A Brief Look at Hellenistic Culture

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Civilizations through history have lifespans, just like an individual person. Just at the time the Classical Period (roughly the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.E.) was dying, the newborn Hellenistic Period was smashing its way through the Mediterranean, Persia, and Punjab all thanks to the infamous Alexander of Macedonia; otherwise known as Alexander the Great. The History Channel, who hosts History.com, provides a wealth of information about the culture, political climate, and historical epoch in which the Hellenic peoples lived. 

Scholars use an interesting verb in reference to the birth of this culture: Hellazein. It means “to speak Greek or identify with the Greeks” (“Hellenistic Greece”). This is exactly what began to occur after the Greek-Macedonian Alexander spread his domain throughout the lands from the further reaches of the near East to the Western limits of the Mediterranean. Within thirteen years of his ascension, the great Alexander died, and his generals fought amongst themselves, dividing up the territories, yet still spreading the Greek influence through their dominions (Plutarch 53).

In contrast to the Greek city-states during the Classical Period who were democratic, the Hellenistic territories were ruled by absolute kings. These kings took a cosmopolitan posture to their reigns and were interested in gathering wealth, amassing riches. This led to a robust trading strategy wherein kings were obsessed with building commercial relationships and the import and export of many of the goods and materials under their mutual kingdoms. Spices, gold, ebony, pearls, ivory, sugar from the Punjab; fur and iron from further East; spirits and wine from Syria; glass and linen from Alexandria and its environs; local fruits from Babylon and Damaskos; Spanish fine metals;  Cyprus copper and tin from the far north Brittany and Cornwall (“Hellenistic Greece”).

Opening up trade routes allowed not just products, but people to travel widely Throughout the Hellenistic world and a colloquial Greek, Koine, took hold and spread throughout. These are forces of cultural unification that allow people from many different places to speak with one another, trade, and share ideas. Further, in keeping with the cosmopolitanism of the time, many works of art were commissioned and for all travelers to see elaborate palaces were built. Zoos were commonly donated to as well as museums, libraries, and universities; i.e. Pergamon and the library at Alexandria (Plutarch 159).

In the Classical Greek Age, people had gotten very accustomed to a high-level involvement politically, as then the states were Democratic. When these absolute rulers such as Julius Caesar took control there was a marked sense of anomie and alienation in the general population because now political bureaucrats governed over impersonal empires in which they lived. So Hellenistic literature and art represent a kind of rebellion against this collectivism and took on a more individualistic bent. Philosophers too rebelled against this depersonalization and great mind such as Diogenes and Epicurus railed for egoism and self-gratifying lifestyles. The Stoics went further indeed and proclaimed the divinity of the individual Self and mystery cults rose to prominence concerned more with the inner life than with the external circumstances (“Hellenistic Greece”).

The Hellenistic culture lasted for almost three-hundred years. It met it’s historically inevitable decline when the Romans led by Octavian took control of the last of the Hellenic strongholds at the Battle of Actium (Plutarch 129). Whilst relatively short-lived the Hellenes and their legacy influenced a great many later cultures and a good many of their ideas, artistic inclinations, philosophical musings, and mystery inspirations that take hold of cultures to this day. For without the Hellenes, the historical causal events that led to the development of our own culture may never have been achieved.

Works Cited

“Hellenistic Greece.” History.com, 4 Feb. 2010, www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/hellenistic-greece. Accessed 25 Dec. 2018.

Plutarch. The Life of Alexander the Great. Ed ed., Modern Library, 2004.