Hellenistic Greece

Spread of Greek (Hellenistic) Culture

Ptolemy Soter - Ptolemy I
Ptolemy Soter. Public Domain

An Introduction to Hellenistic Greece

The era of Hellenistic Greece was the period when Greece language and culture spread throughout the Mediterranean world.

The third era of ancient Greek history was the Hellenistic Age, when Greek language and culture spread throughout the Mediterranean world. Typically, historians start the Hellenistic Age with the death of Alexander, whose empire spread from India to Africa, in 323 B.C.

It follows the Classical Age, and precedes the incorporation of the Greek empire within the Roman empire in 146 B.C. (31 B.C. or the Battle of Actium for the Egyptian territory).

The Hellenistic settlements may be divided into five regions, according to and quoted from The Hellenistic Settlements in the East from Armenia and Mesopotamia to Bactria and India, by Getzel M. Cohen (University of California Press: 2013):

  1. Greece, Macedonia, the Islands, and Asia Minor;
  2. Asia Minor west of the Tauros Mountains;
  3. Cilicia beyond the Tauros Mountains, Syria, and Phoenicia;
  4. Egypt;
  5. the regions beyond the Euphrates, i.e., Mesopotamia, the Iranian plateau, and central Asia.

Aftermath of the Death of Alexander the Great

A series of wars marked the period immediately after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., including the Lamian Wars and the first and second Diadochi Wars, wherein Alexander’s followers sued for his throne.

Eventually, the empire was divided in three parts: Macedonia and Greece, ruled by Antigonus, founder of the Antigonid dynasty; the Near East, ruled by Seleucus, founder of the Seleucid dynasty; and Egypt, where the general Ptolemy started the Ptolemid dynasty.

Fourth Century B.C.: Cultural Highlights

But the early Hellenistic Age also saw enduring achievements in the arts and learning.

The philosophers Xeno and Epicurus founded their philosophical schools, and stoicism and epicureanism are still with us today. In Athens, the mathematician Euclid began his school, and became the founder of modern geometry.

Third Century B.C.

The empire was wealthy thanks to the conquered Persians. With this wealth, building and other cultural programs were established in each region. The most famous of these was doubtless the Library of Alexandria, founded by Ptolemy I Soter in Egypt, charged with housing all of the world’s knowledge. The library flourished under the Ptolemaic dynasty, and withstood several disasters until it was ultimately destroyed in the second century A.D.

Another triumphalist building effort was the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The 98-foot tall statue commemorated the victory of the island of Rhodes against the predations of Antigonus I Monopthalmus.

But internecine conflict continued, notably through the Pyrrhic War between Rome and Epirus, the invasion of Thrace by Celtic peoples, and the dawn of Roman prominence in the region.

Second Century B.C.

The end of the Hellenistic Age was marked by greater conflict, as battles raged among the Seleucids and among the Macedonians.

The political weakness of the empire made it an easy target in the ascent of Rome as a regional power; by 149 B.C., Greece itself was a province of the Roman Empire. This was followed in short order by the absorption of Corinth and Macedonia by Rome. By 31 B.C., with the victory at Actium and the collapse of Egypt, all of Alexander’s empire lay in Roman hands.

Cultural Achievements of the Hellenistic Age

While the culture of ancient Greece was disseminated East and West, the Greeks adopted elements of eastern culture and religion, especially Zoroastrianism and Mithraism. Attic Greek became the lingua franca. Impressive scientific innovations were made in Alexandria where the Greek Eratosthenes computed the circumference of the earth, Archimedes calculated pi, and Euclid compiled his geometry text.

In philosophy Zeno and Epicurus founded the moral philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism.

In literature, New Comedy evolved, as did the pastoral idyll form of poetry associated with Theocritus, and the personal biography, which accompanied a movement in sculpture to represent people as they were rather than as ideals, although there were exceptions in Greek sculpture -- most notably the hideous depictions of Socrates, although even they may have been idealized, if negatively.

Both Michael Grant and Moses Hadas discuss these artistic/biographical changes. See From Alexander to Cleopatra, by Michael Grant, and "Hellenistic Literature," by Moses Hadas. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 17, (1963), pp. 21-35.