What was the Hellenistic Period?

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The Hellenistic Period marks the time between the moment of Alexander the Great’s (356-323 BC) death in 323 BC and the rise of the Roman Empire in 31 BC. It is often a term used by historians to locate extensive Greek expansion and colonization across the continents of Africa and Asia set in motion by Alexander’s father, King Philip II (382-336 BC), who ruled the Greek city state of Macedonia.

As ruler, King Philip II attempted to conquer Persia although he was assassinated in 336 BC prior to completing this mission. Alexander took over his father’s reign, and lead an army to conquer Persia, Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, Gaza, Egypt, Bactria, and Mesopotamia. Through these conquests Greek culture spread and fused with other cultures, and the likes of new languages such as the Koine Greek and new religions and gods were the result. With a new common dialect communication became easier which led to the spread of ideas to new territories, and assisted in making trade across the Hellenistic kingdoms easier. After Alexander died his empire was left to his generals who separated and ruled different parts of Alexander’s kingdom: Ptolemy ruled Egypt and parts of the Middle East, Seleucus controlled Syria and the Persian Empire, and Antigonus and his son Demetrius ruled over parts of northern Asia Minor. These kingdoms fought one another in attempt to establish power, which lasted for several centuries until the Ptolemaic Kingdom fell to Rome in 31 BC.

The Hellenistic Period saw progress within the domains of religion, architecture, science, and philosophy. The conquests opened up an interchange of religion beliefs and ideas. New people joined cults such as the goddesses Isis and Fortune, and the Orphic and Eleusinian mystery cults. New devotees worshiped the Egyptian mother-goddess Isis while the astral religion of the Chaldeans spread rapidly. Oriental cults focusing on female deities were worshiped by believers in frenzied rites of self-mutilation. There were also some nationalistic and messianic resistance to the Hellenization of religion as some rebelled against its encroachment on cherished traditions. The influences of Hellenistic religions extended far beyond the end of the era and all the way into the 4th century AD during the time of Emperor Constantine.

The period produced far more sophisticated and elaborate architectural designs than before in Greek history. New complex buildings and monuments were constructed on much larger scales, while palaces, mansions, and public monuments portrayed prestige and wealth. The intricate designs of the Mausoleum of Pergamon and the imposing lighthouse of Alexandria were some of the more sophisticated and advanced structures to have been produced within the period.

There was flourishing within philosophical thought. Several schools of thought, including the Stoics, Skeptics, and Epicureans, were active in contemplating the ethical and metaphysical nature of existence. According to Epicurus (341–270 BC) the most important thing in life was the pursuit of the individual’s pleasure and happiness, and the highest good was believed to be the serenity of soul as well as the absence of mental and physical pain. The Epicureans, who derived their metaphysics from Democritus, were materialistic as they denied the existence of spiritual substances. Epicurus believed that the basic property of all things were indivisible atoms, and that change and growth are the results of the combination and separation of these particles. On this view, the soul was a material thing and thus could not survive the body, and the gods did not intervene in human affairs. The Stoics, which begun with the ideas of Zeno (c. 334 – c. 262), emphasized duty and self-discipline as cardinal virtues, that all men were brothers under the fatherhood of one God, and urged participation in public affairs as a duty for the citizen of rational mind. They believed that people should be forgiving and tolerant toward each another, and that all men were brothers under the fatherhood of one God. Skepticism was founded by Pyrrho (360-270 BC), and it taught that all knowledge is derived from sense perception and therefore must be both limited and relative. They argued that one couldn’t prove anything and that because sense impression deceived people one could never be certain of truth. They also believed that the most appropriate course of action was to suspend judgment because it would lead to happiness. The Hellenistic period thus witnessed a healthy and passionate exchange of philosophical ideas intended to guide people in how to live the best life they possibly could.

Science during the Hellenistic Period grew within the realms of astronomy, geography, medicine, physics, and mathematics. The astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (c. 310 – c. 230 BC) discovered that the immobility of the “fixed” stars was due to their vast distance from the Earth, and posited that the Earth and the other planets revolved around the sun. However, this teaching was not accepted during his time because it conflicted with anthropocentric views within Greek thought and with the teachings of the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC). Another astronomer was a man by the name Hipparchus (c. 190 – c. 120 BC) who invented the astrolabe, and calculated the diameter of the moon and its distance from Earth. Ptolemy of Alexandria (c. 100 – c. 170) was likely last of the Hellenistic astronomers and systematized the work of others before him. In mathematics and geography the likes of Hipparchus (c. 190 – 120 BC) paved the foundations of both plane and spherical trigonometry while the mathematician and astronomer Eratosthenes (c. 276 – c. 194 BC) calculated the circumference of the Earth. He also created the fist map of the world. Human dissection was practiced by the Greek physician Herophilus of Chalcedon (c. 335 – c. 280 BC). Herophilus provided a detailed description of the brain, and attempted to explain the different functions of its various parts. He also discovered that arteries contained blood as opposed to a mixture of blood and air as Aristotle had thought previously, and that their function was to carry blood from the heart to the different parts of the body. Archimedes (c. 287 – c. 212 BC) discovered the law of floating bodies while also establishing the principles of the lever, the pulley, and the screw.

The Hellenistic period came to an end after the powerful Roman Republic conquered the territories that Alexander had once ruled. In 31 BC, during the Battle of Actium, Octavian defeated Marc Antony’s Ptolemaic fleet which enabled him to consolidate Rome’s power in the region and over the sea. This victory not only marked the end of the Hellenistic period but also constituted the transition of Rome from a Republic into an Empire.


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