Alexander the Great – The Hellenization of the East by Ulrich Wilcken

From the Book “Alexander the Great” by Ulrich Wilcken, excertps taken from pp 257-259, 298

For fair use only

Alex marched out as the enthusiastic admirer of Greek culture-who was to open up the East to its influence. Did he remain faithful to this object after he had become acquainted with the old cultures of the East, which could not impress his susceptible nature? Was he still faithful the idea of a fusion οf the nations had laid hold up in his last years with ever-increasing force? One thing is deniable: in spite of all Iranian policy he was personally to the last an enthusiastic admirer of Greek culture. The pupil of Aristotle never abandoned the idea of making his triumphal march also a journey of discovery, and of causing it to serve Greek science through the examination of the lands hitherto unknown by the staff of experts who accompanied him. Out of the later years we need only call to mind the zealous work of investigation in India, Nearchus voyage of exploration, and finally the mission of Heraclides in the Caspian Sea.

Moreover, the attempt which Harpalus made to acclimatize European plants in the gardens of Babylon may unquestionably be set down In Alexander’s initiative. His love of Greek literature remained unchanged to the end. He started out with Homer, and later he sent from the far East for other works of literature,  classical and modern. He had especial veneration for the three great tragedians, above all for Euripides, whom he knew so well that at times he could recite scenes out of him from memory (p. 236). If the poets accompanied his travelling court were not of the first rank, that was not the fault of his taste but of the low level of Greek poetry at the lime. Beside the poets there were also in his camp philosophers and philosophically educated men of the most different schools, Cynics like Onesicritus and Anaximenes, a Democritean like Anaxarchus and his pupil Pyrrho the sceptic,.

The intellectual life at the court of Alexander, which we picture as very animated, was thoroughly Greek. So far as we know, he had no acquaintance with the literatures of the Oriental peoples. This is probably not to be explained  by the lack of knowledge of the languages, as the deficiency might have been removed by the use of interpreters. The literatures of Egypt, Babylon, Persia and India remained unknown to him. He seems to have had a certain interest in the Indian Gymnosophists. and at his invitation the Indian Calanus was a guest at his court for several years up to the time of his self-immolation (p. 180); but we hear nothing of any deep intellectual intercourse. If Alexander, as we saw, sacrificed to the Oriental gods, he was behaving thereby as a true Greek. But it is noteworthy that, tough for political reasons he caused the Persian Magians to officiate along with the Greek soothsayers at the feast of reconciliation at Opis, he never sought any acquaintance twith the  sacred books of the Persian religion. From the literary point of view he remained exclusively Greek.

Greek art remained for him the art. In Egypt he ordered the execution of extensions to the temp Ammon at Karnak and Luxor, and in Babylon he arranged. the rebuilding of the temple of Marduk, but these acts were dictated by political reasons. In both cases the buildings were of course executed in the native style; yet it has recently been observed that the reliefs in those sanctuaries Karnak and Luxor exhibit the influence of Greek art. We  never hear  that he caused Oriental artists to work for him; on the contrary he exclusively employed Greeks. He preferred to have portraits made by Apelles and Lysippus, which witnesses to his understanding of the art of time[…]

Alexander’s leading principle of extending in the East Greek culture, which even before his time had begun to pass the frontiers of the Greek world, was adopted and carried out by his successors consciously and with vigour. The Seleucids especially, who both from the political economic points of view had the greatest interest in attracting as many Greeks and Macedonians as possible in his kingdom, supplied the facilities for a large-scale development of Greek life in the numerous cities which after Alexander’s example founded. Thus in the middle if the Oriental world rose Greek Polis, whose citizens had brought with them and continued to use Greek language  and religion, law and social customs. These cities decorated themselves  with market places and public buildings for their councils and  and assemblies to meet in, and with temples of Greek gods. Everywhere gymnasia were constructed with palaistrai and baths; for the Greeks were well aware that their national gymnastic training, which ti thoroughly foreign to the Orientals, was the best means preserving their special character—and that was their aim, at any rate in the first generation, when they still felt  themselves to be the victorious and dominant race, the Superiors of the Oriental native. In the second book of the Macabees (iv, 13) the gymnasial system is well described as ‘the extreme of Hellenism’. Naturally the concentration of Greek population was greatest in the capitals of the Seleucids, Seleucia on the Tigris, and Antioch, both of which played a great part  also in the intellectual life. Though in Antioch there was too a large conflux of Syrians, Jews and other foreigners, yet the Seleucids endeavoured, not without success, to preserve for the city its Greek character. The Ptolemies however succeeded in far greater measure in making their capital a centre of Hellenistic culture.

by Dimitra

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