Lecture 4:  The Hellenistic World


Political and social instability and cultural achievements in the wake of the Peloponnesian War (400-360 BCE)


Political instability:  We left off with at the end of the Peloponnesian War.  Athens was in turmoil, Sparta was the dominant city state in Greece.  But that did not last long. 


Spartans not good at diplomacy, state not suited to rule as Hegemon (leader) over quasi-empire.  Extended war had strained Spartan society; by 400 BCE, only 2,000 men Spartan citizens/soldiers remained.   Several Greek city-states soon rejected Sparta’s leadership, and Persia now backed Sparta's enemies. 


Sparta won the Corinth War vs Corinth and Athens (394-387 BCE), but lost a war to Thebes (which had 10 times as many soldiers) in 370 BCE.  Theban army freed Messenia from Sparta's rule, which deprived Sparta of slaves and destroyed Sparta's economy. 


Thebes could not hold onto power; in 362 BCE, Athens and Sparta allied to defeat Thebes.  Then a new alliance formed vs. Athens.   In short—Greek city states spent two generations fighting among themselves.


Within city states:  discord, conflicts between citizens and aspiring tyrants.  War/civil unrest disrupted Greek economy.  SO, states were imposing higher taxes to pay for their wars at same time that agricultural yields declined, food prices rose, unemployment rose, etc.  More Greeks fell into debt slavery.   Greek city-states had been wealthy and powerful, but fought themselves into poverty.  Rise in banditry; Greek men began to hired themselves out as mercenaries, etc..


Cultural Achievements:  Despite (or in reaction to) turmoil, Greek cultural life continued evolving.  Artists concentrated less on models of human perfection, more on portraying "real people" accurately.  Audiences less interested in plays about politics and complicated ideas; wanted "lighter" entertainment, more "superficial" plays and comic poetry, etc. 


Philosophy, though, became even more serious. 


Plato (427-347 BCE), Socrates’ student, established “Academy” to study philosophy.  Believed absolute Truth could be learned by applying reason (like Socrates).  Believed purpose of seeking truth is to live a just, proper, ethical life.  Plato's philosophy = kind of dialectical Idealism.  Material world not = “reality”:  "real" = Universal Ideas (Forms) that can’t be grasped by senses.  Forms = perfect and unchanging, exist in a pure spiritual realm.   In contrast, material world = approximation [imperfect copy] of Forms, always in flux, always in state of "becoming."   


Plato said that to live a proper, ethical, virtuous life, person must contemplate the most important Idea—Good.   Wrote about the Good (ethical, virtuous) Life; nature of Soul, Love, Evil, Virtue and Morality.  In The Republic, said for society to pursue Virtue and Good, the wise men must rule as "philosopher kings."   Smartest make decisions for everyone else, to lead them toward wisdom

Plato's student, Aristotle (384-322 BCE), challenged many of Plato’s ideas.   Founded own school--the Lyceum; most influential teacher of Hellenistic era.  Adopted Plato's ideas about "Forms," but more concerned with how they shaped material world.  Said philosophy should focus on material manifestations of the Forms.   Like Plato, said cosmos is in a constant state of change.  Unlike Plato, rejected primary focus on "Universals/Forms"; argued that understanding reality requires examining Particulars—specific concrete examples.  To understand reality, we must observe using senses, then use logic to determine how specific things function and how they relate to other things.  Systematically examine material things, figure out how they fit into categories by function and relationships—look for patterns.


Aristotle worked out system for rational analysis that we call Logic.  Developed rules of argument (syllogisms = “proofs” that build from statements we know are true to determine the truth of other statements).  [Example:  All men have lungs; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates has lungs.]   Developed rules for inductive reasoning (argument based upon observation) and deductive reasoning (argument based upon logical extension of known truths), rules for understanding cause and effect


Like Plato, Aristotle concerned with the Good Life = life of virtue, which required compromise between contemplation and practical action (a middle path, the "Golden Mean").  Like Plato, he rejected democracy as the rule of the ignorant mob.


Philip of Macedon


For years, Aristotle worked for the King Philip of Macedon (north of the Greek city states), as tutor to his son (Alexander).  Macedon was wealthy (had huge deposits of gold), and Macedonians considered themselves Greeks.  But Athens, Thebes, Carthage, and Sparta considered the Macedonians to be semi-civilized foreigners.


In 359 BCE Macedonian King Philip reorganized army on Theban-Spartan model, as expert hoplites).   Innovations = paid his soldiers—they did not have to farm (etc) and were more loyal to him.   Established elite cavalry units (the "Companions") = specially trained sons of Macedonian aristocrats—this built unit cohesion and secured loyalty of aristocrats.  Result = army better disciplined, better trained than in Thebes or Sparta. 


Philip made alliances with several neighboring states using "marriage diplomacy"), then attacked rival states in the Balkans north/east of Greece.   Tried to make alliances with Athens, Thebes, etc., but Greek city states refused.  So Philip waged a successful war against Athens and Thebes in 338 BCE then used victory to pressure them into new alliance (the League of Corinth) with Philip as Hegemon.  Real goal = holding Greece together while he built an invasion force to go after the Persians.


336 BCE, Philip died suddenly (killed by bodyguard).   Crown went to his son, the 20-year old Alexander. 


336-323 BCE Alexander conquered most of the ancient world. 


Alexander the Great:  


Charismatic, ambitious, egotistical, well educated (student of Aristotle), ruthless (killed all male relatives as rivals after his father’s death), a brilliant warrior (commanded army in victory against Athens and Thebes at age 18). 


Alexander and the Greeks:  After Philip’s death, Alexander used army to put down rebellions in Greece.  Designated Hegemon like Philip, but treated Greek city-states differently than had his father.  Insisted that he and he alone ruled Greece; former city-states = territories in his empire. 


Wars of Conquest:  After securing northern borders by war in the Balkans, in 334 BCE, Alexander launched mass invasion of Persian-ruled territories.  He smashed Persia's western armies in Anatolia, then drove south in series of battles in Syria and Palestine, then conquered Egypt.  By 331 BCE, Alexander controlled the entire Eastern Mediterranean (and all its trade).


Alexander believed that he had a special destiny (premonitions before his birth, story of Gordian knot, etc); in Egypt, the Oracle of the god Amon announced that Alexander was the son of the god Zeus.  Alexander demanded that he be treated as a divine being—now he was a god (!).  Note that this also = adapting to Egyptian traditions.


Alexander began integrating Egypt into Greek empire/culture:  left Greek administrators to help rule in his absence; encouraged Greek colonization; built new Egyptian capital on Nile Delta, named after himself—Alexandria.   


Alexander then headed north and east, and invaded northern Mesopotamia.  331 BCE, defeated the Persian army of King Darius at Gaugamela.  Darius fled to east; Alexander declared himself King of Persia, then marched south to Babylon.  Captured Babylon, declared it new center of his empire (mid-point between Asia and the Mediterranean). 


Next, Alexander marched his armies into Persia itself:  captured Persia’s “second” capital city, Susa; then attacked Persia’s main capital, Persepolis.  Sacked the city, destroyed statue of Xerxes, burned old royal palace, etc. 


In Persia, Alexander took title King of Kings, began dressing in Persian style, married a Persian princess, forced his officers to Persian wives.  But also took steps to bring Persia into Hellenistic culture, e.g., sent sons of Persian nobles to Macedon to learn Greek; encouraged Greek colonization; built new “Greek” cities and appointed administrators to govern in his name.  (Back in Greece, his trusted lieutenant and regent, Antipater [a close friend of Aristotle’s] ruled in Alexander's absence.)     


Alexander still had not captured Darius, so he turned north and chased Darius through Media and Parthia, then into the mountains of Bactria (in Afghanistan).  Bessus, King of Bactria, killed Darius and declared himself new Persian king.  Alexander attacked Bactrian army; Bessus retreated, fought “guerilla warfare” that weakened Alexander’s army. 


Again, Alexander built new cities in Bactria {today’s Kandahar used to be called Alexandia} and appointed administrators to rule for him; also married a Bactrian princess (Roxanna). 


Alexander chased Bessus into Central Asia, to Samarkand—a critical junction in the trade routes that linked the Near East to East Asia.  After defeating Bessus, Alexander turned south, invaded the rich Indus Valley.   Peoples of northern India resisted conquest; Alexander pursued their forces, continued fighting south along the Indus River.   By the time he reached the Indus River Delta, Alexander had been seriously wounded.  Cholera, malaria, and typhus had killed off a large portion of his army.  Troops began to rebel; Alexander agree to retreat.  324 BCE, marched back to Babylon.  


In Babylon, Alexander planned to build a fleet to sail around the coast of Arabia (to India).  But festering wounds, malaria, excessive drinking finally killed him in June 323 BCE, at age 32.  Alexander had appointed a regent (Perdiccas) to rule his empire as regent pending birth of his son with Roxanne.  Perdiccas appointed Alexander’s senior generals as local rulers (Satraps) over regions of the empire.  There then were power struggles, both in Macedon and between generals.  In 320 BCE, the Satraps reached a (temporary) agreement on how to divide up the empire, but that did completely end the power struggles.



The Splintering of Alexander's Empire into “Successor States”


Alexander’s most powerful generals, who his regent had appointed Satraps, divided Alexander’s huge empire into several “smaller” empires.  Series of wars from 320 to 290s = complex series of events that ended in establishment of new imperial dynasties.


The Antigonid Dynasty:  General Antigonis, most senior of Alexander’s generals, claimed western portion of empire, tried to expand his rule.  That led to conflicts with other generals, e,g, Lysimachus (who ruled Thrace and Western Anatolia) and Seleucus, who formed alliances/fought wars vs Antigonis.  305 BCE, Antigonis declared himself king of Macedon and Greece, but killed in battle in 301 BCE;  his son then seized power in Macedon and much of Greece.   Antigonid dynasty ruled until the mid 100s BCE.  


Antigonids did not claim to be "divine" (like Alexander); while at its height their empire stretched as far as Syria, they did not try to conquer the ancient world (like Alexander).  Instead, they focused on administering their sphere in the Mediterranean efficiently. 


The Ptolemaic Dynasty:  Alexander's territories in Egypt came under the rule of General Ptolemy (sent by regent Perdiccas to govern Egypt in 332 BCE).  He rebelled against Perdiccas, which led to partition agreement of 320 BCE.  In 305 BCE, he declared himself Egypt's king.  Ptolemaic dynasty (332 BCE-30 BCE), ruled and run by “Greeks.”  Ptolemaic rulers used title Pharaoh, claimed to be direct decedents of ancient Pharaohs.  (Note—that = continuity with Egyptian tradition.)  But they did not speak Egyptian—they spoke Greek. 



Hellenistic Culture in Ptolemaic Egypt:  Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt from Alexandria.  Greeks = elites in Egyptian urban society.  Greek merchants dominated economy, commerce, international trade; owned large estates that grew “Greek” crops using “Greek” techniques.  Most of native population lived in poverty.


Ptolemaic elite culture “Hellenistic” = Greek as elite language, Greek traditions, literature, philosophy, etc. as common elite culture”---but with elements of native elite culture.  (Aspects of Hellenistic culture = cultural hybrid.)  Ptolemy II founded royal library and museum at Alexandria = greatest center of scholarship in the Hellenistic world.  (Burned during Roman occupation in 47 or 48 BCE.)  Alexandria = center of Hellenistic mathematics, astronomy, medical studies---all involved mixture of Greek traditions of rational analysis with elements of “local” scientific cultures.  (Example:  investigations into anatomy possible because Greek taboos about dead bodies not part Egyptian elite culture.)


Seleucid Dynasty:  General Seleucus took power in Persia as result of partition agreement in 320 BCE.  In 312 BCE, Seleucus also claimed Babylon.  Took control of Bactria, Arabia, Syria, and the Indus Valley in India.   Drove his army west and conquered much of Anatolia (Antigonis was killed fighting against him in 301 BCE).  Seleucid’s successors forced out of Indus Valley and Bactria.  But dynasty still ruled massive empire that included all of Persia and Babylon and most of Arabia, Anatolia and the Levant.  (Empire had revival in 100s, would be major rival of Rome in the east).  Like Alexander, Seleucid and his heirs claimed to be divine. 


Hellenistic culture in Seleucid dynasty:  As in Ptolemaic Egypt, ruling elite was “Greek,” Greeks dominated the economy, and native populations lived in poverty.  Common elite culture across empire was “Greek” [Hellenistic]—Greek language, Greek literature, philosophy, etc.  But also a mixture with local cultures—esp. with Babylonian culture.  Seleucus rebuilt Babylon and its temples, married his officers into local aristocracy, and made an effort to blend Greek and Babylonian culture. 


The Hellenistic Economy


Alexander's conquests tied the former Persian Empire, Egypt, and Greek world into one economic system.  Greek merchants settled colonies and outposts from India to Italy, from North Africa to the Black Sea.  Alexander stimulated international trade by introducing Lydian practice of stamping gold and silver into coins as basis for commerce.  (Alexander used coins for propaganda—his face was on the coins.)   Vast trade network prospered for two centuries after Alexander's death.  Successor empires all built ports, established new caravan routes, encouraged trade.  Greek colonial cities = centers of this trade, fueled urban growth.


Wealth from trade limited to small elite.  Majority of urban population = poor or slaves.  (Poverty made moving to colonial cities attractive for urban lower classes in Greece.)  Basis of economy for most people still agriculture, most people still engaged in farming.  Elites owned vast estates, but most farmers poor. 




Hellenistic Culture


Alexander's conquests spread Greek science, arts, and philosophy across his empire.  Greek became common elite language in successor states, Hellenistic (“Greek”) culture = common elite culture.  But Hellenistic culture also = hybrid of Greek traditions and philosophy with that of native peoples:  Greek scholars learned from Persians, Babylonians, and Egyptians, esp. in astronomy, geometry, and medicine. 


Much Hellenistic science centered in Greek "colonies" in successor states.  Examples:  in  Alexandria (Egypt):   mathematician Hipparchus (the father of trigonometry), Euclid (the father of geometry), geographer Eratoshenes (calculated the Earth's circumference).  Also, Alexandria center of medical studies.  (Because dissection of human corpses ok in Egypt, scholars could anatomy, e.g., learned that arteries carry blood.)


Syracuse (Sicily):  mathematician Archimedes, key figure in mathematics and physics, first to calculate Pi, explain principles of displacement and specific gravity, lay out principles of simple machines (inclined planes, levers, screws, pulleys, etc). 


NOTE:  Archimedes used knowledge of mechanics to build weapons like catapults and "burning glass."  In general, Greeks not interested in application of science to technology--more interested in "pure" or abstract science.  ("Science" is based upon a Latin word root, not Greek:  Greeks considered science a branch of philosophy:  medicine, astronomy, etc.= "Natural Philosophy."


Developments in Hellenistic philosophySkeptics argued that material world = only reality, man has no "soul," all "knowledge" is gathered through the senses.  Since the senses are imperfect, all knowledge is imperfect:  we cannot know truth.  Therefore, don’t worry about Truth or Virtue or good or evil—we can be happy if we accept that we are ignorant/incapable of such judgments.


Epicureans (Epicurus lived 342-270 BCE) believed in materialistic ("atomistic") view of cosmos, argued that since all men were made of the same matter, all men everywhere must be the same.  Existence has no special rationale purpose; it simply is.  Since there is no greater purpose, best way to live is to try to increase pleasure and decrease pain.  Pleasure = having what you need (vs hat you want).  Peace of mind comes from abandoning things that bring pain and fear (including belief in the supernatural), satisfying physical and mental needs.  Society would work best if everyone minded their own business, avoided politics, concentrated on their own happiness, and followed rules that are in their own best interest.


Stoics (founded by Zeno around 300 BCE]) said universe = rationally ordered, teleological (all headed inevitably towards specific intended goal).  Man = part of grand plan, cannot escape destiny; what "is" is what should be and is for the best.  Don’t fight vs. Fates, but try to understand the how things and events fit into grand logic.  Stoics’ #1 value = peace of mind;  men should engage in politics and work in community to help make society rational and fight injustice. 



Trends in Hellenistic religion:  New focus on mystery cults that promised individual salvation.  Example:  cult of Dionysius (god of wine and pleasure), also called the Orphic Cult, involved decadence and hedonism (drunken orgies, etc), but at core was about salvation:  Dionysius died and was resurrected.  Members of Orphic cult believed that proper conduct = eternal life and happiness through resurrection in afterlife.   Mostly cult for wealthy.


Among poor, cult of Mithras (Mithraism) was popular.   = a Greek variation of Zoroastrianism.  God Mithras minor figure in Zoroastrianism; then became the center of a resurrection cult.  Mithras said to have lived as a man, in poverty and simplicity, then was killed and resurected.  Performed miracles, healed sick, raised dead, turned water into wine, etc.  Said Sundays = sacred days (day of the Sun), 25 December most sacred of all days (the Winter Solstice, day that the sun is "born").  Members of cult believed that if they devoted selves to Mithras, abandoning worldly concerns, they could be "redeemed" (raised from the dead on the judgment day.)


SO a common theme in Hellenistic philosophy and religion was desire to escape pain of life and find greater inner peace and happiness. 


Hellenistic literature and arts:  Greek literature moved even further from political themes of Golden Age.  Instead, romanticized supposedly "simple" country life, nostalgia for mythical peaceful rural past.  Some Hellenistic non-fiction was tough=minded and analytical (e.g., works by Polybius), but most popular writing of this time was "fluffy." 


In public architecture, Alexander and successors abandoned classical Greek balance and grace and instead focused on "bigger and fancier."  Rulers memorialized their own power  by outdoing each other in the size and decoration of public buildings.  Similarly, Greek sculpture became more “ornate” (although still naturalistic). 


SUMMARY:  Alexander’s victories resulted in Hellenistic culture as the elite culture of a huge region, from Persia to Italy, it transformed the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world. 

Greek became the international language of commerce, science, philosophy, and government in   all the lands that Alexander had conquered. 


At same time, Greece was also changed.  Greek city states lost most of their independence, Greek public and civic life decayed (no more rule by the demos).  Greek culture transformed:  Persian influence on religion, Egyptian influence on science, etc..


Cultural hybrids not new phenomenon (see previous lectures!).  But Hellenistic culture = new sense of cosmopolitanism, a cultural community that transcended the borders of kingdoms.