Hellenistic Greece

The Three Empires


   While there is much controversy among historians about the significance of Alexander in Greek history and culture, there is no question that the Alexandrian empire was built because of his military genius and his unbridled ambition. Whether or not Alexander could have kept this unimaginably large empire together is an unanswerable and ultimately useless question. It is clear, however, that his death, only a year after completing his Herculean conquest of the world, spelled the end of the empire he had acquired so quickly.

   Alexander, who was only thirty-three years old when he died, had made no preparations for his succession. He had married a Bactrian princess, Roxane, when he had conquered Bactria; their son, however, was unborn when Alexander died. Alexander also had a brother, but he was both weak and unintelligent. So the generals which had aided him divided the empire among themselves in order to preserve the empire for the future, as yet unborn, king; this would guarantee that Alexander's empire would remain in the royal line of Macedonian kings. Like all powerful and ambitious men, they soon fell into conflict with one another. In two decades of conflict, several of the original generals were killed, along with Alexander's son and brother. By 300 BC, all that was left of Alexander's empire were four smaller empires, each controlled by military generals who declared themselves kings. Greece and Macedonia fell to Antigonus, who founded the Antigonid dynasty of Greek kings; this dynasty would eventually control Asia Minor. Asia Minor original came under the control of Attalid dynasty, but was eventually subsumed under the Antigonids. Mesopotamia and the Middle East came under the control of Seleucus, who crowned himself Seleucus I and began the Seleucus dynasty (every king in this dynasty would be named Seleucus). Egypt came under the control of Ptolemy, who crowned himself Ptolemy I and began the Ptolemid dynasty. The Ptolemids maintained Greek learning and culture, but adopted several Egyptian customs surrounding the kingship, such as inheritance through the maternal line (see the chapter on women in Egyptian history and culture).

   These empires periodically fought with one another, for none of these kings ever fully accepted the fact that the empire had fractured into three parts. Each believed that they were the rightful heirs to the entire empire that Alexander had built. Countries, such as Judah, periodically shifted from one empire to another as the fortunes of war went now to the Ptolemies and now to the Seleucids.

   Despite the constant conflict, the Hellenistic world was an incredibly prosperous one. Alexander and his successors had liberated an immense amount of wealth from the Persian empire, and with this new wealth in circulation the standard of living rose dramatically. Each of the empires embarked on building projects, on scholarship, on patronage of the arts, and on literature and philosophy. The Ptolemies built an enormous library in their capital city of Alexandria, and sponsored the translation of a host of religious and literary works into Greek.

   This period really marked the first international culture in western, middle eastern, and north African history. The Greeks imported their culture: political theory, philosophy, art, and literature all over the known civilized world. This culture would greatly alter the culture and religion of the Mediterannean. But the flow of culture worked in the opposite direction as well; non-Greek ideas and non-Greeks flowed into Greece (and Italy). They took with them their religions, their philosophies, science, and culture; in this environment, eastern religions in particular began to take hold in the Greek city-states both in the east and in Greece. Among these religions was Zoroastrianism and Mithraism; in later years, this international environment would provide the means for the spread of another eastern religion, Christianity.

   This process of the "hellenization" ("making Greek") of the world took place largely in the urban centers the Greeks began to zealously build. While the Greeks had for a long time believed that monarchy was a sign of barbarity, they had to come to terms with the reality of their new form of government. So they compromised. While they accepted the monarchy, the set about building somewhat independent poleis that had the structure of the polis without its political independence. The growth of these cities provoked massive migrations from the Greek mainland, as Greeks settled in these new, far-flung poleis to assume lucrative positions in the military and administration.

   Spread from Italy to India, from Macedonia to Egypt, Greek culture was the most significant of its times. The mighty empires of the Greeks hung onto this vast amount of territory for almost three centuries. Slowly, however, a new power was rising in the west, steadily building its own, accidental empire. By the time of Christ, the great Greek empires of the Hellenistic world had been replaced and unified once more into a single empire under the control of an Italian people, the Romans.

World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-25-96