Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Culture (Part 2)

The Peloponnesian War severely weakened several Greek city-states. This caused a rapid decline in their military and economic power. In the nearby kingdom of Macedonia, King Philip II took note. Philip dreamed of taking control of Greece and then moving against Persia to seize its vast wealth. Philip also hoped to avenge the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 B.C.

To learn all about the origins of Ancient Greece and its classical period, check this post (part 1)

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Culture (Part 2)
Alexander the Great and Hellenism

Who were the Macedonians?

The kingdom of Macedonia, located just north of Greece, had rough terrain and a cold climate. The Macedonians were hardy people who lived in mountain villages rather than city-states. Most Macedonian nobles thought of themselves as Greeks. The Greeks, however, looked down on the Macedonians as uncivilized foreigners who had no great philosophers, sculptors, or writers. The Macedonians did have one very important resource—their shrewd and fearless kings.

In 359 B.C., Philip II became king of Macedonia. Though only 23 years old, he quickly proved to be a brilliant general and a ruthless politician. Philip transformed the rugged peasants under his command into a well-trained professional army. He organized his troops into phalanxes of 16 men across and 16 deep, each one armed with an 18-foot pike. Philip used this heavy phalanx formation to break through enemy lines. Then he used fast-moving cavalry to crush his disorganized opponents. After he employed these tactics successfully against northern opponents, Philip began to prepare an invasion of Greece.

How did Macedonians conquer Greece?

Demosthenes, the Athenian orator, tried to warn the Greeks of the threat Philip and his army posed. He urged them to unite against Philip. However, the Greek city-states could not agree on any single policy. Finally, in 338 B.C., Athens and Thebes—a city-state in central Greece—joined forces to fight Philip. By then, however, it was too late. The Macedonians soundly defeated the Greeks at the battle of Chaeronea. This defeat ended Greek independence. The city-states retained self-government in local affairs. However, Greece itself remained firmly under the control of a succession of foreign powers—the first of which was Philip’s Macedonia.

Although Philip planned to invade Persia next, he never got the chance. At his daughter’s wedding in 336 B .C. he was stabbed to death by a former guardsman. Philip’s son Alexander immediately proclaimed himself king of Macedonia. Because of his accomplishments over the next 13 years, he became known as Alexander the Great.

Who was Alexander the Great?

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Culture (Part 2)
Alexander the Great

Although Alexander was only 20 years old when he became king, he was well prepared to lead. Under Aristotle’s teaching, Alexander had learned science, geography, and literature.

Alexander especially enjoyed Homer’s description of the heroic deeds performed by Achilles during the Trojan War. To inspire himself, he kept a copy of the Iliad under his pillow. As a young boy, Alexander learned to ride a horse, use weapons, and command troops.

Once he became king, Alexander promptly demonstrated that his military training had not been wasted. When the people of Thebes rebelled, he destroyed the city. About 6,000 Thebans were killed. The survivors were sold into slavery. Frightened by his cruelty, the other Greek city-states quickly gave up any idea of rebellion.

How did Alexander conquer Persia?

With Greece now secure, Alexander felt free to carry out his father’s plan to invade and conquer Persia. In 334 B .C., he led 35,000 soldiers across the Hellespont into Anatolia.

Persian messengers raced along the Royal Road to spread news of the invasion. An army of about 40,000 men rushed to defend Persia. The two forces met at the Granicus River. Instead of waiting for the Persians to make the first move, Alexander ordered his cavalry to attack. Leading his troops into battle, Alexander smashed the Persian defenses.

Alexander’s victory at Granicus alarmed the Persian king, Darius III. Vowing to crush the invaders, he raised a huge army of between 50,000 and 75,000 men to face the Macedonians near Issus. Realizing that he was outnumbered, Alexander surprised his enemies. He ordered his finest troops to break through a weak point in the Persian lines. The army then charged straight at Darius. To avoid capture, the frightened king fled, followed by his panicked army.

How did Alexander take control over Anatolia?

Shaken by his defeat, Darius tried to negotiate a peace settlement. He offered Alexander all of his lands west of the Euphrates River. Alexander’s advisers urged him to accept. However, the rapid collapse of Persian resistance fired Alexander’s ambition. He rejected Darius’s offer and confidently announced his plan to conquer the entire Persian Empire.

Alexander marched into Egypt, a Persian territory, in 332 B.C. The Egyptians welcomed Alexander as a liberator. They crowned him pharaoh—or god-king. During his time in Egypt, Alexander founded the city of Alexandria at the mouth of the Nile. After leaving Egypt, Alexander moved east into Mesopotamia to confront Darius. The desperate Persian king assembled a force of some 250,000 men.

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Culture (Part 2)
Alexandria, a Greek polis founded by Alexander the Great

The two armies met at Gaugamela, a small village near the ruins of ancient Nineveh. Alexander launched a massive phalanx attack followed by a cavalry charge. As the Persian lines crumbled, Darius again panicked and fled.

Alexander’s victory at Gaugamela ended Persia’s power. Within a short time, Alexander’s army occupied Babylon, Susa, and Persepolis. These cities yielded a huge treasure, which Alexander distributed among his army.

A few months after it was occupied, Persepolis, Persia’s royal capital, burned to the ground. Some people said Alexander left the city in ashes to signal the total destruction of the Persian Empire. The Greek historian Arrian, writing about 500 years after Alexander’s time, suggested that the fire was set in revenge for the Persian burning of Athens. However, the cause of the fire remains a mystery.

What were Alexander’s other conquests?

Alexander now reigned as the unchallenged ruler of southwest Asia. But he was more interested in expanding his empire than in governing it. He left the ruined Persepolis to pursue Darius and conquer Persia’s remote Asian provinces.

Darius’s trail led Alexander to a deserted spot south of the Caspian Sea. There he found Darius already dead, murdered by one of his provincial governors. Rather than return to Babylon, Alexander continued east. During the next three years, his army fought its way across the desert wastes and mountains of Central Asia. He pushed on, hoping to reach the farthest edge of the continent.

How was Alexander’s campaign in India?

In 326 B .C ., Alexander and his army reached the Indus Valley. At the Hydaspes River, a powerful Indian army blocked their path. After winning a fierce battle, Alexander’s soldiers marched some 200 miles farther, but their morale was low. They had been fighting for 11 years and had marched more than 11,000 miles. They had endured both scorching deserts and drenching monsoon rains. The exhausted soldiers yearned to go home. Bitterly disappointed, Alexander agreed to turn back.

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Culture (Part 2)
Cities founded Alexander in India

By the spring of 323 B .C ., Alexander and his army had reached Babylon. Restless as always, Alexander announced plans to organize and unify his empire. He would construct new cities, roads, and harbors and conquer Arabia. However, Alexander never carried out his plans. He became seriously ill with a fever and died a few days later. He was just 32 years old.

What was Alexander’s legacy?

After Alexander died, his Macedonian generals fought among themselves for control of his empire. Eventually, three ambitious leaders won out. Antigonus became king of Macedonia and took control of the Greek city-states. Ptolemy seized Egypt, took the title of pharaoh, and established a dynasty. Seleucus took most of the old Persian Empire, which became known as the Seleucid kingdom. Ignoring the democratic traditions of the Greek polis, these rulers and their descendants governed with complete power over their subjects.

Alexander’s conquests had an interesting cultural impact. Alexander himself adopted Persian dress and customs and married a Persian woman. He included Persians and people from other lands in his army. As time passed, Greek settlers throughout the empire also adopted new ways. A vibrant new culture emerged from the blend of Greek and Eastern customs.

How was the Hellenistic culture in Alexandria?

Alexander’s ambitions were cultural as well as military and political. During his wars of conquest, he actively sought to meld the conquered culture with that of the Greeks. He started new cities as administrative centers and outposts of Greek culture.

These cities, from Egyptian Alexandria in the south to the Asian Alexandrias in the east, adopted many Greek patterns and customs. After Alexander’s death, trade, a shared Greek culture, and a common language continued to link the cities together. But each region had its own traditional ways of life, religion, and government that no ruler could afford to overlook.

As a result of Alexander’s policies, a vibrant new culture emerged. Greek (also known as Hellenic) culture blended with Egyptian, Persian, and Indian influences. This blending became known as Hellenistic culture.

Koine, the popular spoken language used in Hellenistic cities, was the direct result of cultural blending. The word koine came from the Greek word for “common.” The language was a dialect of Greek. This language enabled educated people and traders from diverse backgrounds to communicate in cities throughout the Empire.

How was the Hellenistic world?

Among the many cities of the Hellenistic world, the Egyptian city of Alexandria became the foremost center of commerce and Hellenistic civilization. Alexandria occupied a strategic site on the western edge of the Nile delta. Trade ships from all around the Mediterranean docked in its spacious harbor. Alexandria’s thriving commerce enabled it to grow and prosper.

By the third century B.C., Alexandria had become an international community, with a rich mixture of customs and traditions from Egypt and from the Aegean. Its diverse population exceeded half a million people.

What were Alexandria’s attractions?

Both residents and visitors admired Alexandria’s great beauty. Broad avenues lined with statues of Greek gods divided the city into blocks. Rulers built magnificent royal palaces overlooking the harbor. A much visited tomb contained Alexander’s elaborate glass coffin. Soaring more than 350 feet over the harbor stood an enormous stone lighthouse called the Pharos.

This lighthouse contained a polished bronze mirror that, at night, reflected the light from a blazing fire. Alexandria’s greatest attractions were its famous museum and library. The museum was a temple dedicated to the Muses, the Greek goddesses of arts and sciences. It contained art galleries, a zoo, botanical gardens, and even a dining hall. The museum was an institute of advanced study.

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Culture (Part 2)
Lighthouse in Alexandria

The Alexandrian library stood nearby. Its collection of half a million papyrus scrolls included many of the masterpieces of ancient literature. As the first true research library in the world, it helped promote the work of a gifted group of scholars.

These scholars greatly respected the earlier works of classical literature and learning. They produced commentaries that explained these works.

How was Science and Technology?

Hellenistic scholars, particularly those in Alexandria, preserved Greek and Egyptian learning in the sciences. Until the scientific advances of the 16th and 17th centuries, Alexandrian scholars provided most of the scientific knowledge available to the West.

Alexandria’s museum contained a small observatory in which astronomers could study the planets and stars. One astronomer, Aristarchus of Samos, reached two significant scientific conclusions. In one, he estimated that the Sun was at least 300 times larger than Earth. Although he greatly underestimated the Sun’s true size, Aristarchus disproved the widely held belief that the Sun was smaller than Greece. In another conclusion, he proposed that Earth and the other planets revolve around the Sun.

Unfortunately for science, other astronomers refused to support Aristarchus’ theory. In the second century A .D ., Alexandria’s last renowned astronomer, Ptolemy, incorrectly placed Earth at the center of the solar system. Astronomers accepted this view for the next 14 centuries.

Eratosthenes, the director of the Alexandrian Library, tried to calculate Earth’s true size. Using geometry, he computed Earth’s circumference at between 28,000 and 29,000 miles. Modern measurements put the circumference at 24,860 miles. As well as a highly regarded astronomer and mathematician, Eratosthenes also was a poet and historian.

How was Mathematics and Physics?

In their work, Eratosthenes and Aristarchus used a geometry text compiled by Euclid. Euclid was a highly regarded mathematician who taught in Alexandria. His best-known book, Elements, contained 465 carefully presented geometry propositions and proofs. Euclid’s work is still the basis for courses in geometry.

Another important Hellenistic scientist, Archimedes of Syracuse, studied at Alexandria. He accurately estimated the value of pi (π)—the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. In addition, Archimedes explained the law of the lever.

Gifted in both geometry and physics, Archimedes also put his genius to practical use. He invented the Archimedes screw, a device that raised water from the ground, and the compound pulley to lift heavy objects. Archimedes demonstrated to an audience of curious onlookers how something heavy can be moved by a small force. Using Archimedes’ ideas, Hellenistic scientists later built a force pump, pneumatic machines, and even a steam engine.

How was Philosophy and Art?

The teachings of Plato and Aristotle continued to be very influential in Hellenistic philosophy. In the third century B .C., however, philosophers became concerned with how people should live their lives. Two major philosophies developed out of this concern.: Stoicism and Epicureanism

A Greek philosopher named Zeno (335–263 B .C .) founded the school of philosophy called Stoicism. Stoics proposed that people should live virtuous lives in harmony with the will of god or the natural laws that God established to run the universe. They also preached that human desires, power, and wealth were dangerous distractions that should be checked. Stoicism promoted social unity and encouraged its followers to focus on what they could control.

Epicurus founded the school of thought called Epicureanism. He taught that gods who had no interest in humans ruled the universe. Epicurus believed that the only real objects were those that the five senses perceived. He taught that the greatest good and the highest pleasure came from virtuous conduct and the absence of pain. Epicureans proposed that the main goal of humans was to achieve harmony of body and mind. Today, the word epicurean means a person devoted to pursuing human pleasures, especially the enjoyment of good food. However, during his lifetime, Epicurus advocated moderation in all things.

Was Sculpture realistic?

Like science, sculpture flourished during the Hellenistic age. Rulers, wealthy merchants, and cities all purchased statues to honor gods, commemorate heroes, and portray ordinary people in everyday situations.

The largest known Hellenistic statue was created on the island of Rhodes. Known as the Colossus of Rhodes, this bronze statue stood more than 100 feet high. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, this huge sculpture was toppled by an earthquake in about 225 B .C . Later, the bronze was sold for scrap.

Another magnificent Hellenistic sculpture found on Rhodes was the Nike (or Winged Victory) of Samothrace. It was created around 203 B.C. to commemorate a Greek naval victory. Hellenistic sculpture moved away from the harmonic balance and idealized forms of the classical age. Instead of the serene face and perfect body of an idealized man or woman, Hellenistic sculptors created more natural works. They felt free to explore new subjects, carving ordinary people such as an old, wrinkled peasant woman.

By 150 B .C ., the Hellenistic world was in decline. A new city, Rome, was growing and gaining strength. Through Rome, Greek-style drama, architecture, sculpture, and philosophy were preserved and eventually became the core of Western civilization.

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Culture (Part 2)
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