few hundred years.

Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria lived from 30-70 AD and invented a whole host of marvels, including:

  • The first vending machine … when a coin was introduced via a slot on the top of the machine, a set amount of holy water was dispensed. This was included in his list of inventions in his book Mechanics and Optics. When the coin was deposited, it fell upon a pan attached to a lever. The lever opened up a valve which let some water flow out. The pan continued to tilt with the weight of the coin until it fell off, at which point a counter-weight would snap the lever back up and turn off the valve.[15]
  • A wind-wheel operating an organ, marking the first instance in history of wind powering a machine.[4][5]
  • Hero also invented many mechanisms for the Greek theater, including an entirely mechanical play almost ten minutes in length, powered by a binary-like system of ropes, knots, and simple machines operated by a rotating cylindrical cogwheel. The sound of thunder was produced by the mechanically-timed dropping of metal balls onto a hidden drum.
  • The force pump was widely used in the Roman world, and one application was in a fire-engine.
  • syringe-like device was described by Hero to control the delivery of air or liquids.[16]
  • In optics, Hero formulated the principle of the shortest path of light: If a ray of light propagates from point A to point B within the same medium, the path-length followed is the shortest possible. It was nearly 1000 years later that Alhacen expanded the principle to both reflection and refraction, and the principle was later stated in this form by Pierre de Fermat in 1662; the most modern form is that the optical path is stationary.
  • A standalone fountain that operates under self-contained hydro-static energy; now called Heron’s fountain.
  • A programmable cart that was powered by a falling weight. The “program” consisted of strings wrapped around the drive axle.[17]

You are of course familiar with Greek art (particularly sculpture), mathematics, architecture, and philosophy.

The life of Hypatia shows, perhaps, some of the downfall of Greek culture. Hypatia was born around 360 and died in 415 AD. She was a mathematician and professor at the University of Alexandria. One day, she was set upon by an angry mob of Christians (she was a pagan), dragged from her carraige, stripped naked, and brutally murdered. It was a dark day for academic freedom.

On the other hand, Pythagoras and Archimedes were also murdered, and yet civilization continued unabated in those years.

At any rate, it remains a mystery. It’s late, so just go read about Hero of Alexandria. He’s an interesting guy.

11 thoughts on “The Age of Greece

  1. Perhaps it was the popularisation of Homer and his epics around 600BC that lit the fuse for the fire of the Greek cultural wave. Although I guess then the question becomes what were the circumstances that made a ‘Homer’ possible.

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  2. >I think we hear more about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle because Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher, and Alexander went around founding libraries (among other things).

    No, we hear about them more because the Catholic Church has put a lot of emphasis on Aristotle’s thought, officially and often on Plato less officially, and they still do, look at WM Briggs blog or Edward Fesers. Aquinas often refered to Aristotle as just The Philosopher.

    But this did not start in the Middle Ages. Back when then Roman Empire was still going strong Justinian the Martyr explained how Jesus is of the same essence as God by using the Aristotelean definition of essence, and Celsus criticized Christianity based on Platonist philosophy, which Origen replied to in the same terms.

    It is due to the strong connection between Christianity and Aristoteleanism and to a lesser extent Platonism, that modern thinking is either an explicit denial of Aristotle (Hobbes, based on Newton) or a reaffirmation of him (Darwin, who knew exactly what he was doing when he used the term “final cause”).

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  3. One possible theory is that cold weather leads to the evolution of intelligence, but it can turn into cultural output only if they move south. When I first heard the cold weather theory of intelligence I asked where is the Inuit Empire? And the answer was that the Inuit make fine engineers, once they move south, but up there where resources are mostly snow and seal meat one just cannot turn that into anything truly impressive. And that does sound reasonable, train up a population (genetics-wise) in a resource scarce area then give them an area rich with resources and you can get an impressive civ going.

    OK but why Greece and not somewhere else in the Mediterrean? Maybe the answer is seafaring, there is a pattern of seafaring people, Vikings, Brits, Dutch, outcompeting land-based people. Look at the map how the Roman Empire developed, looks more like sailing around “our sea” than marching a lot across land. The Puns were also a seafaring people, and it was even odds which of them wins, I think. For the Greeks, if you live on islands, and if you are intelligent, it is logical that seafaring develops.

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  4. My understanding was that there was a Greek restoration when the capital moved from Rome to Constantinople. iirc, most Roman emperors were Greek past a certain point.

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  5. All healthy cultures–civilized or otherwise–will expand. Greece achieved military superiority due to tactics, equipment, bravery and so on. No more complicated than that. Whether the Greeks happily developed their military power right when Persia attacked, or only realized it then, it inevitably resulted in expansion.

    Specific Hellenistic cultural achievements, on the other hand, were only possible due to Grecian curiosity and intelligence and perhaps their specific ur-cultural ideals. The Greek preoccupation with statics and the body led directly to their geometry.

    Greece (or the Greek/Roman classical world) collapsed after growing unhealthy. Their civilization failed to overcome a theological crisis. For many people, religion gave way to philosophy. The imperial city of Rome hosted 2 temples dedicated to native Jupiter and ~11 for the foreign mystery goddess Isis, before Christianity attained noticeable proportions. Any culture is maintained by tradition and ultimately by force. Barring meteor strikes or conquest by someone even stronger, cultures die when those who have inherited them lose the will to pass them on.

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  6. Do you have any sources that prove a connection between the sea peoples and the Greeks? Last time I was researching this stuff it was just a theory and there was zero evidence the two groups were related.

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