Hellenistic civilization

:"This article focuses on the cultural aspects of the Hellenistic age; for the historical aspects see Hellenistic period."

Hellenistic civilization represents the zenith of Greek influence in the ancient world. After the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great, Macedonian kingdoms were established in the throughout south-west Asia (the 'Near' and 'Middle East') and northern Africa (including Ancient Egypt). This resulted in the export of Greek culture and language to these new realms, and moreover Greek colonists themselves. Equally, however, these new kingdoms were influenced by the indigenous cultures, adopting local practices where beneficial, necessary or convenient. Hellenistic civilisation thus represents a fusion of the the ancient Greek world with that of Asia, and a departure from the traditional Greek attitude to "barbarian" cultures. The extent to which a genuinely hybrid Greco-Asian cultures emerged is contentious; consensus tends to point towards pragmatic cultural adaptation by the elites of society; for the mass of the population, life would probably have continued much as before [ Alexander The Great and the Hellenistic Age, p. xvii. Green, P. ISBN 978-0-7538-2413-9 ] .

The Hellenistic period was characterized by a new wave of Greek colonization (as distinguished from that occurring in the 8th-6th centuries BC) which established Greek cities and kingdoms in Asia and Africa.Ulrich Wilcken, "Griechische Geschichte im Rahmen der Alterumsgeschichte"] Those new cities were composed of Greek colonists who came from different parts of the Greek world, and not, as before, from a specific "mother city".. The main cultural centers expanded from mainland Greece, to Pergamon, Rhodes, and new Greek colonies such as Antioch and Alexandria. This mixture of Greek-speakers gave birth to a common Attic-based dialect, known as Hellenistic Greek, which became the "lingua franca" through the Hellenistic world.

The term Hellenistic itself is derived from Polytonic|Ἕλλην (Héllēn), the Greeks' traditional name for themselves. It was coined by the historian Johann Gustav Droysen to refer to the spreading of Greek culture and colonization over the non-Greek lands that were conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. There has been much debate about the validity of Droysen's ideas; leading many to reject the label 'Hellenistic' (at least in the specific meaning of Droysen) [ Alexander The Great and the Hellenistic Age, p. x, p xiv. Green, P. ISBN 978-0-7538-2413-9 ] . However, the term Hellenistic can still be usefully applied to this period in history; and moreover, no better general term exists to do so.


The nominal start of the Hellenistic period is usually taken as the death of Alexander the Great, in Babylon, in 323 BC. During the previous decade of campaigning Alexander had conquered the whole Persian Empire, overthrowing the Persian King Darius III. The conquered lands included Asia Minor, Assyria, the Levant, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Media, Persia, and parts of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the steppes of central Asia. Alexander had made no especial preparations for the succession to his new-found empire (dying, as he did, at a young age), and on his death-bed (apocryphally) willed his it to "the strongest" [ Alexander The Great and the Hellenistic Age, p.20. Green, P. ISBN 978-0-7538-2413-9 ] .

The result was a state of internecine warfare between his generals (the Diadochi, or 'Successors'), which lasted for forty years before a more-or-less stable settlement was established, resulting in four major domains:
* The Antigonid dynasty in Macedon and central Greece;
* The Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt based at Alexandria;
* The Seleucid dynasty in Syria and Mesopotamia based at Antioch;
* The Attalid dynasty in Anatolia based at Pergamum.A further two kingdoms later emerged, the so called Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms.

Each of these kingdoms has, thereafter, a noticeably individual development and history. For the most part, those histories are of gradual decline, with most ending in absorption by the Roman Republic. However, it is clear that the rulers of these kingdoms still considered themselves Greek, and furthermore, recognised that the other Hellenistic realms were also Greek and not 'barbarian'. Thus we find constant cycles of alliances, marriages and wars between these states [ Alexander The Great and the Hellenistic Age. Green, P. ISBN 978-0-7538-2413-9 ] .

The end of the Hellenistic period is often considered to be 146 BC, when the Roman Republic conquered most of mainland Greece, and absorbed all of ancient Macedon. By this time the rise of Rome to absolute political prominence in the Mediterranean was complete, and this might therefore mark the start of the 'Roman peiod'. An alternative date is 30 BC, when the final Hellenistic kingdom of Ptolemaic Egypt was conquered by Rome (the last remenants of the Seleucid empire having been taken over thirty years earlier). This more obviously represents the absolute end of the Hellenistic power, but also the end of Hellenistic civilisation (though not influence).

The Hellenistic World

In addition to the four main Successor kingdoms, there was a wider sphere of Greek influence during the Hellenistic period. Much of mainland Greece and the Greek islands remained at least nominally independent, although often dominated by Macedon. The kingdom of Epirus, bordering Macedon, was also heavily influence by the Greeks, and is often counted as a Hellenistic kingdom. Further west, the Greek cities of Sicily and southern Italy ('Magna Graecia') would remain independent for the early part of the period, until conquered by Rome; but they would in turn contribute to the growing Hellenization of the Roman Republic itself. In Asia Minor, the non-Greek kingdoms of Pontus and Cappadocia emerged, and though not directly hellenized, were heavily influence by the Greeks. At the eastern extremes of the Hellenistic world, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom was established as a secession from the Seleucid empire. During the 2nd century BC, the Greco-Bactrians seem to have conquered north-west India, forming an Indo-Greek kingdom, and furthering the spread of Greek influence (into what would otherwise have been a neglected part of the Seleucid realm). Indeed, the Indo-Greek kingdom may technically have been the last Hellenistic state remaining (until c.10 AD), although almost nothing is known of it, such was its seperation from European affairs; thus, by the end it may not have been particularly 'Hellenistic'.


Asia Minor

Asia Major




The concept of Hellenization, meaning the spread of Greek culture, has long been controversial. Undoubtedly Greek influence did spread through the Hellenistic realms, but to what extent, and whether this was a deliberate policy or mere cultural diffusion, have been hotly debated.


It seems likely that Alexander himself pursued deliberate 'Hellenization' policies, but the exact motives behind that policies are unclear. Whilst it may have been a deliberate attempt to spread Greek culture, it is more likely that it was a series of pragmatic measures designed to aid in the rule of his enormous empire [ Alexander The Great and the Hellenistic Age, p. 21. Green, P. ISBN 978-0-7538-2413-9 ] . These policies can also be interpreted as the result of Alexander's probable megalomania [ Alexander The Great and the Hellenistic Age, p. 23. Green, P. ISBN 978-0-7538-2413-9 ] during his later years.

The first tenet of Alexander's policies was the founding (or re-founding) of cities across the empire. This has, in the past, been interpreted as part of Alexander's desire to spread Greek culture throughout the empire. These cities were presumably intended to be administrative headquarters in the regions, and to have been settled by Greeks; many were settled by veterans of Alexander's campaigns. Undoubtedly, this would have resulted in the spread of Greek influence across the empire; however, the primary purpose could have been to control the population, rather than specifically to spread Greek culture. Arrian explicitly says that a city founded in Bactria was "meant to civilise the natives"; however, this comment could be interpreted in either way (with civilise as a euphemism for 'control'). Certainly, the cities would have been garrison points, and thus allowed control of the surrounding areas.

Secondly, Alexander attempted to create a unified ruling class of Persians and Greeks, bound by marriage ties. He used both Greeks and Persians in positions of power, although he depended more on Greeks in unstable positions, and also replaced many Persian satraps in a purge after his return from India. He also tried to mix the two cultures, adopting elements of the Persian court (such as a version of the royal robes and some of the court ceremony and attendants) and also attempting to insist on the practice of proskynesis for his Greek subjects. This is probably an attempt to equalise the two races in their behavior towards Alexander as 'Great King', but it was bitterly resented by the Macedonians, as the Greek custom was reserved solely for the gods. This policy can be interpreted as an attempt to spread Greek culture, or to create a hybrid culture. However, again, it is probably better seen as an attempt to help control the unwieldly empire [ Alexander The Great and the Hellenistic Age, p. 21. Green, P. ISBN 978-0-7538-2413-9 ] ; Alexander needed loyalty from Persian nobles as much as from his Macedonian officers. A hybrid court culture may have been created so as not to exclude the Persians. Furthermore, Alexander's marriage to, and child with the Bactrian princess Roxana can be interpreted as an attempt to create a royal dynasty which would be acceptable to both Asians and Greeks.

Alexander also unified the army, placing Persian soldiers (some trained in the Macedonian way of fighting and some in their original styles) in the Macedonian ranks. However, again, this can simply be seen as a pragmatic solution to chronic manpower problems. Alexander's increasing megalomania can be seen in his plan to completely homogenise the populations of Europe and Asia by mass re-settlement [ Alexander The Great and the Hellenistic Age, p. 23. Green, P. ISBN 978-0-7538-2413-9 ] . Whilst this thoroughly impractical plan could be interpreted as an attempt to create a new hybrid culture, the sheer ambitiousness of the plan suggests some other process at work.

In short, Alexander's policies did undoubtedly result in the spread of Greek culture, but whether this was their primary aim must remain doubtful. They probably represent, instead, pragmatic attempts by Alexander to control his extensive new territories, in part by presenting himself as the heir to both Greek and Asian legacies, rather than an outsider.

Hellenization under the Successors

After Alexander's death in 323, the Empire was split into satrapies under his generals. Most of Alexander's cultural changes were rejected by the Diadochi, including the cross-cultural marriages they had entered into [ Alexander The Great and the Hellenistic Age, p. 21. Green, P. ISBN 978-0-7538-2413-9 ] . However, the influx of Greek colonists into the new realms continued to spread Greek culture into Asia. The founding of new cities continued to be a major part of the Successors' struggle for control of any particular region, and these continued to be centres of cultural diffusion. The spread of Greek culture under the Successors seems mostly to have occurred with the spreading of Greeks themselves, rather than as an active policy.

Despite their initial reluctance, the Successors seem to have later deliberately naturalised themselves to their different regions, presumably in order to help maintain control of the population [ Alexander The Great and the Hellenistic Age, p. 22. Green, P. ISBN 978-0-7538-2413-9 ] . Thus, for instance, we find the Ptolemies, as early as Ptolemy I Soter, the first Hellenistic king of Egypt, portrayed as pharaohs (see image). Similarly, in the Indo-Greek kingdom, we find kings who were converts to Buddhism (e.g. Menander). The Greeks in the regions therefore gradually become 'localised', adopting local customs as appropriate. In this way, hybrid 'Hellenistic' cultures naturally emerged, at least amongst the upper echelons of society.

In summary, Alexander's conquests and the Successor kingdoms allowed widespread Greek colonisation and cultural diffusion, but it is unlikely this was ever a deliberate policy. Furthermore, such Hellenization was accompanied by the opposite spread of Asian culture to Europe. Nevertheless, the upheavals which occurred during this period do seem to have resulted in the development of hybrid 'Hellenistic' cultures. As a final point, it should be noted that the degree of influence that Greek culture had throughout the Hellenistic regions is often exaggerated because of the great influence on later generations of a small number of extensively Hellenized cities, particularly Alexandria.

Hellenistic Society

Hellenistic Culture

Many 19th century scholars contended that the Hellenistic period represented a cultural decline from the brilliance of classical Greece. Though this comparison is now seen as unfair and meaningless, it has been noted that even commentators of the time thought saw the end of a cultural era which could not be matched again [ Alexander The Great and the Hellenistic Age, p. xv. Green, P. ISBN 978-0-7538-2413-9 ] . This may be inextricably be linked with the nature of government. It has been noted that after the establishment of the Athenian democracy:

:"...the Athenians found themselves suddenly a great power. Not just in one field, but in everything they set their minds to...As subjects of a tyrant, what had they accomplished?...Held down like slaves they had shirked and slacked; once they had won their freedom, not a citizen but he could feel like he was labouring for himself" [ Herodotus, quoted in 'Persian Fire', p.193. Holland, T. ISBN 978-0-349-11717-1] "

Thus, with the decline of the Greek polis, and the establishment of monarchial states, the environment and social freedom in which to excel may have been reduced [ Alexander The Great and the Hellenistic Age. Green, P. ISBN 978-0-7538-2413-9 ] . A parallel can be drawn with the productivity of the city states of Italy during the Renaissance, and their subsequent decline under autocratic rulers.

However, in some fields Hellenistic culture thrived, particularly in its preservation of the past. As has been noted, the states of the Hellenistic period were deeply fixated with the past and its seemingly lost glories [ Alexander The Great and the Hellenistic Age, pps. xx, 68-69. Green, P. ISBN 978-0-7538-2413-9 ] .

Athens retained its position as the most prestigious seat of higher education, especially in the domains of philosophy and rhetoric, with considerable libraries.Roy M. MacLeod, "The Library Of Alexandria: Centre Of Learning In The Ancient World"] Alexandria was arguably the second most important center of Greek learning. The Library of Alexandria had 700,000 volumes.The city of Pergamon became a major center of book production, possessing a library of some 200,000 volumes, second only to Alexandria's . The island of Rhodes boasted a famous finishing school for politics and diplomacy. Cicero was educated in Athens and Mark Antony in Rhodes. Antioch was founded as a metropolis and center of Greek learning which retained its status into the Christian era. Seleucia replaced Babylon as the metropolis of the lower Tigris.

The spread of Greek culture throughout the Near East and Asia owed much to the development of cities. Settlements such as Ai-Khanoum, situated on trade routes, allowed cultures to mix and spread. The identification of local gods with similar Greek deities facilitated the building of Greek-style temples, and the Greek culture in the cities also meant that buildings such as gymnasium became common. Many cities maintained their autonomy while under the nominal rule of the local king or satrap, and often had Greek-style institutions. Greek dedications, statues, architecture and inscriptions have all been found. However, local cultures were not replaced, and often mixed to create a new culture.

Greek language and literature spread throughout the former Persian Empire. The development of the Alexander Romance (mainly in Egypt) owes much to Greek theater as well as other styles of story. The Library at Alexandria, set up by Ptolemy I Soter, became a center for learning and was copied by various other monarchs. An example that shows the spread of Greek theater is Plutarch's story of the death of Crassus, in which his head was taken to the Parthian court and used as a prop in a performance of The Bacchae. Theaters have also been found: for example, in Ai-Khanoum on the edge of Bactria, the theater has 35 rows - larger than the theater in Babylon.

The spread of Greek influence and language is also shown through Ancient Greek coinage. Portraits became more realistic, and the obverse of the coin was often used to display a propaganda image, commemorating an event or displaying the image of a favored god. The use of Greek-style portraits and Greek language continued into the Parthian period, even as the use of Greek was in decline.

Religion and philosophy



The Post-Hellenistic Period

In the 2nd to 1st centuries BC, Rome conquered Greece and the Macedonian kingdoms piece by piece until, with the conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, the Roman Empire held all the Mediterranean. However, as Horace gently puts it: "Conquered Greece has conquered the brute victor and brought her arts into rustic Latium" ("Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio"). Roman art and literature were calqued upon Hellenistic models. Koine Greek remained the dominant language in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. In the city of Rome, Koine Greek was in widespread use among ordinary people, and the elite spoke and wrote Greek as fluently as Latin.


See also

* Hellenization
* Hellenistic Greece
* Hellenistic period
* Hellenistic religion
* Hellenistic art
* Hellenistic philosophy

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