Alexander the Great and the Coming of the Hellenistic Age

Starting with the Peloponnesian War, Greece went through a period of warfare and disunity, more so than ever before. First Athens, then Sparta, and finally Thebes all tried to unify Greece; however none of these unifications were successful in any way. The problem was quite clear, the Greeks wanted unity, but only under their city-state. The only path to unity without civil war was under a foreign power. Logically, Persia was that power; however the Greeks distrusted the Persians, who meddled in their affairs. Suddenly, in the 330s B.C., a new and unprecedented option arose from the north, Macedonian rule.

The Macedonians were a warlike people who had close ethnic ties with Greece. The Macedonians under Philip had control over what is now Northern Greece, Macedonia (FYROM), Central Albania, and Bulgaria (Thrace). Philip, in the 330s B.C. decided to invade and unify Greece. Most Greeks welcomed his arrival, seeing it as an opportunity for the unity almost all Greeks knew was necessary. However, others protested his arrival. Philip though was able to crush the resistance in Greece, and established a puppet state known as the Corinthian League. However, a year after its establishment in 337 B.C., Philip was assassinated.

Alexander, who today is known as Alexander the Great, was born in 356 B.C. to King Philip and his wife Olympia. Historians know little about his childhood besides myths and legends, but one thing stood out the most, his fine education. As a child, the boy learned how to read, write, play the lyre, and fight in a military situation before being tutored by Aristotle at age fourteen. Alexander was Aristotle’s student for the next three years, and after his tutelage, corresponded with the legendary philosopher. The most important lesson taught by Aristotle to Alexander was to never force a particular culture on a subjected people, but rather to introduce it. Aristotle taught Alexander Greek culture in this way.

At twenty years old, Alexander ascended to the Macedonian throne. His main goal was to finally accomplish his father’s dream, the conquest of the Persian Empire. Two years into his reign, in 334 B.C., Alexander launched a massive campaign against Persia. In two notable battles, in 334 B.C. at Granicus River and in 333 B.C. at Issus, Alexander defeated the Persian armies despite being vastly outnumbered in both engagements. The Persian King Darius III then offered Alexander half of his empire at the hand of his daughter; however the relentless tactician refused the offer. Instead, Alexander defeated Darius at Gaugamela in 331 B.C. The king fled the battle, only to be assassinated by his cousin and general Bessus. Alexander gave Darius a grandiose burial, and treated his family members as if they were not the remnants of a defeated regime (even though they were, since Alexander became the undisputed ruler of Persia), but rather as if they were nobles in the highest respect. Alexander then pushed forward after defeating the empire to conquer more territory in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and even India before his troops mutinied in 325 B.C., refusing to fight any longer.

Macedonian Empire Map All Colors With Battles and legend (FINISHED PRODUCT)Click on the map to see a more clear/less fuzzy image. If you want to use this, go to the bottom of the page for license and information regarding usage.

Despite being a military genius, Alexander was a poor administrator. His policies alienated Macedonians and Greeks alike, and he had many attempts on his life. Alexander, instead of honoring Macedonian culture, demanded the respects and honors that the Persian Kings and Egyptian Pharaohs had, married two foreign princesses during his lifetime, and sponsored mixed marriages between Greeks and non-Greeks. He also adopted Persian culture and dress as well. Alexander died in 323 B.C. of a fever, and the empire quickly fell apart as his generals, called Diadochi, fought over the land Alexander had conquered. Eventually three large kingdoms arose, Egypt, which was established by Ptolemy, Syria, which was established by Seleucus, and Macedonia, which was established by Antipater. Alexander’s death and the squabbling of the Diadochi led to a new age, the Hellenistic Age.

Although only lasting three centuries, the Hellenistic Age had a profound impact. People in Greece, Egypt, and Syria all spoke the same language, Greek. Trade increased dramatically, and the middle class grew. Alexandria (In Egypt), Rhodes, and Antioch became the three largest trade centers in the Hellenistic World, which included Greece, Macedonia, Egypt, the Near East, Persia (now Iran) and the Indo-Greek Kingdoms in India. City life improved too; public baths were built, market squares were established, and more schools and libraries were founded. Indoor theaters became common, and the wealthy had running water in their homes. Banking also improved as well, thanks to tips from non-Greeks.

Philosophers during the Hellenistic Age were particularly concerned with ethics rather than basic questions of reality. Philosophy, however, was no less important during this period. There were three main branches of philosophy, Cynicism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism. The Cynics scorned pleasure, wealth, and social status. The most famous Cynic, Diogenes, purportedly had a meeting with Alexander the Great. Alexander said, “If I were not Alexander, I would prefer to be Diogenes.” Diogenes bitterly scorned, “If I were not Diogenes, I would prefer to be any man except Alexander.”  Today, the word cynic describes a person who is sarcastic and believes that the motives of people are always selfish. Another group of philosophers were the Stoics. The Stoics believed that everything that happened was meant to by divine will. They advocated against complaining, and told people to accept whatever came their way. In the present time, the word stoic means to be unaffected by emotions. The Epicurean philosophy was originally about achieving intellectual pleasure. However, after the philosophy’s founder, Epicures, died, the followers began to indulge in physical pleasures rather than intellectual ones. Food was especially important.

Science in the Hellenistic Age also progressed. People valued information for information’s sake, and didn’t apply it for any practical uses. Scientists however, placed new emphasis on experimentation and observation. An example of this is the steam engine invented by the scientist named Hero, which was regarded as a simple toy, and not a meaningful invention. This was, in part, due to the fact that Hellenistic Greece had a large slave population, but also due to the policy of information for information’s sake. Hellenistic Greece, nevertheless, had many scientists worth mentioning. In terms of math, Euclid and Archimedes were especially important. Euclid transformed how humans thought about geometry from a mess to a logical system of theorems, or statements typically assumed to be fact. His textbook, Elements, is the basis for almost all books on the subject today. Archimedes was also an important mathematician. He calculated the value of pi (π) and used geometry to measure objects such as cones and cylinders.

There were other advancements as well. Eratosthenes calculated the diameter of the Earth, which was known to be round, with an error margin at less than 1%. Scientists also discovered that the brain was the center of the nervous system by examining dead criminals, and applied painkillers during surgeries. Plants were also continued to be classified.

A form of comedy known as the Greek New Comedy, or simply New Comedy, emerged during this era. This type of comedy relied on stock characters, such as soldiers, cooks, the cunning slave, etc. for plays. These plays were composed of five acts, or segments, with chorus in-between acts. The plays tended to focus on the plot rather than the chorus, a stark contrast to Old Comedy.

In conclusion, the rise of Macedonia led, indirectly, to a new age of widespread Greek culture. The conquests and introductory policy of Alexander the Great helped to usher in this new era, and, after his death in 323 B.C., the Hellenistic age had begun. During this period, which lasted from 323 B.C. to 31 B.C (to 10 B.C. in the Indo-Greek Kingdoms), the middle class of merchants rose, trade boomed as new centers such as Alexandria, Rhodes, and Antioch grew, new philosophies became prominent, scientific discoveries in math, geometry, and other fields were made, and the Eastern Mediterranean and Near east were unified by the Greek language spoken among its inhabitants. The Hellenistic Age, despite being ruled by absolute monarchs, was one of prosperity for all of society (except slaves), and, perhaps, was a more prosperous period than that of the Hellenic Age, which lacked the unity, economic stability, and the rising middle class that the Hellenistic Age brought.

Works Cited

Mark, Joshua J. “Alexander the Great.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. n.p. 14 November 2013. Web. 30 October 2015.

Kirchner, Walther. Barnes & Noble College Outline Series. Western Civilization to 1500: Political, Cultural, and Social History with Examinations. 1960. Barnes & Noble Inc, 1972, PDF.

Cartwright, Mark. “Greek Comedy.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. n.p. 25 March 2013. Web. 30 October 2015 Staff. “Hellenistic Greece.” A+E Networks. 2010. Web. 30 October 2015.

Simonin, Antoine. “Hellenistic Period.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. n.p. 28 April 2011. Web. 30 October 2015

“Map of the Ancient World.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. n.p. n.d. Web. 30 October 2015.

Mazour, Anatole G., John M. Peoples, and Theodore K. Rabb. People and Nations: A World History. 1968. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc, 1983, Print

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