Saturday 25 June 2016

The Greeks in Asia

The Achaemenid Persian Empire had ruled over an area extending from the Mediterranean to the Indus valley. It was all conquered by Alexander the Great in less than 10 years, his army bringing with it ideas and tastes from Greek civilization that took root and flourished alongside local traditions.

Alexander's conquest created an empire even larger than the Persian empire empire at it's height under Darius I and his son Xerxes I in 6th century BC. The ceremonial capital of Persepolis was largely destroyed by Alexander, but its great stairways, decorated with reliefs of subject rulers bringing tribute, survived.

Relief of Subject Rulers, Persepolis 

Before his death Alexander had placed the key provinces in the conquered Persian empire under the control of trusted governors. After he died in 323 BC his son born out of his wife Roxana never grew up to succeed him and was killed by his own general in 310 BC. After a continues fight for succession from 323 to 279 BC three main Hellenistic states were established.

Hellenistic - The three centuries after Alexander's death in 323 BC are known as Hellenistic age when post-Classical Greek culture spread far beyond its original homeland. Greek ideas and artistic styles were adopted in Asia, Egypt and Rome. The smallest of them was Antigonid kingdom, which ruled in Macedonia and Greece. Constantly involved in war with Greek city states, it eventually fell to Rome in 168 BC.

The richest and most secure was Ptolemaic kingdom, which ruled Egypt and Palestine. It lasted until 30 BC when in the reign of Cleopatra VII, it was annexed by Rome.

The largest of the Successor states was, however, the Seleucid empire, founded in 312 BC by Seleucus I Nicator, when he secured Babylon and with it control of Persia, Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Syria. The three empires spread Greek ideas through their political institutions, town planning and architecture.

Seleucus I had a new capital Seleucia, built in Mesopotamia on the Tigris, near Babylon, but the capital was soon moved to Antioch in Syria. In the course of 3rd century BC the Seleucids had to abandon their Eastern provinces of Bacteria and Parthia.

Bactrian Deities  
The distant Bactrian kingdom retained a magnificent Greek coinage, archaeological sites such as Ai Khanoum (in modern Afghanistan) reveal that Bactrian cities continued to follow Greek models. This plate from Ai khanoum shows the Greek goddess Cybele in a chariot pulled by loins in front of a Persian priest at a fire alter.

Nemrud Dag, Turkey

In 1st century CE, the king of Commagene(southeast of present day Turkey) , Antiochus I, built a mountain top shrine where the fine statuary depict both Greek and Persian deities and uses a combination of Eastern and Western artistic styles. It broke away from  the Seleucids around 162 BC.

Philhellenism: Admiration for Greek philosophy, poetry, and sculpture survives to this day, although it probably peaked in 18th and 19th century Europe. The Apotheosis of Homer (below) embodies the spirit of admiration for classical Greece. Philhellenism takes no account of the fact that Greek women had no vote or that Greek society depended on the labor of slaves.

Apotheosis of Homer

In the 2nd century BC the Seleucids were driven from Persia and Mesopotamia by Parthians. By 100 BC the empire had been reduced to Antioch and a few Syrian cities. It was Roman general Pompey who put an end to the empire, annexing Syria as a Roman province in 64 BC.

When Romans tried to invade Mesopotamia in 53 BC, the Parthians defeated at Carrhae but Romans sacked Parthian capital of Ctesiphon in 2nd century CE. Parthians were later ousted by the Persian Sassanids in 236 CE.

Greek influenced Buddha, Bacteria, 3rd century CE

Aspects of Hellenistic culture also survived further East, in Bacteria(in Afghanistan) and parts of Northern India such as Gandhara.   Between the 2nd century BC and the 4th century CE, many sculptures from Bacteria and the so called Indo-Greek kingdoms display a combination of artistic styles of India, Persia and Greece. 

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