Where is the historical West? Part 4 of 5

The Hellenistic World

Europe’s connectedness has created much confusion and opened the door for the imposition of a Trotskyite program claiming that Europe’s history was dictated by developments occurring elsewhere. But I wish to argue that Europe, despite its many connections, external influences, internal changes, and colonization of non-White areas, was until recently, before the imposition of open borders and mass immigration, a clearly identifiable area historically, geographically and ethnically. Let me start with the Hellenistic world, a vast area testifying to the vigor of the West yet hardly “Western” beyond small segments of its territorial/demographic potpourri.

Western Civ textbooks always include a full chapter on the Hellenistic era to describe a period of about three centuries, roughly from 323 BC to 30 BC, during which time, Greek culture, after the conquests of Alexander the Great, was brought over a remarkably wide area from its small Hellenic homeland — to Egypt and far into East Asia. The significance of the Hellenistic era, however, does not consist in the vast areas and diverse peoples it covered, but in the high cultural accomplishments this period saw in literature, art, science, medicine, and philosophy led by ethnic Greek individuals, particularly in the cities of Alexandria and Pergamum. The new schools of philosophy, Epicureanism, and Stoicism were actually centered in Athens. Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC), Archimedes (287-212 BC), the author of Euclid’s Elements (early in the third century BC), Eratosthenes of Cyrene (275-195), including the characteristics of Hellenistic sculpture and literature, were all Greek.  Although the four Hellenistic kingdoms which emerged as the successors to Alexander (Macedonia, the Seleucid kingdom in Mesopotamia, the Ptolemy dynasty in Egypt, and the kingdom of Pergamum in western Asia Minor) involved a clash and fusion of different cultures and ethnic groups, the political elites and high culture of these kingdoms were thoroughly Greek. The Greek/Macedonian rulers of these kingdoms encouraged the spread of Greek colonists to the Near East; with the result that cities were created replicating the architecture and political institutions of the Hellenic homeland. Many of these new urban centers were completely dominated by Greeks, while natives remained cut off from all civic institutions. A group of Greeks who broke away from the Seleucids carried Hellenistic culture as far to the east as the Indus valley, creating an Indo-Bactrian society.

Hellenistic cities are best described as islands of Greek culture in a sea of non-Greeks. Their subsequent importance, or legacy, lies in the nurturing and development of Greek culture, to be eventually absorbed by the Romans. By the second century AD, the Indo-Iranian world would go on to revive and develop their traditional cultural forms. The Sassanid Empire (224-651 AD) drew on Hellenistic, Bactrian-Indian, and Roman influences, but they championed above all else Iranian legitimacy, claimed to be the rightful heirs of the Persian rulers before the conquest of Alexander; they institutionalized Zoroastrian ritual and theology as state orthodoxy. Under the age of the Guptas (320-550 AD), Indian culture evolved with little outside influence from the West until Muslim times; her contacts were with Southeast Asia and China, and most of these were from India to the east rather than the other way around.

It was in the Occident that the legacy of Hellenism was felt in a substantial and enduring manner, mightily shaping the culture of the Romans.  Although the Romans conquered much of the Hellenistic world, they became, as the Roman poet Horace said, captives of its culture.  They seriously cultivated the study of the Greek language, literature, philosophy, and the idea of an education in the humanities. By the last century of the Republic, with the Greek legacy copiously assimilated, the Romans were ready to produce their own towering literary figures in the names of Cicero, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Livy. While the Hellenistic scientific contribution between the foundation of Alexandria in 331 BC and the first closure of the Museum in 145 BC, was not developed theoretically to its full extent by the practical Romans, the post-Renaissance revolution of the 17th century was due to the conscious recovery of the Hellenistic deductive/experimental method in mathematics, mechanics of solids and fluids, anatomy, medicine, and cognitive sciences.


One also encounters difficulties identifying the West in regards to areas that for a long time were “core” areas of the West, culturally and ethnically, but then fell out (for centuries) to be transformed into other civilizations. I am thinking of the “Eastern” Roman Empire to be later known as Byzantium. The division of Rome into “Eastern” and “Western” parts may be traced to the period from Diocletian (r. 284-305) to Valentinian (r. 364-375), but what is worth noticing is that, despite later efforts to unify Rome again, and despite the continued influence of Greek culture in the Eastern empire, these two halves of Rome would become increasingly separate and different, with the Eastern half becoming another civilization called “Byzantium,” and the Western half becoming the basis of Catholic Europe proper.

Historians do not generally assign a date in which Byzantium was born, but an important point is Emperor Constantine I’s transfer in 324 of the capital of the Eastern Empire from Nicomedia (in Anatolia) to Byzantium on the Bosporus, which became Constantinople (sometimes called the “New Rome.”) In any case, the Eastern Roman Empire is today distinguished from ancient Rome proper and called the “Byzantine Empire,” as it became oriented towards Greek culture and Christianity became the official religion of the empire (in 394 AD)  rather than Roman paganism, and Greek became the official language (around the sixth century) rather than Latin.

So, why would Greek and Christian Byzantium fall out of the orbit of the West? It should be noted that the Roman world was long coming under the influence of “orientalizing” motifs particularly in the eastern areas of the Empire, Syria, Jordan, and northern Iraq. These areas were barely romanized. A distinctly oriental flavor was evident from the very “first” Byzantine ruler, Constantine (306-337), who was addressed as dominus (“lord”) and his right to rule was no longer seen as derived from the Roman people but from God, in whose presence everyone had to prostrate themselves and kiss the hem of his robe. The provinces which lay nearest to the emperors’ concern were not Gaul or Spain, but Egypt and Syria. By the fifth century the state had become a church-state, and the emperor a priest-king, earthly representative of the sovereignty of the Divine Word. The power of the monarch was no longer disguised under the constitutional forms of republicanism, but came to be surrounded with all the ceremonial pomp of oriental despotism; the court of the ruler was seen as the “Sacred Palace,” his property as the “Divine Household,” and his edicts as “celestial commands”.

Yet the cultural elite of Byzantium was Greek; and during the reign of Justinian (527-565 AD) there was a revival of Western influences as some of the former Roman regions in North Africa, Italy and Spain were re-conquered from barbarians. These lands were soon lost, but Justinian’s legal reforms would constitute a lasting contribution to the making of the West. He promoted the completion of the Code of Justinian, which simplified and organized the vast body of civil law accumulated over the centuries, supported lawyers in the creation of a handbook called Institutes for the education of students, as well as a Digest which was an extremely valuable collection and summary of centuries’ of commentary on Roman law by legal experts. This codification of Roman law would serve as a basis for the Papal Revolution of the eleventh century in Europe, leading to the first comprehensive systematization of law, the definition and relationships between different kinds of law.

But after the death of Justinian, during the 7th and 8th centuries, knowledge of classical literature and science gradually disappeared from this civilization, except for a tiny community in Constantinople. Looking at a map of the borders of the Byzantine Empire in 750 we see a small regional power struggling for survival under the pressure of constant Persian attacks in the south, combined with assaults from the north by the Avars and by a dynamic new enemy, the Muslims, who defeated the Persians, captured the Holy Land, North Africa, and Asia Minor, and almost conquered the city of Constantinople itself between 716 and 718. Nevertheless, Byzantium would go on to reassert itself through the 9th, 10th, and early 11th centuries, and while the Empire remained significantly smaller than it was during the reign of Justinian, it was also more integrated geographically, as well as politically and culturally. The cities expanded, population rose, and production increased. This political revival was accompanied by a “revival” of Hellenistic culture, as ancient Greek texts were preserved and patiently re-copied, and Byzantine art flourished. While this revival was not characterized by originality as much as a return to some of the achievements of the Greco-Roman past, we should not underestimate one bit the role Byzantium played in preserving for us today the great gifts of the classical world, more so than the much talked-about role of Islamic civilization. It has been estimated that of the 55,000 ancient Greek texts in existence today, some 40,000 were transmitted to us by Byzantine scribes. The Greek scholars who moved to Italy during the 15th century in response to Muslim aggression played a very significant role in spreading the Greek heritage to Italy fueling the Renaissance.

In 1071, the Seljuk Turks inflicted a major defeat on the Byzantine army; the Empire’s heartland in Asia Minor was overturned, from which it never fully recovered; and, finally, in the fourteenth century the Ottoman Turks entered Europe and completely destroyed the last remnants of the Empire. Greece, seen as the “birthplace” of Western civilization, became a part of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century until its declaration of independence in 1821. Yet, what is striking is the strong consensus regarding the European character of the nations which came into shape after the Balkan Wars (1912-13) and the expulsion of the Turks from this Mediterranean and Indo-Europeanized region. Currently, apart from Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the region’s principal religion is Christianity, and the ethnicity and demographics are Caucasian. The evidence today generally supports Coon’s view that the ancient and contemporary Greeks were (and still are) members of a Mediterranean-Alpine-Dinaric mix with a weak Nordic component.

The Barbarian West

What is most intriguing of all, however, is: why the far less developed “Western” Roman Empire became the core of the West through the entire medieval and modern eras? The answer is that the Western Empire and the areas under Germanic rule were populated by Celtic-Germanic Indo-Europeans. We always hear about the importance of classical culture and the spread of Christianity to the making of medieval Europe, but hardly a word about the more “primordial” role of the barbarians who conquered Rome. Despite the eventual exhaustion of classical Greece, the stagnation and “orientalization” of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, and the aging despotism of Imperial Rome, the dynamic spirit of the West was sustained thanks to the infusion of new sources of aristocratic will to power brought on by fresh waves of barbarians. The first Indo-Europeans who founded the “civilized” West were the Mycenaean warriors who comprised the background to classical Athens. The second were the Macedonians who rejuvenated the martial virtues of Greece after the debilitating Peloponnesian War, and went on to conquer Persia and create the basis for the intellectual harvest of Alexandrian Greece. The third were the early Romans who founded an aristocratic republic, preserved the legacy of Greece, and cultivated their own Latin tradition. And the fourth were the Celtic-Germanic peoples who interacted for some centuries with the Romans, and then continued the Western legacy.

I can barely addressed this here; suffice it to say that without the dynamics of an expansionary barbarian aristocracy the Latin West would have been unable to overcome the degeneration of Rome under the pervading influence of Eastern Despotism. It was the ethnic-make up, the aristocratic vigor and acquisitiveness of Germanic war-bands that kept the West alive. By the mid-8th century, these war-bands had managed to consolidate themselves into four kingdoms in the lands that had once formed the western side of the Roman Empire: the Lombard in Italy, the Visigoths in Spain, the Franks in Gaul, and the Anglo-Saxons in England. The most successful geographically were the Franks who managed to reunify most of the western European territories into the Carolingian Empire.  By the 10th century, the Carolingian unity was gone, and local aristocrats stepped back into power. Then the Vikings arrived, expanding and settling in England, Iceland, Ireland, Greenland, and Newfoundland; and also Russia, down the Dnieper and the Volga down to the Black Sea and the Caspian.

Some have argued that feudalism emerged out of the chaos that ensued with the collapse of the Carolingian unity and with the onset of the Viking invasions. Feudalism was derived in its essentials from the early Indo-European society of war-bands. The feudal bond between lord and vassal was a contractually based relation entered into between two men who had an intrinsic sense of their noble status. The West of AD 1000 was still an extremely disorderly world. The rise of feudalism brought on numerous conflicts over boundaries and jurisdictional rights, disputes which could not easily be resolved by appeal to the authority of public institutions. Nevertheless, by about this time, all pagans had been Christianized, and thus the violent Christianization of pagans had ceased. It was in this context that the Church sought to promote the ideal of peace in a sincere effort to quell the violence between Christians. The Peace of God and the Truce of God, enacted between 990 and 1048, were ecclesiastical laws designed to counter the atrocities and depredations of quarrelling lords and vassals. The period after 1000, which witnessed the revival of city life and commerce, the proliferation of heterodox religious movements, the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the ideal of the loving mother, saw a new romantic portrayal of the aristocratic hero.  The brave and loyal but rather vindictive and callous pagan hero came to be supplemented by a new ideal knight who was equally courageous in combat but lived up to a more refined standard of behavior: a warrior who had acquired courtly manners, a taste for music and literature, had learned about ceremony and fine clothes.

Still, the acquisitive and aggressive expansionism of the Indo-European aristocracy continued through the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, with German knights moving all the way into Estonia on the Gulf of Finland, into Silesia along the Oder, and throughout Bohemia. This period also saw a few belligerent families of Franks establishing new kingdoms in Castile, Portugal, Cyprus, Jerusalem, and Sicily, as well as predatory missions into the Welsh and Irish frontiers. The expansionist aggression of the West is an inescapable expression of its roots in aristocratic men who are free and therefore headstrong and ambitious, sure of themselves, easily offended, and unwilling to accept quiet subservience. The “civilizing process” of this era brought under restraint the original ferocity of the barbarians. But the goal of the Church was to spiritualize the baser instincts of this class, not to extirpate and emasculate them. The highly-strung and obstinate aristocrat has been a fundamental source of destruction in Western history as well as the source of all that is good and inspiring. This expansionist period also saw the invention of the university, a scholastic commitment to dialogue based on logic and evidence, the rise of autonomous cities, Romanesque and Gothic architecture, a new polyphonic music, and more.

End of Part 4 of 5.

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