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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 3 - Classical Drama  


The Alexandrian World

Athens, where Plato and then Aristotle (384-322) taught, remained the center of Greek intellectual life well into the fourth century, but the power center of the region shifted again toward the East in 338 when Philip of Macedonia conquered Greece. Macedonia, a Greek-speaking nation that occupied territories today divided among Greece, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, was viewed by the mainland Greeks as a cultural backwater. However, after Philip's death in 336, his son Alexander began the military campaigns that earned him the title "the Great" and positioned him as the supreme ruler of mainland Greece and much more.

In a very few years, Alexander (356-23) led his armies in triumph through Egypt, Persia, Babylonia, and the Punjab, in India. More important than his political conquests, however, are the intellectual consequences of his progress through the East. Himself the pupil of Aristotle, a native of Macedonia who returned there in 343-42 at Philip's request to tutor the young prince, Alexander brought the culture of classical Greece to each of the regions he invaded.

In Alexandria, a new city built in Egypt to commemorate his triumphs, Alexander laid the foundations of a library that was the embodiment and the repository of "Hellenistic" culture, that is "like" but not exactly Greek ("Hellenic"). The existence of this library indicates that from this point, writing rather than speech was to dominate intellectual life. By the fourth century, the prolonged transition between the age of the oral tradition that produced a Homer and the era of literacy had been completed. Modes of thought and the very purpose of communication had changed irrevocably.

Hellenistic Culture

Hellenistic writing departs from the abstract reasoning of the ancient philosophers and the profound questioning of the classical poets. The style embodies more practical and more frivolous concerns, with science tending to become a study of mechanical improvements and literature a pastime. Seemingly, the "big questions" grew too overwhelming to confront even as Alexander's empire, too large for one ruler to control, was divided soon after his death into three spheres of influence, Egyptian, Macedonian, Syrian. The concerns felt throughout these disparate spheres spawned new disciplines. Mathematicians and engineers thrived; geography and map-making came into being. The Hellenistic age saw the development of sophisticated military weapons and tactics and the growth of an international bureaucracy. A two-tier culture developed, as Greek-speaking imperialists gave rules to the "Barbarians" (an old Greek word that supposedly reproduces the sounds made by those who could not speak Greek--"ba-ba-ba").

The elite culture of the homogeneous Greek city-states survived in the libraries, while a new world of popular culture filled the wider Hellenistic universe. New literary themes emphasized personal rather than universal concerns. A post-Homeric epic, the Argonautica, introduced the kind of psychological portraits of women in love recognized today as a central novelistic subject. Written by Apollonius of Rhodes, a former librarian at Alexandria, the Argonautica is a tale about Jason, Medea, and the quest for the Golden Fleece. In its description of their romantic entanglements and travels, Apollonius recalls the Odyssey and sets the pattern for the Greek Romances, prose narratives favored by readers of Greek in the first centuries of the common era. The other Hellenistic literary innovation is the pastoral poem, a genre created by Theocritus, who wrote in the early years of the third century B.C.

Both of these forms exemplify escapist literature, products of the difficult political and geographical circumstances of the Hellenistic world. The sea, a preoccupation of Greek poets from Homer on, assumed a more frightening aspect in a time when travelers sailed from continent to continent instead of island to island, and the very idea of land correspondingly seemed more precious. The Greek Romances are fantasies of the sea, stories of shipwrecked families separated by pirates and storms, threatened in titillating but rarely fatal predicaments, and finally reunited miraculously at the end. Families separated at sea and reunited when a secret sign--such as a birthmark--identifies a long-lost child were also staples of New Comedy, described in the essay on Classical Drama.

In contrast to the romance, pastoral poems idealize the pleasures of the land. When Theocritus describes the rural life of Sicilian shepherds, he offers an alternative--perhaps even an antidote--to the cruelty of the sophisticted royal court of Syracuse. Pastoral literature is not only about shepherds (the Latin word pastor, as in its religious sense, means shepherd) but also about art and the clash between the natural simplicity of the countryside and the artificial elegance of the court. The genius of Theocritus, who genuinely knew both court and country, was in creating an outlet for disappointed courtiers to complain about their world without being explicit.

A great observer of ordinary men and women, Theocritus found in the natural world and its inhabitants not only a refreshing alternative but also an unexpected counterpart to sophisticated society. For example, rather than depicting rival poets in their courtly milieu, he writes of shepherds engaged in singing contests. But the real poets immediately recognized themselves as the true subjects of the poem, cleverly translated into rural analogues. Later poets impressed by the Idylls of Theocritus followed his example, although they lacked his experience of real country life. Pastoral poems as a genre, therefore, tend to attribute to shepherds and shepherdesses an eloquence and refinement of sensibility that could only be imagined by an urban poet who never milked a cow.

The Limits of Hellenism

The Hellenistic unification of East and West could not permanently disguise deep differences between essentially disparate cultures. In Judea, for example, when Syrian rulers sought to impose their pagan practices, their efforts sparked a revolt among the monotheistic Jews. To this day, the Jewish festival of Chanukah commemorates the preservation of the Temple in Jerusalem in 167 B. C. despite the desecration attempted by Antiochus IV of Syria.

Antiochus IV, who called himself Epiphanes, meaning "the manifest god," claimed to be divine. In the late Hellenistic world, a growing spiritual confusion promoted such claims. The classical Greek confidence in the human mind had so eroded that people desperately sought divinity in their rulers, relying on superstition and astrology, uncertain of what or whom to believe. It was only a matter of time before a new, self-confident power emerged, as it did in 146 B.C., when Rome triumphed over Greece and the Hellenistic world.