Art – The Alexandrian Age And The Greek Decline

WHILE the work of building the immense Theatre of Dionysus was still going on in Athens, Philip of Macedon passed Thermopylae in 338 B. C., established the dominion of Macedon over Greece, was assassinated two years later, and was succeeded by his son, the pupil of Aristotle the philosopher, Alexander the Great. This young man, who reigned from 336 to 323 B. C., in these thirteen years conquered Egypt, part of North Africa, Syria, Asia Minor, Persia, and India as far as the Indus. He planned to Hellenize the world and indeed did more in his short lease of power to spread Hellenic culture in the East than years of peaceful penetration would have accomplished. His reign inaugurates the third period of Grecian art, the Alexandrian Age, in which the centre of learning and culture was to shift to the city he founded in the Nile Delta and bestowed his name upon—the city of Alexandria.

During his rule was built the Athenian Stadium, where the athletic contests were held. Also the Temple of Diana at Ephesus in Lydia ; this was the third structure ; the second was set on fire the night Alexander was born. It was one of the wonders of the then known world, and assumed the character of a great national gallery of painting and sculpture and the value of the votive offerings was beyond all computation. Paeonius and Demetrius of Ephesus were the architects.

In a quiet corner of Athens there stands a little structure erected in the year following Alexander’s accession, known as the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates; it is the only surviving example of one of the forms given to a base or pedestal for the exhibition of the bronze tripod offered as the prize at the Dionysiac Festivals in Athens; this monument and the care lavished upon it is a bare intimation of the importance such an event as that which it celebrated held in Athenian eyes; and this is but a lone survivor of a long street of such monuments extending from the theatre to the town. Its author is unknown. The inscription brings a vivid series of pictures before us; it reads : “Lysikrates, Lysikrates, son of Lysitheiedes of Kikyuna, was Choragos when the boy-chorus of the Phyle Akamantis won the prize. Theon was the flute player, Lysiades of Athens trained the chorus. Emaenetos was Archon.”

After Alexander died at Babylon, by the close of the century his power and his dominions were partitioned among those who had been his generals; to Cassander ultimately fell Macedonia and Greece; to Lysimachus, Thrace and the western part of Asia Minor; to Seleucus Nicator, Syria, and easterly to the Indus. To Ptolemy Logi, founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Egypt was apportioned; here he ruled as governor till 306 and as King from then until his death in 285 B. C. He founded the famous Museum in Alexandria containing the Alexandrian Library, which was burned by the Moslems, the resort of savants from all lands. His aim and that of his son, Ptolemy Philadelphus, was to make Alexandria the intellectual centre of the world. Among other works he ordered the construction of the Pharos, the lighthouse of the port of Alexandria, reckoned as one of the ancient Seven Wonders. Soon after the partition of Alexander’s empire quarrels arose among the successors which extended with the various concomitants of wars, raids, sacks, and assassinations over many years. Ptolemy, favored by distance, succeeded in keeping himself fairly aloof from these broils, and during his long and peaceful reign and that of his son the arts of peace flourished in Egypt.

Athens was no longer supreme in the arts. Among others; the city of Rhodes became a great artistic centre; also Pergamum in Asia Minor. The Rhodian School was renowned for sculpture; the Colossus of Rhodes, another of’ the Seven Wonders, was only one of many colossi erected there. This one in particular was the work of the sculptor Chares and was built from metal parts of war engines designed and used by Demetrius Poliorcetes, called the Besieger, in his unsuccessful siege of Rhodes and which the Rhodians begged of him as a memorial of his military genius, despite his non-success. The Laocoon in the Vatican, and the Farnese Bull or Toro Farnese, by Apollonius and Tauriscus of Tralles, brought to Rome in the time of Augustus, discovered in the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, and now in the Naples Museum, are two examples of Rhodian sculpture. This Demetrius Poliorcetes, son of Antigonus of Macedon, won a naval victory over Ptolemy in 306 B. C. and as a memorial set up in Samothrace, the island off which the battle was fought, the beautiful Nike or Winged Victory now enshrined in the Louvre in Paris with the Venus of Milo, the Aphrodite found in the Island of Melos in 1820. How many master-pieces of this and other periods have been destroyed, who may say ? Of all the glorious company that made the ways of men beautiful and good to linger in, so few, so very few have survived.

No survey of Greek culture however brief may fail of reference to the national shrines at Olympia in Ells nor to the Oracles, especially to that at Delphi. Olympia had early become the national meeting ground for all the Hellenes, and every four years they dropped their wars, raids, piracies, and squabbles, declared a sacred truce and repaired to Olympia to contend with each other in athletics, poetry, and music. The prize was a simple wreath of laurel. These Olympic games as well as the Nemean, Isthmian, and Pythian games, came to have a large influence upon Greek art, for victors either had their statues erected by their proud cities or, failing this, with exquisite modesty set them up themselves. All the cities of Greece constructed buildings at Olympia. The votive offerings in the temples, objects in gold and silver, presented by the cities as propitiatory or thank offerings to the gods, were rich beyond measure. This was the place where artists not only exhibited their works and gained a national reputation, but measured their powers against others; so that the Olympic festivals were a constantly renewed stimulus to all the arts of design.

At Delphi in Phocis there is a valley in the flank of the mountains that sweep backward to Parnassus, and in the midst of the valley a cleft in the rock whence issued gaseous vapors that made goats behave strangely and caused men to fall to prophecy. A Sacred Python was believed to dwell in the cavern and it was his sacred gaseous breath which appeared in these vapors. Apollo having slain the Python—whose breath kept on regardless, it would seem—this lovely valley became the shrine of Apollo and a temple was erected to him. Here dwelt the Priestess of the Oracle of Delphi and to the Oracle kings and cities, not merely of the Greek world, submitted questions of state and policy. It was a national shrine and a sort of national museum like the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. In 548 B. C. the temple was burned and all the states and cities of Hellas contributed to its reconstruction. The temple itself and the buildings erected as treasuries by the Hellenes were crammed with the spoils of many battle-fields, rich gifts of rulers, and rare works of art. The Phocians, in whose province it stood, later despoiled it of a treasure valued in millions and the Romans stripped it bare of the artistic treasures the Phocians left behind.

We must reckon with these Romans now. The power of Rome had been steadily growing. Little by little she had extended her domain, destroyed the ancient Etruscan civilization in Central Italy, conquered the greater part of the Italian peninsula, and then, forced to it by the menace of Carthage which was colonizing in Sicily and ravaging the Hellenic cities there at the very gates of Rome, she became a maritime power also, deleted Carthage after three long and devastating wars, and entered upon the conquest of the world. During the course of the second war with Carthage, known as the Second Punic War and which lasted from 219 to 201 B. C., she became involved in a conflict with Philip V of Macedon whose alliance the Carthaginians had sought. She had already, in punishing the Illyrian corsairs who infested the Adriatic, assumed a kind of protectorate over the Greek cities on the Adriatic, the first step to supremacy in Greece and all the East. After a series of wars and declarations of peace, Rome, in 197 B. C. through her general Flaminius, proclaimed the freedom of Greece. But Antiochus the Great of Syria, having allied himself with the .AEtolian League, a confederacy of certain Greek cities, took up arms against Rome. He thus needlessly drew the Romans into Asia; by uniting with Madedon and Carthage he could have carried the war into Italy and prevented the spread of the Roman power. Scipio Africanus vanquished Antiochus, forced him to relinquish the greater part of Asia Minor and annexed it to the domain of Attalus, King of Pergamum, an enlightened patron of arts and letters, an ally of Rome, and whose successor, Attalus III, bequeathed his whole kingdom to the Roman people. The end was not far off. Macedon was subjugated at last, and the Achaean League, another Greek confederacy, went down before the Romans under Mummius, who destroyed Corinth and sent off ship-loads of works of art to Rome, although during the sack great numbers of wonderful things had perished; and the ignorant Roman legionaries, recruited from all parts of the world, used priceless paintings for dice-boards or trampled them under their brutal feet.

As a Roman province under the name of Achaea the Greece we have described disappears from history like a tale that is told. Theatre and fane, column and wall, have crumbled into dust. Man, more ruthless than the elements, in violence and greed, in ignorance and sloth, defacing, despoiling, neglecting, has done more than they to ruin or destroy. Yet Hellas, smiling in her broken beauty down the ages, has leavened all the world; and through the ferric clangor of this later age, in the inner ear of those who love her, still sound the golden bells of Greece.