Ancient History & Civilisation


The Hellenistic Age

The term Hellenistic (“Greek-like”) was invented in the nineteenth century A.D. to designate the period of Greek and Near Eastern history from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. to the death of Cleopatra VII, the last Macedonian ruler of Egypt, in 30 B.C.The early Hellenistic period saw the emergence of a new form of kingship that, compounded from Macedonian and Near Eastern traditions, became the dominant political structure in the eastern Mediterranean after Alexander’s premature death. The men who founded the Hellenistic kingdoms were generals from Alexander’s forces, who made themselves into self-proclaimed monarchs although they had neither a blood relationship to any traditional royal family line nor any historical claim to a particular territory. Their military power, their prestige, and their ambition were their only justifications for transforming themselves into kings.

Hellenistic also conveys the idea that a mixed, cosmopolitan form of social and cultural life combining Hellenic (that is, Greek) traditions with indigenous traditions emerged in the eastern Mediterranean region in the aftermath of Alexander’s conquests. The Hellenistic kings spurred this development by bringing Greeks to live in the midst of long-established indigenous communities and also by founding new cities on Greek lines. Since these imported Greeks primarily lived in cities, Greek ideas and customs had their greatest impact on the urban populations of Egypt and southwestern Asia. The great number of people farming the Near Eastern countryside, who rarely visited the cities, had much less contact with Greek ways of life. Since the kings favored Greek culture, there was never any doubt that it would be adopted by the elite of the Hellenistic kingdoms, whatever their own origins. At the same time, the relocations of Greek culture to so many new places outside the Greek homeland inevitably, if often unintentionally, reconfigured what it meant to be Greek, or at least to live in a “Greek-like” way.

c. 320–301 B.C.: Macedonian generals Antigonus and his son Demetrius fight the other “successor kings” to reestablish Alexander’s empire but only succeed in maintaining a kingdom in Macedonia and Greece.

310 B.C.: Murder of Alexander’s son, the last member of the Macedonian royal house; Zeno founds the Stoic philosophical school at Athens.

307 B.C.: Epicurus establishes his philosophical school at Athens.

306–304 B.C.: “Successors” of Alexander declare themselves kings.

303 B.C.: Seleucus cedes eastern territory of his kingdom to the Indian king Chandragupta.

301 B.C.: Antigonus defeated and killed at battle of Ipsus in Anatolia.

300 B.C.: King Ptolemy I establishes the Museum in Alexandria.

c. 284–281 B.C.: Foundation of Achaean League in southern Greece.

279 B.C.: Gauls invade Macedonia and Greece.

256 B.C.: Mauryan king Aśoka in India proclaims his Buddhist mission to Greeks.

239–130 B.C.: Independent Greek kingdom in Bactria (modern Afghanistan).

238–227 B.C.: Attalid king Attalus I defeats the Gauls and confines them to Galatia.

167 B.C.: Antiochus IV forcibly introduces a statue of the Syrian god Baal into the temple of the Jews in Jerusalem.

30 B.C.: Death of Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt, the last Macedonian monarch of the Hellenistic period.


After Alexander’s death, his mother, Olympias, fought for several years to establish her infant grandson, Alexander’s son by Roxane, as the Macedonian king under her protection. Her plan failed because Alexander’s former commanders were willing to do whatever it took to seize power for themselves, and within twenty years three of the most powerful of them had established new kingdoms carved from parts of Alexander’s empire: Antigonus (c. 382–301 B.C.) and his son Demetrius (c. 336–283 B.C.) took over in Macedonia and Greece, Seleucus (c. 358–281 B.C.) in Syria and the old Persian Empire (extending to Afghanistan and western India), and Ptolemy (c. 367–282 B.C.) in Egypt. Since these men took over the largest sections of Alexander’s conquests as if they had been his heirs (though they had no blood relationship to him), they were referred to as the “successor kings.”

The first Hellenistic kings faced the same challenge shared by all new regimes: to establish political legitimacy for their rule. Legitimacy in the eyes of the population was essential if these former generals of Alexander were to create royal families of their own that had any chance of enduring beyond their lifetimes. As a result, Hellenistic queens enjoyed a high social status as the offspring of distinguished families who gave birth to a lineage of royal descendants. Ultimately, the successors’ positions rested on their personal ability and their power; they had no automatic claim to be acknowledged as legitimate rulers. The city of Ilion in northwest Anatolia summed up the situation in the words it used in an inscription conveying honors on Seleucus’s son and heir, Antiochus I (ruled 281–261 B.C.), in the 270s: “He has made his kingdom prosperous and brilliant mostly through his own excellence but also with the good will of his friends and his forces” (Austin, The Hellenistic World no. 162 = OGIS 219). In sum, Hellenistic kingship had its origins in the personal attributes of the king instead of inherited privileges and perquisites. For this reason, it is often described as “personal monarchy.”

It took decades after Alexander’s death for the territorial boundaries of the new kingdoms to be settled. Antigonus tried to expand his personal monarchy into a large empire by attacking the kingdoms of the other successors, but they in response temporarily banded together to defeat and kill him at the battle of Ipsus in Anatolia in 301 B.C. His son, Demetrius, regained the Macedonian throne from about 294 to 288 B.C., but later defeats forced Demetrius to spend his last years in luxurious captivity as a helpless guest under the power of Seleucus. Demetrius’s son, Antigonus Gonatas (c. 320–239 B.C.), reestablished the Antigonid kingdom, centered in Macedonia, by about 276. The Seleucid kingdom traded its easternmost territory early in its history to the Indian king Chandragupta (ruled 323–299 B.C.), founder of the Mauryan dynasty, for five hundred war elephants. Later on, most of Persia was lost to the Parthians, a north Iranian people. Even after these reductions, the territory of the Seleucid kingdom covered a huge area. The Ptolemaic kingdom was able to retain continuous control of the rich land of Egypt, which was easier to defend because the deserts on its borders made invasions by land difficult. By the middle of the third century B.C., the three successor kingdoms had in practice reached a balance of power that kept them from expanding much beyond their core territories. Nevertheless, the Hellenistic monarchs, like the Greek city-states before them, remained competitive with one another, especially in conflicts over contested border areas. The Ptolemies and the Seleucids, for example, periodically engaged in violent tugs-of-war over Palestine and Syria.

Some smaller regional kingdoms also formed in the Hellenistic period. Most famous among them was the kingdom of the Attalids in Anatolia, with the wealthy city of Pergamum as its capital. The Attalids were strong enough to defeat a large band of Celtic people called Gauls, who invaded the Pergamene kingdom from northern Europe in the third century B.C.; the Attalid army succeeded in confining the Gauls to an area in Anatolia thereafter known as Galatia, from their name. As far away as central Asia, in what is today Afghanistan, a new kingdom formed when Diodotos I led a successful rebellion of Bactrian Greeks from the Seleucid kingdom in the mid-third century. These Greeks, whose ancestors Alexander the Great had settled in Bactria, had flourished because their land was the crossroads for overland trade in luxury goods between India and China and the Mediterranean world. By the end of the first century B.C., the Bactrian kingdom had fallen to Asian invaders from north of the Oxus River (now the Amu Daria), but the region continued to serve as a cauldron for the interaction of the artistic, philosophical, and religious traditions of East and West, including Buddhism.

All the Hellenistic kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean region eventually fell to the Romans. Diplomatic and military blunders by the kings of Macedonia beginning in the third century B.C. first drew the Romans into Greece, where they became dominant by the middle of the second century. Thereafter, Greek history became part of Roman history. Smaller powers, such as the city-state of Rhodes and the Attalid kings in Pergamum that were seeking protection from more-powerful rivals, encouraged the Romans to intervene in the eastern Mediterranean. Despite the Seleucid kingdom’s early losses of territory and later troubles from both internal uprisings and external enemies, it remained a major power in the Near East for two centuries. Nevertheless, it too fell to the Romans in the mid-first century B.C. The Ptolemaic kingdom survived the longest. Eventually, however, its growing weakness forced the Egyptian kings in the first century to request Roman support, which the Romans characteristically extended only under the condition that the protected would conduct themselves in the future according to Roman wishes. When Queen Cleopatra chose the losing side in the Roman civil war of the late first century, a Roman invasion in 30 B.C. ended her reign and the long succession of Ptolemaic rulers; Egypt became Roman territory, making its conqueror, Octavian (the future Augustus, the first emperor of Rome), the richest man in the world.


Map 8. The Hellenistic World, c. 240 B.C.


The armies and navies of Hellenistic kingdoms provided security not only against foreign enemies but internal rebellion as well. Hellenistic royal forces were composed of professional soldiers, and even the Greek city-states in the Hellenistic period increasingly hired mercenaries instead of calling up citizens as troops. To develop their military might, the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kings vigorously promoted immigration by Greeks and Macedonians, who received grants of land in return for military service. When this source of people later dried up, the kings had to recruit soldiers from the local populations, employing indigenous troops to do military service. The kingdoms’ military expenses rose because the kings faced ongoing pressure to pay their mercenaries regularly and because technology had developed more-expensive artillery, such as catapults capable of flinging a projectile weighing 170 pounds a distance of nearly 200 yards. Hellenistic navies were hugely expensive, too, because warships were larger, with some dreadnoughts requiring hundreds of men as crews. War elephants, popular weapons in Hellenistic arsenals for their shock effect on enemy troops, also required large expenses for upkeep: The beasts ate a lot, all year-round.

To administer their kingdoms at the highest levels, Hellenistic kings initially depended on immigrant Greeks and Macedonians. The title “King’s Friends” identified the inner circle of advisors and courtiers. Like Alexander before them, however, the Seleucids and the Ptolemies necessarily also employed indigenous men throughout the middle and lower levels of their administrations. Nevertheless, social discrimination persisted between Greeks and non-Greeks, and local men who made successful careers in government employ were only rarely admitted to the highest ranks of royal society, such as the rank of King’s Friends. Greeks (and Macedonians) generally saw themselves as too superior to mix socially with locals. The most valuable qualification local men could acquire for a governmental career was to learn to read and write Greek in addition to their native languages. They would then be able to fill positions communicating the orders of the highest-ranking officials, who were almost all Greeks and Macedonians, to the local farmers, builders, and crafts producers, whose job it was to carry out these commands. The Greek that these administratorslearned was koinē (“common Greek”), a standardized and simplified form of the language based on the Athenian dialect. For centuries, Koine was the common language of commerce and culture all the way from Sicily to the border of India. It is the language in which the New Testament was written during the early Roman Empire and became the parent of Byzantine and Modern Greek.

The principal duties of administrators in the Hellenistic kingdoms were to maintain order and manage the direct and indirect tax systems that provided a main source of revenue to the kings. In many ways, the goals and the structures of Hellenistic royal administration recalled those of the earlier Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires. These institutions kept order among the kingdom’s subjects by arbitrating between disputing parties whenever possible, but their administrators could, if necessary, call on troops to perform police functions. Overseeing the collection of taxes could be complicated. For instance, in Ptolemaic Egypt, the most tightly organized of the Hellenistic kingdoms, royal officials collected customs duties of 50, 33 1/3, 25, or 20 percent, depending on the type of goods. The central planning and control of the renowned Ptolemaic organization were inherited from much earlier periods of Egyptian history. Officials enforced royal monopolies, such as on the production of vegetable oil, intended to maximize the king’s revenue. Ptolemaic administrators, in a system much like modern schemes of centralized agriculture, decided how much royal land was to be sown in oil-bearing plants, supervised production and distribution of the vegetable oil extracted from the crops, and set all prices for every stage of the oil business. The king, through his officials, also often entered into partnerships with private investors to produce more revenue.

Cities were the economic and social centers of the Hellenistic kingdoms. In Greece, some cities tried to increase their strength to counterbalance that of the monarchies by banding together into new federal alliances, such as the Achaean League in the Peloponnese, established in the 280s B.C.Making decisions for the members of the league in a representative assembly, these cities agreed on shared systems, such as coinage, weights and measures, and legal protections for citizens. Many Greeks and Macedonians also now lived in new cities founded by Alexander and the successors in the Near East. Hellenistic kings refounded existing cities to bring honor on themselves and to introduce new immigrants and social practices supporting their policies. The new settlements were built with the traditional features of Classical Greek city-states, such as gymnasiums and theaters. Although these cities often also possessed such traditional political institutions of the city-state as councils and assemblies for citizen men, the limits of their independence depended strictly on the king’s will. When writing to the city’s council, the king might express himself in the form of a polite request, but he expected his wishes to be fulfilled as if they were commands. In addition, the cities often had to pay taxes directly to the king.

The kings needed the goodwill of the wealthiest and most influential city dwellers—the Greek and Macedonian urban elites—to keep order in the cities and ensure a steady flow of tax revenues. These wealthy people had the crucial responsibility of collecting the kingdom’s taxes from the surrounding countryside as well as their cities, and then sending the money safely to the royal treasury. The kings in return honored and flattered these members of the cities’ upper class to secure their goodwill and cooperation. Favored cities would receive financial grants from the king to pay for expensive public works such as theaters and temples, or rebuilding projects after earthquakes. The wealthy men and women of the urban upper classes did their loyal service by helping to keep the general population content; these rich members of the social elite provided donations and loans to ensure a reliable supply of grain to feed the urban populations, subsidized the pay of teachers and doctors in the cities, and paid for the construction of public works. The Greek tradition that the wealthy elite of a city-state should make benefactions for the common good was therefore continued in a new way, through the social interaction of the kings and the urban upper classes in their kingdoms.

Well-to-do members of the indigenous populations also mattered to the kings. Since non-Greek cities had long been powerful in Syria and Palestine, for example, the kings had to develop cordial relations with their leading members. Non-Greeks and non-Macedonians from eastern regions also moved westward to Hellenistic Greek cities in increasing numbers. Jews in particular moved away from Palestine into Anatolia, Greece, and Egypt. The Jewish community eventually became an influential minority in Alexandria in Egypt, the most important Hellenistic city. In Egypt, the Ptolemaic kings also had to come to terms with the priests who controlled the temples of that land’s traditional gods, because the temples owned large tracts of productive agricultural land worked by tenant farmers; the Macedonian rulers evidently tried to express their respect for Egypt’s antiquity by having themselves represented in art in Egyptian style (fig. 10.1). The linchpin in the organization of the Hellenistic kingdoms was the system of mutual rewards by which the kings and their leading subjects—Greeks, Macedonians, and indigenous elites—became, as it were, senior and junior partners in government and public finance.

The successor kingdoms nevertheless amounted to foreign rule over indigenous populations by kings and queens of Greco-Macedonian descent. Monarchs had to respect and cultivate the cooperation of the urban elites and the favored immigrants in their kingdoms, but royal power ultimately determined the safety and security of the lives of the kingdoms’ subjects, above all in the system of justice. Seleucus, for one, claimed this right as a universal truth: “It is not the customs of the Persians and other peoples that I impose upon you, but the law which is common to everyone, that what is decreed by the king is always just” (Appian, Roman History 11. 61 [The Syrian Wars]). Even the successors of Antigonus, who claimed to lead the Greeks in a voluntary alliance that allegedly reestablished Philip’s League of Corinth, frequently interfered in the internal affairs of the Greek city-states. Like the other kings, they regularly installed their own governors and garrisons in cities where loyalty was suspect. Never again would ancient Greeks live their lives free of the shadow of monarchy, sometimes faint in the distance, sometimes looming near.


Fig. 10.1: This sculpture from Egypt in the Hellenistic Age portrays a queen, or perhaps a goddess, wearing a vulture headdress. The Greek family (the Ptolemies) who seized the rule of Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great had themselves portrayed in official art in a style recalling that of the ancient pharaohs of dynastic Egypt. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.


Hellenistic society in the eastern Mediterranean world was firmly divided into separate layers. At the top of the hierarchy came the royal family, followed by the King’s Friends. The Greek and Macedonian elites of the major cities ranked next in social status. Then came the wealthy elites of the indigenous cities, the leaders of large minority urban populations, and the traditional lords and princes of indigenous groups maintaining their ancestral domains in more rural regions. Lowest ranking of the free population were the masses of small merchants, crafts producers, and laborers. Slaves remained where they had always been, outside the bounds of social ranking, although those who worked at court could live materially comfortable lives.

Poor people performed the overwhelming bulk of the labor required to support the economies of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Agriculture remained the economic base, and conditions for farmers and field workers changed little over time. Many of them worked on the huge agricultural estates belonging to the royal family, but city-states that retained their rural territories still had free peasants working small plots, as well as larger farms belonging to wealthy landowners. Rural people rose early to begin work before the heat of the day, cultivating the same kinds of crops and animals as their ancestors, using the same simple hand-tools and beasts of burden. The relatively limited level of mechanical technology meant that perhaps as many as 80 percent of all adult men and women, free as well as slave, had to do manual labor on the land to produce enough food to sustain the population. Along certain international routes, however, trade by sea thrived. Tens of thousands of amphoras (large ceramic jars used to transport commodities such as olive oil and wine) made on the Greek island of Rhodes, for example, have been found in Ptolemaic Egypt. Consortiums of foreign merchants turned the Aegean island of Delos into a busy transportation hub for the cross-shipping of goods, such as the ten thousand slaves a day the port could handle. In the cities, poor women and men continued to work as merchants, peddlers, and artisans producing goods such as tools, pottery, clothing, and furniture. Men could sign on as deckhands on the merchant ships that sailed the Mediterranean and Indian oceans in pursuit of profits from trade. By the later Hellenistic Age, merchant ships were regularly sailing to India and back along the route that Alexander the Great had had his fleet scout out during the return from India.

In the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms, a large section of the rural population existed in a state of dependency between free and slave. The “peoples,” as they were called, farmed the estates belonging to the king, who was the kingdom’s greatest landowner. The king theoretically claimed title to all his kingdom’s land because it had been, following Alexander’s terminology of conquest, “won by the spear.” In reality, however, Hellenistic kings ceded a significant amount of territory to cities, temples, and favored individuals. The peoples, by contrast, were not landowners but compulsory tenants. Although they could not be sold like chattel slaves, they were not allowed to move away or abandon their tenancies. They had to pay a certain quota of produce per area of land to the king, much like paying rent to a landlord. The amount was sufficiently high that the “peoples” had virtually no chance to improve their economic lot in life.

Women at the pinnacle of the social pyramid in the Hellenistic world—the female members of the royal families—commanded influence and riches unprecedented in Greek history. Hellenistic queens usually exercised political and military power only to the extent that they could influence their husbands’ decisions, but they ruled on their own when no male heir existed. Since the Ptolemaic royal family permitted brother-sister marriage for dynastic purposes, royal daughters as well as sons were in line to rule. For example, Arsinoë II (c. 316–270 B.C.), the daughter of Ptolemy I, first married the Macedonian successor king Lysimachus, who gave her four towns as her personal domain and sources of revenue. After Lysimachus’s death, she married her brother, Ptolemy II of Egypt, and exerted at least as much influence on policy as he did. The excellences publicly praised in a queen reflected traditional Greek values for women. When, around 165 B.C., the city of Hierapolis passed a decree in honor of Queen Apollonis of Pergamum, for instance, she was praised for her piety toward the gods, her reverence toward her parents, her distinguished conduct toward her husband, and her harmonious relations with her “beautiful legitimate children” (Austin, The Hellenistic World, no. 240 = OGIS no. 308).

Some queens paid special attention to the condition of women. About 195 B.C., for example, the Seleucid queen Laodice gave a ten-year endowment to the city of Iasus in southwestern Anatolia to provide dowries for needy girls. Her endowing a foundation to help less-fortunate women reflected the increasing concern on the part of the wealthy for the welfare of the less-fortunate during the Hellenistic period. The royal families led the way in this tendency toward greater philanthropy, seeking to cultivate an image of the level of magnanimous generosity befitting glorious kings and queens, in accordance with the long Greek tradition of the social elite making benefactions for the good of the community. That Laodice funded dowries shows that she recognized the importance to women of owning property, the surest guarantee of a certain respect and a measure of power in their households.

The lives of most women in the Hellenistic Age nevertheless remained under the influence of decisions made by men. “Who can judge better than a father what is in his daughter’s interest?” (Isaeus, Orations 3.64) remained the dominant creed of the fathers of daughters. Upper-class women remained largely separated from men not members of their families; poor women still worked in public. Greeks continued to abandon infants they could not or would not raise, and girls were abandoned more often than boys. Other peoples, however, such as the Egyptians and the Jews, did not practice abandonment, or “exposure,” as it is often called. Exposure differed from infanticide because the expectation was that someone else would find the child and bring it up, though usually as a slave and not as an adopted child. The third-century B.C. comic poet Posidippus overstated the truth but pointed to the undeniable tendency to favor males by saying, “A son, one always raises even if one is poor; a daughter, one exposes, even if one is rich” (Stobaeus, Anthology 77.7 = CAF, Fragment 11). Daughters of the wealthy were of course usually not abandoned, but as many as 10 percent of other infant girls may have been.

In some limited ways, however, women did achieve greater control over their own lives in the Hellenistic period. A woman of exceptional wealth could enter public life, for example, by making donations or loans to her city and then being rewarded with an official post in the government of her community. Of course, such positions were now less prestigious and important than in the days of the independent city-states because real power in this era resided in the hands of the king and his top administrators. In Egypt, women acquired greater say in the conditions of marriage because marriage contracts, now a standard procedure, gradually evolved from an agreement between the groom and the bride’s parents to one between the bride and groom themselves.

Even with social influence and financial power based in the cities, most of the population continued to live where people always had, in small villages in the countryside. There, different groups of people lived side by side, though usually without mingling. In one region of Anatolia the different groups spoke twenty-two different languages. Life in the new and refounded Hellenistic cities developed largely independently of indigenous rural society. Urban life acquired special vitality because the Greek and Macedonian residents of these cities, surrounded by the non-Greek countryside, tended to remain in the urban centers more than had their predecessors in the Classical city-state, whose habit it was to go back and forth frequently between city and countryside to attend to their rural property, participate in local festivals, and worship in local shrines. Now the activities of city dwellers were more and more centered on and in the city. Residents became attached to their cities also because the wealthy, following the tradition of the elites in the Classical city-states, increasingly gave their cities benefactions that endowed urban existence with new advantages over country life. On the island of Samos, for example, wealthy contributors endowed a foundation to finance free distribution of grain every month to all the citizens so that shortages of food would no longer trouble their city. State-sponsored schools for universal education of the young also sprang up in various Hellenistic cities, often financed by wealthy donors. In some places girls as well as boys went to school. Many cities also began ensuring the availability of doctors by financially sponsoring their practices. Patients still had to pay for medical attention, but at least they could count on finding a doctor when they needed one. The wealthy whose donations and loans made many of the cities’ new advantages possible were paid back by the respect and honor they earned from their fellow citizens. Philanthropy even affected international relations. For example, when an earthquake devastated Rhodes, many other cities joined kings and queens in sending donations to help the Rhodians recover from the disaster. The Rhodians in turn showered public recognition and honors on their benefactors.

Wealthy non-Greeks more and more adopted Greek habits of life in the process of accommodating themselves to the new social hierarchy. Diotimus of Sidon, in Lebanon, for example, although not a Greek by birth, used a Greek name and pursued the premier Greek sport, chariot racing. He traveled to Nemea in the Peloponnese to enter his chariot in the race at the prestigious festival of Zeus there. When he won, he put up an inscription in Greek to announce that he was the first Sidonian to do so. He announced his victory in Greek because, much like English in today’s world, Koine Greek had become the international language of the eastern Mediterranean coastal lands. The explosion in the use of Greek by non-Greeks is certainly the best indication of the emergence of an international culture based on Greek models, which was adopted by rulers and their courts, the urban upper classes, and intellectuals during the Hellenistic period. The most striking evidence of the spread of Greeks and Greek throughout the Hellenistic world comes from Afghanistan. There, Aśoka (ruled c. 268–232 B.C.), third king of the Mauryan dynasty and a convert to Buddhism,used Greek as one of the languages in his public inscriptions that announced his efforts to introduce his subjects to Buddhist traditions of self-control, such as abstinence from eating meat. Even in far-off Afghanistan, non-Greeks used Greek to communicate with Greeks with whom they were now in contact.


As knowledge of the Greek language became more common throughout the Hellenistic world, literature in Greek also began to reflect the new conditions of life. At Athens, the focus on contemporary affairs and the fierce attacks on political leaders that had characterized the comedies of the fifth century B.C. soon disappeared as the city-state’s freedom from outside interference was lost to the kings. Instead, comic dramatists like Menander (c. 342–289 B.C.) and Philemon (c. 360–263 B.C.) now presented timeless plots concerning the trials and tribulations of fictional lovers, in works not unlike modern soap operas. These comedies of manners proved so popular that they were closely imitated in later times by Roman authors of comic plays.

Poets such as Theocritus from Syracuse in Sicily (born c. 300 B.C.) and Callimachus from Cyrene in North Africa (c. 305–240 B.C.), both of whom came to Alexandria to be supported by the patronage of the Ptolemaic kings, made individual emotions a central theme in their work. Their poetry broke new ground in demanding great intellectual effort from the audience, as well as personal emotional engagement. Only the erudite could fully appreciate the allusions and complex references to mythology that these poets employed in their elegant poems, which could be quite short, in contrast to Homeric epics. Theocritus was the first Greek poet to express a cultural split between the town and the countryside, a poetic stance corresponding to a growing reality. His pastoral poems in a collection called Idylls emphasized the discontinuity between the environment of the city and the bucolic life of the country dweller, although the rural people depicted in Theocritus’s poetry were Greeks in idealized landscapes rather than the actual workers of the Egyptian fields. Nevertheless, his literary pose as a sophisticated author reflected the fundamental social division of the Ptolemaic kingdom between the food consumers of the town and the food producers of the countryside.

The themes of Callimachus’s prolific output underlined the division in Hellenistic society between the intellectual elite and the uneducated masses. “I hate the common crowd and keep them at a distance,” as the Roman poet Horace expressed it (Odes 3.1), could stand for Callimachus’sauthorial stance toward poetry and its audience. A comparison between Callimachus’s work and that of his fierce literary rival, Apollonius of Rhodes, emphasizes the Hellenistic development of intellectually demanding poetry suited only for an educated elite. Even though Apollonius wrote a long epic about Jason and the Argonauts instead of short poems like those of Callimachus, Apollonius’s verses too displayed an erudition that only readers with a literary education could share. Like the earlier lyric poets, who in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. had often written to please rich patrons, these Hellenistic authors necessarily had to take into account the tastes of the royal patrons who were paying the bills. In one poem expressly praising his patron, Ptolemy II, Theocritus spelled out the quid pro quo of Hellenistic literary patronage: “The spokesmen of the Muses [that is, poets] celebrate Ptolemy in return for his benefactions” (Idylls 17.115–116).

The Hellenistic kings promoted intellectual life principally by offering scholars financial support to move to the royal capitals, as human proofs of the rulers’ royal magnanimity and grandeur. The Ptolemies won this particular form of competition with their fellow monarchs by making Alexandria the leading intellectual center of the Hellenistic world. There they established the world’s first scholarly research institute. Its massive library had the daunting goal of collecting all the books (that is, manuscripts) in the world; it grew to hold half a million scrolls, an enormous number for the time. Linked to it was a building in which the hired scholars dined together and produced encyclopedias of knowledge, such as The Wonders of the World and On the Rivers of Europe by Callimachus, whose more than 800 works included detailed prose works like these (neither of which has survived) in addition to erudite poetry. The name of this learned society maintained by the Ptolemaic kings in Alexandria was the Museum (meaning “place of the Muses,” the Greek goddesses of learning and the arts), a term that endures to this day as a designation for cultural institutions for the preservation and promotion of knowledge. The output of the Alexandrian scholars was prodigious. Their champion was Didymus (c. 80–10 B.C.), nicknamed “Bronze Guts” for his stamina in writing nearly four thousand books.

None of the women poets known from the Hellenistic period seems to have received royal patronage. Nevertheless, they earned fame for excelling in composing epigrams, a style of short poems originally used for funerary epitaphs and for which Callimachus was famous. In this era, the epigram was transformed into a vehicle for the expression of a wide variety of personal feelings, love above all. Elegantly worded epigrams survive from the pens of women from diverse regions of the Hellenistic world, such as Anyte of Tegea in the Peloponnese, Nossis of Locri in southernItaly, and Moiro of Byzantium at the mouth of the Black Sea. Women, from courtesans to respectable matrons, figured as frequent subjects in their poems. No Hellenistic literature better conveyed the depth of human emotion than their epigrams, such as Nossis’s poem on the power of Eros (Love, regarded as a divinity): “Nothing is sweeter than Eros. All other delights are second to it—from my mouth I spit out even honey. And this Nossis says: whoever Aphrodite has not kissed knows not what sort of flowers are her roses” (Palatine Anthology 5.170).

Like their literary contemporaries, Hellenistic sculptors and painters brought the emotions of the individual to the forefront in their art (fig. 10.2). Artists of the Classical Age had usually portrayed the faces of their subjects with a serene calm that represented an ideal rather than the reality of life. Hellenistic sculptors, by contrast, strove for a more naturalistic depiction of emotion in a variety of artistic genres. In portrait sculpture, Lysippus’s famous bust of Alexander the Great captured the passionate dreaminess of the young commander. A sculpture from Pergamum by an unknown artist commemorated the third-century B.C. Attalid victory over the plundering Gauls by showing a defeated Gallic warrior stabbing himself after having killed his wife to prevent her enslavement by the victors. This scene dramatically represented the pain and sacrifice demanded by a code of honor requiring noble suicide rather than disgraceful surrender. A large-scale painting of Alexander in battle against the Persian king Darius similarly portrayed Alexander’s intense concentration and Darius’s horrified expression. The artist, who was probably either Philoxenus of Eretria or a Greek woman from Egypt named Helena (one of the first female artists known), used foreshortening and strong contrasts between shadows and highlights to accentuate the emotional impact of the picture.

To appreciate fully the appeal of Hellenistic sculpture, we must remember that, like earlier Greek sculpture, it was painted in bright colors. The fourth-century B.C. sculptor Praxiteles, in fact, reportedly remarked that his best statues were “the ones colored by Nicias,” a leading painter of the time (Pliny, Natural History 35.133). Hellenistic art differed from Classical art, however, in its social context. Works of Classical art had been commissioned by the city-states as a whole for public display, or by wealthy individuals to present to their city-state. Now sculptors and painters created their works more and more as commissions from royalty and from the urban elites who wanted to demonstrate that they had artistic taste aligned with that of their social superiors in the royal family. To be successful, the artists had to please their rich patrons, and so the increasing diversity of subjects that emerged in Hellenistic art presumably represented a trend approved by kings, queens, and the elites. Sculpture best reveals this new preference for depictions of human beings in a wide variety of poses, many from private life, again in contrast with Classical art. Hellenistic sculptors portrayed subjects unknown in that earlier period: foreigners as paragons of noble behavior (such as a dying Gaul), drunkards, battered athletes, wrinkled old people. The female nude became a particular favorite. A naked Aphrodite, which Praxiteles sculpted for the city of Cnidos, became so renowned that Nicomedes, king of Bithynia in Anatolia, later offered to pay off Cnidos’s entire public debt if he could have the statue. The Cnidians refused.


Fig. 10.2: This bronze statue made in the Hellenistic Age depicts a veiled and masked female dancer in motion. Dance performances featured prominently in ancient Greek culture, both for entertainment in the theater and as part of the worship of divinities in religious rituals. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.

One especially popular subject in Hellenistic art was the depiction of abstract ideas as sculptural types. Such statues were made to represent ideas as diverse as Peace and Insanity. Modern sculptures such as the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor belong in this same artistic tradition. So, too, modern neoclassical architecture imitates the imaginative public architecture of the Hellenistic period, whose architects often boldly combined the Doric and Ionic orders on the same building and energized the Corinthian order with exuberant decoration.


Greek philosophy in the Hellenistic period reached a wider audience than ever before. Although the mass of the working poor as usual had neither the leisure nor the resources to attend the lectures or read the works of the philosophers, the more affluent members of the population studied philosophy in growing numbers. Theophrastus (c. 370–285 B.C.), Aristotle’s most accomplished pupil, lectured to crowds of two thousand in Athens. Most of the students of philosophy continued to be men, but now women could also become members of the groups attached to certain philosophers. Kings competed to attract famous thinkers to their courts, and Greek settlers brought their interest in philosophy as the guide to life with them even to the most remote of the new Hellenistic cities. Archaeological excavation of a city located thousands of miles from Greece on the Oxus River in Afghanistan, for example, has turned up a Greek philosophical text, as well as inscriptions of moral advice attributed to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi.

Fewer thinkers now concentrated on metaphysics. Instead, philosophers concerned themselves with philosophical materialism, denying the concept of soul described by Plato and ignoring any other entities asserted to be beyond the reach of the senses. The goal of much philosophical inquiry was now centered on securing human independence from the effects of Chance or other worldly troubles. Scientific investigation of the physical world also tended to become a specialty separate from philosophy. Hellenistic philosophy itself was regularly divided into three related areas: logic (the process for discovering truth), physics (the fundamental truth about the nature of existence), and ethics (the way human beings should achieve happiness and well-being as a consequence of logic and physics). The most significant new philosophical schools of thought to arise were Epicureanism and Stoicism, and Epicurean and Stoic doctrines later proved exceptionally popular among upper-class Romans.

The various philosophies of the Hellenistic period were in many ways focused on the same question: What is the best way for human beings to live? Different philosophies recommended different paths to the same answer: individual human beings must attain personal tranquility to achieve freedom from the turbulence of outside forces. This philosophic goal had special emotional impact for Greeks experiencing the changes in political and social life that accompanied the rise to dominance of the Macedonian and later Hellenistic kingdoms. Outside forces in the persons of aggressive kings had robbed the city-states of their previous freedom of action internationally, and the fates and fortunes of city-states as well as individuals now often resided in the hands of distant, sometimes fickle monarchs. More than ever before, human life and opportunities for free choice seemed inclined to spin out of the control of individuals. It therefore made sense, at least for those people wealthy enough to spend time philosophizing, to study with philosophers to look for personal and private solutions to the unsettling new conditions of life in the Hellenistic Age.

Epicureanism took its name from its founder, Epicurus (341–271 B.C.), who settled his followers in Athens in a house set in a verdant garden (hence the Garden as the name of his informal school). Under the direction of Epicurus, the study of philosophy represented a new social form in opposition to previous traditions because he admitted women and slaves as regular members of his group. His lover, Leontion, became notorious for her treatise criticizing the views of Theophrastus. Epicurus believed that human beings should pursue pleasure, by which he did not mean what other people might expect. He insisted that true pleasure consisted of an “absence of disturbance” from pain and from the continuing, everyday turbulence, passions, and desires of an ordinary human existence. A quiet life lived in the society of friends apart from the cares of the common world could best provide this essential peace of mind. This teaching represented a serious challenge to the ideal of Greek citizenship, which required men of means to participate in the politics of the city-state and for women of the same class to participate in public religious cults.

Human beings should above all be free of worry about death, Epicurus taught. Since all matter consisted of microscopic atoms in random movement, as Democritus and Leucippus had earlier theorized, death was nothing more than the painless disassociation of the body’s atoms. Moreover, all human knowledge must be empirical, that is, derived from experience and perception. Phenomena that most people perceive as the work of the gods, such as thunder, do not result from divine intervention in the world. The gods live far away in perfect tranquility, taking no notice of human affairs. Human beings therefore have nothing to fear from gods, in life or in death.

The Stoics recommended a different, much more activist path for individuals. Their name derived from the Painted Stoa in Athens, where they discussed their doctrines. Zeno of Citium on Cyprus (c. 333–262 B.C.) founded stoicism, but Chrysippus from Cilicia in Anatolia (c. 280–206 B.C.) did the most to make it a comprehensive guide to life. Stoics believed that human beings should make their goal the pursuit of excellence. This, they said, consisted of putting oneself in harmony with universal Nature, the rational force of divine providence that directed all existence under the guise of Fate. Reason as well as experience should be used to discover the way to that harmony, which required the “perfect” excellences of good sense, justice, courage, and temperance. According to the Stoics, the doctrines of Zeno and Chrysippus applied to women as well as men. In his controversial work The Republic (Politeia), which survives only in fragments, Zeno even proposed that in an ideal, philosophically governed society, unisex clothing should be worn as a way to obliterate unnecessary distinctions between women and men.

The Stoics’ belief that fate was responsible for everything that happened gave rise to the question of whether human beings truly have free will. Employing some of the subtlest reasoning ever brought to bear on this fundamental issue, Stoic philosophers concluded that purposeful human actions did have significance. A Stoic should therefore take action against evil, for example, by participating in politics. Nature, itself good, did not prevent vice from occurring because otherwise moral excellence would have no meaning. What mattered in life, indeed, was the striving for good, not the result. In addition, to be a Stoic meant to shun desire and anger while enduring pain and sorrow calmly, an attitude that informs the meaning of the word “stoic” today. Through endurance and self-control, a Stoic attained tranquility. Death was not to be feared because, Stoics believed, we will all live our lives over and over again an infinite number of times in a fashion identical with our present lives. This repetition will occur as the world is periodically destroyed by fire and then reformed after the conflagration.

Other schools of thought carried on the work of earlier philosophical leaders such as Plato and Pythagoras. Still others like the Sceptics and the Cynics struck out in idiosyncratic directions. Sceptics aimed at the same state of personal imperturbability as did Epicureans, but from a completely different premise. Following the doctrines of Pyrrho of Elis in the Peloponnese (c. 360–270 B.C.), they believed that secure knowledge about anything was impossible because the human senses yield contradictory information about the world. All human beings can do, they insisted, is to depend on the appearances of things while suspending judgment about their reality. Pyrrho’s thought had been influenced by the Indian ascetic wise men that he met as a member of Alexander the Great’s entourage. The basic premise of skepticism inevitably precluded any unity of doctrine.

Cynics ostentatiously rejected every convention of ordinary life, especially wealth and material comfort. Human beings should instead aim at a life of complete self-sufficiency. Whatever was natural was good and could be done without shame before anyone; even public defecation and intercourse, for example, were acceptable, according to this idea. Women and men alike were free to follow their sexual inclinations. Above all, Cynics should disdain the comforts and luxuries of a comfortable life. The name Cynic, which meant “like a dog,” reflected the common evaluation of this ascetic and unconventional way of life. The most famous early Cynic, Diogenes from Sinope on the Black Sea (c. 400–c. 325 B.C.), was reported to go around wearing borrowed clothing, and very little of that, and to sleep outside in a big storage jar. Almost as notorious was Hipparchia, a female Cynic of the late fourth century B.C. She once bested an obnoxious philosophical opponent named Theodorus the Atheist with the following argument, which recalled the climactic episode between father and son in Aristophanes’ Clouds: “That which would not be considered wrong if done by Theodorus would also not be considered wrong if done by Hipparchia. Now if Theodorus strikes himself, he does no wrong. Therefore, if Hipparchia strikes Theodorus, she does no wrong” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 6.97).

Science benefited from its widening divorce from philosophy during the Hellenistic Age. Indeed, historians have called this era the Golden Age of ancient science. Various factors contributed to this flourishing of thought and discovery: the expeditions of Alexander and his support of scientific investigators had encouraged curiosity and increased knowledge about the extent and differing features of the world; royal patronage provided Hellenistic scientists with financial support; and the gathering together of scientists in Alexandria promoted an ongoing scholarly exchange of ideas that could not otherwise take place because travel and communication were so difficult. The greatest advances came in geometry and mathematics. Euclid, who taught at Alexandria around 300 B.C., made revolutionary progress in the analysis of two-and three-dimensional space. The fame and utility of Euclidean geometry endures to this day. Archimedes of Syracuse (287–212 B.C.) was an arithmetical polymath, who calculated the approximate value of pi and devised a way to manipulate very large numbers. He also invented hydrostatics (the science of the equilibrium of a fluid system) and mechanical devices such as a screw for lifting water to a higher elevation. The modern expression “Eureka!” immortalizes Archimedes’ shout of delight “I have found it” (heurēka in Greek) when the solution to a problem came to him as he immersed himself into a bathing pool (Vitruvius, On Architecture 9, preface 10).

The sophistication of Hellenistic mathematics yielded benefits in fields of research that required complex computations. Aristarchus of Samos early in the third century B.C. first proposed the correct model of the solar system by theorizing that the earth revolved around the sun, which he also identified as being far larger and far more distant than it appeared. Later astronomers rejected Aristarchus’s heliocentric model in favor of the traditional geocentric one because calculations based on the orbit he postulated for the earth failed to correspond to the observed positions of celestial objects. Aristarchus had made a simple mistake: he had postulated a circular orbit instead of an ellipse. It was to be another eighteen hundred years before the correctness of the heliocentric system would be recognized by the Polish astronomer Copernicus (A.D. 1473–1543), the founder of modern astronomy. Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c. 275–194 B.C.) pioneered mathematical geography. He calculated the circumference of the earth with astonishing accuracy by having measurements made of the length of the shadows of widely separated but identically tall structures at the same moment. Ancient scientists in later periods, especially the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, who worked in Alexandria in the second century A.D., improved and refined the description of the natural world elaborated by Hellenistic researchers, but their basic ideas remained dominant in scientific thought until the advent of modern science.

Greek science was as quantitative as it could be, given the technological limitations of measurement imposed by the state of ancient technology. Precise scientific experimentation was not possible because no technology existed in ancient times for the precise measurement of very short intervals of time. Measuring tiny quantities of matter was also almost impossible. But a spirit of invention prevailed in spite of these difficulties. Ctesibius of Alexandria, a contemporary of Aristarchus, devised machines operated by air pressure. In addition to this invention of pneumatics, he built a working water pump, an organ powered by water, and the first accurate water clock. His fellow Alexandrian of the first century A.D., Hero, continued the Hellenistic tradition of mechanical ingenuity by building a rotating sphere powered by steam. This invention did not lead to viable steam engines, perhaps because the metallurgical technology to produce metal pipes, fittings, and screws was not yet developed. Much of the engineering prowess of the Hellenistic period was applied to military technology, as in the modern world. The kings hired engineers to design powerful catapults, wheeled siege towers many stories high, which were capable of battering down the defenses of walled cities, and multistoried warships. The most famous large-scale application of technology for nonmilitary purposes was the construction of a lighthouse three hundred feet tall (the Pharos) for the harbor at Alexandria. Using polished metal mirrors to reflect the light from a large fire fueled by wood, it shone many miles out over the sea. Awestruck sailors regarded it as one of the wonders of the world.

Medicine also shared in the spirit of progress that inspired developments in Hellenistic science. The increased contact between Greeks and people of the Near East in this period made the medical knowledge of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt better known in the West and gave an impetus to further understanding of human health and illness. Around 325 B.C., Praxagoras of Cos discovered the value of measuring the human pulse in diagnosing illness. A bit later Herophilus of Chalcedon, working in Alexandria, became the first scientist in the West to study anatomy by dissecting human cadavers. Anatomical terms that Herophilus coined are still in modern use, such as “duodenum,” a section of the small intestine. Other Hellenistic advances in understanding anatomy included the discovery of the nerves and nervous system. Anatomical knowledge, however, outstripped knowledge of human physiology. The earlier idea that human health depended on the balance in the body of four humors or fluids remained the dominant theory in physiology. A person was healthy—in “good humor”—so long as the correct proportions of the four humors were maintained. Since illness was thought to be the result of an imbalance of the humors, doctors prescribed various regimens of drugs, diet, and exercise to restore balance. Physicians also believed that drawing blood from patients could help rebalance the humors, a practice that endured in medicine until the nineteenth century A.D. Many illnesses in women were diagnosed as caused by displacements of the womb, which was wrongly believed to be able to move around in the body.


The expansion and diversification of knowledge that characterized Hellenistic intellectual life found a parallel in the growing diversity of Greek religious practice. The traditional cults of Greek religion remained very popular, but new cults, such as the ones deifying ruling kings, also responded to new political and social conditions. Preexisting cults with previously local significance, such as that of the Greek healing deity Asclepius or the mystery cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis, grew to prominence all over the Hellenistic world. In many cases, Greek cults and indigenous cults from the eastern Mediterranean came to be identified with each other and shared cultic practices in a process of mutual influence. This mixing of traditions came about because originally diverse cults were found to share assumptions about the remedies for the troubles of human life. In other instances, local and Greek cults simply existed side by side. The inhabitants of villages in the Faiyum district of Egypt, for example, went on worshipping their traditional crocodile god and mummifying their dead in the old way while also honoring Greek deities. In accord with the traditions of polytheistic religion, the same people could worship in both old and new cults.

To the extent that diverse new Hellenistic cults had a shared concern, they recalled a prominent theme of Hellenistic philosophy: the relationship between the individual and what seemed the controlling, unpredictable power of Luck or Chance. Greek religion had always addressed this concern at some level, but the chaotic course of Greek history since the Peloponnesian War had made the unpredictable aspects of human existence appear more prominent and frightening than ever. Yet advances in astronomical knowledge revealed the mathematical precision of the celestial sphere of the universe. Religious experience now had to address the apparent disconnection between that observed heavenly uniformity and the apparently shapeless chaos of life on earth. One increasingly popular approach to bridging that gap was to rely on astrology for advice deduced from the movement of the stars and planets, thought of as divinities.

In another approach offering devotees protection from the cruel tricks of Chance or Luck, the gods of popular Hellenistic cults promised salvation of various kinds. One form of security was the safety that powerful rulers were expected to provide, in keeping with the status of gods that they received in what are now known as ruler cults. These forms of worship were established in recognition of great benefactions. The Athenians, for example, deified the living Macedonians Antigonus and his son Demetrius as savior gods in 307 B.C., when they bestowed magnificent gifts on the city and restored the democracy (which had been abolished fifteen years before by another Macedonian commander). Like most ruler cults, this one expressed both spontaneous gratitude and a desire to flatter the rulers in the hope of obtaining additional favors. Honoring ancient Macedonian customs, the Antigonid kings had no divine cult in their honor in their homeland, but many cities in the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms instituted ruler cults for their kings and queens. (The Ptolemaic king and queen were also regarded as gods, in keeping with traditions of ancient Egyptian religion.) An inscription put up by Egyptian priests in 238 B.C. concretely described the qualities appropriate for a divine king and queen: “King Ptolemy III and Queen Berenice, his sister and wife, the Benefactor Gods . . . have provided good government . . . and [after a drought] sacrificed a large amount of their revenues for the salvation of the population, and by importing grain. . . . They saved the inhabitants of Egypt” (Austin, The Hellenistic World, no. 271 = OGIS 56).

Healing divinities offered another form of protection to anxious individuals. Scientific Greek medicine had rejected the notion of supernatural causes and cures for disease ever since Hippocrates had established his medical school on the Aegean island of Cos in the late fifth century B.C.Nevertheless, popular support grew in the Hellenistic Age for the cult of Asclepius, son of Apollo, who offered cures for illness and injury at his many shrines. There, suppliants seeking his help would sleep in special dormitories to await dreams from the god in which he prescribed healing treatments. These prescriptions mainly emphasized diet and exercise, but numerous inscriptions set up by grateful patients also testified to miraculous cures and surgery performed by the god while the sufferer slept. The following example is typical: “Ambrosia of Athens was blind in one eye. . . . She . . . ridiculed some of the cures [described in inscriptions in the sanctuary] as being incredible and impossible. . . . But when she went to sleep, she saw a vision; she thought the god was standing next to her. . . . He split open the diseased eye and poured in a medicine. When day came, she left cured” (Austin, The Hellenistic World, no. 146 = IG 4 Sec. ed., 1, no. 121.IV).

Other cults promised secret knowledge as a key to worldly and physical salvation. Since everyday life was full of hazards and so many people died young, protection from physical dangers was a more immediate concern than the care of the soul or the dead person’s fate in the afterlife. During the Hellenistic Age, however, moral preparation for life after death became an increasing emphasis in religion. For both these reasons, the Mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis near Athens continued to be popular, but the mystery cults of the Greek god Dionysus and, in particular, of the Egyptian goddess Isis also gained popularity in this period. Isis, like the goddesses Atargatis from Syria and Cybele (the Great Mother) from Phrygia and Lydia in Anatolia, was a female divinity whose cult achieved near universal distribution in the Hellenistic world. The popularity of Isis received a boost from the patronage of King Ptolemy I, who established an official seat for her cult in Alexandria. He also refashioned the Egyptian deity Osiris in a Greek mold as the new god Sarapis, whose job was to serve as Isis’s consort. Sarapis reportedly performed miracles of rescue from shipwreck and illness. The cult of Isis involved extensive rituals and festivals incorporating features of Egyptian religion mixed with Greek elements; she became the most popular female divinity in the Mediterranean world (fig. 10.3). Followers of Isis apparently hoped to achieve personal purification as well as the aid of the goddess in overcoming the demonic influence on human life of Chance and Luck.

That an originally Egyptian deity like Isis could achieve enormous popularity among Greeks (and Romans in later times) alongside the traditional deities of Greek religion, who remained popular themselves, is the best evidence of the cultural cross-fertilization of the Hellenistic world. Equally striking was that many Jews adopted the Greek language and many aspects of Greek culture; this development was most common among those living in the large Jewish communities that had grown up in Hellenistic cities outside Palestine, such as Alexandria. The Hebrew Bible was even translated into Greek in Alexandria in the early third century B.C., reportedly at the request of King Ptolemy II. Hellenized Jews largely retained the ritual practices and habits of life that defined traditional Judaism, and they refused to worship Greek gods, but their lives did become more “Greek-like.” Hellenistic politics and culture also affected the Jewish community in Palestine. The region, caught between the great kingdom of the Ptolemies in Egypt and that of the Seleucids in Syria, was controlled militarily and politically by the Ptolemies in the third century and by the Seleucids in the second. Both dynasties allowed the Jews to continue to live their lives according to ancestral tradition under the political leadership of a high priest in Jerusalem. Internal dissension erupted among Jews in second-century Palestine over the amount of Greek influence that was compatible with traditional Judaism. The Seleucid king Antiochus IV (ruled 175–163 B.C.) intervened in the conflict in support of an extreme Hellenizing faction of Jews in Jerusalem, who had taken over the high priesthood. In 167 B.C., Antiochus converted the main Jewish sanctuary there into a temple to the Syrian god Baal Shamen, whom he worshipped, and outlawed the practice of Jewish religious rites, such as the observation of the Sabbath and circumcision. A revolt led by Judah the Maccabee eventually won Jewish independence from the Seleucids after twenty-five years of war. The most famous episode of the Maccabean Revolt was the Jewish rebels’ retaking of the temple in Jerusalem and its rededication to the worship of the Jewish god, a triumphant moment commemorated by Jews ever since on the holiday of Hanukkah. That Greek culture attracted at least some Jews, whose strong traditions reached far into antiquity, provides a striking example of the transformations that affected many—though far from all—people of the Hellenistic world.


Fig. 10.3: This small bronze statue represents the Egyptian goddess Isis wearing Greek-style clothing. She became a very popular deity among Greeks during the Hellenistic Age; they appreciated her association with love and justice, her requirement that her worshippers live morally upright lives, and the maternal love for human beings that her worship proclaimed. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

The diversity of the Hellenistic world encompassed much that was new. The creation of kingdoms reconfigured the political map and social dynamics of the Greek world. The queens of its kingdoms commanded greater wealth and status than any women of the city-states of Classical Greece. Its philosophers sought modes of thought and action through which individuals could work to create personal tranquility for themselves despite the turbulence and troubles of the outside world. Its scientists and doctors made new discoveries about the natural world and in mathematics that contributed much to scholarly knowledge, but less to applied technology. The rituals and beliefs of new religious cults were meant to protect worshippers from the dangers of Chance and provide more personal contact with the divine. In the midst of these new developments in the expanded world into which Greek culture had been relocated, the basic characteristics of everyday life for the majority remained the same as they had been throughout the historical period—the physical labor, the poverty, the slavery, and the limited opportunities for material and social self-improvement. Like their ancestors, most people spent most of their time toiling in the fields, vineyards, pastures, craft shops, and markets. This was an abiding continuity in ancient Greek history, a fact that must always be kept in mind as the companion to the tremendous achievements of the ancient Greeks. Any overall evaluation of ancient Greece has to consider both these aspects of the story.

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