Hellenistic Age Essay Research Paper Hellenistic Age

Hellenistic Age Essay, Research Paper

Hellenistic Age (323BC – 30BC)

The Age of Alexander

The conquests of Alexander the Great spread Hellenism immediately over the Middle East and far into Asia. After his death in 323 B.C., the influence of Greek civilization continued to expand over the Mediterranean world and W Asia. The wars of the Diadochi marked, it is true, the breakup of Alexander’s brief empire, but the establishment of Macedonian dynasties in Egypt, Syria, and Persia (the Ptolemies and the Seleucidae) helped to mold the world of that day into a wider unity of trade and learning.

The Hellenistic period was an international, cosmopolitan age. Commercial contacts were widespread and peoples of many ethnic and religious backgrounds merged in populous urban centers. Advances were made in various fields of scientific inquiry, including engineering, physics, astronomy and mathematics. Great libraries were founded in Alexandria, Athens and the independent kingdom of Pergamum. The old beliefs in Olympian gods were infused with foreign elements, especially from the east; “Oriental” ecstatic cults, such as those of Cybele, Isis, and Mithras, become popular in the Hellenized world.

The 3rd century BC saw the rise of ancient Rome. After securing most of the Italic peninsula, Rome entered into a protracted conflict with the Carthaginians for control of Sicily, Spain and the other regions of Punic domination in the Punic Wars. The former empire of Alexander was taken steadily and methodically into Roman hands. The great city of Corinth was destroyed (146 BC), Athens captured (86 BC), and Cleopatra and Mark Antony defeated at the Battle of Actium (31 BC). Their defeat marks the end of the Hellenistic Age.


While the city-states of Greece itself tended to stagnate, elsewhere cities and states grew and flourished. Of these the chief was Alexandria. So great a force did Alexandria exert in commerce, letters, and art that this period is occasionally called the Alexandrian Age, and the end of Hellenistic civilization is generally set at the final triumph of Roman power in Alexandria in the 1st cent. B.C. Pergamum was also prominent, and there were other cities of influence (e.g., Dura).

In the Hellenistic period, although the cities were no longer independent, as they had been in the Hellenic era, they were the centers of trade and craft industry. It was in the cities that the descendants of the Greco-Macedonian conquerors became a professional class of rulers and soldiers and merchants, which provided a cultural and economic bond throughout the area, even though political unity did not survive the death of Alexander. Among the Greek ruling class, the old loyalties to the Polis had given way to a dedication to the profession. As the administrators and the merchants of their world, in spite of being in the minority, they had an influence out of proportion to their numbers. The city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander, located on the Mediterranean at the mouth of the Nile, became the most prominent center of commerce and learning. The library in Alexandria became the depository for recording many of the literary and scientific achievements of the time.

Although women continued to have a subordinate status, some lucky few of the wealthy and ruling classes, would have the opportunity to become involved in commerce or in intellectual activities. For the most part, however, women had no part in public life.


Navigators, who learned, for example, about the North Sea, extended the bounds of the known world. The upsurge of commerce brought a great increase of wealth to merchants and in general to the upper classes; this wealth was also reflected in a tendency toward the ornate and impressive in architecture, although town plans and buildings of the period have proportions and grace rarely excelled. It should be noted, however, that the increase of wealth did not reach the poor, who in general were more impoverished than they had previously been.

Agriculture, small plots of land worked by farmers, industry and ventures in commerce were small entrepreneurs in Classical Greece but with the Hellenistic Age came large scale industry and trade. The Hellenistic world brought ambitious Greeks that migrated to Egypt and the Near East. They introduced new crops and new techniques in agriculture i.e.: new improved Egyptian wines and improved irrigation. Long distance trade grew and rulers encouraged this by establishing a sound money system, building roads and canals and clearing the seas of pirates. Unfortunately the prosperity which resulted due to the expansion of trade filled the pockets of the Upper Class but little filtered to the farmers and laborers.

Education & Libraries

Education, however, was much more widespread than ever before, and Greek was the fashionable language of the educated world. The result was a great increase of volume in literature and a tendency for writing to divide into popular literature for the wide audience and specialize writing. A library and a museum were constructed in Alexandria. One of the main interests of the scholars in Alexandria is Classical Greece. The specialization of scholars caused the development of professionalism. The army now consisted of professional soldiers while professional beaurocrats ran the government.

Following the death of Alexander the Great, his kingdom was split into three large Kingdoms (approx. 275BC) by his generals. The Antigonid dynasty maintained control of mainland Greece. The Seleucids governed the entire eastern empire, the largest portion of the territory, while the Ptolemies ruled the land of ancient Egypt.

Hellenistic Rulers

Women re-emerged as rulers in The Hellenistic Age i.e. Cleopatra and Olympias, the mother of Alexander. Hellenistic Rulrs ruled with strong militaries and large bureaucracy, which allowed localized democracy. The king could however cancel the rights of the cities.


Slavery, which had been a commonly accepted practice throughout the history of ancient civilization, remained a prominent part of Hellenistic culture. Most labor was hand labor, and slavery had the effect of degrading the value of labor and discouraging the search for alternative methods of production. Thus, in spite of the fact that the Hellenistic era is noted for its scientific achievements, the increase in theoretical knowledge did not lead to practical applications. Industry remained essentially hand-craft industry, and agriculture remained the primary occupation. Trade and commerce, though enhanced by the mercantile and shipping expertise of a professional class of merchants, was limited, almost entirely to agricultural products such as the grains of the river valleys, and wine and olives of the Mediterranean


The empirical traditions established by the Greek natural scientists (such as Democritus and Aristotle) continued to be followed by a number of notable individuals.

Aristarchus of Samos (c. 310-230 BC)

Only through references from Archimedes and Plutarch do we have knowledge of this ancient scientist. We know that Aristarchus put forth the amazing observation (amazing for his time, anyway) that the sun is the center of the cosmos and that the earth travels around the sun–not the sun around the earth. He also made some quite daring estimation of the sizes and distances of the sun and moon. Although he greatly underestimated both size and distance, they were radically greater than anything thought possible in his days–and as with the rest of his work, held to ridicule because they seemed so obviously wrong at the time. Today, of course, he seems to be a lonely voice pointing in the right direction, one that was not followed up by others that anciently might have led us to more accurate estimations of the scope and movement of our universe.

Archimedes (287-212 BC)

Archimedes was a scientist in the way we understand the term: he combined his love of mathematical theory with a zeal for experimentation. Consequently he produced a number of major insights into the realm of mechanical engineering and physics. He was a major contributor to the study of geometry and the science of weights and measures. He also came very close to inventing the calculus (that honor ultimately went to Newton 1,900 years later).

He also was famed in his days for the inventive defense devices he provided his native city of Syracuse (Sicily) in its (ultimately unsuccessful) defense effort against the besieging Romans.

Eratosthenes (ca. 276-192 BC)

Eratosthenes was the librarian of the great museum/library of Alexandria. Based on the knowledge that at noon at the summer solstice shone directly down a well in Syene (Aswan) Egypt–and calculating the angle of the shadow that the sun made over a vertical pole at Alexandria Egypt at exactly the same moment–and having an accurate measure of the distance between the well at Syene and his rod at Alexandria, Eratosthenes estimated the earth’s circumference at 24,660 miles–only about 200 miles less than the actual measure! He also claimed that a person could sail around the earth and arrive back at his starting point, provided that he never changed course along the way. He likewise catalogued nearly 700 stars. And he devised a system of calculating prime numbers.

Euclid (ca. 276-194 BC)

Euclid taught mathematics in Alexandria, Egypt and is even today considered the “father” of Western geometry. His work was clear and precise and well accepted in his days. Indeed, his writing Elements was used down into modern times as the major text on the subject of geometry. But we know little about him personally except through his many preserved works.

Hipparchus (fl. 145-130 BC)

He was one who put forth strong arguments against the heliocentric theory of Aristarchus–on the grounds that a mathematical system of eccentrics and epicycles seemed to account more logically for the movement of the heavens (he had a very strong influence on Ptolemy who took up his work several centuries later) and did not suffer from a theory which required the earth to move. This to Hipparchus flew solidly in the face of common sense.

But in other respects he was a very accomplished mathematician, geomotrist and astronomer. He rejected astrology and based his work solely on rigorous observation–which avoided metaphysical speculation. He was highly instrumental in the creation of trigonometry–including the formula for spherical triangles. He created a star catalogue, which was quite accurate–and which listed almost 1000 stars.

Philosophy and Religion

Hellenistic Philosophy, 322 BC to 235 AD, overlaps the Hellenistic Period (from Alexander the Great, d.323, to Cleopatra, d.30 BC) and the Early Roman Empire (30 BC to the death of Alexander Severus, 235 AD). Plato’s school at the Academy and Aristotle’s school (the Peripatetics) at the Lyceum continued, joined by several other schools, including the Cynics and Hedonists, but especially the Stoics and Epicureans.


The Stoic school was founded by Zeno of Citium (335-263), a man of Phoenician descent from Cyprus, and was named after the kind of open building with a porch, a stoa, found in the Athenian marketplace, where Zeno taught and the school became established. After coming to Athens, Zeno was a student of Crates, but broke away out of humiliation at the kinds of things he was expected to do. Stoicism, which became the dominant Hellenistic school of philosophy, emphasized that happiness depends only on goodness (rather as Socrates had thought) and that all external conditions of life can and must be endured without apathy (suffering).


The school of Hedonism was reputedly founded by Aristippus of Cyrene (c.435-360) and later modified by Epicurus (341-270), who settled in Athens and taught from the garden of his house, where the school remained and from which it derived its name: the Garden. Epicurus remained a hedonist in the sense that he believed pleasure to be the good, but he thought that only pleasures which did not later produce pain should be sought. Excesses and disturbing affairs, like politics, were thus to be avoided. Even the gods were thought to live this kind of existence, paying no special attention to us. Epicurus derived his metaphysical doctrines from Democritus. The teaching of “atoms and the void” gave him less to worry about than other doctrines did. This was never as popular as Stoicism.

Summary Comparison Guide of Hellenic and Hellenistic Societies

Features Hellenic World Hellenistic World

Government Small, self-governing city-states Empires ruled by monarchs, kings.

Cities ruled by wealthy class

Education Private tutors for well-to-do. Physical training at gym Education and physical training at gymnasium

Language Classical Greek Greek (kione), Aramaic

Commerce Limited commercial activity extensive trade on sea and land

Status of women restricted roles, domestic chiefly marriage contracts, own slaves and property, act as regents

Slavery Widespread use Widespread use

Literature Golden age drama, poetry Greek influence with local culture

Philosophy Emphasis on logic ethics, reason(Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) Non-rational, Oriental mysticism

1. Stoic 2. Epicurean 3. Cynic

Science Acceptance of experimental method but more attention to philosophy Advances in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine

Religion Olympian gods of Greece Adapted Olympian gods for Rome, local religions

The power and leadership of the Greco-Macedonian ruling groups would gradually be undermined by the diffusion of knowledge and professional expertise to non-Greeks. The fact that the Greeks were a minority, meant that eventually, the larger numbers of people of Asiatic or near-Eastern background would increase their influence. Thus, in a very gradual manner, without distinct historical events to mark the way, the unique hellenistic culture would fade away. Greek practices would, however, make a permanent mark upon the composite culture of the civilized world.

The process of expansion of civilization and diffusion of culture would go on. The Romans built their empire upon the Mediterranean basin, exploited the advances of the Hellenistic era, and expanded the civilized center into western Europe. The Hellenistic period blended imperceptibly into the Roman era.


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