| Chapter Summary
Chapter 5: The Hellenistic Age: Cultural Diffusion
During the Hellenistic Age, Greek civilization
became an international civilization. This chapter discusses the political
events that united diverse Eastern and Western peoples and the cultural developments
that resulted from this unification.
Hellenistic civilization grew from the conquests
of Alexander the Great, whose empire stretched from Greece to the Indus Valley.
Soon after his death, the empire disintegrated into smaller realms ruled by
his contentious generals and their descendants. However, the culture the
empire established persisted for centuries. By forging political, economic,
and social links between East and West, Alexander enabled a truly cosmopolitan
society to develop. Although cities retained control of their own affairs,
the city-states gave way to kingdoms based on the Near Eastern idea of divine
monarchy. Macedonian and Greek elites ruled over these realms. These elites
encouraged a Greek-speaking intellectual class that, in turn, ensured the
spread of Greek ideas. Alexandria, Egypt, became the cultural center of the
Hellenistic world, where easterners and westerners met and exchanged ideas
about science, art, philosophy, and religion.
Although Hellenistic civilization provided a common
cultural framework, it often shaped only the lives of the elites and city-dwellers.
Greek culture hardly touched the traditional beliefs of the vast rural populations.
Further, this culture sometimes clashed with Near Eastern belief systems,
most notably Jewish thought. Some Jewish scholars admired Greek thought and
language, and many Jews outside Judea assimilated into Hellenistic culture.
However, when Antiochus IV tried to impose Hellenism on Judea, the Jews rebelled,
reasserting their religious and cultural traditions. They also won political
independence but soon lost it again to the Romans.
Hellenistic cultural achievements both amplified
earlier Greek accomplishments and reflected the political and social conditions
of the international civilization. As kingdoms replaced independent city-states,
literature turned from politics to exploring, through a sophisticated realism,
the daily concerns of ordinary people. Theocritus' pastorals display careful
attention to the natural world, while Apollonius' epic Argonautica
succeeds most in its rendering of passionate love. Writers of New Comedy,
such as Menander, examined the private lives of wealthy city-dwellers, and
Hellenistic romance treated the difficulties of separated lovers. Polybius
and other historians tried to discover rational explanations for human events
but did so, in true Hellenistic fashion, on the international scale.
Greek science reached its height during this age,
fueled by the data gathered through Alexander's conquests. Both Alexandria
and Athens were prominent scientific centers, the latter supporting the Lyceum
founded by Aristotle. Alexandrian physicians advanced medical knowledge by
studying human anatomy and organ functions, and mathematicians such as Euclid
synthesized previous achievements. Archimedes of Syracuse both invented many
practical devices and theorized the properties of static liquids. Astronomers
debated the geocentric and heliocentric theories of the universe and mapped
the stars, while geographers worked to estimate the earth's circumference.
Each of these achievements both confirmed the Greek ideal of independent reason
and applied it in new ways.
Hellenistic philosophers also preserved the rational
tradition but turned from the problem of the citizen's relationship to the
city to that of the individual's condition in a complex world. The four major
schools plotted distinctive routes to personal fulfillment. Epicureanism
held that people could achieve happiness only by withdrawing from public life
and, through the exercise of reason, freeing themselves from all sources of
anxiety, including a belief in gods. Epicureanism also opened philosophical
activity to all despite gender or social condition. Stoicism did so as well
through its idea of a world society bound by a shared search for harmony with
the Logos. Everyone could achieve this harmony by mastering their passions
through reason. Stoicism also encouraged participation in public life to
foster harmony throughout world society. Skepticism denied that there is
one true path to happiness. In its most sophisticated form, it insisted on
the limits of reason, encouraging adherents to base morality not on fixed
principle but on practical experience. The most radical of Hellenistic philosophies,
Cynicism tried to free people to follow their own natures by denying all forms
of authority and promoting ascetic self-discipline. By emphasizing personal
fulfillment, Hellenistic philosophy did some of the work of religion, thus
preparing the way for Christianity.
Hellenistic art reflected the age by preserving
the Classical tradition while injecting into it new subjects and techniques.
Patronized by powerful elites, Hellenistic artists glorified political leaders
with works that were often as dramatic as they were classically proportioned.
The exploits of Alexander the Great continued to inspire artists, but they
also commemorated the deeds of the Hellenistic kings. For example, the sculptures
of the Alter of Zeus dynamically represent the Attalid victory over
the Gauls, whose accentuated deaths evoked pathos and respect. Sculptors
also experimented with the relationship between the statue and its space to
depict varieties of dramatic action. Simultaneously, artists developed a
distinctive mode of genre sculpture through which they explored common individuals
in everyday situations.
Lasting from the death of Alexander the Great to
the foundation of the Roman Empire, the Hellenistic Age saw the international
diffusion of Greek civilization. So great was this diffusion that the traditional
distinction between Greek and barbarian dissolved. Ultimately, Rome solidified
this diffusion by institutionalizing Greek ideas, including Stoic universalism
that became one of the foundations of Roman law. Further, Christianity turned
the Age's philosophical emphasis on personal fulfillment into a theology based
on transcendent universal love.