I have wondered many times why and how Hellenic culture died out. Some historians such as Spengler, affirm that cultures die just like any organism does. But I don’t think this has to be the case, since Chinese or Indian cultures are thousands of years old and still alive and well, and also Jewish and Arabic cultures were contemporary to classical Greece.
The demise of the city-state at the end of the fourth century BCE followed by the Peloponesian War weakened the city-state, opening the door for Macedonian conquest. The lost of confidence and self-determination could be one reason, but the inexplicable cultural, material and demographic crisis occurred during the following centuries and at the beginning of the new era needs some more explanation. Such conscious dying out of a population on Peloponnesus has been called “Endogenous Psychosis of the I-III centuries” – a mass pathology and loss of meaning for continued existence. The decay of a culture tends to begin as an internal process.
After researching for some time I came across this revealing text from ancient greek historian Polybius (200-118 BCE):
“I mean such a thing as the following. In our time all Greece was visited by a dearth of children and generally a decay of population, owing to which the cities were denuded of inhabitants, and a failure of productiveness resulted, though there were no long-continued wars or serious pestilences among us. If, then, any one had advised our sending to ask the gods in regard to this, what we were to do or say in order to become more numerous and better fill our cities,—would he not have seemed a futile person, when the cause was manifest and the cure in our own hands? For this evil grew upon us rapidly, and without attracting attention, by our men becoming perverted to a passion for show and money and the pleasures of an idle life, and accordingly either not marrying at all, or, if they did marry, refusing to rear the children that were born, or at most one or two out of a great number, for the sake of leaving them well off or bringing them up in extravagant luxury. For when there are only one or two sons, it is evident that, if war or pestilence carries off one, the houses must be left heirless: and, like swarms of bees, little by little the cities become sparsely inhabited and weak. On this subject there is no need to ask the gods how we are to be relieved from such a curse: for any one in the world will tell you that it is by the men themselves if possible changing their objects of ambition; or, if that cannot be done, by passing laws for the preservation of infants.” History 37.9
Polybius was a first hand witness of one of the most radical changes of history; the rise of the Roman Republic as the hegemonic power in the mediterranean, and the downfall of the Hellenistic period.
After been taken hostage by the Romans, Polybiuss became admitted by the most distinguished Roman houses, who even entrusted him with the education of their sons, due to his excellent education. He remained on cordial terms with his former pupil Scipio Aemilianus and was among the members of the Scipionic Circle, most of them Stoics and philo-hellens. Polybius remained a counselor to Scipio when he defeated the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War. When the Achaean hostages were released in 150 BC, Polybius was granted leave to return home, but the next year he went on campaign with Scipio Aemilianus to Africa, and was present at the Sack of Carthage in 146, which he later described. Following the destruction of Carthage, Polybius likely journeyed along the Atlantic coast of Africa, as well as Spain.
“At the sight of the city utterly perishing amidst the flames Scipio burst into tears, and stood long reflecting on the inevitable change which awaits cities, nations, and dynasties, one and all, as it does every one of us men. This, he thought, had befallen Ilium, once a powerful city, and the once mighty empires of the Assyrians, Medes, Persians, and that of Macedonia lately so splendid. And unintentionally or purposely he quoted—the words perhaps escaping him unconsciously—
“The day shall be when holy Troy shall fall
And Priam, lord of spears, and Priam’s folk.”
And on my asking him boldly (for I had been his tutor) what he meant by these words, he did not name Rome distinctly, but was evidently fearing for her, from this sight of the mutability of human affairs. . . . Another still more remarkable saying of his I may record. . . [When he had given the order for firing the town] he immediately turned round and grasped me by the hand and said: “O Polybius, it is a grand thing, but, I know not how, I feel a terror and dread, lest some one should one day give the same order about my own native city.”
Polybius is considered by some to be the successor of Thucydides in terms of objectivity and critical reasoning. He is important for his analysis of the mixed constitution or the separation of powers in government, which was influential on Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws and the framers of the United States Constitution.
Important themes running through his works are the role of Fortune in the affairs of nations, his insistence that history should be demonstratory, or apodeiktike, providing lessons for statesmen, and that historians should be “men of action” (pragmatikoi).
“But all historians, one may say without exception, and in no half-hearted manner, but making this the beginning and end of their labour, have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for a life of active politics is the study of History, and that surest and indeed the only method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune, is to recall the calamities of others.”
“From this I conclude that the best education for the situations of actual life consists of the experience we acquire from the study of serious history. For it is history alone which without causing us harm enables us to judge what is the best course in any situation or circumstance.”
During late antiquity, salvific and gnostic religions appeared in Greece, mystery cults that promised a better afterlife, preparing the way to christianity. After a period of decadence, Emperor Constantine converted to christianity, and later in 529 AD, Justinian closed down the last schools of philosophy in Athens, putting the last nails in the coffin of Hellenic culture. Christianity will dominate western culture for more than a thousand years.
Did it really die out?
Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, around 1482
But it may be inaccurate to say that Hellenic, or that Graeco-Roman culture “died out” after all. A thousand years after the closure of the greek schools of philosophy, their ideas survived in monasteries, and the movement called the Renaissance spread throughout Europe, affecting both artists and their patrons with the development of new art and Humanist philosophy, based on Graeco-Roman period, ant it marks the transition from the medieval period to the Early Modern age.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini in 1545
Most of their language, art and culture still framing western culture. Words and concepts such as; democracy, music, theater, mathematics, politics, philosophy, poetry, gymnasium, physics, erotic, have Greek roots.
It may be the case that Graeco-Roman-Western culture did not die out, but that requires a cycle of death and rebirth, to be alive and flourishing.