Sunday, April 13, 2008

The History of Civilization

Chapter Eleven: The Great Migration

The most brilliant episode in the history of Greek culture is its early and rapid colonization of the entire Mediterranean. Semi-nomadic tribes were stirred up by the Dorian invasions, and went out in search of homes beyond the grasp of their conquerors. Colonization was a blessing in various ways: it provided outlets for surplus population, established foreign markets for domestic products, and strategic depots for the import of food and mineral wealth.

Ultimately, the Greek migration created a commercial empire whose interchange of goods and ideas made possible the complex culture that birthed the great scientists and philosophers of antiquity.

It was a terrifying adventure to leave the home of one's ancestors into lands unknown and unprotected by native gods. For this reason, colonists during the century long migration brought handfuls of earth from their native state to strew upon the alien soil.
One by one these colonies took form, until Greece was no longer simply the narrow strip it had been in Homer's time. It became a strange, loosely knit association of independent cities scattered from Gibraltar to the Black Sea.

The crossroads of trade are also a meeting place for ideas. Meanwhile wealth had created leisure, and freedom of thought was tolerated by the ruling aristocracy because only a small minority could read. No ancient and powerful priesthood placed limitations on mankind's speculations. Here for the first time, thought became secular, and sought rational and consistent answers to the Big Questions of the world.

It was out of this environment that Greece developed its most precious gifts to the world: science, philosophy, poetry, and mathematics.

Thales impressed all of Greece by successfully predicting a solar eclipse for May 28, 585 BC, probably on the basis of Egyptian records and Babylonian calculations. Educated in Egypt and familiar with the studies of the far east, he is credited with introducing mathematics into the Greek science of astronomy.
He believed the entire world was made of water, that matter and life are inseparable and one. There is an immortal "soul" with vital power that changes but never dies. These ideas would soon find a place in Stoicism and, later, in Christianity.

The process of exporting Greek culture during this century of migration is called Hellenization. It transformed the rural islands of the Aegean and the coasts of Asia Minor and the Black Sea into a busy network of commercialized cities, filled with industry, trade, politics, art, and religion.

To be continued...

There are an awful lot of good books about ancient Greece and the Mediterranean. For a sweeping, panoramic view up to modern times, try The Middle Sea, by John Julius Norwich.

For my previous posts on civilization, click here.

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