The Decline of Classical Greece to the
Dawn of the Byzantine Empire

The period from the end of the Peloponnesian War to the start of the Byzantine Empire saw fundamental changes in the Greek world, with implications for the course of Western history. The polis, which helped define its members in political, religious, and artistic terms, gave way to the multicultural empire, with the resulting loss of community and rise of individualism. It would, for example, be nearly two millennia before democracy would emerge again as a viable political institution in the West. But the modern version would be unrecognizable to a Classical Greek, who would view popular votes to elect legislators as a form of oligarchy, quite different from Athens's popular assembly, in which each adult male citizen had a direct say on policy and law.

In the centuries before the emergence of the Byzantine Empire, the spread of Christianity would engender a new sense of community, but one that would originally challenge existing political institutions as well as the cultural base of the age. That foundation, still resting on the traditional Greek pantheon, would slowly give way until, with the emperor Constantine, Christianity would emerge as the favored religion. The tensions between new and old would generate diverse reactions, from efforts to eliminate anything pagan, as evidenced by the conversion of temples to churches and the eventual halting of the Olympic games, to reverence for the philosophical and literary works we still consider classics. One can still sense this tension in the Greek world, as the monuments of the Classical era stand in contrast to the Christian churches and symbols that remain the foundation for the modern Greek outlook.

The end of the polis: Philip and Alexander

The 4th century BCE generated major changes in the social and political climate in the Greek world. It began with the end of the Peloponnesian War but the continuation of hostilities among the independent Greek polei. By the middle of the century, however, Philip of Macedon was exerting his power on the Greek mainland. Alliances among cities, to repel Philip's advances, failed. After a century of warfare among themselves, the Greek cities were no longer able to generate effective, unified opposition to external powers. Demosthenes's efforts to rally the Athenians and others against Philip led only to military defeat. The League of Corinth Philip founded marked the end of the polei as self-sufficient economic and political entities. Politics and military affairs would be left to professionals and mercenaries.

Philip's death in 336 led to Alexander's ascendance. By the time of his death in 323, he had conquered much of the known world. Greek culture was spread to the east as Alexander sought to unite Greek and near eastern cultures. Alexander's effortsbrought economic benefits to Greece. In addition to the enrichment provided by direct gifts, the extension of Greek influence generated opportunities for diversified economic activity. New markets were opened for Greek goods--both with the army and the colonies that were founded in Africa and Asia. Communication by sea was improved and cheapened, and the original Greek world enjoyed an era of peace and security during Alexander's brief reign.

The change in political situation, however, yielded a change in outlook. By the end of the 4th century BCE Athenian democracy was a relic. Athenians had retired to private life and were unconcerned with public affairs. Meander's comedies provide a picture of life in Athens, with their focus on the domestic rather than the public. Hamilton explains, "[Athens] faded out, and Meander shows us why. His small men and women absorbed in small personal matters could not keep her greatness alive." (Echo of Greece, p. 154.) Athens was no longer a community of citizen soldiers ready to defend their own small domains. Money and luxury became primary motivations. The well-to-do minority sought enrichment through trade, speculation, or public service; others struggled for subsistence.

The Hellenistic Age

Peace in Greece was broken with Alexander's death. Since there was no clear successor, confusion reigned in the army. Many sought to unify the empire; others sought to secure specific areas. Eventually, the idea of separate and independent Hellenistic kingdoms arose. A balance of power--if not peace--emerged, with Ptolemy II in Egypt, Antiochus in the Seleucid Empire in Syria, and Antigonus Gonatus in Macedonia. By 275 a degree of stability emerged as the new political units crystallized. Ultimately a state system developed, with a few powerful kingdoms, several splinter states, and a complex alliance among Greek polei. This rough arrangement would last for 2 centuries, until the Roman conquest.

Despite the balance of power among the Hellenistic empires, a number of points of tension remained. Asia Minor included many independent and unreliable allies for any kingdom. The Macedonians had to deal with the traditional rivalries between them and the Greeks. The struggle with Macedonia was complicated by divisions between those Greeks seeking unity and those seeking a return to the traditional independence of cities. Four groups were seeking unity: the Aetolian League, the Achaean League, Sparta, and the Macedonian kings. This complicated situation led to a period of uninterrupted warfare in the Hellenic world.

By the end of the third century, many among the educated protested against the traditional Greek view of war. War became viewed as primitive and ruthless. Unfortunately, such criticisms failed to stop the fighting. In addition, pirates used war as a tool for self-aggrandizement. Pillage was a typical result of war. Poverty became common in most Greek cities; the booty of war was largely in people-- prisoners became slaves. The middle class, the basis of earlier political, economic, and social life, suffered. There was an increasing number of people with no or verylittle property. Wealth was concentrated in fewer and fewer people. This led to revolutions and civil wars. Tyrannies emerged in many cities, though none were firmly established.

Hellenistic Culture

Despite--and in some senses because of--the altered economic and political climate, the Hellenistic Age saw significant cultural developments. The eastern Mediterranean did become much more cosmopolitan. The Koine dialect of Greek (the common tongue) spread--and would ultimately be used to write the New Testament of the Bible.

Hellenistic education (available to the wealthy) focused on humanistic values, seeking to create a complete, well-rounded individual--not really a citizen. During the classical era, the independent citystates had fostered a sense of community and commitment to the whole. Perhaps a good example of this is Socrates's refusal to flee Athens after sentencing, because of his agreement and bond with the community. Though something of a special case, Socrates's attitude reflected the common belief that one's city played a significant role in determining one's own identity. With the absorption of the polei within a larger political entity, this sense of identification and commitment waned. People faced life as citizens of a large and cosmopolitan political entity over which they had little control. As a result, the Hellenistic Age is marked by a rise in individualism.

The loss of identity through one's community naturally led to efforts to fill the gap. An obvious source would be religion, but here too the Hellenistic Age saw significant changes. The traditional Greek pantheon, given its close identification with the vanishing polis, was also challenged from many directions. Though it remained a significant social force, for many people traditional religion failed to provide adequate guidance in their lives. Fortune was elevated to a goddess. Mystic religions became popular, with members receiving blessings as individuals rather than as members of a city community. Dionysus, whose cult always had qualities of a mystery religion, was one Olympian who thrived during this period.

Other people turned to philosophy as a source of meaning and guidance. Here too new schools emerged in the late 4th and early 3rd centuries in response to the changing environment. Not unexpectedly, the Platonic and Aristotelian focus on community was challenged by thinkers taking a more individualistic focus. Three of the most important new approaches were Cynicism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism.

Diogenes, who died ca. 324 BCE, was a founder of the Cynics. According to legend, he once walked the streets looking for an honest man. Diogenes urged against convention and the external, material goods associated with civilization. He described himself as a citizen of the world and believed that asceticism was the path toward freedom. In his protests against society, Diogenes considered the lives of animals--the `cynics' were followers of the dog--to be the model for human beings.

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) considered pleasure to be the end of life, but not the purely hedonistic pleasure that has come to be associated with his name. He sought enduring pleasures which involved freedom from pain, anxiety, and confusion. Thus he praised the simple life, emphasizing friendship and tranquility. We ought not multiply our desires, rather we ought to be content with little. Indeed for Epicurus, the wise man could be happy in any situation. Though Epicurus felt that more pleasure was gained from doing rather than receiving kindness, he also urged against involvement in public affairs, arguing that politics was a threat to tranquility.

Stoicism had the greatest effect on the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. Zeno (336-264 BCE) founded the school at Athens. Conscience and duty were stressed on the assumption that the only important thing was the soul, the spark of life. All people were presumed to have a divine spark, thus generating a sense of equality among human beings. Our goal then is to love all people, but this is a matter of outlook, not action. We cannot control what we do; we will act according to god's natural laws, which are laws of reason. What we must strive for is to adopt an attitude of acceptance of these natural laws. Each must accept his fate. This implies focusing on reason to the exclusion of passions and emotions and thus achieving a kind of self-sufficiency.

Athens originally remained a center for the study of philosophy--the new schools of Zeno, Epicurus, and Diogenes joined those of Plato and Aristotle. By the end of the third century, however, the schools at Athens were in decline. Rifts developed, and the appeal of the eastern courts also drew many thinkers. Much Athenian philosophy, based on an earlier age, no longer fit the circumstances. Alexandria eventually became the intellectual center of the world. Significant mathematical and scientific work was done there. Aristotle had developed the interest in scientific technique at Athens, but after him, interest in science waned there. It was carried on at Alexandria under the Ptolemies.

Major scientific accomplishments occurred during the period. Hippocrates had founded (in the late 5th century) a medical school at Kos. He contended that illness was a result of a deficiency in one of 4 elements (hot, cold, wet or dry). During the Hellenistic Age, Alexandrian scientists collected writings and applied theories of the Hippocratic school and went beyond them in anatomical research. Herophilos identified the brain as the center of the nervous system and traced the sensory nerves. Erasistratos plotted the subdivisions of the heart and realized the heart caused the pulse--but the circulation of blood was not discovered until Harvey, 2000 years later.

Euclid's geometry was written around 300 BCE. Apollonius worked on conics (parabola, hyperbola, ellipse) around 200. Archimedes studied hydrostatics, the science of solids in liquids, and mechanics. He devised the principles of the lever and pulley and the Archimedian screw. Devices he invented helped keep theRomans out of Syracuse for 2 years around 200. Around 250 Aristarchos developed a heliocentric view and estimated the relative masses of the earth and moon.

The Hellenistic Age was also an era that saw the predominance of emotion in art. Flamboyance and startling effects became the goal, as opposed to the ideals of control and proportion in the 5th century. The era also saw a widening of artistic subjects; sculptors, for example, created female as well as male nudes. The young, the old, and peoples other than Greeks also were portrayed. Such expansion of subject matter is hardly surprising given the cosmopolitan nature of the Hellenistic world.

In sculpture, architecture and the culture as a whole, there was an emphasis on excess. Compare, for example, the huge, Hellenistic Temple to Apollo at Didyma, with its enormous and ornate columns, to the much smaller and more simple Parthenon. The combination of excess and the triumph of the individual is evident in the massive mausoleum, the tomb for a king and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The emergence of Rome in Greece

By the end of the 3rd century BCE Rome began playing a leading role in Greece. The general economic condition of the Greek world at this time was poor. Life was disorganized and demoralized. Class struggle, insecurity, and instability were common. Poverty increased. The new markets opened by Alexander emancipated themselves from Greece. War and revolution increased problems with the food supply. The infrastructure of cities also suffered. The result was the depopulation of Greece. Rostovtzeff speaks of racial suicide, with abortion and the exposure of children common.

Rome first intervened on the Illyrian coast (the east shore of the Adriatic) in response to piracy and the need to protect the Italian coast. In 229 it established Roman protectorate over some Greek cities on the coast. This posed a threat to Macedonia, and Rome would become the principle focus of Philip V, who inherited the Macedonian throne in 220. The early years of his rule were marked by war and unrest. The Aeolians attempted to rebel, which eventually led to the first direct confrontation between Philip and Rome, the First Macedonian War, in which Rome sided with the Aeolians. Early in this conflict, Rome was quite active, but it later withdrew, and the Aeolians finally made a separate peace with Philip in 206. A peace agreement between Rome and Philip was concluded in 205.

Philip then undertook strong action against Greek leagues. He was now regarded as a tyrant, though many cities had had friendly relations with him earlier. Rome, however, adopted a change in policy; it now sought to protect all of Greece against Macedonian aggression. Athens became allied with Rome around 200. In a series of wars Rome annihilated the forces of Philip. The Second Macedonian War was easily won by the Romans, with the culminating battle of Cynoscepalae in 197. As aresult Philip ceased to be an independent monarch. Greece was proclaimed independent and free in 196, by the Proclamation of Flaminus. This was a diplomatic success, but it amounted to the freedom of client states who would pursue a foreign policy compatible with Roman interests. Rome withdrew from Greece in 194.

From Asia Minor, however, Antiochus (the Seleucid ruler) took Thrace and supported the Aetolians against Rome, but Antiochus failed to rally the Greeks and was defeated at Thermopylae in 191. He retreated to Asia Minor and was defeated again at Magnesia in 189. With the Treaty of Apamea in 188, Rome was in control of Asia Minor, and Syria was separated from the Greek world. Economic conditions in the Greek world improved somewhat after the Second Macedonian War and the war against Antiochus. Local wars were fought on a lesser scale, and pirates were held in check by Rhodes.

The Third Macedonian War broke out in 171. Philip's son and successor, Perseus, was unwilling to accept Rome's orders. His defeat at the Battle of Pydna in 168 meant that Macedonia ceased to exist as a political unit. Rivalries continued among the Greek states, however. Rome continued to intervene and treated anti-Roman forces harshly. Andriscus in Macedon sought to revive the kingdom in 149. In the Fourth Macedonian War he achieved early victories against Rome but suffered a complete defeat at Pydna in 148; a year later Macedonia was transformed into a Roman province.

In a series of wars and diplomatic efforts, Rome was able to conquer Asia Minor and Syria, thus ending the Sekeucid Empire, by 64 BCE. Egypt had long been the most passive Hellenistic state in dealing with Rome; the Ptolemies were obedient servants of Rome. This would change with Cleopatra and her involvement in the Roman civil wars.

Emergence of the Roman Empire

By the middle of the first century BCE, Rome itself was facing internal conflicts, but its civil wars were fought largely in the Hellenistic world. The war between Pompey and Caesar occurred between 49 and 47. With Caesar's victory, he offered some reparation to the area, but his assassination in 44 began a new series of conflicts: the battle between the Senate and the heirs of Caesar in 42; the struggle between Antony and C. Caesar in 32. The Hellenistic communities had no strong sympathies for either side in this foreign war, but these communities bore much of the burden. Not only were the wars fought in the east, but the taxation and contributions required to support the war efforts were onerous. Thus the economic condition of Greece worsened. Plutarch described the hopeless misery and humiliation of the Greek population on the eve of Actium.

The Battle of Actium generated the final resolution of the civil wars. Antony, supported by Cleopatra, led his forces to Greece, the Gulf of Ambracia. Octavian ledhis forces across the Adriatic and confronted Antony outside the Ambracian Gulf at Actium. Though the resulting naval battle was a relatively minor engagement, Cleopatra left for Egypt and Antony followed. Resistance to Octavian then broke down. He advanced to Egypt, where Antony's defenses proved ineffective. Antony committed suicide on hearing a false report of Cleopatra's suicide; Cleopatra then followed. Octavian's victory ended a century of civil strife, and established the Roman Empire in 31 BCE.

Octavian, taking the title of Augustus, followed a policy of imperialism directed to the welfare, not the spoilation, of his subjects. Provincial taxation, for example, was placed on a sounder basis. He also sought to emphasize natural boundaries for the empire with a system of frontier defenses. The army was transformed from a field force to garrison troops defending frontiers. Though Italian troops were sought for the army, as Augustus's reign proceeded, there was an increasing reluctance of Italians to render military service. The trend, through the 1st century CE was toward the provincialization of the army. The army did, however, increase in size during the period.

Given the enlightened policies of Augustus and most of his immediate successors, the provinces enjoyed peace and flourished through the first 2 centuries of the empire (roughly. the first two centuries of the Common Era.) Though problems with dishonest officials remained, in much of the empire communities were locally autonomous, thus relieving the imperial administration of the burden of local government. In the Hellenic municipalities, institutions developed from the polis structure, with popular assemblies, boules (councils), and annual magistrates. But these institutions were often modified in the interests of the wealthy. Property qualifications for citizenship were common, and the lower classes often had little opportunity for political activity.

Greece remained a cultural bastion of the empire. Advanced studies by Italians (e.g., in philosophy) were usually pursued in Greece. Two types of literature were pursued: Latin and Greek. Literary production was similar in each; the Roman peace resulted in a revival of Greek literature, which achieved equal standing in Rome. Early Christian literature was written in Greek. Stoic philosophy had a continuing appeal to Romans, as did Epicureanism. New doctrines (e.g., Neoplatonism and Neopythagorism), combining mysticism and idealism, also emerged based on earlier Greek doctrines.

The height of material prosperity occurred in the 2nd century CE. Economic decline followed. The burden of taxation increased, to support the administration, army, and imperial projects. Many municipalities faced financial difficulties by the end of the 2nd century, and municipal autonomy decreased.

In the third century CE, the economic problems, combined with mutinies of soldiers, led to disorder within the empire. Waves of barbarian invasions plus invasion by the revived Persian Empire resulted in the disintegration of the RomanEmpire. A number of separate, independent states emerged. The Empire eventually regained control of the army and eliminated the foreign invaders, with Aurelian and then Diocletian ultimately restoring the empire by 290. But the disintegration had dealt a serious blow; there was no return to previous cultural or economic levels. Decline in these areas would continue.

Religious environment during the Roman Peace

At the start of the Roman peace (near the beginning of the Common Era,) the Greek cities still retained their old state gods. The official religion of the empire remained the worship of the gods of the republic, that is, the Greco-Roman pantheon. This pantheon had been supplemented through the establishment of imperial cults, which were administered through provincial councils. But there continued to be much scepticism concerning the traditional religion, and the Roman conquests had brought into the empire numerous peoples with their own religious outlooks.

Thus emerged a multiplicity of gods, and the belief that these various divinities were not battling each other. Individuals were free to choose which to worship--or to request favors from. For pagans, there was no problem appealing to diverse and numerous gods. One could add devotion to a new god, e.g., Mithra, while retaining one's connection to the traditional Olympians. A general state tolerance prevailed. The persecutions of Jews and Christians were exceptions, but of course these religions required rejection of all other deities and thus appeared more threatening.

In addition, for many people, philosophical schools continued to play a role similar to religion. And the multiplicity of schools evident during the Hellenistic Age continued. Interest in classical philosophers grew, and the interactions among various schools sparked efforts at assimilation. On the other hand, there was philosophical as well as religious scepticism.

In sum, the religious and philosophical environment during the first few centuries of the Common Era was complex, diverse, and messy. People were accustomed to hearing claims made on behalf of new gods, and it was not unusual to make appeals to new divinities. Christianity would require a degree of commitment greater than others, but it would be able to make its case to an audience largely receptive to such appeals.

Empire and Christianity

After Christ's crucifixion around 33 CE, Christianity spread largely through missionary work in scattered Jewish communities. The first Christian congregations were originally considered by the empire as Jewish sects, and the first persecution of Christians arose from orthodox and conservative Jewish groups. By the end of the 1st century CE, there was a preponderance of non-Jewish elements in Christian ranks, and it no longer made sense to consider them a Jewish sect. In the east there emerged popular antagonism toward Christian groups. This was due inpart to the Christians' refraining from participation in public life--a disturbing and challenging factor.

Christianity, mirroring the outlook of the Jews, separated religion from the state. One's god need not be the traditional gods of the state, and thus one need not support authorities that required worship of false gods. Though this may seem to imply an individualistic stand against political authority, Christianity was also based on a new conception of community--again independent of political organizations. The ideals of equality and brotherhood, a community of all human beings under god, provided a check on rampant and self-serving individualism. The tenets of Christianity thus did not imply a rejection of all political authority and would eventually, with Constantine, provide a new spiritual basis for the empire.

Early on, however, the tensions between Christianity and Empire were very real. Originally there was little imperial antagonism, despite the unpopularity of Christianity with the Roman pagan population, but in 64 CE, Nero blamed the fire in Rome on the Christians. This marked the beginning of official state persecution. Christians' refusal to worship the gods of the state was viewed as treason. But no official edict outlawing the religion emerged; local officials were left with much discretion.

During the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, increased official oppression plus the separatist tendencies of some Christian groups led to strict formulation of Christian doctrine plus firmer organization. By 250 the Christian church was flourishing, but there were still more converts in the east than the west. The leaders were men of culture and ability--and played an increasingly active role in society. But the sect was still a source of concern for the government; Christians continued to be viewed as enemies of the state. Efforts to stamp out Christianity continued, in the persecution sponsored by Decius and Valerian (250-59). Though tested, the church emerged triumphant. Beginning in 259, Gallienus revoked many of the previous policies, thus ushering in a generation of peace for the church. The number of Christians increased, and church organization was strengthened.

In 303 Diocletian undertook the last great persecution of Christians. He emphasized the divine sanction for imperial authority, which resulted in a serious conflict between church and state. Diocletian's edicts demanded the destruction of Christian books and churches, the imprisonment of clergy, and the offering of traditional sacrifices. The edict, however, was not enforced with equal vigor throughout the empire. (On other fronts, Diocletian did achieve much success in preserving the empire; his reputation suffers because of his persecution of Christians.) The persecution, however, did not have strong support among the pagan population, and it slackened and then ceased. In 311 an edict of toleration was issued granting the right to practice the Christian religion and to rebuild churches--as long as public order was not affected.


Beginning in 305, succession struggles again emerged within the empire; numerous parties were involved. In 312 Constantine defeated Maxentius in Italy. Maxentius had relied on the traditional Roman gods. Before the battle, Constantine had a dream vision in which he was urged to fight under the cr symbol of the Christians. Constantine had the symbol painted on his soldiers' shields and thus attributed his victory to the god of the Christians.

As a result of his victory, Constantine was in control of Italy, Spain, and North Africa. Licinius remained in control in the east. The two entered into an alliance in 313. This included a commitment to allow the free practice of the Christian religion and the restoration of confiscated Christian property. Though rivalry between Constantine and Licinius developed, a temporary harmony was maintained with each in control of his geographic sphere. When Licinius began repressive measures against Christians, however, tensions developed. When Constantine pursued a barbarian force into Thrace, Licinius's territory, Licinius sought to repel the trespass. Constantine, however, defeated Licinius at Chrysopolis. In 323, Constantine pursued Licinius to Byzantium where Licinius surrendered. Constantine then ruled over a united empire. A pagan by birth, Constantine declared himself in favor of Christianity; he sought to promote it and to make it the state religion. But he could not push too far; many in the army were still pagans. He did, however, seek to ensure the unity of the Christian community.

After Licinius's surrender at Byzantium, Constantine decided to build a new imperial residence on that site. Construction was begun in 324, and the inauguration of the New Rome in the east, Constantinople, was celebrated in 330. For Constantine himself, this was a second Rome, not a new one. But his founding of another imperial capitol generated an epochal switch of power from west to east. With the eventual fall of the western provinces to Germanic tribes, Constantinople stood as the capitol of what was left of the empire--the Byzantine Empire of the east.

Historical Outline
Information on Greek Cultures
Program in Greece and Turkey


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