In 336 B.C., Alexander the Great became the leader of the Greek kingdom of Macedonia. By the time he died 13 years later, Alexander had built an empire that stretched from Greece all the way to India. That brief but thorough empire-building campaign changed the world: It spread Greek ideas and culture from the Eastern Mediterranean to Asia.
Historians call this era the “Hellenistic period.” (The word “Hellenistic” comes from the word Hellazein, which means “to speak Greek or identify with the Greeks.”) It lasted from the death of Alexander in 323 B.C. until 31 B.C., when Roman troops conquered the last of the territories that the Macedonian king had once ruled.
At the end of the classical period, around 360 B.C., the Greek city-states were weak and disorganized from two centuries of warfare. (First the Athenians fought with the Persians; then the Spartans fought with the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War; then the Spartans and the Athenians fought with one another and with the Thebans and the Persians.) All this fighting made it easy for another, previously unexceptional city-state to rise to power: Macedonia, under the assertive rule of King Philip II.
Philip and the Macedonians began to expand their territory outward. They were helped along by a number of advances in military technology: long-range catapults, for example, along with pikes called sarissas that were about 16 feet long—long enough for soldiers to use not as projectiles, but as spears. King Philip’s generals also pioneered the use of the massive and intimidating infantry formation known as the phalanx.
King Philip’s ultimate goal was to conquer Persia and help himself to the empire’s land and riches. This was not to be; King Philip was assassinated by his bodyguard Pausanias in 336 B.C. at his daughter’s wedding, before he could enjoy the spoils of his victories. His son Alexander, known to history as "Alexander The Great," jumped at the chance to take over his father’s imperial project.
The new Macedonian king led his troops across the Hellespont into Asia. (When he got there, he plunged an enormous sarissa into the ground and declared the land “spear won.”) From there, Alexander and his armies kept moving. They conquered huge chunks of western Asia and Egypt and pressed on into the Indus Valley.
The Hellenistic Age
Alexander’s empire was a fragile one, not destined to survive for long. After Alexander died in 323 B.C., his generals (known as the Diadochoi) divided his conquered lands amongst themselves. Soon, those fragments of the Alexandrian empire had become three powerful dynasties: the Seleucids of Syria and Persia, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Antigonids of Greece and Macedonia.
Though these dynasties were not politically united—since Alexander’s death, they were no longer part of any Greek or Macedonian empire—they did share a great deal in common. It is these commonalities, the essential “Greek-ness” of the disparate parts of the Alexandrian world–that historians refer to when they talk about the Hellenistic Age.
The Hellenistic states were ruled absolutely by kings. (By contrast, the classical Greek city-states, or polei, had been governed democratically by their citizens.) These kings had a cosmopolitan view of the world, and were particularly interested in amassing as many of its riches as they could.
As a result, they worked hard to cultivate commercial relationships throughout the Hellenistic world. They imported ivory, gold, ebony, pearls, cotton, spices and sugar (for medicine) from India; furs and iron from the Far East; wine from Syria and Chios; papyrus, linen and glass from Alexandria; olive oil from Athens; dates and prunes from Babylon and Damaskos; silver from Spain; copper from Cyprus; and tin from as far north as Cornwall and Brittany.
They also put their wealth on display for all to see, building elaborate palaces and commissioning art, sculptures and extravagant jewelry. They made huge donations to museums and zoos and they sponsored libraries (the famous libraries at Alexandria and Pergamum, for instance) and universities. The university at Alexandria was home to the mathematicians Euclid, Apollonios and Archimedes, along with the inventors Ktesibios (the water clock) and Heron (the model steam engine).
People, like goods, moved fluidly around the Hellenistic kingdoms. Almost everyone in the former Alexandrian empire spoke and read the same language: koine, or “the common tongue,” a kind of colloquial Greek. Koine was a unifying cultural force: No matter where a person came from, he could communicate with anyone in this cosmopolitan Hellenistic world.
At the same time, many people felt alienated in this new political and cultural landscape. Once upon a time, citizens had been intimately involved with the workings of the democratic city-states; now, they lived in impersonal empires governed by professional bureaucrats. Many people joined “mystery religions,” like the cults of the goddesses Isis and Fortune, which promised their followers immortality and individual wealth.
Hellenistic philosophers, too, turned their focus inward. Diogenes the Cynic lived his life as an expression of protest against commercialism and cosmopolitanism. (Politicians, he said, were “the lackeys of the mob”; the theater was “a peep show for fools.”) The philosopher Epicurus argued that the most important thing in life was the pursuit of the individual’s pleasure and happiness. And the Stoics argued that every individual man had within him a divine spark that could be cultivated by living a good and noble life.
In Hellenistic art and literature, this alienation expressed itself in a rejection of the collective demos and an emphasis on the individual. For example, sculptures and paintings represented actual people rather than idealized “types.”
Famous works of Hellenistic Art include “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” “Laocoön and His Sons,” “Venus de Milo,” “Dying Gaul,” “Boy With Thorn” and “Boxer at Rest,” among others.
The End of the Hellenistic Age
The Hellenistic world fell to the Romans in stages, but the era ended for good in 31 B.C. That year, in the Battle at Actium, the Roman Octavian defeated Mark Antony’s Ptolemaic fleet. Octavian took the name Augustus and became the first Roman emperor. Despite the Hellenistic period’s relatively short life span, the cultural and intellectual life of the era has been influencing readers, writers, artists and scientists ever since.