Ancient History/Greece/Hellenistic Greece

Hellenistic Greece 336 - 146 BCE

This period is marked by the decline of Athens and Sparta as external forces pressed upon the war-weary alliances of the Greek city-states. Philip II of Macedon, building upon the legacy of his grand-father and father, would set in motion a series of events that would lead to Rome's eventual domination of Greece. However this was to be in the future for during his reign he had incurred the wrath of Rome by his support for their enemies - a slight they never forgot. Cleopatra was a descendant of a Macedonian general and the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE where the forces of Octavian defeated those of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra marked the end of Macedonian control of Greece, Egypt and Asia Minor. It was the son of Philip II, Alexander the Great, who had conquered the East but it was Philip II who had conquered Greece. The empire of Rome was forged out of the Greek world and their achievements and failures.

The Macedonians, who history records as being a fractious people, gave us one of the greatest philosophers in Aristotle. There is no doubt that Macedon was a Hellenistic kingdom whose legacy to the world was as profound as that of Athens yet we still feel a tinge of regret that it was achieved by the sword and not ideas. Yet for all the powers exhibited by the Socratic dialogues of the Athenian Plato it is the earthly Macedonian Aristotle who bequeathed to the modern world the rational enlightenment that we proudly claim as our greatest achievement. Aristotle's philosophy and science were forged in Athens for he was a long-term resident of that polis. There would be no papyrus describing the Macedonian constitution for Kings allow of no law above themselves. Bear in mind that the "Athenian Constitution" was written by Aristotle not Plato. Sometimes the most valued commentators are those who are not embroiled in the biases of allegiance.

The salient point that democracy was born in Athens yet never held much sway on the practical Macedonians, whose city states were minor kingdoms whose rulers eventually were brought under the power of Philip II, should be kept in mind. The Hellenistic period does not prove that Athenian democracy is the ship without a captain that Plato considered the weakest of constitutions for Sparta capitulated to the Macedonians readily. The Spartans themselves cannot be accused of defeat for the Macedonians accorded their city state much honor recognizing a kindred warrior spirit. As with all achievements by men of personalty Macedonian power could only last as long as the natural life span of those who were willing to defend it. So despite the corpus of Aristotle we still hold up Athens as the corner-stone of democracy. We cast an Athenian vote in our modern elections yet the Macedonians and Spartans highlight that war and power are never far from severing the citizen's right to representation.

Alexander the Great

The Battle of Issus, when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian army of King Darius, took place in 333 BCE. This Roman mosaic unearthed at Pompeii dates approximately to 100 BCE. The legend of Alexander was still alive two centuries after his death.

There is a distinction between myths and legends. It is one of mortality. Alexander the Great was thirty-two years old when he died. During his brief life he conquered vast lands in which he founded new cities based on the Greek polis. The boundary stone to his adventures lay at the edge of present day Afghanistan, where still a tribe claim to be the modern day descendants of his army, when his men refused to travel into India. During the long journey back Alexander died in Babylon which we now call Iraq. The modern city of Alexandria in Egypt still bears his name two thousand years after his death. It was one of many cities named after him. The epithet "great" is not one of conquest for Alexander was steeped in the Hellenistic tradition of aversion to cultural tyranny. There are no Alexandrian edicts forbidding the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians from following their own traditions and culture. The epithet is given because he willingly met the conditions of the people he conquered seeking not to reject their cultures but to embrace their diversity. The Alexandrian edict that offers proof of this is the mass marriages of his senior officer to noble Persian women in the city of Susa in Iran. Upon his death the empire was fought over by his generals. Within a few generations Rome would seize the remnants of the Macedonian conquests.

Ancient Greece: Introduction · 01 · 02 · 03 · 04 · 05