FC25: Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic era (336 BCE-31 BCE)


FC25 in the Hyperflow of History.
Covered in multimedia lecture #4114.

The period of the Greek polis before the Macedonian conquest of Greece and Alexander the Great's conquests is known as the Hellenic Age and is concerned primarily with the narrow world of Greek poleis in Greece and the Aegean.  The three centuries following Alexander's death are known as the Hellenistic Age,  during which period Greek influence was spread across Asia far beyond the Greek homeland.

Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.E.)

Philip of Macedon was smart enough to realize that it would be wise to rule the Greeks as leniently as possible.  Therefore, instead of occupying Greece, he formed all the poleis (except Sparta which he left alone) into a league whose purpose was to invade Persia and supposedly avenge Xerxes' invasion from 150 years before.  He even called it the Corinthian League to make the Greeks think it was for their benefit.  But, with Philip as president, everyone recognized quite well who was in charge and that the era of the free polis was over, at least for the time being.  Then, in 336 B.C.E., the opportunity for revolt suddenly presented itself when Philip was assassinated.

Philip's successor was Alexander III of Macedon, known to us as Alexander the Great.  Few figures in history have inspired so many tales of romance and adventure.  This is easy to understand when one looks at a map of Alexander's empire, and considers it took him only eleven years to conquer it.

When Alexander came to the throne, he was only twenty years old, although he had excellent training and experience for someone so young.  He had received a tough, almost Spartan, training from a man named Leonidas.  Then, at age thirteen, he was tutored by the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who trained Alexander’s intellect as intensively as Leonidas had trained his body.  Largely because of his education, Alexander displayed both an incredible physical toughness and intellectual genius.  Those qualities, combined with early campaigns against northern tribes and at the battle of Chaeronea, made the young king more than ready to assume power.  However, the various Greek city-states did not realize this until it was too late.  Almost immediately after Philip's death, the Greeks, led by Thebes and Athens, raised the standard of revolt.  The young king was at their gates so quickly that they could not believe it was really Alexander.  A quick surrender saved them this time, but a second revolt by Thebes upon a rumor that Alexander had died while campaigning against tribes in the north led to a second rapid descent by the Macedonian king and the destruction of Thebes as a warning to other Greeks.

Alexander then prepared to pursue his father's plans to conquer Persia.  For the next eleven years, from 334 to 323 B.C.E., he carried out one of the most amazing campaigns of conquest in history, only being rivaled by the Mongols under Chinghis Khan. During that time, his army marched over 21,000 miles, covering terrain ranging from the hot plains of Mesopotamia to the Hindu Kush Mountains and the hot humid environment of India.  He even conquered Bactria, modern Afghanistan, something Soviet forces failed to do in the 1980's using advanced modern weaponry.  Such feats required Alexander's brilliant and flexible mind.  Whether faced with the massive armies of Darius III, the island fortress of Tyre, the mountain stronghold known as the Sogdian Rock in Bactria, or crossing the rain swollen waters of the Jhelum River in the face of a hostile Indian army, Alexander could always come up with an ingenious, and usually unexpected solution to the problem.

Alexander's success was also largely due to his charismatic personality.  He knew thousands of his troops by name, and shared the dangers of battle and the fruits of victory equally with them.  He could put down a mutiny with a mere speech reminding his soldiers of their shared exploits, or shame his troops to action by leading an assault alone.  Ironically, in the end, the only army that halted his advance into Asia was his own.  Tired from years of marching and fighting, and thousands of miles from home in the hot, humid plains of India, they refused to go any further.  It was only then that Alexander turned around and went back.  Soon afterwards in Babylon, he died, struck down by fever.  Although on his deathbed, he let his troops file through his tent for one last farewell to their dying king and comrade.  He was only thirty-three years of age when  he died.

Various factors besides his personality aided Alexander.  His father left him an excellent, well-drilled army that Alexander constantly experimented with to adapt to the changing conditions of his campaigns.  The Persian Empire at that time was also in a state of decay and ruled by a timid king, Darius III, whose tendency to panic in battle cost him two large armies and his empire.  Still, Alexander met some fierce resistance, especially in Bactria and India, and had to prove his abilities as a general constantly.  In the end, Alexander's immortality was assured by his early death that gave rise to a wealth of romantic legends surrounding this handsome young man who conquered most of the known world.

Alexander's successors and the establishment of a new order (323-c.275B.C.E.)

Alexander died leaving only a mentally unfit half brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, and a pregnant wife, Roxanne, who eventually gave birth to a son, Alexander IV.  Neither of these was capable of ruling, which left the job of organizing and ruling Alexander's empire to his generals.  Rarely, if ever, has a more capable and ambitious group of men been gathered in one place with such an empire at stake.  As one might expect, a long and bitter struggle for control of the empire ensued.

The basic pattern of these wars was that one general would gather a large amount of power into his hands, which would drive the other generals to unite against him before he took everything and destroyed them.  As a result, no one was able to control all of Alexander's empire, which had fragmented by 275 B.C.E. into three large kingdoms: Antigonid Macedon, Seleucid Asia, and Ptolemaic Egypt.

The first of these kingdoms, Macedon, was ruled by the Antigonid dynasty.  The Antigonids also tried to maintain control of Greece, but were only able to hold onto various strategic cities from time to time.  Opposing the Antigonids and each other were the Aetolian and Achaean Leagues, which commanded the allegiance of most of the cities in Greece.  Greece during this period saw a confusing and continuous power struggle between these leagues, Macedon, and various independent city-states such as Athens and Sparta.  In the end, no one gained control and everyone was worn out from all this constant bickering.  This set the stage for Rome to come in and finally establish long lasting peace and stability through its conquest of Greece in 146 B.C.E.

The bulk of Alexander's Asian lands were united under the Seleucid dynasty, founded by Seleucus I.  Because of the size of their Empire, the Seleucids did what they could to attract Greek and Macedonian soldiers, artisans, and merchants to settle in their realms. Although many Greeks and Macedonians were willing to abandon their poorer homelands for the promise of wealthier horizons to the east, they were still few in number compared to the native population they ruled. Most Greeks and Macedonians coming to settle in Asia were concentrated in the many Greek style poleis founded by the Hellenistic monarchs.  The Seleucids in particular were great founders of cities, seeing each one as an island of Greek power and culture in the midst of a hostile Asian sea.  Outside of these Greek cities, native culture continued, largely untouched by Greek civilization. Most of these colonies were concentrated in the western parts of the empire, especially in Asia Minor and Syria, the most famous being the Syrian city of Antioch.  In the vast interior of the eastern part of the empire, the cities were few and far between, and the influence of Greek culture was confined to the cities, reaching very little into the countryside.  Even in the western parts of the empire, Greek influence rarely spread outside of the cities.

Such a widespread realm had virtually no cohesion, making it very difficult to hold together.  Almost immediately after Seleucus I founded his dynasty, the fringes of the empire started to splinter. Seleucus first let his Indian lands go to the great Indian king, Chandragupta, in return for 500 war elephants.  Asia Minor also started to fragment when Attalus, king of the city-state of Pergamum, started to carve out a kingdom in the western and southern parts of the peninsula.  Soon other states such as Bithynia, Pontus, and Cappadocia were also emerging in Asia Minor.  This left Syria, Palestine, and the Asian heartland to the Seleucids.  A new tribe, known as the Parthians, invaded from the northeast and kept chipping away at the Seleucid lands until all that remained were the lands around Antioch in Syria.  In 64 B.C.E., the Roman general, Pompey, finally put an end to these pathetic remnants and replaced Greek rule in the East with that of Rome.

The last, most successful, and longest-lived kingdom was in Egypt, founded by another of Alexander's generals, Ptolemy.  He clearly saw that no one would be able to hold all of Alexander's empire together.  Therefore, he went for a more realistic and limited goal, taking Egypt, which was rich and fairly isolated from invasion.  All the kings of this dynasty were named Ptolemy and ruled much as the pharaohs had done for centuries.  They were absolute rulers over a highly centralized state.  All land was owned by the king and worked by the peasants for his benefit.  Government monopolies on grain, oil, metals, glass, and papyrus also swelled the king's treasury, making Ptolemaic Egypt the richest of the Hellenistic kingdoms.

The showpiece of the Ptolemaic kingdom was Alexandria, which was founded by Alexander in 330 B.C.E. and destined to be the greatest of all Hellenistic cities.  It was here that the Ptolemies established possibly the finest library and university up to that point in history.  The library had an estimated 700,000 scrolls and was the largest collection of books in the ancient world.  Unfortunately, it was destroyed by several fires set off by wars and riots that occasionally rocked Alexandria throughout its history.  There is no telling how much ancient knowledge was lost as a result.

The Museum, or university, in Alexandria was also another splendid example of royal patronage.  It had some 14,000 students along with botanical gardens, a zoological park, and a medical school.  It was here that many of the greatest minds of the day converged to develop and show off their talents.  As a result, ancient Greek science saw many of its greatest advances in Alexandria during this period.  Finally, there was the Lighthouse of Pharos, which was 100 feet tall and cast a beacon for 30 miles.  It supposedly had a steam-powered foghorn and a system of mirrors much like a periscope, so that people on ground level could survey the horizon from the perspective of being on top.

The Ptolemies' main rivals were the Seleucid rulers of Asia.  These two powers clashed constantly for a century over control of Syria and Palestine, with the Seleucids finally winning the struggle.  The Ptolemies also built a large navy and had political and economic interests in Asia Minor.  Egypt's wealth and stability made it the last of the Hellenistic kingdoms to fall, as with the others, at the hands of Rome.  In 3l B.C.E., in a naval battle at Actium off the coast of Greece, the combined fleets of the Roman general, Marc Antony, and Cleopatra were destroyed by another Roman, Octavian.  This marked the end of Hellenistic Egypt, and also the Hellenistic era, although to a large extent, Roman civilization was a continuation of Hellenistic civilization.

Hellenistic civilization

 differed in several respects from that of the preceding age of the polis and was characterized by three features.  First of all, Hellenistic civilization was on a much larger scale than that of the polis.  For example, Hellenistic armies were much larger than the armies of the old Greek city-states.  Whereas before, a Greek army of 10,000 hoplites was considered large, Hellenistic armies often totaled 60-70,000 men.  There were also many non-Greek elements in Hellenistic armies, in particular large stables of war elephants whose purpose was to overpower and trample enemy formations much like modern tanks do.  However, the heart of the Hellenistic army was still a phalanx of Greek and Macedonian troops.  Navies were also larger in size and number.  The limited numbers of skilled rowers led to a return to boarding and grappling tactics that required less skill and finesse than ramming and clipping.

Along these lines, trade was on a much larger scale than in the old Greek world centered around the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.  Alexander's conquests largely fused the Greeks' Mediterranean centered economy with the Asian centered economy of Persia. Commerce flourished between the Greek and Persian worlds, with trade links being established as far east as India and China, creating a virtual world economy.  The volume of trade was also large. Ptolemaic Egypt was able to export an estimated 20,000,000 bushels of grain each year. This made Hellenistic civilization much richer than the older Hellenic civilization, which made much more money available for the patronage of cultural pursuits.  The best example of this was in Alexandria, the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, already discussed above.

The second feature of Hellenistic Civilization caused by its large scale was the large number of older cultures it ruled over and was subsequently influenced by.  Babylonian math and Egyptian medicine were the most notable examples of this influence.  However, the fusion of cultures took place as far away as India and Bactria, where an interesting dialogue was written down between a Buddhist monk and Menander, the Greek ruler of a Greek kingdom which controlled Bactria and Northwest India in the third and second centuries B.C.E.  Greek sculpture also had its influence on the Gandharan style of Buddhist sculpture as seen by the portrayal of curly haired Buddhas, even though the Greeks were the only ones in the area with curly hair.  This influence even filtered as far east as China where the curly haired motif of Buddhas showed up.

The third aspect of Hellenistic civilization to note was that Greek influence was dominant and spread widely across Alexander's empire, especially throughout the Middle East as seen in the widespread use of Koine (common) Greek in the cities there.  For example, the New Testament of the Bible was written in Koine Greek rather than Hebrew since it could reach more people that way.  However, as mentioned above, the small numbers of Greeks and Macedonians compared to the numbers of peoples they ruled meant that they stayed concentrated in the cities and their cultural influence rarely reached the peasants in the countryside.

Hellenistic accomplshments

Because of the expansion of trade, its wealth, and contact with other cultures and ideas, Hellenistic civilization flourished in a variety of areas.  Prominent among these were medicine, philosophy, math, and mechanical science.  In medicine, the center of research and development was Alexandria, where researchers came up with several new findings.  They used dissections to show the distinction between arteries and nerves.  They learned to use the pulse for diagnosis and saw the heart as a pump with valves.  They were even able to control bleeding with tourniquets and surgically remove hernias, bladder stones, and hemorrhoids.

Despite these findings, there was still no comprehensive understanding of how the human body operates as an integrated system of organs.  For example, Greek physicians thought the heart only pumped blood out of the heart and had no concept of the circulatory system, believing the body produced new blood rather than recirculating and oxygenating it in the lungs.  It would not be until the 1600's that serious progress would be made beyond the Greeks in our understanding of human anatomy and physiology.

In philosophy, several new ideas emerged.  One of these, Stoicism (named after the colonnaded walkway, or stoa, in which it was taught in Athens), stressed, among other things, doing one's duty and bearing up under hardship.  Even today, the term stoic is used to denote someone who bears adversity with strength and courage.  The other major new philosophy to emerge was Epicureanism.  This said our main goal in life is to avoid pain.  Many people misinterpreted this to mean we should live a hedonistic, "eat, drink, and be merry" lifestyle.  The term epicurean still denotes this sort of attitude.  However, Epicureus, the founder of this philosophy, saw such a lifestyle as ultimately destructive, and therefore exactly the opposite of what he was striving for.  Rather, we should live moderate sensible lives.  This and his idea that God exists, but is totally detached from events on earth, would have a profound influence on the philosophy of Deism during the Enlightenment in the 1700's.

There were also considerable accomplishments in mathematics and mechanical science during the Hellenistic Age.  Greek mathematicians mainly excelled in geometry, since they did not have place value digits or the zero, both of which are needed for higher level computations.  Euclid wrote a geometry book whose proofs are still used in schools today.  Eratosthenes, another mathematician working in Ptolemaic Egypt, accurately calculated the circumference of the earth by measuring the different lengths of shadows of two sticks two hundred miles apart at high noon on the summer solstice.  However, Eratosthenes' calculation was ignored in favor of a much smaller estimate of the earth's size.  This was important, since the smaller estimate of the size of the globe would give captains the courage to sail the high seas during the Age of Exploration.

In mechanical science, the steam engine was invented by Hiero of Alexandria and used for various toys and tricks to amaze people, such as opening temple doors.  However, people having plenty of cheap slave or poor labor, found few practical uses for steam power, and it was eventually forgotten until the 1600's in Western Europe when there was a need for labor saving devices.  Finally, there was Archimedes of Syracuse who demonstrated the properties of water displacement.  He also defended his city from a besieging Roman army by designing catapults and fantastic machines, such as giant cranes for picking up and dropping enemy ships beneath Syracuse's walls.  Thanks largely to Archimedes' devices, Syracuse held out for two years before the Romans broke in.  Archimedes died in the sack of the city, totally absorbed in a math problem and oblivious to the havoc going on around him.


If one looks only at how many people were directly affected by Greek culture during the Hellenistic Age, then the Greeks would seem to have failed to spread their culture.  However, looking at numbers alone to assess the success of the Hellenistic Greeks is deceptive.  While Greek culture was largely confined to Greek cities, the high culture of most civilizations was also confined to their cities as well. It is true that Greek culture had little lasting impact in Mesopotamia and farther east.  However, its impact in Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt was quite profound.  The fact that Koine Greek became the common language spoken throughout the Eastern Mediterranean cities and was the original language of the New Testament says a great deal about Greek influence.

Just as important, if not more, the Romans, coming into contact with the Hellenistic East, would adopt Greek culture as their own and pass it on to our culture developing in Western Europe.  The Romans' successors in the East, the medieval Byzantines (Greeks), would also pass Greek civilization directly on to Western Europe and to the Muslim Arabs.  They, in turn, would add to Greek math and science and then pass it on to Western Europe through Muslim Spain.  Thus Europe received its Greek heritage from three separate sources.  That alone should show the importance of the Greeks to our own culture, and how, thanks to the diffusion of Greek culture during the Hellenistic Age, the Greeks are still very much with us.