History of Greece: The Hellenistic Era (323 – 30 BCE)

During the Hellenistic Age Greek culture extended its influence over vast territory in the eastern Mediterranean, and Southeast Asia.  All aspects of life in the Hellenistic world adopted a Greek hue. Public education helped the Greek language spread and become the official language of all the Kingdoms. Hellenistic art and literature became more realistic and revolved around more human subjects and emotions, in contrast to the previous preoccupation with the Ideal of the Classical era.

The influence of the individual cities of the Classical era was replaced by kingdoms that were led by one ruler. After Alexander’s death, his generals controlled the empire and they often fought against each other as they attempted to dominate. Eventually, through these squabbles three major kingdoms emerged that endured over the next three hundred years.

Ptolemy controlled Egypt and parts of the Middle East, and Seleucus became the ruler of  Syria and the remnants of the Persian Empire. Macedonia, Thrace, and parts of northern Asia Minor came under the control of Antigonus and his son Demetrius. In subsequent centuries several smaller kingdoms were established at various times, most noteworthy of which was the Attalid kingdom around Pergamum in eastern Asia Minor, and the independent kingdom of Bactria (in today’s Afghanistan). Most of the classical Greek cities and on the southern shores of the Black Sea remained independent.

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Some of the old city-states like Athens, Corinth, Thebes, Miletus, and Syracuse continued to flourish, while others new ones like Pergamum, Ephesus, Antioch, Damascus, and Trapezus emerged as metropolitan centers.  Of all the cities however, Alexandria of Egypt managed to outshine all of them as the most important center of cultural and commercial achievement. Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE and under the Ptolemies it hosted the tomb of Alexander the Great, the Great Library, and one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Lighthouse.

In the Hellenistic Era great philosophers like the Stoics, the Skeptics, and the Epicurians founded major schools and writers like  Kalimachus, Apollonious of Rhodes, Menander, and Theocritos created major works of literature. In sculpture Polykleitos devised canons for representing the human figure that remained influential for centuries to come. In Architecture, new ideas like the Corinthian order emerged to create public buildings and monuments on a more grandiose scale and complexity. The Mausoleum of Pergamum and the theater of Epidaurus are two fine examples of architecture from this era.

Parallel to the arts, the sciences also saw significant advancement in Hellenistic Greece. Euclid’s Elements of Geometry became the standard all the way up to the 20th c. CE., and the mathematical work and inventions of Archimedes became legendary. As a small example of the high state of advancement of mathematics and science in general, Eratosthenes managed to calculated the circumference of the earth with great accuracy by simultaneously measuring the shadow of two vertical sticks, one placed in Alexandria and one in Syene. His calculations came within only 1500 miles of what we know the measurement to be today.

The Hellenistic kingdoms suffered from both internal conflict and external enemies. The long border lines and the vast interior suffered from enemy incursions, bandits, and pirates that operated beyond the relative safety of the large cities. The Gauls invaded Macedonia and reached southern Greece in 279 BCE causing much damage before Attalus defeated them after they crossed into Asia Minor.

At the same time, Rome had risen to a formidable power and by 200 BCE and expanded all the way to Illyria. An alliance of Macedonia with Hanibal against the Romans became the beginning of a series that eventually led to the annexation of Greece by the Romans. By the time Augustus defeated the last standing Hellenistic power of Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BCE, most of the Hellenistic kingdoms disintegrated by constant incursions of the borders, while many other parts transferred rule to Rome through the will of deceased rulers.

The defeat of Cleopatra and Anthony at the battle of Actium marks the end of what we know as Ancient Greece. In the next two thousand years, Greece tolerated a series of conquests that made its people subjects of numerous powers. As a testament to their powerful cultural tradition, adaptability, and resiliency, Hellenes endured and persevered until they emerged in the 19th century through the ashes of the Ottoman Empire to form the modern country of Greece.

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