CHANGING POLITICAL CONTEXTS Alexander and the Coming of the Hellenistic Monarchies


The most significant political development in the Mediterranean world between 350 B.C. and A.D. 100 was the spread of monarchical government. By the beginning of the second century A.D., the entire Mediterranean world and much else besides (southern Britain, France and Spain in the west, Armenia and Mesopotamia in the east) were subject to a single ruler, the Roman emperor. This office was rooted in the Hellenistic monarchies, which had arisen in the east following the rise of Philip II of Macedon and the destruction of the Persian empire by his son Alexander “the Great” between 334 and 323.1

The rise of Macedon became possible because by the fourth century the independent Greek city state had come to an evolutionary dead end. The small elites of male citizens who, typically, ran the polis either as a democracy or an oligarchy may have provided an excellent cockpit for political debates—which in turn proved highly stimulating to intellectual and cultural life—but their very exclusiveness prevented any polis from controlling an area large enough to provide the resources for any lasting political control. In the fifth century Athens had managed to create an empire of Aegean city states, sustained originally by common fear of a Persian revival and later by Athens’ clever manipulation of naval power, but the hope of long-term control of a mass of city states scattered across the islands and shores of the Aegean was far-fetched, and the empire disintegrated when Athens was defeated by its rival Sparta in 404. Sparta lost its advantage in turn through political clumsiness—its formidable hoplite phalanxes were eventually destroyed by Thebes at the battle of Leuctra in 371. Stripped of its land and the helots, or serfs, who worked it, Sparta never revived. Thebes held a temporary hegemony over central Greece, but this too was dissipated after its leading general, Epaminondas, was killed in battle in 362. During these power struggles most of the smaller Greek cities had been debilitated by war, internal political tensions and the squandering or plunder of their limited resources.2

Greece was therefore vulnerable to outsiders, and the most successful of these was King Philip II of Macedonia, a kingdom that lay between Greece and the Balkans. He assumed hegemony over Greece after a crushing victory over the combined armies of Thebes and Athens at Chaeronaea in 338. Philip was a brilliant strategist and diplomat with an appreciation of how important it was to secure his conquests before embarking on others. His long-term ambition was to conquer Asia Minor, whose land was so much more fertile than that of Greece, and so his settlement was a moderate one under which the Greek cities agreed to forge a permanent alliance among themselves with Philip as their leader (the League of Corinth). The peace this brought was its own justification. Athens, for instance, retained her democracy and entered a new phase of prosperity during which her navy, docks and public buildings were restored. It has been traditional for historians to lament the end of the independent city state, but there was clearly much to be gained from acquiescence in Philip’s control.

However, the stability of the Greek world was soon placed in jeopardy by the adventures of Philip’s son Alexander, who succeeded to the throne of Macedonia after his father was assassinated in 336.3 In contrast to his father, Alexander imposed his rule on Greece brutally. When Thebes, one of the most ancient of Greek cities and legendary birthplace of Heracles, revolted against him, 6,000 Thebans were killed, 30,000 enslaved. There was a marked contrast between Alexander’s proclaimed love of Greek culture (he claimed descent from the Greek hero Achilles and steeped himself in Homer) and his treatment of the Greeks themselves. Turning his back on his kingdom except as a source of manpower, he made for the Persian empire with the armies his father had so meticulously trained. Brilliant though his victories were, they achieved little more than the dismantling and rendering into chaos of an empire that had successfully maintained its stability and multicultural identity for 200 years. His brutality, especially as he moved his isolated armies further into Asia, was often staggering. Cleitarchus of Alexandria, one of the few contemporary historians to write from outside the court circles and thus with no need to glorify Alexander’s image, reported that in one Indian valley alone some 80,000 people were slaughtered. 4 Alexander did little to replace the power vacuum he created other than to found a few cities of veterans strategically sited to keep order. It was Alexander’s successors who were to found the centres of Greek culture in the east such as Ai Khanoum, on the border of modern Afghanistan, with its library, theatre and gymnasium. Alexander had no aptitude for or interest in administration, and when he returned to the heartland of his new empire he preoccupied himself only with plans for renewed conquests.

Alexander’s temperament was autocratic, and the Persian model of kingship and the rituals of Persian court life proved highly attractive to him. The vigour with which he hunted down Darius, the defeated Persian monarch, so that he could become “King of Kings” in his place bordered on the obsessional. His commanders, many of them men who had fought with his father, had been used to a spirit of rough camaraderie with their king. As Alexander headed east on his conquests, the relationship soured. No act shows Alexander’s lack of respect for and understanding of Greek culture more clearly than his insistence that his Greek and Macedonian commanders adopt the Persian custom known in Greek as proskynesis, prostration before a monarch. This had long been seen by the Greeks as a symbol of the servility of the Persian people and contrasted with the dignified behaviour expected of a free man who would never submit to a display of such subservience. In the face of protest and ridicule, Alexander reluctantly gave way. On his return to Persia, however, he assumed the regalia of the Persian monarchy. An ill-judged attempt to integrate the Macedonians into court life by marrying them to Persian noblewomen failed ignominiously. The Macedonians discarded their Persian wives as soon as Alexander had died. Adding to their disquiet was Alexander’s appropriation of divine honours. After a visit to the oracle of Zeus Ammon at Siwa in the Libyan desert early in his campaigns, he seems to have begun to believe that he was the actual son of Zeus (the story went that his mother, Olympias, had conceived through a thunderbolt or a snake), and by the end of his reign he was wearing the purple robe and ram’s head of the god at banquets. He appears to have asked the Greek cities to offer him cult worship.

Greece benefited little from Alexander’s reign and suffered like his other territories from his autocratic ways. His policies were based on short-term opportunism. In 324 Alexander announced, at the Olympic Games of that year, that exiles from Greek cities would be free to return home. The exiles were delighted; many had lost land in the unsettled conditions of the fourth century and some 20,000 of them turned up at Olympia to hear the decree proclaimed. If settled back home, they would provide centres of support for Alexander. However, for the cities themselves the threatened influx of landless former dissidents and political rivals was deeply unsettling. Governments would be destabilized and Philip’s careful settlement of Greece undermined. When rumours of Alexander’s death first reached Athens in 323, the Athenian politician Demades argued that it could not possibly be true, because if it were the whole world would know because of the stink of the corpse. When the death was confirmed, Athenian resentment against Macedonia exploded in revolt. Aristotle, sensitive to his links with the Macedonian royal family, left Athens for exile, determined, so he said, that Athens would not commit a second crime against philosophy (the first being, of course, the execution of Socrates). He died a year later. Meanwhile, Macedonian troops put down the uprising. In Athens the world’s first sustained democracy, which had lasted 140 years and had been respected by Alexander’s father, Philip, was crushed.

The cost of Alexander’s inability to create a stable administration for his vast conquests, or even to appoint a successor, soon made itself felt. When asked while he was dying who should succeed him, Alexander reputedly answered, “To the strongest.” The result was predictable; for the next twenty years his conquests were torn apart. Those who had a claim to legitimacy, Alexander’s half-brother Arrhidaeus and his posthumous son Alexander, proved mere puppets through which rival commanders claimed their own legitimacy until both had been disposed of. By 307 all pretence of a regency had vanished, and those commanders who survived the vicious infighting declared that they themselves were kings. Eventually three new dynasties emerged: the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucids in Asia and the Antigonids in Macedonia. Later, in Asia Minor, the Attalids carved themselves out a kingdom round the commanding site of Pergamum. However destructive Alexander’s impact had proved in the short term, the new kings found that they had little option but to see him as their model. They had, like him, no other claim of legitimacy than that of conquest, and they were continually tested on the battlefield. One of the most persistent conflicts was between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids over their common border in Syria, but the successors also faced raiding Celts from Europe, frequent upheavals in Asia and finally, eventually and fatally, the growing power of Rome. The Hellenistic armies were large, up to 80,000 men recruited as mercenaries from the poorer parts of Greece, and so the relationship between monarchy and war that was to be echoed by and underpin Roman imperial rule was set in place.

The successful dynasts emulated Alexander in other ways. Alexander had been adept at using arts as propaganda. Notably in the work of his favoured sculptor, Lysippus, he portrayed himself as a hero/conqueror, naked with a spear, or in a “romantic” pose, beardless (a symbol of youth in the Greek world), with thick curled hair and gazing upwards with what Plutarch was to call “a melting look.” In some representations he was given the attributes of Heracles, from whom the Macedonian royal family claimed descent (ironically so in view of Alexander’s destruction of Heracles’ legendary birthplace, Thebes).5 Such idealizations were copied by his successors, who often directly adapted Alexander’s poses, as did the Romans after them. The most famous image of the Roman general Pompey shows him with an “Alexander haircut,” while some 650 years later Constantine was still using the pose of “the melting look”—in, for instance, a coin struck to commemorate his founding of Constantinople in A.D. 330. Art and propaganda were now inextricably linked in the representation of the ruler.

For the first time in the Greek world, the possibility that the king might be divine was also accepted. Greek myth spoke of how gods might father children who lived on earth as mortal heroes—Heracles was one, as were many of the protagonists in Homer’s Iliad. However, in their reluctance to accept that men might behave like gods, the Greeks had been hesitant in giving formal honours to living human beings, however great their exploits. There is a record of the Spartan commander Lysander being offered some form of cult worship in the early fourth century, but Alexander was the first Greek to claim that he had actually been born the son of a god. He failed to convince the Greeks, but in Egypt the Ptolemies were more successful in assuming divinity. They made use of the tradition that the pharaoh was the son of the god Amun. Ptolemy II Philadelphos proclaimed in 279 that his late father, Ptolemy I, and his third wife were gods, and he later announced that he and his wife were already divine, so providing the earliest known example of a Greek ruler formally claiming godhead while still alive. 6 Even when not claiming divinity for themselves, Alexander’s successors widely claimed a special association with the gods. The Attalids of Pergamum chose that traditional protectress of cities, Athena. The Macedonians maintained their support for Heracles, an ideal model for those who wanted to achieve great deeds. The Ptolemies associated themselves with Dionysus and with two Egyptian deities, Serapis, a god to whom the Egyptian Osiris was linked in the Apis bull cult, and Isis, Osiris’ sister. Cities responded with their own ruler cults, though many of these appear to have been designed to attract patronage. Athens, for instance, petitioned one monarch as a god who because he was near at hand could actually get things done! The concept that the monarch was either a god himself or was specially favoured by the gods became one of the most important aspects of Hellenistic and Roman imperial rule. It added the threat of the favoured god’s displeasure to any who challenged the king or emperor, and, as we shall see, the assimilation of Christianity into the Roman state cannot be understood without it.

When the Greek biographer and philosopher Plutarch considered Alexander, he wrote a famous eulogy:

Conquering by force of arms those whom he could not bring together by reasoned persuasion, he brought men from everywhere into a unified body mixed together, as if in a loving cup, their lives and characters and marriages and social customs. He commanded them all to think of the inhabited world as their fatherland, of the encamped army as their acropolis and guard . . .

There are still historians who quote this eulogy uncritically as if it represented some kind of historical truth. In fact, it seems to have been a rhetorical statement that conflicts with other assessments Plutarch himself made of Alexander. One can find little evidence of “reasoned persuasion” in Alexander’s unprovoked attack on the Persian empire or in the obsessional way he tracked down Darius. The unrestrained massacres in the Far East hardly speak of men united “in a loving cup,” and, as has been seen, the attempt to marry his rough commanders to the elegant ladies of the Persian court was a disaster. Homer may have been Alexander’s model, but an appreciation of the pity of war, so movingly expressed in the Iliad (as, for example, when Priam comes to seek the body of his son Hector from Achilles), seems to have been beyond Alexander’s grasp. His commitment to Greek culture was shallow, and in fact his whole life involved an abuse of the values of reasoned argument, planning and respect for the natural order which, as we have seen, were central to Greek intellectual life. He took a historian, Callisthenes, from the city of Olynthos, with him, but after Callisthenes had bravely articulated opposition to proskynesis on the grounds that it was impious to offer Alexander divine honours and the practice of proskynesis was an insult to the Greek sense of liberty, he was executed for “conspiracy.” The Greek world was outraged. It was not only that Alexander bypassed rational thinking; his elevation of himself to monarch and to godhead brought irrationality and absolutism to the core of government. The extinction of Athenian democracy in 322 at the hands of Macedonian troops after his death comes as no surprise in this context. Although the momentum of Greek intellectual life proved considerable, Alexander’s model of absolutism represented a threat to it.7

That the Greek intellectual tradition survived at this stage was, paradoxically, partly thanks to Alexander’s successors. An important feature of the period was the use of patronage by monarchs as a means of boosting their own status and of maintaining the support of their Greek subjects. It could be shown in flamboyant display and opulent festivals, and by the building of great palaces and new temples both in their capitals and in other favoured cities. The Attalids made Pergamum into one of the great showcase cities of the eastern Mediterranean, and one of them, Attalus II, also honoured Athens with a resplendent new stoa (roofed colonnade). The Ptolemies, able to draw on the considerable resources of the Nile valley, made Alexandria the grandest city of the Mediterranean. It was not only the palaces (each ruler building his own when he succeeded to the throne) and the massive temple complex in honour of Serapis that impressed; it was the Ptolemies’ investment in preserving and sustaining Greek culture. They can be credited with the famous library, the greatest ever known in the ancient world, with perhaps some 500,000 rolls of papyrus and with the museum (literally “shrine of the Muses”) as a centre of academic debate.

Alexandria’s most important cultural role in the Hellenistic period was as a centre for science and mathematics, while Athens maintained its preeminence in philosophy. The continuing breadth of the Greek achievement in the Hellenistic centuries provides evidence that intellectual and artistic achievement was not stifled by the demise of the independent city state and that the barriers between what are now seen as distinct academic disciplines were fluid. While Herophilus, working in Alexandria in the first half of the third century, was able to isolate the nerves and show that they ran back to the brain, a major breakthrough in medical history, his fellow Alexandrian Apollonius Rhodios was writing, for the first time, it seems, of the agonies of adolescent love in his epic Argonautika, incorporating Herophilus’ findings into his text. As the young Medea sets eyes on Jason:

. . . her virgin heart now beat a

Tattoo on her ribs, her eyes shed tears of pity, constant

Anguish ran smouldering through her flesh, hotwired her finespun

Nerve ends, needles in the skull’s base, the deep spinal

Cord where pain pierces sharpest when the unresting

Passions inject their agony into the senses...8

When Eratosthenes attempted to measure the circumference of the earth in the late third century, he was combining the use of geography, astronomy and geometry. Archimedes (c. 287–212 B.C.) laid the foundations of integral calculus, applied mathematics and hydrostatics as well as formulated the means for the calculation of areas and volumes (such as cones) and the computing of very large numbers. His work is characterized by an extraordinary imagination, through which he conceptualized the problems in hand, allied to a technical ingenuity that allowed him to work them out practically. The two came together in his alleged discovery of a way of determining the proportions of gold and silver in a crown while meditating in his bath. His cry of “Eureka” as he rushed through the streets perhaps best symbolizes this age of excited intellectual discovery.9

Older cities such as Athens were honoured for their cultural heritage, and Athens remained the most important centre for philosophy throughout the period. Two major new movements, Epicureanism and Stoicism, were born there. 10 What they had in common was to offer a philosophy of life that was open to everyone, not only to an intellectual elite (Plato) or the male citizen (Aristotle)—but here the similarity ended. The Epicureans preached what seemed a heresy to many Greeks, that the individual should withdraw from society and cultivate peace of mind through the avoidance of stress. With the gods no more than models of good behaviour without the power to harm human beings, it was up to the individual to find his own equilibrium. The goal was to maximize pleasure, by which Epicurus, its founder, did not mean any frenzied search for sensual enjoyment but rather the cultivation of more refined pursuits, predominant among them friendship (extended to include the sharing of women among devotees). If involvement in political life proved stressful, then it should be abandoned. Stoicism was altogether more demanding intellectually and more influential. The name Stoicism comes from the Athenian stoa, where its founder, Zeno of Citium (in Cyprus), began teaching in about 311. It was his successor, Chrysippus, who was responsible for developing Stoicism into a coherent and profound philosophy. Chrysippus’ teachings can be reconstructed only with difficulty from later commentaries on them, and Stoicism was never a closed system— internal debate was acceptable and often conducted with great intellectual sophistication. In so far as one can generalize, the Stoics saw all matter as having a fundamental unity, as if it was a single web with each part linked to the rest, but this web was never at rest—it was in a continuous cycle of change. Each cycle would come to an end in fire but then restart itself with new matter being born out of the fire. Matter was not only that which could be seen and touched; it was suffused by an invisible rational principle that could not exist independently of it. This principle is what drove the cosmos through its never-ending cycles, and the ubiquitous term logos was used to describe it. Here logos was seen as an entity in itself, rooted in nature as it were; this was a transition of some importance in the history of the concept.

The problem that taxed the Stoics was how to fit human beings into their cosmos. If Stoicism was taken to its logical conclusion, human beings were simply part of the cosmos and could not act freely outside it or influence its inexorable unfolding. Yet human beings did appear to be able to act freely, make choices, and think through issues rationally for themselves. (The Stoics stressed that it was this ability to think rationally that marked them out from the rest of the natural world.) The Stoics were challenged to settle this contradiction by Carneades, head of Plato’s Academy, whose energy was now focused on making sceptical assessments of rival philosophies. The Stoic response was sophisticated and finally led to the acceptance of the view that human beings could and should act freely, even if within a narrow margin, to improve their health, accumulate money for basic needs and even to act morally within this world as it existed. A rational response by an individual to external events could be accommodated within “the web” without breaking it. Stoic morality consisted of controlling one’s passions and irrational impulses so that the individual lived a self-sufficient life that was aligned with the unfolding of the cosmos and accepting of its inexorable progress (hence the conventional meaning of the word “stoical” to refer to the impassive acceptance of the fate the world brings one’s way). This was the path to virtue, and when the Stoics talked of freedom, they meant freedom from passion or irrational responses to events. In contrast to the Epicureans, the Stoics did not rule out taking an active part in public life, and so Stoics are found in Roman government and doggedly doing their duty as soldiers.

None of these intellectual developments would have been possible if the Hellenistic monarchs had not succeeded (where Alexander had so conspicuously failed) in maintaining stable administrations and finding a secure way of passing on their rule to successors. They drew heavily on old allegiances and existing administrative structures; the Ptolemies effectively used traditional images of the pharaohs to sustain themselves among the Egyptian population, even building temples in the local style. (Among those whose ruins survive to this day are the temple to Horus at Edfu and that to Isis on the Nile island of Philae.) Like the more effective pharaohs they worked hard to maximize their revenue from taxation through the centuries-old Egyptian bureaucracy. The Seleucids appropriated and developed the royal estates left by the Persian kings and adopted the structure of satrapies, through which each region of the empire was given considerable autonomy so long as tax revenue was maintained. 11 Succession was secured by stressing the divine nature of the dynasty and by ensuring that the son of the king had effective power before his father died. Seleucus I, for instance, the founder of the dynasty, made his son Antiochus a provincial governor before his death, the proclamation being made before his assembled army, and he strengthened Antiochus’ position by passing on one of his wives to him. Antiochus I ruled for thirty-six years, Seleucus I for twenty-four, and Seleucus II and Antiochus II another thirty-five years between them. The contrast with Alexander’s brief rule need hardly be stressed.

Traditionally the Hellenistic age has been seen as showy and vulgar, even decadent, after the glories of classical Greece. This was after all an age where wealth was concentrated in fewer hands and deliberately flaunted as a means of creating and maintaining status. Its literary achievements cannot be compared with those of Aeschylus and Sophocles. But the Hellenistic achievement in science and mathematics was remarkable, and this was also an age of growing, if still very limited, technological achievement. Pergamum, high on its rock, survived only because water from a spring twenty-five metres higher on a neighbouring hill was piped down and then up again into the city through some 240,000 linked lead pipes. Considering the poor foundations on which they built, the dynasties sustained themselves well. A descendant of the first Ptolemy, Cleopatra, was still in place in Egypt nearly 300 years after her ancestor’s seizure of power. Many of the political barriers that had isolated the Greek cities from each other had been dissolved, so that after stability had been restored by Alexander’s successors, the Greeks could now see themselves as citizens of a wider world. Greeks from over 200 different cities, some of them as far north as the Black Sea, are recorded as having made their home in Egypt during these years, and the old dialects of Greece were dissolved into a shared koine, which was to be the standard Greek of the Gospels and the letters of Paul. They could never have spread if the narrow allegiances to a single city state had continued.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!