History Crash Course #27: The Greek Empire

To the Greeks, what was beautiful was holy; to the Jews, what was holy was beautiful. These views were bound to clash.

The 4th century BCE has been eventful for the Jewish people:

  • Exiled to Babylon, they witness the fall of a mighty empire before their very eyes as the Persians invade.
  • Permitted to return to the land of Israel by the Persian emperor Cyrus in 370 BCE, they reluctantly take up the offer, with only 42,000 of their number actually returning.
  • The returnees’ attempts to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem are aborted early as their angry neighbors, the not-so-good Samaritans complain to the emperor.
  • In Persia, Haman, the chief minister to King Achashverosh, hatches a plot to annihilate the Jews. But Queen Esther (who is secretly Jewish) comes to the rescue in 355 BCE.
  • The next Persian monarch, Darius II, Esther’s son, allows the rebuilding of the Temple in 347 BCE.
  • The Jewish people living in the land of Israel are re-energized spiritually thanks to the leadership of Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly.

It is now 312 BCE and the last of the Men of the Great Assembly, Shimon HaTzaddik, is High Priest. On the other side of Mediterranean, a new threat is looming. It is called Greece.

Rise of the Greek Empire

The origins of Greece are shrouded in mystery and date back to the time of Abraham, 18th century BCE, or perhaps even earlier. Historians disagree as to where the Greeks came from. They could have been people migrating down from Asia down through Europe and settling in the Greek Isles, or they could have been seafaring people who settled along the coast.

Whoever they were, the earliest inhabitants of mainland Greece (called Mycenaeans after excavations found at Mycenae) developed an advanced culture. But, around 1100 BCE, the Mycenaeans were invaded by barbarians called Dorians and all their civilization disappeared. Greece went into a “Dark Age” to re-emerge hundreds of years later.

The classical Greek period begins as early as 7th century BCE, though we tend to be more familiar with its history in the 5th century when Greece consists of a group of constantly warring city-states, the most famous being Athens and Sparta. The Greek victory at the Marathon (490 BCE),[1]The modern Marathon race of 26 miles commemorates the tradtion that a runner ran that distance from the Marathon to Athens with news of the victory and then dropped dead. the destruction of the Persian fleet at Salamis (480 BCE) and the victory at Plataea (479 BCE) brought and end to the Persian Empire’s attempts to conquer Greece. During the last three decades of the 5th century, Athens and Sparta waged a devastating war (Peloponnesian War 431-404 BCE) which culminated in the surrender of Athens. More inter-Greek fighting followed in the 4th century but later in that century all of Greece would succumb to Phillip II of Macedon, who paves way for his son, Alexander the Great, to spread the Greek civilization across the world.

The late 5th and the 4th century are as eventful for the Greeks as it has for the Jews. Despite constant warfare, this is also the golden age of classical Greek culture ― the birth of democracy, the time of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato.

Greek Inhumanity

While admiring the Greek contributions to civilization ― its politics, philosophy, art and architecture – it is easy to forget what Greek society was really like.

For example, we’ve heard of the “Spartan lifestyle,” but what did that mean in practice? Well, for starters, at the age of seven, Spartan boys were separated from their parents; they lived in military barracks where they were beaten, and not even given minimal food to encourage them to steal. To be Spartan meant to be tough.

The Athenians, not as tough as the Spartans, were not what you’d describe as “soft” either. For example, they thought nothing of killing infants (a common practice in all ancient civilizations even the “elevated” ones). One of the most influential thinkers in Western intellectual history ― none other than Aristotle- ― argued in his Politics (VII.16) that killing children was essential to the functioning of society. He wrote:

“There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed [i.e. thrown on the trash heap or left out in the woods to die]. For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state.”

Note the tone of his statement. Aristotle isn’t saying “I like killing babies,” but he is making a cold, rational calculation: over-population is dangerous; this is the most expedient way to keep it in check.

In warfare, the Greeks invented the “pitched battle” ― with thousands of foot soldiers colliding with the enemy, slaughtering and being slaughtered as they advanced. (The 80 pounds of armor and weaponry carried by the average Greek hoplite (infantry man) also necessitated a pitched battle since after about 30 to 45 minutes the soldiers were all exhausted) While we tend to think today of the Greeks as cultured and noble, it is shocking to learn how brutal their civilization (like all ancient civilizations) could be.[2]For a more detailed explanation of the brutality of the ancient world see my first book: WorldPerfect-The Jewish Impact on Civilization, Health Communications Inc., 2002

The other great Greek innovation was the phalanx. Instead of the undisciplined,” free for all” combat common in ancient warfare, the Greeks fought in disciplined battle lines; infantry advanced with shields “locked” together and spears pointing straight ahead. A well-disciplined phalanx created a formidable wall of shields and spears which was used with deadly efficiency.[3]For an excellent overview of Greek warfare see: Peter Connolly. Greece and Rome at War.London: Greenhill Books, 1998.

The one who took the Greek conquests to new heights was, of course, Alexander the Great.

Alexander The Great

Alexander, born in 356BCE, was the son of Phillip II (382-336BCE), the King of Macedonia in northern Greece. (And considered a barbarian by the southern Greek city states). Phillip created a powerful, professional army which forcibly united the fractious Greek city-states into one empire. From an early age, Alexander, displayed tremendous military talent and was appointed as a commander in his father’s army at the age of eighteen. Having conquered all of Greece Phillip was about to embark on a campaign to invade Greece’s arch-enemy, the Persian Empire. Before he could invade Persia he was assassinated, possibly by Alexander, who then became king in 336BCE. Two years in 334 BCE he crossed the Hellspont (in modern-day Turkey) with 45,000 men and invaded the Persian Empire.

The backbone of Alexander’s Macedonian army was his infantry. They carried extremely long pikes (spears which may have been as long as 21 feet/ 3 meters.) These pikemen moved in giant squares called a phalanx, shields locked together, 16 men across and 16 deep-the first five rows of pikes pointed straight ahead creating a lethal wall of spear heads.

In three Colossal battles, Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela, that took place between 334 and 331 Alexander brilliantly (and often recklessly) led his army to victory against Persian armies that may have outnumbered his own as much as ten to one. His chief tactics were to always be on the offense and always do the unexpected. In battle he would lead his Campanion Cavalry right at the strongest (rather than the weakest) point of the enemy line. When he fights the Persians, for example, he goes for the most heavily protected point of the Persian force surrounding the Persian Emperor, aiming to destroy the leadership. When the Persian emperor Darius flees at the battle the Persian army collapses. By 331 BCE the Persian Empire was defeated, the Persian Emperor Darius was dead, and Alexander was the undisputed rival of the Mediterranean. His military campaign lasted 12 years and took him and his army 10,000 miles to the Indus River in India. Only the weariness of his men and his untimely death in 323BCE at the age of 32 ended the Greek conquest of the known world. It is said that when Alexander looked at his empire he wept for there was nothing more to conquer.

At its largest, Alexander’s empire stretched from Egypt to India. He built six Greek cities in his empire, named Alexandria. (Today the best known is the city of Alexandria in Egypt at the Nile delta.) These cities and the Greeks who settle in them brought Greek culture to the center of the oldest civilizations of Mesopotamia.


The Greeks were not only military imperialist but also cultural imperialist. Greek soldiers and settlers brought their way of life: their language, art, architecture, literature, and philosophy, to Middle East. When Greek culture merged with the culture of the Middle East it created a new cultural hybrid-Hellenism (Hellas is the Greek word for Greece) whose impact would be far greater and last for far longer than the brief period of Alexander’s empire. Whether through the idea of the pitched battle, art, architecture or philosophy, Hellenism’s influence on the Roman Empire, Christianity, and the West was monumental.

The Greeks showcased all human talents ― literature, drama, poetry, music architecture, sculpture, etc. They glorified the beauty of the human body, displaying athletic prowess in the Olympics. Nothing regarding the human body was considered embarrassing, in need of hiding, or private for that matter.

(Athletic competitions performed in the nude were the norm in Greece. Our modern word “gymnasium” is derived from the Greek word “gumnos” which means naked. Public toilets often consisted of a bench on main street with holes in it; people sat there and did their business as others walked by.)

Naturally, human passions were venerated and this meant there were few sexual taboos ― even pedophilia and pederasty. Indeed, the sexual initiation of a young boy by an older man was considered the highest form of love and vital part of a boys education. Plato wrote of this in hisSymposium (178C):

“I, for my part, am at a loss to say what greater blessing a man can have in earliest youth than an honorable [older] lover …”

Even Greek gods were described in human terms and were often bested by human beings in Greek mythology; with time, it became the style of intellectual Greeks to denigrate their gods and speak of them with biting cynicism and disrespect.

In short, the Greeks introduced into human consciousness an idea which is going to come into play as one of the most powerful intellectual forces in modern history ― humanism. The human being is the center of all things. The human mind and its ability to understand and observe and comprehend things rationally is the be-all-and-end-all. That’s an idea which comes from the Greeks.

Above all, the Greeks thought that this was enlightenment, the highest level of civilization. They had a strong sense of destiny and believed that their culture was ordained to become the universal culture of humanity.

The Jews had a different vision. The Jews believed that a world united in the belief in one God and ascribing to one absolute standard of moral values ― including respect for life, peace, justice, and social responsibility for the weak and poor ― was the ultimate future of the human race.

This Jewish ideology was wedded to an extreme, uncompromising exclusivity of worship (as demanded by the belief in one God) and a complete intolerance of polytheistic religious beliefs or practices. There was only one God and so only one God could be worshipped, end of story.

To the Jews, human beings were created in the image of God. To the Greeks, gods were made in the image of human beings. To the Jews, the physical world was something to be perfected and elevated spiritually. To the Greeks the physical world was perfect. In short, to Greeks, what was beautiful was holy; to the Jews what was holy was beautiful.

Such disparate views were bound to clash, sooner or later.

The Greeks vs. the Jews

During his military campaign against Persia, Alexander takes a detour to the south, conquering Tyre and then Egypt via what is today Israel. Alexander is planning to destroy the Temple, egged on by the Samaritans who hate the Jews There is a fascinating story about Alexander’s first encounter with the Jews of Israel. (Who were until that time subjects of the Persian Empire).

The narrative concerning Alexander’s first interaction with the Jews is recorded in both the Talmud (Yoma 69a and in the Jewish historian Josephus’s book Antiquities XI, 321-47.) In both accounts the High Priest of the Temple (in the Talmudic narrative he is Shimon HaTzaddik ― the last surviving member of the Men of the Great Assembly) in Jerusalem, fearing that Alexander would destroy the city, goes out to meet him before he arrives at the city. The narrative then describes how Alexander, upon seeing the High Priest dismounts and bows to him. (Alexander rarely, if ever, bowed to anyone.) In Josephus’s account, when asked by his general, Parmerio, to explain his actions he answered: “I did not bow before him but before that God who has honored him with the high Priesthood; for I saw this very person in a dream, in this very apparel.”

Alexander interpreted the vision of the High Priest as a good omen and thus spared Jerusalem and peacefully absorbed the Land of Israel into his growing empire. As tribute to his benign conquest the Rabbis decreed that the Jewish firstborn of that time be named Alexander (which is a Jewish name until today) and date of the meeting (25th of Teves) was declared a minor holiday.

So Alexander the Great does not destroy the Temple. And he listens when Shimon HaTzaddik tells him that the Jews are not enemies of the Greeks but the Samaritans are. The Talmud relates the interaction between Alexander and the Jewish delegation

They (the Jews led by Shimon HaTzaddik) answered, “Is it possible that these idol worshippers should fool you into destroying the House where prayers are offered for you and your kingdom that it should never be destroyed!” Alexander said to them, “What idol worshippers do you mean?” They replied, “We are referring to the Samaritans who are standing before you now.” Said Alexander, “I am handing them over to you to do with them as you please.”[4]Talmud ― Yoma 69a.

As a result, the Jews are given free rein to go trash the Samaritans, which they promptly go out and do. And Israel and Jerusalem are peacefully absorbed into the Greek Empire.

At first, the Greek authorities preserve the rights of the local Jewish population and do not attempt to interfere with Jewish religious practice. The Jews continue to flourish as a separate and distinct entity for 165 years ― a rare phenomenon in the Hellenistic world.

The vast majority of the peoples conquered by Alexander the Great have willingly allowed themselves to be Hellenized. The fact that the Jews ― with the exception of a small minority ― reject Hellenism is a strong testament to that ever-present Jewish drive and sense of mission.

The famed classical historian Michael Grant, in his From Alexander to Cleopatra (p. 75), explains:

The Jews proved not only unassimilated, but unassimilable, and… the demonstration that this was so proved one of the most significant turning-points in Greek history, owing to the gigantic influence exerted throughout subsequent ages by their religion…

But with time, Judaism, with its intractable beliefs and bizarre practices, begins to stand out as an open challenge to the concept of Hellenistic world supremacy.

For the generally tolerant Greeks, this challenge becomes more and more intolerable. It is only a matter of time before open conflict will arise.


1 The modern Marathon race of 26 miles commemorates the tradtion that a runner ran that distance from the Marathon to Athens with news of the victory and then dropped dead.
2 For a more detailed explanation of the brutality of the ancient world see my first book: WorldPerfect-The Jewish Impact on Civilization, Health Communications Inc., 2002
3 For an excellent overview of Greek warfare see: Peter Connolly. Greece and Rome at War.London: Greenhill Books, 1998.
4 Talmud ― Yoma 69a.
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