— Way back in the fourth century B.C., a young Alexander the Great thundered across what is now the Middle East in a bloody mission that ranks among the most brilliant military conquests in history.
And according to almost any textbook, Alexander, though barely out of his teens, paved the way for the rapid spread of Greek culture throughout that tortured land.
But according to some intriguing research, the young Macedonian's achievements may not have been as great as his name implies. The evidence suggests quite strongly that Greek material culture, at least, flourished as far away as the coast of what is now Israel at least a century before Alexander's conquests.
The findings dispute the widely held belief that Hellenization, or the spread of Greek culture, "went into high gear" on the heels of Alexander's military exploits, says Andrew F. Stewart, an art historian and archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is heading up an international team of experts investigating the matter.
"What we think we can prove is that's not true," Stewart says.
The evidence also suggests that Greek culture did not increase, at least in that area, under Alexander.
"If anything there was a bit of retrenchment," Stewart says.
Artifacts Suggest Earlier Greek Culture
Why should anyone care, other than a bunch of art historians? Simply this. It may seem logical to assume that military victories in places like Iran, Afghanistan, Israel and other hot spots will lead to the spread of the culture and values of the conquering forces. But beneath a small mound overlooking two ancient sand-filled harbors, archaeologists are uncovering evidence that "decouples material culture from military conquest," Stewart says.
For nearly two decades Steward has been digging into the sandy soil where a Phoenician town once thrived on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, in what is now Israel. The site is extraordinarily rare in that it has remained relatively undisturbed for two millennium.
No modern city rose on the ruins of Dor, as has happened in so many areas of archaeological interest, and the nearest village was an Arab settlement just to the south, abandoned in 1948 after the Israeli war of independence. It was replaced by a kibbutz, Nachsholim, a popular retreat for beach lovers who flock to the white sands carried along the Mediterranean shoreline by the northward thrust of the Nile River.
Stewart and other researchers from Berkeley, as well as Hebrew University in Jerusalem and several other American, Canadian and South African universities, have recovered more than 100,000 artifacts from the site, mostly pottery. They tell a graphic story of how that community changed from a Phoenician culture steeped in boat building and seamanship to a veritable outpost of Greek material culture by 400 B.C., well before Alexander's exploits began in 336 B.C.
Stewart refers to it as "material" culture because there is no evidence yet of literary, or political, Greek culture spreading into that area. The artifacts show only that the people who lived there, or the people who moved there, were deeply involved in the production of material items, like pottery, that was clearly Greek in nature.
And they were into it big time.
"It tells you that the community on that site was buying lock, stock and barrel into Greek material culture, as opposed to merely sporadically importing stuff," Stewart says.
That's significant because it shows that these people were Greeks, or really wanted to be at least partly like Greeks, long before they had heard of Alexander. So "Hellenization" didn't come in with Alexander. It was there to greet him when he first arrived.
But does that mean Alexander was overrated by historians? Not necessarily. His military might was something extraordinary.
The young Alexander, who had been tutored by Aristotle, ascended to the throne of the Macedonian region when his father, Phillip II, was assassinated in the summer of 336 B.C. Surrounded by enemies, he moved quickly to gain control of the rest of Greece, although he was not yet 20 years old.
Historians consider him a brilliant military tactician with an exceptional ability to rally his troops in the face of what might have seemed overwhelming challenges. With 35,000 troops he overcame armies many times that size, although many experts believe the strength of the opposition has been greatly overestimated by historians. But whatever the odds, in three years time he blazed a trail from what is now Turkey to Egypt, dismantling the Persian Empire.
He fell ill in Babylon in 323, and died there at the age of 33.
There is no doubt that Greek culture became deeply entrenched in the major cities under his rule, many of which he named Alexandria, but the story in the hinterlands, where "most people lived" is still unclear, Stewart says.
It was well established at Dor long before Alexander's rule, but the archaeological record is so incomplete that it's impossible at this point to say whether Dor was the exception or the rule. It seems likely that the same cultural transition happened throughout much of the area, but no one knows for sure.
What is clear is that on the heels of Alexander's triumphs, some of the people of Dor grew disenchanted with all things Greek. Some artifacts show that "sometimes the locals were trying to reach back to their roots," rejecting both the style and substance of Greek pottery.
They probably grew tired of Alexander and his generals.
"After all, the Macedonians were pretty harsh overlords," Stewart says.
Yet Greek culture refused to go away. The researchers have pieced together one extraordinary piece of a mosaic floor. At the center of the mosaic is a mask worn by a young Greek man in comic theater, complete with an intricate headband of various colored glass and pottery. It is believed to have been created in Dor around 100 B.C., most likely by an itinerant artisan from Greece.
"Everything about it is Greek," Stewart says.
The centerpiece is the young man in the mask.
"We call him the Young Dandy of Dor," Stewart adds.
And he, too, is very Greek.
He came along after Alexander, but he was preceded for centuries by less spectacular Greek artifacts, revealing that the spread of culture was not entirely dependent on military conquest. It's much more complex than that.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.