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The middle sea a history.., p.5

  The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean, p.5

The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean
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  Third and last of the great tragedians was Euripides. Born in 484 BC, he was twelve years younger than Sophocles and died a few months before him in 406 BC. (At the festival of Dionysus in that year, Sophocles dressed the chorus and actors in black in his memory.) In a later age, Euripides would have been hailed as a Renaissance man. As well as a playwright he was a fine painter and a skilled musician; his library was one of the best in Athens. He is believed to have written ninety-two plays, nineteen of which have survived. They include Andromache, Hippolytus, Medea and The Trojan Women: the same old myths used by his predecessors, but usually given an unexpected–often contemporary–twist.

  The only other dramatist of the day who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as these three was a writer not of tragedies but of comedies, and highly satirical ones at that. Aristophanes, who was born around 445 BC, was a generation younger than Euripides and–as might be expected–still more down to earth. He wrote some fifty-four plays, of which we have eleven in their entirety; in them he mercilessly caricatured the leading figures of Athenian political, cultural and social life, including Socrates (in The Clouds), Cleon (in The Knights) and Lamachus, one of the leading Athenian generals during the Peloponnesian War (in The Acharnians). In The Frogs Dionysus, god of the theatre, goes down to Hades to fetch back Euripides, but after a mock trial scene brings back Aeschylus instead. Most famous of all, perhaps, is Lysistrata, in which the women of the Greek cities withhold their favours from their husbands until peace is restored.

  Of the great Athenian philosophers, only Socrates–who lived from 469 to 399 BC–properly belongs to the fifth century. He wrote nothing, simply because he claimed to know nothing–nor, he believed, did anybody else–and so he did not feel justified in teaching. Instead, he discussed–anything and everything: good, evil, truth, justice, virtue, religion. This last subject proved to be his downfall. In the early spring of 399 BC he was accused of impiety, having, it was said, introduced strange new gods whom the state did not recognise; moreover, though he had a wife, Xanthippe, and two sons, he was also accused of having habitually seduced young men. These two charges together were enough to have him found guilty by a jury of 501 citizens and sentenced to death. His friends offered to bribe the prison authorities to let him escape; he refused on moral grounds. A month later he publicly drained a cup of hemlock and died.

  Plato, who was to immortalise him, was twenty-eight when he attended the trial of Socrates and was deeply shaken by his death, after which he spent some years travelling in Egypt, Italy and Sicily. Unlike his friend, he wrote copiously, often expounding his philosophical theories in the form of dramatic dialogues in which Socrates plays a prominent part. He himself remains in the background and–though he argues with consummate brilliance–never quite commits himself to any particular doctrine of his own. Some time in the 380s BC he founded a school just outside Athens, in a grove sacred to the hero Academus. It consequently became known as the Academy, a word later adopted by nearly all the languages of Europe.

  Plato’s star pupil–whom he described as ‘the mind of the school’–was a young Ionian Greek from Thrace by the name of Aristotle, born at Stagira near Thessalonica in 384 BC. Aristotle remained at the Academy until Plato’s death in 347 BC, when he settled at Assos in Asia Minor and opened a school. In 342 BC he received an invitation from Philip II of Macedon to be private tutor to the King’s fourteen-year-old son, Alexander, a post he held for two years. His charge then became regent for Philip, at which point Aristotle returned to Athens to found another school of his own–this time in a grove sacred to Apollo Lykeios, which earned it the name Lyceum. Aristotle was more than a philosopher; his surviving oeuvre also contains works on ethics, history, science, politics, literary and dramatic criticism, nature, meteorology, dreams and–a particular interest of his–zoology. He was, in short, a polymath–perhaps the first in history. And he left behind him the first true library, a vast collection of manuscripts and maps which was the prototype for Pergamum, Alexandria and all the other great public libraries of antiquity.

  For some years after the end of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta ruled the Greek roost; but early in the next century the spotlight shifted to a place both unexpected and unfamiliar. In those days of antiquity, Macedonia must have seemed rather like Scotland appeared to medieval Englishmen: a land of wild and uncouth barbarians divided into endlessly warring clans, their almost total lack of culture and politesse rivalled only by a prodigious capacity for alcohol. All this was certainly true of the Macedonian highlands; but the lowlands included the city of Pella from which, for a century already, a dynasty known as the Argeads had held sway–at least in theory–over the entire country.

  For our purposes the story begins with King Philip II, who succeeded to the throne on the death of his brother in 359 BC. The country he inherited was poor and disorganised; he immediately established a professional army, which he subjected to intensive training and kept mobilised not just in summer, as was the usual practice, but all the year round. In twenty years he made Macedonia the most powerful state in eastern Europe, dramatically upsetting the balance of power throughout the Greek world. In 338 BC he led his army southward, forcing the city-states of southern Greece–led by Athens and Thebes–to make a hasty alliance. They despatched an army to meet him, and the opposing forces met on 4 August at Chaeronea in Boeotia. The result was a resounding victory for Philip. To this day, by the roadside just to the east of the modern village, a stone lion marks the common tomb of the Theban ‘Sacred Band’, a body 300 strong which was traditionally composed of 150 pairs of male lovers; 254 skeletons have been found nearby.

  Among the ambassadors sent by Philip to Athens to offer terms for a settlement was his son Alexander. Though still only eighteen, the young prince had fought with distinction at Chaeronea, leading the cavalry on the left wing. From childhood he had been brought up as his father’s eventual successor; his tutor Aristotle–one of the most reactionary intellectuals that ever lived–had given him a strong sense of his divine right to rule, and gone so far as to advise him ‘to be a leader to the Greeks and a despot to the barbarians, to look after the former as after friends and relatives, and to deal with the latter as with beasts or plants’. The boy was consumed with ambition, and so impatient to assume the reins of kingship that Philip soon began to suspect a conspiracy against him. He may well have been right: in 336 BC, in the course of festivities to celebrate the alarmingly incestuous marriage of his wife’s brother with her own daughter, the King was assassinated by a member of his own bodyguard.

  Was Alexander implicated in the murder? Nothing was ever proved, but what evidence there is points fairly convincingly to him and to his mother, Olympias, whom Philip had recently divorced. It certainly came at a providential moment. With the unanimous consent of the army, Alexander at once assumed his father’s command. Then, pausing only to institute a swift campaign against Thebes–of which he left not one stone standing on another–in the spring of 334 BC he crossed the Hellespont and started off on the great expedition that was to occupy the remainder of his short but astonishing life: an expedition launched with the dual purpose of freeing the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Persian domination and then forging a great empire of his own in eastern lands. While still on Mediterranean territory he won two historic battles over the Persian king Darius III, the first on the river Granicus (now the Çan Çay1) about thirty miles east of Troy, the second in the following year on the plain of Issus, between Alexandretta and Antioch (now Iskenderun and Antakya respectively). After this there was little opposition as he led his army south along the coast of Palestine and across the north of the Sinai peninsula into Egypt, where he spent the winter of 332–31 BC. With the coming of spring he struck east again, first to Tyre and then over the mountains to Damascus. And so he passes out of our story.

  Alexander died in Babylon on 13 June 323 BC aged thirty-two, leaving chaos behind him. His only surviving son, Heracles, was a bastard; his wife, Roxane
, was pregnant at the time of his death, but the baby might well have proved to be a girl and nobody was prepared to wait another six weeks to see. Fierce infighting broke out among his generals and the noble Macedonians who formed his court. This soon spread to the Mediterranean, and before long the entire Greek world was being torn apart by ambition and avarice. It was, in its way, inevitable. Alexander’s empire could never have lasted. It was too large, too unwieldy, too quickly conquered. A victim of his own ambition, the young adventurer had thought only of advance, never of consolidation. And the almost random fragmentation of the empire after his death made its further dissolution inevitable.

  Infinitely more important than Alexander’s short-lived empire was the cultural legacy that he left behind him. The eastward extension of Greek culture as far as Afghanistan and the Indus valley, and its fusion with that of Persia, both fall outside the scope of this book; but the Hellenistic period13 also had a huge impact throughout the eastern Mediterranean. There as elsewhere Greek-style cities sprang up, with temples and agoras, theatres and gymnasia, but the vast majority were no longer independent city-states as they had been in the past. They were now part of a larger polity, richer and stronger, able to launch programmes of shipbuilding on a scale which would have been unthinkable in previous centuries. Moreover, they were eventually to provide a fertile field for the spread of a new religion, which was to develop out of Judaism while professing none of the latter’s exclusiveness: Christianity, as preached and developed by St Paul.

  When at last the smoke from Alexander’s dying empire cleared away–and it was to take the best part of twenty years–three major powers emerged from the ashes. One was the old Kingdom of Macedonia, no longer master of western Asia but still dominating northern Greece and a considerable force throughout the Greek world. The second was the empire built up by Alexander’s general Seleucus–formerly leader of the Shield-Bearers, his own personal guard of honour–who, beginning in Babylonia, soon imposed his authority over Mesopotamia and Syria until his domains extended from his capital at Antioch to the eastern end of the Persian Gulf. The line of Seleucid kings that he established was to continue for nearly four centuries, until it was eventually wiped out by Rome in 72 AD.

  The third power was Egypt, where in 305 BC Alexander’s oldest friend, a soldier-historian named Ptolemy, proclaimed himself king. He proved a remarkable success. Ruling from Alexander’s new foundation of Alexandria–home of the greatest library in the ancient world, a city in which the large Jewish community would regularly read the Torah not in Hebrew but in Greek–and from another city which he himself founded called Ptolemais in Upper Egypt, this bluff Macedonian assumed the character–as well as the power–of the ancient pharaohs, and during a forty-year reign extended his dominions to Palestine and southern Syria, Cyprus, Asia Minor and the Cyclades. He also engendered a line of no less than fifteen rulers of Egypt: a remarkable number for a single dynasty, but more remarkable still by reason of the fact that almost every one of them married his own sister, half-sister or niece. It was Ptolemy XIV, coming to the throne in 47 BC, who took as his bride his twenty-one-year-old sister, Cleopatra.

  Greek the Ptolemies may have been; the world they lived in, however, at least where later generations were concerned, was Roman. The time has now come to retrace our steps a century or two and to inquire how it was that a small and inconsequential Italian town made itself, in a remarkably short space of time, master of the civilised world.


  Rome: The Republic

  The rise of Rome was due, more than anything else, to the character and qualities of the Romans themselves. They were a simple, straightforward, law-abiding people with a strong sense of family values, willing to accept discipline when required to do so–as they certainly had been in 510 BC when they expelled the Tarquins, that line of Etruscan kings who had ruled them for the previous century,14 and established a republic of their own. Their city, they claimed, predated the Etruscans by many centuries; it had originally been founded by the Trojan prince Aeneas, who had made his way to Italy after the Greeks’ destruction of his city. Rome was thus the successor to ancient Troy.

  In 280 BC, an ambitious ruler of a Hellenistic state in northwestern Greece, King Pyrrhus of Epirus, landed with an army estimated at 20,000 at Tarentum (the modern Taranto). The Roman army met him near Heraclea, where it was narrowly beaten, Pyrrhus’s losses being almost as great as the Romans’: thus the concept of a Pyrrhic victory was born. For the next five years the King continued to make trouble, but with less and less success; finally, in 275 BC, having lost some two-thirds of his army, he returned to Epirus. Rome, a still obscure republic in central Italy, had defeated a Hellenistic king. The subsequent triumphal procession in the capital featured Pyrrhus’s captured elephants–the first to make their appearance in Italy.15

  But Rome’s greatest enemy was Carthage, originally a colony of the Phoenicians, which occupied part of the site of the modern city of Tunis. The Carthaginians were a thorn in the Roman flesh for well over a hundred years, from 264 to 146 BC, during which the Romans were obliged to fight two separate Punic Wars16 before they were able to eliminate it forever. It was these two wars that brought Rome to the centre of the Mediterranean stage and–since it soon became clear that Carthage could never be defeated on land alone–made her a leading sea power. The first, which ended in 241 BC, had one extremely happy result for Rome: the acquisition of the greater part of Sicily, which would henceforth constitute her principal granary. (Corsica and Sardinia were to follow three years later.) She had greater cause for concern, however, during the twenty-three-year interval that elapsed before the beginning of the second, because during that period Carthage succeeded in establishing a whole new empire–this time in Spain.

  The Phoenicians had first reached the Iberian peninsula around 1100 BC, when they founded the port of Cadiz. It was in those days an island and it set the pattern for subsequent Phoenician colonies, all of which tended to be positioned on promontories or offshore islands, often at a river mouth, presumably–since, like all merchants, they were a peaceful lot–in order not to encroach more than necessary on the natives. Of these last the most advanced were the Iberians, a mysterious people whose two languages are, like the Etruscan, not Indo-European and, unlike the Etruscan, continue to baffle us. The Iberians traded enthusiastically with the Phoenicians, with whom they seem to have existed on friendly terms. Some centuries later they were to develop a remarkable civilisation of their own, notable above all for its statuary: the so-called Dama de Elche, dating from the fourth century BC and now in the Archaeological Museum in Madrid, is one of the most beautiful–and most haunting–ancient sculptures to be seen anywhere.

  In about 237 BC Hamilcar Barca, Carthage’s most distinguished general–or admiral, since he seems to have been equally at home on land and at sea–set off for the Iberian peninsula, taking with him his little son Hannibal, aged nine. Here, over the space of just eight years, he built up all the infrastructure of a prosperous state, with a sizable army to defend it. Accidentally drowned in 229 BC, he was succeeded by his son-in-law Hasdrubal, who established the permanent capital of Carthaginian Spain at what the Romans called New Carthage and we call Cartagena. He also did much to develop the art of mining: a single mine, Baebelo, was said to produce 300 pounds of silver a day. When Hasdrubal was assassinated by an Iberian slave in 221 BC, his place was taken by Hannibal, now twenty-six.

  Hannibal was to prove the greatest military leader the world had seen since Alexander; indeed, he may well have been one of the greatest of all time. According to tradition, his father had made him swear eternal hatred of Rome; he was determined from the moment of his accession to avenge his country’s defeat of twenty years before, and confident that the new Spanish dominion, with all its vast resources of wealth and manpower, would enable him to do so. He left Spain in the spring of 218 BC with an army of some 40,000 men, taking the land route along the south coast of France, up the Rhône valley
, then east to Briançon and the pass at Mont-Genèvre. His infantry was mostly Spanish, though officered by Carthaginians, his cavalry drawn from Spain and North Africa; it included thirty-seven elephants. His famous crossing of the Alps took place in the early autumn and was followed by two victorious battles in quick succession; by the end of the year he controlled virtually the whole of northern Italy. But then the momentum began to fail. He had counted on a general rising of the Italian cities, uneasy as they were at the growing power of Rome, but he was disappointed; even a third victory in April 217 BC, when he trapped the Roman army in a defile between Lake Trasimene and the surrounding hills, proved ultimately ineffective. It was no use his marching on Rome; the city possessed formidable defensive walls, and he had no siege engines worth speaking of. He therefore swung round to Apulia and Calabria, where the largely Greek populations had no love for the Romans and might well, he thought, defect to his side.

  Once again he was wrong. Instead of the sympathetic allies for which he had hoped, he soon found himself faced by yet another Roman army, far larger and better equipped than his own, which had followed him southward; and on 3 August 216 BC, at Cannae (beside the Ofanto river, some ten miles southwest of the modern Barletta) battle was joined. The result was another victory for Hannibal, perhaps the greatest of his life, and for the Romans the most devastating defeat in their history. Thanks to his superb generalship, the legionaries found themselves surrounded and were cut to pieces where they stood. By the end of the day over 50,000 of them lay dead on the field. Hannibal’s casualties amounted to just 5,700.

  Hannibal had now destroyed all Rome’s fighting forces apart from those kept within the capital for its defence; but he was no nearer his ultimate objective, the destruction of the Republic. His strongest weapon, that magnificent Spanish and North African cavalry–by now strictly equine, since the elephants had all succumbed to the cold and damp–was powerless against the city walls. He was encouraged, on the other hand, by the hope that his brother–another Hasdrubal–might be raising a second army, this time with proper siege engines, and joining him as soon as it was ready. Then, to his surprise, he found in Campania–that province of Italy south of Rome of which Naples is the centre–just that degree of popular support that seemed to be lacking elsewhere in the peninsula. Marching his army across the mountains to Capua, at that time Italy’s second largest city, he established his headquarters there and settled down to wait.

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