Section 3 Hellenistic Civilization

Between the 4th and 1st centuries B.C., Greek civilization underwent a tremendous period of transformation. United and reinvigorated by the new partially Hellenized kingdom of Macedonia, through the conquests of Alexander the Great Hellenic civilization spread from the eastern Mediterranean to the borders of India. While the culture of their subjects remained largely untouched by the conquest, the conquerors themselves adapted the Persian conception of universal empire in order to rule their new domains. From this adaptation of Persian political theory to Greek civilization, a new Hellenistic society emerged, ruled by a Greek-speaking elite that lived in relative isolation from the masses that supported it.  

The Hellenistic Kingdoms

Alexander's death precipitated a crisis. The conqueror had established no plan for choosing a successor. Almost immediately his generals began to fight among themselves for possession of the empire. None were strong enough to defeat the others and keep Alexander's legacy intact. By 275, three major kingdoms had emerged, each under the rule of one of Alexander's generals. Ptolemy took possession of Egypt. Asia, which stretched from the Aegean to the Indus, became the prize of Seleucus. Macedonia itself eventually came under the rule of the Antigonids, the heirs of Antigonus Gonatas.

            Of the three Hellenistic kingdoms, Egypt was by far the most secure and the wealthiest. The Ptolemies followed Alexander's own example, and adapted themselves to the Egyptian style of pharaonic rule. Although Greco-Macedonian, the new pharaohs even accepted their status as living gods and began to marry their sisters in approved Egyptian fashion. At the same time, they used their new power to patronize the arts according to Greek tastes and styles. Under the patronage of the Ptolemies, Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander the Great, became the greatest center of Hellenistic culture. Realizing their fragile position as a foreign dynasty, however, they also relied almost exclusively on their own Greco-Macedonian immigrants to rule the country.

            Where Egypt was relatively compact, due to the ever-present Nile, Asia proved far too large and unwieldy for the Seleucids to rule easily. They established a new urban style of power, controlling the kingdom through cities. Throughout Asia they built new Greek-style cities. They also fostered immigration from Greece and Macedonia to fill these cities, which became like islands of Greek culture and civilization.  Even so, the empire proved too diverse and vast to remain intact. After Seleucus I large parts of the kingdom seceded under their own local rulers. Bactria, Parthia, Galacia, Armenia, Cappadocia, Bythinia, Pontus, Judea, and Pergamum all became independent.

In Pergamum in particular, the Attalid dynasty, which was descended from Alexander's private Greek secretary, created a brilliant and extremely successful kingdom. Located in western Asia Minor, Pergamum drew heavily on the older Greek population of the region. The Seleucids themselves retained control of the central part of the original kingdom, stretching from Sardis, on the Aegean, to the Indus River. They ruled from three great capitals, Sardis, Antioch, and Seleucia, which they built on the Tigris River north of Babylon.

            Although some of these new local dynasties were not Greco-Macedonian in origin, they remained part of the Hellenistic world culturally, and some even expanded it. In Central Asia, for example, the kingdom of Bactria, which broke away from the Seleucids around 245 B.C., remained a center of Hellenistic civilization for centuries. In the 2nd century B.C. its rulers extended their influence into the Indus River valley and the Punjab in India. Although Central Asian nomads conquered Bactria itself in the late 2nd century B.C., some Greek communities in northern India remained active until the 5th century A.D.

            The least successful of the great Hellenistic kingdoms was Macedonia itself. The Antigonids were plagued by constant warfare. They also suffered from a loss of population as large numbers of emigrants moved eastward into the new cities being established in Asia. Not least, their efforts to control the cities of Greece proved a constant drain, both financially and in manpower. At long last, some of the Greek cities had learned to cooperate with one another. In two new organizations, the Aetolian League and the Achaean League, these cities established innovative federal constitutions under which they were able successfully to challenge Macedonian authority.

The Hellenistic Economy

Underpinning the growth of the new Hellenistic civilization was a tremendous surge in the economy of the region. Alexander's conquests had opened up trade and communications from Gibraltar in the Western Mediterranean to the Indus River. They had also provided the money necessary for a burst of economic development when Alexander opened Darius’s treasure house. Where the Persians had horded gold and silver as a sign of royal wealth and power, the Greeks preferred to spend it. The new money economy that emerged fostered the development of many new specialized services, particularly as Hellenistic rulers began to build their new cities. Artisans, builders, administrators, and soldiers were all paid with cash, which they in turn spent on consumer goods.

            In general, the Hellenistic rulers pursued careful and deliberate policies to encourage economic growth. For example, they maintained and repaired roads to make travel and trade easier. Both manufacturing and trade increased dramatically. However, so too did inflation, which eventually undermined less productive areas like Macedonia and Greece. A new middle class began to emerge in the Hellenistic cities, which increased the demand for consumer goods. Agriculture also flourished, particularly as the Hellenistic monarchs in Egypt and Asia took great care to improve and maintain irrigation systems. In Egypt, the Ptolemies established a royal monopoly on the production of papyri for writing, as well as on grain, and many other important products. Through centralized regulation they tried to minimize waste while at the same time maintaining quality.

Hellenistic Society and Culture

Although Hellenistic society remained purely Greek, in language and culture, it was no longer as exclusive as the society of the polis had been. As they ruled over many diverse peoples, the Hellenistic monarchs allowed anyone to rise to the upper levels of society regardless of their background, so long as they adopted Greek culture. Isocrates had actually expressed this new conception of Greekness when he advocated pan-Hellenism: “The people we call Greeks are those who have the same culture as us, not the same blood.” On the other hand, since Hellenistic culture remained Greek, it had little influence on the farmers and herdsmen of the countryside, but remained primarily an elite culture.

Changes in society. While Hellenistic civilization was above all an urban civilization, the ideal of the polis had been effectively destroyed by the Macedonian conquests and later the establishment of the Hellenistic monarchies. Hellenistic monarchs adopted the old Persian and Egyptian styles of rule, in which all power and administration rested in the hands of the king. Professional soldiers, paid mercenaries with no special ties to the cities in which they worked, sustained this power. As monarchs consolidated their power, individual citizens could no longer claim a role in government. At the same time, all citizens of a state were now subjects of the monarch, regardless of their background.

The collapse of the ideal of the polis not only meant an end to democracy as practiced in Greece, but also a transformation of society in general. At the top of Hellenistic society stood the monarch and his court. Next came the urban population, largely Greek and Macedonian immigrants, controlled by an oligarchy of the wealthiest merchants and landowners. Catering to these elite levels of society were a large class of artisans, lower level administrators, local merchants, small landowners, teachers, and other professionals. At the bottom of society, supporting it through their labor in the fields, were the local peasants who remained untouched by the Greek civilization of their new masters. Slavery was widespread, constituting an important part of trade. Slaves were always available due to the numerous wars, as well as kidnapping and piracy. Slaves were used for all forms of labor—in fields, mines, households, and urban manufacturing centers.

            The end of the old polis also made universal military training for adult men unnecessary. As professional soldiers replaced the old citizen armies, education for young men also changed. Instead of military exercises, they increasingly studied philosophy, sciences, arts, and literature. In addition, as men spent more time at home, since they had no battles or political meetings to attend, family life received greater emphasis. In Greece, husbands and wives had lived largely separate lives. In the Hellenistic cities, husbands and wives began to work more closely together. Wives, for example, instead of remaining at home, now began to help out in their husbands' businesses.

            Women’s positions generally improved during the Hellenistic period. They could now obtain an education, and engage in commerce and business. Powerful queens emerged who ruled in their own right. Their success did much to improve perceptions of women's capacities in general. Women obtained more property rights. In Egypt, for example, marriage contracts gave women specific rights to divorce and to control their own property. On the other hand, women also often remained legally handicapped. Although in practice they often ran their own affairs, legally they usually had to have a male guardian to oversee their activities.

The arts and literature. New attitudes toward women were also reflected in Hellenistic art and literature. Hellenistic sculptors discovered the beauty of the female form. In Classical Greece, women had been portrayed primarily in their roles as mothers, while the male form had represented the ideal of human beauty. Now women too began to be portrayed as objects of physical beauty.

            Love between men and women also became a major theme of Hellenistic writing. Whereas the Greek view of relations between men and women had been more businesslike, purely a matter of providing for the children that were necessary to carry on the traditions of the polis, people in the Hellenistic world discovered romance and mutual respect between the two sexes. Apollonius of Rhodes, for example, in his Argonautica , centered the story around the love between Medea, daughter of the king of Colchis, and Jason, who had come to Colchis to steal the magical Golden Fleece. Theocritus of Syracuse invented a genre of literature called pastoral poetry, which idealized the life of the countryside as only a city-dweller who had never been there could. Theocritus also developed the theme of romantic love in his poems about Daphnis, a Sicilian shepherd, which became extremely popular among the Hellenistic elite.

            In other areas too Hellenistic artists moved away from earlier Greek styles. In theater, playwrights no longer concerned themselves with the kind of civic and political themes that had inspired the Greeks. Menander, for example, one of the most famous Athenian playwrights of the late 4th century, was noted for his comedies focusing on domestic and private matters. "O Menander and Life, which of you imitated the other?" asked Aristophanes of Byzantium, pointing out the realism of the new style. On the other hand, Callimachus of Cyrene displayed the elite and urban character of Hellenistic culture in the elegant and formal verses of what became known as erudite, or well-educated, poetry. "I detest all common things," he wrote, while also noting with condescension "a big book is a big evil."

            Perhaps the most widespread element of Hellenistic art was architecture. The new cities that sprang up all over the Hellenistic world created a virtual boom in urban architecture and building. Although the basic styles and types of building were drawn from Greek models, they also began to reflect the needs of a relatively small elite to impress the masses beneath them. Consequently, Hellenistic architecture tended to be larger and more grandiose than its earlier Greek predecessors. Most scholars refer to it as a colossal style. The best examples were the mausoleum, or funeral chamber, of the king of Caria at Halicarnassus, and the famous Colossus of Rhodes, a gigantic statue that stood astride the harbor entrance on the island of Rhodes.

Hellenistic Philosophy

Citizens of Greek city-states had no difficulty knowing what was expected of them and how they fit into society. In the new large-scale urban civilization of the Hellenistic kingdoms, however, many people began to feel lost and alone. From the relative security of the polis they had been thrust into a larger, more impersonal world. In their efforts to adapt to this new level of identity many turned to new religions and philosophies. Four great philosophical schools developed during this period: Cynicism, Skepticism, Epicureanism and Stoicism. All emphasized the importance of achieving individual happiness rather than sustaining the polis.

Cynicism. Founded by Diogenes of Sinope (ca. 400 - ca. 325 B.C.), Cynicism advocated a flamboyant individualism. Human beings, the Cynics argued, should live according to nature. Cynics scorned pleasure, wealth, and social responsibilities. They also rejected all conventions - especially those dealing with morality. Happiness, the Cynics taught, was for each individual to fulfill his "natural needs". Because of its extreme individualism, Cynicism was never an organized school. Nor was it particularly respectable at first. The flamboyant behavior of some individual cynics, particularly those who seemed to lack a sense of shame, gave the group their name: in Greek, the term cynic (kunikoi) meant those who behaved "like dogs."

Skepticism. Skepticism, the conviction that sure knowledge was impossible and that beliefs are only mere opinions, had always been a popular idea in Greek philosophy. At the beginning of the Hellenistic Age, this philosophical attitude was systematized in Athens by Pyrrho of Elis (ca. 360 - ca. 270 B.C.). Happiness, Pyrrho taught, was to resign oneself to the idea that one could never know how things really are, and to live "with ever a smile and never a passion". In accepting relativism as a fact, the skeptics hoped to achieve "peace of the mind". It was better to live without searching for impossible absolutes, they argued, and to follow the customs of the community.

Epicureanism. Epicureanism attempted to eradicate the fears that made men unhappy: death and divine intervention in human affairs. The school was founded by Epicurus, an Athenian by birth (341-271 B.C.). Epicurus's philosophy was based on the atomic theory of Democritus of Abdera (b. ca. 460 B.C.): body and soul are made of atoms that cease to exist after death. Gods may exist but, according to the Epicureans, they do not intervene in human matters. In their lives, people should avoid pain and pursue pleasure—but not excessive pleasure since that would become painful. The Epicureans also advocated withdrawal from public life as one of the conditions for achieving real happiness. Epicurus and his followers opened their school to both men and women, free and slave, Greeks and non-Greeks and insisted on the importance of friendship.

Stoicism. Perhaps the most influential school of Hellenistic philosophy was founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens around 300 B.C. Zeno lectured and talked with his students in a stoa, or covered porch, and his teachings therefore became known as Stoicism. Zeno and the Stoics embraced the cosmopolitanism of the Hellenistic world better than any other philosophy of the day. Zeno taught that the universe was guided by an organizing principle, variously called “divine reason,” the “divine fire,” or “God.” The Greek term was Logos, or “the Word.”

            All human beings, the Stoics believed, had a spark of divinity within their souls; after death this divine spark, the logos, returned to the eternal divine principle of which it was a part. Since everyone had this divine spark, the Stoics, believed, they must all be considered equal in the divine order of the universe. Men and women, free people or slaves, Greeks or barbarians, rich or poor were all fellow human beings, citizens of the world, and members of the common brotherhood of humanity.

            Unlike the skeptics and the Cynics, Stoics did not encourage people to withdraw from the world but to engage in it with wisdom and dignity, as one ancient student of Stoicism explained: 

“They hold that the universe is governed by divine will; it is a city or state of which both men and gods are members, and each one of us is a part of this universe; from which it is a natural consequence that we should prefer the common advantage to our own. For just as the laws set the safety of all above the safety of individuals, so a good, wise and law-abiding man, conscious of his duty to the state, studies the advantage of all more than that of himself or of any single individual.”

            For the Stoics, happiness could be achieved only by conforming to divine providence. Human beings were like actors in a play. Both the play and their role could not be changed. They had only two choices: either to be good actors or bad actors. Happiness lay in figuring out how best to fulfill the role assigned to them by the divine fire within. In general, this meant living life without passion and according to one’s own inner nature. 

Hellenistic Religions

While the new philosophical ideas appealed to peoples’ intellects, religious developments in the Hellenistic period appealed to many peoples’ need for a more emotional approach to life. Greek traditional religion was too much attached to the polis to survive untouched in the new Hellenistic world. Indeed, it became fashionable during the Hellenistic period to make fun of the old Olympian gods. Although worship of the Olympian deities did not disappear, other forms of worship became more and more popular, all aimed at satisfying people’s growing need for a sense of "belonging".

Ruler-worship. Following Alexander’s example, the Hellenistic kings in Egypt and in Asia established the practice of ruler-worship. Ruler-worship provided a useful means for instilling a new sense of civic duty among the people, particularly as the central role of the monarch replaced that of the polis. At the same time, peoples’ willingness to engage in ruler-worship may also be interpreted as a search for a patron god, an All Powerful Being who could intervene to protect and help them. Confronted by an increasingly complex civilization, many people increasingly looked to authority figures to tell them what to do. The Athenian playwright Philippides perhaps best summed up the implications of ruler-worship when he wrote: “To transfer to men the honor due to the gods is to dissolve the democracy.”

            Tyche, or Fortune, became an object of worship for similar reasons: people wanted their lives to be guided, or at least they wanted to know that what was happening to them had a source. Here again, centuries of the polis  community life-style had made it difficult for them to face life without patronage or some sort of "direction"—even though Fortune might be blind to their personal and immediate needs. The growing popularity of astrology in the Hellenistic world probably sprang from the same need. 

The Mystery religions. As people sought spiritual and emotional comfort in a world that was increasingly difficult to control, many turned to the so-called Mystery religions, cults that introduced, or initiated, worshippers to secret teachings or “mysteries.” These teachings usually had to do with the secrets of life after death and immortality. By going through a ritual of purification the believers entered into communion, or oneness, with the deity, as well as with the other initiated worshippers. The shared experience provided a feeling of unity, security, and personal worth, as well as a promise of individual immortality.

            The mystery religions had not been foreign to the Greeks before the Hellenistic period, as the Eleusinian Mysteries in Attica show. But now the cults were no longer tied to specific geographical locations. Indeed, both Greek and Egyptian gods were now amalgamated to create new cults, such as those of Isis and Serapis, which emerged in Egypt under the Ptolemies. Serapis, for example, combined the Greek god of the underworld, Pluto, with the Egyptian god of the afterlife, Osiris. Osiris’s wife, Isis, was soon seen as an embodiment of all the major female deities, and symbolized rebirth after death. A similar cult developed around the Great Mother, a goddess popular in Central Asia. 

Judaism in the Hellenistic era. One of the most important areas in which Greek and eastern conceptions of religion and philosophy came together was in Judea, where the Jews had returned to Jerusalem under the Persian empire and rebuilt the Temple of Solomon. Like other elites in the Hellenistic world, the Jewish elite soon became fascinated by the Greek culture of the Seleucids and Ptolemies. As they began to accept Greek culture, Hellenized Jews also tried to transform the ancient Jewish religion. Under King Antiochus IV for example, they obtained the status of a Greek polis for Jerusalem and renamed it Antioch. According to the First Book of Maccabees, written about 100B.C.: 

“Lawless men arose in Israel and seduced many with their plea, “Come, let us make a covenant with the gentiles around us, because ever since we have kept ourselves separated from them we have suffered many evils”. . . . Thereupon they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem according to the customs of the gentiles. . . . They joined themselves to the gentiles and became willing slaves to evil-doing.”[1] 

Circumcision and celebration of the Sabbath were both prohibited, and even the Temple was for a time turned into a shrine to Zeus.

            Such actions soon brought a reaction from more conservative and traditional Jews. Eventually, the Jewish people rose in revolt and established a conservative Jewish kingdom under the Hasmonean (Maccabee) dynasty. As the Hasmonean kings expanded their realm, they forcefully converted surrounding peoples to Judaism. At the same time, however, Judaism itself became increasingly diversified.[2]As Judaic traditions mingled with influences from other religious traditions of the region, new doctrines concerning a final day of judgment, resurrection of either the body or the spirit, heaven and hell, and the coming of a Messiah, or “Annointed One” to save the Jewish people from their enemies, all became a part of the increasingly diverse body of Judaism.

Hellenistic Science

While many people sought the comfort of philosophy and religion as they tried to cope with the larger and more complex world in which they lived, others turned to more concrete investigations of the world around them. Although we are accustomed to think of Western science as being a development of Classical Greece, in fact it is more accurate to locate its beginnings in the Hellenistic period. Among the Classical Greeks, science had remained a category of philosophy - primarily speculative and abstract, with no sense of the need for experimentation, for example, to prove how a natural process might work. This association actually prevented the development of a true scientific tradition, as we understand it today. During the Hellenistic period, however, a split began to occur between science and philosophy. Hellenistic scientists were less concerned about discovering the ideal nature of the world, and more interested in discovering how it worked and what laws governed it.

Such a shift in attitude also led to the practical application of scientific knowledge, as Hellenistic scientists also often became inventors. In Egypt, for example, inventors developed an ox-driven water-wheel which made it possible to raise water from the Nile and shift it into irrigation ditches, thereby bringing more and more land under cultivation. Archimedes of Syracuse, during a stay in Egypt, also invented his famous water screw, a similar device that raised water from one level to another for irrigation purposes. Perhaps the most extensive use of such new engineering techniques came in war. Archimedes himself became famous for his battering rams and other engines of war. His work with levers and fulcrums, in which he managed to raise a fully loaded ship out of the water by means of a single-armed crane, led to his famous observation: “Give me a place to stand on and I can move the earth.”[3]

The search for answers to practical problems in turn began to lead to scientific discovery as well. According to tradition, for example, it was his effort to solve a practical problem for the ruler of Syracuse, who wanted to know whether the gold in his crown had been diluted with silver by the goldsmith, which led Archimedes to figure out how to measure volume by water displacement. While contemplating the king’s problem in his bath, he supposedly noticed that the level of water rose as he eased himself into the water. Recognizing the implications for measuring the amount of gold in the crown by figuring out its water displacement, without thinking he leaped up and ran naked through the streets to the palace shouting Eureka! Eureka! meaning “I have found it, I have found it!” On the other hand, such interests continued to be in a sense speculative or impractical.

Although Hellenistic scientists developed a wide variety of remarkable devices, including a prototype steam engine that was used to power mechanical toys, they exhibited almost no interest in using such devices to improve the quality of life by turning them into labor-saving machines. According to one ancient account, Eudoxas and Archytas, two Greek mathematicians interested in geometry, originated the “far-famed and highly-prized art of mechanics” as an “elegant illustration of geometrical truths.” Plato himself expressed such indignation against mechanics, however, “as the mere corruption and annihilation of the one good of geometry, which was thus shamefully turning its back upon the unembodied objects of pure intelligence to recur to sensation,” that “mechanics came to be separated from geometry, and, repudiated and neglected by philosophers, took its place as a military art.” Even Archimedes, the greatest mechanical engineer and inventor of the age, preferred to be known for his reputation as a mathematician. Although he wrote many books, none dealt with his mechanical inventions. According to the later Roman historian Plutarch, Archimedes “repudiat[ed] as sordid and ignoble the whole trade of engineering, and every sort of art that lends itself to mere use and profit, [and] placed his whole affection and ambition on those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life.”[4]

            Mathematical developments did have other practical aspects, however. As Greeks came into contact with both Egyptian and Babylonian scientists interested in the movement of the stars as part of their practice of astrology, they made significant advances in astronomy. Aristarchus of Samos, for example, developed the first heliocentric, or sun-centered, description of the solar system, arguing that the earth revolved around the sun. Although others rejected this idea, Aristarchus’s ideas would provide hints for scholars over a thousand years after his death to discover the true nature of the solar system. In geography too, Eratosthenes of Cyrene applied his mathematical knowledge to figure the circumference of the globe with remarkable accuracy.

            Perhaps the most practical side of Hellenistic science came in medicine. As Greek and Egyptian traditions came together, for example, in the city of Alexandria Hellenistic doctors learned from the Egyptian art of embalming to examine and catalogue the parts of the human body. Under the patronage of the kings, who provided condemned criminals for the purpose, some actually dissected living human beings in their effort to understand the workings of the body. The practice was almost as offensive to many people then as it is to us today and was soon halted, but significant discoveries were made in the process. Herophilus of Chalcedon, for example, concluded that the brain was the center of the human nervous system, an idea rejected earlier by Aristotle.

Author Commentary

More than any era that had preceded it, perhaps, the Hellenistic era experienced a cross-cultural interaction and exchange that stimulated scientific thought. The open flow of communications among Greek, Egyptian, and other scholars and investigators led to an enormous exchange not only of information but also of ideas. Both contributed to new practical developments in technology. Underpinning all this burst of scientific and technological development was the patronage of the Hellenistic monarchs. Both the Ptolemies and the Seleucids encouraged such work and provided a living for Hellenistic scholars.

            The one great puzzle, however, is why such discoveries were never used to achieve an even greater technological development. The steam engine alone, for example, might have led to an industrial revolution 2000 years earlier than the one that occurred in western Europe and that has since given rise to the world in which we now live. Yet, despite their advances, most of the Hellenistic scientists sank into oblivion. The older views of Aristotle, many of which were wrong, became widely accepted as the fountainhead of all sciences well into the Middle Ages in Europe. It was the Muslims who rediscovered Hellenistic science in the 700s A.D. and through them it reached the West five centuries later.

            Why? Perhaps it was the Greek conviction that human beings existed within nature, and had no reason or right to manipulate it or to order it to suit themselves. Perhaps it was because the presence of slaves made the need for labor-saving devices among the middle and ruling levels of society unnecessary, even dangerous since without work to keep them busy the slaves might revolt. Or perhaps such a question is itself anachronistic, and only makes sense after we have already experienced the industrial revolution. We can only speculate.

[1]The Anchor Bible, vol. 41, The First Book of Maccabees.

[2]Utilize the following in some alternative format: As new elements from surrounding cultures influenced Judaic practices, new sects and religious groups began to appear within Judaism. The Sadducees, for example, emphasized the rituals of the Temple. The Pharisees concerned themselves with oral traditions of the prophets as well as the laws of the Torah and the rites of the Temple. A more conservative sect, the Essenes, even withdrew into the desert to maintain the purity of the old Jewish religion as they interpreted it.

[3]Quoted in Great Books of the Western World, vol. 11, “The Works of Archimedes Including The Method”, p. 399.

[4]Quoted from Great Books of the Western World, vol. 14, Plutarch’s Lives, “Marcellus”, p.253.