CHAPTER XXIII, from the third volume of the Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325

Copyright by Will Durant. See the book at Amazon


ROME tried hard to be generous to Greece and did not quite fail. No garrisons were placed in the new province of Achaea; less was exacted from it than its own taxgatherers had claimed before; the city-states were allowed to govern themselves by their old constitutions and laws; and many of them- Athens, Sparta, Plataea, Delphi, and others- were “free cities” exempt from all restrictions except the right to wage foreign or class war. Nevertheless, hungry for its ancient liberties, and bled by Roman generals, moneylenders, and businessmen skilled in buying cheap and selling dear, Greece joined in Mithridates’ revolt and paid the heaviest penalty. Athens suffered a devastating siege, and Delphi, Elis, and Epidaurus were pillaged of their sanctuary hoards. A generation later Caesar and Pompey, then Antony and Brutus, fought their duels on Greek territory, conscripted Greek men, requisitioned Greek crops and gold, levied twenty years’ taxes in two, and left the cities destitute. Under Augustus Greek Asia recovered, but Greece herself remained poor, ruined not so much by the Roman conquest as by a stifling despotism in Sparta, a chaotic freedom in Athens, a blighting sterility in soil and men. Her most enterprising sons deserted her for younger and richer lands. The rise of new powers in Egypt, Carthage, and Rome, and the development of industry in the Hellenistic East, left the homeland of the classic spirit outmoded and forlorn. Rome loaded Greece with compliments and ravaged her art: Scaurus took 3000 statues for his theater, Caligula ordered the husband of his mistress to comb Greece for statuary, and Nero alone took half the sculptures of Delphi. Not till Hadrian would Athens smile again.

Epirus bore the brunt of Rome’s anger in the Macedonian Wars; the Senate delivered it to the rapine of the soldiers, and 150,000 Epirots were sold as slaves. Augustus built a new capital for Epirus at Nicopolis to celebrate his triumph at near-by Actium; civilization must have had some homage there, since the City of Victory gave Epictetus an audience and a home. Macedonia fared better than its loyal neighbor; it was rich in minerals and timber, and its commercial life was quickened by the Via Egnatia that spanned it and Thrace from Apollonia and Dyrrhachium to Byzantium. On this great highway, still in part preserved, lay the chief cities of the province- Edessa, Pella, and Thessalonica. This last- known to us as Salonika, but to modern Greeks by its ancient name (Victory of Thessaly)- was the capital of the province, seat of the provincial council, and one of the great ports of trade between the Balkans and Asia. Thrace, farther east, devoted itself to agriculture, herding, and mining; but it had considerable cities at Serdica (Sofia), Philippopolis its capital, Adrianople, Perinthus, and Byzantium (Istanbul). Here at the Golden Horn the merchants and fishmongers grew rich while the Greek settlers of the hinterland gave way to the encroaching barbarians; all the grain of the interior came down to its docks, all the commerce of Scythia and the Black Sea paid toll as it passed by, and the fish almost leaped into the net as they poured through the narrow Bosporus. Soon Constantine would recognize this site as the key city of the classic world.

Thessaly, south of Macedonia, specialized in wheat and fine horses. Euboea, the great island named of old (like Boeotia) for its fine cattle, was described by Dio Chrysostom as reverting to barbarism in our second century; here, above all, the discouragement of the poor by the concentration of land and wealth in the hands of a few families, the discouragement of the rich by ever-rising taxes and liturgies, and the discouragement of parentage by selfish wealth and desperate poverty had almost wiped out a once thriving agricultural population, and cattle grazed within the walls of Chalcis and Eretria. Boeotia had not recovered from the death and taxes laid upon it by Sulla’s campaigns; “Thebes,” said Strabo, “is only a village,” huddled into what had once been merely its Cadmea or citadel. A century of peace, however, brought some prosperity to Plataea; and Chaeronea, on whose plains Philip and Sulla had won empires, retained enough charm to keep its most famous citizen; it had become so small, said Plutarch, that he would not make it smaller by leaving it. In his calm career and genial thought we find a fairer side of a somber scene, a decent middle class clinging to ancient virtues, capable of civic devotion, warm friendship, and parental love. There is no more pleasant character in our tale than Plutarch of Chaeronea.