1902 Encyclopedia > Greece > Greek History: Post-Classical Greek History

(Part 9)




The later history of the Greeks, from the end of Alexander the Great's reign to the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, may be divided most naturally into five periods, viz.—I. The period of Greek subjection: from the death of Alexander to the accession of Constantine the Great as sole emperor, 323 B.C. to 323 A.D. II. The period of Greek revival: from Constantine the Great to Leo III. (the Isaurian), 323-716 A.D. III. The period of Byzantine prosperity: from Leo III. to Isaac I. (Comnenus), 71G-1057 A.D. IV. The period of Byzantine decline: from Isaac I. to the taking of Constantinople by the Latins,

1057-1204 A.D. V. The period of Greek survival: from the taking of Constantinople by the Latins to its conquest by the Turks, 1204-1453 A.D.
In the limited space of an article like the following, it is impossible to enter iuto detail with reference to the events of any of these periods. It may be well therefore if we turn our attention especially to the causes which were from time to time at work, to the characteristics and tendencies of various ages, and to the changes that came over society, import- The history which we thus enter upon is of importance and ance of interest in a different way from that of the classical age of classical* Greece. That age was a unique development in respect history °^ national life and character, of social and political institu-tions, and of every form of cultivation, and was marked by concentrated energy and intense vigour. The later period is important because of its wide-reaching influence on the world at large, and because it is one, and that the more continuous, of the two great chains of events, in eastern and western Europe respectively, which connect the earlier and later history of civilized man. To the younger student, who is already acquainted with the previous history of Greece and Rome, and has learnt something of the condi-tion of the modern world through the history of England, no other period is probably so instructive and suggestive. He is led into byways of history and remote countries, which have in themselves an element of romance. He comes into contact with races from every branch of the human family in the freshness of their early vigour ; and amongst many other lessons he learns one, which cannot be learnt too early, and which historians and students of history are disposed to overlook, that the unfortunate are not therefore to be despised. To more advanced students its value consists in its explaining the existing state of things in a considerable part of Europe and Asia, which cannot be explained otherwise ; and still more in the illus-trations it affords, both by way of similarity and contrast, to circumstances in the history of western Europe; such, for instance, as the abolition of serfdom, the relations of immigrant races to the original inhabitants, and systems of law and finance. Besides this, so much civilization filtrated from the East to the West in the course of the Middle Ages that a knowledge of Byzantine history is necessary to a proper understanding of that of western Europe. It will suggest also, if properly studied, that while battles, sieges, and other salient events may be the turning-points of history, the inhabitants of any particular country are more affected by influences which lie below the surface—by alterations of trade-routes and changes in the tenure of land, by the effects of judicious or injudicious taxation, by the adminis-tration of justice, and by the relations of different classes to one another.

Miscon- It is desirable at starting to notice two misconceptions captions, which have prevailed, and in a less degree still prevail, terrfttie w^ regard to different portions of this period. The first later °f these concerns the character of the Greeks during the Greeks, time of their subjection to the Romans, and in particular under the early emperors, in which age they are often sup-posed to have been a demoralized and unprincipled race. Such expressions as the " Graeculus esuriens " and " Graecia mendax" of Juvenal, and similar ones which are found in Tacitus and other writers of that time, have become pro-verbial, and have been taken to describe, as those authors undoubtedly intended them to describe, the people at large. There was some justification for the retort of Lucian, that the Romans spoke truth only once in their lives, and that was when they made their wills. The fact is that these descriptions represented faithfully enough the lower class of Greek adventurers who came to Rome from Alexandria and the Asiatic cities to seek their fortunes; and the Roman writers, with their usual contemptuous ignorance of
everything provincial, confused these with the Greek nation. The later Greeks no doubt had degenerated from their great forefathers; but it is only fair to remember that this was to a great extent the result of their circumstances. The rapid growth of Greek culture and Greek political ideas was naturally followed by rapid decay. In sculpture the early archaic style developed in a few decades of years into the manly and perfect style of Phidias, and the change was equally rapid to the luxurious style of Praxiteles, in which the elements of decadence were already traceable. The same thing is apparent in the history of the drama. And in like manner in politics, the constitutions of the various states, which were so well suited to the development of Greek individuality, contained in themselves no element of permanence, owing to the opposing elements which were brought face to face within so narrow an area ; and in their relations to one another, all combination on a large scale was prevented by what has been aptly called the " centri-fugal " character of Greek politics, so that they were destined inevitably to fall under the dominion of any great empire that should arise in their neighbourhood. Again, it must never be forgotten that the splendid products of Greek genius and Greek character sprang from the black soil of slavery, and could not have existed without it; so that here too we find an element of rottenness, which was sure in the end to produce decay. Consequently, from the time the Greeks lost their liberty, they ought in all fairness to be judged by a different standard from their predecessors, and we ought to be satisfied if we find in them such good qualities as characterize a more ordinary people—industry, respectability, intelligence, good citizenship, capacity for local self-government, and readiness to make the most of their opportunities. In all these respects the Greeks were among the best of the provincials of the Roman empire.
The other misconception relates to the Byzantine empire, Power of which has been commonly regarded as a period of steady the By-decline and feebleness and decrepitude. The author who zantme is mainly responsible for the prevalence of this view is emi>ue' Gibbon; and it is strange that a writer who was gifted with such profound historical insight should not have per-ceived that the state which accomplished such great things could not have been powerless. The passage in which he expresses himself on this subject is well known. " I should have abandoned without regret," he says, "the Greek slaves and their servile historians, had I not reflected that the fate of the Byzantine monarchy is passively connected with the most splendid and important revolutions which have changed the state of the world." Yet it was this same empire which beat back for centuries, and ultimately sur-vived, first the Saracens and afterwards the Seljuks, both of which peoples would otherwise have overrun Europe, and which, even in its decline, kept at bay, for more than a hundred years, the Ottomans when at the height of their power, thereby providing the Western nations with a breath-ing space, without which the career of Turkish conquest would certainly not have been arrested at Vienna, but might have extended to the Elbe or the Seine. During the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries its military power was the strongest in Europe, and the individual prowess of its aristocracy was unrivalled, while at the same time its long succession of able emperors and administrators is such as no other mon-archical government can show. Its influence is further shown by its missionary efforts, resulting in the conversion to Christianity of the south Slavonic nations and the Russians, and the consequent spread of civilization through-out the countries they inhabited; by its widely extended commerce both by land and sea; and by its art, especially its architecture, which contributed to the formation of other styles from Egypt to the north of Russia, and from India to Spain. Finally, its social and political excellence

appears in the state of education, in the regularity of its administration, especially in the matter of justice, and, above all, in the legal standard of the coinage being maintained invariable from first to last, which is a rare proof of a highly organized system. When its situation in the midst of barbarous nations is considered, and the inter-mediate position it occupied between Asia and western Europe, it may safely be pronounced one of the most powerful civilizing agencies that the world has seen.

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