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Overview of the Hellenistic Period

The Hellenistic period (4th - 1st century BC) is a period in the history of the Mediterranean region usually considered to stretch from the death of Alexander the Great to the defeat of Cleopatra. It is often considered a period of transition, sometimes even of decline or decadence, between the brilliance of the Greek Classical Era and the strength of the Roman Empire, and is therefore often neglected by scholars. However, the splendor of cities, such as Alexandria, Antioch, Pergamon, the importance of foreign trade, cultural exchanges, and the dominant role of Greek and its diffusion profoundly affected the face of the ancient Near East later under Roman dominion.

Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire has long been seen by scholars to have opened the floodgates for the spread of Greek culture. (Comment: what is ignored is it allowed the spread of Eastern influences into the West.)The foundation of cities in particular has been seen as Alexander's desire to spread Greek culture across the Empire. Arrian explicitly says that a city founded in Bactria was "meant to civilise the natives". However, these cities also provided garrisons for unstable areas and allowed any soldiers unfit for service to settle.

Alexander attempted to create a unified ruling class of Persians and Greeks, bound by marriage ties. He used both Greeks and Persians in positions of power, although he depended more on Greeks in unstable positions, and also replaced many Persian satraps in a purge after his return from India.

He also tried to mix the two cultures, adopting elements of the Persian court (such as a version of the royal robes and some of the court ceremony and attendants) and also attempting to insist on the practice of proskynesis for his Greek subjects. This is probably an attempt to equalise the two races in their behavior towards Alexander as Great King, but it was bitterly resented by the Macedonians, as the Greek custom was reserved solely for the gods. Alexander also unified the army, placing Persian soldiers (some trained in the Macedonian way of fighting and some in their original styles) in the Macedonian ranks.

After Alexander's death in 323, the Empire was split into satrapies under his generals. Although most of Alexander's cultural changes were rejected by the Successor kings, other less definite policies were continued. The founding of cities was a major part of the Successors' struggle for control of any particular region, and the independence of the Greek cities was a political right often fought for (although equally often used for political purposes rather than ideologically). The Successors used the existing systems of government within their individual satrapies, but often placed Greeks in the top levels of power. The spread of the Greek language also increased, often being used in tandem with the native language for administrative purposes.

It is doubtful that Alexander did have a desire to spread Greek culture throughout the known world, but as so much is unknown about Alexander's motives, we cannot really be sure what his aims were. Alexander's invasion opened up the Persian Empire and allowed an influx of settlers from the Greek world into a new area, but the influence of this was often exaggerated in light of the later influence of various cities, particularly Alexandria.

Hellenisation after Alexander

There were four main Kingdoms claimed by rival successors to Alexander the Great. (Diadochi) These kingdoms maintained Macedonian and Greek rule over the native populations, and while they allowed the flourishing of native culture and religion, it mixed with Greek culture. This is the period in which Hellenization is seen to have had greatest influence.

The spread of Greek culture throughout the Near East owed much to the development of cities. Settlements such as Ai-Khanoum, situated on trade routes, allowed cultures to mix and spread. The identification of local gods with similar Greek deities facilitated the building of Greek-style temples, and the Greek culture in the cities also meant that buildings such as gymnasium became common. Many cities maintained their autonomy while under the nominal rule of the local king or satrap, and often had Greek-style institutions. Greek dedications, statues, architecture and inscriptions have all been found. However, local cultures were not replaced, and often mixed to create a new culture.

The spread of Greek language allowed Greek literature to spread throughout the former Persian Empire. The development of the Alexander Romance (mainly in Egypt) owes much to Greek theater as well as other diverse styles of story. The Library at Alexandria, set up by Ptolemy I Soter, became a center for learning and was copied by various other monarchs.

An example that shows the diverse spread of Greek theater is Plutarch's story of Crassus' end, in which his head is taken to the Parthian court and used as a prop in a showing of The Bacchae. Theaters have also been found: for example, in Ai-Khanoum on the edge of Bactria, the theater has 35 rows - larger than the theater in Babylon.

The spread of Greek influence and language is also shown through coinage. Portraits became more realistic, and the obverse of the coin was often used to display a propaganda image, commemorating an event or displaying the image of a favored god. The use of Greek-style portraits and Greek language continued into the Parthian period, even as Greek as a language was in decline.

Ref. Wikipedia

Alexandrian Philosophy Jewish Encyclopedia.com

While there were many earlier settlements of Jewish immigrants in Egypt, it was reserved for King Ptolemy I. to establish a large Jewish colony in Alexandria, either by compulsory deportation or by the encouragement of voluntary settlers, and thereby to lay the foundation of the historically important development of the Jewish diaspora in that part of the world.

If Palestinian Judaism, up to the time of the Maccabees, failed to maintain rigid barriers against the powerful onslaught of Hellenism, and found it could not restrain the tide of foreign influences, still less could this distant Alexandrian colony avoid reckoning with Greek culture and intelligence. Constant intercourse with non-Jews would alone have led to the abolition of many religious observances, impracticable under the new conditions, and so have brought about a species of adaptation, voluntary as well as involuntary, leading, moreover, to the modification of all nationalist and separatist conceptions or prejudices.

Influence of Hellenism.

Although such influences would naturally first find expression in the affairs of daily life, particularly through the ensuing neglect of the national language and the adoption of the Greek tongue, higher departments, especially literature, could not long thereafter escape the effect of this contact with foreign culture. From the time of Ptolemy I., Greek writers evince a keen interest in Jewish history and Judaism. And the latter likewise, on its side, for its own edification and for purposes of propaganda, is soon found adopting the outward forms of Greek literature.

The Greek translation of the Torah, which is probably the oldest example of Jewish-Hellenic literature, arose essentially, no doubt, out of the religious requirements of the diaspora, and certainly had not that exclusively polemic purpose which later legend loves to see in it. It laid the foundation, however, of the free development of a literature no longer bound to national forms; and in addition it provided the linguistic material for such development.

Jewish writers soon began to reproduce and amplify their sacred annals in the approved style of the Greek historians. The oldest fragment of the Jewish "Sibyllines" exemplified, in the middle of the second century B.C., the imitation of Greek poetical forms. Various attempts in epic and even dramatic form soon followed. According to some critics, indeed, the "Sibyllines" themselves were modeled after the considerably older fragments of Pseudo-Hecatæus, likewise composed for the purposes of Jewish propaganda and in the form of forged poetical "extracts" (Schürer, "Gesch." iii. 461 et seq.).

Judaism and Hellenism.

It took a long time, of course, for Judaism, under the influence of cosmopolitan Hellenism, to rise to the highest altitudes of Greek intellectual life, and to recast its own world-conceptions in the molds of Greek philosophy. One can readily understand that Judaism felt itself powerfully attracted by Greek philosophy. Wellhausen ("I. J. G." pp. 217, 218) has very rightly noted how the intellectual development of Judaism, with its tendency to become a purified monotheism, moves in the same direction toward which Greek thought tends, in occupying itself with speculative consideration of the universe.

In monotheism, as well as in the abstract God-idea of Greek philosophy, the Jew could see the logical result and completion of that which his own great prophets had yearned for and declared. His delight in the purity of the Platonic conception of God, or the strict logic of the Stoic theodicy, would blind him to the fact that both in the Platonic transcendentalism and the Stoic pantheism the living personality of the Deity-a self-understood axiom of his conception-was well-nigh lost.

In many respects, Greek philosophy must have appeared to him far superior to anything which the Jewish mind had ever evolved. There, in Judaism, was a scheme of thought concentered in the relation of God to the world and to His chosen people. Here was a philosophy which was not only a theology at the same time, but which, in response to a broader interest felt now by Judaism too, sought to penetrate with its investigations into every department of the universe and of life.

There, in Judaism, was a collection of sacred books, of different ages and differing views; a disconnected mass of proverbial wisdom; an abundance of ceremonial usages which were tending more and more to resolve themselves into mere unintelligible customs; a system of casuistry regulated more by ritual than by ethical considerations. Here, on the other hand, was a logical system, ruling moral life through sound and noble principles; there, a sacred literature written in popular and unsophisticated form, without regard to artistic rules or laws of logic; here, a language which exhibited the influence of centuries of artistic development, and whose skilfully constructed periods charmed the ear.


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