BMCR 2019.12.08

The Greeks: Lost Civilizations

Philip Matyszak, The Greeks: Lost Civilizations. London: Reaktion Books, 2018. 208. ISBN 9781780239002 £15.00.

The book under review narrates the story of the origin, development, and collapse of the Greek civilization. It is part of the series “Lost Civilizations,” which is aimed at the general reader and whose previous narratives have focused on the Etruscans, Persians, Goths, “The Barbarians,” and “The Indus.” The author of the present volume, Philip Matyszak, seems the perfect choice for the task, having over the course of several decades written extensively for the general reader. His works include The Sons of Caesar (2006), The Greek and Roman Myths (2010), Sparta: The Fall of a Warrior Nation (2018) and Ancient Magic (2019).

While the overall aim is to present a chronological narrative of the ancient Greeks, this comes with a twist. Matyszak states that “Classical Greece … represents only a minor portion of the overall history of the Greeks in antiquity” and that “much of the rest has been forgotten or is mentioned only when the Greeks of other times and places came into contact with different cultures” (p. 19). The author’s goal is therefore to write the history of the Greeks outside the Peloponnese and Attica, built on the premise that the Greek way of life was largely unchanged throughout the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods (p. 21).

Matyszak ignores the Greek mainland in the fifth and fourth centuries BC and focuses instead on other themes and periods. He takes us chronologically from early Greek colonization to the fall of Constantinople, covering periods such as the Archaic period and themes such as the Greek encounter with new cultures, Alexander’s conquest of the East and the Wars of the Diadochi, the flourishing of Greek culture throughout the Hellenistic world, and the Roman and Byzantine takeover of the eastern regions. The principal characters are generals, leaders, and intellectuals who never lived on the Greek mainland, but who nevertheless laid some of the foundations for the origin and development of Greek civilization.

In order to fulfil the aim of narrating the history of the Greeks outside the mainland, Matyszak provides us with a chronology, prologue, eight chapters, an epilogue, and a bibliography (but no notes). Chapter 1 (“The Greeks before Alexander”) covers the spread of Greek culture in the Mediterranean from 800 BC onwards. Matyszak points to colonization and trade as stimuli that “brought about the intellectual revolution in the 5 th century and the thought processes that have shaped our modern world” (p. 28). He also notes that the Greeks never blindly adopted ideas from other cultures, but rather improved on them in order to synthesize various phenomena. The chapter also touches on Ionian philosophy and Herodotean historiography as examples of disciplines ultimately shaped in Asia Minor. Surprisingly enough, Matyszak ends, despite the professed aim of excluding events from the Greek mainland, by covering the Athenian empire and the Peloponnesian War (pp. 39-43).

Chapter 2 (“Alexander and the East”) focuses on the conquests of Alexander and includes brief descriptions of the campaigns at Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela, and the Indus river as well as short discussions of Alexander´s motivations and choices, for example the policy of fusion and the trouble it created when implemented at the court. Matyszak rightly regards the reign of Alexander as the turning point and centrepiece of his narrative, as the world changed dramatically and ushered in the so-called “Greek Empire” that was to dominate the Hellenistic world in subsequent centuries.

Chapter 3 (“The Greek Empire”) looks at the Seleucid, Ptolemaic, and Macedonian empires after the death of Alexander. This includes brief surveys of the Wars of the Diadochi, the Greek influence on the native populations and short introductions to philosophical movements such as the Epicureans, Sceptics, and Cynics, the scientific innovations of Aristarchus of Samos and Herophilus of Chalcedon, and the literary writings of Callimachus, Theocritus, Menander, and Philemon.

Chapter 4 (“The Hellenistic World from East to West”) examines the Seleucid Empire and how and why its rulers adopted Hellenistic ideology. Matyszak argues here that Greek culture laid the foundation for a possible fusion of eastern and western traditions and that it allowed new groups of people to be incorporated into the empire (p. 99).

Chapter 5 (“Macedon and Egypt”) tackles the empires of Macedonia and Egypt. Matyszak first surveys the history of Macedonia from Amyntas I to Philip V and then moves on to Egypt, briefly covering the history of the Ptolemaic dynasty and giving some consideration to the importance of the library, lighthouse, and innovations of Eratosthenes.

Chapter 6 (“Rome and the Hellenistic Kingdoms”) addresses the fall of the Hellenistic monarchies and the Roman conquest of the east. This includes a brief outline of the Punic Wars and the collapse of the Macedonian, Seleucid, and Ptolemaic Empires owing to Roman expansionism. Matyszak devotes some paragraphs to possible explanations for the stability of the Ptolemaic dynasty, pointing to the influence of the priestly caste and the system’s inclusiveness towards foreigners.

Chapter 7 (“Greece in Rome”) covers the Greek influence on the Romans. Matyszak points for example to architectural inspiration (the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian styles) and to the presence of Greek thought in the minds of esteemed Romans such as Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Cicero, Nero, and Hadrian. The chapter ends with the rise of Christianity and the division of the Roman empire.

Chapter 8 (“Byzantium and the End of the Greek East”) focuses on the Eastern Roman (i.e., Byzantine) empire. Matyszak presents a narrative of a shrinking empire but one with a durable culture that was able to resist until the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century.

In the final chapter (“The Greek Legacy”), Matyszak concludes in particular that “Greek legacy is an integral part of the Western based culture” in such a way that, “in a sense, today we are all Greeks” (p. 190). While this is clearly a questionable sweeping generalization, given the fact that our modern world is influenced by other cultures as well as the Greek culture, it nevertheless seems a fitting ending for a narrative of the lost Greek civilization.

Matyszak states that he “is less concerned with causes than with results” (p. 27). The consequence is that most of the book is devoted to a chronological survey of military and political affairs with only limited space set aside for further discussion. This prioritization comes at a high price. Firstly, the omission of explanatory notes allows for little or no discussion of several important issues. This is especially problematic in regard to the ancient source-material. While this decision is most likely made with the intended audience in mind, it would have been beneficial to include some brief remarks on those sources, either in the notes or alternatively in a final appendix. In its present form, the reader does not know whether Matyszak is basing his judgments on ancient source material, modern research, or his own knowledge.

Secondly, due to the focus on results rather than causes Matyszak allows several questionable generalizations to creep into his narrative. A few examples will suffice. According to Matyszak in his concluding remarks on the fall of Constantinople, “a few remnants of the empire remained, but essentially the fall of Constantinople brought to an end the Greek presence in the east and the wider Mediterranean world – a presence that had endured for millennia. With the loss of Byzantium, the Greek world had gone, and gone so comprehensively that within a few centuries few had remembered that it had even existed” (p. 177). While the lines are meant to connect the collapse of the Byzantine empire to the final chapter on the Greek legacy, the assertion is wrong on several counts. Neither the Greeks nor the memory of them ever vanished from history, as the Renaissance clearly underlines (regarding their memory in the west, at least). Furthermore, as the Byzantine empire was the continuation of the Roman empire, it is a misconception to speak of a vanishing Greek world in the fifteenth century.

A second example is seen in Matyszak’s concluding appraisal of Athenian democracy: “While ancient Athens was indeed the home of an extreme democracy, this was not the first democracy in Greece, nor was it the form of democracy that the West later adopted. Western democracy originated among the voting practices of the Germanic moots” (p. 39 and 189). While it seems sound to regard Anglo-Saxon tribal meetings as an inspirational source for the modern parliamentary system, this leaves the reader puzzled as to what elements and principles of Athenian democracy the western world did in reality adopt. To assert that western democracy originated long after the classical Greek period calls for further qualification and discussion.

A final example is found in a remark on the innovative nature of Greek thinking. Matyszak states that “inventions of the nineteenth century were often given Greek names … and the use of such terminology is a reminder that the Greeks can lay claim to being the world’s first scientists, in that they were the first people whom we know of who systematically sought out knowledge for its own sake” (p. 190). As with the previous example, a further qualification is needed as the reader will surely wonder why the regions of Mesopotamia and Egypt are left out of the picture.

These three examples are illustrative of those types of errors that often find their way into books of this kind. While Matyszak’s stated aim was to create a new perspective by focusing on Greeks outside the Peloponnese or Attica, the book adds no new knowledge to already existing studies on events and people outside the Greek mainland. Thus, it is a book intended for the general public, not the specialist. Despite these issues, Matyszak has written a book that can be recommended for a general audience with no prior knowledge of the Greeks. He provides an entertaining journey through the history of Greek civilization written in a colourful and fluid style. While the book is most interesting when Matyszak deviates from the military history that otherwise prevails throughout, the narrative has the level of detail that I would expect for this type of historical writing. Matyszak succeeds in showing that Greek civilization consisted of more than the Peloponnese and Attica, and he has provided the general reader with a different story of the origin, development, and collapse of Greek civilization.