From synoikismos to dissolution

July 25 2009

The three-act tragedy of the Greco-Roman world.


A passage, published in 1921, which helps us to understand Toynbee’s view of the Greco-Roman world and, by extension, of other societies.

The genesis of Ancient Greek civilization is certainly later than the twelfth century B.C., when Minoan civilization, its predecessor, was still in process of dissolution; and the termination of Ancient Greek civilization must certainly be placed before the eighth century A.D., when modern Western civilization, its successor, had already come into being. Between these extreme points we cannot exactly date its beginning and end, but we can see that it covers a period of seventeen or eighteen centuries.

The curtain rises with the Dorian invasion. Presumably Toynbee, in whose work such classifications mattered, saw Mycenaean Greece, up to about 1400 BC, as a cultural province of the Minoan civilisation.

He regards the “Hellenic Society”, “Ancient Greek civilization” as he terms it here, as having included Rome: it is obvious to him that Rome was not a new civilisation.

It is easier to divide the tragedy into acts [than to look at eighteen centuries at once]. We can at once discern two dramatic crises – the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War and the foundation of the Roman Empire. We can for convenience take precise dates – 431 B.C. and 31 B.C. – and group the action into three acts or phases, one before, one between, and one after these critical moments.

It is best to give the analysis in tabular form:

Act I (11th cent.–431 B.C.).

1. Synoikismos (formation of the city-state, the cell of Greek society), 11th cent.-750 B.C.

2. Colonization (propagation of the city-state round the Mediterranean), 750-600 B.C.

3. Economic revolution (change from extensive to intensive growth), 600-500 B.C.

4. Confederation (repulse of Oriental universal empire and creation of an inter-state federation, the Delian League), 500-431 B.C.

Act II (431 B.C.-31 B.C.).

1. The Greek wars [Peloponnesian and after] (failure of inter-state federation), 431-355 B.C.

2. The Oriental wars (the superman, conquest of the East, struggle for the spoils, barbarian invasion [Gauls]), 355-272 B.C.

3. The first rally (change of scale and fresh experiments in federation – Seleucid Asia, Roman Italy, Aetolian and Achaean “United States”), 272-218 B.C.

4. The Roman wars (destruction of four great powers by one; devastation of the Mediterranean world), 218-146 B.C.

5. The class wars (capitalism, bolshevism, Napoleonism), 146-31 B.C.

Act III (31 B.C.-7th cent. A.D.).

1. The second rally (final experiment in federation – compromise between city-state autonomy and capitalistic centralization), 31 B.C.-A.D. 180.

2. The first dissolution (external front broken by tribesmen, internal by Christianity), A.D. 180-284.

3. The final rally (Constantine τὸν δῆμον προσεταιρίζει – tribesmen on to the land, bishops into the bureaucracy), A.D. 284-378.

4. The final dissolution (break of tradition), A.D. 378-7th cent.

This scenario, with its conscious anachronisms, might have been scribbled on the back of an envelope. Some of it is questionable on the surface.

In the language of the Study, which postdates this article (the first three volumes appeared in 1934), the Roman Empire provided Greek civilisation with its “Universal State” and saved it, at a price. Greek civilisation had begun to decline before the end of the fifth century BC. The Peloponnesian War was the first in its “Time of Troubles”, which lasted for four hundred years.

The agents of the transformation of the Hellenic Universal State, so that Greek-Roman civilisation became “apparented” to an entirely new civilisation – or rather to two civilisations, the “Western Society” and the “Orthodox Christian Society” – were an “internal proletariat” (Christians) and an “external proletariat” (barbarians).

Toynbee had made only a “first essay” in planning the Study by the time he wrote the 1921 essay, but the essay begins to point towards ideas in the Study (and it mentions the idea of “rallies” during a decline). The shape, the plot, of Hellenic civilisation was already clear to him.

It is difficult for a non-classicist, who looks at events rather than culture, to think of the Hellenic Society as a unity in the way that Toynbee did. If he/she did he would probably speak of a breakdown in the early centuries CE, not in the fifth century BC. Wasn’t Toynbee’s view also something to do with an inherited Victorian tendency to denigrate post-Alexandrine Greek things? With the “saddened Whig” school? Toynbee was a student of Byzantium too, but that was an “affiliated” civilisation.

The impress on Toynbee’s mind made by his idea of the shape or plot of Hellenic civilisation was so deep that it led him to develop ideas about how other civilisations rose and fell that were perhaps indefensible.

On Greek leagues, see this post and comment(s).

“Destruction of four great powers by one”: the Carthaginian, Seleucid (Battle of Magnesia) and Antigonid by the Roman. What was the fourth? Surely the Ptolemies survived intact in 146 BC. But, of course, he does mean the Ptolemies. From the ninth volume of the Study:

By 168 B.C. this one new Power [Rome] was also the only survivor among the five Powers that had been in the arena in 266 B.C. Of the four Powers that had enjoyed the advantage of standing on old foundations, Carthage, the Seleucid Monarchy, and Macedon had been felled to the ground by Roman blows in the years 201, 190, and 168, while Ptolemaic Egypt had been reduced to the status of a Roman protectorate when Roman diplomatic intervention had saved her in 170 B.C. from being annexed by Rome’s defeated Seleucid adversary.

On some of which see Hannibal’s Legacy, The Hannibalic War’s Effects on Roman Life, Vol I: Rome and Her Neighbours before Hannibal’s Entry and Vol II: Rome and Her Neighbours after Hannibal’s Exit, OUP, 1965.

Carthage, in Toynbee’s classification, was part of the Syriac Society. Why do we always speak of Seleucids, but only sometimes of Antigonids, and still less often of Lagids?

τὸυ δῆμου προσεταιρίζει means something like “bringing the people over to his side”. He is thinking of compromises with Germanic tribesmen and with Christians. I don’t know where the phrase comes from, but “people”, demos, is presumably intended here to mean something similar to “proletariat” in the sense in which he uses that term in the Study.

Returning to the main passage, he has given us his three-act synopsis and goes on:

This analysis is and must be subjective. Every one has to make his own, just as every one has to apprehend for himself the form of a work of art. But however the historian may analyse the plot and group it into acts, it must be borne in mind that the action is continuous, and that the first emergence of the Greek city-state in the Aegean and the last traces of municipal self-government in the Roman Empire are phases in the history of a single civilization. It may seem a paradox to call this civilization a unity. But the study of Greek and Latin literature leaves no doubt in one’s mind that the difference of language there is less significant than the unity of form, and that one is really dealing with a single literature, the Hellenic, which in many of its branches was imitated and propagated in the Latin language, just as it was to a lesser extent in Hebrew, or later on in Syriac and Arabic. The unity is even more apparent when, instead of confining our attention to literature, we regard the whole field of civilization. It is not really possible to draw a distinction between Greek history and Roman history. At most one can say that at some point Greek history enters on a phase which it may be convenient to distinguish verbally by connecting it with the name of Rome. To take the case of the Roman Empire – the reader may possibly have been surprised to find the Roman Empire treated as the third act in the tragedy of Greece; yet when one studies the Empire one finds that it was essentially a Greek institution. Institutionally it was at bottom a federation of city-states, a solution of the political problem with which Greek society had been wrestling since the fifth century B.C. And even the non-municipal element, the centralized bureaucratic organization which Augustus spread like a fine, almost impalpable net to hold his federation of municipalities together, was largely a fruit of Greek administrative experience. As papyrology reveals the administrative system of the Ptolemaic Dynasty – the Greek successors of Alexander who preceded the Caesars in the government of Egypt – we are learning that even those institutions of the Empire which have been regarded as most un-Greek may have been borrowed through a Greek intermediary.

Imperial jurisprudence, again, interpreted Roman municipal law into the law of a civilization by reading into it the principles of Greek moral philosophy. And Greek, not Latin, was still the language in which most of the greatest literature of the Imperial period was written. One need only mention works which are still widely read and which have influenced our own civilization – Plutarch’s Lives, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and the New Testament. They are all written in Greek, and who will venture to assert that the age in which they were written falls outside Greek history, or that the social experience which produced them was not an act in the tragedy of Hellenic civilization? Even statistically the Empire was more Greek than anything else. Probably a considerable majority of its inhabitants spoke Greek as a lingua franca, if not as their mother-tongue. Nearly all the great industrial and commercial centres were in the Greek or Hellenized provinces. Possibly, during the first two centuries of the Empire, more Greek was spoken than Latin by the proletariat of Rome itself. The Greek core of the Roman Empire played the part of Western Europe in the modern world. The Latinized provinces were thinly populated, backward, and only superficially initiated into the fraternity of civilization. Latinized Spain and Africa were the South America, Latinized Gaul and Britain the Russia of the Ancient Greek world. The pulse of the Empire was driven by a Greek heart, and it beat comparatively feebly in the non-Greek extremities.


The Plot of Ancient Greek Civilization (the passage is given here in full), sub-section in chapter called History contributed by Toynbee to RW Livingstone, editor, The Legacy of Greece, Essays by Gilbert Murray, W. R. Inge, J. Burnet, Sir T. L. Heath, D’Arcy W. Thompson, Charles Singer, R. W. Livingstone, A. Toynbee, A. E. Zimmern, Percy Gardner, Sir Reginald Blomfield, OUP (Oxford at the Clarendon Press), 1921

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

The Oxford Legacy series were collections of essays published by Oxford between the ’20s and the ’60s in sub-octavo volumes with the binding of the Clarendon Press. There were volumes on China, Egypt, Greece, India, Islam, Israel, the Middle Ages, Persia and Rome. Some of them stayed in print for decades.

7 Responses to “From synoikismos to dissolution”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Toynbee’s “first essay” in planning the Study was made in 1920. If that unpublished attempt does not predate the passage in the 1921 book, it is at any rate roughly contemporary with it.

  2. […] From synoikismos to dissolution […]

  3. […] the Peloponnesian War, was hardly modified during the course of Toynbee’s career. It gave him the shape of the history of Greco-Roman, or as he called it, the Hellenic, civilisation, a plot which he […]

  4. davidderrick Says:

    This, of course, is the sort of passage that will enrage those who are already out of sympathy with Toynbee.

  5. […] From synoikismos to dissolution (old post). […]

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