The Hellenistic period of Greece

Hellenistic is the historical period of Greece defined by the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. until the naval battle of Aktio in 31 BC. The territories conquered militarily by Alexander and formed the political and cultural sphere of influence of the successors included except Greece, Syria and Palestine, Egypt and Libya and all the lands of the Near East that belonged to the former Persian Empire.

The end of the Hellenistic era coincides with the fall of the kingdom of Ptolemy and the annexation of Egypt to the Roman Empire. However, for many historians this is only a conventional, politico-military limit of the Hellenistic period, as “Hellenism”, now in the form of Greco-Roman civilization, continued to determine for many centuries the physiognomy of the world until late antiquity.

alexanderThe campaign of Alexander the Great in the East became the occasion for the settlement of Greek settlers there, who brought with them Greek customs and religion and a freer spirit from the metropolitan centers. The independent kingdoms, which emerged from the dismemberment of Alexander’s empire, became the new centers of economy and spirit. Their development was based on the Greek language and the widespread use of currency.

The great progress in the positive sciences also overturned the prevailing religious conceptions. Through their philosophical pursuits, the educated discover a world full of order, consistency and meaning. The idea that the ruler must serve the state and its people is also reflected in the context. The wider popular strata look to religion as a means of salvation. In this age of leaps and bounds, they place their expectations on Fortune, the goddess of coincidences, in the mystical and eastern cults.

The spirit of the time is reflected in the art and architecture of the Hellenistic period. Art now more than ever has a secular character and focuses on topics from everyday life but also from the world of Dionysus and Aphrodite, with idyllic or dramatic content. In sculpture, the realism and rendering of the individual characteristics of the figures replaces the ideal beauty and the eternal youth.

helellenistic-artIn this context, the art of portrait is also developed. The new trends culminate in real 3D projects, with which the conquest of space takes place. At the end of the period, a classicism in plastic works appears. It must be connected with the gradual conquest of the Greek world by the Romans, who have a special love for the art of the classical era.

The cities, founded by Alexander the Great and his successors, are developed in symmetrical rectangular squares, as suggested by the Milesian city planner and philosopher Hippodamos. Huge temples and galleries, altars with monumental scales and facades, luxurious burial buildings, theaters are built in public places and sanctuaries. They testify to the tendency to show power and wealth on the part of their founders and contractors. The rhythms and individual elements for their rich decoration do not obey the strict rules of the classical era.

The characteristics of the Hellenistic world

Trade and finance.

The overthrow of the Persian Empire and the spread of Hellenism in the East were followed by significant changes in the economic sector, which subsequently affected the structure of the Hellenistic kingdoms. The Hellenistic world, Greeks and foreigners, operated within a single economic system. The main economic elements concerning the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire, were merged through the use of a common monetary system, a common fiscal policy and a common way of trading.
The kings owned all the land and most of the produce. The rich agricultural production and the exchange of the produced goods between the kingdoms opened new horizons in the trade. Greek coins were used to facilitate transactions and Persian ones were withdrawn. At the same time, banks were created and checks were used.

b) Socially. Those who engaged in trade and banking, but also those who exercised power as royal servants, formed a privileged class, a bourgeois * class consisting mainly of Greeks and a few Hellenizing natives. Most of the natives were workers and small farmers who gathered in the big cities in search of better fortune. Within this system of economic relations the development of slavery was favored. Where there was not enough free labor, slaves were used. The dependent slave-labor work that prevailed in the East, although not abandoned, was no longer sufficient to meet the needs of the affluent living of the rulers and the upper classes. These needs were met mainly by the use of slaves


The system of government in the Hellenistic kingdoms was the absolute monarchy. The rulers gathered in their person all the powers and ruled with a staff of Greeks and a few natives who belonged to higher economic strata and had become Hellenized2. The glamor of the rulers was increased by the worship attributed to them by the subjects. In this system of absolute monarchy the citizen had no role to play, he was only interested in his individual interest. External Link
The center of gravity shifted from metropolitan Greece to the major cities of the East (Alexandria, Antioch, Pergamon and others), which were the administrative, economic and cultural centers of the Hellenistic world.

The Greek area was governed according to the standards of the Macedonian kingdom. Some city-states (Athens, Sparta, Rhodes, Delos and others), however, maintained their autonomy, often obeying the wishes of the kings. Other areas of Greece to maintain their autonomy were organized into federations, as happened with the Aetolians and the inhabitants of Achaia.


During Hellenistic times, the mass production of books was facilitated for the first time. The spread and widespread use of writing materials, such as papyrus and parchment, and the creation of intellectual centers, such as the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum, contributed in this direction. However, the large production of books is not associated with a corresponding richness in their content.

The authors were mostly imitators of works of the classical era. Still other intellectuals concerned themselves only with gathering the work of writers of earlier ages. In the libraries they copied and commented on the texts of the classics. They were the first philologists and were called grammarians.

Poetry presented no great works in terms of originality and inspiration. Many poets were paid cronies of the powerful. Their poems praised the persons and deeds of kings, as was the case with Callimachus in Alexandria. Others were imitators of older poetic genres, such as the heroic epic.

Such a work was the “Argonautica” of Apollonius of Rhodium, based on the myth of the Argonautic expedition. More originality distinguished Theocritus, who with his work “Idylls” became a proponent of bucolic poetry. A new poetic genre, also with satirical speech, are the “Mimes” written by Herondas.

At this time it was cultivated the epigram and of the theatrical genres only comedy. The new comedy, as it was called, satirized human characters. Its subject was the everyday man with his flaws. Its main representative was Menandros.

The the study of historical writing, towards the end of the Hellenistic years, has to present a historical family of those classical times. Polybius the Megalopolitan lived during the times of Roman expansion. For seventeen years he stayed in Rome as a hostage and socialized with important persons, such as those of the Scipio circle. He writes the history of his time and tries to explain to his contemporaries the reasons for the dominance of the Romans.

Athens, although it is in economic and political withering, is still during the Hellenistic times an intellectual center to which students come from various places mainly to be taught philosophy. In addition to Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, two new schools of philosophy operate. Philosophical thought focused its interest on problems concerning human life. Get practical and ethical content.

The problem of the value of life occupied Zeno. The seat of his philosophical school was the Diverse Stoa in the ancient market of Athens, which is why Zeno’s teaching was called Stoic philosophy. According to his views, life has little value, so man must be self-sufficient and temperate. According Zeno happiness does not depend on earthly things.

At the opposite end was Epicurus, who had the headquarters of his school in an idyllic area of ​​Athens called Kipos (garden). He taught that knowledge of nature helps man get rid of fear and ensure peace of mind. Only with spiritual, mainly, enjoyment is it possible for man to be led to happiness.

The kingdoms of the East

When Alexander conquered Egypt, he was proclaimed pharaoh and when he overthrew the Persian Empire, he ascended the throne of the Achaemenids and ruled over many peoples. Thus the kingdom became personal.
his type of kingdom was also exercised by his successors in the East. In other words, they ruled as absolute rulers over citizens of different nationalities, who attributed divine values ​​to them. Two were the most important kingdoms in the East, the kingdom of Egypt and the kingdom of Syria.


Kingdom of Egypt

Its founder was Ptolemy, general of Alexander the Great. In his dominion, apart from Egypt, he had the region of Cyrenaica (present-day Libya), Cyprus, which was the naval base of the state, and at times the southern region of Syria. The majority of the inhabitants of the kingdom were Egyptians, but there were other ethnic minorities, such as Jews, Persians, Greeks and Syrians.

They avoided levying taxes on the indigenous population whose main occupation was the cultivation of the land. They supported the development of trade by all means; that is why Alexandria became the largest commercial port in the Mediterranean.

Trade favored the intellectual development of the city. The Ptolemies maintained the old administrative system. They were followers of the pharaohs’ policy. They ruled collectively with a staff whose leadership positions were held by Greeks, while in the rest of the state machine they had appointed mainly natives.

The kingdom of Egypt flourished in the 3rd c. BC. From the 2nd c. BC. however, due to the exploitation of the natives, there were many peasant uprisings. At the same time, conflicts abroad, mainly with the Seleucids over the region of southern Syria, weakened the state and gradually led to its subjugation to the Romans.

Kingdom of Syria

SeleucusIt was founded by Seleucus, general of Alexander the Great, the most powerful of the victors of the battle of Ipsos (301 BC). The Seleucid kingdom appeared as the continuation of Alexander’s empire, as it had the same borders as her. It spread to Asia and included a variety of ethnicities. It did not always have the same limits. Its territorial fluctuations were each time proportional to the power of the central government.

The Seleucid kingdom was very large. It spread from the Indus to the Mediterranean and from the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf and Arabia. Because its territorial core was the region of Syria, it became known as the Kingdom of Syria.

It lacked internal cohesion and the lands in the eastern regions and Central Asia were quickly lost. The Seleucids tried to maintain the integrity of the state either with their strong army or by establishing cities where people of different ethnicities gathered4. In the beginning, the capital of the state was Seleucia on the Tigris River.

But then the center of gravity shifted to the Mediterranean and the capital became Antioch on the Orontes River, which developed into a major economic and spiritual center.
Although the political unity of the state was fictitious, nevertheless in the 3rd c. bc. the Seleucid kingdom was the largest power with a rich economy, based on agriculture and land trade. From there passed all the trade routes of the caravans that connected the markets of the East with the Mediterranean.

The Seleucids in the administration maintained the division of the Persian Empire into satrapies. Greek and indigenous officials were appointed governors.
The state, due to the separatist tendencies of the remote areas and the conflicts with the Ptolemies and the Romans, began to decline from the beginning of the 2nd c.BC.

The kingdoms of Greece

In metropolitan Greece the institution of the kingdom had its roots in the tribal organization of the state. The king was elected by the assembly of soldiers and was framed by a council of nobles.
This tradition was preserved throughout antiquity in the Greek tribes that did not evolve politically and were not organized in city-states, as happened, for example, with the Macedonians and the Epirotes. Thus the institution of the kingdom in them had a “national” character and maintained the standard of the proclamation of the king by the army, even when the kingdom became hereditary. In Greece, the Kingdom of Macedonia and the Kingdom of Epirus played a decisive role during the Hellenistic period.

Kingdom of Macedonia

The area of ​​the kingdom was limited, mainly in the area of ​​Macedonia, Thessaly and in areas of southern Greece. However, it had a cultural homogeneity and a racial organization *, based on the common origin of its inhabitants. The king was the main owner of the land, forests and mines. Much of the land the king had given as a revocable gift to nobles.

In addition to the lands that belonged to the nobles, there was also a large number of small and medium cultivators. These constituted the Macedonian army, from which the ascension of the king to the throne was ratified5. The large estates, which belonged to the king or the nobles, were cultivated by free laborers or slaves.
The kingdom of Macedonia after the disintegration of the empire was ruled by Cassander. Among the rulers who succeeded him to the throne was Dimitrios the Besieger, who occupied the throne of Macedonia for seven years (294-287 BC) and then was persecuted by Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus.
The kingdom then suffered from a lack of strong power and especially from the invasion of the Gauls (280 BC), a Celtic race from northwestern Europe. The Gauls, who caused many disasters in Macedonia, Epirus and southern Greece, were permanently removed from Greece by Antigonus Gonatas, son of Demetrius the Besieger (277 BC).
He became the founder of the new Macedonian dynasty of the Antigonids, who ruled until the conquest of Macedonia by the Romans (168 BC). The kings who ruled in the 2nd c. e.g. weakened the state and the rest of the Greek forces, in their attempt to impose themselves in southern Greece.

Kingdom of Epirus

PyrrhusEpirus was one of the areas of Greek space that until Hellenistic times had remained in obscurity. It was inhabited by Doric tribes, who had not evolved culturally and did not follow the development of the other cities of southern Greece. The strongest sex was the Molossians, where Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, came from. During the reign of Philip II and Alexander, the kingdom of Epirus was subordinate to the Macedonians.

The Molossians were ruled by a system of moderate kingship. That is, royal power was limited by a supreme ruler, a representative of the people. Once a year the king and the people of the Molossians gathered at their political and religious center, Passarona, where they exchanged vows of allegiance to government, in accordance with the law.

The kingdom of Epirus reached its greatest power when Pyrrhus ascended the throne, a leader with many abilities and grandiose plans. He wanted to create a state similar to that of Alexander the Great. That is why he tried to dominate the West. In five years (280-275 BC) he faced the Romans in Italy and the Carthaginians in Sicily.
However, he returned with many losses and exhausted his army in Epirus. His last plan was the subjugation of Macedonia and southern Greece. He failed in a campaign in the Peloponnese and died ingloriously during street battles in Argos (272 BC).

The changes in the city-states of Greece

The weakening of the city-state institution and the desire of the kings of Macedonia to expand to the south were the reasons that led many cities, especially isolated areas, to proceed with the formation of federal states. The new state scheme was used mainly by the Aetolians and the Achaean cities of the Peloponnese.

The political system of absolute monarchy that prevailed in Hellenistic times and rivalries between rulers did not allow the development of city-states. Thus, the city-state, which is already in decline as an organizational institution, now survives this era through the following forms:
Most city-states were absorbed by the Hellenistic kingdoms. External Link
Others formed federal states, such as confederations.
Some managed to win the favor of the monarchs and maintain their autonomy, as happened with Athens, Sparta, Rhodes, Delos and others.


After Alexander’s death Athens became dependent on the policy of the kings of Macedonia. Initially, Cassander appointed Demetrius Falireas governor of the city, who ruled (317-307 BC) as a tyrant and was later persecuted by Demetrius the Besieger.

Athens attempted a liberation struggle when Antigonus Gonatas was king of Macedonia. This struggle (267-261 BC) was led by the Athenian Stoic philosopher Chremonidis. Uprisings were attempted by other cities but their attempt failed. Antigonus Gonatas defeated the allied Greeks and captured Athens, while Chremonides took refuge in the court of Ptolemy. From then until its submission to the Romans (86 BC), the role of Athens declined politically, but culturally it continued to play a leading role.


The way it was governed and the foreign policy of isolation that followed created the 3rd c. e.g. social and political impasse. The population of Sparta decreased. The free citizens numbered about seven hundred, and only a hundred of them had an agricultural lot7. Necessary conditions for dealing with this situation were the write-off of debts and the land reclamation of the land. The kings Agis and Kleomenis made attempts to normalize the social crisis.

When Agis IV became king (244 BC) he attempted to carry out some reforms, proposing the inclusion of the locals in the order of the Spartan citizens. His plans, however, met with a backlash from the rich, and he was assassinated. About ten years later, Kleomenis III proceeded slowly but steadily in social and political changes. These changes had an impact on other cities in the Peloponnese, where the lower classes were oppressed.
The general of the Achaean confederation Aratos, who was watching the uprisings with concern, asked for the help of the Macedonians. Kleomenis was defeated at Sellasia (222 BC), at the entrance of Laconia, by the Macedonian forces. A Macedonian guard was established in Sparta, while Kleomenis sought refuge in the court of Ptolemy.

A period of political instability and uprisings followed. Navis, a descendant of a royal family, took advantage of this deplorable situation. He imposed personal power (206 BC) and seems to have continued Kleomenes’s reform work. However, he met the reactions of other Greek cities that were afraid of the spread of the reforms. His assassination (192 BC) sealed the end of the autonomy of Sparta, which from then until the Roman conquest became a member of the Achaean confederation.

Rhodes. Its great growth is due to the economic circumstances that were formed after the death of Alexander the Great. Its geographical location and navy helped it to develop into a large commercial center. The strong wall and the foreign policy of Rhodes were two factors that determined the historical course of the island during the Hellenistic times. At the end of the 4th c. BC, repulsed the attack of Demetrius (305-4 BC). From the siege of Rhodes, Dimitrios took the name Besieger.


Rhodes formally had a democratic state. But it was essentially ruled by wealthy merchants and bankers. In times of crisis, the rich, in order to avoid social uprisings, undertook the diet of the poor8.
Its power seems to have been calculated not only by the Hellenistic kingdoms but also by the rising Rome.

Rhodes allied with it against Antiochus III of Syria. In return, the Romans ceded Lycia and part of Caria. But when it later sided with Macedonia, Rome’s main rival, the Romans captured Lycia and Caria and declared Delos a free port * (167 BC) with the aim of depleting it financially. From then on the Rhodian state began to decline and was eventually enslaved by the Romans (43 BC).


The sacred character of the island contributed to its gradual development into a financial center. Its current geographical location, in the center of the Aegean, aroused the interest of kings. At the end of the 4th c. BC, when the naval power of the Athenians declined, Delos passed into the sphere of influence of the kings of Macedonia. This was the period of its economic growth.

Typical examples of the commercial activity of the island were the creation of public and private banks and the recognition of the port of Delos as an important station of the transit trade of the Eastern Mediterranean.

In 167 BC. the Romans, after conquering the kingdom of Macedonia, declared Delos a free port. while granting the supervision of the island to the Athenians. The Delians were expelled and the new inhabitants who began to flock contributed to its economic development during the second half of the 2nd c.BC. In fact, the influence of Athens was minimal; the life of Delos was now defined by foreigners, Greeks from other cities. Egyptians, Syrians, Phoenicians, Jews, Italians. But they were all under the supervision of Rome.