Reason for the decline

The fact is – and it is well to state it plainly – that the Greek world perished from one main cause, a low ideal of womanhood and a degradation of women which found expression both in literature and in social life. The position of women and the position of slaves – for the two classes went together – were the canker-spots which, left unhealed, brought about the decay first of Athens and then of Greece F.A. Wright, Feminism in Greek Literature, 1923

The Myth says that Aeneas survived escaping from Troy when Greeks finally were able to enter in the city with the help of Odysseus. Aeneas was among the founders of a state in Italy that evolved to the Roman Empire that finally with its military superiority made Greece a part of its Empire.

One of the important aspects for the development of science, culture and democracy was probably that Greece was never a state but a loose union of more or less independent small states, actually nothing more than small towns in today terms. It is the diversity of these small states that was important.

Greek Armies were small and not organized. With Philip and Alexander the Great the situation changed. But there was no organized state after Alexander deaths but rather war between his generals armies. While the Hellenistic culture expanded a new power emerged. Rome presented a unique military organization and the ability to survive huge loses in combats. From a lecture entitled “The Military Revolution” I have the following facts:

In 255 BC a Roman fleet of 248 ships was sunk in a storm off Cape Pachynus with a loss of over 100000 men or 15 percent of the able-bodied men of military age in all Italy. Rome's response was to build another fleet and continue the war against Carthage. Polybius called the Carthaginian War the bloodiest and costliest in history. Roman losses alone approached 400000 men that is a number equal to all the men lost by the United States in World War II! Hannibal was able to move freely throughout Italy for almost 18 years. In 218 BC at Trebia, Hannibal destroyed a Roman army of 40000 men and overran most of northern Italy. A year later, in June 217 BC, a Roman army was trapped in a defile surrounded by hills near the shores of Lake Trasimene. Once again, almost the entire Roman force was slaughtered. Yet, with Rome having lost almost 100000 men in less than 3 years, Hannibal could still not force a strategic decision against Roman political will. In an attempt to achieve final victory, in 216 BC, Hannibal drew yet another Roman army into battle at Cannae. Hannibal caught the legions in a perfect double envelopment. Seventy thousand Roman soldiers were killed, and another 10000 taken prisoner. The three defeats at Hannibal's hands cost Rome 150000 men, and still the war went on. The staying power of the Roman state, even in these early days, was remarkable. Eventually, Hannibal was forced to withdraw to prevent a Roman strategic thrust at Carthage itself and was defeated by Scipio at the Battle of Zama. Carthage had won every battle and lost the war. The deciding factors were the endurance of the Roman political order and its ability to continue supplying military resources regardless of the defeats it suffered in the field. And this same ability is precisely what defines the capability of states to wage modern war today.

With Alexander the Great we have an rapid expansion, like a supernova, of the small Greek city states to a gigantic empire that includes many different cultures. Alexander the Great dies very young and the empire is divided in a few parts. The Hellenistic states seem not be able to establish an order. Starting with the advice of Alexander the Great Greek's married native women of the cities which were founded in the conquered empire. The children were influenced by the native culture. But there was actually no idea to try to “hellenize” the natives but rather to mix up the cultures. Then the Seleucids seems to tried to reduce the mixing giving privileges to Greeks over the native population. It is difficult to speculate if this mixing of cultures was finally responsible for the decline of Greek culture and science and if prevented history could be different. There are explanations that often sound very racistic. The Greeks are said to be transformed during the Hellenistic period from a blond white race getting “darker and darker”. The “mythos to logos” started to become more a “logos to mythos” with a mixing of religions and myths. Greek ancient science and philosophy seems to be the work of a few even if their number is large considering the population size and the short period of say 2-3 centuries that covers the most important period of the development of Greek Science. For another such time period the development of science is less rapid with some important exceptions.

The problem in the slow advance of knowledge in mathematics after a period of rapid evolution could be that the Greeks used a complex system for representing numbers. They did not have the beautiful system developed in India.

It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by means of ten symbols, each symbol receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity and the great ease which it has lent to all computations put our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions; and we shall appreciate the grandeur of this achievement the more when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity.

The Roman Empire was not interested in the advance of science. The east Roman Empire is known later as Byzanz. It was influenced partly by Greek culture (whatever was left by the religious intolerance) but more important was that it adopted the Greek language. This helped to keep the knowledge of the ancient Greeks alive but without adding really anything significantly new. Byzanz was a state where religion was dominant and scientific progress was not really supported. There was some advance that leads to more sophisticated Astrolabes and clock devices and to the so-called “fluid fire” and in a improved building technology that was influenced by the Romans. There was no real advance of fundamental science. The Empire of Byzanz survived around 1000 years because is kept the military tradition of the Romans. It is an irony that Greek scholars migrating after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to Italy had a very important influence for the European history. The work of ancient Greeks which was brought to various Libraries were studied by European philologists and Scientists. Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the greatest humanist of the Renaissance translated the New Testament into Latin and his edition of the original Greek version influenced the Protestant Reformation. Ancient Greek knowledge survived partly in Byzanz and was known and extended by the work of Arabs and while it was important for the “enlightenment” of the West, Greece herself was "left in the darkness during the 400 years of Turkish occupation.

Wilhelm von Humboldt: Essays on the Greeks: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Greek Republics(1808)

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Update 25-3-2004

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