The Greeks at the Center of World History

In the seventh century BCE, one could find cinnamon from India at the Temple of Hera in the Greek island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. Hera was the wife of Zeus, the father of the Olympian gods.

Samos also gave birth to the natural philosophers Pythagoras, who in the sixth century BCE started using mathematics in the decoding of the heavens, and Aristarchos, who in the third century BCE invented the heliocentric theory of the cosmos.

Greeks followed the clues of Pythagoras, Aristarchos and numerous other philosophers-scientists and invented modern-like science and technology. They also gave us political theory, history, law, democracy, the civilian control of the military, the Olympics, architecture, theater, and great poetry and literature.

In addition, the Greeks traveled widely, leaving distinct footprints of civilization everywhere they visited or settled temporarily or for centuries. They dotted the Mediterranean with poleis, some 2,500 of them in the fifth century BCE. After the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great in late fourth century BCE, they founded kingdoms in Africa and Asia that lasted for several centuries.

It's probably this unparalleled achievement that made the Greeks targets for jealousy and propaganda. The small tribes of scholars who study them know that the best museums of Europe and America are full of looted Greek treasures.

So you are either in love with the Greeks or you ignore or hate them.

Nevertheless, Greek science, and scientific technology in the form of machines like the second century BCE Antikythera Mechanism (the world's first computer), were real and made our world what it is.

Alexander the Great was also real. His empire was a sophisticated engine that successfully globalized Greek culture. The ancient Greek scholar Plutarch praised Alexander for sowing the world with more than seventy poleis and countless educated officials.

Yet, Alexander has also been the subject of misunderstandings and brutal attacks.

A scholar who sees Alexander as "an utterly ruthless conqueror, merciless even to his own folk," is John Boardman. He is a senior British archaeologist and historian of art. He summarized his biased politics against the Greeks as well as his tremendous knowledge of Greek culture in "The Greeks in Asia" (Thames and Hudson, 2015).

Boardman says the homeland of Alexander, Macedonia, was not Greece, that Macedonians did not speak Greek, that the Macedonian language was as far from Greek as other "Indo-European" languages, and that Alexander was not Greek and despised the Greeks.

Boardman ignored Herodotos, the Greek father of history, who in the fifth century BCE, in his "Histories," explained that the Macedonians were Greek with origins from Argos. Herodotos says Macedonians competed in the Olympics, exclusively restricted to Greek athletes.

Ironically, Boardman warns us we "ignore or mistrust" Herodotos at "our peril."

Boardman also bypassed Arrian, the most reliable ancient historian on Alexander, who says Alexander fought the Persians to revenge the wrongs Persians had done to Greece.

Alexander embraced Herakles and Achilles, the greatest heroes of the Greeks. Alexander carried Homer's "Iliad" always with him. This was the "Iliad" that Aristotle, his tutor, had prepared for him.

Boardman also peppers his text with other exaggerations. For example, he alleges, more than once, the "Greeks were not empire builders." "The Greeks came from the east." The Minoans of Crete were not Greek. Artemis of Ephesos "seems as much an eastern goddess as a Greek one." Aphrodite was "a very oriental goddess." Cyprus was "part-Greek."

After the Persian Wars, Boardman charges, the Greeks "reverted to fighting each other, inventing a fairly low-level democracy in Athens." The Greek victory over the Persians "was indeed heroic, but rather a sideshow for world history until a non-Greek [Alexander] thought to avenge it." The Persians were less violent than the Greeks.

This hubris explains why Boardman sees the Greeks as an "odd phenomenon in world history." But were they?

He documents extraordinary Greek influence all over Asia. "Greekness was everywhere apparent, the language was spoken and written, the arts understood and practiced, by Greeks and others," he writes. Is this "odd"? Add to this the influence of the Greeks in Egypt, the rest of Africa, and the West and it's clear the Greeks were central to the world.

Boardman, however, does more than badmouthing the Greeks. He highlights the inventiveness and attractiveness of their culture. He praises the Greeks of Asia Minor for their seventh century BCE invention of a monetary economy for "their [Lydian] neighbors and themselves, and ultimately for all of the West, for all the world."

He sees the genius of the Greeks in their art. The Greeks influenced "that great geographical band of urban civilizations that stretched from China to Peru... their art had something of the character of a virus in antiquity."

Boardman's sound judgment of Greek art makes his lavishly illustrated book extremely valuable. He paints a vast cultural panorama of Greek life in Asia.

"The Greeks colonized not only the lands where they settled but also those they had simply visited or heard about with their mythological nexus, abetted by the skills of artists and poets whose works seemed very accessible at all levels of society," Boardman writes.

Greeks ruled Bactria (northern Afghanistan and Pakistan) in the third and second centuries BCE. Bactrian coins, exquisite in design, symbolic, and iconographic, served the political and mythological interests of the Greeks. The rulers appeared on the coins dressed like Alexander.

Bactrian coins were often struck for non-Greeks. They served both "Greek and oriental subjects and language."

Similar things happened among the Scythians, Parthians, Persians, Indians and Chinese. The Parthian king Orodes supported Greek plays.
Greek art, theater, architecture, coinage, and religion were copied and adapted for native cultures. For example, "Greek Dionysiac worship and practice found a ready echo in northwest India." The Greeks also influenced "the politics and ethos of Buddhism."

"Greeks in Asia" is insightful, timely, and extremely important.