Letters to the Churches of Asia - 11 - Cities of Asia, Greek and Asiatic Culture

Chapter 11: The Cities of Asia as Meeting-Places of the Greek and the Asiatic Spirit

The marked and peculiar character of the society and population of the great Asian cities, amid which the local Churches were built up, is present in the writer's mind throughout the Seven Letters; and it is necessary to form some conception of this subject. Disregarding differences, we shall try to describe briefly the chief forces which had been at work in those cities during the last three centuries, and the prominent features that were common to them all about AD 90. Some of them were ancient Greek colonies, like Smyrna and Ephesus, some were old Anatolian cities, like Pergamum and Sardis; but all these had recently experienced great changes, and many new cities, like Laodicea, Philadelphia, Thyatira, had been founded by the kings.

The successors of Alexander the Great were Greek kings, ruling Oriental lands and peoples. To maintain their hold on their dominions it was necessary to build up a suitable organisation in the countries over which they ruled. Their method everywhere was similar: it was to make cities that should be at once garrisons to dominate the country and centres of Graeco-Asiatic manners and education, which the kings were desirous of spreading among their Oriental subjects. The rather pedantic adjective Graeco-Asiatic is used to describe the form which Greek civilisation was forced to assume, as it attempted to establish itself in Oriental lands: it did not merely change the cities, it was itself much altered in the attempt. Sometimes those kings founded new cities, where previously there seem to have been only villages. Sometimes they introduced an accession of population and change of constitution in already existing cities, a process which may be described as re-founding. In both cases alike a new name, connected with the dynasty, was almost invariably substituted for the previous name of the village or city, though in many cases the old name soon revived, e.g., in Ephesus and in Tarsus. Commonest among them were the Seleucid names Antioch and Laodicea, and the Macedonian Alexandria.

The new population consisted generally of colonists brought from foreign countries, who were considered intruders and naturally not much liked by the older population. The colonists were granted property and privileges in their new cities; and they knew that the continuance of their fortunes and rights depended on the permanence of the royal government which had introduced them. Thus those strangers constituted a loyal garrison in every city where they had been planted. With them were associated in loyalty the whole party that favoured the royal policy, or hoped to profit by it. It would appear that these constituted a powerful combination in the cities. They were in general the active, energetic, and dominating party.

How important in the New Testament writings those Asian foundations of the Greek kings were, is brought out very clearly by a glance over the list of cities. Laodicea and Thyatira were founded or refounded by Seleucid kings: the Ionian Greek cities in general were profoundly modified by them. Ephesus, Smyrna, Troas, Pergamum and Philadelphia were refounded by other Greek kings in the same period and under similar circumstances.

Two classes of settlers were specially required and encouraged in the Seleucid colonies. In the first place, of course, soldiers were needed. These were found chiefly among the mercenaries of many nations--but mostly of northern race, Macedonians, Thracians, etc.--who made up the strength of the Seleucid armies. The harsh, illiterate, selfish, domineering tone of those soldier-citizens was often satirised by the Greek writers of the third and second centuries before Christ, who delighted to paint them as braggarts, cowards at heart, boasting of false exploits; and the boastful soldier, the creation of Greek wit and malice, has been perpetuated since that time on the Roman and the Elizabethan stage in traits essentially the same.

But the Greek kings knew well that soldiers alone were not enough to establish their cities on a permanent basis. Other colonists were needed, able to manage, to lead, to train the rude Oriental peasantry in the arts on which civilised life must rest, to organise and utilise their labour and create a commercial system. The experience of the present day in the cities of the east Mediterranean lands shows where such colonists could best be found. They were Greeks and Jews. Nowadays Armenians also would be available; but at that time Armenia had hardly come within reach of even the most elementary civilisation. Only among the Greeks and the Jews was there that familiarity with ideals, that power and habit of thinking for themselves and of working for a future and remote end, which the kings needed in their colonists. Modern students do not as a rule conceive the Jews as an educated race, and some can hardly find language strong enough to describe their narrowness and deadness of intellect. But when compared with the races that surrounded them, the Greeks excepted, the Jews stood on a far higher intellectual platform: they knew one book (or, rather, one collection of books) well, and it was a liberal education to them.

One might hardly expect to find that the Greeks were loyal subjects of Seleucid kings. They were apt to be democratic and unruly; but it is as true of ancient as it is of modern times that the Greeks are "better and more prosperous under almost any other government than they are under their own." They accommodated themselves with their usual dexterity and pliancy to their position; and circumstances, as we have seen, made them dependent on the kings. The stagnant and unprogressive Oriental party looked askance at and disliked the Greek element; and the latter must regard the kings as their champions, even though the Seleucid kings were far too autocratic and too strongly tinged with the Oriental fashions for the Greek colonists to feel in thorough sympathy with them. But settlers and kings alike had the common interest that they must dominate the uneducated mass of the ancient population. Thus the constitution of the new cities was a compromise, a sort of limited monarchy, where democratic freedom and autocratic rule tempered and restrained each other; and the result was distinctly favourable to the development and prosperity of the cities.

It may seem even stranger that the Jews should be found by Seleucid kings their best and most loyal subjects outside of Palestine, for those kings were considered by the Jews of Palestine to be the most deadly enemies of their race and religion. But the Jew outside of Palestine was a different person and differently situated from the Jew in his own land. Abroad he was resigned to accept the government of the land in which he lived, and to make the best of it; and he found that loyalty was by far the best policy. He could be useful to the government; and the government was eager to profit by and ready to reward his loyalty. Thus their interest were identical. Moreover, the Jewish colonies planted by the Seleucid kings in Asia Minor and Cilicia were all older than the Maccabean rising, when the Jewish hatred for the Seleucid kings came to a head.

Their moral scruples divided the Jews from their neighbours in the cities, and thereby made them all the more sensible of the fact that it was the royal favour which maintained them safe and privileged in the places where they lived as citizens. In Palestine their ritual kept the Jews aloof from and hostile to the Seleucid kings, and fed their national aspirations. But in the Graeco-Asiatic cities their ritual actually bound them more closely to the king's service.

Through similar causes, at a later time, the Jews in Palestine hated the Roman government and regarded it as the abominable thing, and they were subdued only after many rebellions and the most stubborn resistance. And yet, through that troubled period, the Jews outside Palestine were loyal subjects of the Empire, distinguished by their special attachment to the side of the Emperors against the old Roman republican party.

Moreover, the Jews, an essentially Oriental race, found the strong Oriental tinge in the policy of the Seleucid kings far more congenial to them than the Greek colonists could do. The "grave Hebrew trader," if one may imitate the words of Matthew Arnold, was by nature essentially opposed to "the young, light-hearted master of the wave." Hence the Jewish settlers formed a counterpoise against the Greek colonists in the Seleucid cities, and, wherever the Greek element seemed too strong, the natural policy of the kings was to plant Jews in the same city.

That remarkable shifting and mixing of races was, of course, not produced simply by arbitrary acts of the Greek kings, violently transporting population hither and thither at their caprice. The royal policy was successful, because it was in accordance with the tendencies of the time as described in chapter 1. The Graeco-Asiatic cities between 300 and 100 BC were in process of natural growth through the settling in them of strangers; and the strangers came for purposes of trade, eager to make money. The kings interfered only to regulate and to direct to their own advantage a process which they had not originated and could not have prevented. What they did for those strangers was to give them the fullest rights in the cities where they settled. The strangers and their descendants would have always remained aliens; but the kings made them citizens, gave them a voice in the government and a position in the city as firm and influential as that of the best, increased their numbers by assisting immigrants, and presented them with lands.

Even the Jews, though introduced specially by the Seleucid kings, and always most numerous in the Seleucid colonies, were spread throughout the great cities of the Greek world, and especially in the chief centres of trade and finance (as might be expected).

The result of that free mixture of races in the Graeco-Asiatic cities was to stimulate a rapid and precocious development. There was great ease of intercourse and freedom of trade, a settled and sound coinage and monetary system, much commerce on a considerable scale, much eagerness and opportunity to make money by large financial operations. There was also a notable development on the intellectual side. Curiosity was stimulated in the meeting of such diverse races. The Oriental came into relations with the European spirit: each tried to understand and to outwit the other.

Thus an amalgamation of Oriental and European races and intellect, manners and law, was being worked out practically in the collision and competition of such diverse elements. It was an experiment in a direction that is often theorised about and discussed at the present day. Can the east take on the western character? Can the Asiatic be made like a European? In one sense that is impossible: in another sense it was done in the Graeco-Asiatic cities, and can be done again. It was done in them, not by Europeanising the Asiatic, but by profoundly modifying both; each learned from the other; and that is the only treatment of the problem that can ever be successful.

This great experiment in human development was conducted on a small scale and in a thin soil, but as all the more precocious on that account, and also the more short-lived. It was a hot-house growth, produced in circumstances which were evanescent; and it was unnatural and unhealthy.

The smallness of scale on which all Greek history was conducted is one of its most remarkable features. In Greece proper, as contrasted with the big countries and the large masses of modern nations, the scale was quite minute. In the Graeco-Asiatic States the scale seemed much greater; but development was really confined to a number of spots here and there, showing only as dots on a map, small islets in the great sea of stagnant, unruffled, immovable Orientalism. The Greek political and social system demanded a small city as its scene, and broke down when the attempt was made to apply it on a larger scale. But no more stimulating environment to the intellect could be found than was offered in the Graeco-Asiatic cities, and the scanty glimpses which we get into the life of those cities reveal to us a very quick, restless, intelligent society, keenly interested in a rather empty and shallow kind of philosophic speculation, and almost utterly destitute of any vivifying and invigorating ideal.

The interest and importance to us of this moment in society lies in the fact that Pauline Christianity arose in it and worked upon it. In every page of Paul's writings that restless, self-conceited, morbid, unhealthy society stands out in strong relief before the reader. He knew it so well, because he was born and brought up in its midst. He conceived that his mission was to regenerate it, and the plan which he saw to be the only possible one was to save the Jew from sinking down to the pagan level by elevating the pagan to the true Jewish level. The writer of the Seven Letters also, though a Jew from Palestine, had learned to know the Asian cities by long residence.

The noblest feature of Greek city life was its zeal and provision for education. The minute carefulness with which those Asian-Greek cities legislated and provided for education--watching over the young, keeping them from evil, graduating their physical and mental training to suit their age, moving them on from stage to stage--rouses the deepest admiration in the scholar who laboriously spells out and completes the records on the broken stones on which they are written, and at the same time convinces him how vain is mere law to produce any healthy education. It is pathetic to think how poor was the result of all those wise and beautiful provisions.

The literature of the age has almost utterly perished; but the extremely scanty remains, along with the Roman imitations of it, do not suggest that there was anything really great in it, though much cleverness, brilliance, and sentimentality. Perhaps Theocritus, who comes at the beginning of the age, might rank higher; but the great master of bucolic poetry, the least natural form of poetic art, can hardly escape the charge of artificiality and sentimentality. In the realm of creative literature, the spirit of the age is to be compared with that of the Restoration in England, and partakes of the same deep-seated immorality.

The age was devoted to learning: it investigated antiquities, studied the works of older Greek writers, commented on texts; and the character of the time, in its poorness of fibre and shallowness of method, is most clearly revealed in this department. It is hardly possible to find any trace of insight or true knowledge in the fragments of this branch of literature that have come down to us. Athenodorus of Tarsus was in many respects a man of ability, courage, education, high ideas and practical sense; but take a specimen of his history of his own city: "Anchiale, daughter of Japetos, founded Anchiale (a city near Tarsus): her son was Cydnus, who gave his name to the river at Tarsus: the son of Cydnus was Parthenius, from whom the city was called Parthenia: afterwards the name was changed to Tarsus." This habit of substituting irrational "fables and endless genealogies" (1 Tim 1:4) for the attempt really to understand nature and history was engrained in the spirit of the time, and shows how superficial and unintelligent its learning was. Out of it could come no real advance in knowledge, but only frivolous argumentation and "questionings" (1 Tim 1:4).

Only in the department of moral philosophy did the age sometimes reach a lofty level. A touch of Oriental sympathy with the Divine nature enabled Athenodorus and others to express themselves with singular dignity and beauty on the duty of man and his relation to God. But the "endless genealogies" frequently obtruded themselves in their finest speculations.

The Christian letters need to be constantly illustrated from the life of those cities, and to be always read in the light of a careful study of the society in them. It was, above all, the philosophical speculation in which they excelled and delighted that Paul detested. He saw serious danger in it. Not only was it useless and resultless in itself, mere "empty deceit" (Col 2:8), but, far worse, it led directly to superstition. Vain speculation, unable to support itself in its lofty flight, unable to comprehend the real unity of the world in God, invented for itself silly genealogies (1 Tim 1:4), in which nature and creation were explained under the empty fiction of sonship, and a chain of divine beings in successive generations was made and worshipped; and human nature was humbly made subservient to these fictitious beings, who were described as "angels" (Col 2:18ff).

This philosophical speculation cannot be properly conceived in its historical development without bearing in mind the mixed population and the collision of Jewish and Greek thought which belonged to those great Graeco-Asiatic cities. It united Greek and Jewish elements in arbitrary eclectic systems. The mixture of Greek and Jewish thought is far more conspicuous in Asia Minor than in Europe. Hence there is not much trace of it in the Corinthian letters (though some writers try to discover it, and lay exaggerated stress on it): the Corinthian philosophers were of a different kind. But in the cities of Asia, Phrygia, South Galatia, and Cilicia--all along the great roads leading east and west across Asia Minor--the minds of men were filled with crude attempts at harmonising and mingling Oriental (especially Jewish) and Greek ideas. Their attempts took many shapes, from mere vulgar magical formulae and arts to the serious and lofty morality of Athenodorus the Tarsian in his highest moments of philosophy.

When we think of the intellectual skill, the philosophic interest, and the extreme cleverness of the age, we feel the inadequacy of those arguments--or rather those unargued assertions--according to which the Epistle to the Colossians reveals a stage of philosophic speculation, as applied to Christian doctrines, so advanced that it could not have been reached earlier than the second century. How long would it take those clever and subtle philosophic inquirers in those cities to achieve the slight feat of intellectual gymnastics presupposed in the Epistle?

Such then was the motley population of the numerous Seleucid colonies which were planted in Lydia, Phrygia, Pisidia, and Lycaonia during the third century, and in Cilicia during the second century BC. The language of the settlers was Greek, the language of trade and education; and it was through these cities that a veneer of Greek civilisation was spread over the Asiatic coasts.


Figure 9: Sardis--First Metropolis of Asia, of Lydia, and of Hellenism

The jealousies and rivalries of those great cities are a quaint feature of their history in the Roman period. The old Greek pride in their patris, their father-land--which to them was simply their city--had no longer the opportunity of expressing itself in the field of politics. No city could have a foreign policy. Even in municipal matters, while the Empire nominally allowed home rule, yet in practice it discouraged it: the management of city business was more and more taken out of the hands of the cities: the Emperor was there to think for all and provide for all better than they could for themselves. Municipal pride expressed itself in outward show, partly in the healthier direction of improving and beautifying the cities, partly in the vainglorious invention of names and titles. In every Province and district there was keen competition for the title first of the Province or the district. Every city which could pretend to the first place in respect of any qualification called itself "first," and roused the jealousy of other cities which counted themselves equally good. Smyrna was "first of Asia in size and beauty," Ephesus first of Asia as the landing-place of every Roman official, Pergamum first as the official capital, and Sardis boldly styled itself "first metropolis of Asia, of Lydia, of Hellenism" on the arrogant coin represented in Figure 9. Similarly in the Province Bithynia Nicomedia and Nicaea competed for the primacy. So again in Cilicia Tarsus and Anazarba, in one district of Macedonia Philippi and Amphipolis (see chapter 14), disputed with one another about those empty titles. A temporary agreement between the three chief cities of Asia, implying a lull in their rivalry, is attested by the coin shown in Figure 10, chapter 14.

The prosperity, both material and intellectual, of the cities was very great under the kings. As the dynasties decayed, the Romans took over their power, and during the disintegration of the Roman Republic and the long Civil Wars the cities suffered severely from misgovernment and extortion. But prosperity was restored by the triumph of the new Empire, which was welcomed with the utmost enthusiasm by the Graeco-Asiatic cities. The Roman Empire did not, as a rule, need to found cities and introduce new population in order to maintain its hold on Asia Minor. It stood firmly supported by the loyalty of the city population. Only on the South-Galatian frontier was a line of Coloniae--Antioch, Lystra, etc.--needed to protect the loyal cities from the unsubdued tribes of Mount Taurus. The two Roman Coloniae in Asia, Troas and Parium, were founded for sentimental and economic reasons, not to hold a doubtful land.

But the history of those cities, and the letters of the New Testament, show that a very high degree of order, peace and prosperity may result in a thoroughly unhealthy life and a steady moral deterioration, unless the condition of the public mind is kept sound by some salutary idea. The salutary idea which was needed to keep the Empire sound and the cities healthy was what Paul preached; and that idea was the raising of the Gentiles to equality with the Jews in religion and morality.

An amalgamation of Oriental and Hellenic religious ideas had been sought by many philosophers, and was practised in debased forms by impostors who traded on the superstitions of the vulgar. It was left for Christianity to place it before the world accomplished and perfected.