Lecture: The Hellenistic World

Philip of Macedon

Alexander the Great was the son of Philip of Macedon, a king who wanted to reunify ancient Greece and then defeat the Persians as punishment for annexing Greece. He achieved the first part, but was assassinated before he could achieve the second. His son went on to create this:

Alexander's Empire


Yes, it's big. It's so big it didn't really fit on the page, and now defines its space. It's the empire of Alexander the Great.

As a young man, Alexander had been tutored by Aristotle. Aristotle, having been tutored by Plato, was therefore very familiar with the Golden Age of Greece in terms of its science, philosophy, history and culture. Alexander set out to complete his father's plans to conquer much of the Aegean, and headed eastward to ultimately defeat Persia. He was 20 when he became king, and conquered all the way to the Indus River (now Pakistan). His goal of conquering the known world ended when his army mutinied, wanting to go home.

Alexander cemented control over the large area he conquered by marrying his generals off to local queens and princesses, often by force. He died at age 32, probably from an infection caused by an old battle wound. After his death, his generals divided the huge empire into what became four areas: the Antigonid dynasty (Macedon and Greece), the Ptolemaic dynasty (Egypt), the Seleucid dynasty (Mesopotamia and Syria) and the Attalid dynasty (Anatolia). The Ptolemaic dynasty became the new pharoahs of Egypt, giving rise to generations of Hellenistic pharoahs down to Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies.

Alexander's Empire

Although founded on military conquest, Alexander's Empire was short-lived as a political entity. What's more significant is the cultural expansion of Greek ideals and knowledge caused by his journeys and takeover of other peoples. Alexander's ambitions had focused on the founding and revitalization of cities as centers of administration and power. Humility is not a Greek virtue, and Alexander named over 20 cities after himself, including the most famous: Alexandria in Egypt. Alexandria became home to a great library in the 3rd century BC, and a center of learning. The spread of Greek culture not only served to unify a highly diverse empire, but combined with local knowledge to create a highly dynamic environment for society and intellectual endeavors.

Cosmopolitanism (cosmos = universe, politan = polis) is thus a hallmark of the Hellenistic Era, as historians call it. Hellas was the original Greek name for Greece itself, so Hellenistic implies that the empire was Greek-like, or in imitation of Greece. Certainly many who promoted Greek culture were somewhat romantic in their view of the Golden Age, and wanted to revive it and expand it. Because we are talking about a huge geographic area, with many cultures and languages, it is difficult to make too many definite statements of what life was like. However, as centers of trade, administration and learning, the cities of the Hellenistic world show us major changes in how people related to the world around them.

Unlike villages, where everyone knows everyone and social mobility is somewhat static, cities are always changing. They are crowded, and people come there from everywhere to live and work. Leaving their rural homes and small towns means that people could feel alienated or isolated in a city, and the philosophies of the time expanded on Hellenic (Golden Age) ideas to incorporate personal, individual development. While many people attribute modern Western individualism to Golden Age Athens, that society was actually rather closed and based on kinship clans, even during the time of democracy. In fact, much of our attitudes about personal development (or personal anything, really) derive instead from Hellenistic times. So do many of our attitudes about culture, society and art.

Roles of women

Aphrodite IsisIn Hellenic Greece, at least in cities, women were protected and confined to a private role, either as housemaid or house mistress, with a few notable exceptions. But in the Hellenistic cities, private life was appreciated as much as public life, part of the appreciation of the personal and individual. Private life itself was a topic of conversation and debate.

Women led more public lives and were appreciated in various roles. There are records of female magistrates, poets, scholars, and pristesses, and evidence of literacy and education for females. In marriage contracts, the wife's privileges are emphasized as much as the husband's. As an example of the openness of female life, in a scene from a play by Herodas, two women discuss the characteristics of a dildo one of them has purchased. And, as in ancient Egypt, women continued to control their own property after marriage.

Although there was no unifying religion across the Hellenistic empire, one goddess was represented everywhere. She was called Aphrodite in Greece and Isis in Egypt. Often show naked, she was considered the Creator in many hymns, and in some places her devotion was almost monotheistic. An example of a hymn to her from this time, told from her viewpoint:

I gave and ordained laws for all men and women, which no one is able to change. I am the eldest daughter of Kronos. I am the wife and sister of King Osiris. I am She who findeth fruit for men and women I am the Mother of King Horus. I am She that riseth in the Dog Star. I am she that is called goddess by women. For me was the city of Bubastis built. I divided the earth from the heavens. I showed the paths of the stars. I ordered the course of the sun and moon. I devised business in the sea. I made strong the right. I brought together man and woman. I appointed women to bring their infants to birth in the tenth lunar month. I ordained that parents should be loved by children. I laid punishment upon those disposed without natural affection towards their parents. I made with my brother Osiris an end to the eating of human flesh. I revealed mysteries unto men. I taught men and women to honor the images of the gods. I consecrated the precincts of the gods. I broke down the governments of tyrants. I made an end to murders. I compelled women to be loved by men. I made the right to be stronger than gold and silver. I ordained that the true should be thought good. I devised marriage contracts. I assigned to Greeks and to barbarians their languages. I made the beautiful and the shameful to be distinguished by nature. I ordained that nothing should be more feared than an oath. I have delivered the plotter of evil against other men into the hands of the one he plotted against. I established penalties for those who practice injustice. I decree mercy to suppliants. I protect and honor righteous guards. With me the right prevails.
I am the Queen of rivers and winds and sea. No one is held in honor without my knowing it. I am Queen of War. I am Queen of the Thunderbolt. I stir up the sea and I calm it once again. I am in the rays of the sun. Whatever I please, this too shall come to an end. With me everything is reasonable. I set free those in bonds. I am the Queen of seamanship. I make the navigable unnavigable when it pleases me. I create walls for cities. I am called the Lawgiver. I brought up islands out of the depths into the light. I am Lord of Rainstorms.

Women as queens (and there were many Hellenistic queens, Cleopatra among them) and women as goddesses do not necessarily imply that women were respected in daily life, but in the Hellenistic cities this seemed to be more the case than in previous eras.

Hellenistic Philosophy

There were many schools of Hellenistic philosophy, but I'm going to focus on just three.

Cynicism was based on the rejection of materialism (including wealth and fame) in favor of the natural. The most famous Cynic was probably Diogenes. Stories about him give you an idea of the Cynics' perspective.

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Nowadays, we use the word cynicism to mean a kind of skepticism that is borne of experience, but may be a bit too pessimistic. That tone may come from Diogenes.


With their appreciation of food and drink, Epicureans are these days assumed to have been hedonists, enjoying life to excess. But that was not the idea. Epicureans promoted simplicity and freedom from pain (eating and drinking too much would cause pain, right?). Pleasure was seen as an ethical good, something that humans were meant to pursue. These days, an epicure (or reader of Epicurean magazine) is one who enjoys the best of food, wine, and life's benefits. At the time, this philosophy was seen as the opposite of....


Stoics believed that the "real" world was an illusion, a layer between the individual soul and the spiritual reality of the cosmos. Emotions were seen as destructive and useless, since they were based on things that had no meaning. Stoics emphasized self-control and strength in the face of life's varying conditions. During Roman times, Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote about philosophy in the context of duty and service to Rome. Christians engaged the techniques of Stoicism in response to Roman persecution (which made them lousy entertainment when thrown to the lions -- they just knelt and prayed to move on to their eternal life).

Hellenistic Judaism

One of the biggest threats to Judaism came about during the Hellenistic Era. The spread of Jews throughout the empire (known as diaspora, or scattering) led to encounters with many different religions, cultures, and languages. You may recall that the greatest strength of Judaism was cohesion without a country, the ability to be a Jew regardless of the dominant culture. The dominant elite culture in much of the Hellenistic world was Greek, or at the elite levels was at least based on Greek education, language, and culture. Much of the philosophical and intellectual exploration going on at the time undermined a monotheistic system dedicated to the ethics of God. There emerged in this environment Hellenized Jews, who combined their Jewish religion with Greek learning and culture. This was opposed by traditionalists, who believed that Greek ways tainted Judaism and pulled Jews away from their faith.

Jerusalem, the major Jewish center, had been in the Ptolemaic empire after the death of Alexander, but had been won by the Seleucid Empire in a war in 200 BC. The Jews in the city were promised the continued right to worship at the Temple. When a pro-Ptolemaic faction gained enough power to push out a group of Hellenized Jews known as the Tobians, the Tobians contacted the new Seleucid Emperor, Antiochus IV, and asked him to take Jerusalem back. For whatever reason, Antiochus IV Epiphanes did begin to threaten Jewish practice in Judea, and the traditionalists rebelled. A war ensued, with atrocities committed on all sides, particularly against Hellenized Jews, who were seen as traitors. Led by Judah Maccabee, the traditionalists were victorious against the Seleucids, and their victory is the foundation of the holiday of Hanukkah. Their Hasmonean Dynasty, as this independent Jewish state was called, was short-lived, but expanded territory until defeated by the Romans.

The conflict has been portrayed in various ways - as victorious Jews against a foreign invader, or as a battle between traditional Judaism and Hellenized Judaism. Both traditional and Hellenized Judaism survived the conflict, with Hellenized Jews such as the philosopher Philo successfully combining Jewish monotheism with Greek values of reason and wisdom.

Hellenistic Science

The library in Alexandria, Egypt, was the finest in the world, and contained many scrolls of knowledge. The city became a center forAnimation of Archimedes screw, showing how its internal spiral pulls water up science, funded by Hellenistic Ptolemies. Many of the scientific achievements we say came from "ancient Greece" were actually from the Hellenistic Era (except for Pythagoras' work in math). In the third century, Archimedes (mathematician, physicist, technologist) created machines that could lift ships from the water and lift water from a river. The Archimedes screw (right, image created by Silberwolf) is still in use around the world for moving water and grain in industrial processes, and was the model for the powerful screw-drive engines that would propel early steamships. Euclid's geometry is still the foundation for our study of mathematics, Aristarchus of Samos calculated that the planets must circle the sun, Hipparchus created an accurate chart of the heavens, and Claudius Ptolemy (who invented lines of latitude) and Eratosthenes (who correctly estimated the size of the earth) created maps of the world that were used for hundreds of years.

Medical advancement during this era was extraordinary. In the second century, Galen of Pergamon dissected corpses and developed our modern understanding of the circulatory system. His work was read in medical schools for centuries, well into the 1800s, and his studies of nerve and muscle control are still the foundation of our understanding in these areas. In balancing the methods of empiricists (those who dissected and experimented) with those of rationalists, Galen shows the Greek emphasis on balance and moderation. So does Hippocrates, whose oath (which starts "first, do no harm") is still taken by medical students. Hippocrates may or may not have been a real person -- it's possible that the works attributed to him are collections -- but the influence on our practice of medicine is unmistakable. His tenet that "Neither satiety nor hunger nor any other thing which exceeds the natural bounds can be good or healthful" shows the Greek emphasis on balance and moderation.

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Inventions in the Hellenistic age included many that weren't built for centuries: a compressed-air catapult, steam engine, slot machine, and hydraulic organ. They also created gearing, canal locks, lighthouses, alarm clocks, wind vanes, fire engines, siphons, and pumps. Even a computer.

To me, this is an important lesson in lost knowledge, and in the choices that are made in each era to emphasize one technology over others, sometimes to the detriment of society. Ptolemy's calculation of the size of the earth was wrong, and yet became standard knowledge and was used by Columbus to underestimate his journey, which nearly caused his death by mutiny. Aristotle's view that the earth was at the center of the heavens was adopted by the Church so that Copernicus and Galileo had to later defy the Church to get their ideas heard. Sometimes technologies are dismissed as "old fashioned" when a new design is superior for a particular use. Ideas left behind often need to be revived later, such as Hippocrates' emphasis on diet and non-interference in medicine.

Hellenistic Art

Aphrodite of MilosHellenistic art broke from the Greek emphasis on idealized forms and went in for drama in a big way. Sculptures and friezes show emotion and dynamism. The figures seem to move. Unfortunately, many of these works are only available to us through Roman copies, which may have been because they were originally bronze and were melted down to reuse that valuable metal. We do, however, have the Pergamon Frieze from the 2nd century BC, showing a battle between the Olympian Gods and the Giants.

Pergamon Frieze

The figures writhe and move in a natural way. We can see the emotions and pain. It may be an extension of the Hellenistic emphasis on the individual to move away from idealized forms to emphasize feeling. It may also be a rejection of Greek ideal forms to focus on feeling in a way that was less balanced with rationalism.

Unlike in Hellenic times, the female form was often shown nude (further indicating a greater role for women). This image of Aphrodite of Milos (in Latin, the Venus de Milo) is from the 2nd century BC, and clearly shows appreciation of the female form in a similar way to that shown by Hellenic artists for the male figure.Boy with Thorn

We also see in art the emphasis on daily life, on private life, on small moments. Another Roman copy of a Hellenistic figure, Boy with Thorn, is shown to the right. I can't even imagine 5th century Greece producing such a sculpture on such a mundane everyday subject.

Although the Romans at first copied these styles to learn from them, they eventually moved away from naturalism to a much more stylized and formal way of portraying people.

Lessons of History

1. The Hellenistic Era is as important, or even more important, to our understanding of ourselves than the history of Golden Age Greece.

2. It is through the Hellenistic Era's achievements that the Greek ideas of science and philosophy were continued and developed.

3. The choices made in technologies and scientific perspectives in one era influence all future eras.


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