Hellenistic Greece

The Hellenistic Age

After Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C., his generals (known as the Diadochoi) divided his conquered lands. These fragments of the Alexandrian empire became three powerful dynasties: the Seleucids of Syria and Persia, the Ptolemies of Egypt, and the Antigonids of Greece and Macedonia.

These dynasties were not politically united, but they all shared an essential “Greek-ness.” Historians refer to these dynasties as the Hellenistic Age.

The Hellenistic states were ruled by absolute monarchies with a cosmopolitan view of the world. The kings developed commercial relationships throughout the Hellenistic world. They imported goods such as ivory, gold, cotton, and spices from India; furs and iron from the Far East; wine from Syria; papyrus, linen, and glass from Alexandria; olive oil from Athens; dates and prunes from Babylon; silver from Spain; copper from Cyprus; and tin from as far north as Brittany.

They displayed their wealth by building elaborate palaces and commissioning art and jewelry. They established museums, zoos, libraries, and universities. The Alexandria university was home to mathematicians Euclid and Archimedes, as well as inventors of the water clock and the model steam engine.

Hellenistic Culture

Subjects moved freely around the Hellenistic kingdoms. They all spoke and read koine, or “the common tongue,” a kind of colloquial Greek. Language was a unifying cultural force, enabling people across the Hellenistic world to communicate with one another.

Many people did feel alienated because they were no longer involved with the workings of democratic city-states. Instead they lived in large empires governed by professional bureaucrats. Many people joined cults or “mystery religions,” like those centered on the goddesses Isis and Fortune.

Hellenistic philosophers turned their focus inward. Diogenes the Cynic lived a simple life in protest against commercialism and cosmopolitanism. The philosopher Epicurus posited the centrality of the pursuit of the individual’s pleasure and happiness. The Stoics argued that every individual man had within him a divine spark that could be cultivated by living a good and noble life.

The End of the Hellenistic Age

The Romans conquered the Hellenistic dynasties in stages, finally ending the Hellenistic Age in 31 B.C.E. when Octavian defeated Mark Antony and the Ptolemaic fleet at the Battle of Actium. Octavian adopted the name Augustus and became the first Roman emperor. The Hellenistic period may have been short, but its cultural and intellectual contributions have influenced readers, writers, artists, and scientists ever since.

Source: Hellenistic Greece
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