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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 civilize 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 equalize 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