Hellenistic Age

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Hellenistic Age


a stage in the history of the eastern Mediterranean that lasted from the campaigns of Alexander the Great (334–323 B.C.) to the Roman conquest of the region, which was completed in 30 B.C. with the fall of Egypt.

The concept of the Hellenistic age was introduced into historiography in the 1830’s by the German historian J. G. Droysen, who proposed the term Hellenismus. Historians of various schools have interpreted the period in different ways. Many scholars have placed in the foreground the reciprocal influence of Greek and local—primarily eastern—cultures; in some cases the chronological limits of the Hellenistic age have been extended to the beginning of the Middle Ages. Other historians have focused on the interaction of sociopolitical structures, stressed the preponderant role of the Greco-Macedonians, or analyzed—anachronisticaly—economic relations.

Soviet historians, notably S. I. Kovalev, A. B. Ranovich, and K. K. Zel’in, have interpreted the Hellenistic age as a specific historical stage in the history of the eastern Mediterranean that is characterized by the reciprocal influence of Greek and local elements in socioeconomic relations, political organization, and cultural development from the end of the fourth century B.C. to the first century B.C.

Rise of the Hellenistic states; struggle among the Diadochoi (late fourth to early third centuries B.C.). When Alexander the Great died in 323, his empire encompassed the Balkan Peninsula, the islands of the Aegean Sea, Egypt, Southwest Asia, the southern regions of Middle Asia, and Central Asia as far as the lower course of the Indus. The most important political force in the empire was the army, which determined the state system that emerged after Alexander’s death. A brief struggle between the infantry and the hetairoi (elite cavalry) resulted in an agreement under which the empire was to be preserved as a unified whole; the successors to the throne were declared to be Arrhidaeus—an illegitimate son of Philip II—and the child of Alexander’s wife Roxana, who was pregnant at the time of his death. De facto power was exercised by a small group of Macedonian aristocrats who had occupied the highest military and court posts under Alexander.

Under the feeble-minded Philip III (Arrhidaeus) and Alexander IV (Roxana’s son), Perdiccas became de facto regent, Antipater and Craterus assumed rule over Greece and Macedonia, and Lysimachus became ruler of Thrace. In Asia Minor the most important figure was Antigonus (Antigonus I the One-eyed), satrap of Phrygia, Lycia, and Pamphilia. Egypt came under the control of Ptolemy Lagus (Ptolemy I Soter). Important command positions were held by Seleucus (Seleucus I Nicator) and Cassan-der, Antipater’s son.

Perdiccas attempted to establish himself as sole ruler with the help of the army. His military actions against Antigonus and Ptolemy Lagus initiated a prolonged struggle among the Diadochoi. Perdiccas’ campaign in Egypt in 321 achieved little success and engendered discontent in the army; as a result he was murdered by his own commanders. In the same year, after Craterus was killed while fighting the forces of Eumenes—the satrap of Pa-phlagonia and Cappadocia—posts and satrapies were distributed anew in Triparadisus, Syria. Antipater became regent, and the royal family was put under his authority. Antigonus was granted full powers as general and absolute ruler of Asia; the royal army stationed there was put under his command. Seleucus was given the satrapy of Babylon. Antigonus was made responsible for waging war against Eumenes and, after two years, had driven him almost completely out of Asia Minor.

In 319, Antipater died, having transferred his authority to Polyperchon, an old and devoted commander of the Macedonian dynasty. Polyperchon was opposed by Cassander, who enjoyed the support of Antigonus. The war of the Diadochoi was resumed with new intensity. The most important theater of operations was Greece and Macedonia, where the royal house, the Macedonian aristocracy, and the Greek citystates were drawn into the struggle between Polyperchon and Cassander; as a result, the royal dynasty ceased to be of importance. Philip III, his wife (Euridice), and Alexander the Great’s mother (Olympias) perished, and Roxana and her son found themselves in the hands of Cassander, who succeeded in subjugating Macedonia and a large part of Greece.

The struggle between Eumenes and Antigonus shifted to Persia and Susiana; in early 316, Eumenes was routed, and Antigonus became the most powerful of the Diadochoi. This turn of events compelled Ptolemy, Seleucus, and Cassander to conclude an alliance against Antigonus, in which they were joined by Lysimachus. Fierce battles took place at sea and on land in Syria, Phoenicia, Babylon, Asia Minor, and, especially, in Greece. The war continued with neither side able to achieve a conclusive victory; it ended in 311 with the signing of a peace treaty under which the Diadochoi emerged as independent rulers.

New wars among the Diadochoi began in 307, by which time the last formal tie binding the various parts of Alexander’s former empire had been severed: Roxana and Alexander IV had been killed on Cassander’s orders. Military operations were begun in Greece by Antigonus, clearly for the purpose of conquering Macedonia and gaining the Macedonian throne. His son Demetrius succeeded in driving the Macedonian garrisons from Megara and Athens and overthrowing Cassander’s puppet. In 306, Demetrius routed Ptolemy’s fleet near Salamis, on Cyprus; after this victory Antigonus (Antigonus I) assumed the title of king and conferred the same title on Demetrius (Demetrius I Poliorcetes). The other Diadochoi also proclaimed themselves kings.

In a decisive battle at Ipsus in 301, Lysimachus, Seleucus I, and Cassander utterly defeated Antigonus I, who was killed. Demetrius retreated to Ephesus with the remnants of his army; he still had at his disposal a powerful fleet and controlled some cities in Asia Minor, Greece, and Phoenicia. The possessions of Antigonus I were divided up, for the most part, between Seleucus I and Lysimachus. By this time the basic boundaries had been established for the largest Hellenistic states: the kingdom of the Ptolemies, the Seleucid state, Bithynia, and Pontus.

Further struggle among the Diadochoi took place principally in Greece and Macedonia. After Cassander’s death in 298 a struggle for the Macedonian throne developed among Demetrius I, Pyrrhus (king of Epirus), Cassander’s sons, and Lysimachus. Demetrius I emerged victorious, but as early as 287–286 Lysimachus, in alliance with Pyrrhus, drove him from Macedonia, which they then subjugated. In 283, Demetrius I, who had been taken prisoner by Seleucus I, died. In 281, Lysimachus was killed in battle against Seleucus, who won the victory, and Lysimachus’ state disintegrated. In 281 or 280 Seleucus was killed. In 283, Demetrius’ son Antigonus II Gonatas became king of Macedonia; he founded a new dynasty, which united Thrace and Macedonia under its power.

Height of the Hellenistic age (third to early second centuries B.C.). Military conflicts continued throughout the third century but tended to be limited in scope. The heirs of Ptolemy I and Seleucus I remained rivals in Syria, Phoenicia, and Asia Minor and clashed in a series of conflicts known as the Syrian Wars. The Ptolemies, who had the most powerful fleet, challenged Macedonia’s hegemony in the Aegean Sea and Greece. Macedonia attempted to expand its possessions in Greece but encountered the stubborn resistance of the Greek citystates. Pergamum became separate from the Seleucid state in 283, and Cappadocia became independent in 260. Circa the mid-third century, the northeastern satrapies seceded to form the independent Parthian Empire and Greco-Bactrian kingdom.

The most characteristic feature of the economic development of Hellenistic society was the growth of commodity production and trade. Important new trade and handicrafts centers arose, notably Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch on the Orontes River, and Seleucia on the Tigris River; to a considerable extent the handicrafts produced in such centers were intended for foreign markets. In the maritime regions of Asia Minor and Syria, new citystates were founded that served as strategic points as well as administrative and economic centers. Regular maritime routes were established between Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Macedonia; trade routes were created along the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf that extended as far as India. Egypt began trading with the Black Sea region, Carthage, and Rome. Money circulation and money transactions expanded, facilitated by the minting into coins of the precious metals stored in temples and in the treasuries of the Persian kings. The citystates that arose in the east attracted people of various occupations, notably merchants and artisans.

It was essentially in the period of the struggle among the Diadochoi, which lasted half a century, that there emerged a new Hellenistic society, with a complex social structure and a new type of state. The Hellenistic monarchies that were established combined elements of the citystate structure with such elements of eastern despotism as monarchical rule, a standing army, and a centralized administration. The land relations characteristic of the citystates, in which citizens owned their own plots and the city owned the remaining tracts, became more complex when rural territories and their villages were added to the cities. The inhabitants of these territories, although they did not become citizens of the city, continued to occupy their plots, paying a tax to the city or to private persons who had received such territories from the king and later added them to the city. All lands not held by the cities were deemed to be royal property. According to information contained in Egyptian papyruses, such land was divided into two categories: royal lands proper and “concessionary” lands, which were temple lands given by the king as a “gift” to his close associates or granted in small allotments (kleroi) to soldiers; soldiers who held such allotments were known as cleruchs (klerouchoi) or katoikoi (seeCLERUCHY). The inhabitants of the villages situated in some of these lands continued to occupy their hereditary plots and paid rent or taxes.

The complexity of land relations resulted from the social structure of the Hellenistic states, which comprised numerous social strata. The uppermost stratum was made up of the royal house and court functionaries, the upper military and civil administration, the more prosperous citizens, and the higher clergy. The more numerous middle stratum included merchants, artisans, personnel in the royal administration, tax farmers, cleruchs and katoikoi, the local clergy, teachers, and physicians. The lower strata consisted of the propertyless local population (laoi); in addition to dependent or semidependent farmers who cultivated the lands of the king, the aristocracy, and the cities, they included the employees at royal workshops in the branches of handicrafts that were under royal monopoly. Considered personally free, the members of these strata were bound to their place of residence or to a particular workshop or occupation; below them on the social scale were the slaves.

The wars of the Diadochoi and the proliferation of the citystate structure provided a powerful impetus to the development of “classical” slaveholding relations (seeSLAVERY); more primitive forms of slavery were also retained, such as the incurring of slave status in order to pay a debt and the selling of oneself. In agriculture, especially on the royal lands, slave labor did not to any appreciable extent replace the labor of the laoi, the exploitation of whom was equally profitable.

A different type of social development occurred in Greece and Macedonia. Annexation by Macedonia did not give the Greek citystates any substantial economic advantage. At the same time, the age-old traditions of independence in the Greek citystates were particularly powerful. In its attempts to expand, therefore, Macedonia encountered stubborn resistance, primarily on the part of the democratic strata, since the introduction of Macedonian garrisons was usually accompanied by the establishment of an oligarchic regime and by a worsening in the position of the demos.

Since it was difficult for the small citystates to defend their independence separately, they united into federations: the Aetolian League and the Achaean League. By the end of the third century the Aetolian League included almost all central Greece, as well as Elis, Messenia, and several islands in the Aegean. The Achaean League, founded in 284, by 230 numbered some 60 citystates and encompassed a considerable part of the Peloponnesus. The oligarchic leadership of the Achaean League, frightened at the growing social movement in Sparta, notably at the reforms of Agis IV and Cleomenes III, appealed for aid to the king of Macedonia, Antigonus III Doson. At the battle of Sellasia (222) the combined Macedonian and Achaean forces annihilated the army of Cleomenes III, and a Macedonian garrison was introduced into Sparta.

Exacerbation of the social struggle compelled the aristocracy of the Greek citystates to seek aid from Macedonia, which achieved its greatest political and economic strength in the last years of the third century. Taking advantage of internal complications in Egypt, Philip V of Macedonia, in alliance with the Seleucid king, Antiochus III, divided up the possessions of the Ptolemies outside Egypt. Macedonia took all the citystates of the Ptolemies in Asia Minor, as well as those along the coast of the Aegean Sea and the shores of the Hellespont; Antiochus III, after his victory at Panion in 200, added Phoenicia and Syria to his possessions. Promising liberty for the Greek citystates, Rome, which by 200 had subjugated the entire western Mediterranean, enlisted the support of the Aetolian League in 199 and the Achaean League in 198; it won over the propertied strata, which saw in the Romans a force capable of ensuring their interests. The wars between Macedonia and Rome ended with the signing of a peace treaty in 197, under which Macedonia ceded all its possessions in Asia Minor, the Aegean Sea, and Greece.

Conditions favorable to the expansion of the political power of the Seleucid state were created by internal complications in Egypt—troop uprisings in 216, an uprising of local dynasts in 206 in Thebais, and court intrigues—and by Rome’s defeat of Macedonia. From circa 212 to 205, Antiochus III conducted an eastern campaign, retracing Alexander’s route, and compelled Parthia and Bactria to acknowledge their dependence on the Seleucids. A war against Rome that began in 192 in Greece ended in the total defeat of Antiochus at Magnesia and Sipylum in 190; as a result, he was forced to give up all his possessions in Europe and in Asia Minor north of the Taurus Mountains. The Seleucids subsequently lost Parthia, Bactria, Greater Armenia, and Sophene.

The victory of the Romans radically changed the political situation. None of the Hellenistic states could now lay claim to hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean, and the minor states— Bithynia, Cappadocia, Pontus, and, especially, Pergamum, which was supported by Rome—assumed an increased importance.

Decline and subjugation by Rome (second to late first centuries B.C.). The unification of the western Mediterranean under Rome substantially altered the traditional commercial ties that Greece maintained with Sicily and the other Greek colonies in the West, as well as the ties, which had been strengthened in the third century, of Egypt and Syria with North Africa and Italy. Trade routes and economic centers began shifting. The military and economic expansion of the Romans was accompanied by the rise of slaveholding relations in Italy and the conquered areas: mass enslavement of the population took place, and the slave trade and the use of slave labor took on a wider scope.

The changes brought about by the Roman expansion were reflected in the domestic affairs of the Hellenistic states. There was an exacerbation of the struggle among the upper levels of society. On one side were strata primarily of the urban aristocracy, which was interested in closer ties with the Roman world and in the expansion of slaveholding. On the other side was the aristocracy linked with the royal administration and with the temples; this second group supported itself through the traditional forms of the exploitation of agriculture. The struggle spilled over into palace revolts, dynastic strife, and urban uprisings. There was an upsurge in the movement of the popular masses against burdensome taxes, abuses by the state bureaucracy, usury, and enslavement; the movement at times triggered a kind of civil war, which exhausted the economies and military power of the states, thereby making them less able to repel Roman aggression. Roman diplomacy played a considerable role by encouraging in every way possible the exacerbation of dynastic strife and conflicts among the Hellenistic states.

The Macedonian king Perseus attempted to enlist the Greek citystates in a joint struggle against Rome, but only Epirus and Illyria came over to his side. As a result, the Macedonian Army was defeated by the Romans at Pydna in 168, and Macedonia was divided into four separate regions. In Epirus the Romans destroyed most of the cities and sold more than 150,000 inhabitants into slavery; in Greece the boundaries of the citystates were redrawn. The revolts that had broken out in Macedonia in 149 and 148 and in the Achaean League in 146 were harshly put down; subsequently, Macedonia was made into a Roman province, the leagues of Greek citystates were dissolved, and oligarchic regimes were set up everywhere.

After subjugating Greece and Macedonia, Rome began an offensive against the states of Asia Minor. By penetrating the economy of the states, Roman traders and moneylenders increasingly subordinated the states’ foreign and domestic policies to Rome’s interests. In 133, Pergamum, in accordance with the testament of Attalus III, came under Rome’s authority. The Romans did not succeed in making Pergamum a Roman province, however, until they suppressed a mass uprising that took place from 132 to 129 under the leadership of Aristonicus. A center of resistance to Roman aggression in Asia Minor was the kingdom of Pontus, which became a major state at the beginning of the first century under Mithridates VI Eupator, who subjugated nearly the entire Black Sea coast. The wars between Mithridates VI and Rome ended in 64 with the defeat of Pontus.

While Rome was occupied in subjugating Macedonia, the Seleucid state recovered from its ruinous war with Rome. In 170 and again in 168, Antiochus IV Epiphanus carried out successful campaigns in Egypt and besieged Alexandria, but the intervention of Rome compelled him to abandon his conquests. The policy of hellenization carried out by Antiochus IV led to revolts in Judea in 171 and from 167 to 160 that became a war against Seleucid domination. Separatist tendencies were also manifested in the eastern satrapies, which were under the influence of Parthia. Antiochus VII Sidetes (ruled 138–129) attempted to restore the unity of the state by subjugating Judea once more and by launching a campaign against Parthia; his efforts resulted in utter defeat and his death. Babylon, Persia, and Media freed themselves from the Seleucids. At the beginning of the first century the regions of Commagene, in Asia Minor, and Judea became independent. The territory of the Seleucid state was reduced to the boundaries of Syria proper, Phoenicia, Celesyria, and part of Cilicia. In 64 the state was annexed by Rome and became the province of Syria; in 63, Judea was also annexed.

In Egypt, popular movements arose once again after the campaigns of Antiochus IV; simultaneously, a bitter dynastic struggle erupted and grew into a civil war that devastated the country. The Romans, in the meantime, did everything in their power to further the political decline of Egypt. Cyrenaica was annexed by Rome in 96, and Cyprus in 58. The Romans advanced to the very borders of Egypt, and only a civil war in Rome postponed the conquest of that country. In 30 B.C., Egypt, the last Hellenistic state, was conquered. As a political system the Hellenistic world was absorbed by the Roman Empire, but elements of the socio-economic structure and cultural traditions that formed during the Hellenistic age enormously influenced the subsequent development of the eastern Mediterranean region and, to a considerable extent, determined its specific features.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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