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Hellenistic civilization

Hellenistic civilization. The conquests of Alexander the Great spread Hellenism immediately over the Middle East and far into Asia. After his death in 323 B.C., the influence of Greek civilization continued to expand over the Mediterranean world and W Asia. The wars of the Diadochi marked, it is true, the breakup of Alexander's brief empire, but the establishment of Macedonian dynasties in Egypt, Syria, and Persia (the Ptolemies and the Seleucidae) helped to mold the world of that day into a wider unity of trade and learning.

While the city-states of Greece itself tended to stagnate, elsewhere cities and states grew and flourished. Of these the chief was Alexandria. So great a force did Alexandria exert in commerce, letters, and art that this period is occasionally called the Alexandrian Age, and the end of Hellenistic civilization is generally set at the final triumph of Roman power in Alexandria in the 1st cent. B.C. Pergamum was also prominent, and there were other cities of influence (e.g., Dura).

The bounds of the known world were extended by navigators, who learned, for example, about the North Sea. The upsurge of commerce brought a great increase of wealth to merchants and in general to the upper classes; this wealth was also reflected in a tendency toward the ornate and superimpressive in architecture, although town plans and buildings of the period have proportions and grace rarely excelled. It should be noted, however, that the increase of wealth did not reach the poor, who in general were more impoverished than they had previously been.

Education, however, was much more widespread than ever before, and Greek was the fashionable language of the educated world. The result was a great increase of volume in literature (see Greek literature, ancient) and a tendency for writing to divide into popular literature for the wide audience and specialized writing for narrow, highly intellectual circles. The libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum were centers of literary criticism and the compiling of anthologies and catalogs. The literature of the Hellenistic period has been stigmatized since the Renaissance as imitative and ponderous, but actually there was a great richness in some of the writing. Not only were there outstanding poets such as Callimachus and Theocritus but there were also new forms that emerged, such as the complicated but frequently charming romances and the works of Lucian. Similarly some of the finest—and some of the most familiar—ancient sculptures to survive to our day are Alexandrian (e.g., the Venus of Milo and the Dying Gaul).

Philosophical disputation was popular among the educated, and the contributions of the Stoics and the Epicureans to the world were great. The greatest contribution of the age was the preservation and enrichment of the Greek heritage for the use of Rome and succeeding civilizations. As Rome gradually overshadowed the Mediterranean world, the Romans learned much from the peoples they conquered, and Hellenistic civilization was absorbed rather than extinguished.

See studies by M. I. Rostovtzeff (3 vol., 1941), M. Hadas (1959), J. C. Stobart (3d ed. 1960), G. T. Griffith and W. W. Tarn (rev. ed. 1961), P. Grimal, ed. (1969), and F. E. Peters (1971).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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