Jon Witt defines a dominant ideology as “a set of cultural beliefs and practices that legitimates existing powerful social, economic, and political interests” (SOC 2012, 62). It is often thought of in contrast to the smaller subcultures and counter-cultures that exist within them. A dominant culture generally will be a body that assimilates the smaller cultures around it, taking in little bits of the surrounding cultures, but making the adherents of the other cultures lose their former cultural identities. It affects every aspect of human life: social issues, the economy, politics, religion, education, language, et cetera.
One can find examples of dominant cultures throughout human history. Some examples include the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) in America, the British Empire in the 1600s-1800s, Communism in the 1900s, the “Culture of Death” talked about by Bl. Pope John Paul II, Jim Crow and Segregation in the American South, the Roman Empire in Europe and North Africa from 100 BC to 400 AD, and the “Dictatorship of Relativism” talked about by Pope Benedict XVI. All of these examples, while they have major differences (some are cultural trends, some are groups within a society, others are the societies themselves), are good examples of a dominant culture.
One example I would like to look more in depth at is the Hellenizing cultures of the Seleucid Kingdom (one of the nations that split from Alexander the Great’s Kingdom after his death.) Hellenization (a reference to Homer’s character in The Iliad: Helen of Troy) is the name given to the cultural diffusion that would take place whenever Alexander’s armies would take over a new country. It would happen in two primary ways: the Greek armies would adopt some of the local customs (exs: Alexander became King of Persia and Pharaoh of Egypt [instead of just simply saying these places were part of the Kingdom of Macedon], foreign deities were added to the Greek Pantheon [not the building, but a general term for their religious system], and the religious/cultural texts of the various peoples taken over were translated into Greek and collected at Alexandria [like the Jewish Scriptures being collected in the Septuagint]) and the peoples that were taken over were also expected to take on different aspects of Greek culture (adopting the Greek gods as their own, learning Greek language and philosophy, using Greek currency [drachmas, denarii, et cetera], having deference to Alexander in varying degrees, among other things.) Most took to the change pretty well, but Helenization effected different peoples differently.
After the death of Alexander, his Kingdom (which stretched from Italy to India) was split up by his generals in a civil war, in the end leaving four Greek Kingdoms. The Seleucid (centered in Syria) Kingdom is especially interesting. Sitting right on the border of the Seleucids and the Ptolemys was a small area called Palestine. This was one of the smaller areas that Alexander had allowed to retain a certain degree of cultural identity (not requiring them to adopt Greek religion, being partially governed by their priesthood). Because this area was on the border of the two nations, it was often fought over by them and changed hands a lot (cf. Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 11.8-13.16).
The inhabitants of Palestine were mainly Abrahamic Monotheists who followed the Torah (Law) of Moses. There were Samaritans to the North (Samaria) and Jews to the South (Judaea) and the East (Galilee). To generalize, the Samaritans had been more assimilating than the Jews (some even accepting a looser form of Monotheism which believed the God of Israel was the God, while the gods of other nations were lesser gods), and the Jews held more steadfastly to their ancestral beliefs (strict Monotheism, keeping certain dietary laws). Though there were more moderate forms of diffusion that retained cultural traditions yet also learned from Greek culture (like the author of the Old Testament Book of Wisdom, the sage Yeshua ben Sira, the philosopher Philo, et cetera); some even leaving Palestine for other parts of the Greek Kingdoms.
Because of the various subcultures found in the area, when Antiochus IV (Epiphanes “[God] manifested”, “called Epimanes, ‘madman,’ by his enemies” [note on 2 Maccabees 4:7 in NOAB]), a Seleucid King, came to power in the area he pushed for Hellenization to be hurried up (for greater unity/social cohesion in the kingdom). He encouraged people to worship the Greek gods, and reject their ancestral traditions. The Samaritan Temple was rededicated to Zeus Hellenius and the Jewish Temple rededicated to Zeus Olympius (Antiquities 12.5). Antiochus also established a gymnasium in the city of Jerusalem and required the breaking of the Jewish Dietary Laws (Antiquities 12.6). The Bible records it like this, “Then the king [Antiochus] wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs…whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die” (1 Maccabees 1:41-42,50 NRSV). Because of the varying levels of diffusion and accepting of Greek culture among Palestinians, there were a couple of different reactions to this. Samaritans and more Hellenized Jews tended to support such moves. Jews more faithful to their way of life ended up doing one of two things: they were either martyred for not following the King’s orders or they violently fought against it. One can see from an account of the martyrdom of Eleazar the priest, that pressure to conform to Hellenization came not just from the Greeks, but often from their Jewish country men (“Eleazar, one of the scribes in high position, a man now advanced in age and of noble presence, was being forced to open his mouth to eat swine’s flesh [considered unclean in Judaism]…Those who were in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside because of their long acquaintancewith him, and privately urged him…to pretend that he was eating the flesh of the sacrificial meal that had been commanded by the king, so that by doing this he might be saved from death, and be treated kindly on account of his old friendship with them” [2 Maccabees 6:18,21-22 NRSV]). In the examples of Eleazar and of Mattathias (the original leader of the Hasmonean/Maccabean Revolt), one can also see that the government authorities often would go to the elders of the community first, to try to help lead the rest of the people to follow suit, but often these elders would end up becoming examples for the people to be deviant in response to the king’s demands. (cf. 1 Maccabees 1:15-28, 2 Maccabees 6:18-31, Antiquities 12.5-6). Both martyrdom and the military responses clearly exemplify what we mean by a counter-culture that rebels against the dominant ideology of the time. Eventually the rebellion was successful and took back Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple (the root of the feast of Hanukkah), and established the Hasmonean line of kings/priests (cf. 1 Maccabees 4, 9-16).
As Sociologists and Historians today, we constantly must look back on Dominant Ideologies of the past, and then take a look at our culture, and pick out the similarities and differences, to try to avoid the inevitable (or at least become aware of whatever we find.)
Josephus, Flavius. JOSEPHUS: The Complete Works. Trans. Whiston, William. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Ed. Michael Coogan. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. Print. New Revised Standard Version.
Witt, Jon. SOC 2012. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Print.