The Hellenistic Period of Greece began in 323 B.C. following Alexander the Great’s death and ended in 31 B.C. after the invasion of the Roman Republic. The period is characterized by the spread of Greek civilization, thinking, language and mores throughout the whole of the eastern Mediterranean region, and Southwest Asia. The word “Hellenistic” comes from the word Hellazein, which, when translated, means “to speak Greek or identify with the Greeks.”
The death of Alexander the Great, after Karl von Piloty
In the wake of Alexander’s death there followed a power struggle between his generals (the Diadochoi). They reigned over the Alexandrian empire and frequently fought common enemies as well as one another. The strife culminated to the emergence of three major kingdoms: Syria and the rags of the Empire of Persia were ruled over by Seleucus (Seleucid Empire); Macedonia, Thrace and certain parts of Asia Minor were controlled by Antigonus and his son Demetrius (Antigonid dynasty); Egypt and regions of the Middle East were under the reign of Ptolemy (Ptolemaic Kingdom).
There were also other small kingdoms at the time; the Attalid kingdom and the kingdom of Bactria were amongst the few.
The Hellenistic era saw the rise of cities. Athens, Thebes, Miletus, Corinth, and Syracuse were among the Greek cities that saw great prosperity. Outside the realm of Greece, cities like Ephesus, Pergamum, Damascus, Antioch and Trapezus also rose to prominence. However, the city of Alexandria towered over all of them. Founded by Alexander in 331 B.C., the city became the epicenter of trade and the culture of the Hellenistic world.
The era boasted a host of celebrated thinkers and artists whose works continued to influence the world for centuries. Greece’s philosophical culture was maintained through schools of thoughts such as the Skeptics, Epicurians and Stoics. Works of literature, art and poetry reached their zenith. The works of Theocritus, Callimachus, Menander and Apollonius of Rhodes attest to the era’s innovative growth in artistry.
The growth was facilitated by the great kings of Greece. They commissioned the works of art, sculpture and jewelry, built large, ornate buildings and even made massive donations for the construction of zoos, museums, universities and libraries (the celebrated libraries at Alexandria and Pergamum, for instance).Mathematicians like Euclid, Archimedes and Apollonius, along with the inventors Heron (engineer of the model steam engine) Ktesibios (creator of the water clock) hail from the University of Alexandria that was established through the sponsoring of the Greek kings.
The kings were also cosmopolitan thinkers who worked tirelessly to collect the world’s riches. They promoted trade relationships throughout the Hellenistic world. From India, they imported ebony, pearls, ivory, cotton, gold, spices and sugar; from the Far East, iron and fur; from Babylon and Damascus, prunes and dates; olive oil from the city of Athens; silver from Spain; and from islands as far north as Cornwall and Brittany, they imported tin.
But the Hellenistic era was far from perfect. The kingdoms were plagued by external and internal unrest. The continued struggle between the major and minor kingdoms led to the constant realignment of boarders. The large extent of the empire’s territory led to an unwieldy system of control; this gave way to foreign attacks, especially in the areas outside the large cities. These areas became easy targets of piracy and robbery.
The most serious threat to the empire came in 279 B.C., when Macedonia was invaded by the Gauls in an attempt to steal the treasure of Delphi. Ptolemy II, who was the self-asserted king of Macedonia at the time, was killed during the invasion. He was beheaded and the enemy had his head attached to the tip of a sphere. His death led to the region’s disorder. However, Antigonus II Gonatas was able to nib this incursion in the bud. In 277 B.C., he was able to crush a force of 18,000 Gauls. He later appointed himself king of Macedonia and ruled for over three decades.
The Wars of the Diadochi
A debate over the future of the Alexandrian empire arose amongst the Diadochi’s (‘successors’ is the title given to the first generation of political and military leaders after the death of Alexander). Some supported the unification of the kingdom, whilst others argued for its fragmentation.
The debate culminated to the Wars of the Diadochi (321-301 B.C.). There were four wars that took place: The First Diadochi War (321-320 B.C.); The Second Diadochi War (318-316 B.C.); The Third Diadochi War (315-311 B.C.) and The Fourth Diadochi War (307-301 B.C.).
The Diadochi Wars were concluded with the disintegration of the empire and the allocation of its territories in Asia and Europe to the commanders. The highlight of the settlement at Triparadisus was the following:
Egypt fell under the provincial rule of Ptolemy; Seleucus was granted Babylonia; Lysimachus kept Thrace; Antigenes, was granted Elam; Arridaeus, a former regent, became the satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia; Peithon, got Media and Antigonus was given control over the army of Perdiccas.
The new regent became Antipater—Alexander’s leading general. He was given the responsibility of sheltering the young Alexander IV, Philip Arridaeus and the Queen Roxane.
The Ptolemaic Dynasty
Following the death of Alexander the Great, Perdiccas ruled the empire as the regent of the joint kings Alexander IV (Alexander’s infant child) and Philip III of Macedonia (Alexander’s half –brother). Ptolemy was appointed by Perdiccas as the provincial governor of Egypt.
Ptolemy I Soter Louvre, by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011)
When the Alexandrian empire descended into chaos, Ptolemy asserted himself as ruler of Egypt; During the Wars of the Diadochi (322-301 B.C.), he successfully overcame the invasion of Perdiccas in 321 B.C. and strengthened his reign in Egypt and the surrounding regions, namely Coele-Syria, Cyprus and Libya.
In 305 B.C. Ptolemy became king of Egypt and founded the Ptolemaic dynasty. He was titled Ptolemy I Soter (meaning ‘savior’). He earned the epithet Soter because of the support he gave to the Rhodians during the Siege of Rhodes. The capital city of the kingdom became Alexandria; its territories were far reaching, including today’s Libya, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The kingdom ruled until 30 B.C.
Ptolemy Conquers Jerusalem, by Jean Fouquet (1470)
All his male successors took the name ‘Ptolemy,’ and the women took the names Cleopatra, Arsinoe and Berenice. The Ptolemies respected the Egyptian culture and religion. The Egyptians, however begrudgingly, accepted them as the successors of the pharaohs. However, their political system favored the Greco-Macedonian elites who were often granted exclusive privileges.
The Ptolemies were also quick to adapt the tradition of the pharaohs; this was reflected in their wardrobe, their practice of incestuous and their participation in the religion of the Egyptians. They also commissioned the building of temples for the Egyptian gods.
The leaders were great patrons of the arts and innovative thinking; they established libraries and sponsored scientific researches and individual scholars. During the reign of Ptolemy II, great poets such as Theocritus, Apollonius of Rhodes and Callimachus (the keeper of the Library of Alexandria) transformed Alexandria into the hub of Hellenistic literature.
The Ptolemaic kings fought with the Seleucids for years over the territory of Coele-Syria; these wars were called the ‘Syrian Wars.’
The most celebrated Ptolemaic monarchy was Cleopatra VII, who was known for her lustrous affairs with the Roma Republic’s Caesar and his cousin Mark Anthony. Her participation in the Battle of Actium also adds to her fame.
The Empire of Seleucid
The Seleucid Empire (312-363 B.C.) was founded by Seleucus I Nicator in the year he asserted himself ruler of Babylon; initially he was the provincial governor of Babylon appointed by the regent Perdiccas whom he later helped assassin. He continued to expand his territory in to the near east domain of the Alexandrian Empire. During the peak of the empire, its dominion included today’s Armenia, Georgia, India, Iran, Israel, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, Palestine and many more.
“Always lying in wait for the neighboring nations, strong in arms and persuasive in council, he [Seleucus] acquired Mesopotamia, Armenia, 'Seleucid' Cappadocia, Persis, Parthia, Bactria, Arabia, Tapouria, Sogdia, Arachosia, Hyrcania, and other adjacent peoples that had been subdued by Alexander, as far as the river Indus, so that the boundaries of his empire were the most extensive in Asia after that of Alexander. The whole region from Phrygia to the Indus was subject to Seleucus”
-Appain, the Syrian Wars
Like the Ptolemaic dynasty, there remained a Greco-political elite that was strengthened by the emigration from Greece. The capital of the Empire was Antioch where the Hellenistic culture flourished.
Following the death of Seleucus, the kingdom became fraught with problems. His successors Antiochus I, Antiochus II, Seleucos II and Seleucos III were faced with a legion of battles including the revolt of Parthia , Bythinia, Pergamum and Bactria. They also had to deal with the First Syrian War that the kingdom fought with the Ptolemaic Kingdom. Intra-fighting also contributed to the dynasty’s decay.
Antiochus III ascended to the throne in 223 B.C., inheriting the ruins of the empire. At the tender age of eighteen, he managed to quell the uprising of the states and restore stability in the empire.
His momentous battles had him collide with the strengthening Roman Republic when he expanded his territory to Anatolia. He was defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Magnesia ad Sipylum in 190 B.C.
The peace treaty signed after the conclusion of the war had devastating consequences. It had the kingdom reach its nadir; from which it was never to recover.
After the death of Antiochus III in 187 B.C., the kingdom fell prey to dynastic struggles and rebellions. It remained in tatters until its final demise caused by the growing powers of Rome and Parthia.