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In 334 B.C. Alexander the Great took his Greek armies to the east and in only a few years completed his creation of an empire out of much of southwest Asia. In the new empire, barriers to trade and the movement of peoples were removed; markets were put in touch with one another. In the next generation thousands of Greek traders and artisans would enter this wider world to seek their fortunes. Alexander's actions had several important consequences for the region occupied by the empire.
The first of these was the expansion of Greek civilization throughout the Middle East. Greek became the great international language. Towns and cities were established not only as garrisons (military posts) but as centers for the diffusion of Greek language, literature, and thought, particularly through libraries, as at Antioch (in modern Turkey) and the most famous of all, at Alexandria in Egypt, which would be the finest in the world for the next thousand years.
Second, this internationalism spelled the end of the classical Greek city-state -- the unit of government in ancient Greece -- and everything it stood for. Most city-states had been quite small in terms of citizenry, and this was considered to be a good thing. The focus of life was the agora, the open marketplace where assemblies could be held and where issues of the day, as well as more fundamental topics such as the purpose of government or the relationship between law and freedom, could be discussed and decisions made by individuals in person. The philosopher Plato (428–348 B.C.), felt that the ideal city-state should have about 5,000 citizens, because to the Greeks it was important that everyone in the community should know each other. In decision making, the whole body of citizens together would have the necessary knowledge in order generally to reach the right decision, even though the individual might not be particularly qualified to decide. The philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), who lived at a time when the city-state system was declining, believed that a political entity of 100,000 simply would not be able to govern itself.
This implied that the city-state was based on the idea that citizens were not specialists but had multiple interests and talents -- each a so-called jack-of-all-trades who could engage in many areas of life and politics. It implied a respect for the wholeness of life and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implied economic and military self-sufficiency. But with the development of trade and commerce in Alexander's empire came the growth of cities; it was no longer possible to be a jack-of-all-trades. One now had to specialize, and with specialization came professionalism. There were getting to be too many persons to know; an easily observable community of interests was being replaced by a multiplicity of interests. The city-state was simply too "small-time."
Third, Greek philosophy was opened up to the philosophy and religion of the East. At the peak of the Greek city-state, religion played an important part. Its gods -- such as Zeus, father of the gods, and his wife Hera -- were thought of very much as being like human beings but with superhuman abilities. Their worship was linked to the rituals connected with one's progress through life -- birth, marriage, and death -- and with invoking protection against danger, making prophecies, and promoting healing, rather than to any code of behavior. Nor was there much of a theory of afterlife.
Even before Alexander's time, a life spent in the service of their city-state no longer seemed ideal to Greeks. The Athenian philosopher Socrates (470–399 B.C.) was the first person in Greece to propose a morality based on individual conscience rather than the demands of the state, and for this he was accused of not believing in the city's gods and so corrupting the youth, and he was condemned to death. Greek philosophy -- or even a focus on conscience -- might complement religion but was no substitute for it, and this made Greeks receptive to the religious systems of the Middle East, even if they never adopted them completely. The combination of the religious instinct of Asia with the philosophic spirit of Greece spread across the world in the era after Alexander's death, blending the culture of the Middle East with the culture of Greece.