In his new book, Neos Kosmos‘ own Billy Cotsis explores 36 Hellenic kingdoms, territories, empires and a fiefdom to demonstrate the extent of the Greek world. From Pyrrhus to Cyprus covers the period following the end of the Alexandrian empire to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. Added to the mix are a number of independent Greek entities which existed during and post Ottoman times. The book has a twist and a connector in that it is told by a fictional Thucydides, who has managed to survive for an eternity thanks to a spell cast by Apollo. This is Cotsis’ tribute to the brilliance of Thucydides as the first-ever historian who truly presented primary facts with minimal bias.
This book is my tribute to the brilliance of Thucydides as the first ever historian who truly presented primary facts with minimal bias.
To mark the impending release of his fascinating new book, Billy provides Neos Kosmos with his 10 favourite empires/kingdoms based on geographical size, impact on history and contribution to Hellenism.
#10. Indo-Greek Kingdom
The Indo-Greek Kingdom in the Far East is arguably the most fascinating of all the Hellenistic kingdoms, emerging from the Greek-Bactrian Kingdom in Afghanistan. The Greeks of Bactria fought each other until the kingdom finally ceased to exist. However, in India circa 100BC a new kingdom emerged, of which the most important Indo-Greek king was Menander, known as Milinda by the locals. He converted to Buddhism, and encouraged the arts and sciences, resulting in a unique artistic style that survived for centuries in India. Like all the Hellenistic Age successor (post-Alexander) kingdoms, the official language was Greek, with a strong preference for Greek customs, culture and religion, which blended with local elements of the same. This merging of cultures was a unique way of keeping the population onside. The empire came to an end in AD10. This kingdom just pipped the obscure Commagene Kingdom for tenth spot.
#9. Empire of Trebizond
“When and where was the last Greek empire?” The responses have been as follows: Alexander, the guys from 300, Byzantine Empire, Ptolemies of Egypt, Mytileneans (love Lesvos therefore I had to mention them somewhere).
Those who mentioned the Byzantine Empire, which came to end in 1453, came really close. It was actually in 1460, when the Empire of Trebizond fell to the Ottoman Turks after over two-and-a-half centuries of existence. When I mention this type of trivia to my friends they either usually ignore me or simply think that my tendency to promote all things Greek has actually slipped into the realm of make-believe. It’s true, there really was an Empire of Trebizond. Wait until I tell you about the Principality of Theobald that ended 15 years later.
Trebizond on the Black Sea (around Pontus) has a unique position in history and one that appears to be overlooked. The last Greek Empire. It is in an era that included Crusaders, the Seljuks and rise of the Ottomans, the decline of Constantinople, emergence of Venice, Franks and the Mongols.
#8. Empire of Nicaea
The tragedy of Greece can best be encapsulated by an empire that for a brief era shone brightly, while simultaneously fighting fellow Hellenes and staving off circling vultures. The Greek world since the 1100s experienced many internal wars rather than concentrate on the growing Seljuk/Ottoman power and the sustained Bulgarian threat.
Nicaea came about from treacherous circumstances in 1204, with the taking of Constantinople by Latin Crusaders. Three splinter empires emerged; Trebizond, the Despotate of Epiros and Nicaea in Asia Minor. Each spent the next few decades fighting fellow Greeks and Latin traitors before Nicaea reclaimed Constantinople in 1261. This reunified the Byzantine Empire. At its peak, Nicaea controlled 40 per cent of Asia Minor, Greek islands,
Thessaloniki and other territories in the Balkans. When Constantinople was recaptured by the Greeks, Nicaea became one of the few empires to retire without being conquered.
#7. Pyrrhus and the Kingdom of Epirus
In 334, Alexander of Epirus acceded to the throne and he chose to invade Magna Graecia (Greater Greece in Italy). Alexander was killed by the Romans in battle three years later.
In 306 a name that would be used for all time to mark a costly victory, or rather a hollow one, came to the throne; the champion of the Greek cause in Italy. I should point out he was the second cousin of Alexander the Great through Olympia. He expanded territory against Macedon, taking frontier zones and Thessaly for a while.
In 281, he took on the might of the Romans in Magna Graecia, initially to help the Greek city of Tarentum, which asked for Pyrrhus’ protection against Rome.
At Heraclea the following year he won with a force of 25,000 and in 279 he defeated them again at Ausculum in Apulia. This proved a costly victory as the large force suffered massive casualties, hence a ‘Pyrrhic victory’.
Crossing over to Sicily to take on the Carthaginians, he suddenly changed. Calling himself the King of Sicily, he began to act as a tyrant. The Battle of Beneventum in 275 was one that was inconclusive. Usually, Pyrrhus would win a battle with the loss of thousands of men, and his opponents would suffer high casualties too. However, they would always be able to replenish their forces. Pyrrhus was able to draw on the Greek cities, though nothing matched the almost unlimited manpower of Rome.
Taking the hint that this would not be a war he could win, the undefeated Pyrrhus withdrew to Epirus, in effect losing Magna Graecia except Tarentum.
Thereafter, he destroyed Antigonus of Macedon in 274, gaining the Macedonian throne. Hence some solace for withdrawing from Italy, becoming the strongest power in the Greek heartland. He was eventually killed in the Peloponnese in 272. The kingdom lasted until 167.
#6. Spartan hegemony
Among the constant fighting, and set against the backdrop of a looming shadow from Rome, were Athens and Sparta; the greatest powers of the fifth century. Sparta defeated the Athenian-led Delian League by 404BC to become the preeminent power of the Mediterranean and Greek world. She remained the Greek leader until defeat by Thebes in 371. In actuality, Sparta was never geared for global domination.
Sparta had a decline in population and refused to amend its strict ways. There was a point when a king proposed allowing serfs to be freed and given citizenship. He was quickly disposed of. Spartan leaders were sought after by international forces and would occasionally be found leading foreign military in distant lands. The declining population ensured that Sparta would be ripe for occupation. This did not actually occur until late in the Hellenistic era. The reason for that was twofold. Sparta retained a well-trained military despite low numbers, and their ferocious reputation. Philip and Alexander never actually ventured to Sparta due to that reputation. The story goes the former once sent an ultimatum to Sparta that they recognise him as the true leader of Greece for if they did not, Macedon would invade. The one word answer was simple, “IF …”
#5. Seleucid Kingdom of Asia
When Alexander died of either food poisoning or perhaps the Indian belly bug, his generals, the Diadochi, divided his empire. The two most prominent were Ptolemy and Seleucus.
The territory taken by the latter included Asia Minor, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Turkmenistan and the Indus Valley. The contribution of the Seleucids to history cannot be underestimated, for they truly implemented the multicultural policy of Alexander and encouraged trade from as far afield as India to Greece. Seleucus and his successors established a number of Greek settlements in Asia with former Greek soldiers and traders. In fact, more settlements were established than Alexander could ever have imagined and, like the other kingdoms, the Greek language was dominant, outlasting the empire by hundreds of years. As to be expected by typical Greeks, the Seleucids were involved in many wars with fellow Hellenes and by 60BC a weakened empire was finally defeated by Rome.
#4. Ptolemaic Egypt
Alexander conquered Egypt in 334, establishing Alexandria. When Alexander died in 323, one of his favourite generals, Ptolemy, took control of Egypt, launching the Ptolemaic kingdom. The Hellenic city of Alexandria was the capital.
Royalty only spoke Greek and intermarried (we now call that incest) to protect the bloodline. Conversely, they also called themselves successors to the pharaohs − a smart policy that Alexander had created as he sought to blend Greek with local.
Ptolemy adopted many local customs to keep the local population on side. All of his successors never learnt the local language. Cleopatra was the first to speak a language other than Greek! Actually, if you were a Greek living in Egypt, you were subject only to Hellenic law.
The kingdom ended in 30BC when Cleopatra, having chosen to side with Marc Antony, was defeated by Rome. Cleopatra is one of the most famous women of all time, perhaps the most famous. Pity, though, that the Ptolemaic Kingdom is not as well known, for at its peak, the kingdom included Libya, Cyprus, Egypt and a significant area of the Near East.
#3. Athens and the Delian League
Arguably, the reason why civilisation is as advanced as it is can be traced back to the Golden Age of Athens. She developed her power, territory and ’empire’ to the point that it came into conflict with Sparta. That empire was the Delian League (nominally free city-states under Athenian leadership) which maintained its treasury on the island of Delos until it was moved to Athens. The great city was the equivalent of the US today, something of a global police force, intervening in places such as Sicily, Egypt, Asia Minor and part of the Balkans.
Defeated many times from 404BC, Athens seemingly regained independence to play a leading role in Greek affairs as a voice, diplomat and at times on the battlefield. As always she remained the focal point of culture until the emergence of Alexandria as a rival and the eclipse by Rome. The arts, theatre, politics, thought processes, human meaning, still played out in Athens even though it was no longer their exclusive domain.
#2. Byzantine Empire
I have always rated the Byzantine Empire as my favourite and most powerful for its numerous achievements over an eleven hundred year period. It is this longevity which makes the empire unique, shading Athens.
The empire, with Constantinople as its capital, was originally Roman and can also be argued as being a multicultural empire. Having said that, the use of Greek as its official language by AD602, the Greek Orthodox religion and the view in Europe by the ninth century that it was Hellenic, ensures its status as a Greek empire. In fact, Greece and Cyprus probably would not exist had it not been for the empire which preserved ancient Greek texts, language, cultivating Greek culture and defending against foreign invaders. The defence kept out Avars, Arabs, medieval Persians, Seljuks and Russians. Europe owes Byzantium a massive, massive debt of gratitude for holding these forces out.
The empire at its peak covered North Africa, the Near East, Balkans, most of the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. By the time Basil II ascended the throne in 976 the empire was covering more of the traditional Greek-speaking areas.
#1. Alexander the Great, Philip II and Macedon
In modern America and Australia, they talk about a cultural melting pot, multiculturalism. Alexander was the first ruler to adopt this policy. Wherever he conquered, he encouraged his men to marry local women. He of course married a Persian princess to solidify his influence in the conquered territory. Undefeated in battle, he created well over 30 cities and settlements, usually named after him. The Macedonian Kingdom was arguably the greatest Hellenic empire and stands alongside Rome, Byzantium and Persia for its impact on civilisation. Hellenic ideals spread across the known world and the Greek language became the equivalent of English today. Greek ideals spread and flourished.
Sadly, there is some debate in the Balkans today about Alexander and Philip. I chose not to get into a debate, instead focusing on the magnificent civilisation changes that Macedon made. Its history will always provide the correct answers.
Alexander truly was great, however, spare a thought for his father, who created the phalanx fighting formation and defeated and unified the Greek heartland. Had he lived, he would have emulated Alexander as he actually prepared the Persian invasion as revenge for their previous century invasion of Greece. The kingdom which controlled most of the Greek heartland lasted until 146BC on a smaller scale.
Honourable mentions: Kingdom of Commagene edge of Asia Minor, Thebes, Syracuse, Despotate of Epiros, Bactria and Mithridates of Pontus.
From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities & a Fiefdom is out now and available through Amazon, selected Greek book stores or via [email protected]