Vladimir Sergeyev, “The History of Ancient Greece” (1939)


After spending as much time with Plato as we have, it is hard not to lose oneself in the world of ancient Greece. To develop a better understanding of that world, it helps to see a wide view of its entire history. The simplest way to do that is to read a good old-fashioned textbook, but hopefully one with a minimum of ideology — a straightforward factual account that clearly identifies the most important points, rather than a thinly-veiled tract on contemporary political issues retroactively inserted into ancient times.

Finding such a book is not an easy task, because many of the most world-famous treatments are actually just that, thinly-veiled political tracts. For example, Edward Gibbon’s grandly titled The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is basically a long, poorly-written pamphlet attacking Christianity from the viewpoint of 18th-century masonic “rationalism.” The actual Roman Empire has very little to do with the book’s real subject and purpose; he may as well have set it in an allegorical fantasy land with elves instead of Romans. And that’s not even the worst example — Theodor Mommsen’s History of Rome, one of the most acclaimed historical treatises of the 19th century, contains just as much virulent German nationalism as it does genuine Roman scholarship.

On the other hand, Vladimir Sergeyev’s The History of Ancient Greece is remarkably free of all these extraneous matters — “remarkably” because it was first published in 1939 in the Soviet Union, during a time of immense ideological pressure. Not only are there no quotes from Lenin or Stalin, there are almost no references to Marx and Engels. There is some discussion of class struggle in ancient Greek societies, but this would have been entirely in the European academic mainstream of the time, and would not seem out of place today (for the simple reason that there was, in fact, class struggle in ancient Greek societies). The book is well-written and to the point, and later editions in 1963 and 2002 (I have a copy of the 2002 Polygon edition) filled it out with additional factual material, making it into a useful and content-rich reference.

Father and son: Stanislavsky and Sergeyev.

Sergeyev himself came from very unusual origins. He was the bastard son of none other than Konstantin Stanislavsky, the revolutionary theatre director who created the formal system of “method acting” (that’s the Stanislavsky Method). Sergeyev was adopted by Stanislavsky’s father, Sergei Alexeyev; in accordance with pre-1917 Russian law, his legal last name was derived from his guardian’s first name. Anton Chekhov was acquainted with the Alexeyev family, and there is good reason to believe that Sergeyev provided the inspiration for the character of Peter Trofimov in “The Cherry Orchard.” Chekhov also encouraged Sergeyev to apply to Moscow State University. After graduation, he taught history at a provincial school, but the upheaval of the Revolution opened up an opportunity to return to Moscow and teach at his alma mater.

In his youth, Sergeyev had typical left-wing views, as can be indirectly seen in the character of Trofimov, but he did not have an easy time in the 1920s either, working among Communist ideologues. Nonetheless, for whatever reason, antiquity was one area of study in which state ideology was not strictly enforced, and he also showed himself to be an effective teacher, which led him to become chair of the ancient history department in 1935 and hold that position until his death in 1941. The History of Ancient Greece was his only major work, but this is one of those cases where one work is enough to grant its author a certain degree of immortality. It seamlessly weaves economic facts and excerpts from cultural works into the main narrative of names and dates, so that one always sees each period of Greek history from multiple angles. Sergeyev’s laconic characterizations of various historical figures are often debatable — for example, when describing Plato and Aristotle, he writes, “Their cultural and historical significance is unequal. Aristotle has far more significance for the development of philosophical thought in later ages than does Plato” (365), reflecting the fairly typical 19th-century positivist bias that he would have absorbed as a university student. But this is a scholarly monograph, not a sacred text, and the reader can find value in the author’s system without necessarily accepting every single statement on faith.

For our purposes here, the most relevant part of that system is its simple and easily understandable structure. The history of ancient Greece is divided into three distinct parts, which to this day is fairly consistent with how contemporary historians might think about it. Some of them might subdivide these periods further, or move their beginning and ending dates around, but the classification was never set in stone and its main value is pedagogical anyway.

cyclopeanCyclopean masonry in Mycenae.

The first, “ancient” period reaches back into prehistoric times, somewhere before 2000 BC, and ends somewhere around the 8th century BC. Sergeyev begins with the question, “When does the history of ancient Greece start?” and observes that “Scholars in the early 19th century usually began their exposition with the 8th century BC. Thus, for example, George Grote (1794-1871), author of a ‘History of Greece’ in 12 volumes, starts in 776 BC, the year when, according to legend, the famous Olympic games first began to be celebrated in the temple of Zeus of Olympus in Elis.” (77) In fact, even this kind of information is half-legendary and difficult to substantiate — it appears in ancient sources, but only in the form of hearsay, much like how Herodotus’ work combines real history with pure invention. Nonetheless, there was some sort of early proto-Greek civilization, as proved by the strange remnants that it left behind.

On the island of Crete, as well the southern part of Greece, there are ancient ruins that predate the classical period. They are primitive, but quite impressive — their main architectural feature is “cyclopean masonry,” which consists of tightly fitting very large, rough blocks of stone together without the use of mortar. Greeks in the classical period believed that only a Cyclops could be strong enough to build such structures. The most famous and best-preserved site from this civilization is at Mycenae, excavated in the 19th century. It consists of a royal palace, surrounded by walls, as well as a large burial site, of which one part (“Grave Circle A”) was discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876, and the second (“Grave Circle B”) was excavated in 1951. Each circle contains a number of “shaft graves. That is what they called these rectangular wells, which had been hewed into solid rock — crypts, sealed at the mouth with stone slabs. Some of these tombs had been looted back in ancient times, while others still contained magnificent examples of ancient artistic craft — cups, necklaces, diadems, rings, richly decorated weapons, vessels made of precious metals and outstanding in their artistic execution…and, finally, golden masks with detailed portraits of those buried.” (80)

gravecircleaGrave Circle A.

The excavation of Mycenae also unearthed a large number of written records on clay tablets. The language is an ancestor form of Greek, but the writing system does not resemble any known form of Greek or any other language. It is, however, a linear form of writing, i.e., it uses characters that represent individual sounds or syllables, arranged into words to be read from left to right, rather than pictograms as in the Egyptian system. Perhaps what we see here is the first, earliest invention of a “modern” script. Unfortunately, if this civilization had any written literature, it did not survive — although Linear Script B was deciphered in the 1950s, it turned out that all of these numerous tablets (over 1000) were simply keeping notes on household inventory and finances.

That is about all that can be learned from the ruins of the “Mycenaean” civilization themselves, but, curiously, echoes of it persisted through later Greek culture. In fact, Homer’s Iliad is set in Mycenaean Greece (Agamemnon being the king of Mycenae), though it was written much later. This central work of Greek culture is none other than an effort by later generations of Greeks to look back at their own ancient past, which had become half-mythological to them, but nonetheless still had some basis in fact. There are situations where the author of the Iliad knows certain historical facts about the time period, but does not fully understand them — for example, the poem refers to chariots, which would indeed have been used in Mycenaean warfare, but the author does not quite know how they would have been used, so he shows them delivering heroes to the battlefield, whereupon they dismount and begin combat on foot, like proper Greek hoplites of the classical period.

Left: Writing in Linear Script B on a clay tablet.
Right: Golden burial mask found in a Mycenaean shaft grave.

The Mycenaean civilization perished sometime in the 12th or 11th centuries BC, possibly as a result of an invasion by a tribe that later turned into a Greek subethnicity. The next several centuries were the time of Homer, but most of what Sergeyev finds to say about it is derived from Homer himself. It is, however, fundamentally impossible to make decisive conclusions based on Homer, since the Iliad is not a historical document, but a work of literature, and on top of that, one that takes place in a much earlier time. One can only make educated guesses based on the specific way in which Homer describes certain types of events, such as combat or state council. But in any case, around the 8th century BC or so, this “Dark Age” begins to end and the classical Greek city-states gradually emerge. Still, their history through the 6th century BC remains half-legendary: by Plato’s time, the early rulers of Athens and other cities were known as the “seven wise men,” which sounds like a mythological convention rather than a matter of historical record, even if it had some factual basis.

In any case, even if the precise boundaries cannot be established, we are now solidly in the second period, which can be called “classical.” This is the golden age of the Greek city-states, the time of Herodotus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato and Aristotle, as well as Themistocles, Miltiades, Leonidas and Xenophon. Although virtually all of the masterpieces of ancient Greek culture originated here, I won’t go into any of them in detail — for that, our readers are referred to our coverage of Plato, and maybe we’ll come back to a few more of them some other time. Here, I will just say that, if you haven’t systematically studied the classical period, it might surprise you to find out how short it was. At the earliest, it starts around 600 BC (the part of it that is reasonably well-documented). Its end can be placed around 350 BC, but in any case no later than the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. That is about the same duration as the history of the United States.

Unlike the transition between the ancient and classical periods, which occurred gradually over many centuries, the change from the classical period to the final “Hellenistic” period occurred suddenly and very violently. Sergeyev writes, “At the turn of the 4th century BC, the world of Greek city-states found itself in the throes of an all-encompassing crisis.” (385) He first offers a purely economic explanation, which emphasizes the growth of commerce during this time, and is generally in line with the official Soviet view of things even though it does not cite a single Marxist authority:

In practice, the ongoing development of material differentiation led to intensified social inequality. This was especially noticeable due to the differences in everyday life that had become particularly sharp right at that time; the excessive luxury of some only underscored the abject poverty of others. Of course, this had to have a very unfortunate impact on the inner balance of the city-state, on the unity of the body politic… The poor were dissatisfied with their poverty, which demeaned their civil dignity, and the rich — with the impossibility of fully and openly basking in their wealth under the usual order of the city-state.

(Sergeyev, 391)

A few pages later, he makes the following important clarification regarding how these issues were expressed in the military aspect of running the state:

Another source of danger for the city-state was the situation in military institutions… We are referring to the continuing degradation of the civil defense forces and their increased substitution by mercenary armies… Those people who were unable or unwilling to carry out their martial duties as citizens would still take the opportunity to serve as mercenaries outside their cities. The demand for mercenary soldiers continued to grow, because…purely military factors stimulated the substitution of civil defense forces by mercenary armies. …In the 4th century BC, there were practically no city-states that had not relied on mercenaries, who were excellently equipped in a purely military sense, but who were entirely devoid of any sense of civil patriotism, and thus were not only a useful military tool, but also a dangerous political force in the hands of a commander who was disloyally inclined toward his city.

(Sergeyev, 394-395)

Finally, “these times were characterized by a growing apolitical sense, i.e., the indifference of many citizens toward the fate of their city-states, their hometowns. This sense found expression in the conduct and sentiment of civil society at all levels. The political activeness of the masses had to be artificially stimulated by the payment of salaries for [voting].” (398) As a result, “[a] natural consequence of the social, political, and ideological crisis of Greek society in the late classical period was the rebirth of tyranny” (403), for example the unsuccessful attempt by Dionysius to start a new dynasty in Syracuse, which turned out to be such a key event in Plato’s life. When everyone wants to play strongman, eventually a real strongman comes along, and that was the Macedonian king Philip II, whose warriors had acquired much skill and experience (as well as material wealth) serving as mercenaries throughout Greece. Philip united Greece through a combination of bribery and violence, but was assassinated in 336 BC. His son Alexander ascended to the throne, and the rest, as they say, is history.

alexanderthegreatRoman mosaic depicting Alexander.
Found in the ruins of Pompeii.

It is important to know that Alexander was very much a product of classical Greek culture, even though Macedonia was not, strictly speaking, part of Greece. He was personally tutored by none other than Aristotle, and his dreams of conquering Persia were allegedly inspired by Xenophon’s Anabasis. With superior skill and tactics, building on the Greek heavy infantry tradition but with better equipment and discipline, he cut through the decrepit Persian monarchy like a knife through butter. In a moment, Greece’s ancient enemy vanished; the amount of land (and number of people) under Greek control increased by two orders of magnitude. Whatever world was going to come out of this, it would not be anything like the old one. The Greeks always did have a strong sense of tragic irony…

Alexander is another figure that grew to mythical proportions over time, but his individuality is not very important for understanding what happened. Even if we suppose that he never existed as a person, the fact remains that the Greek world underwent a well-documented, overwhelmingly massive expansion in a very short period of time. Before his campaigns, Greek culture was insular and self-contained; the outside world did not really exist, much less pose any interest to Greek writers. For centuries they had lived uncomfortably in the shadow of the vast Persian empire, and a few Greeks lived under Persian rule in Asia Minor (Themistocles even served the Persian king late in life), but not a single one of them ever showed the least interest in Persian culture or the workings of Persian society. A few of them visited Egypt. The rest of the world was a barbarian wasteland as far as they were concerned. Now, however, they had to occupy and rule an enormous land that they neither liked nor understood. Thus, “Alexander” can easily be viewed as a symbol of what happened to Greek culture on the whole.

dariusDarius, last king of Persia, from the same mosaic.

By all accounts, Alexander himself underwent a striking personal transformation over the course of his campaigns. Apparently, the turning point came when he conquered Egypt:

After the conquest of Tyre, Alexander headed for Egypt, which surrendered to him without any resistance. The influential Egyptian priesthood, as well as much of the populace, had long felt burdened by Persian power and repeatedly rebelled against it. In Egypt, Alexander visited…the temple of Amon. Alexander offered sacrifices to the god Amon, thus winning over the temple priests. Right there, the priests proclaimed him to be the son of Amon and thus, the rightful heir to the throne of the ancient pharaohs.

(Sergeev, 470)

To which the Roman historian Justin adds, “And they told Alexander’s companions to honour Alexander as a god, rather than as a king. From then, his arrogance and high-mindedness grew, and he no longer showed the consideration that he had acquired earlier from his Macedonian education and from the study of Greek wisdom.” (470) In light of this, Sergeev’s reading looks simplistic — rather than being “won over” by Alexander’s crude show of generosity, the Egyptian priests, whose tradition was thousands of years old, immediately saw right through him. They told him exactly what he wanted to hear, and thus preserved their religion virtually unchanged, while he happily continued to dismantle his own world. For the first time, the Greek leader did not derive his legitimacy from the will of the voters or from raw military power; now, he was no mere tyrant, but a living god, which spelled the end for classical Greek culture.

templeofalexanderRuins in Egypt, believed to have been a temple
dedicated to the worship of Alexander.

Even back in ancient times, people already saw a moral lesson in Alexander’s corruption. Parts of Plutarch’s “Life of Alexander” were lost, but even in his calm factual description of events, where he generally tries to emphasize Alexander’s generosity and sees his adoption of Persian and Egyptian customs as a sign of good statesmanship, he nonetheless fully acknowledges Alexander’s irascibility, his desire to be flattered in increasingly servile ways, and, by the end of his life, his growing superstition. Many of Alexander’s Macedonian comrades were displeased — according to their custom, the king was first among equals, a leader of free men, rather than an object of worship — which led to harsh repression. Plutarch quotes Cleitus, one of Alexander’s veteran officers, who personally saved Alexander’s life in battle, as saying, “Happy are those that died before they could see Macedonians being thrashed by Median rods — before Macedonians found themselves having to grovel before Persians to obtain an audience with their own king.” An argument follows, and he is killed by Alexander.

Later generations of Europeans may have chosen to interpret this story as a case of honourable European bravery succumbing to the temptations of duplicitous Oriental luxury and barbarism (much like the later story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra). Well, even in their degraded condition, the Greek city-states still allowed more freedom of thought and expression than the rigid Persian system, which had all the weaknesses of despotic rule and none of the strengths — ironically, the almighty god-emperor Darius was quite weak, reliant on a small group of treacherous regional nobles who, in the end, murdered him. But it takes two to successfully tempt someone, and any student of Greek culture knows that tragic heroes always have tragic flaws. Alexander was seduced by this kind of power only because it spoke to something that was already within him, and, by extension, within the Greek world that he symbolized. If Aristotle himself couldn’t raise Alexander to be a just ruler, perhaps such an end was always inevitable, and the line between “European freedom” and “Asian despotism” was far thinner than anyone wanted to admit.

yanfires2018 printing of Fires on the Burial Mounds.

But that does not make the waning of Greek culture any less tragic. Let us now set Sergeyev aside for a moment, because what cannot be fully grasped through facts and figures in a textbook can sometimes be easier to perceive aesthetically. For that reason, one should not underestimate the importance of historical fiction as a way for Western culture to try to understand the ancient world. Most of the time, the attempt fails, and authors like Walter Scott or Henryk Sienkiewicz become fossils of their own times rather than guides to the past. But, by the same token, literature can also become something more than what its creators intended, in surprising ways. I personally found an unexpectedly sharp insight into the advent of Hellenism, which would probably never have occurred to me otherwise, in an obscure novel called Fires on the Burial Mounds, written in 1932 by Soviet author Vasily Yan (1874-1954).

This short novel takes place during Alexander’s conquest of Persia, and is notable for being perhaps the only literary work to take any serious interest in the Persian point of view. The protagonists, however, are primarily nomadic Scythian tribesmen from Central Asia (the main character is the warlord Spitamenes, a historical figure who led a short-lived uprising against Alexander), who have no reason to sympathize with the Persians, and thus look at the conflict from the outside, much like the reader. Yan had a strange infatuation with nomadic warrior cultures and heavily romanticized them; he later wrote similarly about Genghis Khan, and thus can be seen as an obscure precursor to Lev Gumilev’s Eurasian fantasies. A part of Fires on the Burial Mounds attempts to evoke Scythian culture, and is not very successful because there is simply not enough genuine historical evidence to sustain any such depiction. Thus, Yan’s warriors ride horses, drink kumis, duel each other for honour, hold ritualistic tribal gatherings, and generally demonstrate bravery and sincerity in deliberate contrast with Greek cruelty and Persian weakness and greed. In other words, they are generic “noble savages” cut largely from the same cloth as Walter Scott’s Scotsmen, although Yan does not entirely paper over their capacity for violence or deception either.

scythians“Ovid among the Scythians,” Eugène Delacroix, 1862.
A work of little historical accuracy.

However, as the plot unfolds, the Scythians travel across war-torn Persia, and the novel gazes somberly over the vast, dying empire:

Budacenes rode across the wooden bridge over the river and found himself in a noisy crowd. The wide field, where previously there were vineyards and melon patches, had been stamped out by countless groups of peasants, who had come from all corners of Bactria and Sogdia. They sat and lay in circles around smoking fires, wandered in every direction, carried heaps of brushwood, thistle and burdock, or dragged balking goats and rams by the horns. Along the roads, military patrols questioned every passerby: some were allowed to pass, others driven back.
‘This is the king’s glorious army. We only have need of weapons,’ the guide explained.
‘And discipline, as well…’ Budacenes thought.
Tightly packed sacks of grain were stacked in piles against the city walls. An arriving caravan of camels was unloading the barley that it had carried, pouring it out from the sacks onto the ground. All around it was in a scramble: several warriors were lashing the crowd, which pressed forward with shouts of ‘Bread, bread!’
‘But isn’t there enough bread?’ Budacenes asked.
‘Every day, one thousand camels bring bread, but there are so many people! The bakers are not able to bake enough, and many have to feed themselves with wheat grains roasted on the fiery stones.’
They passed through the gates. Several watchmen grabbed the bridles of their horses, asking who goes there, how long it was since they left [Samarkand], and whether it was true that the two-horned one [Alexander. -FL] had flown there in the form of a serpent with a crest on its back, circled over the city and left for the mountains.

(Fires, 221)

The Persian army has been routed, the leadership is in disarray. Darius cowers in terror in a peasant’s cart; his senior commanders continue to pay lip service to his exalted position, but have already made up their minds to abandon him and rally around Bessus, a powerful provincial governor (and historical figure):

Bessus answered in a harsh, determined voice: ‘We discussed what to do, and we decided to continue moving…’
‘No, no!’ Oxathres interrupted. ‘We cannot even think of it! The king of kings is weary, he wants to rest and ordered me to tell you that soon the gods will once more look favourably upon us. He thinks that all of our defeats were meant only to show that we should not forget the gods. The king of kings prayed and swore a solemn oath to build new temples and give more gold to the priests, so that they might teach the people to pray to the gods more diligently.’
Bessus rudely answered: ‘That will come later, but what should we do now?’
Nabarzanes, commander of the king’s elite guards, stood and addressed Oxathres: ‘My heart is full of love for the king, and I would never have said such bitter words if not for the extreme necessity that compels me. Fighting the two-horned one now is the surest way to destruction… We must retreat eastward, while our horses can still carry us. There we will gather new forces. The people no longer believe in the lucky star of the king of kings. We have only one hope: the people of the eastern satrapies have much love and admiration for Lord Bessus… Let the king give up his crown to Bessus — of course, only for a short time, until the enemy is defeated…’

(Fires, 161-163)

Soon, Darius is murdered, and his body is left to rot in the cart, where Alexander finds it and makes a show of lamenting his enemy’s humiliating demise. Bessus runs off with the symbols of Persian kingship, but quickly turns out to be incapable of action. Yan characterizes Bessus straightforwardly as a pathetic buffoon, who makes grand speeches to his fawning courtiers about the coming defeat of Alexander and “rebirth” of Persia, but is distracted by his harem whenever his few remaining loyal commanders ask for orders. To no one’s surprise, Bessus is sold out by his lackeys, brought in disgrace before Alexander, and gruesomely executed.

Darius and Bessus, by contemporary Spanish artist
Joan Francesc Oliveras Pallerols.

Yan does not depict any of the famous battles between the Greeks and Persians — the novel begins after they have already taken place. In his interpretation, the Persians are defeated not so much by force of arms as by the total degeneration of their ruling class. There is no one left who can even fully understand what is going on. They either downplay the threat posed by Alexander or exaggerate it, often in the same breath, but no one sees that the threat is existential — that literally everything they have ever known is about to go up in smoke. Their cities burn, their soldiers desert, casting the last fragments of the country into such lawlessness that being conquered by Alexander begins to seem like an improvement; but, Bessus continues to feast with his concubines in the royal palace that he has usurped, and gives the order to retreat only when it is too late.

This depiction is not free of political allusion — at one point, Bessus claims that he will restore Persia to be “one and indivisible” (180), which was a slogan of the White Army in the Russian Civil War. In fact, Yan briefly joined the White side and worked for it as a propagandist and newspaper editor. Around 1919, he moved to Omsk, which was claimed by Admiral Kolchak as the temporary capital of Russia, and immediately switched sides after Kolchak’s defeat, posing as a schoolteacher. Many years later, his son Mikhail recalled in an interview:

At one point we found ourselves in Achinsk and survived an attack by guerrillas. They blew up one of Kolchak’s trains, where our entire family was staying. Father was in the city at the time, so nothing happened to him, but all of us were wounded. I was stunned, shell-shocked — I was about seven at the time. My half-sister Zhenya was wounded, my teacher Olga Alexeyevna was also wounded. One American woman who was traveling with us was blown to pieces. Everything around us was destroyed and burning, the whole train. It was a nightmare. Father was standing with his wounded family on the platform, blood and fire all around. At that moment the train with Kolchak was passing by. And Kolchak’s chief of staff, a colonel, saw us and threw a suitcase full of money out of the window to my father. With that we bought a horse and sleigh and could continue to exist for a time. He saved us, that officer. That was when Father decided that the White Army and Kolchak were finished.

M.V. Yanchevetsky in 2003

(“Yanchevetsky” was Yan’s real last name. Using a pen name was no doubt useful both during and after the war.)

vasilyyanVasily Yan.

In 1921, Yan’s past as a White officer came to light. He was arrested, but somehow avoided severe punishment, perhaps owing to his extensive professional experience in communications (newspaper and telegraph), and by 1928 he was back in Moscow working as a professional writer. So, it may be that the Persian leadership in Fires reflects some of Yan’s memories of the White Army — or, perhaps, he deliberately wrote it that way to justify (to himself) his own abandonment of that cause. His true opinion of the conflict may perhaps have been expressed in a play that he had written back in the 1900s, which contained the lines, “Whoever turns out to be stronger, whoever wins in the end, that is who will be right.” Well, Fires may be untrustworthy as a commentary on specific political figures, but Yan’s depiction of a land in chaos is certainly informed by personal experience; his son’s reminiscences, quoted above, have a similar tone to many passages where Budacenes and Spitamenes observe the breakdown of order and military discipline in the Persian army. Perhaps this experience is the reason why Fires is arguably the only literary work in history to see tragedy and suffering in the destruction of Persia by Alexander, whereas so many authors in both the ancient and modern worlds callously viewed it as a manifestation of progress.

Regardless of how Yan may or may not have viewed Persia, his depiction of Alexander is consistently negative. In fact, by the end of Fires, it becomes clear that Greece has also perished in the fire, together with Persia. The most striking aspect of the novel is the epilogue, in which no Scythians are present, and which takes place after the war is over. Alexander has married the Persian princess Roxana in Samarkand, and —

Having achieved his dream of ‘union between Europe and Asia’ through this marriage, Alexander now sat upon the throne of Darius during all the feasts and celebrations that followed, and Persian dignitaries now kissed his foot, just as they had done with Darius.
Roxana asked Alexander: ‘Why don’t your Macedonians prostrate themselves before you? How numerous are they, compared to the people of Asia? Are all Macedonians chosen by the gods? You alone are the son of a god. If they do not begin to properly show adoration to you, one of them will want to seize your place.’
First Hephaestion, and then the remaining Macedonians and Greeks from the inner circle, began to prostrate themselves before Alexander according to the Persian way and custom. However, a small group of Alexander’s peers and comrades continued to conduct itself according to the old style. Among them was the nephew of Aristotle — the rhetorician, philosopher and historian Callisthenes. Alexander saw this, sometimes frowned, but did not show his anger, although his informants and provocateurs told him of a plot against him in which Callisthenes was allegedly taking part.

(Fires, 300)

Callisthenes is a historical figure. He followed Alexander as a historian of his campaign, perhaps because he thought this would help him “rebuild his hometown and bring back its inhabitants” as Plutarch says, or perhaps because he saw himself as the next Thucydides. His writing has not survived to the present day, but it was still available in late antiquity — Plutarch cites it several times for certain individual details. It is not hard to see that an Aristotelian philosopher would be a poor fit for Alexander’s new court, and Plutarch’s description of subsequent events comes as no surprise:

They say that, once, during a feast where a great crowd had gathered, Callisthenes was asked to give a speech in praise of the Macedonians when the cup of wine had been passed to him; and he spoke on this subject with such eloquence that those present applauded, standing, and showered him with wreaths. Then Alexander quoted Euripides to the effect that there is nothing difficult in speaking beautifully on a beautiful subject, and said: ‘Now show us your skill, and speak in accusation of the Macedonians, so that they might learn their errors and become better.’ This time Callisthenes spoke very differently; in his frank speech he made many accusations against the Macedonians… With this speech [he] made many enemies among the Macedonians, and Alexander said that Callisthenes had not so much shown the power of his eloquence as he had revealed the power of his enmity towards them.

Plutarch, in the “Life of Alexander”

Soon after, Callisthenes was arrested on some pretext and executed. Plutarch does not go into much detail as to how this happened. But Yan turns this brief episode into the novel’s final and most grandiose set piece, beginning with the same episode as in Plutarch. Callisthenes, “well-dressed, wearing an ironed himation and perfumed with Egyptian perfumes, as if he were back home in Athens, rose from his couch, calmly straightened his locks and began to speak. It was a striking speech about Alexander’s great achievements and merits, such as the latter had never imagined.” Upon request from Alexander himself, Callisthenes also gives the opposite speech, with equal composure, and is immediately arrested and led away. “He carried himself with such dignity that his departure turned into a solemn farewell to his former comrades. After this, Alexander’s feasts became dull. They could not be lightened up even by the Persian singers, jugglers and dancers that Roxana called up from various provinces. The groveling intensified. All gave speeches, falling over each other to glorify Alexander as the sole son of the gods, wisest of the wise, but none could speak as deeply and boldly as in Callisthenes’ speeches ‘for’ and ‘against.’” (Fires, 301-303) Yan writes Alexander as an absolute narcissist, ready to pardon Callisthenes any second, but only if the philosopher begs him for it:

By Alexander’s order, Callisthenes was locked in a cage, to be soaked by the rain and scorched by the sun… Some pleaded with Alexander on Callisthenes’ behalf, and then Alexander would ask: ‘And what does Callisthenes himself say? Is he also begging for mercy?’
They answered: ‘He has only one request: to be given enough papyrus scrolls to describe your campaigns and all the glorious things that he has seen.’
Once, six months after Callisthenes’ speech, Alexander asked Hephaestion: ‘What of Callisthenes?’
‘He is covered with lice and dying.’
‘And he does not beg for forgiveness?’
‘He replied: “I could make my plea to Phoebus, god of light and truth, but not to a tyrant…”‘

(Fires, 303)

Alexander is infuriated and finally orders Callisthenes’ execution. Breaking with Plutarch, Yan imagines that “Alexander ordered preparations for the festive spectacle of a man being torn apart by a wild lion” (303), thus obtaining a suitably lurid display of barbarous violence with which to close the novel. But, even if his own intention was just to thrill his readers, this plot choice also allows Callisthenes to defy Alexander one last time, by turning away from him and addressing his last words to the god Phoebus, allowing Alexander to hear them without acknowledging his existence. Since it is likely that no English speakers will ever have a chance to read Fires on the Burial Mounds, I will quote this part extensively:

Trumpets and flutes announced that the Basileus had arrived. All stood up and, with loud shouts of ‘You are victorious!’ prostrated themselves. Only the warriors continued to stand tall behind those lying on the ground, and their long spears sharply bristled against the evening sky, which had already turned red.
When Alexander, wearing a blue tunic and pink silken pants, entered with his decisive stride and took his place upon the golden throne, the gates leading into the courtyard opened. An iron cage had been placed upon a two-wheeled, mule-drawn cart, whose creaking wheels were taller than a man’s height. No one would have recognized Callisthenes now. He sat naked, curled into a ball, and his long hair, which had always been in curls, had now turned into a tangled mane.
The cage was opened. Callisthenes came out of it, clutching scrolls of papyrus to his chest. He tied them together with a red string and placed them on the ground.
They gave him a cloak. He slung it over his shoulder in an elegant motion, straightened the folds, freed his right hand and calmly waited for the servants to remove the cart.
When the mules had left, and the bells on their bridles could no longer be heard, the Persian steward approached and whispered to Callisthenes: ‘Bow to the Basileus.’
Callisthenes lifted his hand, as if to shield himself, and turned away.
Two columns of Persian warriors, armed with spears and shields, stopped at the gates. The Persian steward prostrated himself before Alexander and then, kneeling and bowing, cried out in broken Greek: ‘O great lord of the nations, and his incomparable mate! Now the honoured guests will see what awaits the most famous men, if they plot against their benefactors!’
Callisthenes threw back his cloak with a majestic gesture and, turning to face the setting sun, said:
‘To you, radiant Phoebus, great teacher of mankind, creator of light and truth, free seeker of wisdom, I turn with my final words. Man is the only living creature to have been born with eyes looking up to heaven and not down to earth. He built temples in which to offer his prayers and praise to you.
…A free philosopher has nothing to fear from a tyrant, who demands adoration, trying to compare to you, O radiant, almighty Phoebus, who illuminates the universe with his light!
…Today I complete my notes, in which I described the campaigns and feats of Alexander the Great, valiant and noble. Neither fire, nor iron, nor all-consuming time — not even the wrath of Zeus of Olympus — will be able to destroy this work of mine. This day will turn the pages of my fate, but my spirit is stronger than my frail body, and it will fly far beyond the limits of the celestial bodies, where the will and violence of tyrants great and small cannot reach. My glory will outlive me. I have lost my native land, my friends, my home; I have lost everything that can be lost, but my gifts are with me. They are my joy, and I live through them. Here the power of the Basileus ends. Let the merciless sword or the wild beast of the desert end my days — glory will outlive me…

(Fires, 304-306)

In a rage, Alexander orders the execution to proceed. In a moment, the lion is goaded into attacking and killing Callisthenes. But, if Alexander was expecting satisfaction, it does not seem to come:

Alexander stood up, frowning. His eyebrows were knit together. He said to Hephaestion: ‘Preserve the manuscript. Carefully examine what he wrote.’
‘I already have. He described your campaigns.’
‘And condemned them?’
‘No, Basileus. He exalted you.’
Alexander thought for a moment. ‘To forgive is the privilege of the gods. Callisthenes’ death is sufficient as a warning to my enemies, and as for future generations — let them know that Alexander ordered the preservation of Callisthenes’ manuscripts. Callisthenes was an extraordinary man, unlike the other mad conspirators. He is worthy of immortality… See to it personally that the manuscript is preserved, and have it copied.’
The Persian steward approached and fell to his knees: ‘Great one! Watch now as these Ethiopians kill the lion!’
Alexander, dissatisfied, continued to stand. ‘Let them. The lion also deserves to die for having killed a great thinker.’
The Persian ordered the Ethiopians: ‘Finish it!’
The Ethiopians, covering themselves with long narrow shields, approached from four sides. The lion growled, thrashed with its tail and continued to maul Callisthenes’ body. The Ethiopians threw their spears simultaneously. The gleaming sharpened blades pierced the animal’s hide. The lion sprang up and fell, tried to jump again, but its pelvis had been broken. It growled and crawled using its front paws, dragging its body. The Ethiopians ran up close and finished off the king of the desert with a new set of spears.
The celebration was over. Alexander slowly departed. Roxana, glittering with jewels, followed. She smiled, her eyes shone in triumph. The crowd lay face down, expressing their loyalty to the king of kings.

final pages of Fires (307-308)

Perhaps Yan himself did not understand this (or perhaps he did), but the epilogue elevates Fires on the Burial Mounds from middling historical fiction to great literature. Whether or not it describes events as they “actually happened,” and in fact whether those events happened at all, is quite unimportant. In the person of Callisthenes, the entirety of Greek culture — all of its art, poetry, philosophy, tragedy — is being forced out of the world by a brutal new despotism, which ironically is its own creation. Even in these barbaric circumstances, Greek culture still maintains its clarity and harmony of mind, preserving its dignity and independence and earning one last moral victory. It is even able to see a source of aesthetic admiration in its own executioner! By praising Alexander, Callisthenes does not submit to him, but rather allows him to show one final vestige of true Greek leadership, to rise higher than he is now able to do on his own…

Yan was probably inspired by Plato’s account of Socrates’ dignified defense in court and subsequent execution, but the situation here is far more tragic. In Plato’s dialogue “Crito,” Socrates explains that he sees his death as a way to preserve the Athenian social order, which he genuinely loves; he thinks that the demagoguery and corruption that led to his conviction are a price worth paying for the life that he had been able to lead. But Callisthenes in Fires knows that the world he loved is dying with him, forever. He maintains his composure, in a far more gruesome execution than Socrates’, surrounded not by friends and admirers (like Socrates in “Phaedo”) but by primitive butchers, some of whom used to be his countrymen, who have no idea how much he understands about them.

deathofalexander“Farewell to Alexander the Great,” Karl von Piloty, 1886.

With this last image, Fires on the Burial Mounds shows the totality of the transformation of the ancient world post-Alexander. As everyone knows, Alexander was not able to enjoy his victories for long, dying in Babylon at the age of 33, and his empire splintered into pieces. But the Persian empire would not return either. Alexander’s former commanders competed with each other for control over various former Persian provinces, and, over a short period of time, created a number of new kingdoms in Syria, Egypt and Asia Minor, with themselves as the founders of the respective royal dynasties. The history of the region, for roughly the next three hundred years, was determined by these “Hellenistic” kingdoms, until finally the last of them was conquered by Rome.

The Hellenistic kingdoms were all very similar in certain ways. The ruling elite was ethnically Greek and spoke Greek, and even those local rulers who were not Greek tried to marry into Greek (and later Roman) aristocratic families, like the infamous Judean king Herod, who built a magnificent temple in Jerusalem with architecture that blatantly borrowed from Greek styles. Over time, the Greek language also spread to the lower classes; thanks to its highly developed literary heritage, it quickly became the dominant written language of the entire Middle East. Yet, this massive expansion of the Greek language did not entirely carry over to Greek culture. To some degree, Greek traditions made inroads throughout Asia, again largely thanks to the accomplishments of the classical period, which could now be disseminated in written form over a much wider area. But the social order of the new kingdoms had nothing in common with classical Greek society, or even with the Macedonian monarchy. They largely adopted Persian-style despotism, with the king as a living god, one who belonged to the local pantheon just as much as, or more than, to the Greek one.

qasralabdHellenistic palace of Qasr al-Abd in present-day Jordan.
Originally belonged to a Hebrew noble.

In a certain sense, the new kings made concessions to local customs and traditions, for example by allowing the locals to largely continue their old religious practices unmolested. But, in another sense, this religious tolerance was also a form of oppression, a way to culturally segregate the subjects from their rulers. This is particularly evident in the case of Hellenistic Egypt, ruled by the descendants of Alexander’s comrade-in-arms Ptolemy. The ruling class sequestered itself in the capital city of Alexandria, originally founded by Alexander, together with a large number of foreign mercenaries, traders, specialists and opportunists. At its peak, Alexandria was a major cultural center of the Hellenistic world due to the enormous wealth of the Ptolemaic dynasty (Egypt was the breadbasket of the Mediterranean for centuries). On any given day, one could find representatives of virtually any culture in Alexandria…except, ironically, the Egyptian culture, as no Egyptian was permitted to enter the city. Even after three hundred years, the Hellenistic pharaohs still viewed their domain as a distasteful foreign land. Unlike the Hollywood version, the real Cleopatra looked Greek, spoke Greek, and felt much more at home in Rome than she would have in her own country, had she ever taken the trouble to go outside the walls of the capital. Simply put, all this time, Egypt was a colony of Alexandria; everything it produced was immediately funneled into the capital. It is unsurprising that Hellenistic Egypt, throughout the final century leading up to Roman conquest, was wracked by frequent rebellions.

There were two types of cities in Egypt — Greek and local ones. Greek cities, such as Alexandria, Naucratis and Ptolemaida, were in a privileged position, retaining some characteristics of the old [city-states]. Their residents, mostly Greeks, Macedonians and Hebrews, had numerous significant privileges, such as the right to acquire private property, to own workshops, stores and currency exchanges [In other words, to engage in virtually any form of advanced economic activity. -FL], as well as exemptions from many taxes that were imposed on the local Egyptian populace.

(Sergeyev, 496-497)

Greek culture had no meaning to any of these people. Ordinary Egyptians would have little use for it under these conditions. But more importantly, their rulers, for all that they prided themselves on being more “cultured” and “educated” than their pitiful subjects, were no longer in a position to understand it either — the mental image of a Ptolemaic pharaoh poring over questions like “What is justice?” together with Socrates is patently ridiculous. Nor was there much room for Greek culture back in Greece itself (now part of the Hellenistic kingdom of “Macedonia”), because the new states were much larger and wealthier: much of the commerce and overall human activity simply moved there, ironically abandoning Greece on the periphery of the Greek world. And so, Greek art…withered away, or, at least, assumed purely decorative functions. The Greek language itself became simplified and vulgarized the more it spread. In its triumphant march across the known world, Greek culture became hollowed-out. One could speak Greek, but one could no longer say anything meaningful with it.

The Hellenistic world no longer knew what it was or why it existed. It is no surprise that it was eventually conquered. But, though the Romans may have brought a measure of order to the region, in the long term they had merely set themselves up for another iteration of this process. As soon as Egypt became a Roman province, Rome’s own fate was sealed. The titles of “consul” and even “emperor” meant nothing to Egyptians — the authority to rule required nothing less than a divine god-emperor. Just 250 years later, Roman culture began to dissolve just as Greek culture had.

augustusegyptAn Egyptian statue of the Roman emperor Augustus.

This world developed dynamically and experienced much scientific progress. Its population grew; its social organization and material culture reached a much higher level of development than in the classical period (ancient Greek historians leave one with very few illusions about classical Greek city-states). Yet, the Hellenistic view of life was deeply pessimistic. Plato viewed life as a religious mystery, and later as a beautiful game; Aristotle viewed it as an object of scientific study, a kind of material to be molded. The two main schools of philosophy in the Hellenistic years, Epicureanism and Stoicism, saw life as a source of sensual pleasure and meaningless suffering, respectively. Both systems see the individual as being entirely dissociated from his own existence — they may not say so explicitly, but that is only because to them it is so self-evident that no further discussion is needed. Life takes its course, like a force of nature, completely independently of any human being; it is not possible to change anything about it, and so the only problem left for the philosopher is exactly how to accept it. One can either avoid those parts of it that cause pain, or develop the discipline needed to live with them.

It has been correctly observed that, when it comes to Hellenistic religious life, only philosophy and eastern religions remained viable. Dusk was gathering around the Olympian gods, despite outward appearances — new epiphanies, new festivities, attempted religious revivals in Greece after 146 BC; and those great temples whose construction was actually completed were usually dedicated to some foreign deity, such as Serapis of Alexandria or the fair-browed goddess Magnesia. One can see where the course of events was headed from a certain large temple in a Greek city that had been dedicated to a Greek god: the temple of Apollo in Didim remained unfinished for another four hundred years, not because of any lack of funds in Miletus, but for want of that living faith that had previously enabled cities to finish such constructions within a single generation…There were many reasons for the fall of the Olympians. They belonged to the city-state and perished with it: philosophy had killed them in the eyes of the educated class, and individualism — in the eyes of ordinary people.

(Sergeyev, 642)

But the Hellenistic philosophies were not able to replace that faith — there may be much to admire in them, but they do not, and cannot, satisfy any spiritual need. The Epicurean and the Stoic are equally alone in the same uncaring universe. In the meantime, the classical Graeco-Roman religion also became hollowed-out, turning into a complex set of social rituals unrelated to any genuine belief. Even Aristotle already had the mind of a total atheist; by the time of Caesar, to say nothing of Marcus Aurelius, it is hard to imagine anyone seriously praying to Zeus or Athena and expecting them to give any kind of response. Christianity entered a world that was ready for it, filled with formless, but painful yearning for some sort of god that actually cared about humanity.

Epicurus and Zeno.

In our days, the designations of “thinker” and “historian” mostly denote propagandists who require an intellectual veneer for whatever ideological talking points their owners have handed down at any given moment. Throughout the 2000s, there was a minor industry of books and columns by such people singing the praises of “globalization,” which, according to them, was the inevitable culmination of all human history to which there could be no alternative and no resistance — much like how each successive Persian emperor was, according to his own court historians, invariably the greatest and mightiest of all emperors, his glorious reign preordained by the gods. The spread of the English language across the world was seen as one particularly decisive proof of this eternal triumph.

However, even if we accept all of these arguments, their true implications are actually the exact opposite of what was intended. If English becomes the universal language of the world, then it will have started down the same path as Greek. The more it spreads, the more cultural content it will lose and the more purely utilitarian it will become. In fact, it is easy to see that, as “English” or “Western” brands become more global, they also become more divorced from any specifically “Western” content. A hapless, under-educated New York Times columnist visiting East Asia in the 2000s would see a McDonalds at a local food court and immediately present this as proof of the superiority of his political system; but, by 2020, no one anywhere, except perhaps for sheltered New York Times readers, sees it as anything other than “one of many generic food court offerings.” No one even views it as being particularly “American.”

As English crowds out other languages in science and commerce, it actually has a harder time competing with them culturally, because it becomes more difficult to say anything non-utilitarian in English. For that reason, English speakers are actually placed at a cultural disadvantage, because people who speak other languages at least have the option of resorting to those languages for cultural purposes (whether successfully or not is another matter). Western advocates of globalization are like Greeks working overtime to turn Greece into a backward province of the Hellenistic world.

The contemporary world seems to understand these issues, judging by its immense effort to ignore them. Literally the only answer that it has come up with is a kind of cultural nihilism, where loss of culture is acknowledged, but celebrated, the idea being that culture itself is inherently morally suspect, patriarchal, oppressive, and therefore we should all be glad that it’s gone. As for the new content that is to be written upon the resulting seven billion blank slates, however, so far all that has been seriously offered is crude hedonism, which reduces the sum total of human individuality to a meaningless choice between products that one “consumes.” All that can be said about the public voices of this philosophy is that they ain’t no Epicurus.

Much has been written about the “alienation” of the individual human being in contemporary society, but after looking at the Hellenistic world, one can see that there is nothing particularly new or “modern” about this condition. The people of antiquity went through “globalization” — cultural erosion, savage warfare (including civil war), imperial rule, and total spiritual loneliness — and finally disappeared from the world, and they were better-equipped culturally and intellectually than we are. And whoever inevitably rises to meet our world’s unspoken needs is not going to be Christ, either.

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