By Haris Dimitriadis
The end of the city-state
There is no doubt that the Peloponnesian War marked the end of the city-state as a creative power that fulfilled the lives of the citizens. After the defeat of Athenians by the Spartans, Athenian participatory democracy lost its dominance in the Greek world. But the Spartan domination did not last long either. Full of arrogance and pride Sparta was embroiled in constant wars and was inevitably subjugated under the Macedonian yoke. The immediate cause of the collapse of classical Greece was the painful experience of a multiannual war with enormous losses in manpower, but also the brutal bleeding of financial resources. The city-state could no longer provide an acceptable standard of living for its citizens, and intellectuals began to move away from the principles of direct democracy, embracing the idea of monarchy.
The transition from the Greece of Pericles to that of Alexander the Great was more than just another bloody war experience. It caused profound changes in the mentality of the people, especially in their attitude towards politics and the state. While they used to perceive the public and private life as a single whole, they suddenly found themselves without any role in public affairs–foreign, and cut off from the management of the city. This is reflected in art, sculpture, architecture and philosophy, where the emphasis was put on individualism and introspection. While the comedies of the 5th century criticized the affairs of the city, satirizing and lampooning public figures, in the 4th century they dealt with private issues and family life. An additional factor that accelerated these changes was the transition from the small size of the city-state to the vastness of the cosmopolis of the Macedonian empire. Citizens were raised in the anonymity of the new bureaucratic kingdoms, at the mercy of the decisions of unknown bureaucrats.
Philosophy and religion
In the world of the Hellenistic period, beginning with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and ending with the battle of Actium in 31 BC, philosophy was very different. The increased risks that people ran shifted the attention of philosophers from politics to ensuring people’s psychological health. The dominant philosophies were the Epicurean and Stoic. Stoicism attracted those who meant to continue their efforts to bring order to the chaos of Hellenistic life. The Epicureans addressed those who had given up this effort and had turned to pursuing a simple and pleasant life in the company of friends.
But even these simple philosophical remedies proved unable to meet the concerns and needs of ordinary people. They seemed to address the higher class and not the common people, who were groaning under the weight of the cosmopolis. The simple man wanted something more concrete and practical, something less demanding than the philosophical cures that were being offered. They found what they were looking for in the mystical cults that could explain their pain in the simplest of terms. The most popular cults were those associated with a mother-goddess, like Ishtar in Sumer, Isis in Egypt or those that taught the coming of a savior, like Osiris and Mithras. The savior would come to liberate man from the forces of darkness that threatened to wipe him out. Many of these cults believed in the resurrection of the body after death. The mother-goddess taught that although her love and affection accompanies them in this life, their salvation will come after death, when they reunite with her. The mystical cults paved the way for the creation and acceptance of Christianity by the inhabitants of the Roman Empire.
Christianity addressed and expressed the insecurity, oppression and indignation of the people under the oppressive Roman yoke. While initially it was seen as another mystical cult, it spread quickly throughout the Roman Empire and was eventually selected as its official religion. This development dealt a deadly blow to the philosophical quest of the people, and its legacy continues to affect people’s thinking and way of life.
In the good times of the Athenian Republic, the life of the common citizen reached a level never before experienced. The people made their living, as artisans, judges, dancers for public holidays, or rowers. They felt safe and enjoyed their lives. The economic conditions of the time explain the fun of the Classical Athenian period and the admirable progress of a state of 40,000 adult men. The good life and the vision for better days were ruined by the Peloponnesian War. The economy, based on slaves, had no solid foundations, and as soon as they escaped and found protection by the Spartans in the fortified Dekelia, the Athenian workshops and crafts remained stagnant. Later under the Spartan occupation, the Athenian countryside lost its residents. Adult Athenians fell from 40,000 before the Peloponnesian war to 20,000 at 310 BC. In Athens, entire neighborhoods were emptied or demolished. Due to these conditions, social and economic relationships were disrupted. The monetary system thrived and the supply of money was abundant, thus causing inflation. The land fell into few hands, as also later happened in the Roman period. The Piraeus brokers bought the ruined fields and hired slaves and foreign immigrants to cultivate it. Athens not only lost its rural population, but its composition also dramatically changed. The inhabitants of Athens consisted of a small majority of wealthy citizens with a low education and a low level of humanity, and the destitute and impoverished masses.