Lecture 6: Macedonia and the Helenistic World (336 BC - 31 BC)

In the last lecture we traced two themes. The first was Persia’s creation of an enormous, highly integrated empire that reached from Macedon to Egypt and then out to Afghanistan. The second was the emergence of a Greek mentality via the Persian Wars, and the subsequent cultural efflorescence, especially during the fifth century BC. This was the Hellenic world. Today, we consider the creation of a successor to Greek culture, which historians called Hellenistic. The Hellenistic world began with the rise of Macedon in roughly 336 BC and ended with the foundation of the Roman Empire by Caesar Augustus in 31 BC. Our basic concern here is to trace how the Greek cultural world was grafted onto Persia’s imperial network. Put another way, the Mediterranean world’s history of successive empires set the stage for what, ultimately, became a cultural unity. In this unity Greek was the lingua franca, and here we see the first truly international elite culture, in which ideas about literature, philosophy, and science moved freely from Greece to Persia, Egypt and Afghanistan.
This all sounds very heroic, and in some ways it was. But we should not be uncritical assessment of this world’s character. First, Hellenistic culture was an elite phenomenon; it existed alongside local cultures, but rarely had a direct effect on them. Second, this culture was imperial; it expanded with armies, and once established, it deliberately excluded most people from its realm. Finally, Hellenistic culture was hardly what we would call multi-cultural; it required of all people who sought entrée into the elite world that they give up their local identities and become “Greeks.” Keep these three themes in mind as we move through the rest of this lecture.
We begin with ancient Macedon, and this story runs a course remarkably similar to the tale I told of the Persians. Macedonians lived on the fringes of a more advanced culture. Their land was not particularly suited to agriculture, and so they became mostly a pastoral people, raising sheep for export, though they were able to cultivate some grains. Organized into roving clans, their political structures were primitive by comparison to the Greeks. During the 7th century BC, trade connections brought the Macedonians under Greece’s cultural influence. The Greeks imported grain, skins and timber from Macedon and sent olive oil, wine, pottery, and ideas in exchange. Thanks to Greece’s cultural strength, Macedon’s elite’s became thoroughly Hellenized, speaking Greek and admiring its literature.
The key political changes began with the reign of Philip of Macedon (359 – 336 BC). Like Cyrus II, Philip was a great military innovator. He took the basic Greek phalanx and added both cavalry and light infantry to the mix. (The heavily armed and armored hoplite was the foundation of Greek military strength.) Philip’s reforms made his fighting force more flexible and better able to exploit weaknesses in enemy lines. In particular, the cavalry could sweep around a phalanx’s flanks and break the porcupine-like formation from the rear. The light infantry would then enter the fray and destroy the enemy with short swords. With this new army, Philip unified Macedon and brought all the roving tribes under his control. From there he turned on the Greeks. Beginning in 350 BC he attacked northern Greek city-states one after the other and annexed each of them. Some Greeks recognized the danger coming from the north. An Athenian named Demosthenes, probably Athens’ greatest orator of them all, railed against Philip, trying to convince the Athenians that Macedon, not Sparta or Persia was Athens’ greatest enemy. It is from Demosthenes’ campaign against Philip that in English we derive the word “Philippic,” which is a personal campaign of political opposition. Nonetheless, in spite of Demosthenes’ efforts, the weakness and bitterness left behind by the Peloponnesian War prevented the Greeks from organizing a defense, and by 338, all of Greece was under Macedon’s control.
Philip’s victory marks the end of one phase and the start of another. Philip began preparing his army for another campaign, and would probably have attacked Persia next, but he was assassinated in 336 BC for reasons we do not know. The throne fell to Philip’s young son, who became Alexander of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC). Alexander is important on two levels. First, he was a military genius. Given the sheer number of his victories, there can be no doubt of his leadership abilities. Second, he was thoroughly Greek in his outlook. A member of the Macedonian elite, he had been raised to speak Greek, and his tutor was a Greek philosopher you have of before; his name was Aristotle (384 – 322 BC). The mixture of Macedonian might with Greek culture was powerful, for from it Alexander derived an almost messianic faith in himself and his chosen culture. With an army to smash all opposition before him, he could simultaneously export Greece and his own sense of himself. And this he did, going on to found some twenty cities named after himself—Alexandria. Almost immediately after ascending the throne, Alexander went on the offensive against Persia. By 333 BC, he and his troops had subdued Ionia and Anatolia. By 332 BC, Alexander and the Macedonian army were in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. In 331, they took Cyrus’ ancient capital Passagardae and then proceeded to Persepolis, which they burned to the ground. (Archaeologists have verified the extent of the destruction. When their digs reached the level of the 4th century BC, they found almost 6-inch layer of soot buried beneath the soil.) In 330 BC, Alexander named himself Persian Emperor. The empire that had threatened the Greeks for almost two centuries was now ruled by a Greek speaker.
This was not, however, the end for Alexander, because he was a megalomaniac, and could never seem to conquer enough. Next, he led his army eastward. By 327, the Macedonians were in India, and Alexander wanted to keep going, but his troops threatened to mutiny, if he did not turn back. In the end, the army did turn around. In 324, they were in Susa, where began a great deal of feasting and drinking, as the army essentially traveled from city to city, eating and drinking everything in sight. (Alexander may have spoken Greek and learned philosophy from Aristotle, but his army consisted of barbarian warriors.) Then in 323 BC, apparently after a long binge that included slaying his closest friend while in a drunken rage, Alexander fell ill and died—a pathetic end for such a great personage.
Nonetheless, Alexander’s significance lies partly in his status as a larger-than-life figure. Alexander the thinker and warrior became a new model for kingship. Writing in the middle of the second century BC, for example, Flavius Arrianus Xenophon, a Greek in the Roman army’s service, assessed Alexander’s reign this way:
It is my belief that there was in those days no nation, no city, no single individual beyond the reach of Alexander’s name; never in all the world was there another like him, and therefore I cannot but feel that some power more than human was concerned in his birth; indications of this were provided at the time of his death by oracles; many people saw visions and had prophetic dreams; and there is further evidence of the extraordinary way in which he is held, as no mere man could be, in honor and remembrance. Even today, when so many years have passed, there have been oracles, all tending to his glory, delivered to the people of Macedon.
Given the extent of his victories, it is perhaps natural that Alexander would be remembered as a demi-god. For our more historical purposes, however, we need to concentrate on the impact he had on kingship. How did leaders come to view themselves, and how did people view their leaders? What happened was that Greek culture melded with eastern tastes. Alexander himself, though hailing from a rough kingdom and still something of a barbarian king—even if he himself was no barbarian—adopted eastern tastes. He wore silken clothes and adopted the eastern tradition of surrounding himself with a sumptuous court.
It is important to recognize what his change signified. Courts were a means of social distinction: they operated according to complicated rules and cultivated new styles in art, clothing, cuisine, and thought, to which the average person would have no access. None of this would have had any traction with Alexander’s army as it existed at the time, since barbarian warriors wore skins and drank (heavily) with the boys. Recognizing this distinction, Alexander tried to fuse his Macedonian elite with the Persian elite, by marrying his soldiers off to Persian women. His men did not really like the change. Alexander was supposed to be a vigorous military leader, not a soft eastern king. Nonetheless, Alexander was so powerful that he got his way, and he set a new tone for kingship and the Greek-speaking political elite that continued long after his death.
After Alexander died, his generals went about partitioning the new empire. By about 275 BC, the generals had carved three smaller kingdoms out of the massive realm that Alexander and his army had won. In the south, the first new kingdom appeared, as Alexander’s general Ptolemy (323–285 BC) took over Egypt, becoming the founder of a new Ptolemaic dynasty. (As an aside, this Ptolemy is not to be confused with the great Hellenistic astronomer Ptolemy (AD 100-170), who lived and worked in Alexandria.) The Ptolemaic dynasty remained in power until it was finally destroyed by Rome in 31 BC. In the north, the general Antigonus (382 – 301 BC) set up a kingdom that included Greece and Macedon. The resulting Antigonid dynasty lasted until 168 BC, when the Romans took over. The last and largest Kingdom was the Seleucid, which was founded by another general named Seleucus (305 – 281 BC). This kingdom lost most of its land to the Parthians, another Iranian dynasty, by the middle of the second century BC. It lasted as a separate kingdom, however, until the Romans put an end to it in 83 BC.
These new kingdoms were important, because they founded Greek-speaking dynasties and built a Greek-speaking elite. They show us, therefore, how culture and politics shaped each other in the ancient world. This far-flung Greek-speaking world was based in absolute political dominance and in a determined break with the past. For example, the new capital of Egypt became Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander the Great, in a location near Egypt’s old capital, Memphis. Seleucus also founded a new capital, called Seleucis, and located it only 50 km from Babylon. Along with a common language and new politics came a new educational and social system. The gymansion began to appear across the kingdoms, even as far east as Afghanistan. A gymnasion was a particularly Greek institution, it was in essence a gymnasium in which one worked out but also philosophized and studied. These organizations were extremely exclusive; membership was limited both on cultural and social bases. Only Greek speakers could be admitted, and no former slaves or children of slaves were allowed. Those admitted then had to exercise and philosophize naked, which offended many locals’ sensibilities. What this meant practically was that locals had to give up their own identities and become Greeks in order to join the elite. As a result, Greek culture always remained separate from and did not mix with local customs.
The separateness and alien nature of Greek culture eventually engendered local opposition. In Jerusalem, for example, some Jews became so thoroughly Hellenized that they not only went to the gymnasion, but also gave up circumcision. The cultural rebellion that this implied created strife within the Jewish community and led to resistance movements in some parts of the community. And then there was Greek arrogance, which was based in the assumption of cultural superiority. The word barbarian, for example, is of Greek origin. The basis of the word is the Greek idea that foreign tongues sounded like bar – bar. The idea behind the word is, however, of great significance, because it held that anyone who did not speak Greek was by definition a barbarian. Assumptions of this sort inspired great resentment in Egypt and Persia. And it is worth noting that in a world in which it became normal for most people to be bi-lingual. Native Greek speakers remained mono-lingual. There was, after all, no point in learning lesser languages.
Also important is the change in kingship’s nature. Now kings settled in cities and were surrounded by Greek speaking courts. In different areas some local methods were borrowed, but the new post-Alexander kingship was grafted onto everything. This had great consequences for the conduct of war. Unlike in Greece, there were no longer and citizen armies, as armies became larger and more professional. Whereas, each side had about thirty thousand soldiers in the battle at Chaeronea, which marked the end of Greek independence, during the Hellenistic period, it was routine for battles to be fought with armies of 60,000. (This was about as big as armies would remain until the eighteenth century.) Moreover, these armies were now staffed with mercenaries. Gone were the days of the Greek citizen soldier. Another key change in warfare was the arrival of large catapults. Until the Hellenistic period cities with good walls were impregnable. Even Sparta never breached Athens’ walls. Alexander, however, used catapults and siege towers to take cities. And under Ptolemy the first formulae appeared for figuring a projectile’s trajectory.
We find ourselves, therefore, in a much bigger world, and one of the ironies to come of it, is that these new powerful kings actually encouraged local autonomy. Kings often made common cause with locals, in order to keep the aristocracy in check. In this way, rulers became both more exalted in an eastern style, but also many localities enjoyed more autonomy than they ever had before.
Now let us finish up by turning to Hellenistic culture. One of the most characteristic developments of Hellenistic culture is the appearance of the library. Every local court had a library full of literary and scientific scrolls. There were libraries in Egypt, on the Black Sea, and in Afghanistan. The most famous one was in Alexandria, which stored hundreds of thousands of manuscripts. The collection was created in a unique manner. Every ship entering the Alexandrian port was searched for books and any found had to be turned over to the library for copying. The original would be returned later. These new libraries all had patrons, as Greek-speaking elites competed to show how much they cared about culture.
One outcome of the appearance of a library network was the appearance of wandering intellectuals. These people moved from court to court, seeking preferment. Eventually, knowledge became something that one cultivated and patronized, and with this change scholarship took its first steps toward becoming a discipline. During the second century BC bibliographies of available books already began to appear and the first “Who’s Whos” were published. Naturally, the only way to join this world was to speak Greek. However, since academics now spoke a common tongue and competed for resources, the world also began to see academic cat fights, as scholars often clashed in writing over the worth or worthlessness of each others’ work. As a result, declamations and public rows between big shots became the norm. (Not much has change, in this respect.)
Perhaps, the essential point to recognize is that the Hellenistic world produced an urbane culture. That is culture was based in the cities, and the urban flavor of this world was then passed on to Rome. This is why we should not think that the people who learned Greek simply lost out, for Greek culture was, at that time, the most exciting thing going. It emphasized theater, politics, philosophy, and sport. For many young Jews, for example, their own culture must have appeared boring by comparison, rooted as it was in tradition and textual exegesis. Moreover, many in Asia must have felt inferior to the Greeks on cultural grounds, since their culture offered nothing alike to the Greeks. Hence, for generations the Hellenistic Greek world defined culture and learning. It was only overtaken, in the end, by Latin and, later, Arabic. We will consider Latin and Rome next time.