Chapter 5: An Alien Civilization

The Persian empire brought an unprecedented degree of peace, stability and prosperity in the century and a half after 500 BC. As the 4th century drew on, however, its political stability began to weaken and revolts began to rock the empire. Greek mercenaries played a major part in these episodes,and were highly valued for their fighting qualities.

Alexander the Great and his successors

These qualities were evident on a grand scale in the conquests of Alexander the Great.

After uniting the Greek city-states under his leadership, Alexander, king of Macedon, invaded Persian-held Asia Minor in 334 BC. Over the next ten years he completely conquered the huge Persian empire, and even invaded India.

After Alexander’s untimely death in 323 BC, his empire immediately began to fall apart as his generals fought each other for supremacy. By 300 BC, the empire had broken into three main pieces, each under a family of one of Alexander’s generals: Macedonia in Greece and the Balkans, under the Antigonids; a vast territory stretching from Asia Minor to India, under the Seleucids; and Egypt, under the Ptolemies. Other ruling families controlled smaller territories.

Despite the short time in which they occurred, and the swiftness with which they were divided up amongst his successors, the conquests of Alexander the Great transformed the Middle East for centuries to come. They imposed a new and alien culture on the region, the first time in history this had been done on such an extensive scale.

The Hellenistic Age

Statue of Alexander in Istanbul museum

Statue of Alexander in Istanbul museum

Alexander and his successors founded numerous Greek-style cities, right across the Middle East as far as Afghanistan and India. Each city was a self-governing community so far as local affairs were concerned; each had its gymnasium, temples, theatres, stoa (public square), town council and other institutions of a Greek city-state.[1] They were populated by Greeks and Macedonians brought in in their thousands to bolster the rule of the new regimes, either veterans of the armies, or immigrants.

Some of these cities became very large indeed by the standards of the period, especially Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Ephesus and Pergamum in Asia Minor.[2] These and the many smaller cities became centres for the diffusion of Greek language and culture throughout the region. Even the ancient cities of Asia Minor and Syria, such as Tyre, Sidon and Sardis, became Greek in language, culture, institutions and architecture. Greek cultural influences were felt far beyond the political frontiers of Hellenism: the statue of a southern Arabian[3] king is depicted in Greek clothes, and Greek styles had a profound influence on Indian[4] art and architecture.

Modern scholars distinguish this phase of Greek civilization from the earlier, Classical age,[5] by labelling it the “Hellenistic” period. Advances in the arts and sciences, begun by the Greeks centuries earlier, continued apace, and some of the greatest names of Greek civilization belong to this period – Euclid and Archimedes being prime examples. New schools of Greek philosophy appeared, the most famous being the Stoics and the Epicurians, and centres of Greek learning flourished throughout the Middle East, at above all at Alexandria, Antioch and Pergamum.

Non-Greek peoples, if not completely absorbed into Hellenistic culture, were profoundly influenced by it. For example, the Jews, who by this time were to be found in all the major cities of the Middle East as well as in their Judaean homeland,[6] translated their scriptures into Greek at this time, and Greek ideas became embedded in the Jewish faith.

The Hellenistic period was a time of economic expansion. This was helped by an international coinage based on the gold and silver standard which had originated in Athens. New trade routes were opened to the East, via the Indian Ocean,[7] using the Monsoons, and later, via central Asia, the famous Silk Road to China.

A hybrid civilization

Cultural influences were by no means one way, and alien elements were grafted onto Greek ways.

The Ptolemies of Egypt portrayed themselves as pharaohs; the Indo-Greek kings of Bactria were patrons of Buddhism; Egyptian cults spread throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean worlds, as did mystery cults from Mesopotamia and Iran.

Babylonian astrology exerted a strong influence on Greek thought. It has even been suggested that the ideas of the Stoics contained an echo of Buddhism in their call to renounce worldly ambitions.

Link: map of the Middle East in 200 BC


Many Hellenistic kings were worshipped as living gods – a thing which would have shocked earlier generations of Greeks, but was a centuries-old tradition in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

It must be remembered, however, that for the majority of people in the Middle East, the farmers in the countryside, Hellenistic civilization remained an exotic, foreign plant.

The Greek language and culture was mostly confined to the cities. Rural populations retained their traditional ways of life, along with their native languages and cultures.



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