The Greeks: Lost Civilizations
Philip Matyszak
Reaktion Books
208pp, 68 illustrations, 57 in colour
Hardback, £15

As Philip Matyszak reminds us in the Prologue of The Greeks: Lost Civilizations, many books cover the illustrious history of Classical Greece, though this era represented just one episode in the long history of the ancient Greeks. Now he tells us the story of the Greeks outside Greece and quite a story it is too. Spanning some 2000 years from the prehistoric Greek settlements on the shores of the Black Sea, it takes us through the rise of Greek power in the Aegean through to the spectacular territorial conquests of Alexander the Great and the sprawling Hellenistic kingdoms that ensued, to the fall of Constantinople.

Matyszak, who teaches ancient history at Cambridge University's Institute of Continuing Education, starts by examining the Greeks before Alexander, taking us back to 1200 BC when ancient Greece was part of a remarkably sophisticated, integrated civilisation that stretched from India to the western Mediterranean. But this did not last and, with the destruction of many notable cities from 1050 to 1000 BC, the so-called Dark Ages followed.

Archaic Greece emerged from the ashes and, by then, many Greeks were living far from the Greek mainland. Although Greek culture was a unifying force, these colonies were also exposed to a stimulating array of influences. Matyszak guides us through what then happened in the development of Greek culture – including advances in empirical study and philosophy – that occurred in centres such as Miletus, Samos and Ephesus. Many who contributed greatly to Greek culture hailed from far-flung places: Sappho from Lesbos, Pythagoras from Samos, Herodotus from Asia Minor and later, Archimedes from Syracuse.

With the arrival of Alexander the Great and the birth of the Hellenistic era, a remarkable new chapter began in the story of the Greeks outside Greece. By the time of his death in 323 BC, Alexander was the overlord of 9million sqkm of landmass.

Rather than be totally absorbed into the communities of their new empire, the Greeks had much to offer of their own and their culture soon became embedded across this astonishingly vast territory. Matyszak provides a clear account of the tumult that resulted following Alexander's death, when his kingdom was split asunder by his generals and their successors and fashioned into several empires. But in these, Greek culture thrived, most famously in Alexandria that was ruled by the Ptolemies, which attracted Greek scholars from afar, and their work in Egypt further enhanced the influence and intellectual lustre of the Greeks.

While Rome absorbed Greece into its empire, Hellenism was not eradicated, and Greek culture continued to thrive. Greek medicine, theatre, dress and education were embraced by Rome. Christianity spread rapidly through the Hellenistic world and, when the Roman empire was divided into two after the death of Theodosius I in AD 395, the eastern part, though Roman in name, retained its Greek culture and language. In time it was overtaken by Muslim expansion, and the fall of Constantinople in 1204 signalled the end of the Greek presence in the east and the wider Mediterranean world. But, as Matyszak demonstrates, the allure and widespread appeal of Greek culture, which flourished outside Greece, remained remarkably durable.

A colourful cavalcade of soldiers, scholars, philosophers and political leaders who spread Greek culture so far afield populate the pages of The Greeks, and thanks to Matyszak's crisp prose and wry humour, his tale never flags.

Diana Bentley

 

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