King Alexander solidified his authority at home and violently crushed a revolt by the Greek city-state of Thebes. Then, he made plans to liberate the Greek cities in Asia Minor (now Turkey) from Persia and to punish the Persians for destroying Athens about 150 years earlier. The Persians were ruled by Darius III, known as the “Great King.”
In the spring of 334 B.C., Alexander led a Macedonian force of 35,000 men across the Hellespont, the narrow strait that separates Europe from Asia. When he reached the other side, he drove his javelin into the ground, symbolizing that his new empire would be “won by the spear.”
Alexander had little trouble defeating the Persians in Asia Minor, where Darius did not personally command his troops. But when Alexander and his army reached the city of Gordium, he confronted a confounding puzzle.
In Gordium, there was a chariot with a complicated knot tied by an ancient king. According to legend, the one who could untie this knot would rule the world. Many had tried, but all had failed to untie the Gordian Knot. Alexander solved the puzzle in his own direct way: He sliced the knot in two with his sword.
Alexander then led his army south through Jerusalem and into Egypt, which surrendered without a fight. There he consulted an Egyptian oracle (speaker for the gods) who, Alexander said, referred to him as the son of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods.
Before leaving Egypt, Alexander ordered the building of a new city named Alexandria. Later, it would become the center of a large Greek-based, or Hellenistic, civilization (Hellas = Greece).
In 331 B.C., Alexander invaded Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and decisively defeated Darius III, who fled the battlefield. The conquering king soon captured the Mesopotamian capital of Babylon and proclaimed himself “King of Babylon, King of Asia, King of the Four Quarters of the World.”
Alexander next entered the Persian homeland. He spared Susa, Persia’s capital, when it surrendered. He burned, however, the great palace city of Persepolis in revenge for the Persian destruction of Athens.
The threat from Darius had been removed. He was murdered by his own provincial governors (called satraps), hoping to gain favor with Alexander. In turn, Alexander married Roxane, the daughter of one of Darius’ satraps.
With no major army to oppose him, Alexander conquered lands near the Caspian Sea. Continuing his conquests, he drove eastward into what is now Afghanistan and finally across the Indus River into western India. Alexander wanted to go farther, but he stopped when his men complained they would never see home again.
Having conquered the known world in only 10 years, Alexander led his men back to Persia. At Susa, he organized a mass marriage ceremony between thousands of his men and Persian women. Although already married to Roxane, he married a daughter of Darius. The mixed marriages at Susa were part of Alexander’s idea to fuse the Macedonian, Greek, and Asian peoples into one “universal empire.”
Like the Greeks, Alexander considered the Asians to be “barbarians.” Even so, he attempted to adopt some of their customs to smooth the way for his new Hellenistic empire.
Alexander began to wear Persian clothing and required his men to do the same. He insisted that everyone follow the Persian practice of prostrating themselves (lying flat on the floor) when approaching him on the throne. He also appointed some of Darius’ satraps as provincial officials and even included some Persian soldiers in his Macedonian army.
In 323 B.C., Alexander returned to Babylon and declared himself an “invincible god.” He planned to conquer Arabia and North Africa, build great cities, and merge all his conquered peoples into a great “brotherhood of mankind.” His dreams ended, however, when he came down with a fever (probably malaria) and died suddenly at age 33.
Alexander did not have a plan for who would inherit his empire. His Persian wife, Roxane, gave birth to a son shortly after Alexander died. Alexander also had an illegitimate half-brother, but he was mentally incompetent. Alexander’s generals in Babylon, called his “Successors,” arrived at a compromise. They named Alexander’s newborn son and his half-brother “co-kings” with one of the Successors temporarily ruling in their names.
What followed was nearly a half century of violence. Civil war broke out. Alliances were formed and broken. Both co-kings were murdered. At one point, six Successors proclaimed themselves king. Finally, by about 280 B.C., three major Hellenistic kingdoms had formed—one in Egypt, one in Southwest Asia, and another in the Macedonian homeland.
The Ptolemies in Egypt
One of Alexander’s Successors, Ptolemy, carved out his kingdom in Egypt. Alone among the Successors, he did not attempt to regain control of Alexander’s entire empire. He did, however, proclaim himself divine with the title of “Savior.”
Ptolemy I established a centralized bureaucracy. It imposed burdensome taxes, set up state monopolies, and regulated the economy. He and the dynasty he founded needed lots of money to finance military adventures in the eastern Mediterranean and six wars with the neighboring Seleucid Kingdom.
Egypt’s capital, Alexandria, was the largest of the new Hellenistic cities. It had a double harbor, which soon made Alexandria the center of trade between the Mediterranean countries and Asia.
Alexandria was also a center for Hellenistic science. Astronomers, mathematicians, geographers, and other scientists made discoveries, using Aristotle’s “scientific method” of observation to learn the truth about the natural world. For example, Herophilus dissected bodies to gain knowledge about human anatomy.
The Library of Alexandria was the jewel of the city and the entire Hellenistic world. Over a half-million cataloged papyrus scrolls contained the writings of Greek and non-Greek philosophers, historians, playwrights, poets, scientists, and others. Athens sent Aristotle’s personal library there after he died. The great library also held translations of the first books of the Hebrew Bible.
The Seleucids in Southwest Asia
Another of Alexander’s Successors, Seleucus, formed a kingdom that included Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia in Southwest Asia. The largest part of Alexander’s conquered lands, it contained peoples with many different languages, religions, and traditions.
The Seleucid rulers, like the other Hellenistic kings, abandoned Alexander’s idea of including conquered peoples in helping govern the kingdom. Macedonians and Greeks made up the ruling class.
The Seleucid kings considered themselves absolute, even god-like, monarchs. Their primary goal was to hold on to power while defending and expanding the kingdom by constant warfare.
The Seleucids built many more cities than the other Hellenistic monarchs. Built on a grid, their cities brimmed with large buildings featuring the first widespread use of arch and vault architecture. Huge outdoor theaters, holding up to 20,000 people, were a trademark of Seleucid cities.
Immigrants from Macedonia and Greece colonized many of the new cities. Macedonian and Greek women often owned businesses and took on a more active role in public affairs than in their homeland. Ethnically diverse native peoples, including slaves, also populated these cities. While frequently proclaimed as “free” or even “democratic,” Seleucid cities remained under the tight control of the king.
Prosperity grew as new trade routes opened up from India and China. A standard weight for coins stimulated a money economy. Even so, as in all the Hellenistic monarchies, the land belonged to the king, who exploited the common people by forcing them to pay him high rents, taxes, and tribute.
The Antigonids in Macedonia and Greece
Back home in Macedonia, civil war continued until Antigonus seized the throne in 277 B.C. and established the Antigonid dynasty. The Antigonids were absolute rulers, but they never claimed divine status. Although Macedonian cities had democratic assemblies, final power rested with the king. Ironically, due to its geographic isolation, the Macedonian homeland suffered economically when trade routes shifted to the other Hellenistic kingdoms.
The Macedonian kings still controlled Greece. But most Greek city-states had long abandoned monarchies as barbaric, and they yearned to return to self-rule. They attempted to assert their independence by forming leagues, or confederacies, of city-states.
In 245 B.C., the Achaean League, consisting of 10 Greek city-states, revolted against Macedonia. King Antigonus crushed the uprising as he had done earlier when Athens and Sparta had rebelled. The Achaean League revolt was the last major effort by the Greeks to regain their freedom from Macedonia.
Spreading Hellenistic Culture
Although war often divided the Hellenistic world, the Greek language unified it. Greek became the universal language of government, commerce, education, science, literature, and even religion.
The gymnasium became the key institution for spreading Hellenistic culture. Centers for physical and military training, the gymnasiums also served as hubs for learning philosophy, music, poetry, and science. They evolved into a sort of high school for Macedonian and Greek boys and young men in all the Hellenistic kingdoms and beyond. In addition to training grounds, a gymnasium facility often included a swimming pool, a covered running track, a stadium for athletic games, a library, and lecture rooms.
Hellenistic culture also spread through art and literature. Painting, sculpture, and mosaics tended to portray ordinary life and decorated private homes as well as public buildings. Hellenistic art was not especially original, but it combined styles from different cultures. Psychological elements became a greater part of Greek drama and poetry. A form of the novel developed in Alexandria.
Greek philosophy flourished in all parts of the Hellenistic world, but the ancient religion of Greece did not. It was difficult to convert foreigners to the Greek religion with its emphasis on rituals and ceremonies rather than a set of beliefs to guide life. As a result, native religions like Judaism and Mithraism thrived.
The Coming of the Romans
After 200 B.C., the rise of a new power in the west, the Roman Republic, signaled the decline of the Hellenistic kingdoms. The Antigonid king unwisely sided with Carthage against Rome in the Second Punic War. Rome then went to war against Macedonia, making it a Roman province in 148 B.C. No longer controlled by Macedonia, the Greek city-states were absorbed into a Roman province.
Weakened by civil wars and assassinations, the Seleucids suffered defeats by the Roman legions in Asia Minor and Syria. Rome made this part of the Seleucid Kingdom a province in 64 B.C.
Only the Ptolemies in Egypt remained independent. In 47 B.C., however, Julius Caesar invaded Egypt. During the turmoil, fire destroyed the magnificent Library of Alexandria with its collection of knowledge from the ancient world.
Later, the Roman general Mark Anthony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra tried to break away from Roman control. In 31 B.C., Octavian (later called Caesar Augustus) defeated them in a naval battle. A year later, he occupied Egypt and made it his personal kingdom.
Caesar Augustus thus became the heir of the Hellenistic world and went on to found the Roman Empire. He and his successors fulfilled, for a time, Alexander’s dream of unifying the known world in one empire. Augustus was also the first to recognize Alexander’s legacy by calling him Alexander “the Great.”
For Discussion and Writing
1. Do you agree with Augustus that Alexander should be called “the Great”? Explain.
2. How were the Ptolemy, Seleucid, and Antigonid kingdoms similar? How were they different?
3. What do you think was the single most important accomplishment of the Hellenistic world after Alexander’s death? Why?
“The Good Life”
Hellenistic philosophers were concentrated in Athens and developed four major schools of philosophy. All followed different versions of “The Good Life.”
1. Choose one of the Hellenistic philosophies below that you think is the best at describing “The Good Life.”
2. Write an essay, explaining why you think this philosophy is better than the other three.
3. Join with the others in your class who chose the same philosophy as you did. Then, participate in a class debate on which philosophy is the best.
Key Philosopher: Zeno of Cyprus (335–263 B.C.)
“The Good Life”: Stoics sought a disciplined simple life modeled after nature. They avoided excesses, attended to duty, and attempted to control their emotions.
• The senses and reason alone reveal the truth.
• All people possess a divine spark and are therefore equal.
• The world is like a great city whose citizens must play an active role in public affairs.
Meaning Today: Stoics today are those who have a high degree of self-control against pain and adversity.
Key Philosopher: Epicurus (341–270 B.C.)
“The Good Life”: Epicureans sought pleasure in moderation, which meant “freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind.”
• “Sober reasoning” banishes mental confusion.
• The world runs on its own without gods intervening in human affairs.
• Privacy and personal friendships are more important than being involved in human affairs and the “noise of the world.”
Meaning Today: Epicureanism has been corrupted over time and today usually refers to those who enjoy gourmet food.
Key Philosopher: Pyrrho of Elis c. 360–c. 272 B.C.)
“The Good Life”: Skeptics sought the truth by doubting all knowledge beyond what they could sense or experience and by challenging the assumptions made by others.
• “Certain knowledge” can never be known because of the variation in human perceptions.
• One should doubt religious beliefs.
• A Skeptic is an inquirer who is never satisfied with “facts” and achieves happiness by not committing to any opinion.
Meaning Today: Skeptics continue today to voice doubts about everything from science to religion.
Key Philosopher: Diogenes c. 412–320 B.C.)
“The Good Life”: Cynics were the philosophical rebels of their day, violating laws and exposing hypocrisy, vice, and corruption in society.
• Diogenes once looked in vain for an “honest man” while carrying a lantern in the daylight.
• People should live a simple and self-sufficient life as nature intended.
• Laws, religion, and customs like marriage are creations of society that prevent people from living a “natural life.”
Meaning Today: Cynics today tend to find fault with almost everything and believe people are mainly motivated by selfishness.
For Further Information
MacroHistory: Alexander Changes the World From an online world history text.
The ten-horned beast: Alexander the Great A thorough and detailed source on Alexander and others.
From history to eternity: Alexander the Great A general overview of Alexander’s conquests. By John J. Popovic.
Macedonia FAQ: Alexander the Great A short history.
Alexander the Great History Project A site created for Wisconsin History Day.
Lectures for Western Civilization: Alexander the Great By Professor Gerhard Rempel, Western New England College.
Alexander the Great, Timeline By the Wiki Classical Dictionary.
Internet Public Library Results for Alexander the Great.
All about Alexander the Great A large website with a compilation of links regarding Alexander.
Alexander the Great on the Web More than 1,000 links.
Egyptian Pharaohs: Ptolemaic Dynasty A brief history with links to a history of each ruler.
Ptolemies A history of their empire. By Jona Lendering.
ArchaeoWiki: Ptolemaic Dynasty Listing of rulers with links to more information.
Hellenica: Ptolemaic Dynasty A brief overview and links to a history of each ruler.
House of Ptolemies A chart showing the reigns of each ruler with biographies for each.
CrystalLinks: Ptolemaic Dynasty A summary of the reigns of each ruler.
Ptolemaic Dynasty A collection of sources on the Ptolemaic Kingdom.
The Seleucid Empire (Syria) A detailed history of the empire. By Jona Lendering.
Seleucid Kingdom General overview of the Seleucid kingdom and region.
Macquarie University Museum of Ancient Cultures: Seleucid Dynasty (PDF file) A report on each reign in the dynasty.
The Seleukid Empire A sourcebook for the history, numismatics, epigraphy, art, and archaeology of the Seleucid Empire.
House of Soleucus A chart showing the reigns of each ruler with biographies for each.
David Barnsdale: The Later Seleucids Summaries of the reigns of the rulers.
Kings of Macedon From the Time of Philip II Listing that shows the two periods of Antingonid rule over Macedonia.
Macedonian Heritage: The dynasty of the Antigonids Chart of the rulers.
Hellenistic Greek Culture A collection of historical sources and artwork from the Hellenistic period.
MacroHistory: Hellenistic Societies From an online world history text.
Lectures for Western Civilization: Hellenistic Civilization By Professor Gerhard Rempel, Western New England College.
Sophia Project: The Hellenistic Age: From Alexander to Augustus By Michael S. Russo, Molloy College.
Hellenism History of the emergence of Hellenism and its accomplishments.
The Hellenistic Monarchies Brief history of Hellenism after Alexander’s death.
Hellenistic Civilization By Francois Chamoux.
Alexander: Destiny and Myth By Claude Mosse.
Alexander the Great and His Time By Agnes Savill.
The Hellenistic World By F.W. Walbank.
Major Philosophical Schools of the Period
Sophia Project: Introduction to Stoic Ethics By Michael S. Russo, Molloy College, Department of Philosophy.
Sophia On-Line Course: The Problem of Happiness in the Ancient World: Stoicism By Michael S. Russo, Molloy College, Department of Philosophy.
PhilosophyTalk: Stoicism A radio program discussing stoicism.
BBC: Stoicism Another radio program on stoicism.
Ecole Initiative: Stoicism An essay by William B. Connolly explaining stoicism.
The Stoics on why we should strive to be free of the passions An essay by Keith Selden, director of the Stoic Foundation.
The Stoic Foundation Information and resources on stoicism.
ibiblio: The Stoic Library Links to articles, texts, and topics related to stoicism.
The Stoic Place Resources on stoicism from Dr. Jan Edward Garrett, professor of philosophy at Western Kentucky University.
Encyclopedia Articles on Zeno of Cyprus:
Phoenician: Zeno of Citium An essay by Robin Turner.
The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers: The Life of Zeno The classic text by Diogenes Laërtius. Translated by C.D. Yonge in 1895. From the Ancient History Sourcebook.
Ancient Greek Philosophy: Zeno of Citium By Michael Lahanas.
Zeno of Cittium: Founder of Stoicism An essay by Paul Harrison with fragments from the writings of Zeno.
Malaspina Great Books: Zeno of Citium Biography of Zeno, explanation of stoicism, and links to further information.
Links on Zeno of Cyprus:
Links on Stoicism:
Encyclopedia Articles on Epicureanism:
Sophia On-Line Course: The Problem of Happiness in the Ancient World: Epicureanism By Michael S. Russo, Molloy College, Department of Philosophy.
Epicurus & Epicurean Philosophy Resources and texts on these subjects.
Epicurean Philosophy Online Electronic texts, photography, book lists, links to related sites, and: The Epicurus Wiki.
Epicurean Garden of Contentment An overview of epicureanism and links to primary-source material.
Encyclopedia Articles on Epicurus:
Epicurus on Happiness An online video, one of a six part series on philosophy presented by popular British philosopher Alain de Botton.
Lives of Eminent Philosophers: Life of Epicurus The classic work by Diogenes Laertius.
Internet Classics Archive: Works by Epicurus Primary sources.
Links on Epicurus:
Links on Epicureanism:
Classical Skepticism: Issues and Problems A detailed essay by Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College, Indiana.
Sophia On-Line Course: The Problem of Happiness in the Ancient World: Skepticism By Michael S. Russo, Molloy College, Department of Philosophy.
Encyclopedia Articles on Pyrrho of Elis:
The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers: Life of Pyrrho The classic work by Diogenes Laertius, translated in 1895 by C.D. Yonge.
Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism An essay by Alex Scott.
Links on Pyrrho of Elis:
Links on Skepticism:
Sophia On-Line Course: The Problem of Happiness in the Ancient World: Cynicism By Michael S. Russo, Molloy College, Department of Philosophy.
BBC: Cynicism Radio show on the subject.
Encyclopedia Articles on Diogenes:
The Lives of Eminent Philosophers: Life of Diogenes of Sinope The classic work by the other Diogenes, Diogenes Laertius, translated in 1925 by R.D. Hicks.
Links on Diogenes:
Links on Cynicism: