Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

The Hellenistic States and their Culture

Steve Muhlberger
What is the Hellenistic period?

Politically, it is the period of the successor states of Alexander's empire were an important factor in the civilized world.    It began in 323 B.C., when Alexander died and his empire began breaking up into a number of different kingdoms, the so-called successor states.  It ended in 31 B.C., when Augustus Caesar incorporated the last of those successor states, the Greek-ruled kingdom of Egypt, into the Roman empire.

Culturally, the Hellenistic period  is the period when Greek culture, in part because of actions of
Alexander and his successors, spread over a large part of the civilized world.  It is the period when the Greeks set the tone for civic life and literary culture in many countries, not just those conquered by Alexander. By this definition, Rome can usefully be considered a Hellenistic state.
If we use the cultural definition, it is much harder to put chronological limits on the Hellenistic era.  Greek culture was the dominant one in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire throughout Roman times.  Hellenistic culture thus lasted as least as long as classical paganism, and maybe beyond.

Greek culture and literature is important today because has spread to many different climates and countries, to be adopted and adapted in ways unthinkable to a Greek.  (No Greek would have believed civilization possible in a climate like North Bay's.)  The Hellenistic era was the one
where this process of adoption and adaptation began -- or at least began to pick up steam.  Thus its importance.

Political background:

The age began with the death of Alexander at the age of 32.  Alexander left no suitable heir:  there was an infant son in Babylon and a half-witted half-brother back in Macedon.  Neither ever held real power. Alexander's important general divided responsibility for the inheritance; eventually, of course, they divided the inheritance itself, and called themselves kings.

There were three main dynasties.

 None of the Hellenistic kingdoms ever incorporated all of Old Greece into itself, and Greater Greece and Sicily were never part of the state system of Alexander's successors.  They retained their ancient boundaries and much of their ancient constitutions.

The Hellenistic kingdoms fluctuated in size and shape, as you can see in a good historical atlas.   They had a slow tendency to fragment.  But the fragments, the new kingdoms set up by new usurpers, tended to remain part of the culturally Hellenistic world, with many of the same
characteristics as the kingdoms of the dynasties I have named.  The original successor states provided a model for their rivals, such as the Greek kingdom based in Pergamon in western Anatolia, or others in Bactria (roughly Afghanistan), and in India itself.

There were exceptions, states that specifically rejected Greek domination.  About a century after Alexander, an Iranian tribe named the Parthians seized Iran, and set up the kingdom of the Parthians.  A century later than that, the Jews of Judaea established its independence from the Seleucids.  In
both cases, the rebels thought that the Greeks and their ways were ungodly, and justified their seizure of power on religious grounds.  But even in these rejectionist states, Greek culture was influential -- both Parthia and Judaea contained many Greek-speaking inhabitants, concentrated in Greek-speaking towns.

The Hellenistic kingdoms had a number of common features.

First, all of them were ruled by warrior kings, imitation Alexanders.  Their role in life was to wage successful wars.  The scale of their wars was greater than anything seen in previous Greek history, simply because these men had far more resources than even the richest of Old Greek
cities.  It was the great era of elephant warfare, immense battleships with seven, eleven, thirteen or even forty men to an oar, and armies of 60-80,000 instead of the 30,000 used by Philip or Alexander.  The devastation of the wars was immense.

Second, at the same time the kings devoted themselves to war, they required their subjects to honor them as divine beings.  Antiochus III, a Seleucid king, introduced a cult of himself and his ancestors
throughout his domain, and later commanded his governors to establish high priestesses of the queen in every province {Price, 325}.  The power of these monarchs was justified by an appeal to heaven, as in earlier eras of Middle Eastern history; perhaps because nothing else, or at not least human
reason, could justify such great and absolute power.

Third, in the area dominated by these states, warfare became the pursuit of full-time professionals, royal vassals or mercenaries.  Hellenistic kings tried a variety of methods to raise the forces they needed, but they were all variants of granting out land, either individual farms or entire military colonies, to men who were expected to fight when called.  On top of this levy, the kings hired mercenaries and specialists.  Despite at least one classicist, this was not a new age of the world.  This is the way things had always been done by Assyrians and Persians.  The Greeks had moved into the big time and now had to play by the rules of the big boys.  Citizen armies did not perish where they had existed.  The minor states of old Greece, who fought only minor wars, continued to use them, at least in part.

A final feature of the Hellenistic states is one that deserves a longer discussion.  That is the key role of Greek cities in holding the kingdoms together and making them governable.

The Hellenistic kings were no more able than Persian kings to impose a consistent, professional administration on their dominions.  They had to improvise with existing materials.

The chief Macedonian tactic, one pioneered by Alexander himself, was to plant Greek cities and towns all over the empire, whose inhabitants would have a vested interest in supporting royal power.  Some of these colonies were the military colonies, places that hardly deserved the name of city.  Others were full-blown cities, which owed taxes instead of military service. They were meant as centers of landlord exploitation of the surrounding countryside and commerce.  The cities were given legal and economic privileges vis-a-vis the people of the countryside, and were expected to profit from it.  Some of the profit was passed along to the king in taxes.

Furthermore, these cities propped up royal power by helping to police the countryside.  They had to do this because they were a foreign presence:  they had been people originally from Greece and Macedon, and were culturally as well as legally distinct from their neighbors.  Without the king they were helpless; with the king they were the master race.

These towns were meant to be reproductions of the  poleis  of Old Greece.  They had a citizen assembly, a council, and a set of elected magistrates.  They were culturally Greek:  at least in their public life, only the Greek language and Greek customs were recognized.  They were exclusive bodies.  There was no effort to convert the natives to Greek ways of doing things, though it is true that many found either the culture or the power it conferred attractive, and some no doubt were admitted to the citizen body,  if they  converted entirely to Greek ways.   There was no room for official bilingualism or biculturalism.    Hellenistic politics, like South African politics a decade ago, was based on apartheid.

It is interesting to note the role played by the gymnasium in the politics of apartheid.  The gymnasium of the Hellenistic city, like the gymnasium of the classical city, was a combination athletic, social and
educational center.  But in the Hellenistic colonies, it was also something of a test of one's Greekness.  Exercising in the nude was considered indecent almost everywhere but Greece; acceptance of this social custom meant rejection of the surrounding non-Greek culture.

The importance of this is illustrated by an incident that took place in Judaea in the 170s.
A group of pro-Greek Jews took control of the High Priestship in Jerusalem and immediately set up a gymnasium, where the priests spent their time exercising in Greek fashion instead of running the divine services.  This group even rejected circumcision, the sign of the Covenant.  This was the
first step in a Seleucid attempt to abolish the Jewish religion, and led to the Maccabee revolt.  (This episode of anti-Greek resistance can be found in the Books of Maccabees in Bibles that include the Apocrypha between the Old and New Testament.)

On the other hand, we should contrast the Judaean rejectionists with their co-religionists in Alexandria.  The Jews were an important part of the Alexandrian population (though they were not citizens), and they came to adopt Greek as their native language.  Not only that, but Alexandrian
Jewish intellectuals, without giving up their religion, became thoroughly permeated with Greek ideas.  They had an important influence on the early Christians.  To take the simplest case, the Old Testament used by early Christians was the Greek translation made in Alexandria.

The example of the Alexandrian Jews shows how Hellenistic culture, as embodied in the life of Greek-speaking cities, exerted a profound influence even on people it was never intended to reach.  The citizens themselves were determined devotees of the heritage of Old Greece.  The merits of that
heritage apart, it was what set them apart from the peasantry, from immigrant hicks trying to make a living in town, from backcountry chieftains.  Hellenistic cities had theaters, where the classics were
regularly performed; Homer was the basis of the education of the young; the public buildings were done in the latest version of Greek architecture. This desire for cultural legitimacy gave Old Greece its continuing influence.  It was the source of inspiration, the home of the best schools, even if it was no longer politically or economically dominant.

Greek culture flourished in its new settings.  The success of implanting real Greek cities in  Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Syria is what distinguishes the Greek impact from the Persian.  Perhaps, as Cook has argued, there were simply more Greeks.    But also I think that the Greeks had more to offer the world than the Persians or the Medes.  The Greeks had seized the world by force, but they bound it and controlled it in a network of vital, self-confident urban communities.

The Greek cities became  the  leading cities of the Middle East, Iran, and even areas farther east,
displacing older centers like Babylon.  They would not be displaced themselves until the Arabs imposed a new ruling race on the same area, and redefined urban culture around themselves and their religion.

These Hellenistic cities, almost all democracies -- at least officially.  The towns sometimes had a great deal of autonomy, especially in Old Greece.  But there were both formal and informal limits to this democracy.  High taxes and royal prerogative cut into the power of cities to determine their own fate.

More insidious was the effect of royal patronage.  Rich men in the town, or natives who became
royal officials and courtiers, could act as channels to the king and thus gain great influence in their home towns.

A rich Athenian named Philippides, who was politically active for twenty years after 301, used his influence with King Lysimachus to get the city gifts of wheat, money and other supplies; he buried Athenians killed in battle, an act of great piety by Greek standards, and gained the release of Athenian prisoners of war.  When it was his turn to pay for festivals and contests, he was
extraordinarily generous.  He had far more influence than he could ever have gotten constitutionally, and without any direct assault on the constitution.  Indeed, the citizens were proud to grant him a gold crown, a bronze statue in the theater, and free meals and a seat of honor at all civic contests for himself and his descendants.

In a world dominated by royal courts, the richest men in any city had access to completely unavailable to lesser citizens.  Even if the franchise remained democratic, it was bound
to be undermined by this situation.  In fact, the franchise was slowly made tighter, restricted to richer men, in many places.  Athens lost its traditional, very wide franchise soon after the death of Alexander, due to pressure from Macedonia.  Other kings and Roman emperors also distrusted
"the mob," and often used political disturbances to as an excuse to restrict voting and jury service to the "most worthy."

We have yet to really touch on Hellenistic literary and artistic culture.  It was both inventive and conservative.  The inventiveness can be seen especially in architecture and the fine arts, where a lot of good, if extravagant work was done.  The result was often overblown by many people's taste -- Roger Ling calls the Altar of Zeus and Athena at Pergamon an example of "bombast and virtuosity
{510, caption}."  The architecture and sculpture gives the impression of a Greek baroque.  This is a fair comparison, because the European baroque was also the product of a ruling class that was suddenly richer, more powerful, and more exclusive.

At the same time there was an archaizing, reverential feeling for the past.  Both in Old Greece and in the new kingdoms, a special status attached to the good old stuff from the good old days.  Mastery of that material was what set you apart from the common herd, what gave your whole community status.  This is symptomatic again:  the whole culture, if hardly stagnant, was certainly elitist and unrevolutionary.  There were good effects:  we owe the invention of literary scholarship to the efforts
of Hellenistic scholars to recover and understand the words of their predecessors.

This work, like the most important poetry of the era,  was an Alexandrian specialty.  Alexandria had the first Museum, a temple to all the Muses, and in it a vast library where the wealth Greek culture was collected and studied.  For us the great contribution is preservation.  There was a law in Alexandria that any ships bringing books to the town had to turn them over to be copied into the
library collection. Copying was not the end of the process.  Alexandrian scholars knew that
manuscripts could be inaccurate, and so they criticized and compared copies, to figure out as best they could what the original author had really said.

Outside of preservation, and excluding some very good scientific work,  much of Alexandrian scholarship seems picky and dry.  There was a desire to collect and distill the poetry and
knowledge of the ages:  they compiled lists of old and dialectical words, geographical and natural wonders.  It sounds, if not completely useless, rather suffocating.  Again, these are the products of an elitist, royally-sponsored,  unrevolutionary culture.

But we should not take this as being the sum-total of Hellenistic culture:  a few scholars and scholarly poets in a dusty Egyptian library. The culture did still have a wide appeal.  Alexandria was a great
publishing center.  Crowds gathered, and not just in Athens and Alexandria, to hear famous teachers speak.  Aristotelian philosophical has been found in a remote palace in Afghanistan.  For all its limitations, Hellenistic culture was exciting stuff, if not quite as exciting as in the dawn of Ionian philosophy or in Periclean Athens.  It was good enough to keep people coming back for more, for centuries.


Peter Levi,  Atlas of the Greek World.

Roger Ling, "Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman Art,"   Oxford History of the
 Classical World.
Simon Price, "The History of the Hellenistic Period," Oxford History of
 the Classical World.

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.