The Power of Rome in Athens
It has often been my inclination when in Athens to sketch the monuments and buildings, whether the drawings came out a bit wonky or not. If you look at the archaeological landscape of Athens, much of what you see was commissioned by the Romans. The Roman additions to the Athenian landscape have some incredibly beautiful examples of second century BCE imperial architecture, with emperors like Hadrian paying homage through benefaction to the heyday of Greek power.The Antigonid’s took over leadership of Macedon and Greece following the end of Alexander the Great’s family line, and successfully wielded the same ideology to justify their control over the Greeks: ‘protectors of Greek freedom’, an iron fist in a velvet glove so to speak; they controlled Greece through benevolent subjugation. Through the general practice of eugaritism (benefaction for honours), the Greeks were given beautiful buildings, festivals, and money in return for obeisance to Macedonian authority. For their own part, the Greeks had spent the last few hundred years restlessly under the yoke of the Macedonians, who they considered barely civilized.
The Antigonid’s power waned as the burgeoning Roman Empire began to orbit around Greece. After generations of skirmishes, battles and dynastic struggles, their depleted resources and weakness allowed a small wedge to open up for the canny Italian republic.
Playing the powers of the Mediterranean against each other and their respective leagues, the Romans effectively weakened them and loosened the Antigonid kings’ grip on their territories. Over time, any political disagreements, wars and finances had to be presented to the Romans for approval and action. Rome’s role in Greece in this period is perhaps it is better understood as a macro-level of benefactor to the Hellenic people, but with massive and tangled strings attached.
The Greek city-states chafed under this control. A last play for self-determination led the Greek city-states to throw their weight behind the pretender to the partitioned Macedonian throne, Perseus of Macedon. After a series of wars, aptly called the Macedonian Wars, culminating in the defeat of the allied Greeks under Perseus in 146 BCE, Greek independence gave way to foreign rule officially, though they were still left to govern themselves nominally. Macedonian cities fared less well however as a result of the war, and were depopulated.
Officially annexing Macedonia and making it a Roman Province, the landscape of power was irrevocably changed in Greece forever. As in most political takeovers, the elites of the conquered peoples are not slow to see the turning tide, and are often installed in important political positions if they are complicit in securing a smooth(ish) submission. Wealthy Greeks could still wield power, as in the case with Herodes Atticus, but they answered to the Romans.
While there is infinitely more to say about the transition of power between the Hellenistic period into the Roman, I will try not to throw it at you all at once. For the purposes of this blog, we can dip our toes into the mire when it suits, and hopefully the obfuscated picture of this complex period of history will form cohesive shapes.
This transition affected the Athenians positively and disastrously at times. Perhaps the Athenians’ position historically as cultural and imperial power over the Mediterranean awarded them a nod of respect from the Romans. Arguably however, not much had changed for the Greeks, as they were controlled again by foreign powers, except gone was the pretense that they were free.
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