The Hellenistic Age (4th-1st century BC) is the period between the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great and the establishment of Roman supremacy. In this era, Greek culture, art and philosophy were introduced to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. One of the greatest achievements occurred in sciences, where Greek and non-Greek mingled to produce remarkable results. It is called Hellenistic (Greek Hellas, “Greece”) to distinguish it from the Hellenic culture of classical Greece.
Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), king of Macedonia, was one of the greatest military geniuses of all times. Aristotle was Alexander's tutor; he gave Alexander a thorough training in rhetoric and literature and stimulated his interest in science, medicine, and philosophy. Before the end of the summer of 336 BC he had reestablished his position in Greece and was elected by a congress of states at Corinth.
Alexander began his war against Persia in the spring of 334 BC with an army of 35,000 Macedonian and Greek troops. Alexander encountered the main Persian army, commanded by King Darius III, at Issus, in northeastern Syria. The Battle of Issus, in 333, ended in a great victory for Alexander. He captured Gaza next and then passed on into Egypt, where he was greeted as a deliverer. By these successes he secured control of the entire eastern Mediterranean coastline. Later in 332 he founded, at the mouth of the Nile River, the city of Alexandria, which later became the literary, scientific, and commercial center of the Greek world.
In the spring of 331 Alexander made a pilgrimage to the great temple of Amon-Ra, Egyptian god of the sun, whom the Greeks identified with Zeus. The earlier Egyptian pharaohs were believed to be sons of Amon-Ra; and Alexander, the new ruler of Egypt, wanted the god to acknowledge him as his son. The pilgrimage apparently was successful, and it may have confirmed in him a belief in his own divine origin. Turning northward again, he crossed the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers and continued to expand his empire. His domain then extended along and beyond the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, including modern Afghanistan and Balochistan, and northward into Bactria and Sogdiana, the modern Turkestan, also known as Central Asia.
Shortly before he died, Alexander ordered the Greek cities to worship him as a god. Although he probably gave the order for political reasons, he was, in his own view and that of his contemporaries, of divine birth. The order was largely nullified by his death. To bind his conquests together, Alexander founded a number of cities, most of them named Alexandria, along his line of march; these cities were well located, well paved, and provided with good water supplies. Greek veterans from his army settled in them; young men, traders, merchants, and scholars were attracted to them; Greek culture was introduced; and the Greek language became widely known. Thus, Alexander vastly extended the influence of Greek civilization.
The Hellenistic world was dominated by three great monarchies founded by the successors of Alexander: Egypt under the Ptolemies; Syria, ruled by the Seleucids; and Macedonia under the Antigonid dynasty. The urban elite in these kingdoms spoke koine (common) Greek, which became the new international language, and their religion, art, and literature were a mixture of Greek and native elements. Under the Ptolemies, who used their wealth to attract poets, scholars, artists, and scientists, Alexandria became a great economic, cultural, and religious center. Systematic scholarship was encouraged at new institutes of learning, such as the famous Alexandrian Library, where studies in historical linguistics, grammar, lexicography, and literary criticism were pursued. Many advances were made in such sciences as empirical medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. The basic views of Hellenistic thinkers were not seriously challenged until the 16th century. Two of the main philosophical schools of the age were Stoicism and Epicureanism:
1. The Stoics taught that one should live according to nature, which is the divine reason, Logos that permeates all things. Logos, a word signifying reason, is the governing principle in the universe. The prudent should be free from passion and calmly accept everything, as the unavoidable result of the divine will, thus achieve freedom from suffering. The stoics also taught that it is possible for a moral human being to become divine. This had also been essential to the Platonic view.
2. The Epicureans were devoted to the pursuit of pleasure. They were fond of good food, comfort, and ease of life. Their philosophy sought freedom from pain and suffering, rejected the afterlife and the influence of gods, and held that all things are composed of atoms.
The religion of the Hellenistic Age combined the Greek gods with Eastern deities. The Hebrew bible was translated into Greek at Alexandria, and the language of the later New Testament was koine. As the Hellenistic monarchies declined in the second and first centuries BC, the Romans gradually extended their control over Greece and the Middle East. The Roman civilization that subsequently became dominant was in many ways a continuation of Hellenistic culture.
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