Hellenistic Kingdoms: What were they and what were some of their notable achievements?
The rise and downfall of the Hellenistic Kingdoms began with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the birth of the powerful Roman Empire following the death of its leader, Julius Caesar. These kingdoms dynasties contributed immensely to the ancient world and saw the birth of many contemporary ideas and practices. For hundreds of years, these kingdoms would trade, ally, and fight amongst themselves.
So, what caused the spread of Greek culture and how did the world at that time respond to these major changes?
Meaning of Hellenization
Hellenization describes how the Greeks, along with their culture and language occupied most of the Persian Empire following the death of Alexander the Great.
In Ancient Greece, the Greek word for the empire was “Hellas.” But long before he died, Alexander was already on a mission to spread the Greek way of life. His intentions, whether for using culture to amass more power or to enlarge his ego, were wildly successful.
The Reigns of King Philip II & Alexander the Great
To fully understand the rise of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, it’s important to trace its steps all the way back to Macedon and the reign of King Philip II. After the downfall of Ancient Greece following the Peloponnesian War, there was a mad scramble for total power by its city-states. But eventually, none of the states wielded that much power to take over Greece.
But not Macedon. The kingdom was located in the outskirts of northern Greece. Even though its Macedonian royal family claimed to have had descendants from Greece, it didn’t stop the rest of the Greeks from disregarding them and seeing them as their lesser. But following the civilization’s downfall, Macedon was considerably much more powerful.
King Philip II of Macedon ensured that the kingdom maintained its power and used his reign to expand the empire. It also helped that the Macedonian army was filled with some of the toughest fighters and most astute military minds of the time. Philip conquered many states like Magnesia and Thessaly and famously defeated two Greek city-states, Athens and Thebes, simultaneously during the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. Philip’s son, Alexander, fought in those battles and even led the army that annihilated the Greek army.
Macedon’s victory in this battle meant that Philip had successfully brought large parts Greece under his rule. The Greeks hated their situation but had no choice than to accept the Macedonians as their overlords, so to speak.
Having conquered much of Greece, Philip turned his attention eastward, the king decided to embark on another military campaign. This time, it was against the Persian Empire. However, he never got to go on that mission, as he was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in 336 BC. That vision of Philip fell to his son, Alexander who was only 20 when he ascended the throne of Macedon.
Alexander continued ahead with the works of his father and embarked on the military campaign against the Persian Empire. He was an exceptional ruler and had many positive attributes. He was brave, fearless, and always led his men on the battlefield, fighting even when he was injured. Alexander’s charm and charisma made him well-loved in Macedon, Greece, and even among the Persians he had conquered! His reputation earned him the suffix, “the Great.”
The new ruler successfully conquered all of the Persian empire and defeated its king, Darius III. Through this victory, the Macedonian Empire expanded well into Assyria, Asia Minor, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Levant, Persia, Media, as well as regions in modern-day Middle East and the steppes located in central Asia.
In Egypt for instance, it’s said that Alexander was given what could only be described as a red carpet welcome after the Persian rulers had been removed from power.
Alexander the Great spent most of his young adult years fighting in the name of his kingdom and it negatively impacted his health. He died at the early age of 32 in 323 BC.
Alexander’s generals scramble for power and territories
Alexander the Great left behind a vast empire that was made up of many independent territories also known as satraps and this sparked conversations on successions amongst his generals.
The Macedonian king and conqueror was married to Roxana who was a princess from Bactria. At the time of his death, Roxana had been pregnant with their first child, who was born two months later. Prior to the birth of Alexander’s heir, the king’s generals were unable to determine the gender of the baby, so they argued about who would succeed the king.
The arguments brought division amongst the generals and successors. One side had suggested Alexander’s half brother, Philip III Arrihidaeus, succeed the conqueror. However, the other generals opposed this decision claiming that Philip III had mental issues and advised on waiting for the birth of his child.
Eventually, they decided on giving the throne to the half-brother, with one of the generals, Perdiccas, serving as regent, and if Alexander’s heir turned out to be a son, he would officially succeed his father. Two months later, Roxana welcomed a son, Alexander IV.
The remaining generals became satraps across different parts of the empire: Ptolemy, Antipater, Seleucus, and Antigonus (Antigonus I Monophthalmus) received Egypt, Thrace and mainland Greece, Mesopotamia (including all of the East), and Asia Minor, respectively.
The carving up of Alexander’s vast empire by his successors (i.e. the Diadochi) was anything but simple and peaceful. Alliances were formed by the generals to gain influence over the rest. In the end, decades of war ensued among the generals. The generals that came out tops ultimately went on to form powerful Hellenistic kingdoms that contributed immensely to arts and culture of the ancient world.
The Birth of the Hellenistic Kingdoms
After over thirty years fighting, only three major kingdoms remained. Below, we discuss those three kingdoms, as well as the contributions they made to the ancient world.
The Ptolemaic Kingdom
To enhance his claim as Alexander the Great’s successor, General Ptolemy stole the conqueror’s dead body from Perdiccas while the latter had been traveling to Macedon to bury the young king. Ptolemy took the body to Egypt, where he buried Alexander in a big tomb and established the Ptolemaic Kingdom with its capital, Alexandria, named after the former king.
With the establishment of the kingdom, Ptolemy was given then epithet “Soter”, which means “savior”. He earned that epithet for helping the citizens of Rhodes during a siege.
Although the Egyptians had accepted the Ptolemaic dynasty, they weren’t exactly enthused. That’s because of the dynasty’s Greek heritage. However, to ensure that they had a valid claim to rule over Egypt, the Ptolemies adopted certain Egyptian practices like using “Pharaoh” as their titles and wearing native attires.
Despite these adoptions, the Ptolemaic rulers still maintained their Greek culture, ensuring that their staff members were Greeks, speaking Greek and it was mostly Greeks that oversaw Egypt’s economic, political, and military activities. The local Egyptians, on the other hand, were responsible for the cultural and religious affairs and could only join the ruling class if they agreed to be Hellenized.
For many centuries, the Ptolemaic Kingdom remained the richest and most powerful out of all the Hellenistic kingdoms. Alexandria was undoubtedly the go-to place for higher learning thanks to the construction of the Great Library of Alexandria. The Ptolemies also built a number important infrastructures, including the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria. All of those works helped transform the city of Alexandria into the greatest commercial hub in the ancient world.
But like many other kingdoms throughout history, the empire started to decline steadily due to internal and external conflicts. During the reign of Cleopatra VII, the kingdom attempted to secure its relevance by allying with the growing Roman Empire. However, Cleopatra’s activities were unsuccessful and Egypt fell under Roman rule in 30 BC.
The Seleucid Empire
Seleucus established the Seleucid Empire which spanned across Mesopotamia well into the Himalayan mountain range in Asia. Because of its unique geographic location, it became an important trading hub that contributed to the wealth and power of the empire.
Like the Ptolemaic dynasty, the Seleucids built many cities, including its capital Seleucia, named after Alexander’s general Seleucus I Nicator. But ruling the Seleucid Empire was extremely challenging. Although it was prosperous, its vastness made it difficult to rule. There were fewer Greeks in this empire, but this small Greek population also helped make it the empire with the most diverse population.
In years that followed after the assassination of Seleucus in 281 BC, future kings struggled to control most of the empire. Even during the reign of Seleucus, the ruler had to return an Indian territory back to its king in exchange for some elephants.
Ultimately, internal and external conflicts (particularly against the Ptolemaic Kingdom) within the empire paved the way for an invasion by the rulers of the Parthian empire. As a result of the Parthian invasion, the empire became a Syrian state until it was captured by Roman general Pompey the Great in 63 BC.
The Antigonid Kingdom
The Antigonids maintained control over Greece and made Macedon its capital. It was also the only empire to have been established twice; first by Antigonus I Monophthalmos who controlled Asia Minor. During the battle of the generals after the scramble for territories, Antigonus I died in the Battle of Ipsus. His death weakened the first empire but it survived and later established itself back in Greece and Macedon.
Because the land was already home to the Greeks, ruling the kingdom was fairly easy. However, the previous wars fought before had seen a decline in the population, as many of the army officers and their families had moved to other areas across the previously large Macedonian Empire.
The empire was also often plagued with internal conflict and rebellions from the city-states, which the Ptolemaic Kingdom took advantage of to weaken the kingdom even further. Eventually, the Antigonid Kingdom would come to an end after two crushing defeats by the Roman Republic.
Other Smaller Hellenistic Kingdoms
There were many other smaller kingdoms and dynasties that were birthed after the army generals decided to divvy up the conquered territories of Alexander the Great. Some of these were the Nabatean Kingdom, Cappadocia, Judea, the Kingdom of Pontus, the Indo-Greek kingdoms, the Kingdom of Epirus, and many others. However, most of these kingdoms and dynasties failed to become successful powerhouses or maintain their power over a long period like the three that we have discussed.
Notable Achievements During the Hellenistic Period
The rise of the Hellenistic period brought many changes across various continents, from Africa to Asia, as many Greeks began to explore and integrate knowledge and culture outside of their world. Here are some of the notable achievements from the Hellenistic era that shaped world history:
Trade Expansions and Explorations
During the Ptolemaic Dynasty, Egypt traded with many other modern-day African countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea. They exchanged items for ivory and gold. During that time as well, many Greek explorers attempted to sail around Africa but were not successful.
Many of the Greeks who had settled in these Hellenistic kingdoms were also immensely fascinated with the stories of the new lands they lived in. This interest led to the birth of many historical accounts of life in regions like Persia, Egypt and Mesopotamia during that period. Most of these accounts were later translated into Greek and was perhaps the earliest sign of literary and educational globalization.
Development of Several Ancient Cities
The Hellenistic period also saw major infrastructural development across the former Macedonian Empire. The biggest city was Alexandria, which was also the main hub for education, culture, and religion. Other important and vibrant cities of the Hellenistic era include Seleucia, Antioch, Pergamon (also known as Pergamum), Rhodes, and Miletus. Also, many of the buildings in those Hellenistic cities had Greek-inspired architecture.
Enhanced Gender Relations
Women also received more recognition during the peak of the Hellenistic period. They were assigned more duties, oversaw religious activities, and years later, many of these empires had queens, with the famous of them being Cleopatra VII.
Although they needed the support of a male, most women became property owners, had access to funding, and were also in charge of managing their children’s inheritances. Some women also held public offices. Despite these changes, men and women were never truly equal and the men still had more power over the women.
Development of Scientific Study
The expansion of the Hellenistic kingdom produced many educational institutions in many cities like Alexandria, Rhodes, and Antioch. Many people traveled to Alexandria to study science at its library. Many Hellenistic mathematicians like Euclid and Pythagoras made huge strides in mathematics, and most of their works are still used in contemporary times.
The Greeks made huge advancements in astronomy. For example, Heraclides Ponticus was the first astronomer to theorize that the Earth spun on its own axis once a day.
They also excelled in medicine. Hippocrates had previously established the Hippocratic school of medicine during the Classical Age and many Greek doctors continued to study there during the Hellenistic period. They also studied in Alexandria. There were several other notable scientists that emerged during the Hellenistic period, including Eratosthenes, Archimedes, and Herophilos.
A notable example of the ingenuity of Hellenistic scientists came in the form of the Antikythera mechanism, a device that scientists used to calculate the movements of planets. Scholars and historians often hail the device, which is believed to have been produced in the early first century BC, the world’s first astronomical computer.
Unlike the Classical Greek era, Hellenistic period, especially in Ptolemaic Egypt, witnessed the support of the science and arts by the rulers. With the support received from those royal patrons, institutions of arts and science in Hellenistic era went on to incorporate many Greek ideas into their works.
The Hellenistic period also saw major transformations in art. Many artists adopted more realism and naturalism styles of painting. Artwork also became more erotic, as most paintings were strongly influenced by sensuality. Notable artists included Peiraikos and Alexandros of Antioch. The latter is credited with sculpting the famous Hellenistic work Venus de Milo sometime between 155 and 130 BC.
It was also during the Hellenistic Age that the famous statue Nike of Samothrace (also known as the Winged Victory of Samothrace) was sculpted. Considered one of the greatest piece of sculpture of the age, the statue is said to depict the Greek goddess of victory, Nike. The 5.57-meter work was discovered in the 1863 and has called the Louvre in Paris its home since 1884.
Sports thrived during this period. In Greece/Macedon, most of the kings enjoyed hunting, while the Ptolemies hosted sports-themed festivals. The Ptolemaic rulers and many other Hellenistic kings also hosted sporting events similar to the Olympics. Women also showed their athleticism by participating in activities like horse riding. Most of the sports events were organized for Hellenistic rulers to show off their wealth and exotic animals, a practice that would continue well into the Roman Empire.
Spread of Christianity
Many Greek religious practices fused with the other religious activities of the lands they occupied. But it also played an early role in the spread of Christianity. Seleucus founded Antioch, which became the birthplace of Christianity and served as one of the major places where the religion’s first followers came from.