Greek civilization passed through three distinct stages-the Hellenic Age, the Hellenistic Age, and the Greco-Roman Age. The Hellenic Age, or the classical period in Greek history, began around 800 B. C



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Hellenism
Greek civilization passed through three distinct stages—the Hellenic Age, the Hellenistic Age, and the Greco-Roman Age. The Hellenic Age, or the classical period in Greek history, began around 800 B. C. with the early city-states, reached its height in the fifth century B. C., and endured until the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B. C. From that date the ancient world entered the Hellenistic Age, which ended in 30 B. C. when Egypt, the last major Hellenistic state, fell to Rome. The Greco-Roman Age paralleled the period of the Roman Empire, which finally collapsed in the last part of the fifth century A. D.

Although the Hellenistic Age had absorbed the heritage of classical (Hellenic) Greece, its style of civilization changed. During the first phase of Hellenism, the polis had been the center of political life. The polis had given the individual identity, and only within the polis could a Greek citizen live a good and civilized life. With the coming of the Hellenistic Age, the city-state was eclipsed by the importance of kingdoms. While cities retained a large measure of autonomy in domestic affairs, they had lost their freedom of action in foreign affairs. The city-states were no longer self-sufficient, independent communities. Unable to withstand the rise of kingdoms, the ties between city-states and people were loosened, and Hellenism as a culture had to deal with the isolation and insecurity thus produced.

The exploits of Alexander as he founded his far-flung empire set in motion these changes. As he conquered all the lands between Greece and India, tens of thousands of Greek soldiers, merchants, and administrators settled in eastern lands. Their encounters with the different peoples and cultures of the Near East widened the Greeks’ horizons and weakened their ties to their native cities. Individuals therefore had to redefine their identities and examine their place in a world more complex, more foreign, and more threatening than that of the polis. Hellenistic philosophers struggled with these problems of alienation and the loss of a sense of community. Increasingly, their answers centered on freedom from emotional stress rather than around citizenship and social responsibility. People sought inner strength rather than civic pride, and this yearning, along with the use of the Greek language in Christian scriptures, combined to make the spread of Christianity across the Greco-Roman world one of the chief results of the spread of Hellenistic culture, as you will see.

In classical Greek philosophy the world was divided into Greeks and barbarians. Hellenistic philosophers thought in terms of oikoumene, their word for “the inhabited world.” In other words, people began to think of themselves for the first time as members of a world community. This paradigm shift allowed people to think of themselves, regardless of their diverse nationalities, as citizens of the civilized world. Without this notion the political expression of the Roman Empire would have been unthinkable, or impossible. Yet the rise of the Greco-Roman world did not produce a satisfying sense of belonging or a certain identity as did life in the polis. Again, Christianity rose rapidly in Western civilization in these circumstances because for most people it was the one image of community that stirred the heart and overcame the alienation created by the sudden changes resulting from the Hellenistic age.

When the premature death of Alexander in 323 B. C. ended the political unity he had established, his generals engaged in a long struggle to see who would succeed him, but none of them or their descendants ever had the power to re-create Alexander’s vast empire. By 275 B. C. the empire was fragmented into three, then four, dynasties. The first three kingdoms were the Ptolemies of Egypt, the Seleucids of Asia, and the Antigonids of Macedonia. A bit later Pergamum emerged in western Asia Minor. These Hellenistic kingdoms relied on mercenary armies that they periodically flung at each other or used to maintain order at home. In a sense, the Roman Empire was the only solution to end the quarrelling among these powers sparked by Alexander’s last words. Alexander’s generals and the dynasties they founded combined administration by Greek or Macedonian officials with a more Eastern emphasis on worshipping the king as a god or a representative of a God, thus making the will of the king into law. As you might guess, this arrangement was most successful with the Ptolemies in Egypt where any given Ptolemy merely stepped into the role of the ancient pharaohs complete with statues and temples. You will not be surprised, then, to note that of all the Hellenistic kingdoms, the Ptolemies’ endured the longest, holding out until the last Ptolemy, Cleopatra, killed herself in 30 B. C. when her wiles failed to stave off the conquering of her kingdom by Rome.

Hellenistic society was characterized by a mingling of peoples and an interchange among cultures. The ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, and even that of the Hebrews contributed to the traditions of Hellenism, but the Hellenistic world also knew a kind of colonialism as Greeks founded cities throughout the East where Greek architecture, schools, temples, theaters, and gymnasia predominated. Inhabitants of these cities were either Greek or native peoples eager to adopt Greek ways in order to rise in the various kingdoms. Certain cities became capitals of regions and were populated by tens of thousands of people with the largest, Alexandria in Egypt, containing as many as one million. This gem of the Ptolemaic kingdom in Egypt was an example of a bustling cosmopolitan center with a frenzied economic and cultural exchange unlike anything known in classical Greece. Amidst these conditions, Greeks who had favored moderation while back in their home city-states abandoned civil and moral restraint in a competitive struggle for wealth and power.

This cultural diversity was mirrored in the armies of the post-Alexandrian kings. Over a dozen ethnic and cultural groups could be found among Hellenistic mercenary armies. The armies led a proliferation of Greek urban institutions and ideas as they patrolled the kingdoms, including a new universal form of the Greek language called koine. This uniform language and a preference for a monetary economy expanded trade dramatically along with banking. The spread of Greek civilization in this manner formed a cultural common denominator from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River, although the Hellenistic culture thus created was limited largely to cities. Wherever the architecture or the armies of Hellenistic dynasties set foot, there was Hellenism. Villagers in the countryside resisted change.

The spread of Greek culture to “the inhabited world” spawned advances in literature including the writing of history. There were also Hellenistic giants of mathematics, science, and philosophy who wrote down their ideas. Some writers viewed Homeric epics to be the highest of literary achievements and contented themselves with writing short poems about the sky, wind, hills, trees, flowers, and wildlife (pastoral poems). At least one writer, Apollonius of Rhodes, attempted to copy Homer’s greatness by producing an epic poem. Apollonius wrote the Argonautica, the story of Jason’s search for the Golden Fleece borrowing from the characters of Medea with which you are or will be familiar. The story was made into a goofy film before I was born just in time for me to enjoy it on television as a kid. You might be interested to note after reading some classical Greek plays like Antigone that the most famous Athenian playwright of the Hellenistic age, Menander, left off writing about politics and public affairs (the submission of Athens to outside rulers having lowered Athenians’ pride a bit). Menander wrote about private lives in love stories filled with stock characters like the clever slave, the young playboy, the elderly seducer, and the heroine in trouble. Ask yourself how many modern movies still use them. Our nod to history will be in the person of Polybius, a disciple of Thucydides who kept on writing history using eyewitness accounts, checking his sources, and striving for objectivity all with the purpose of understanding why things happened—in his case why Rome rose to take over the Mediterranean world.

During the Hellenistic Age, Greek scientific achievement reached its height. The vast amount of data in botany, zoology, geography, and astronomy collected by Alexander’s staff stimulated an outburst of activity. Hellenistic scientists attempted a rational analysis of nature, engaged in research, organized information in a logical fashion, devised procedures of mathematical proof, separated medicine from magic, grasped the theory of experiment, and applied scientific principles to mechanical devices. In short, they came close to creating the modern world, but not quite. The giant city of Alexandria in Egypt contributed heavily to the synthesis of all this new information. Alexandria had a museum called the Museum that attracted leading scholars and contained a library of more than 500,000 volumes as well as botanical gardens and an observatory. The Museum thus more resembled a research institute or university than our idea of a museum. Alexandrian doctors dissected human cadavers and discovered new organs, distinguished between arteries and veins (without quite conceiving of the circulation of blood), and divided nerves into motor and sensory systems. Their investigations took the study of anatomy to levels it would not surpass until the 1500s A. D.

In another science, Aristarchus (310-230 B. C.) of Alexandria said the sun was the center of the universe, the planets revolved around it, and stars are situated great distances from the earth! His ideas were rejected, though, largely because he posited circular orbits for the planets. An earth-centered view of the universe was restored (going back to an astronomer named Ptolemy) and this belief predominated until Copernicus rediscovered Aristarchus’s theory 18 centuries later. The observed motions of the planets then were revealed to be ovals, but Aristarchus came remarkably close. Around 300 B. C., another Alexandrian named Euclid creatively compiled some earlier developments in mathematics into a book called Elements of Geometry. Euclid’s hundreds of proofs, derived from reasoning alone, are a monumental accomplish of the rational mind that one historian of science said was as “marvelous in its symmetry, inner beauty, and clearness as the Parthenon, but incomparably more complex and durable.” The last of our Alexandrian geniuses, Eratosthenes (c. 275-195 B. C.), was a geographer who sought a scientific understanding of the world that Alexander had discovered for the Greek culture to explore. Eratosthenes divided “the inhabited world” into climatic zones, declared that all oceans join, and with what is described as extraordinary ingenuity measured the circumference of the earth to within 200 miles! Of course this means that ancient Greek thinkers borrowed from Babylonian thinkers and understood that the earth is round, or better, spherical.

Archimedes is perhaps the most famous of all Hellenistic scientists because of one celebratory outburst he is said to have shouted when he discovered the principle of specific gravity. Archimedes was not Alexandrian but lived in Syracuse on Sicily from 287-212 B. C. When given the task to determine if a ruler’s golden crown was made of pure gold, he discovered how to use the volume of an object to measure it, divide by the weight of water of equal volume, and thus determine its density. This idea came to him while he reclined in a bath, or more properly, while he got into and out of a bath tub several times and watched the waterline rise and fall as his body displaced the water. He is reported to have run into the streets of Syracuse naked shouting, “Eureka!” which means “I have found it!” In the process he also discovered why things float—they displace a greater weight of water than their own weight. Archimedes also created a device called the Archimedes Screw for lifting water and ingenious siege weapons for the defense of his city. Interestingly, Archimedes valued his theoretical insights far more than his practical engineering feats. In this regard he was a classical Greek.

Turning to the philosophical achievements of Hellenistic culture, there is a direct connection from the philosophy of this new age back to that of classical Greece. Both eras’ philosophers believed the cosmos was governed by universal principles intelligible to the rational mind. Also, both Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophers were concerned with achieving the good life. Like Socrates, Hellenistic philosophers taught that morality involved self-mastery. With a wider world, greater diversity, and a loss of identity however, Hellenistic philosophers dealt more with searching for the personal destiny of each individual. They were thus more inclined to theorize about the human condition rather than about nature, and they sought to make it possible for people to live ethically independent and happily in a hostile and competitive world. Their stress on peace of mind for the individual made them sound much more like moralists or religious teachers than classical Greek philosophers. Three principal schools of philosophy arose in the Hellenistic world: Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism (or Cynicism).

Epicurus lived from 342-270 B. C. and founded a school in Athens. Much unlike most Athenians, however, he taught that passivity was the key to happiness and that people should withdraw from civic life. Wise people, he said, should refrain from public affairs, wealth, power, fame, and even from love or hate. All of these pursuits provoked anxiety as did any attempt to please the gods. He reasoned that if Democritus was correct in that all things were made of colliding atoms, the human soul was just a temporary combination of atoms that would ultimately dissipate. People could only be happy if they were physically and emotionally free from pain, worry, and fear. Therefore one should not give way even to the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake (hedonism) because only rational pursuit of happiness could avoid the unpleasant aftereffects of merely sensual pleasures like overeating or excessive drinking. Epicureans, then, were not merely pleasure-seekers as is commonly thought. Epicurus taught more a path of pain-avoidance. When once a famous Epicurean was approached while sitting in a tub for hours and asked if he needed anything, he replied only, “Please stand out of my sunlight.”

Another school of thought was founded in Athens by Zeno (335-263 B. C.) which would go on to become the most important Hellenistic philosophy. You didn’t think a great world-shaping culture would be forged by people all sitting around in bath tubs avoiding conflict, did you? Zeno’s teachings were called Stoicism after a place in Athens known as the Stoa where he lectured. Zeno argued that a person’s only hope in a world fraught with uncertainties was inner strength. The universe contained a principle of order called variously the Divine Fire, Divine Reason (logos), or just God. People shared in the logos which was implanted into every human soul. Stoicism said that since reason was common to all, all human beings were essentially brothers and fundamentally equal. One must always carry himself, then, in dignity and recognize the dignity in others. Happiness came in disciplining the emotions making them subordinate to the rational part of the soul. Stoics believed that people could perfect themselves. Wise people ordered their lives according to natural laws in harmony with the logos. Such persons attain an inner peace undisturbed by life’s misfortunes, and thus Stoicism appealed even to slaves. Stoicism was another idea without which it is unlikely the Roman Empire would have been possible for Zeno taught that all mankind holds a common citizenship and should be governed by a worldwide law. In contrast to Epicurus, Zeno taught his followers to endure the pain of contact with the world by withholding outward expressions of emotion, not by withdrawing from pain. Stoics, therefore, were much more inclined to act for the good of others out of sense of duty.



Skeptics, as you might have guessed, merely taught that one could only achieve happiness by believing that other peoples’ beliefs were unable to produce happiness. Some Skeptics manifested this belief by teaching indifference to all theories but urged outward conformity to false ideas merely to avoid arguments and having to explain oneself all the time. Skeptics said the life of the mind did not bring either truth or happiness. Why bother? By suspending judgment, by recognizing the inability to understand, by not committing oneself to a system of belief, one could achieve peace of mind. Individuals, one Skeptic said, should go their way “with ever a smile and never a passion.” These Skeptics, or Cynics, were hostile to intellectuals and to their ideas. More sophisticated Skeptics contented themselves with pointing out the limitations and weaknesses of theories rather than by avoiding ideas altogether. Thus, Carneades of Cyrene (213-129 B. C.) insisted that all ideas, even mathematical principles and scientific theories, must be regarded as hypotheses and assumptions, not as absolutes. He said the principles of religion rested on faith and could not be rationally defended. Without any certainty, only probability, morality could only be derived from practical experience, not from dogma.

The Hellenistic Age encompassed the period from the death of Alexander to the formation of the Roman Empire. For three centuries, Greek civilization spread both east and west until Romans were the first to put the theories of a world community into action in the form of universal laws and institutions. Some scholars point to this series of events as priming the West to ask the questions that Christianity answered, thus propelling this message of personal salvation to all “the inhabited world.” Linguists, for example, point out that koine Greek is the least synonymous language of the ancient world, that is, there are the fewest number of synonyms. As the language of the New Testament, then, it was particularly well suited for delineating fine points of doctrine and for avoiding confusion over what was meant by a word like, say, love. Whereas English has one word for love, koine Greek had at least three. Christian scholars claim, of course, that all of this was by design. Skeptics, of course, disagree. Do you see how Hellenism changed the world?


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