Greek Gifts?

Lesser breeds without the law? In a revealing new study of the Hellenistic world in the three centuries after Alexander carved out an empire in the East, Peter Green argues that condescension and cultural arrogance rather than a mission to civilise marked Greek reaction to the population they ruled over.

Hellenisation, that primarily eastward diffusion of Greek language and culture, has been defined – ever since the German historian and nationalist J.G. Droysen proclaimed it in his Geschichte der Diadochen (1836) – as the essence of Hellenistic civilisation, the banner carried by Alexander the Great and his successors. Yet as a phenomenon it calls for very careful scrutiny. Its civilising and missionary aspects have been greatly exaggerated, not least by modern historians anxious to find some moral justification for aggressive imperialism. So has its universality. This trend has been matched by a persistent tendency to underplay both lure of conquest and commercial profits (which, with land-hunger, provided the main driving-force behind this Greek diaspora), as well as the stubborn refusal of allegedly inferior races to embrace the benefits of Greek enlightenment thus rudely thrust upon them.

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