10. The Old World Empires

10.6 Greece and Rome: the second colonial empire

10.6.1 Greek Logic

Abstraction, which appeared as early as Suza, is traced back to Paleolithic art itself. It proceeded further according to two evolutive lines, the rectilinear and the curvilinear5. The curvilinear style, represented by undulating lines, ever-recurring motives and a predilection for gyration, betrays a spirit of synthesis, an attachment to nature, to the sea, the wind and the seasons. The circle is cosmos, sky, openness and participation in the vital flux. To Amerindians, the circle is sacred. Circular motives were used by the ancient Chinese (fig. 10.24) , the Irish-Celts (fig. 10.25), the Aegean people, the Oceaneans, the Amazonians and the Cretans, are found in the Arabic script, the western baroque and rococo styles (e.g. Fragonard, fig. 9.3) and in the “art nouveau” developed in Nancy (France) at the end of the 19th century ( fig. 10.26).

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Figure 10.24. Chinese Pan/Shan jar, 3rd millennium B.C.

Figure 10.25. Illustration from the Book of Kells, ms58, folio 34r. Early 9th century A.D. The board of Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.

Figure 10.26. Vase, Lalique, Nancy.

Another line of decoration is made of geometric patterns breaking the form down into several sections. It betrays a spirit of clarity, a sense of logic, an analytical way of thinking, rhythm and aggressiveness. The square is the earth and serves to express every idea of limitation and possession. This motive is found in Sumerian art (fig. 10.27), Negro art, Jewish art, Greek art (fig 10.28) and of course in the cubism of Picasso (fig. 10.29).

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Figure 10.27. Painted goblet, Susa, ca. 3,500 BC.

Figure 10.28. This red-figure cylix is a masterpiece attributed to Codrus, 8th century B.C. At center, the slaying of the Minotaur by Theseus. Encircling the rim, the hero’s earlier exploits, as the slaughter of the wild cow and the encounter with Procustes, whose bed served as a torture rack.

Figure 10.29. P. Picasso.Les demoiselles d’Avignon, fragment. The museum of modern art, New York. These were prostitutes working in the street of Avignon, in Barcelona (Spain).

Monumental architecture and even literature can be subdivided into these two great categories. Tertullian, in the first century AD, characterized the curvilinear style, embodying redundancy, mystery and repetition as Asianism, this form being personified by Dionysus or Bacchus while the other form, Atticism, was personified by Apollo. The Greeks (who called themselves Hellenes) had thus a predisposition to logical reasoning.

The “Hellenes” had kept the Neolithic government of city-states and were divided into various tribes as the Beotians, Macedonians, Epyrians, Corinthians, Athenians, Lacedemonians, etc. Athenians of Attica were leftover Achaeans after the Dorian invasion had destroyed Argos. They became Ionians when they colonized Milet, Ephesus, Chios, Samos on the shores of Asia Minor ruled by the Achemenids, and managed to build on their Neolithic heritage the most extraordinary culture the world could witness. In Athens, from indigenous sources, sprouted a quest for Logic, Geometry and Rational Behavior nourished by a sense of individual liberty that was restricted not by the good will of a king but by obedience to the Law, the whole quest curiously plastered over a tradition of slavery and shamanism. In his tragedy “Antigone”, Sophocle (495-405 BC) brings forward the problem of who obeys whom, why and how much: Antigone claims that the laws of the city are made to favor the development of the citizens and their well-being, as opposed to their use by rulers to favor the well-being of the city as a whole. Zoroaster, born, if ever, around the VIIth century, and the Buddha born around 560 BC developed the same concept, brought to its summit by Jesus.

Euclid accomplished Mankind’s first successful incursion into Logic according to a geometry of parallel lines. The drama of the Chinese, attempting to introduce Logic into Thought at about the same time, was their fatal weakness in this elementary geometry. The absence of an alphabetic script -compounded by the absence of a simple way of numeration and that of a zero- may be one of the reasons of this failure but the Chinese had no predisposition at logical and analytical reasoning. Soon after, the Chinese Empire was formed, that was refractory to improvements since these may have led to a social upheaval.

Greek Logic, as interpreted by Aristotle, is an attempt at formulating “rules of valid arguments” that will ensure that only true conclusions are drawn from true premises. From the observation of the firmament, Aristotle could also deduct that the Earth was a sphere. In a world of assertive creeds, this quest for rational thinking was an extraordinary departure from the norm. Certain truths, however, cannot be handled by Aristotelian Logic, while other sentences lead to paradoxes, such as, for example:

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Lewis Carol, the author of “Alice in Wonderland” masterly exposed the shortcomings of Aristotelian Logic. Yet, the Greeks themselves were aware of the shortcomings of this Logic and went beyond Aristotelian Logic with the Stoic school. Also, the geometry of parallel lines devised by Euclid was known as being only one geometry to which was opposed another geometry, per force non-Euclidean. The Euclidean geometry is based on the postulate that parallel lines within one plane join only at the infinite. This cannot be proven and there is thus room for other geometries. Pascal, in 1657, developed a geometry that diverged from the Euclidean tradition. Alexander ordered the transport of the Babylonian tablets concerning astronomical observations to Hellas: it is by this means that the Greeks learned about the concept of zero. However, they declined to use the concept. This marvelous Greek incursion into Logic was, however, soon to be ended, due to political events.

10.6.2 The conquest of the Empire

The Persian Empire was extending from the Indus in the East to Thrace and Macedonia in the West. Due to the state of vassalage of the Phoenicians and of most of the Hellenes, it extended de facto to Morocco and Spain. The independent Greek tribes living outside the Empire contributed to the colonization of Sicily, the South of Italy, the South of France, Crimea and the shores of the Black Sea, in search of food and slaves for their thrifty population of artisans who needed an outlet for their wares. The vassal Ionian Hellenes of Asia Minor – former Achaeans – could not but feel part of the corrosive civilization devised by the free Achaean Athenians. At one point these Ionians bluntly told the King of Kings to get lost.

Athens sided with its own people. Athens was forced to do so because a tight control by the King of Kings over the Greeks of Asia meant the eviction of the Athenians from the Eastern Mediterranean and from the Black Sea, where the vassal Hellenes were the most active in colonization endeavors. In the mean time, the vassal Carthaginians (Phoenician) of the King endeavored, with the help of the free Etruscans, to evict the Athenians from the Western Mediterranean. Yet, Athens vitally needed foreign markets and fought. The King of Kings moved to annex the last remnants of the free Hellenes. This attempt was thwarted in 480 BC mainly by the action of the Athenians, when Xerxes had to leave Athens burning, but free.

As a consequence, all the formerly vassal Greeks living on the western shores of the Aegean recovered independence and, among them were the Greek Macedonians whose capital was Pella. Soon the Macedonians subjugated the rest of Hellas in 338 BC and the Empire itself fell prey to Alexander in 330 BC. The armies of the Persians were a conglomerate of different national corps, with their own captains, their own language, their own armament, some of it made of stone whereas the Greek phalanx possessed long spears and an iron discipline. Facing a disciplined and cohesive Greek army commanded in a single language by professionals chosen not for their subservience but for their competence, the slightest misfortune inflicted during a battle was enough for the Persian soldiers to call retreat and transform this retreat into a stampede. The conquest of Alexander, followed by the dissipation of the imperial treasure, brought about a tremendous period of inflation to the Babylonians.

With this despot, the spirit of Athens, already destroyed through internal strife, slowly faded away. Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander who favored, during his conquest, scientific research and exploration of the world at large, which was known to be a sphere and not a flat disk, but the spirit of freedom was fatally wounded at its core. While Protagoras said: “In what concerns the Gods, I ignore if they exist or not”, Alexander, hearing Clitos claiming that Alexander is no god, killed him by his own hand. Contrary to former despots (Nabuchodonozor, Cyrus), Alexander and his followers demanded to be recognized as living gods, and this request was the most important subject of revolt on the part of the subjugated Hebrews.

Greeks became the rulers of Empires and these entities could not tolerate individual intelligence, rational thought, Liberty or Equality. At that time, Pytheas left Marseille and headed north, until he reached the ice pack. He reported of tides due to the moon, of the midnight sun in summer and dark days in winter, of the closed Baltic Sea, of Iceland and mentioned the inclination of the axis of the earth. He was believed during his days and, in the IIIrd century, Eratosthene still supported him. But already in the Ist century, Polybe and Strabon disavowed him and claimed that Pytheas was a charlatan. The Greek teaching was thus lost. Aristotelian Logic lingered in Rome, Byzantium and Islam. This movement was made of refinements without progress and was followed in Europe by such ineptitudes of the Scholastic School that men of good sense turned away from it, as exemplified by the sharp critics of Rabelais, Villon and Erasmus.

10.6.3 Successor states

Upon Alexander’s death, his Greek companions divided the Empire into Hellenistic successor states as Macedonia, Egypt, the Near East and Persia. The Indus valley and even Persian Gedrosia were lost to an indigenous despot: Tchandragupta Maurya acquired so much influence that he sent elephants (fig. 10.30) down to the Mediterranean in support of one of the Hellenistic contenders (battle of Ipsos, 301 BC).

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Figure 10.30. This Etruscan plate of the 3rd century B.C. depicts a combat elephant, with baby.

Tchandragupta ruled by irrational terror and it was not in his power to start a conquest of the imperial spoils from the East.

10.6.4 Etruria

In the West, the Etruscan civilization appeared in Italy around the 8th century BC. The Etruscans were an indigenous population (probably Vascons) that emerged in central Italy, occupying the region lying between Pisa, Florence, Perouse and Rome. Their expansion was based on sound agricultural practices, excellent craftsmanship in pottery making and a maritime vocation (shared by the Vascons) that allowed the exportation of their wines and wares as far as southern France. They also controlled mines of lead and silver, of copper and of iron, which brought contact with the superior civilizations of Phoenicia and Greece. The Etruscans superbly assumed these contacts and assimilated these foreign cultures, picking up for example the Greek script, with 36 letters written from left to right. It helped them in their land expansion into north and south Italy as well as in their colonizing endeavors in France and Corsica.

Their language was without any clear Indo-European connotations, except Albanian, and was totally incomprehensible to all foreigners; their prophetic religion was also strange to foreigners. Their political unity was based on a loose federal system resting on religious links and also appeared strange. Their proverbial lack of probity, which made a pirate of every sailor, was incomprehensible in view of their cultural level. Their customs, finally, were also those of a primitive culture: gifts and counter gifts, as still practiced in India and the Balkans, were the rule to strengthen family and business ties; women were not shy to display themselves in the nude just as men; women’s equality with men in games, banquets, physical training and other social events was evident, as it was in former times in Crete; the ease of sexual encounters and the sharing of nubile women with several mates leading to a difficulty to establish paternal filiations was shocking to their immediate neighbors, the Romans, the Greeks and the Phoenicians, to whom it was clear that Etruria was cultured without being civilized.

Etruria allied to the Phoenicians in opposing Greek penetration in Italy and Gaul. The Greeks inflicted on it a heavy loss at Hymera, in Sicily, in 480 BC. Its maritime expansion was stopped by Syracuse at the battle of Cumes (474 BC). The assaults of the Celts and Germans in the North, of the Italic Mountain tribes in the East and of Rome in the South reduced its land expansion endeavors to nil. When the Gauls again invaded Italy, the Romans recovered from the looting of their city (381 BC) but Etruria, as a political entity, disappeared and the Romans expanded in Italy.

Why are Etruscans important? Because they retained their cultural characteristics throughout the following centuries: Corsicans were found by the Romans to be the worst unreliable thieves and unruly crooks of the Roman Empire – and the contemporary French who now occupy the isle will readily confirm this-, Napoleon was a Corsican, Dante, Vasari, Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Savonarole were Florentines, monk Hildebrand was a Florentine. It were the Florentines who forced Christendom to mutate into the Renaissance, and Galileo as well as the Pope, who refused to burn him despite the urging of his assessors in Cosmology, were both Florentines. The alliance of the Florentines with the Lombards in the Lombard League, during the Middle Ages, brought about the destruction of the Holy Germanic Roman Empire.

10.6.5 Rome

Pyrrhus, the brilliant Greek king of Epirus (now Albania) sensed the Roman danger and attempted to conquer Italy (281 BC) but failed. It was Rome that set out to conquer the Empire, after first eliminating a new wave of Germanic invaders in 101 BC. The Empire, by 52 BC, was centered on Rome and expanded with Caesar as far as the British Isles. The conquest of the known world by Rome was not a conquest of barbaric tribes and the advent of a “Roman civilization”. The world Rome conquered was already civilized, including Gallia. The rule of Rome represented, for the advance of civilization, not a progress but a set back that was not compensated by the occupation of genuinely barbaric lands, where Rome failed. In continental Europe, Rome failed to conquer the semi-nomad Germans, which resulted in an extremely long frontier that ran along the Rhine and Danube rivers (fig. 10.31).

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Figure 10.31. The Roman Empire did not control Persia that had fallen in Nomad hands. Armenia was occupied from 114 to 117, only 4 years. The Empire also failed to effectively control Arabs, Berbers and Germans. Etruscans are probably Vascons and retained their specificity. Ireland was never occupied.

In the East, Rome failed to defeat the nomadic Parths (114 AD) who had occupied Persia. Rome also failed to control the Nomads of Arabia and the Berbers of Kabylia, in North Africa. The increase in numbers of the Nomad, who acquired better weapons and improved skills in the course of times, presented a mounting threat that the Sedentary had increasing difficulty to counter.

No technical revolution in agricultural production nor in the manufacture of goods, or a rapid natural increase in population occurred when Athens, in the 5th century BC and Rome, in the years 200-150 BC, mushroomed into wealth and thrift. At that time, coined money became very common and trade or conquest with a wide range of foreign states from where slaves could be had by purchase or war involved both city-states. The peculiar institution, recognized as such by Greeks and Romans alike, expanded hugely during the conquest of the Empire by the Romans.

In 135 BC, the slaves revolted in Sicily. In 73 BC, Spartacus organized another slave rebellion that shook the Empire to the core. After the defeat of Spartacus, victorious Crassus (the richest Roman of that time) ordered the crucifixion of the 6000 survivors all along the path of his return from Capua to Rome. In the year 30 AD, Jesus spoke in Judea about Justice and was most influential among slaves. The teaching of Jesus has strong Indian connotations: walking on water, foreseeing events, creating wine, defenseless surrender to torture, teaching “follow thee me”, “love thy neighbor”, “respect life”, “forsake material riches”, the contention that Jesus arose from the dead and was thus reincarnated into himself, originate from India’s most respected spiritual tradition. The claim of Christ, “I am the Way, the Truth, Life” was suicidal and Christ died the way of the slaves and bandits only 3 years after the initiation of his teaching. This challenge to temporal Power, whose motto is ” Love thy Chief”, fermented into an original Culture, Christendom.

References chapter 10.

5. G. Bazin: The Loom of Art”. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1962

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