The Hellenistic World

When people think of the ancient history of the Western world, they tend to skip more or less directly from the conquests of Alexander the Great to the rise of the Roman empire. The two centuries in between are hastily passed over, a time of little significance so far as the advance of civilization is concerned – or so they think. They are wrong.

hellenistic period map
Map of the Hellenistic period


The Greeks referred to themselves as the “Hellenes”, and classical Greek civilization is therefore sometimes labelled “Hellenic”. Modern scholars distinguish the phase of Greek civilization which followed Alexander’s conquests from the earlier, classical age by giving it the label “Hellenistic”: that period when Greek civilization spread right across the Middle East and beyond and in the process was subtly changed by its interaction with the cultures of the conquered populations. Advances in Greek art, philosophy and science continued apace, and some of the greatest names of Greek civilization, such as Euclid and Archimedes, belong to this period. Nevertheless, Hellenistic civilization represents something of a fusion of many cultures. In government, religion, thought and art, elements from different traditions are mingled together in one of the most fascinating cultural melanges in world history.

Alexander the Great and his Successors

Alexander, king of Macedon, invaded the Persian empire in 334 BCE with an army composed of troops from all over Macedonia and Greece. Ten years later he had completed the conquest of this empire, and more; he had even brought parts of India under his rule.

After Alexander’s untimely death in 323 BCE, his empire immediately began to fall apart as his generals fought each other for supremacy. By 300 BCE, the empire had broken into three main pieces, each under one of Alexander’s generals. Macedonia was under Antigonus; a vast territory stretching from Asia Minor to India had fallen to Seleucus; and Egypt was the fief of Ptolemy. These three generals founded major kingdoms which would be ruled by their descendants for several generations. Around and between them, smaller kingdoms were ruled by other dynasties, and many of the old Greek cities had regained their independence (in theory at least).

At its height, the Hellenistic world comprised the modern countries of Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Southern Italy including Sicily, southern France and south-eastern Spain, southern Ukraine,Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, eastern Libya, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, much of Pakistan, plus a large slice of central Asia.

The Hellenistic period was brought to an end by the rising power of Rome. The first Hellenistic kingdom to fall to Rome was Macedonia, in 168 BCE; the final one was Egypt, in 31 BCE. Hellenistic culture, however, was to last much longer; and its impact can be felt down to the present day.

Hellenistic civilization

The city-state (polis) had been the defining feature of Greek civilization, and one of the most notable features of the period is that Alexander and his successors founded numerous Greek-style cities right across the Middle East, as far as Afghanistan and India.

Each city was a self-governing community so far as local affairs were concerned; each had its gymnasium, temples, theaters, stoa (public square), town council and other institutions of a Greek city-state. They were initially populated by Greeks and Macedonians – either veterans of the conquest armies, or immigrants – brought in in their thousands to bolster the new regimes. Soon many local people moved in as well, many adopting the lifestyles of the colonists.

Some of these cities became very large indeed by the standards of the period, especially Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Ephesus and Pergamum in Asia Minor. These and many smaller cities became centers for the diffusion of Greek language and culture throughout the vast region. Even ancient cities of Asia Minor and Syria such as Sardis, Tyre, and the Philistine cities of Palestine, gradually became Greek in language, culture, institutions and architecture.

Within the wide Hellenistic world, many people of all races, particularly the upper classes, came to speak and read Greek. Amongst more humble members of society, at least in the cities, koine, “the common tongue”, a kind of colloquial Greek, spread. This enabled people from widely different locations and backgrounds to communicate with one another. People, goods and ideas travelled easily from city to city, and from kingdom to kingdom.

Non-Greek peoples, if not completely absorbed into Hellenistic culture, were profoundly influenced by it. For example, the Jews, who by this time were to be found in all major cities of the Middle East as well as in their Judaean homeland, translated their scriptures into Greek at this time, and Greek ideas became embedded in the Jewish faith.

Cultural influences were by no means one way, and alien elements were grafted onto Greek ways. The Ptolemies of Egypt portrayed themselves as pharaohs; the Indo-Greek kings of Bactria were patrons of Buddhism; Egyptian cults spread throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean worlds, as did mystery cults from Mesopotamia and Iran. Babylonian astronomy reached its peak, and Babylonian astrology exerted a strong influence on Greek thought. Many Hellenistic rulers embraced local practices of divine kingship and were worshipped as living gods, a thing which would have appalled earlier generations of Greeks.

It must be remembered, however, that for the majority of people in the Middle East, the farmers in the countryside, Hellenistic civilization remained an exotic, foreign plant. Greek language and culture was mostly confined to the cities. Rural populations retained their traditional ways of life, along with their native languages and cultures.

[For more on the impact of Hellenistic civilization in different regions, see Asia MinorSyria, and Palestine.]

Government and warfare

Before Alexander the Great’s conquests, the Greek world had been divided into hundreds of small city-states, mostly governed as republics. Now, the much expanded sphere of Greek civilization was dominated by several large and powerful kingdoms.

The major Hellenistic kingdoms had their origins quite simply as armies dominating large territories, whose commanders became the kings of new states. The officers became the ruling class, and the rank and file became a small, privileged minority living in strategically-placed colonies to keep the native majority in check.

Given these origins, it is hardly surprising that the kings were primarily military rulers, with all other considerations of state subordinated to the needs of their armies. These kingdoms were autocracies, with power centralized upon the monarch and his court.

At first Greeks and Macedonians virtually monopolized the structures of power. With the passage of time men of local origin were admitted into the higher circles, but only after they had become Greek in culture and outlook. In all Hellenistic courts Greek was the official language, and Greek culture was lavishly patronized (see below). This was true even in those smaller kingdoms which had royal families of non-Greek origin.

Despite being centers of Greek civilization, however, in their display of power these courts owed more to Persian or Egyptian antecedents than anything in the world of classical Greece. Subjects did obeisance before the thrones, and kings soon took to expecting divine honors from their subjects. The kingdoms’ territories divided into provinces under royal governors called, as under the Persian empire, satraps, who had immense power within their satrapies.

The autocracy of the kings and the rule of the satraps was modified to some extent by the existence of the self-governing Greek-style cities within all the Hellenistic kingdoms. Nevertheless they were expected to show the king their loyalty by paying him the tribute he demanded, and also by according him divine honors. In some cases a military garrison was stationed in them, or nearby, and royal officials supervised the city magistrates in their duties.

Such was the situation in the lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean and stretching eastwards throughout the Middle East. In the western Mediterranean, things were different. Hundreds of Greek city-states in Greece, Sicily, southern Italy and the coasts of Gaul and Spain continued to maintain their independence, much as they had before Alexander the Great’s time. They operated in a transformed environment, however. In the new world of big, predatory kingdoms, these small states could not take their independence for granted. Leading cities like Athens and Sparta tried (often unsuccessfully) to play one big kingdom off against another. The smaller city-states tended to form alliances with each other, conceding large parts of their individual sovereignty in order to ensure their joint protection against their more powerful neighbors. The Archaian and Aetolian Leagues were the best known of these.


Throughout the Hellenistic period, the various states, large and small, were engaged in continuous conflict with one another. Monarchs spent a great deal of their time on campaign, and it was seen as part of their role to lead their armies on the field of battle. They were accompanied by an inner circle of aristocrats called “companions”, who dined and drank with the king in peace and war and who acted as his advisors and lieutenants. This was an ancient Macedonian practice which all the Hellenistic kings followed.

Hellenistic armies differed from those of the classical age of Greece in several major respects. Firstly, they were on the whole much larger. The armies were now supported by the resources of large kingdoms, not small city-states, so that they could be composed of many more troops.

Secondly, they were no longer composed of citizen-soldiers doing military service during the fighting season and returning home in time for the harvest. Armies were now made up of full-time professional soldiers. Armies would keep the field all year round and fight long campaigns far from their bases.

The core of these armies were made up of Macedonian or Greek troops, recruited either from the new cities in Asia and Egypt or from the Greek and Macedonian homelands. The armies also included many troops who were either recruited amongst the native populations of the kingdoms, or who came from certain regions with a particularly warlike reputation. Soldiers from Galatia, in central Asia Minor, were highly regarded, as were Thracians.

Thirdly, Hellenistic armies employed tactics which, while based on classical Greek warfare, had important differences. The Macedonian phalanx, which apparently made its appearance in the days of Alexander the Great’s father, king Philip II of Macedonia, was derived from the Greek hoplite formations of heavy infantry soldiers fighting as one unit; however, they were much larger, and the soldiers were armed with very long pikes with which they charged the enemy. These lethal weapons, deployed en masse and backed up with the weight of hundreds of running men, were difficult to resist by men fighting in smaller, more traditional formations. These infantry phalanxes were supported by much smaller units of heavy cavalry.

Fourthly, the armies had novel additions to them, quite foreign to the older Greek armies. Siege engines, modeled on those of the Persian armies, were staffed by specialist engineers; long-range catapults could hurl heavy projectiles; and in some armies war elephants provided an effective kind of shock cavalry to break up large infantry formations.

Naval warfare also developed at this period. Fleets were composed of more warships, which became larger and heavier, with bigger crews of soldiers, oarsmen and sailors.

Society and economy

Society in the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Middle East was divided into two categories: a small ruling minority made up of people of Macedonian and Greek origin, or of native people who had adopted Greek culture; and the great mass of the people who continued to live in rural villages and who broadly clung to their ancestral way of life. They were engaged in farming or related occupations, and spoke Aramaic, Iranian, Egyptian or some other native language.

The Hellenistic period was a time of economic expansion. New trade routes were opened to the East, especially via the Indian Ocean to India, and thence to South East Asia. Long-distance trade was eased by the use of an international coinage based on the gold and silver standards which had their origin in Athens.

Some older Greek Mediterranean cities, such as Syracuse, Corinth and Ephesus, saw their commerce gain new overseas markets which Alexander the Great’s conquests had opened up. Other cities of non-Greek heritage, such as Tyre and Babylon, became key commercial hubs in this new Greek-speaking world.

New foundations such as Pergamum in Asia Minor, Antioch in Syria, and above all Alexandria in Egypt, which especially prospered. Pergamum and Antioch were key centers in the long-distance overland trade which spanned the Middle East. Alexandria was the gateway to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade, and to the African trade down the Nile Valley.

Religion and philosophy


The old religion of classical Greece, with its pantheon of gods and goddesses such as Zeus, Diana, Athene and Apollo remained the foundational belief-system for the Greeks and Macedonians now scattered around the Middle East, as well as of course for those remaining in their homelands. The new circumstances of the Hellenistic world, however, were bringing Greek religion face to face with the religions of the Middle East, and vice-versa, with interesting results.

The different religions began to mingle to produce a fascinating syncretism. At the simplest level, Greek gods and goddesses were identified with Asian or Egyptian deities with similar attributes, so that such figures as Zeus-Ammon, Aphrodite-Hagne and Isis-Demeter. Some Asian deities, such as Artemis and Cybele, entered mainstream Greek religion in their own right.

More interestingly, the mingling produced newly-minted gods. In Egypt, the worship of Serapis and Isis began to spread, with the Isis cult in particular spreading far and wide throughout the Hellenistic world. This was one of the new “mystery cults” which brought a more personal style of religious experience. Their belief systems revolved around individual salvation in the after life, in a way that the more traditional public religions did not; they also, in some cases, promised wealth and success for their devotees in this life.

The period also saw the rise of ruler-cults. Alexander the Great was worshipped as a god after his death, with his mausoleum at Alexandra becoming a center of pilgrimage. The Ptolemaic kings of Egypt promoted themselves to the native population as pharaohs in the mould of the great line of Egyptian kings from the past; as such they assumed the mantle of divine kingship that went with that status. This idea was reinforced by the practice, which the Ptolemies also adopted from the ancient pharaohs, of marrying within their own close family to keep their divine blood pure.

The Seleucid kings also promoted their own cult, in line with the ancient kings of Babylon. These royal cults had their own temples, priests and feast days. To what extent people really believed that their rulers were deities is hard to say, but the worship acted as a public display of loyalty to the regime.

The religious life of the Hellenistic world would not be complete without reference to the communities of Jews which now existed in many cities throughout the Middle East, and which began to spread in Greece as well. Each community was centered on its place of worship, the synagogue, where the worship of the One God, Yahweh, was practiced. Most adherents of the this faith were Jews by birth, but down the generations a small but steady stream of converts reinforced their numbers.

Another religion which affected the very eastern part of the Hellenistic world was Buddhism. It is evident from their coins that some Greco-Indian kings, including the most famous of them, Milinda, were converts to this religion.

Magic and astrology were practiced widely amongst the populations of the Hellenistic world, at all levels of society. From ancient times the Greeks had consulted oracles, used charms and cast spells, but close contact with the complex system of astrology developed by the priests of ancient Mesopotamia had a powerful effect in them, and deeply penetrated their thinking.


The great tradition of Greek philosophy continued during the Hellenistic period. The philosophers of the classical period, especially Plato and Aristotle, continued to be highly influential, but philosophical trends of Hellenistic times were concerned more with the interior life of the individual, and how best he could live the good life.

The period is famous for two new schools of thought, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Stoicism (so named because its founder, Zeno of Citium (355-263 BCE), lectured at the stoa in Athens) taught that a single supreme deity created the universe and designed it to be guided by rational principles. It followed from this that using the senses carefully was the most effective way to discover truth; they were skeptical of other approaches. To live the good life, they believed, >was to submit to the will of God, and to avoid seeking wealth, luxury and status, which would lead only to unhappiness.

Epicurianism was founded by the philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE). He rejected the supernatural altogether, believing that the material universe was all there is. He argued that intellectual pursuits offered the surest avenue to “the good life”, free from pain. The pursuit of wealth and status could never satisfy.

Another influential school of philosophy, which had been founded in the 5th century BCE but which gained prominence now, was Cynicism, founded by Antisthenes (c. 455-360 BCE). Cynics believed that happiness could only come by virtue based on knowledge, and that anything that got in the way of this was unhelpful at best, evil at worst. Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412-323 BCE) took Cynicism further by teaching that it was only through the avoidance of comfort that the moral life could be attained.

Culture: literature, art and architecture

Amongst modern scholars, especially in the 19th and early 20th century, the Hellenistic period has often been seen as a period of cultural decline after the brilliance of classical Greece. More recently, though, it has been seen as a time when artists, writers and thinkers built on the art, literature and philosophy of the 5th and 4th centuries, but introduced many innovations of their own.

In many ways, the Hellenistic period was a hugely cultured age – almost self-consciously so. Although the Hellenistic kingdoms were essentially military monarchies, their rulers were expected to support culture – Greek culture, that is – and they did so on a lavish scale. Beautiful temples, magnificent monuments, extravagant palaces and amazing sculptures were the result. Athens retained its preeminent reputation as a university town, but enormous libraries, museums and even zoos sprang up in the big new cities of the Hellenistic world, Pergamum, Antioch and above all, Alexandria. These functioned as research institutes and places of higher education.  The preservation of past cultural glories was taken very seriously. The Library of Alexandria was said to contain over 500,000 volumes, the library of Pergamum about half that (Pergamon became a major center of book production, popularizing an early form of paper (parchment) to facilitate this). There were internationally-known libraries and centers of learning in other cities as well, such as Pella and Kos; and the island of Rhodes had a library as well as a famous finishing school for politics and diplomacy, and cities the length and breadth of the Hellenistic world possessed cultural facilities such as gymnasia and theaters: a large theater with 35 rows has been found in the outer reaches of the Hellenistic world, in Afghanistan.


The massive extension of the Greek-speaking world undoubtedly led to a much expanded demand for reading and dramatic entertainment in Greek. This demand was met by an increasing number of writers: we know of more than 1100 of the Hellenistic period, though of varying ability. Leading names were Theocritus (c. 310-250 BCE), who is considered the father of Greek bucolic poetry; the playwright Menander (342-290 BCE), who founded the New Comedy, with plays dealing with love intrigues and sentimental themes, and Polybius (203-120 BCE), the greatest historian of the era who wrote a 40-volume history of Rome between 221 and 146 BCE, of which 5 volumes survive.

The Hellenistic period also saw the rise of the novel in ancient Greek literature. There is nothing like works such as Daphnis and Chloe, and the Ephesian Tale, in earlier Greek writing, and they would have a major impact on later European fiction.

At the same time as these new productions, the poems, plays and epics of classical Greece retained their popularity

Sculpture and painting

Some of the best-known works of Greek sculpture belong to the Hellenistic period: the Venus of Milo, the Dying Gaul, Laocoon and his Sons, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Artists of the period were less restrained than their predecessors had been. Symmetry and proportion were not striven for in the same way as before. Instead, they were much more adventurous in depicting emotion, humor, everyday life. Painters and sculptures chose subjects taken from all human life, and all social classes. They were concerned with representing how individuals – even poor, old or ugly  ones – really felt. Gods, goddesses and heroes become less important in their work, but where they do occur they are shown with human emotions.

These developments in art may have been a reflection of the lesser importance now attached to communal civic life. With large kingdoms and leagues now the norm, the old city-state was no longer the dominant socio-political unit. the shared communal culture may not therefore have been so important, so that artists were free now to focus more on the interior life of the individual. It is significant that, in the religious sphere, this age saw the rise of mystery cults which focussed much more on the spiritual needs of individuals rather than the public rites of the old religion.

Writers of the period leave us in no doubt that painting was alive and well in the Hellenistic world, but of course this art form survives far less well than sculpture.


With the vast expansion of the Greek-speaking world and the rise of extremely wealthy ruling elites came a new magnificence in architecture. Rulers and city councils were trying to impress – and they succeeded. The temple of Zeus at Acragas measured 363 feet long and 183 feet wide. The temples of Artemis at Ephesus, of Artemis at Sardis, and of Diana at Didyma were other impressive structures of the period.

Size was not the only difference between Hellenistic and earlier Greek temples. They were now more highly ornamented than before. This can be clearly seen in the design of columns, such a key element in temple architecture. The earlier Ionic and Doric columns, with their austere simplicity, were replaced by lavishly decorated Corinthian columns.

This new scale and luxuriant design were not limited to religious buildings. The Pharos of Alexandria, a lighthouse which is thought to have been the tallest building in the world for many centuries apart from the Great Pyramids, was said to be almost 400 feet tall; and the Colossus of Rhodes was an enormous statue of the Sun-god Helios which stood guard at one of the busiest harbors of that city. Three of the above-mentioned structures – the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Pharos of Alexandria and the Colossus of Rhodes – were widely regarded at the time as being amongst the Seven Wonders of the World.

The founding of so many colonies brought town planning into a new prominence. Towns were laid out with a symmetry and proportion rarely found in earlier towns.

Mathematics, Science and Technology

Hellenistic science built on the achievements of classical Greek thinkers, but it was enriched by direct contact with the knowledge which had developed in the more ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The city of Alexandria became a major center of scientific research. The library of Alexandria seems to have had an officially-supported program of scientific research. The very fact of having so much knowledge gathered together in one place was a huge draw for scholars, and a community of such grew up in the city. One can certainly imagine formal or informal seminars taking place, and ideas being shared and developed. Some scholars were given government salaries, and a zoo, and probably also a plant collection, was maintained for the study of the natural world. One naturalist, Theophrastus (371-287 BCE), developed a system for plant classification.

The Hellenistic period saw two of the greatest Greek mathematicians, Euclid (c. 325 – 265 BCE), whose work Elements of Geometry was used as a standard textbook in geometry until the 19th century, and Archimedes, who developed a range of geometrical theorems and is widely considered the greatest mathematician of the ancient world. Most famously he discovered the “Archimedes” principle, concerned with how bodies float.

The Hellenistic period saw major advances in astronomy. Hipparchus (c. 190–c.120 BCE), building on the work of the Babylonians, worked out the length of the solar and lunar years with precision; Aristarchos of Samos (c.310-c.230 BCE) developed a heliocentric view of the solar system; and Apollonius of Perga (c. 262-c.190 BCE) investigated the motions of the Moon and the Sun, and was the first to apply the words “ellipse”, “parabola” and “hyperbola” to their relevant phenomena. Eratosthenes (c.276-c.195 BCE) has been called the “father of Geography”: he measured the circumference of the Earth to within 1500 miles, and also accurately calculated the tilt of the Earth’s axis, and possibly the distance of the Earth from the Sun (the fact that the earth was a sphere was common knowledge in the Hellenistic world). He also created the first map of the world, with parallels and meridians based on the geography available to him.

In terms of geographical knowledge, the Hellenistic period saw the bounds of the known world extended by adventurous travelers, who sent back information on their findings. India became known to Greek travelers, and Greek navigators, probably tapping into local knowledge, discovered that the monsoon winds were crucial to sailing the Indian Ocean. Direct trade between India and the Greek-speaking world began soon after. The North Sea was sailed, and the islands of Britain were circumnavigated.


Medicine was dominated by the Hippocratic tradition, with its emphasis on careful observation and rigorous documentation of symptoms. The Hellenist period saw new advances under Praxagoras of Kos (born c. 340 BCE), who theorized that blood travelled through the veins, Herophilus of Chalcedon (335–280 BCE), who was the first to base his conclusions on dissection of the human and animal bodies, and his student Erasistratus (304 – 250 BCE), who explained the workings of the aortic  and pulmonary valves of the heart, and noted the differences between the sensory and motor nerves. Works on herbal remedies were also written during this period.


Archimedes is credited with designing several innovative machines, such as the “Archimedes screw”, for pumping water, compound pulleys and huge grappling machines for fending off warships. Other technological developments of the Hellenistic period included surveying instruments (later used to good effect by the Roman army), a water clock and water organ, and a piston pump. One of the most remarkable inventions was the Antikythera mechanism (150–100 BCE). This was a 37-gear machine for calculating the motions of the Sun and Moon, including lunar and solar eclipses. These were apparently predicted on the basis of astronomical observations made by the Babylonians.

The period thus saw a series of ingenious inventions, but few if any had a major impact on society at large.

Further study

Overview of Minoan Civilization

Overview of Ancient Greek Civilization

History of Ancient Greece

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Kingdoms

Greece and Macedonia after the time of Alexander the Great

The Seleucid kingdom

Late Ancient Egyptian history (largely about Ptolemaic Egypt)

The Rise of the Roman Empire