Alexander's Legacy: The Hellenistic Period and the Dawn of a New Era
The Hellenistic period was a time of great change and excitement in the ancient world. Spanning from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC to the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC, this era saw the spread of Greek culture and influence throughout the Mediterranean world.
Characterized by the rise and fall of powerful kingdoms, vibrant cultural exchange and groundbreaking advances in fields such as mathematics, science, and philosophy, the Hellenistic period was a time of exploration and expansion, where new ideas and innovations were embraced, leading to a vibrant and diverse world. Join us on a journey through this fascinating period in history, where the ancient world was transformed and paved the way for future civilizations.
The death of Alexander the Great at Babylon. ( Public domain )
The Preamble to the Hellenistic Period
By the time the classical period was ending in around 360 BC, the city-states that made up Greece had become weak and disorganized. Two centuries of almost constant warfare - the Athenians vs the Persians, then the Spartans vs the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War , and then the Spartans vs the Athenians vs the Thebans vs the Persians - had taken its toll.
While these major players had expended energy and resources fighting amongst themselves, a once unexceptional city-state, Macedonia, began to rise to power. Led by King Philip II, Macedonia began expanding its territory.
Because the Macedonians hadn’t spent the last two hundred years over-exerting themselves, their military had had time to make major advancements. The Macedonians had long-range catapults and pikes known as Sarissa. These 16-foot-long (4.88 m) instruments of death were used as a spear that could skewer the enemy before they got close. Thanks in part to these Sarissa, Macedonian generals were able to pioneer the terrifying infantry formation known as the phalanx.
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In 352 BC Philip annexed Thessaly and Magnesia. Then in 338 BC he took on the big boys and defeated a combined Theban and Athenian army at the Battle of Chaeronea. This led to Philip founding the League of Corinth which pretty much brought all of Greece under his rule.
Philip wasn’t fulfilled, however. As Hegemon (ruler) of the league he now had all of his Greece under his command, but his ultimate goal was Persia. He therefore began planning a grand military campaign, but his efforts were cut short in 336 BC when one of his bodyguards, Pausanias, assassinated him at his daughter’s wedding.
Luckily for the Macedonian’s, Philips son, Alexander, or “ Alexander the Great ” was ready and raring to take up his father’s mantle and go to war with Persia. King Alexander led his father’s troops across the Hellespont and into Asia. From there Alexander just kept going, conquering huge chunks of Western Asia and Egypt and completely overwhelming the Persian King Darius III .
Mosaic of Alexander the Great from Pompeii. ( Public domain )
Entering the Hellenistic Period Proper
Alexander’s new empire was hard won, however, and years of battles took their toll on the young King. The famed Alexander the Great ended up dying in 323 BC at the young age of 32, leaving behind a fragile empire that was unable to last for long after his death.
The problem was that Alexander's empire was made up of lots of autonomous territories known as satraps. The legendary ruler had left no clear sign as to who should rule in his stead, setting the stage for a tumultuous period of infighting amongst his generals, the Diadochi, arguing over who should become king.
The question of who would succeed Alexander as king was complicated. The two main options were Alexander’s half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, and Alexander’s unborn child with his wife Roxana. A compromise was eventually reached, with Philip serving as a regent until Roxana's child was born (provided it was a boy).
A compromise was agreed upon, and it was decided that Philip would rule as king until Roxana's child was born (if it was a boy). This quickly fell apart however after one of the generals, Perdiccas, saw an opportunity to seize power, orchestrating the murder of several other generals and taking over full control of the empire.
Perdiccas’s actions sparked the three Diadochi wars that saw Alexander’s old generals vying for control over different parts of the vast empire. The result of these wars was that within a few years, the Alexandrian Empire was split into three dynasties: the Ptolemies of Egypt, the Seleucids of Syria and Persia, and the Antigonids of Greece and Macedonia. Thus began the Hellenistic Age, an era of three politically separate, but powerful, dynasties which shared a common “Greekness.”
Ptolemy Soter, a.k.a. Ptolemy I,, at the British Museum.(Stella / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Hellenistic Rulers of the Three Dynasties of Alexander’s Divided Kingdom
The three distinct dynasties were ruled by absolute kings. The Ptolemaic kingdom was ruled by Ptolemy I, one of Alexander’s generals and his personal bodyguard, and the Seleucid Empire was ruled by Antiochus I Soter, the son of Seleucus I, another of Alexander's former generals. Finally, Macedon was ruled by Antigonus II Gonatas, the son of Demetrius, whose father had played a major role in the Diadochi wars.
This was quite a change for Greece. Classical Greek states, known as poleis, had been governed democratically. These new kings, however, were primarily interested in amassing as much wealth and power as they could and were less concerned with the well-being of the average person.
This focus on wealth meant the rulers worked hard to encourage commercial relationships between the different parts of the Hellenistic world. Treasures such as ivory, gold, ebony and pearls, as well as commodities like cotton, spices and sugar, were imported from India, while the Far East supplied furs and iron. Wine was brought in from Syria, while papyrus, linen and glass all hailed from Alexandria. People got their olive oil from Athens and their dates and prunes from Babylon and Damaskos.
All this trade helped encourage this common “Greekness” that defined the Hellenistic age. It also brought in huge amounts of wealth and the leaders of the three dynasties made sure to show off their wealth as much as possible. They spent vast sums on building luxurious palaces and commissioning grandiose art, sculptures and jewelry.
Philanthropy has always been a good way to show off, and so huge sums were donated to museums, zoos and places of learning. The infamous libraries at Alexandria and Pergamum were both sponsored by the dynastic rulers, as were many universities.
All the money being pumped into these schools attracted and encouraged the era’s greatest minds. The university at Alexandria, known was the Musaeum of Alexandria , was home to mathematicians like Euclid (who compiled his great geometry text), Apollonius, Eratosthenes (who computed the circumference of the earth) and Archimedes (who calculated pi), as well as the great inventors Ktesibios (who invented the water clock) and Heron (who built the first model steam engine).
AI generated image depicting inside of the ancient library at Alexandria. ( Amith / Adobe Stock)
Science and Medicine During the Hellenistic Period
During the Hellenistic period, there were three areas of scholarship that saw major advances; medicine, astronomy and, as mentioned above, mathematics. In the third century BC, Herophilus of Chalcedon turned his back on accepted medical dogmas and turned his attention to systematic anatomy, which was more akin to today's practice.
Around the same time, the physiologist Erasistratus of Ceos realized that the heart acted as a motor for the circulatory system and deduced that capillaries existed. It was also during the third century BC that Philinus of Cos founded the empirical school which trusted observation over theory.
And it wasn’t just medicine which evolved during the Hellenistic period. The third century BC saw great strides taken in astrology. Aristarchus of Samos pioneered the theory that the Sun was at the center of the universe (heliocentrism) and devised a method for working out the sizes and distances of both the Moon and the Sun. Slightly later on Eratosthenes of Cyrene calculated Earth’s circumferences.
The Temple of Apollo in Didyma. ( vahit / Adobe Stock)
Cultural Changes and Alienation of the Hellenistic Period
It wasn’t just a healthy love of trade that the different states of the Hellenistic period shared. People moved freely around the Hellenistic kingdoms. Nearly everyone understood the same language, koine. This was known as the “common tongue” and was a kind of colloquial Greek. This shared language meant wherever a person called home when they traveled, they could communicate with anyone.
It wasn’t all positive though and not everyone adjusted well to the new order. When the city-states had been run democratically, citizens had a say on how their states were run. They were a part of something and they were proud of this. Yet under the Hellenistic rulers, these same citizens now lived in impersonal empires ruled over by bureaucrats.
Those who felt alienated by the new order often found themselves joining new mystery religions. The cults of the goddesses Isis and Fortune, for example, promised their followers immortality and wealth. This is comparable to those who feel alienated today and find themselves attracted to groups like Qanon or various extreme political movements.
Many philosophers were also turned off by how things were changing. Diogenes the Cynic railed against the Hellenistic world’s commercialism and cosmopolitanism, while Epicurus argued that people should pursue pleasure and happiness. The stoics too turned away from the era’s commercialism, believing every person had within them a divine spark that was cultivated through a good and noble life (a.k.a. not just amassing wealth and power).
This same alienation was shown in the artwork of the time. Hellenistic art often rejected collective demos and instead focused on individual people. Rather than sculptures or paintings standing for idealized types, the art of the Hellenistic period often depicted actual, real people.
This move away from idealized types can also be seen in the literature of the time with the rise of the personal biography. The genre known as New Comedy also evolved, as did the pastoral idyll form of poetry most associated with Theocritus. These new forms of literature were often used to highlight the perceived faults in Hellenistic culture by those who felt alienated.
While the comedies of the classical period tended to focus on fantasy, New Comedy was based on real life and was filled with quiet good humor. For example, Herodas (writing in the third century BC) wrote Mimiami (Mimes) which sketched episodes from everyday life.
Painting of the Battle of Cannae during the Second Punic War. ( Public domain )
The Decline of the Hellenistic Period
So, if the Hellenistic period saw such huge leaps in science, medicine, philosophy and mathematics, what went wrong? Why did it end? Well, we have the Romans to blame. Anyone familiar with the history of the Roman Empire will know that the Romans were a force to be reckoned with. As the Roman Republic grew in size and power it increasingly set its sights on Greek lands, absorbing more and more Greek city-states over the years.
The Greeks did not go down willingly and through the course of several wars, including the First Punic War, the Second Punic War, the Third Macedonian War and the Mithridatic Wars, they resisted Roman rule. Yet ultimately, they were doomed to fail.
The Hellenistic kingdoms were plagued by internal instability. The kingdoms were constantly divided by wars and power struggles between the Diadochi and their successors. This “me first” mentality left the kingdoms vulnerable to external threats and made it difficult to maintain their power and control over their territories.
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While the kingdoms were squabbling, the Romans were expanding. Rome gradually absorbed other political powers in Italy and then the Mediterranean, ultimately becoming the dominant power in the region. The Romans also had a well-equipped, highly-trained and disciplined army. The Hellenistic kingdoms on the other hand increasingly relied on mercenaries who were expensive, straining their economies.
With the death of Cleopatra, the Hellenistic period was officially over. ( Public domain )
This strain became an increasingly worrying problem for the Hellenistic kingdoms as Rome expanded. Relying as they did on trade and commerce with their neighbors, who were increasingly swallowed up by Rome, the situation put a strain on trade, and therefore the economy of the Hellenistic kingdoms.
The Kingdoms fell one by one. It is normally agreed that the Hellenistic era ended for good in 31 BC. At the Battle of Actium the Roman army, led by Octavian, defeated Mark Antony’s Ptolemaic fleet. This resulted in Octavian taking the name Augustus and becoming the first Roman emperor. With the fall of the Ptolemaic dynasty and its ruler, Cleopatra, the Hellenistic period was officially over. Long live Rome.
Although it only spanned approximately 300 years, the Hellenistic period was a crucial era of extraordinary growth and development, leaving an indelible mark on the ancient world. The period witnessed significant political, cultural, and intellectual transformations, including the sweeping conquests of Alexander the Great and the emergence of Hellenistic kingdoms. This period also saw the rise of Roman power and the flourishing of Alexandria, which became a center for scholarship and learning. Through these events, the Hellenistic period remains a testament to the enduring legacy of Greek culture and its profound impact on the world
Despite such positive aspects, there were also challenges. Political instability and a preoccupation with commercialism and cosmopolitanism sometimes caused divisions, that alienated both academics and and ordinary citizens alike. Yet even with these negative facets, the Hellenistic period, with its achievements in fields such as philosophy, science, art and literature, continues to inspire and inform the world today, serving as a reminder of the enduring legacy of the ancient Greeks and their lasting impact on the world.
Top image: Representational image of Alexander the Great, whose death saw the beginning of the Hellenistic period. Source: Andrew Zimmerman / Adobe Stock
History.com Editors. 4 February 2010. “Hellenistic Greece” in History. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-greece/hellenistic-greece
Gill, N. S. 30 May 2019. “Hellenistic Greece: The Spread of Greek Culture in the Mediterranean World” in ThoughtCo. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/hellenistic-greece-111939
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