November 27, 2008

Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis

Greece, said Horace, had captured her wild conquerer Rome. We in our vocabulary and our habits of thought consciously and unconsciously echo or imagine we echo the Greek philosophers. The interesting question for historians and others to consider though is what happened in Greece- why suddenly in a burst of centuries do we get Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Hippocrates and many others- what happened to create that burst? Professor Walter Burkett of Zurich University gave some interesting lectures about this in Venice in 1996, which he later expanded into a book. His argument is essentially that Greece profitted by being close to the traditional sources of civilisation in the ancient world- and that furthermore when those traditional areas were disturbed by productive change, the Greeks were just near enough to reap the reward but too far away to lose much in the wars and civil strife that ensued.

There is a lot of sense in what Burkett argues. Let us start with something that we can understand- writing. Writing letters like those I am typing is a technology that was discovered in the Western Semitic areas sometime around 1200. It took a while to become truly popular- but eventually replaced cuneiform writing in the Assyrian empire and spread up into the Western lands of Greece sometime shortly after 800. The Greeks used the same sequence of letters in their alphabet, the phoenician 'alpu, betu, gamlu, daltu' becoming the familiar 'alpha, beta, gamma, delta'. The Greeks believed that this invention had come from the Phoenicians and there is evidence to support the idea that it spread along trade routes. That idea of a spread of an idea from east to west is obviously not implausible- if the alphabet and other things like forms of statue and the architectural models for temples could so move then it isn't unlikely that ideas did too.

Burkert offers plenty of examples of ideas that might well have moved from east to west. He groups them into four sections: the orientalising features in Homer, borrowings from Eastern wisdom literature in Hesiod and other places, Orphic influence from Egypt and the idea of the Magi from Persia. There is something to be said for all of these particular cases of influence. Burkert notes interesting passages in Homer which are more theological than the normal narrative- some where the Greek bard seems to have quoted directly from Babylonian texts like the Atrahasis, others for example a passage about Aphrodite which seems to contradict the normal Greek myth by saying that the goddess of love was a daughter of Zeus and his wife Dione (the only time Dione is ever mentioned in the poem) which are almost exact copies of an earlier oriental story. The same is true in the wisdom literature of the pre-socratics where Burkert notes common themes with say wisdom literature from the Bible and other Eastern or Babylonian sources. The Orpheus cult he shows has links to Egyptian mysteries about the dead and their protection. The Magi were Persian priests- and Burkert shows that they must have been known about in Ionia from at least the coming of Darius to the throne- furthermore he traces ideas from them into Greek philosophy, particularly the idea of immortality and the conception of dualism.

The problem with all of this is that showing that two groups of people shared the same idea is not showing that they transmitted it, that one received it and the other initiated it. However by establishing a series of links- what Burkert shows is that it is quite likely that these ideas did not exist in isolation. Greeks were trading with the East from very early on. We see that in the alphabetic trail. We also can see a direct connection from the conquest of Ionia onwards- whereby Persians and Greeks frequently traded and fell out. Notable Greeks like Themistocles of Athens even went to work as satraps for the Persian King. Earlier Greek philosophers like Heraclitus may have lived under that King within Ionia. We also know that ancient cultures were receptive to influence- whether that's Rome with Greece or Rome and Greece with Egypt- from the trading connections and the intellectual connections to do with writing, it would surely be sensible to infer that further simularities of ideas come from communication. Sensible furthermore because we are not the first to have had these thoughts: Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle all argued at various points for the origins of Greek concepts from the outside world. There are times when I feel Burkert makes too much of his simularities- but the essential point is still there- that the Greeks were trading and influenced by the East and therefore must have been influenced intellectually.

So what does this say about the Greeks- it does not downgrade them in the history of civilisation. Rather it places it them where they ought to be- as master adapters of skills passed to them from other places. That is in a sense the story of civilisation, no one people owns or has ever owned it- rather ideas are passed around the world or around a locality and then used. Economic and social factors- particularly in Greece the rise of the city state (an event paralleled in Phoenicia and north Africa which we know far less about and which may have produced a efflorescence of its own) allowed a trading class to develop who would use and exploit these ideas. Ultimately the acheivement of Greece was less the origination of these ideas than their combination- what Burkert shows is that the Greek experience was not that of a sole light of civilisation in the darkness of barbarism but that of a people on the edge of a civilisation who absorbed and changed the things that their neighbours showed them. Reflecting those things back to their neighbours in new and innovative ways- ways that for example changed the way that semitic religions- Judaism and later Christianity- were understood in. Greece can take its place within an Eastern Meditereanean filled with trade and chatter about ideas and philosophies.


Crushed said...

I kind of argued a point like this in a series I did a while back in human systematic development.

I think the relevant posts was called Hellenes and Horses or something like that.

It basically stated the the Macedonian mastery of Cavalry created the Hellenic woprld by unifying cultures under the Hellenic system by the aid of the transport revolution the horse provided, but that neither Persians or Greeks were really the intiators- just the horsebound inheritors.