The Fall of Ancient Greece

How Does a Great Nation Fall?

Winston Churchill once said “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Unfortunately, the world seems to be repeating the mistakes of history. While some people have brought up the similarities between Ancient Rome and the United States, or even the age of Hitler and Mussolini to our time, I haven’t heard anybody bring up the similarities between Ancient Greece and the world today. Ancient Greece had many problems. The states fought among themselves. All of this weakened the country, leaving them vulnerable to attack from Phillip II. Alexander the Great then took the Greeks into the rest of the world, but he died shortly after conquering most of the known western world.

The people couldn’t support themselves, and relied on wealthy benefactors to save them. Piracy ran rampant, much like terrorism does today. Although their influence spread widely, domestic problems made life uncertain and perilous.

Ancient Greece

The culture of ancient Greece has had an influence on western civilization throughout the world. Political thought, art, education, philosophy, science, and even the Olympics all have root in ancient Greece.

Greece was originally comprised of several self-governing communities, or city-states. When the Persians attacked, the Greek states banded together to defeat their common enemy. Like the world united against the axis powers in the 1940s, Greece was threatened, and they had the survival instinct and determination to do something about it.

That drive and unity, however, was not to last. After the Persian threat was nullified, Sparta and Athens started to fight. For more than 25 years, the Peloponnesian Wars tore the city-states apart, weakening them. After Phillip II of Macedonia rose to power, and had his eyes on conquest, the Greeks were easy targets. In 338 BC, Phillip defeated Athens and Thebes at a battle in Chaironeia, ending the Athenian democracy. His son, Alexander the Great, continued in his footsteps, conquering most of the known world.

Three Greek Eras

The history of ancient Greece can be divided up into three different eras. There was the period of antiquity, where the Greeks developed as a people, the classical era, known for it’s philosophers and culture, and the Hellenistic age. The Hellenistic era began after Phillip conquered ancient Greece. His next step would be to bring the Greek world together in order to conquer their arch-enemy, the Persians. He never lived to see that day, as he was assassinated before he got the chance to lead the united Greeks into battle.

Alexander was probably behind Phillip’s assassination, but the world will never know for sure. The actual assassins were killed shortly after Phillip was killed, and they never got the chance to talk. After Phillip was off the scene, Alexander took over ruling both Greece and Macedonia. He began to take the army and march to conquer Persia.

Alexander Conquers the Western World

Alexander fought battles for the next 11 years. He defeated the land of Egypt, who accepted him as Pharoah.. He defeated Darius III in Persia. He then was in control of two widely different cultures. The Greek people believed in equality among noblemen, while the Persians saw their king as nearly divine. Alexander tried to reconcile the two cultures, by dressing in the Persian manner, forcing his generals to marry Persians, and by training some of the Persians as fighters. The veterans of Alexander’s army didn’t like this.

Alexander was wildly successful in battle, conquering territory all the way to India. Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t cry because there was no more territory to conquer. In fact, there was plenty of territory to conquer, but his army was ready to mutiny and forced him to turn back.

Alexander died at age 32. At the time, his wife, Roxana, was pregnant, but he had no other children. His half-wit half-brother held the kingship in name, but after his death, the territory was really held by his strongest generals. Later on, Roxana had a son, Alexander IV, but he was killed when he was nearly old enough to take the kingdom for himself. The lands that Alexander conquered had been divided up into four kingdoms.

In a short period of time, Greek culture had spread from a relatively small part of the world, to much of the known western world. It is difficult for any culture to survive such a rapid expansion without changing.

Alexander’s Kingdom Divided

After Alexander’s death, his territory was divided up among his generals. Roxana, Alexander’s widow, was pregnant at the time of his death. Nobody knew whether she would have a boy, a girl, or a stillborn child, or if the child would actually grow up. Alexander left a half-brother behind, Philip Arrhidaeus, who had something wrong with him… he may have been a half-wit. In practice, Philip was really only ruler in name only, with Alexander’s most powerful generals carving up the land in various satrapies for themselves.

For the next several years, these generals fought among themselves in what amounted to civil war. The empire eventually settled down in separate, but nonetheless Greek, kingdoms. One of the most famous of these kingdoms was Egypt under the Ptolemys. The Ptolemy dynasty ruled out of Alexandria, where the famous library was built. For the most part, they retained their Greekness, but portrayed themselves as Pharaoh to the native Egyptians. The Seleucid dynasty covered a large area during this time, including Persia, Mesopotamia, and even north into areas that are now ruled by some of the former Soviet states. Pergamon and Macedon were the other two kingdoms that eventually were formed.

The Greek people during this time found opportunity by settling in these newly-conquered territories. When they settled in one of the cities in the Seleucid empire, for example, they could find a position of influence, whereas, if they stayed in Greece, they would probably continue the life of a simple farmer. Although the Greek people spread out over a wide area of land, they didn’t have enough children to keep the population in Greece up. As a result, cities in Greece saw a population loss, rather than growth.

Perilous Times

The times that the Hellenized world lived in were perilous and uncertain, similar to many parts of the world today. The lives of ordinary people could change almost instantaneously.

The cities around the Hellenized world were becoming bankrupt. In one instance, one of the cities had massive interest payments that they could not pay (sounds like what could happen to the US). The cities relied on benefactors that would bail them out on occasion and save them.

The Hellenized world taxed their people differently than they do today. The taxes that were collected did not completely pay for all of the things that the people wanted (and in some cases, needed). That had always been the case, but in earlier times, wealthy people would agree to sponsor some of the activities of government in order to get honor and glory. For example, wealthy people would agree to sponsor a day of plays for the people, or hold a feast to their God. Eventually, the number of wealthy people decreased, and they agreed to only sponsor these events on an as-needed basis. They might agree to send a shipment of grain to a city-state that would otherwise starve.

The ordinary people were having difficulty coming up with the money for their own survival, without relying on the uber-wealthy that would come and help them out. One city was plagued with marauding Thracians, who would swoop down and take their sheep. A wealthy benefactor came in and helped them, but he demanded power over the people in return.

Other areas in which the ordinary people depended on wealthy benefactors to come and save them was in the area of piracy and rebuilding after Earthquakes. Pirates were a constant threat on the Mediterranean, but the pirates could be bought off in many cases.

There is a lesson that we in the modern world can learn from these ancient peoples. When you can’t afford to support your own lifestyle, you open yourself up to hardship. You become weaker, and other people stand a better chance of gaining power over you. Those that are successful often see what is coming, and move somewhere else where they can succeed. Think of all the people in the United States that depend on the government for health care, food stamps, rebuilding after a disaster, and other sorts of bailouts. When we are incapable of supporting ourselves, we allow other people to gain more power over us. Just look at how much power the government has taken over the people of the United States in the past century.

The fall of Greece resembled the fall of most empires. As the empire grew, the people worked hard and produced. They produced enough that, in the classical period, they were able to support the great thinkers that gave us geometry, sculpture, and philosophical ideas that we still have today. But when the empire was large, the people became prideful, and greed set in.

Instead of going out and working hard for what they wanted, some Greeks “coveted the property of their neighbors.” (Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, p. 87). The difficulties of living in the empire may have contributed to this. Many of the people began to become accustomed to government handouts. Instead of living free, responsible lives, “their prospects of winning a livelihood depend[ed] upon the property of their neighbors.” (Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, p. 309).

In addition, the Greeks had less willingness to join the military. While military service was seen by the Athenians as one of the most important civic duties in the 5th century BC, they didn’t feel the same way 100 years later. Most of the military of Athens was comprised of mercenaries in the 4th century BC; Greek citizens themselves weren’t particularly interested in serving unless it was an emergency. Athenians were more interested in material wealth.

Enthusiasm for democracy itself waned in some circles. The Greek philosopher Plato even started to propose that a well-qualified monarch might be superior to a democracy (although to be fair, he had seen his mentor Socrates get democratically sentenced to death for what in hindsight seems like bogus charges. When Alexander the Great conquered the land, Plato’s suggestion became true.

We can see this today, both in modern Greece, in many European countries, and even in the United States.

Greece’s Birthrate

Like Europe and much of the modern world, the birthrate of Ancient Greece had fallen. Greece had been united, once again, under Alexander the Great, but after his death and the breakup of Alexander’s empire, they took sides, the Achaen League, and the Aetolian League. They were often at war with each other.

This period of time was known as the Hellenistic period of Greece. Citizens were well-educated, and the library at Alexandria was filled with books of ancient knowledge. Their language and literature spread throughout the areas that Alexander had conquered.

When Polybius discusses how Greeks failed to have very many children, he adds that out of the children that were born, some of them were carted off to war, others died to disease. The cities became depopulated, and the resources dried up, leaving a feeble remnant of what it used to be. This left them vulnerable to Roman invasion.

We see this today. Most European countries have birthrates below the amount needed to sustain the population. In Greece, those that can are emigrating to other countries. The only way that most European countries are maintaining their current populations is by allowing other countries to immigrate.

Can We Learn From Ancient Greece?

Western society of today is much like that of the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greece. Most of the population is educated. We put a high value on art and culture. Our culture is an affluent one, and we want our children to live affluent lives as well… to the point where most of us limit the number of children that we have in order to ensure that they will live affluent lives.

Most Western cultures do not have a birth rate that is high enough to replace its current population. In order for a population to replace itself, developed countries need to have a fertility rate of about 2.1. The Western culture with the highest fertility rate is Greenland, with a rate of 2.22. The next country is the United States, with a fertility rate of 2.1. Every other westernized country is not even having enough children to replace itself. Spain and Italy have a fertility rate of 1.3; Greece and Austria are only slightly above them, with fertility rates of less than 1.4.

This doesn’t mean that the world is going to begin to decline in population. Countries like Mali and Niger have a fertility rate of more than 7. Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan, all bastions of freedom, have a fertility rate of more than 6.4. Like ancient Greece, our westernized culture, if things don’t change, could be altered radically in the near future, as countries with higher birth rates emigrate and change western culture forever. It may not happen through war, but it does stand a good chance of happening.

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