Greek Settlements Bind Parts of the Middle East to Mediterranean and Europe
After the conquests of Alexander the Great across the Middle East in 334-323 BCE, rival successor states of Alexander between the fourth and first centuries BCE settled or permitted immigration and settlement of a thin layer of Greek populations in the Middle East. The settlers changed and partially transformed the superficial landscape with respect to language, customs, regional boundaries, military institutions, commerce, fiscal record-keeping, administrative procedures, architecture, and intellectual inquiry and education. They established large new urban centers such as Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria that became magnets for demographic growth and migration. The new populations who concentrated in large and small urban centers, especially near the Mediterranean, necessarily co-existed with much older existing communities sometimes peacefully, sometimes with serious tensions. Cities tended to contain diverse ethnic and linguistic groups and neighborhood. They thrived as lively centers of commercial and intellectual life and expression.
Although Greek became a common language of convenience that spread along the Mediterranean coastline and even in the interior was used extensively for public records and inscriptions and theater, the majority populations in the Middle Eastern countryside and towns did not give up their own traditional languages, practices (including dress, marriage, burial), religious cults, calendars, identities, and perspectives. Hellenization was superficial and limited. But some spoke Greek and some Greek architectural forms and portraiture strongly influenced public space and representation. Numerous large and small existing and newly founded towns received Greek names that co-existed with older local place-names. That mixed linguistic and cultural reality persisted into the seventh century CE.
Effects on ordinary people were probably limited. Life expectancy remained short for most. Few knew their grandparents. Probably 80-90% lived in the countryside from agriculture and raising livestock. The quarreling successor polities enjoyed the political loyalty of their subjects up to a point, yet proved unable to resist the Romans’ conquest, annexation, and reorganization of the regional administrative structures in the Middle East between the second century BCE and the beginning of the first century CE. Long-lasting Greek political domination of much of the Middle East did not irrevocably stifle or strangle expression and local culture and religious practices there.
Walter E. Kaegi
Professor of History, University of Chicago
1. Explain the importance of large urban centers such as Alexandria and Antioch to the growth of the eastern Mediterranean region. Why are these urban centers so attractive?
2. Describe positive and negative social, economic, and political impact of the Romans on the populations of the Middle East.
3. Considering the history of the Romans in the Middle East, explain why some inhabitants of the Late Roman Middle East were unwilling to defend the Roman Empire.