What Should I Know About the Hellenistic Period?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 May 2020
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The Hellenistic period is a period of time between about 323 BCE and about 146-31 BCE in the eastern Mediterranean, southwest, and south Asia where large regions were dominated and influenced by Greeks and Greek culture. The Hellenistic period occurred in the wake of conquests by Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE), which extended across Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Persia, Judea, Gaza, Egypt, Bactria, Mesopotamia, and as far east as Punjab in modern-day India. The period featured a fusion of Greek, Middle Eastern, and Indian culture. Under Greek dominance, Hellenistic subjects began to adopt elements of Greek fashion, urban life, and religion. The etymology of "Hellenistic" comes from the word "Hellen," which is the Greeks' name for themselves.

After non-stop military campaigning for about 12 years, Alexander the Great (a Greek from the city-state of Macedonia) finally died at the age of 32, possibly from malaria, poisoning, typhoid fever, viral encephalitis, or alcoholism. After his death, his generals (the "Diadochi") warred over the conquered territory for almost 40 years (the "Wars of the Diadochi"). In the end, the situation stabilized into four states: the Antigonid dynasty in Macedon and central Greece; the Seleucid dynasty in Syria and Mesopotamia based at Antioch; the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt based at Alexandria; and the Attalid dynasty which was based at Pergasmum in Anatolia. Except for the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled Egypt for almost 300 years, most of these dynasties petered out after 150-200 years.

Though popular imagination seems to suggest that many of the area's cultures changed under the Hellenistic period, in fact, the phenomenon was most pronounced among the upper class and the urban elite. Beginning with Alexander the Great, one of the first elements of Hellenization was encouraging the founding or re-founding of cities, which could serve as administrative centers for the Greeks. The Hellenistic period also marked a point of departure from earlier Greek habits in that the Greeks were less reluctant to fraternize with the "barbarians" of the conquered lands, integrating them with the army and intermarrying elites.

One of the most interesting and enduring images of the Hellenistic period was the depiction of Ptolemy I Soter, a Greek, as a classical Egyptian pharaoh in statues of him. This close fusion of Egyptian and European culture was unique and never happened before or again. During the Hellenistic period, many of the wonders of the ancient world were constructed, including the Lighthouse of Alexandria 247 (BCE), which at between 115 and 150 m (380 and 490 ft) was the third tallest building the world for over 1,500 years (behind the Great Pyramids), the Royal Library of Alexandria (half a million scrolls, the largest in the world at the time), and the Colossus of Rhodes, a gigantic brass statue on which the State of Liberty was eventually modeled.

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