home | history

Economic Growth and Culture

From the East to as far west as a small port that today is Marseille, Alexander's conquests stimulated trade. Tradesmen accepted Greek as a common language. Also a common currency had developed. There were new roads. Larger boats were built using methods of construction first applied to warships. There was more mining, handcraft manufacturing, On the continent of Asia, large workshops appeared alongside the small family stores that had been common, and there the manufacture of woolens increased, along with asphalt, petroleum, carpets, perfumes, bleach and pain relieving drugs. The Egyptians and Phoenicians produced and traded cotton cloth, and the Egyptians produced silk, paper, glass, jewelry, cosmetics, salt, wine and beer.

With the increase in circulation of money, credit became more sophisticated. Money-changing grew into banking. By the 100s BCE, thirty-five Hellenistic cities would include private banks.* Private banks would be making loans. The use of checks would appear, and people could deposit their savings for safekeeping and collect interest, which was around ten to twelve percent annually. Many aristocrats – traditionally landowners – would give up their contempt for trade and enterprise and enthusiastically join in the new-style accumulation of wealth.

With the rising economy in the 200s, well-to-do tradesmen, intellectuals and aristocrats in the Mid-East and North Africa developed an interest in Greek culture – to the annoyance of those who believed that the old ways were best. From Marseille to India, Greek became the language of intellectuals. The centuries-old Greek gymnasium became popular. It was a place for bathing and physical exercise – without clothes for the sake of freedom of movement in their exercises. The gymnasium was also a place for training in grammar, rhetoric and poetry. Those who passed through training at the gymnasium acquired a status similar to a modern college degree.

Political power remained divided and authoritarian – maintained primarily through applications of military force. But these rulers didn't feel threatened by cultural diversity, and they ignored it. There was an increased interest in science, art and literature. Some people read seriously. Many, including wives of the wealthy, read escapist works about life in the countryside with shepherds, shepherdesses, wooded valleys and true love. Libraries collected serious works and grew in number. The independent city of Pergamum (on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor) had a great library. A library at Alexandria, Egypt , opened in the year 283 and became the most famous of libraries. It was to accumulate as many as 400,000 scrolls and several thousand original works and copies, and it included a scientific museum that attracted people from afar. The academy that Plato had founded in Athens in 387 still flourished, and Athens remained a famous center of philosophy, but Athens became eclipsed as intellectual and commercial centers by Pergamum and Alexandria.

During the century that followed Alexander's death, societies around the Mediterranean provided education for the professions – mainly for sons of the wealthy. In some cities the children of common people were taught reading, writing, arithmetic and "civilized" behavior – with teachers using corporal punishment as their only recourse against the inadequacy of their pupils. There were Greek cities in Asia Minor that made an elementary school education available also for girls. Girls ended school at a younger age than did boys, who continued their education if their fathers cared to pay for it. Greek tradition viewed women as the property of men. A woman's place was in the home rearing children. But some upper-class women did acquire higher education, and a few became philosophers. Women poets appeared. Around 218 BCE Aristodama of Smyrna was touring Greece, giving recitals and receiving honors. A woman named Hestiaea in Alexandria acquired a reputation as a scholar, and women were painting.

As for philosophy and political power, Hellenistic philosophers were giving less attention than had Plato and Aristotle to the question of the ideal state. Among the Hellenistic philosophers were the Skeptics, led by a former Macedonian soldier, Pyrrho (360-270). With his travels he claimed that equally valid arguments could be made on either side of any question. He concluded that it was best to draw no conclusion about the nature of things. His followers examined the logic of Aristotle and concluded the way to truth could not deduced from a self-evident premise. They claimed that the senses were an unreliable and invalid source of knowledge. They held that one should just live according to one's circumstances and desires. What mattered, said Pyrrho, was living well and living unperturbed – which was no challenge to the political status quo.

There was Epicurus (341-270) who carried on with the scientific tradition of pre-Socratic Greek philosophers such as – Anaxagoras, Democritus, Hippocrates and Xenophanes. Like Pyrrho he was no threat to rulers. Epicurus favored purging oneself of an appetite for power. He and his followers favored withdrawal from the corruptions of society. They were against an excessive devotion to the gratification of appetites. Unlike Plato, Epicurus accepted pleasure as a meaningful part of life as long as one was able to measure what fit and did not fit with well-being. Epicurus favored having possessions enough and friends to make life pleasant. And he saw purpose in avoiding pain.

Epicurus was in conflict with the Stoics – whose philosophy would influence the Romans and to be adopted by Christians. Stoicism's founder was the Greek Zeno, of the city of Citium (on the island of Cyprus. He clung to the spiritual tradition of Pythagoras and Plato. He tried to explain various gods and one god and the myths of various religions as representations of universal truths. For Zeno, God was the father of all. All men, therefore,were brothers. All humanity had soul, a divine spark and eventually returned to a divine eternity. God worked in mysterious ways. He had a plan, and humanity could see only a tiny portion of it. Evil within the unfolding of His plan was God exercising people for virtue. Purpose in life was not happiness as claimed by the Epicureans. The right purpose was serving God's plan.


* Keith Roberts, The Origins of Business, Money, and Markets.

CONTINUE READING: Wealth, Poverty and Dreams of Revolution

to the top | home

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.