Hellenistic Culture

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Hellenistic Culture


a term that is used chronologically to refer to the culture of the Hellenistic age and typologically to refer to the culture that resulted from the interaction of Greek (Hellenic) and local elements.

If a typological approach is used, the chronological and geographic boundaries of Hellenistic culture are expanded to such a degree that the term encompasses the entire culture of the classical world from the time of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the fourth century B.C. to the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century of the Common Era. Such a conception fails to take into account the qualitative changes that took place in ideology and culture after the Roman conquest and, especially, during the crisis and decline of slaveholding society.

The culture that took shape in the Hellenistic world was not uniform. In each area it was formed through the interaction of local, more permanent, traditional elements with the culture that was brought by conquerers and settlers, both Greek and non-Greek. The way in which this synthesis took place depended on many specific factors, notably the relative sizes of the various ethnic groups (indigenous and immigrant), the level of development of their economy and culture, their social organization, and political circumstances. A comparison even of the major Hellenistic cities (such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Pergamum), where the Greco-Macedonian population was dominant, shows clearly that each city had its own particular, characteristic cultural features; such features are even more evident in the inland regions of the Hellenistic states, for example, in Thebais, Babylonia, and Thrace.

All the local variants of Hellenistic culture exhibited certain common features, however; these features were determined, on the one hand, by the similar socioeconomic and political tendencies in the development of society throughout the Hellenistic world and, on the other hand, by the mandatory participation of Greek cultural elements in the synthesis. The formation of the Hellenistic monarchies, in combination with the city-state (polis) structure of the cities, fostered the rise of new legal relations and the emergence of a new sociopsychological type of man and society, both informed by a new ideology.

Substantial influences on Hellenistic culture were the highly charged political atmosphere of the time, continual military conflicts between the states, and the social movements within the states. Hellenistic culture exhibited more strikingly than classical Greek culture the differences between the life of the hellenized upper social strata and that of the urban and rural poor, among whom local traditions were preserved for a longer period of time.

Religion and mythology. The most characteristic feature of Hellenistic religion and mythology was syncretism, in which the heritage of the East played a major role. The gods of the Greek pantheon became identified with the ancient eastern deities and were endowed with new traits. The forms of worship of the deities changed, and the mysteries took on a more orgiastic character. Although local variants were preserved in the pantheon and in the forms of worship, certain universal deities that united similar functions of the most commonly worshiped gods of various peoples gained increasing acceptance.

One of the principal cults was that of Zeus Hypsistos, the supreme god, who was identified with such gods as the Phoenician Baal, the Egyptian Ammon, the Babylonian Bel, and the Jewish Yahweh. His numerous epithets, such as Pantocrator (Almighty), Soter (Savior), and Helios (Sun), testify to the unusual multiplication of his functions. Rivaling the cult of Zeus in popularity was the cult of Dionysus, together with the mysteries that made it closely resemble the cults of Osiris, an Egyptian god, and Sabazius and Adonis, gods of Asia Minor.

Among the female deities the principal divinity, worshiped nearly universally, was the Egyptian Isis, who embodied the traits of many Greek and Asiatic goddesses. A specifically Hellenistic cult was that of Serapis, a deity who owed his existence to the religious policy of the Ptolemies, who sought to unite the anthropomorphic figures of Zeus and Poseidon, familiar to the Greeks, with the functions of the Egyptian zoomorphic deities Osiris and Apis. The syncretic cults that emerged in the East reached the city-states of Asia Minor, Greece, and Macedonia and eventually spread as far as the western Mediterranean. Certain eastern cults were accepted by the Greeks virtually intact. Tyche, the goddess of fate, was elevated to the status of a major deity. Using eastern traditions, the Hellenistic kings forcibly implanted the cult of royalty.

Philosophy. During the Hellenistic age, Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum (the Peripatetic school), the Cynics, and the Cyrenaics remained active. At the same time, three new philosophical schools emerged and contended with one another for influence in the Hellenistic world: skepticism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism. All were united by a common interest in the individual’s behavior and cast of mind and in his achievement of inner independence from the world around him; as a result, the emphasis shifted from ontological to ethical problems.

The skeptical school, founded by Pyrrho in the last quarter of the fourth century B.C., believed that man could attain spiritual serenity by renouncing the quest for objective knowledge (according to the skeptics, a hopeless search), by refusing to make judgements, and by basing conduct on rational probability, tradition, and custom. The skeptics subsequently merged with Plato’s Academy, where Arcesilaus founded the Middle Academy and Carneades founded the New Academy; during the first century B.C. skeptical philosophy underwent further development by Aenesidemus.

Epicurus, who based his doctrines on the atomistic theory of Democritus and the ethics of the Cyrenaics, began teaching in 309 B.C. He believed that happiness and spiritual bliss (spiritual imperturbability and calm) could be attained by such means as self-control and the moderation of sensual pleasures. The Epicurean school, which existed until the mid-fourth century of the Common Era, was an important influence on the world view of the Hellenistic age.

The founders of Stoicism—Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus—were active in the third and second centuries B.C. Reviving the concepts of pre-Socratic philosophy, especially the philosophy of Heraclitus, the Stoics pictured the cosmos as a rational, fiery spirit, or breath, that comprised a multiplicity of logoi, one of which is man. Spiritual peace lay in subordinating oneself totally, through impassivity and virtuousness, to the cosmic intelligence.

Beginning in the mid-second century B.C., philosophy was increasingly influenced by the religiomythological traditions of Greece and the East; at the same time various philosophical systems were indiscriminately combined. A central figure in this process was Posidonius, who synthesized Pythagorean-Platonic and Stoic philosophies in a carefully elaborated and extensive system of Platonic Stoicism that exerted an enormous influence on classical philosophers down to Plotinus.

Natural sciences. The most important scientific center of the Hellenistic world was Alexandria, where the Alexandria Mouseion and Alexandria Library were located; these institutions attracted the leading scholars of the Mediterranean to the city. The art of bookmaking reached a high level of development in Alexandria, in part because of Egypt’s monopoly on papyrus. Other important centers of Hellenistic science were Pergamum, Antioch, and the island of Rhodes. Most of the scholars associated with these centers were Greeks, and Greek became the international scholarly language of this period.

The greatest achievements in mathematics and astronomy, which flourished in Alexandria during the third and second centuries B.C., are linked with the names of Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius of Perga, Aristarchus of Samos, and Hipparchus of Nicea. These scientists dealt, for example, with problems later to be solved by differential and integral calculus, with the theory of conic sections, and with the heliocentric theory of the solar system; their work did not undergo further development until modern times. The mathematicians associated with Alexandria included Nicomedes, Diodes, Zenodorus (author of On Isoperimetric Figures), and Hypsicles (author of Book 14 of Euclid’s Elements and the treatise On Polygonal Numbers).

Seleucus of Seleucia (second century B.C.), an adherent of Aristarchus’ heliocentric theory, established that the movement of tides is influenced by the position of the moon. Achievements in theoretical mechanics are associated primarily with Archimedes, although the pseudo-Aristotelian treatise Problems of Mechanics also became well known. The numerous inventions of Ctesibius fostered the development of applied mechanics, whose achievements were summed up in the works of Hero of Alexandria.

The campaigns of Alexander the Great led to an expansion of geographic knowledge. Circa 300 B.C, Aristotle’s pupil Dicaearchus drew a map of the entire known world and attempted to ascertain the dimensions of the globe; his results were specified by Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who made valuable contributions to a wide variety of disciplines. Posidonius of Rhodes wrote, in addition to philosophical works, several works in such fields as geography, astronomy, and meteorology. Strabo’s Geography, in 17 books, provided a summary of the geographic knowledge of the period.

The botanical knowledge that had been accumulated was systematized by Theophrastus. Great interest was shown in human anatomy and medicine. Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus represented a new stage in the development of the science of anatomy. Influenced by them, the empirical school of medicine emerged at the turn of the second century B.C; its adherents, notably Philinus of Cos and Serapion of Alexandria, regarded experience as the sole source of medical knowledge.

Historical scholarship. Historians generally turned to events of the recent past and current events for their subject matter. The topics chosen and the way in which events were interpreted were undoubtedly influenced by political struggles, as well as by current political and philosophical theories. Historians discussed such matters as the influence of fate and great men on historical events; the ideal form of the state, considered to be a combination of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy; and the merging of the histories of individual countries in world history. In form, many historical works resembled fiction: the exposition of events was skillfully dramatized, and rhetorical devices were used to produce an emotional effect on a wide audience. Examples of this quasi-fictional approach are the histories of Alexander the Great by Callisthenes (late fourth century B.C.) and Cleitarchus of Alexandria (no earlier than 280–270), the history of the Greeks in the western Mediterranean region by Timaeus of Tauromenium (shortly after 264), and the history of Greece from 280 through 219 by Phylarchus of Athens.

A second school of historiography took a more rigorous and dry exposition of the facts; its works, however, were not free from tendentiousness. Notable works produced by the school include the history of Alexander the Great’s campaigns by Ptolemy I (after 301) and the history of the struggle among the Diadochoi by Hieronymus of Cardia (no earlier than 272).

The most important historian of the second century was Polybius, who wrote a history of the world from 220 to 146. Subsequent histories of the world were written by Posidonius of Apamea, Nicholas of Damascus, Agatharchides of Cnidos, and Diodorus Siculus. Histories of individual states continued to be written, the chronicles and decrees of the Greek city-states were studied, and increased interest was shown in the history of the eastern countries. As early as the beginning of the third century, works were written in Greek by indigenous scholar-priests: Manetho produced a history of Egypt under the pharaohs, Berosus a history of Babylonia, and Apollodorus of Artemis a history of the Parthians; in addition, historical works were written in indigenous languages, such as the Books of Maccabees, which describe the uprising of the Judeans against the Seleucids.

Literature. The most important feature of Hellenistic literature is its narrower social scope in comparison with the previous period of Greek history, the city-state period. Only theatrical performances remained public in nature, and even in the theater the sociopolitical and bitingly satirical comedy of Aristophanes gave way to the New Comedy of Menander, Philemon, and Diphilus (second half of the fourth and early third centuries), in which the interest focused on private life and plot complications involving the family. No Hellenistic tragedies have survived, although performances have been attested throughout the Hellenistic age in Athens and virtually everywhere in the Hellenistic world, even in such peripheral areas as Armenia and the Black Sea region.

Beginning in the early third century B.C, literature developed in new cultural centers, chiefly Alexandria, where artistic activity was inextricably linked with the scholarly research of the philologists at the famous Alexandria Library. The study of the literature of the past compelled the Hellenistic poets to recognize the stability of existing traditions and the need to renew them; hence the intensive experimentation in long-established genres.

The elegy, formerly a medium of social and moral instruction, became a mythological narrative in the works of Philetas of Cos (c. 320–270), Hermesianax of Colophon (born c. 300), and Calli-machus of Cyrene. At the same time, Callimachus substituted the epyllia for trie traditional heroic epic; the epyllia was a narrative poem of moderate length that set forth, in a conversational tone, the ancillary episodes of a heroic account. In the Idylls of Theocritus, an everyday situation was often developed in the dramatic form of a singing contest or presented as a dramatic scene, or mime, from the life of an urban family. A similar array of topics constituted the subject matter of Herodas’ Mimiambi, which were discovered on papyrus in the late 19th century. The Hellenistic age witnessed a flourishing of the epigram, which focused on the theme of love: the arousal of passion, lovers’ meetings, and unrequited passions.

The tradition of the heroic epic, which was continued by Apollonius of Rhodes, was influenced by the scholarly erudition pervasive in Hellenistic poetry: the epic poet was expected to weave into his plot all manner of antiquarian lore, obscure words, and myths.

Of considerable importance for the subsequent development of classical and medieval literature were the prose genres, which had emerged in the Hellenistic age as interest grew in the folktale and in stories about strange lands. Notable genres were the erotic romance, involving legendary kings and generals (the Ninus Romance), and pseudohistorical depictions of the ideal social structure, as in the works of Iamblichus and Euhemerus. The literature of the Hellenistic age achieved considerable success in the description of man’s inner world and everyday life; the use of folk traditions expanded the boundaries of literary genres.

Architecture and art. The contradictions between the political and socioeconomic development of society account for the contradictory quality of Hellenistic art, which combines rationalism and expressionism, skepticism and emotionality, an elegiac quality with a profound sense of drama, and archaism and innovation. Local differences among artistic schools increased—notably among the schools of Alexandria, Pergamum, Rhodes, Athens, and Syria. In the territories east of the Euphrates, the interaction of Greek and local elements was initially negligible; after the decline of Greco-Macedonian power, there ensued a turbulent period of synthesis from which the arts of the Parthian Empire, Gandhara, and the Kushana kingdom emerged.

Hellenistic architecture is characterized by an effort to master large open spaces and to create an effect of grandeur; also evident is a desire to impress the viewer through the scale and boldness of the engineering, the logic of structural elements, the imposing quality of the architectural forms, and the precision and mastery with which structures were executed. The Hellenistic cities, notably Alexandria in Egypt, Dura-Europos, Pergamum, Priene, and Seleucia, were generally laid out in a gridiron plan; their visual character was in large part determined by large colonnades that ran along the main streets and by one- and two-story colonnaded stoas, which either stood independently around the perimeter of the agora or formed part of a building. The centers of the cities were dominated by royal palaces, assembly halls (bouleuteria and ekklesiasteria), theaters, and temples.

The Hellenistic cities were distinguished by stately architectural ensembles, in which the buildings harmonized with one another and with the surrounding landscape. Architectural ensembles were based on rectangular floor plans, and an emphasis was placed on horizontals and verticals in the surfaces of the facades. The individual structures, symmetrical in placement and in the design of their facades, were conceived as elements of a total ensemble designed to be viewed from the facade.

Although the architectural types of public, residential, and religious buildings dated, for the most part, to the archaic and classical periods of Greece, they were reinterpreted in the spirit of the age. New types of buildings appeared—libraries, museums (the Alexandria Mouseion), and engineering structures, such as the Pharos of Alexandria. The syncretism of Hellenistic religion influenced the architectural development of temples, sanctuaries, altars, and memorial buildings, all of which exhibited to a greater extent than did civic structures an interaction with the art of the East; examples are the Sanctuary of Asclepius on Cos, the Kom el-Shugafa catacombs in Alexandria, and the fortified city of Ai-Khanum in northern Afghanistan.

The originality of Hellenistic architecture is apparent in the impressive plastic compositions of the altars of Asia Minor, notably the Altar of Zeus in Pergamum. The Hellenistic order is distinguished by a free treatment of the earlier orders and a tendency to stress the decorative and formal at the expense of structural elements. In eastern Hellenic art the Greek orders were subjected to local variations, as in the pseudo-Corinthean capitals on the columns at Ai-Khanum.

Characteristic of the visual arts were the use of the classical heritage and the creation of harmonious figures, such as the Aphrodite of Melos, or Venus de Milo (marble, second century B.C., Louvre, Paris); in addition, there was a tendency to mechanically imitate the classical artists, which led to the production of essentially cold, falsely emotional works, such as the Apollo Musagetes (early third century, Vatican Museum). Sculpture, which ceased serving the civic ideals of the city-state, became more abstract; decorative, narrative, and, at times, illustrative qualities assumed a greater role, as in the Laocoön (marble, c. 50 B.C).

The plastic arts of the Hellenistic age were characterized by dramatism, expressiveness, and the depiction of suffering, all designed to work on the viewer’s emotions. The inner tension of the figures and the exterior dynamism of the forms interacted with the surrounding space. Also typical were unexpected uses of foreshortening, dramatic gestures, complex articulation, and bold contrasts of light and shadow. The characteristics listed above are most strikingly evident in the high-relief frieze of the Altar of Zeus (marble, c. 180 B.C., Staatliche Museen, Berlin) and the Nike of Samothrace (marble, late fourth or second centuries B.C., Louvre, Paris).

The complex and contradictory nature of Hellenistic sculpture was manifested in the coexistence of idealized portraits of monarchs; statues of deities on an extremely monumental scale (the Colossus of Rhodes); grotesque mythological figures, such as sileni and satyrs; proud, majestic figures, such as those of the Tanagra terra-cottas; precisely observed representations of old persons; and dramatic “portraits of the philosophers.” Sculpture for parks and gardens, imbued with a spirit of calm, underwent extensive development. Two types of Hellenistic mosaics are distinguished: the first is typified by a free, painterly manner of execution; the second is more severe and classical. Tendencies common to all Hellenistic art may be traced in vase paintings, glyptic, and toreutics, as well as in the fine crafted glass vessels.


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A. I. PAVLOVSKAIA (religion and mythology, historical scholarship), A. L. DOBROKHOTOV (philosophy),

I. D. ROZHANSKII (natural sciences), V. N. IARKHO (literature), G. I. SOKOLOV (architecture and art), and G. A. KOSHELENKO (eastern Hellenistic art)

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