An Opportunity: Hellenization and World History
Something obviously very big happened in the history of the world in the Hellenistic period. Greek, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian cultures, each constituting massive contributions to the achievement of organized human life on our planet, were brought into intimate interplay that, while by no means unprecedented, had not occurred on a similar scale before. Greek culture, the one I know best and with which I am principally concerned, went from being the possession of a relatively small number of people clustered around the shores of the Eastern and Central Mediterranean to a tool of communication and social construction in the hands of many, many more people and in many other places, some quite far from the central Greek homelands.
A wonderful text that illustrates this development in what we might call “world history” is the inscription of one Clearchus set up some time in the first half of the third century BC at Ai Khanum in Bactria (present-day Afghanistan), expertly published by Louis Robert in 1968. In it, Clearchus, very probably the pupil of the philosopher Aristotle, published a list of the Delphic Maxims – maxims being a favored form of instruction in the late classical and early Hellenistic periods (pithy and portable bits of wisdom, “culture in a suitcase”) and often associated with the wisdom of the Seven Sages of the past. He also provided an explanation of what he had done in the form of an epigram in elegiac pentameters:
These wise (words) of ancient men are set up, | utterances of famous men, in holy Pytho, | Whence Clearchus, having copied them carefully, | set them up, shining from afar, in the sanctuary of Cineas.
What could be more exemplary of the process of Hellenization than such a text? A philosopher brings with him the sacred words of Hellenic wisdom from the very heart of old Greece (indeed, its navel: Pytho is another name for the Oracle at Delphi) and transfers them, shining like a beacon, into the fastness of the Hindu Kush. Yet there are problems. How is this transfer of knowledge made accessible or meaningful to the Bactrians themselves? The maxims and accompanying epigram were put up in the sanctuary of the city founder, Cineas. The list of sententiae is very much like lists we find elsewhere (e.g., SIG 1268, Stobaeus 3.1.173 Wachsmuth), probably to be connected to the canonizing work of another member of Aristotle’s school, Demetrius of Phalerum. Would local non-Greeks have been encouraged to read this document there? Could they read Greek, or were they even literate in any language? The inscription creates the impression of a torchbearer of civilization preserving paideia in the barbaric hinterlands with almost missionary zeal. Perhaps that works if we see the city at Ai Khanum as an outpost – a sealed off enclave whose Greek inhabitants and visitors (merchants?) were the sole audience envisioned for the text. But then how could any meaningful transfer of information take place between Clearchus’s words and the local non-Greeks? Where is the Hellenization? Where is the interplay? Who were to profit by the mission of Clearchus if not only fellow Greeks?