The Hellenistic Age suffers from some of the same disabilities as Late Antiquity, i.e. it doesn't measure up to the brilliance of the Golden Age of Greece and of late Republican and early Imperial Rome.
However, the Hellenistic world, although mostly not bothering with characteristic Greek experiments like democracy, is where Greece actually became a cosmopolitan culture, a sort of pre-adaptation for the Roman world. Just saying that the Bible begins with the book of
Genesis, a Greek word, reflects the degree to which the older cultures of the Middle East came to express themselves in Greek. Several of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, mainly in Anatolia (Armenia, Pontus, Cappadocia, etc.), are domains of non-Greek peoples. Meanwhile, although the literature does not seem as brilliant, mathematics, science, and technology develop rapidly. Archimedes very nearly develops calculus. Eratosthenes estimates the size of the Earth with an accuracy that will not be surpassed until Modern times. Hero of Alexandria builds a kind of steam engine. This remains little more than a toy, but the same cannot be said of the immense engines, often of war, that Hellenstic technology otherwise produces. It is all inherited by the Romans, perhaps symbolicly with the killing of Archimedes at Syracuse by a Roman soldier in 212 (during the Second Punic War, 218-201).
All of the tables are mainly based on E.J. Bickerman, Chronology of the Ancient World [Cornell University Press, 1968, 1982], C. Bradford Welles,
Alexander and the Hellenistic World [A.M. Hakkert Ltd., Toronto, 1970], and Bruce R. Gordon's Regnal Chronologies. Kingdoms listed under the Seleucids are those that broke away from the Asiatic part of Alexander's Empire that largely had been inherited by
Seleucus, though a couple of them, like Armenia, were actually only under Seleucid control briefly. The genealogies now are supplied or corrected from the Erzählende genealogische Stammtafeln zur europäischen Geschichte, Volume III,
Europäiche Kaiser-, Königs- und Fürstenhäuser, Ergänzungsband [Andreas Thiele, R. G. Fischer
Verlag, Second Edition, 2001], which has a section specifically of Hellenistic monarchs.
Sometimes Alexander the Great's brilliance as a general is questioned. Such criticism is usually focused on his conduct of battles. However, that is not the most important point. Simply
getting a functioning army all the way from Macedonia to India, and back to Babylon, is the most extraordinary feat. Winning every battle along the way, however basic the tactics, certainly helps. The Emperor
Julian, a competent general, couldn't even invade Persian Mesopotamia without getting himself into an awkward situation.
After Alexander's untimely death, his half-witted half-brother Philip III was made King, awaiting the birth of Alexander's postumous child by
Roxane. This child turned out to be a son, Alexander IV. Brother and son were thus the "Kings" in the custody of the Regents. Philip ended up murdered by Alexander's mother,
Olympias, in league with Polyperchon, in 317. She was almost immediately murdered by
Cassander. Alexander was murdered, together with Roxane, by Cassander around 310. Alexander IV's "official" reign, and the fiction of a unified empire, was maintained for five more years, until
Antigonus, Demetrius, Lysimachus, Seleucus, Ptolemy, and Cassander (the Diadochi, "Successors") had all proclaimed themselves Kings in their own right.
Alexander was ready to go down the Ganges for further conquests. This was territory that previously the Greeks had hardly even heard of. And it was getting a little too far from home for most of the army. The soliders were mutinous. So Alexander turned back. A nice version of this, however, is told by the
Jains. The Greeks were impressed with the "naked philosophers," the homeless ascetics, they encountered in India. The Jains preserve, barely, this tradition of ascetic nudity, and now say that Alexander decided to give up further conquests after being persuaded of their futility by Jain monks. Alexander, however, did not otherwise seem to suddenly turn towards asceticism, so the explanation from the Greek historians of unrest in the ranks seems more likely.
The following combined genealogy covers early
Eprius, the Macedonian Great Kings and Regents, Magas of
Cyrene, and later
Macedonia. The genealogy of the Seleucids and
Ptolemies is given separately below. The intermarriages here between the Diadochi are bewildering, and hard to link intuitively in just two dimensions. The Antigonids succeed to Macedon, but then only rule for four generations, with the last of the line,
Perseus, already a vassal of the Romans.
This genealogy has been largely assembled from the
Erzählende genealogische Stammtafeln zur europäischen Geschichte, Volume III,
Europäiche Kaiser-, Königs- und Fürstenhäuser, Ergänzungsband [Andreas Thiele, R. G. Fischer
Verlag, Second Edition, 2001].
Monarchy overthrown, Epirus divided between Rome and Macedon
Independent and non-Greek, Epirus was the home of Alexander's mother
Olympias, to which she returned after repudiation by Philip II and other setbacks. The most famous person from Epirus ever, however, was probably
Pyrrhus I, whose adventures included the first major contact between the Greek world and
Rome. Called in by Greek cities alarmed at Roman growth, Pyrrhus won some battles, but with such loss that his name has become a byeword for costly, i.e. "Pyrrhic," victory. After bouncing all over the map, and holding the throne of Macedon twice, Pyrrhus was finally killed when a woman in Argos threw a roof tile at him.
Pyrrhus's adventure in Sicily was followed shortly thereafter by the First Punic War, 264-241, by which Rome defeated Carthage, conquered Sicily, and became in consequence the Great Power of the Western Mediterranean.
Rome's First Illyrian War, 229-228, resulted in a Roman protectorate, the first Roman possession in the Balkan's, on the border of Epirus.
The Cimmerian Bosporus, in the Crimea, was a very long lived Greek and Hellenistic
colonial kingdom that passed under Roman protection and survived all the way to conquest by the
Goths. This span, over very different eras, all by itself makes the kingdom of great interest. Only Armenia and kingdoms in the Caucasus were more durable as Roman client states. The list is given in
E.J. Bickerman, Chronology of the Ancient World [Cornell Univesity Press, 1968-1982], pp. 132-133. The obscurity of this realm is evident in the circumstance that it is not shown on any of Tony Belmonte's maps. It is, however, followed in
The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History, and is shown from that source in the
Animated History of Romania. The often dual dates reflect uncertainty over which Julian calendar year matches up with the Greek year, which starts in the Autumn, in question. The greatest obscurities in dates are in the third century, when the sources even for Roman history aren't all that great. The absorption of the kingdom by the
Ostrogoths, who dominated the Ukraine at the time in the fourth century, is a portent for the trouble that the Empire proper was going to have with the Goths in the fifth century.
Antigonus Monophthalmos, an old general of Philip II, did not rule over Macedonia but was the first of Alexander the Great's generals to proclaim himself a King in his own right, in Phrygia. Ptolemy,
Seleucus, Cassander, and Lysimachus soon followed suit. The magnitude of the threat posed by Antigonus led all the others to combine against him, and he was defeated and killed at the battle of Ipsus in 301. Antigonus's son,
Demetrius I Poliorcetes (Poliorkêtés,
"Sieger of Cities," though his greatest siege, of Rhodes, was a failure), who had also been created King by
Antigonus, survived the battle and continued to control much of Greece and the Aegean. He briefly held Macedonia (294-288), before being deposed by Pyrrhus and
Lysimachus, and then was captured by Seleucus I in 285 -- the effective end of his Kingship. Treated well enough by
Seleucus, his health became the worse for drink, and he died in 283. His son,
Antigonas II Gonatas, finally, with a great defeat of the invading Celts, installed their line in that kingdom.
A little more than twenty years after the death of Alexander, the Diadochi have all become Kings and divided things up between themselves. Antigonus Monophthalmos both holds and center and is the most ambitious. He is reasonably suspected of intending to reunite Alexander's empire under himself. All the others then combine against him, and Ipsus puts an end to his ambitions and his Kingdom. Demetrius is cut loose to seek his own fortune.
King of Macedon, 288; killed by Seleucus I, battle of Corupedium, 281
assassinates Seleucus I, 281 Invasion of Gauls, 279; Ceraunus killed
major player among the Diadochi and is in on the overthrow of Antigonus
Monophthalmos, but then Seleucus turns against him. Seleucus, however, is assassinated shortly after his fatal victory over Lysimachus. Thrace, to the extent that it remains under Hellenistic control, then becomes a piece in the struggles of Macedonia and the Seleucids.
With the removal of "the Kings," Philip III and Alexander IV, to Macedon (321), that Kingdom, replacing Alexander's Babylon, becomes the
de jure capital, again, of the Macedonian Empire. However, the Kings are merely figureheads and pawns in the power struggles now developing. With both Kings murdered in turn (317, c.310), Cassander is left maintaining the fiction of Alexander's authority. It lasted rather longer than we might have expected. Antigonus Monophthalmos declares himself and his son Demetrius
"Poliorcetes" Kings in 306. Then all the Diadochi, Cassander, Lysimachus, Ptolemy, and
Seleucus, followed suit in 305. This reduced Macedon itself to the position of no more than first among equals, if that. It soon becomes the most contested of the successor Kingdoms. Demetrius displaces the sons of Cassander (294) and then is ejected by Lysimachus and Pyrrhus (288). They share Macedon until Lysimachus ejects Pyrrhus (283). Then Lysimachus is killed by
Seleucus, who is killed by Ptolemy Ceraunus (281). Ptolemy is killed by invading Celts (279), which puts the Kingdom pretty much up for grabs. It is duly grabbed by Antigonus II
Gonatas, son of Demetrius, who defeats the Celts (277). Things are about ready to settle down. Antigonus is briefly ejected by Pyrrhus again (273-272), but then returns to establish his dynasty for the rest of the independent history of Macedonia.
Macedonia became the first of the Hellenistic successor kingdoms to feel the wrath of Rome. This started with the Second Punic War, 218-201, when Hannibal's invasion and victories in Italy (like Cannae, 216) made it look like Rome might actually be defeated by Carthage. To Philip V, a Macedonian alliance with Carthage then seemed reasonable. When fortune turned against Carthage, a peace was patched up (205), but Roman revenge could be expected after the final and decisive defeat of Carthage (202). When revenge came (197), Macedon permanently lost its position in Greece and any real freedom of action. The final reduction of Macedonia coincided with the Third Punic War, 149-146, when Carthage itself was conquered and destroyed. Both Africa and Macedonia became Roman provinces.
As the Hellensitic Kingdoms are forming, the city of
Rome has occupied most of Central Italy. The Second Samnite War (327-304) secured Roman domination. The next real contest would be with the Greek cities in the south. The Greeks derived aid from Pyrrhus of
Epirus (281-278), but this was unavailing. Tarentum surrendered in 272, leaving the Romans in complete control of Southern Italy. By 270, the Roman Republic is all but coextensive with Italy. Only the Po Valley, still Celtic (and even called "Cisalpine Gaul"), is unoccupied.
After the fall of Lysimachus, the assassination of Seleucus, and the establishment of Antigonus Gonatas in Macedonia, the successor Kingdoms have shaken down to just three. This gives the form of things for a while, still pretty early in the Hellenstic Period, just fifty years after the death of Alexander. That a generation and more has passed is now conspicuous. Alexander's own generals are now gone. Antiochus' name is even today preserved in the name of the city of Antioch, though its modern name, Antakya, is in a language, Turkish, that would have been no more familiar to the Hellenistic Greeks than Navajo.
While the Diadochi are the high profile players in Hellenistic history, Greece itself continued to consist of city states.
Some, although occasionally subject to foreign, mainly Macedonian, control, largely preserved their independence and long continued as autonomous players.
Sparta are conspicuous in this category. Leagues of cities were already familiar from Greek history, but to the extent that they represented real power, they usually reflected the dominance of one member.
The League of Delos thus became the instrument of Athens. The League of Corinth was created by Philip II of Macedon to control Greece, while maintaining the fiction that the Greek cities were independent. As the Hellenistic Age developed, however, we have the new phenomenon of leagues which become politically and military important in their own right without being dominated by a particular member, much less some other power. These were the
Aetolian League, mainly in the mountains north of the Gulf of Corinth, and the
Achaean League, beginning along the north coast of the Peloponnesus. Neither league began near what had hitherto been centers of Greek power, and the Aetolians were in an area that had barely passed from tribal to urban organization -- though their acquisition of Delphi around 300 (or in 290) gave them one of the symbolic centers of Greek religion and identity. In the course of events, the Aetolians achieved temporary control over Boeotia and Thessaly. The Achaeans eventually annexed Sparta but then displeased Rome with its treatment. They each developed something like a federal structure, with a League Assembly and the annual election of a president or general (strategos) to lead the whole. The Achaean League especially was well led by
Aratus, who was president every other year (he could not succeed himself) from 245 to 213, and was followed by Philopoemen of Megalopolis from 208 until his death in 182. The Aetolians made the mistake of allying with Antiochus III against Rome, and the Romans reduced them to a vassal status in 189. The Achaeans also eventually fell afoul of Rome, and in 146 the Romans sacked Corinth and dissolved the League. Among the hostages that Rome demanded from Achaea in 167 was the historian
Polybius, who ended up observing a great deal of Roman history, like the Third Punic War (149-146). Both leagues were the only Greek precedent for the kind of federal structure of government that was attempted in the
United States Constitution. The name of the Achaean League lived on in subsequent history. The name of the Roman province that included the Peloponnesus, Athens, and Boeotia was "Achaea"; and when the Crusaders divided up
Romania after the Fourth Crusade, the Peloponnesus became the
Principality of Achaea.
THE SELEUCIDS, MACEDONIAN KINGS OF IRAN, IRAQ, SYRIA, ETC.
Seleucus, although at one point a refugee with Ptolemy I, returned across the desert to Babylon in 312 to ultimately appropriate the lion's share of Alexander's empire. This dramatic event, counted as
Seleucus' first regal year, was continued as the Seleucid Era, the first continuous count of time in world chronology, soon to inspire the similar Arsacid Era of
Parthia. The beginning of the Seleucid Era is given as 312/311 because it was not reckoned to begin at Babylon until the
Babylonian New Year the following Spring.
Seleucus left India to the growing power of the
Mauryas, but was about to add Thrace to his kingdom when, stepping out of the boat in Europe, he was assassinated by Ptolemy
Ceraunus, whom he had taken in as a refugee. Ceraunus claimed the throne of Thrace and Macedon, while the rest of
Seleucus' domain passed to his half-Iranian son Antiochus.
The capital of the kingdom, Seleucia, founded on the Tigris, began to replace Babylon as the metropolitan city of the region, but it did not achieve the historical significance and permanence of Alexandria in Egypt. Instead, it was ultimately replaced by the neighboring new capitals of the
Parthians, Ctesiphon, and of the
Baghdâd. A more permanent city of historical importance and fame would be
While Seleucid authority was never fully established over several kingdoms in Anatolia, like
Pontus, more distant areas, like Parthia and
Bactria, began to drift away. Antiochus III stopped this process and began to reverse it, marching to India and wresting Palestine from the
Ptolemies, but then had the misfortune to become the first Seleucid to clash with Rome. His defeat in 190 began a steep decline for the kingdom. By 125, the Seleucids would be confined to Syria. Their last 60 years would be consumed with pointless dynastic conflict and fragmentation, and 14 years of Armenian occupation. Then Rome would pick up the pieces. Pompey "settles the East" in 63 BC with the annexation of the remaining Seleucid lands and the reduction of other local states, like
Judaea, to Roman clients.
The idea of the Seven Wonders of the World is the essence of Hellenism. A wide ranging and cosmopolitan culture embraces the great works of the past and the present, though mainly of the present. Only the
Pyramids antedate the times of the Greeks. The philosopher Thales was already teaching when the Hanging Gardens were built by
THE SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD
1. The Pyramids
2. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
3. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
4. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
5. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
6. The Colossus of Rhodes
7. The Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria
Only one Wonder, however, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, dates from the actual Golden Age of Greece in the 5th century. The Temple of Artemis, at least the one familiar in the Hellenistic Age, and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus were products of the 4th century; and King Mausolus (d. 353) was not even a Greek, but a
Carian, one of the pre-Greek peoples of western Anatolia. The last two Wonders were then actual products of the Hellenistic Age, in the 3th century. The Colossus of Rhodes was constructed by a surviving Greek city state, but then the Pharos Lighthouse was one of the supreme symbols of Hellenistic Monarchy, built by
Ptolemy I and II in the first and greatest city of Alexander, marking its location, day and light, on the edge of the otherwise flat and undistinguished Delta of Egypt.
With the Seleucids, as with the Ptolemies, we have a genealogy that gets more complicated as time goes on. This happens as brothers and cousins begin to contend for the Throne, but also as intermarriage, particularly with the
Ptolemies, becomes increasingly more confusing. A name so famous in Egypt, Cleopatra, actually derives from a Seleucid marriage, Cleopatra a daughter of Antiochus III. Three of her grandchildren marry back into the Seleucids. Cleopatra Thea marries three Seleucids (although there seems to be some question about the parentage of Alexander Balas) and has children by all of them who eventually becomes Kings. Cleopatra V Selene marries her brother, Ptolemy IX, and then two Seleucids, the son (Antiochus VIII, following her sister) and grandson (Antiochus X) of her own cousin (Cleopatra
Thea). The dynasty ends with the five sons of Antiochus VIII and their cousin fighting among themselves as the Kingdom crumbles. Two members of the next generation wrap things up, after Tigranes II of
Armenia took over (83-69), until the Romans pick up the pieces in 63. The last King, Philip II, bears the interesting epithet of
"Philorhomaeus," "Roman Lover."
Hamilcar Barca, the Carthaginian commander in Sicily during the
First Punic War, prepared for the future by moving to Spain and enlarging Carthaginian possessions there. He even founded a "New Carthage," the Latin version of whose name,
Carthago Nova, still exists, as Cartagena (in both the Old World and the New). The Second Punic War (218-201) is then initiated by Hamilcar's son,
With Carthaginian control of the sea lost, but a successful new domain in Spain, Hannibal decided to beat the Romans at their own game, not only to defeat them on land but to actually invade Italy and do it there. Crossing the Alps with his war elephants, Hannibal created one of the most dramatic and memorable campaigns in world history. In three years, Hannibal inflicted three crushing defeats on the Romans, at the Trebia River in 218, at Lake Trasimene in 217, and finally at Cannae in 216. Cannae, where Hannibal executed a double envelopment of four Roman Legions, surrounding and annhilating them, established a military ideal, a Holy Grail for tactics, for all subsequent military history. After this, the Romans tried to avoid battle in Italy. Hannibal, with no resources to beseige Rome or other cities, lost the initiative. Meanwhile, a Roman army reduced Spain, defeating Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal. Then, the victor of Spain, Scipio
Africanus, invaded Africa in 204. Hannibal finally left Italy to defend Carthage itself, and then was defeated at Zama in 202. Hannibal fled as far as
Bithynia, where he took poison in 183 rather than be surrendered to the Romans. Carthage was reduced to a rump state in Tunisia.
Macedon made the mistake, when Hannibal looked like a winner, of joining Carthage against Rome. Although bailing out when the tide turned, Philip V nevertheless became the target of Roman vengeance once Carthage had been dealt with. The Second Macedonian War (200-196) has now permanently reduced the Macedonian domain. Carthage for the moment
suvives, but only until the Third Punic War (149-146), when it is annihilated. Meanwhile, Antiochus III, the Great, has marched to India and defeated the
Ptolemies, driving them out of Asia. These great successes will shortly be undone by the first Seleucid clash with Rome, the Syrian War (192-188). In the aftermath of the Second Punic War, we thus have a unification of the Mediterranean basin, where the power of Rome begins to stretch from one end of the Sea to the other.
KINGS OF PONTUS
Mithridates of Cius
Mithridates IV Philopator Philadelphus
Mithridates V Euergetes
Mithridates VI Eupator
First Mithridatic War, defeat by
Rome, 88-85; Second Mithridatic War, 83-82; Third Mithridatic War, 74-63; Pompey's Settlement of the East, 63
Galatians were actually Celts, who had invaded Greece in 279 and killed Ptolemy
Ceraunus. Antigonus Gonatas defeated them in Greece in 277, but a group of them crossed the Bosporus and established themselves in Anatolia. At first led by tribal chiefs, they were long organized in local
"tetrarchies," only becoming a kingdom after the arrival of the Romans (Pompey) in 63. Their capital,
Angora (or Ancyra), has given us the modern name of varieties of cat, goat, and rabbit, two of which are used for their hair. The modern city, Ankara, is now the capital of
Turkey. The idea of Celts in the middle of modern Turkey now seems so strange that it sounds like a
Monty Python skit.
Of the lists given here, only the rulers of Pergamum would actually have been Greeks. We can see non-Greek influences in the names of the multiple
"Mithridates" of Pontus and Commagene. This name means the "gift," dates, of the Iranian god Mithra (Sanskrit
Mitra). This is a Persian name whose modern form is Mehrdâd, of whose meaning many modern Iranians may be unaware. The cult of Mithra becomes one of the popular Roman mystery religions, Mithraism. The Galatians and the ancient peoples of Anatolia, however, except for the Armenians, gradually disappeared from history. This was at first under Greek influence, as literate people came to write only in Greek. Indeed, when the Emperor
Nicephorus I colonized people from Anatolia into Greece itself, it leaves us wondering how many modern Greeks are actually descendants of
Cappadocians, Galatians, etc. Eventually, the
took over the area.
Little is known of the history of Greek Bactria. About fourty kings can be identified from their coins, but many of the dates are conjectural. Names and dates for all the here are from
E.J. Bickerman, Chronology of the Ancient World [Cornell U. Press, 1982], and Michael Grant,
From Alexander to Cleopatra, The Hellenistic World [Collier Books, 1990].
Menander Soter Dikaios (Milinda in Pali) is an important figure in the history of
Buddhism, as the king in the
Milindapanha, "Questions of
Milinda," where he asks the sage Nagasena about Buddhism. As Greek Bactria absorbed Buddhist influence, Buddhism reflected Greek artistic influences, and perhaps more.
At the beginning of March, 2001, the rulers of
Afghanistan, the barbarous zealots of the
Tâlibân ("students"), decided to destroy all the "idols" in the country, which meant the entire collection of Buddhist art in the Kabul museum, and the two great cliff carved Buddhas in Bamian province, 175 and 120 feet tall. Although there was an international outcry against this, including from other Islâmic countries as radical as Irân, and offers from museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art simply to take in all Buddhist art objects,
no one doubted that the Tâlibân were wicked and stupid enough to go through with their despicable vandalism. And, indeed, they went through with it, blowing the Bamian Buddhas to pieces. Where is the
Râj when we need it? Now, of course, the
Tâlibân have been overthrown with American help, in the aftermath of the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. There has been some talk about restoring the Bamian
Buddhas, but I still have heard no word about the fate of the Kabul museum collection.
Caria, although very close to the
Doric Greek areas near Rhodes, was nevertheless not a Greek kingdom. It's principal claim to fame comes from two rulers,
Mausolos and his sister Artemisia II (who, being named after the goddess Artemis, may show Greek influence, or indicate the likelihood that Artemis was not originally a Greek goddess). Although this kind of brother-sister marriage would be typical of the Hellenistic Period, thought to be inspired by Egypt, and Mausolos is usually thought of as a Hellenistic monarch, he was in fact ruling under the Persians and even his sister, who survived him, died before Alexander even arrived. Nevertheless, at his capital of Halicarnassus, he began a great tomb, finished by his sister, which became one of the
Seven Wonders of the World. The Mausoleum then gives its name to any great stone burial building. The original survived well into the Middle Ages, before donating its stone to fortresses.
Less than fifty years after the last map (178 years since the death of Alexander), the Hellenistic World looks much different. At the middle of the Second Century BC, Rome is now the dominant power, not only stretching from the Atlantic to Thrace, but the arbiter of power further East. The Seleucids are out of Asia Minor, except for Cilicia, and Pergamum, a Roman client, has expanded from a city state into a major kingdom.
Parthia has now broken away (248) and occupied eastern Iran (185), to begin a history of several centuries (until 227 AD) as a Great Power, the only thing like an equal on the borders of Rome.
Judaea is also independent. The occupation of Jerusalem by the Maccabees (164), when the lamps of the Temple were relit and burned miraculously without additional oil, led to a Jewish holiday, Hanukkah. Nevertheless, Demetrius II still has a substantial Kingdom. This will not last, as the Parthians take Media (141), Persia (139), and Babylonia (126). In short, Seleucid power is on the verge of collapsing, and the rest of the dynasty will consist of local family conflicts in Syria.
THE PTOLEMIES, MACEDONIAN KINGS OF EGYPT; "XXXII" DYNASTY
Ptolemy I might strike one as the cleverest and most prudent of the Diadochi. Egypt was a well defined and rich land, long familiar with a Greek presence, and it became the most prosperous and durable of the Hellenistic Kingdoms. Soon Ptolemy might well make a claim to priority among his peers by virtue of possessing the mummified body of Alexander himself and ruling from the city of
Alexandria, the first such city founded by Alexander, which became the greatest Hellenistic city, especially distinguished by the
Pharos Lighthouse (one of the
Seven Wonders of the World) and by the Museum, i.e. the place of the Muses (more a university than a museum), with its great
The Library was intended to have every book in the world in it, but with the provision that this be in Greek translation. In Jewish tradition, related by Josephus, a friend of Ptolemy II
Philadelphus, Aristeas, wrote to Jerusalem, under Ptolemaic rule at the time, to ask the High Priest Elazar for permission to translate the
Torah (the Pentateuch) from Hebrew into Greek. Elazar agreed, and selected 72 translators who then produced the
Septuagint. While the "Letter of
Aristeas" is sometimes said to be a
Hasmonean, or later, forgery, Simeon ben
Gamaliel, president of the Sanhedrin in the 1st century AD, ruled (according to the Palestinian Talmud) that the Torah could be written in Greek as well as Hebrew (cf. Alfred J.
Kolatch, This is the Torah, Jonathan David Publishers, Middle Village, New York, 1988, pp.46-49). Since the Library would have
wanted the Bible in Greek, especially with a large Jewish community in Alexandria, and the Bible certainly was translated thereabouts at the time, this lends some weight to the "Letter of
Aristeas," or some equivalent.
Another consequence of the presence of the Jewish community at Alexandria may have been the growing use, even by pre-Christian pagans, of the seven day
week. This was, to be sure, not directly associated with Judaism, but with a version of the week produced in Alexandria in terms of the
seven planets. The "planetary" week is preserved in most of the languages of
Francia, even while there is nothing of the sort in modern Greek, Hebrew, or Arabic. Few languages, perhaps only Welsh and English, retain all the planetary names, with Jewish and Christian terms, usually for Saturday and/or Sunday, intruding elsewhere. "Sunday," indeed, retains the strongest pagan association as, even for Constantine, it commemorated the veneration of
Sôl Invictus, the state god of the
"Philadelphus," "brotherly (or sibling) love," was a name assumed by Ptolemy II because he had married his sister, Arsinoe (also
"Philadelphus"). This was in immitation of Egyptian mythology and became a Ptolemaic practice.
Later, when Cleopatra (VII, picture at right,
bas relief from Deir el
Bahri) met Julius Caesar in 48 BC, she was already married, at 16, to her brother and co-ruler, Ptolemy XIII. She also happened to be at war with him! Caesar helped defeat her brother, who died in the process. Formally marrying a younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, Cleopatra actually lived with Caesar, and went back to Rome with him in 46. After Caesar was assassinated in 44, she returned to Egypt, killed her brother, and formally associated her son by Caesar,
Caesarion, with her as Ptolemy XV. The conquest of Egypt by Octavian/Augustus, resulted in Cleopatra and her new Roman protector, Anthony, committing suicide, and Caesarion being killed by Octavian.
While the Library is sometimes said to have been burned by the
Arabs, it is likely that the original had already by destroyed in the course of the fighting between Caesar and Ptolemy XIII. The city also burned again in the Roman period, and the Library would have suffered then, even if it had not already. The lower parts of the Pharos were rebuilt as a fortress in the Mediaeval period, and it still exists.
The Ptolemaic chronology and genealogy here is mainly from C. Bradford Welles,
Alexander and the Hellenistic World
[A.A. Hakkert Ltd., Toronto, 1970] and E.J. Bickerman, Chronology of the Ancient World [Cornell U. Press, 1982]. It all can be very confusing. Some older treatments of the Ptolemies leave out Ptolemy XI and reduce the numbers of the higher Ptolemies (XII, XIII, XIV & XV) by one (to XI, XII, XIII & XIV),
or insert an extra Ptolemy IX (a dead son of Ptolemy VIII), turn Ptolemy X into Ptolemy XII (keeping Ptolemy XI the same), and
increase the numbers of the higher Ptolemies by one (to XIII, XIV, XV & XVI) [cf.
E.M. Forster, Alexandria, Doubleday, 1961, Oxford University Press, 1986, pp.14-15 -- Forster also has exchanged numbers between Ptolemy VII and Ptolemy VIII]. The latter numbering is indicated in red next to the standard numbering. Cleopatra VI is sometimes counted as Cleopatra V because Cleopatra V and Cleopatra IV have sometimes been regarded as the same person. It is rarely noted that Cleopatra (VII) and Marc Anthony had a daughter, Cleopatra Selene, who married Juba II, King of
Numidia. They had a son, Ptolemy, who reigned until about 40 AD.
In the strange political
project of turning all Egyptians into Nubians, or even Nigerians, the Ptolemies pose a special challenge, since they weren't Egyptians at all but are nevertheless roped into the business because Cleopatra is too famous an Egyptian not to actually have been an Egyptian. The easiest procedure is simply to ignore the
history altogether, which one sees in claims that Aristotle stole all the knowledge of Egypt from the Library at Alexandria -- overlooking little problems like that the Library, or even the City, didn't even exist yet, or that the books in the Library were all in Greek -- or that Cleopatra has unaccountably ended up with a Greek name ("Father's Fame"). Once the history is actually acknowledged, a fall-back position is possible: The name of Cleopatra's grandmother, the third wife of Ptolemy IX, is unknown. To those in the right frame of mind (i.e. "critical race theory" paranoia), this is clear evidence that this woman was Egyptian, or Black, or both -- with her identity concealed by racist historians, past and present. Well, OK. A black grandmother would make Cleopatra black by the laws of South Carolina. That no Ptolemies before Cleopatra herself even spoke Egyptian may, however, tell against their marrying one, of whatever complexion.
In the End Game of the Hellenistic Period, local powers surge into brief glory with the collapse of the Seleucids. An
Armenian Kingdom will not again touch the Mediterranean until
Lesser Armenia in the 12th century. Pontus briefly turns the Black Sea into a Pontic lake. In 88 Mithridates VI invaded Asia Minor and massacred Romans (First Mithridatic War, 88-85). In 87 he was in Greece, but then he was defeated by Sulla in 86 and withdrew from his conquests in 85. When he occupied Bithynia in 74, this provoked a massive conflict (the Third Mithridatic War, 74-63). Defeats by Pompey and an internal revolt led to
Mithridates' suicide (63). The map thus shows the situation just before this final crisis. Pompey's settlement of the East in 63 extends direct Roman control all around the Eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the Greek presence in Bactria is crumbling. The
Kushans have arrived off the steppe and will dominate India and Central Asia for some time. The
Parthians are solidly established, applying pressure in both Syria and India. Of the Kingdoms of the
Diadochi, only Egypt remains. In 59 BC, Ptolemy XII secures Roman protection with a bribe to the Triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus. He is overthrown by his daughter Bernice in 58 but is then restored in 55 by the Roman governor of Syria,
Gabinius, with a promise of 10,000
talents of silver (perhaps $900 million dollars). Caesar arrived in Egypt in 48 to deal with Ptolemy's daughter Cleopatra, as recounted above.
Sketches in the History of Western Philosophy from the Hellenistic Age to the Renaissance, Note 3
The names in parentheses are Sanskrit names from inscriptions of
Ashoka (c.274-232), who had unified India and then embraced
Buddhism. Ashoka wrote letters (circa 247, the year in which both Antiochus II and Ptolemy II died) to as many Hellenistic monarchs as he knew about to urge them to embrace Buddhism. A letter was also sent to Magas of Cyrene (Maga). The text of the letters is preserved in Ashoka's monumental inscriptions. No Greek historian mentions them. This makes the reign of Ashoka the earliest benchmark for chronology in
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322 BC to 235 AD
Hellenistic Philosophy overlaps the Hellenistic Period (from Alexander the Great, d.323, to Cleopatra, d.30 BC) and the Early Roman Empire (30 BC to the death of Alexander Severus, 235 AD).
Plato's school at the Academy and Aristotle's school (the
Peripatetics) at the Lyceum continued, joined by several other schools, including the
Cynics and Hedonists, but especially the Stoics and
Although Antisthenes of Athens (c.450-360) was later credited with founding the Cynic school,
Diogenes of Sinope (c.400-323) was the real founder, responsible for both the name and the popularity of the school. "Cynic" comes from the Greek word for "dog,"
kyôn, and was actually a nickname for Diogenes, since people thought that is how he lived. Diogenes, indeed, had nothing but contempt for conventional morality, mores, and manners. He lived much of his life in a large jar and carried on in such a way that a principle of the school became that one should do in public what other people would be ashamed to do in private. Since that seems to have included masturbation, there are limits to the practicality of this in the modern world. The two most famous stories about Diogenes are (1) that he would walk around Athens, hold a lamp up to people's faces, and say that he was looking for an honest man, and (2) that when Alexander the Great paid him a visit (outside his jar) and offered to grant any wish he might have, Diogenes merely requested that Alexander stand aside so as not to block the sunlight. The Cynic Crates of Thebes, who also taught at Athens, was called the "Door-opener" because he used to barge uninvited into people's houses and rebuke them for their moral failings. He may have gone one better than Diogenes by having sex in public with his wife and fellow philosopher
Hipparchia, who herself wore male clothing and accompanied Crates to drinking parties. Male drinking parties were ordinarily only attended by women who were musicians, performers, or courtesans. Today "cynicism" can mean, not just contempt for conventional beliefs and motives, but a nihilistic willingness to manipulate them for self-interested purposes. That is contrary to the strong, anarchistic, ascetic ethic of the Cynics themselves.
The Stoic school was founded by
Zeno of Citium (335-263), a man of Phoenician descent from Cyprus, and was named after the kind of open building with a porch, a
stoa, found in the Athenian marketplace, where Zeno taught and the school became established. After coming to Athens, Zeno was a student of Crates, but broke away out of humiliation at the kinds of things he was expected to do . Stoicism, which became the dominant Hellenistic school of philosophy, emphasized that happiness depends only on goodness (rather as Socrates had thought) and that all external conditions of life can and must be endured
apátheia, "without suffering" (our word "apathy"). Stoicism also continued the Cynic doctrine of the
kosmópolis or "world state" as an ethical ideal. That ideal seemed realized later in the Roman Empire.
Two curiously representative Roman Stoics were Epictetus (55 AD-135), a slave (later freed), and
Marcus Aurelius, an Emperor (ruled 161-180). Apart from ethics, the Stoics devoted considerable creative attention to logic, but their metaphysical doctrines were mostly derived from the teachings of Heraclitus.
The school of Hedonism was reputedly founded by
Aristippus of Cyrene (c.435-360) and developed by his obscure grandson of the same name. Aristippus spent some time with Socrates but concluded -- in answer to the Socratic question, "What is the good?" -- that the good was simply
pleasure (hêdonê). Today "hedonism" usually means
pursuing pleasure as well as just believing that it is the good, and Aristippus seems to have advocated that kind of thing. This was later modified by
Epicurus (341-270), who settled in Athens and taught from the garden of his house, where the school remained and from which it derived its name: the Garden. Epicurus remained a hedonist in the sense that he believed pleasure to be the good, but he thought that only pleasures which did not later produce pain should be sought. Excesses and disturbing affairs, like politics, were thus to be avoided. Even the gods were thought to live this kind of existence, paying no special attention to us. Epicurus derived his metaphysical doctrines from Democritus. The teaching of "atoms and the void" gave him less to worry about than other doctrines did. This was never as popular as Stoicism, but there were a few Roman Epicureans -- especially Lucretius (95-55 BC) and his poem
De rerum natura ("On the Nature of Things").
While the great emphasis of Hellenistic thought was on ethics, a critical attitude towards questions about knowledge was maintained by the
Skeptics, who concluded that knowledge is impossible. There were two main types:
Pyrrho of Elis (365-275 BC, hence
"Pyrrhonian" skepticism), held that because knowledge is impossible, we should practice suspension
(epochê) of judgment in all matters. This was later modified by skeptics who dominated Plato's Academy for a while, like
Carneades of Cyrene (d.129 BC). This "Academic" skepticism eventually held that although there may be no certain knowledge, there is spontaneous, reasonable
belief, and this is necessary for practical judgments in life. Problems about knowledge did not again so disturb philosophy until
Hume. Indeed, Hume explicitly regarded his views as a form of Academic
Pyrrho may represent a case of direct influence from Indian philosophy. He had traveled to India with his teacher Anaxarchus in the army of Alexander the Great, "with the result that he even associated with the Naked Philosophers (gymnosophistaî) in India and with the Magi" [Diogenes
Laertius]. The most striking sign of this possible influence is how Pyrrho expressed himself in the actual form of the Four-Fold Negation, one of the fundamental and most characteristic principles of
Buddhism: "...but we should be
unopinionated, uncommitted, and unwavering, saying concerning each individual thing that it no more is than is not, or it both is and is not, or it neither is nor is not"
[Aristocles]. The entire tradition of Hellenistic skepticism may thus have Buddhist roots.
An important aspect of Hellenistic thought was the degree to which Greek culture began to mix with that of the older civilizations in the Middle East. An important part of this were the books in Greek that were written in the 3rd century BC by the Egyptian priest
Manethô on Egyptian history and by the Babylonian priests
Sudinês and Bêrôssos on astronomy. Manethô introduced the system, still used, of numbering the
dynasties of ancient Egyptian kings; and Sudinês, translating older astronomical texts, including those of the named astronomer
Kidinnu, provided invaluable astronomical data all the way back to the beginning of the reign of the Babylonian King Nabonassar (Nabûnâs.iru) in 747 BC .
The works of both Sudinês and Manethô continued up through the Roman period to be of great interest to historians and astronomers, but unfortunately complete texts of neither work survive. The astronomical data was later preserved by
Claudius Ptolemy. Of a different order of importance, however, was the fusing of Greek philosophical ideas with Judaism that was effected by the first Jewish philosopher writing in Greek, from whom a large corpus survives:
Philo Judaeus (or Philo of Alexandria, c.25 BC-50 AD). Philo (a Greek name,
Philôn) belonged to the prosperous and influential Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt, and represented the Jews on an embassy to the Emperor
Caligula in 39-40 AD. Familiar with the whole of Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, Philo sought to reconcile it, indeed to identify it, with the meaning and teachings of the Bible. Most notable was Philo's theory that God creates and governs the universe through his
Word, the Lógos, which (picking up Heraclitus's Lógos with all its implications) was a combination of Plato's Forms, Jewish Angels, and the Word of the Law itself. This could be worked into the text of the Bible only by careful allegorical readings, which Philo provided in detail. Philo also claimed that Heraclitus and Plato had actually gotten their ideas from the Bible. In much of this, Philo initiates the tradition that leads to
Neoplatonism, as well as to much of Mediaeval Jewish, Christian, and even Islamic philosophical, mystical, and allegorical readings of sacred texts.
Philo's theory is also strongly reminiscent of the first words of the
Gospel of John (1:1-14): "In the beginning was the Word (Lógos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; and all things were made through him.....And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us..." The specifically Christian element in the Gospel is simply to identify the
Lógos with Jesus Christ, the other elements mostly already being there in Philo. The New Testament is itself, of course, a significant cross-cultural document written in Greek, recounting the deeds and teachings of a man who was speaking in Aramaic. It is a shame that no information survives about the learning and sources of influence on the evangelist John. Philo's influence seems unmistakable, but we can estimate it only through speculation.
Sketches in the History of Western Philosophy from the Hellenistic Age to the Renaissance, Note 6
Manethô's history is now often considered the first anti-Semitic document, since the Jews are said to have been expelled from Egypt -- not fled or escaped -- because they were lepers and the Egyptians didn't want them. It is not hard to imagine, however, why the Egyptians or Manethô would prefer such a story, since the Biblical account of the Exodus condemns the Egyptians for oppression and cruelty and dismisses their gods as weak and insignificant, if not non-existent, next to the power of the
LORD. The Bible thus might appear to Manethô as a document of "anti-Egyptianism" (perhaps the feeling again of Anwar Sadat when Menachem Begin told him, with grotesque anachronism, that the Jews had built the pyramids). Pagan hostility towards the Jews tended to take a similar form, that, as the ritual purity required by the Torah prevented easy association with non-Jews and as the exclusivistic Biblical prohibition of the recognition of foreign gods prevented the kind of reciprocity common among ancient religions (so that Herodotus, for instance, was comfortable speaking of the "Egyptian Zeus," or Plato with the identification of the Greek Athena with the Egyptian
Neith), the Jews were seen as misanthropic, and a hostility was returned which was seen as originating from
their religion in the first place. Now, of course, that the exclusivism of Biblical Judaism has long been characteristic of both Christianity and Islâm, so that each excludes the other with equal
vigor, it is harder to understand the mentality behind more syncretistic approaches to religion, such as survive in Japan, where people can be said to be "Born Shintô, Marry Christian, and Die Buddhist." However, Greek philosophy, with its emphasis on coherence and logical system, can be said to have cooperated with Judaism in the development of exclusivist domination in the Mediterranean world. Jews could argue, as Philo did (see below), quite correctly, that their critique of paganism was no different from that of Xenophanes, Socrates, Plato, etc., for whom the ancient gods, in all their lusty immorality and conflicts, were an embarrassment.
Crisis of the Third Century (235-284), when the Roman Empire almost collapsed, resulted in deep political and spiritual changes. The old schools of philosophy disappeared and were succeeded by
founded by the deeply ascetic and mystical Egyptian (or Greek)
Plotinus (205-270). Plotinus revived the influence of Plato and Aristotle, whose teachings were combined in an original and surprising fashion. Since in epistemology and metaphysics Plato and Aristotle in many ways were more sophisticated than the Hellenistic philosophers who followed them, Plotinus in effect picks up again the mainstream development of Western philosophy, preparing the way for Mediaeval thought. In his system,
although all the old gods of paganism were preserved, beyond them was the One, an impersonal Absolute combining the One of
Parmenides and the Good of Plato. The One was the source of all Being. Matter and the body were essentially Not Being, and evil. In between were Plato's Forms, the gods, and souls. All of existence was understood as analogous to light radiating from the sun, as in the simile of the Good as the sun in Plato's
Republic -- though the image it evokes seems like nothing so much as the disk of the Aton shining on
Akhenaton. This is the "Declension" of Being. The purpose of life was for the soul to return to union with the One, a process of mystical transport which strongly influenced mystical traditions in the Middle Ages, particularly
IslamicSufism, Jewish mysticism, and the Platonism of the
Renaissance. In many ways the impersonal One of Plotinus can be compared to the Brahman of the
Upanishads. The idea that evil ultimately corresponds to Nothingness and is a mere privation of Being is one of the simplest solutions to the Problem of Evil in Western philosophy, and was strongly attractive to St. Augustine, even after he left Neoplatonism for Christianity. Plotinus's student and Boswell,
Porphyry (233-c.300) edited, published (as The Enneads), and popularized Plotinus's work. His introduction to Aristotle's logical works, the
Isagoge ("Introduction"), became one of the most important texts of Mediaeval philosophy, attracting commentaries by Boethius and Peter Abelard; and his
Against the Christians began the long and futile rearguard action against the new religion on behalf of the old.
Plotinus's own teacher was a Christian, and Late Antiquity saw a revolution in religion. The Empire had been restored by Diocletian (284-305) but then began to be Christianized by Constantine I (306-337). Theodosius I (379-395) banned pagan worship; and
Justinian I (527-565) both banned pagan belief and in 529 closed Plato's Academy, which had become the last refuge of
Neoplatonism. There are several striking incidents in this decline. One was the murder by Christian monks in Alexandria in 415 of the philosopher and mathematician
Hypatia, one of the few well attested examples of a woman in ancient philosophy . While Hypatia is celebrated as a martyr and victim of Christian fanaticism by Edward Gibbon and modern feminists, and a feminist philosophy journal is named after her, she had, as a
Neoplatonist, world denying sentiments that today would sound more religious and ascetic than otherwise: She remained a virgin, and when one of her students professed love for you, she showed him a menstrual rag and said, "You are in love with this, young man, not with the Beautiful," which in Platonism or Neoplatonism would mean the Form of Beauty [cf. Mary
Lefkowitz, Women in Greek Myth, Johns Hopkins U Press, 1986, p. 131]. Another incident was the brief exile to Sassanid
Persia of the last Scholarch of the Academy,
Damascius, and his colleague Simplicius, to whom we owe many of our fragments of Parmenides. They figured that the Persian King would be more tolerant than Justinian, which he was, but they seem to have returned out of homesickness. That was essentially the end of ancient philosophy.
As with Hypatia, those searching for modern attitudes, and for science and rationality, among the opponents of the Christians, will be disappointed.
Iamblichus (c.250-c.319), although a mathematician, became rather better known as a
"theurge" ("divine worker") or "thaumaturge" ("wonder worker"), i.e. he is reputed to have performed miracles. We see competition between the more and the less rational Neoplatonists for the patronage of the Emperor
Julian. According to the historian Eunapius (d.414), Julian originally was a student of
Eusebius of Myndus, who would end his lectures by saying:
These are the only true realities, whereas the impostures of witchcraft and magic that cheat the senses are the works of conjurors who are insane men led astray into the exercise of earthly and material powers. [Philostratus and Eunapius, The Lives of the Sophists, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard, 1921, p.433]
Julian discovered that Eusebius was referring to
Maximus of Ephesus (d.371). After witnessing some of
Maximus' miracles, Julian fell entirely under his influence. The last pagan Emperor, Julian died with Maximus at his bedside. The jarring combination of first rate mathematics, mysticism, and thaumaturgy continued with
Proclus (d.485), who ironically had been born in Constantinople but flourished as Scholarch of the Academy.
Meanwhile, characteristically mediaeval Christian philosophy had been developing, for instance with
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who himself had "converted" to Neoplatonism before becoming a Christian.
Since Augustine wrote in Latin, he and some other late Western writers, like
Boethius (480-525) and St. Isidore of Seville (c.560-636), exerted exclusive influence on Western Europe during the period when the texts of Greek writers were not directly accessible (c.750-c.1100). One of the few philosophers we find even writing during that period was
John Scotus Erigena (or Eriugena, c.810-c.877).
"Scotus" at the time meant "Irish," not "Scottish," and Erigena (which actually means "born in Ireland"), who seems to have known some Greek himself, is symbolic of the intellectual activity that for a time distinguished Ireland, which had never even been part of the Roman Empire, during the Dark Ages. Erigena, however, gained his fame after being called to the court of the Charles (II) the Bald, who was King of France (843-877) and crowned Emperor by the Pope (875). Erigena also illustrates the danger of original thought at the time: his works ended up condemned as heresy.
The degree to which Greek metaphysics and the tradition of philosophical disputation affected Christianity can be seen in the
Christological controversies, the debates over the nature of Jesus, that stretched from the 4th to the 7th centuries. The major doctrines condemned as heresies by the Ecumenical Councils (accepted by both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches) along by the way are:
Arianism. Named after Arius of Alexandria, this was the doctrine that while Jesus was the Son of God and the perfect man, he was not perfect God, with the Father, and was in fact a created being. This was opposed by
Athanasius of Alexandria, for whom Jesus was just as much God as the Father and was uncreated and eternal. Arianism was condemned by the First Ecumenical Council, at
Nicea, called by the Emperor
Constantine I in 324, and by the Second Ecumenical Council, at Constantinople, called by the Emperor
Theodosius I in 381. Nicea affirmed that Jesus was of one substance with the Father, uncreated, and God of God. This view was expressed in the still popular
Nicene Creed. Arianism had to be condemned twice because through much of the 4th century it had actually become rather popular in Court circles and in the Church. At the same time, many German tribes that were converting to Christianity, like the Goths, converted to
Arianism. Some Germans, like the
Lombards, persisted as Arians until the 6th century. Arianism thus made for a very troublesome element in Church history. Later in the Middle Ages,
Islâm was regarded by Christians as a kind of
Arianism, even though Islâm, while accepting the Virgin Birth and other miraculous elements of the life of Jesus, did not acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God in any sense. Much later, the Nicene debate was still living to
Thomas Jefferson, a Unitarian, who regarded
"Athanasianism" as superstitious and contemptible.
Nestorianism. The Athanasian view was that Jesus was just as much God as the Father, but he also did have
both human and divine natures. Nestorius of Antioch, who became Patriarch of
Constantinople, regarded these two natures as in some sense separate and distinct. Exactly what Nestorius thought is now unclear, but the often repeated formula is that the distinct natures in Jesus meant that Mary was the mother of Jesus the man but
not the Mother of Jesus the God. This was condemned by the Third Ecumenical Council, at Ephesus, called by the Emperor
Theodosius II in 431. The decree of Ephesus was that the two natures of Jesus were blended and indistinguishable, without division or separation. Mary was indeed the
Mother of God. Nestorius was exiled to Egypt. However, followers of Nestorius, persecuted by the Romans, fled to
Persia, where they were welcomed. The Christian Church in Persia, which came to be called the "Church of the East," rejected the Third Ecumenical Council and venerated Nestorius as an Orthodox teacher. The Church still surives in the community of the
Assyrian Christians, but it does not necessarily accept being described as "Nestorian," since institutionally it antedates the Nestorian controversy and the term is, after all, a product of Greek and Latin
heresiology. Nevertheless, the use of the term "Nestorian" is common in the historical literature. During the Middle Ages, Nestorian missionaries ranged across Asia as far as China. Their alphabet was adopted to write languages like
Uiger, Mongolian, and Manchurian. Thus, Chinese coins of the Manchu
Ch'ing Dynasty in China have what look like Syriac inscriptions on them.
Monophysitism. The most historically important Christological schism occurred over the doctrine of
Dioscorus of Alexandria, who argued that Jesus actually only had one nature, the divine. This was called "Monophysitism," from
monê physis, "one nature," in Greek. A council called by Theodosius II in 449 actually recognized Monophysitism as orthodox, despite the opposition of the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople. Soon this was repudiated in the Fourth Ecumenical Council, of Chalcedon (across the Bosporus from Constantinople), called by the Emperor
Marcian in 451. Chalcedon affirmed the two natures of Jesus, human and divine. Jesus, as human, suffered like a human on the Cross. This was very, very far from being the end of the matter, however. The
Egyptian (Coptic) and Syrian (Jacobite) Churches simply
never accepted the decree of Chalcedon. This resulted in persecution, and in the appointment of official Patriarchs to dispute the authority of the local churches. These orthodox Patriarchs of
Alexandria came to be known as the
"Melchite"), or "Royal" (i.e. Imperial), Patriarchs. The Melkite churches, although very much the minority, survive until today. (In fact, they have doubled, since the Roman Catholic Church typically started Catholic counter-churches, which reproduced the rites of the local churches but in doctrinal communion with and in subordination to the Pope.) The result was considerable disaffection of Egyptians and Syrians, not just with the orthodox Church, but with the Imperial authorities. In virtual national revivals, the Egyptians and Syrians also started using their own languages (Coptic and
Syriac) in their liturgy. This religious and political disaffection greatly troubled Emperors like
Justinian, but the Fifth Ecumenical Council, of Constantinople, in 553, did nothing to resolve the dispute. The estrangement of Egyptians and Syrians continued until the
Islamic Conquest. They had no inclination to resist the Arabs, who promised toleration, for the Romans, who had continued persecution. Although most Egyptians and Syrians later converted to Islâm, the
Coptic and Syriac Churches (and Catholic counter-churches) continue until today. About 10% of modern Egyptians used to be Copts, though, suffering from terrorist attacks by Islâmic Fundamentalists, many Copts have been emigrating, especially to the United States. Now the pecentage of Copts is down to about 6%. Most significantly, the Coptic Church patronized the Christianization of
Ethiopia, which received a bishop around 305 AD and which remains in communion with the Coptic Patriarch, and
Monophysite, until today. The
Armenian Othrodox Church, never wholly subject to Roman political control, is today also still
Monophysite. As with Nestorianism, these Orthodox Churches do not necessarily accept as self-descriptions the terms, including
"Monophysitism" itself, used in the heresiology and histories of the Greek and Latin Churches.
Monotheletism. It was proposed by
St. Maron that Jesus had two natures but only one Will, divine. This was then
Monotheletism, from the Greek term for "one will." This stood a poor chance of reconciling Monophysitism and Orthodoxy, but it was promoted by the Emperor
Heraclius for just such a purpose. Even Pope Honorius and several Patriarchs signed on. After the Islâmic Conquest, however, there was little stomach for such subtleties. The Sixth Ecumencial
Countil, of Constantinople, called by the Emperor
Constantine IV in 680, condemned
Monotheletism. This spelled the end of the great Christological controversies (though there were still disagreements about the
Holy Spirit between the Greek and Latin Churches).
Monotheletism survived, however, in the
Maronite Church of Antioch and Lebanon. Maronite Christians still form the major Christian community of the Republic of Lebanon, and the Lebanese Maronite Patriarch still regards himself as the proper Patriarch of Antioch. At the same time, however, between 1182 and 1584 the Maronites negotiated full doctrinal union with the Roman Catholic Church. The last Christological heresy, still surviving institutionally, is thus long gone doctrinally.
It is now easy to forget how different ancient and mediaeval physics were from the modern physics that began with
Galileo. Most important was the principle enuniciated by Aristotle that
an object will not move unless it is pushed. Since we are now accustomed to the idea that a thrown projectile continues in motion because of its own momentum, Aristotle's assertion sounds bizarre. But it really only sounds bizarre because of the work of John
Philoponus. Not just Aristotle, but all the Greeks, believed that the projectile continues in motion because it continues to be pushed by the air behind it. Originally, it was believed that the pushing air was the air displaced by the motion of the projectile, which came around behind it (antiperistasis). Aristotle didn't like the notion in that form, but he still agreed that the air was pushing and that a medium (like air, water, etc.) was necessary for motion. Philoponus rejected all this, asserting that motion could even take place in a void, a vacuum -- at time when it generally was believed that a vacuum was impossible. As an experiment Philoponus suggested setting up an arrow or a stone and blowing air on it. Of course, without modern equipment, or gale force winds, neither the arrow nor the stone are likely to stir. Yet even the stone can simply be tossed through the air. Philoponus argued, quite correctly, that a medium
resists motion, not facilitates it.
Philoponus thus held that a projectile continues in motion through the air because there was imparted to it an
immaterial force, an impetus, that perpetuates the motion. This now seems so obvious that it is hard to imagine that for a thousand years Greek and Roman thought subscribed to nothing of the sort. The impetus theory, however, was still not Galileo's theory of inertia. Although Philoponus realized that a medium resists motion, he still believed that the projectile loses its momentum because the impetus
runs out. Thus, without actively being pushed, all things will slow down and stop, even in a vacuum. For the next thousand years, this is what would prevent the theory of Aristarchus, that the earth is a planet that rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun, from being taken seriously. If the earth were moving, this requires the renewal of its impetus, an action that could be observed and would be detectable.
If Philoponus repesents a significant advance over ancient mechanics, something else is positively breathtaking. He anticipated Galileo's legendary experiment of dropping cannon balls of different weights:
For if you let fall at the same time from the same height two weights that differ greatly, you will see that the ratio of the times of the motions does not correspond to the ratio of the weights, but that the difference in the times is a very small one. [Commentary on Aristotle's Physics, 683 16 ff, quoted by
G.E.R. Lloyd, Greek Science After Aristotle, W.W. Norton, 1973, p.160]
Galileo thus did not orginate the experiment that would refute Aristotle's view that falling objects gained speed in proportion to their weights. Philoponus had already done it. Unfortunately, the Sixth Century Christian did not get the same result, but observed that the heavier weight did fall faster, just not in a simple proportion to the weight. His error is then to be blamed, not on the reverence for authority by which we dismiss the curiosity or good faith of Mediaeval philosophers, but on the imperfections of his experimental equipment, such as it may have been. His thinking, however, is extraordinarily critical and experimental, even hovering on the verge of a mathematical treatment of motion. As little progress as would be made for centuries in this direction, it is unfortunate that he generally receives so little credit for it.
Sketches in the History of Western Philosophy from the Hellenistic Age to the Renaissance, Note 9
Besides Hipparchia, mentioned
above, there were obscure earlier cases, as with one student of Pythagoras,
Theano, two students of Plato, Axiothea of Phlius and Lasthenia of Mantinea, and a student of Epicurus,
Leontion, who had been a courtesan.
There is a reference to Theano by Anna Comnena, daughter of the Roman/Byzantine Emperor
Alexius I Comnenus (1081-1118), in her biography of her father, the
Alexiad. Speaking of her mother, the Empress Irene, Anna says:
Whenever she had to appear in public as empress at some important ceremony, she was overcome with modesty and a blush at once suffused her cheeks. The woman philosopher Theano once bared her elbow and someone playfully remarked, 'What a lovely elbow!' 'But not for public show,' she replied. [Penguin Books, 1979, p.375]
It is not clear how Anna is aware of this anecdote. The Penguin edition note says of Theano that "several books were ascribed to her in antiquity." These may well have survived to Anna's day, before the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade and the other disasters of the Roman decline. Or she might simply know of it from the Christrian Patristic
Clement of Alexandria (c.200 AD):
What shall I say? Did not Theano the Pythagorean make such progress in philosophy that when a man, staring at her, said, "Your arm is beautiful," she replied, "Yes, but it is not on public display." [Paidagogos 1.6; quoted by Elaine
Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books, 1979, p.68]
This simply puts the problem back one step, since we would like to know how Clement knew about the matter.
There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.
(Sherlock Holmes [Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, "A Case of Identity," 1891])
After the death of the Prophet Muh.ammad in 632, Arab armies rapidly overran Syria and Palestine (638), Egypt (642), the entire Persian Empire (646), and later North Africa (696) and Spain (711).
When the Caliphate was established at Baghdad (763), stability, prosperity, and Persian cultural influence led to a great intellectual revival. The Caliph
al-Ma'mûn (813-833) became interested in philosophy and mathematics and founded the
Dâr al-H.ikmah, or "House of Wisdom," as a center for translation and study. Greek philosophy, medicine, and mathematics were translated into Arabic. For example, here are the titles in Arabic of the works grouped by Islamic philosophers in Aristotle's corpus on logic, the
Organon (the last three titles are usually not included in the Organon today):
the Book of Words
the Book of Interpretation
the Book of Deduction
the Book of Proof
the Book of Debate
On Sophistical Refutation
the Book of Sophistry
the Book of Rhetoric
the Book of Poetry
Nearly the entire corpus of Plato and Aristotle and of the physicians Hippocrates and Galen was translated by a single Christian Arab,
H.unayn ibn Ish.âq (or Johannitius in Latin, d.876). Much original work that was then done in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine is still commemorated in words from Arabic like
algebra, zenith, azimuth, or alcohol. The word algorithm, describing what a computer program does, is actually the
name of al-Khuwârizmî (c.780-850), whose books introduced algebra and also passed on from India the method of decimal counting with the number zero.
What we call Arabic numerals are still called "Indian" (Hindî) numerals in Arabic. Most of the named stars in the sky still have Arabic names, e.g. Betelgeuse, from
Baytuljawzâ', "the house of the Twins [Gemini]."
Philosophy revived through the adaptation of the Neoplatonism of Late Antiquity to Islam: the One became God, and the lesser gods became angels. This helped spark the movement of Islamic mysticism, later called Sufism (from
s.ûf, the woolen garment that some mystics wore). Traditionally, the first philosopher
in Islam is considered to be al-Kindî (c.796-873), who also shares the distinction of being very nearly the only classical Islamic philosopher who was an Arab : Although all wrote in Arabic, the language of religion and scholarship, most were Persians, and one of the greatest,
al-Fârâbî (c.873-950), was Turkish. The greatest of the Islamic philosophers in this Greek tradition is usually considered to be
Ibn Sîna (980-1037), commonly referred to by his Latinized name
Avicenna. Like most of these figures, Avicenna was a physician as well as a philosopher, and his work on medicine survived for centuries in Europe as a standard text.
Although the Islamic philosophers in the Greek tradition did very substantial work, some of the more original ideas are found in Islamic theology, called
Kalâm ("Talk"). The theologians (mutakallimûn) were not tied to Greek ideas and were concerned to achieve characteristically Islamic answers to traditional religious questions.
Kalâm, to be sure, started with a Hellenizing and even Christianizing tendency in the form of the
Mu'tazilite school, which defended human free will and regarded God in the Greek sense as reasonable, just, and good. Although this appealed even to the great Caliph
al-Ma'mûn, it did not last long.
al-Mutawakkil (847-861) turned against such Christianizing doctrines. Islamic orthodoxy became the systematization of the omnipotence of God, which eliminated free will  and produced novel doctrines like what has been called Islamic
"Occasionalism": the idea that every event in the world, including our own acts, and the world itself at every moment in time, is directly caused and created by the agency of God.
The definitive form of orthodoxy was established by
al-'Ash'arî (873-935). In time this led, interestingly, to the greatest Islamic philosopher,
al-Ghazzâlî, 1059-1111). Al-Ghazâlî was not really a theologian, but he wasn't strictly a "philosopher" (faylasûf) either, since the word in Arabic implied adherence to the Greek tradition: In his famous
Tahâfut al-Falâsifah (The Incoherence of the Philosophers)
al-Ghazâlî denounced most of Neoplatonic Greek philosophy as incompatible with Islam, since philosophers had taught, among other things, that the world was eternal and not created in time by God and that God (like Aristotle's God) only knew universals, not individuals.
Al-Ghazâlî considered much of this not just heresy but actual apostasy, which under Islamic law would have been punishable by death. Although in refuting the philosophers
al-Ghazâlî produced some of the most original philosophy of the Middle Ages, including a critique of causality (supporting
Occasionalism, as above) that would not be picked up again until
David Hume (1711-1776), this denunciation effectively ended the growth of philosophy in the Greek tradition in the central Islamic lands.
Even while attacking philosophy, however, al-Ghazâlî produced, at the same time, a definitive vindication of Sufism, and the
S.ûfî tradition continued to produce thinkers of strength and originality, like Suhrawardî (1153-1191),
'Ibn 'Arabî (1165-1240), and Jalâl ad-Dîn Rûmî (1207-1273). The Sufis, however, often ran the risk of offending the Orthodox Islamic sense of the transcendence, separateness, indeed Otherness, of God. Mystical transport and the "extinction" (fanâ') of self tended to imply union with God, which was fine as
Neoplatonism, but threatening as Islam, which rebelled against any hint of a Christianizing "incarnation" (h.ulûl) of God in some mere human. An early embarassment in this respect was the Sufi
al-H.allâj, who was executed in 922 by the Caliph
al-Muqtadir, for having said things like Anâ lH.aqq, "I am the Truth" (one of the Ninety-Nine Names of God), and:
I am He whom I love, and He whom I love is I, We are two spirits dwelling in one body. If thou seest me, thou seest Him And if thou seest Him, thou seest us both. [Kitâb at.-T.awâsîn, L. Massignon, Paris, 1913]
While Ghazâlî defended al-H.allâj, statements like these could not be accepted at face value.
Al-H.allâj must have become confused because of the sense of his own nothingness over and against God's unique existence. This kind of trouble continued, since Suhrawardî later was himself executed by the otherwise tolerant
Saladin. Nevertheless, Islam was less threatened by mysticism than Christianity was, since there was no Church or Pope whose authority would be directly challenged by private visions of God.
Meanwhile, Islamic Spain (centered around the cities of Cordova and Seville ) had been flourishing. There the Greek tradition of Islamic philosophy prospered for a while longer,
together with the greatest Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages,
Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and Moses Nahmanides (1194-1270) -- though by the time Nahmanides was born, his part of Spain had been recovered by the Christian
Starting with their received Neoplatonism, Islamic philosophers had gradually been unraveling the teachings of Plato and Aristotle from each other. That process culminated in Spain with
Ibn Rushd, or Averroës (1126-1198). Averroës made a living as a physician (in part with the Court of the
Almohads), as did many Moslem and Jewish philosophers (including Maimonides), but he was also an Islamic judge (a
qâdî) and tried to protect philosophy by handing down a formal legal judgment (a
al-Ghazâlî's condemnation. That didn't help, but the heritage of Averroës lies in the great commentaries he wrote on Aristotle's works. Aristotle became THE philosopher, and this impression was conveyed to Western Europe as Averroës, with Aristotle himself, Avicenna, Maimonides, and many others, were soon translated from Arabic into Latin.
Sketches in the History of Western Philosophy from the Hellenistic Age to the Renaissance, Note 10
Some sense of the material and surprises waiting to be found in Middle Eastern libraries can be derived from the discovery only in
1987 of an unknown treatise by
al-Kindî in a collection in Istanbul. Astonishingly, the treatise is about
cryptography and proves to be the first known discussion of how a substitution cipher, where the letters of the alphabet are scrambled or replaced with unknown symbols (as in the Sherlock Holmes story, "The Adventure of the Dancing Men"), can be broken. Kindî correctly understood that letters could be identified, given a large enough sample, by their frequency of occurrence. (Cf. Simon Singh,
The Code Book, The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptogrphy, Doubleday, 1999, p.17.)
Sketches in the History of Western Philosophy from the Hellenistic Age to the Renaissance, Note 11
A revealing passage in the Qur'ân is Sûra 39, Verse 23:
And whom God leads astray, there is for him no right guide. [Waman yud.lili llâhu famâ lahu min hâdin.]
"Leads astray" is sometimes now translated "leaves to stray," which doesn't make it sound like God is actually causing people to "stray"; but the form of the verb in Arabic is a causative, and God abridging the free will of people is not only consistent with the rest of the
Qur'ân but even with the story of God "hardening the heart of Pharaoh" in the Old Testament.
Sketches in the History of Western Philosophy from the Hellenistic Age to the Renaissance, Note 12
The Arabic versions of the names of these cities were
Qurt.ubah and 'Ishbîliyah; and the river that runs through them, the Guadalquivir, retains a Spanish version of its Arabic name:
Wâdîlkabîr, "Big Valley." There are many such names in Spain. Some have even been transferred to Mexico, like Guadalajara, which in Arabic was
Wâdîlh.ijâra, "Valley of the Boulders." (Guadalajara in Spain was actually the home of the Jewish mystic Moses ben Shem
Tov, the author of the Zohar, the most famous work of Spanish Jewish mysticism.)
Sketches in the History of Western Philosophy from the Hellenistic Age to the Renaissance, Note 13
Although both were born in Spain, both Maimonides and 'Ibn 'Arabî spent the last part of their lives in Egypt and other central Islamic lands. In Cairo Maimonides was associated with the Ezra Synagogue, which was founded in 882 and still exists today, though most of the former Egyptian Jewish community has moved to Israel.
Western Europe, sunk in the poverty of the Dark Ages and knowing only the philosophers who had been handed down in Latin, began to revive through the experience of the First Crusade (1096-1099) and Christian advances in Spain and Sicily.
Shipping goods to and from the Crusaders, and their own experience of the civilization of the Middle East, opened both trade and horizons. Things Western Europe had not much seen, like money and cities, began to revive. Through border areas where Christians, Moslems, and Jews mixed with some freedom, as in Spain and Sicily, a whole world of Greek, Jewish, and Moslem knowledge began to intrude on the long insularity of Western Latin learning.
The fall of Toledo to Christian Castille in 1085 led in the next century to the establishment of an actual school of translation there, where many of the translations from Arabic into Latin were done by the Spanish Jew
Ibn Dâwûd or Avendath. Something similar happened in Italy, where the Normans retrieved Sicily from Islam in 1091. Under them, and the German Emperors who followed them, like the thrice excommunicated "Wonder of the World" (Stupor Mundi) Emperor
Frederick II Hohenstaufen (1212-1250), who spoke Arabic himself and scandalized Christendom by
negotiating instead of fighting on the Fifth Crusade (1228-29),
Sicily and its capital of Palermo briefly became centers of European civilization. There another Jew, Farragut of
Girgenti, translated, among other things, the medical work of ar-Râzî (or
Rhazes, 865-925), which became, like that of Avicenna, a standard text in Mediaeval and Renaissance Europe.
This all was a challenge to Latin Europe that was unwelcome but could not be long ignored. Some Christian scholars went so far as to become
"Averroists" themselves. But the challenge was fully met through the great
synthesis produced by
St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274). Coming from southern Italy himself, even as Frederick II was patronizing unorthodox ideas and Islamic learning, St. Thomas took the doctrines of Aristotle refined by Islamic and Jewish philosophy and made them acceptable as Christian theology ("Thomism"). This achievement continues to ground Catholic theology (as in
Jacques Maritain, 1882-1973) and still appeals to modern secular Aristotelians (like
Mortimer Adler, 1902-2001).
This period saw the building, not just of the new Gothic cathedrals [although the
Goths had all been dead for about 500 years], but also of the universities of Europe.
Typical Faculties of a Mediaeval University, with modern academic colors & highest degree
Faculty of Philosophy, Ph.D., Philosophiae Doctor
Faculty of Theology,
Th.D., Theologiae Doctor
Arts, M.A., Magister Artium
Sciences, M.Sc., Magister Scientiarum
Faculty of Medicine,
M.D., Medicinae Doctor
Faculty of Law, J.D., Juris Doctor
Students from anywhere only needed to know one language to go to any university:
Latin. Often that is the only language students had in common; and they used to it to sing drinking songs or to rob travelers -- which students, perennially short of money, occasionally did. The highest graduate in physics, history, French literature, or any other "art" or "science" still becomes a Ph.D. --
philosophiae doctor (doctor="teacher"), just as all secular knowledge was "philosophy."
A cross current of thought to St. Thomas may be found later in the Englishman
William of Ockham (1295-1349). St. Thomas believed, with Aristotle, that universal natures or essences (like Plato's Forms) are real and present in individual beings. This was called "Realism." William of Ockham, on the other hand, argued that only individual beings are real and that universals do not have objective existence. Universals are just names --
nomina in Latin. This position was therefore called
"Nominalism." The dispute over universals was the Great Debate of mediaeval philosophy, and the contrast between St. Thomas and William of Ockham may presage the later contrasting traditions of Continental Rationalism and British Empiricism in modern philosophy. William of Ockham is now best known for "Ockham's Razor," or the principle of "economy" or "parsimony," that a simpler explanation for something is better, and more likely to be true, than a more complicated one.
The "Rebirth" meant the return of a general knowledge of Greek and a revival of classical learning, in great part because of Greek refugees from the Ottoman Turkish conquest of Greece and the Balkans, and then especially when Constantinople fell to them in 1453.
Manuel Chrysoloras arrived to teach Greek at the University of Florence in 1397; and Pope Nicholas V (1447-55) organized a group of scholars to translate all of Greek literature. This was not always to good effect. The Renaissance is responsible for much original art, architecture, literature, science, and political thought but
knowledge of most of classical learning had returned in the 12th and 13th centuries already. Some Greek works known from Arabic translations never would be found in Greek -- for instance, books V-VII of Apollonius of Perga's
On Conics (which introduced the terms "ellipse," "parabola," and "hyperbola") only exist in Arabic. But to Renaissance scholars, all of mediaeval philosophy was tainted by the bad Latin it was written in, i.e. not the same Latin as that of Cicero. This absurd preoccupation may reveal why not much original philosophy was written during the Renaissance.
Noteworthy in the Renaissance, however, was the movement that came to be known as
Humanism. This, in the first place, merely meant an appreciation for Classical learning. In the second place, however, it meant a revival of the
concerns of Classical learning, meaning those which were humanistic in the Greek sense, and a turning away from what was seen as the obscurantism and irrelevant abstraction of scholasticism. There was actually a Platonic Academy founded in Florence by the 15th century ruler and patron of the arts
Cosimo de' Medici
(Cosimo the Elder, 1389-1464). The Platonism of this academy was really a form of
Neoplatonism, with a Platonic/Christian twist which emphasized love as the avenue through which the individual could return, in the Neoplatonic sense, to God. One head of the Academy,
Marsilio Ficino, himself translated from Greek all of Plato and Plotinus, a telling combination. This was of great cultural and historical significance but, again, was not very original as philosophy.