The Hellenistic Period of Greece consists of the years between the reigns of Alexander the Great of Macedon (336 – 323 BC) and Augustus, the first Roman Emperor (31 BC – 14 AD). During this period, there was the establishment and consolidation of quite a few monarchies, which spanned from Greece to Afghanistan. These new kingdoms were consolidated under the Greek banner, so the Greek dominated the native cultures of various lands. Rather than Athens and Sparta being the focus, Hellenistic times covered nearly the whole of the Aegean. The continuing coexistence of tradition during the Hellenistic Period is not an indication of liberal pluralism. Greek tradition was still dominant among these kingdoms because the only way to gain entry to the new system of power lay in the adoption of Greek culture (Boardman et al 372). However, kings still showed respect for native cultures.
Noteworthy figures who lived and thrived during the Hellenistic period are the father of modern sciences Aristotle, Eratosthenes, Euclid, Archimedes, and Polybius (Simonin).
To the students of Greece’s Classical and Archaic periods, art during the Hellenistic age loses its way and has no distinguishing characteristics, and is seen as inconsistent, without a sense of purpose. However, Hellenistic art has some great achievements. In fact, some of the greatest Greek masterpieces were made during this time. Since the Greek culture was exposed to various cultures and traditions, the art works were scattered in a very vast area with a lot of regional variations.
However, during the Hellenistic times, the artistic center shifted from Athens to Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean, to such cities as Rhodes, Antioch, and Alexandria (Boardman et al 448). There are several noteworthy themes that have emerged in the artwork during the Hellenistic period. For instance, an interest in literary history and scholarship is one theme that can be detected in some forms of Hellenistic art (Burn 132). For instance, the illustration of obscure myths on major monuments were prevalent. An example of this is the Telephos frieze on the Great Altar of Pergamum. Another example of this is the marble relief known as the ‘Apotheosis of Homer’, found at Bovillac, Italy, done by sculptor Archelaos of Priene. This celebrates the winning in a poetry competition of a certain Alexandrian poet.
Animals, birds, and insects have become subjects instead of mere accessories in the artwork during the Hellenistic period. One image that was to become a favorite motif for Roman painters and mosaics is the highly realistic group of doves at a bowl of water.
Some of the best-known sculptures during this period are Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace, and Laocoon and His Sons. Sculptures were characterized by intricate details which could be viewed from all angles. The focus of sculptures went beyond perfection or precision, but proper representation of the subject.
Some Greek wall paintings were discovered recently, which greatly characterizes paintings of the Hellenistic period. One example is the Nabatean ceiling fresco in Little Petra, Jordan. This period is also characterized by the development of the mosaic, particularly the work of Sosos of Pergamon, who also likes to do trompe l’oeil in his works, such as the “Unswept Floor” found in the Vatican museum.
In minor arts, there was a proliferation of terra cotta figures during the Hellenistic period, which now expanded beyond religious purposes. New technologies such as bronze casting, glass blowing, and engraving gems became equally popular handicrafts.
Due to the vast topographical differences in Greek cities, the very uniform city-states were replaced by urban plans and large complexes that adhere to the natural setting. Over one hundred cities were founded in Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia (Burns 80). Rather than correcting and manipulating space, the new city planning of the Greeks during the Hellenistic period was that of conformity to the natural landscape of the place. Although there were numerous “classical” Greek-style buildings, they were colored and enriched by the elements of foreign cultures that surrounded them. Defining the boundaries of open spaces and linking one group of buildings to another was largely achieved by the clever and prolific use of the stoa, a form of building that had originated in the Classical period but played a significant role during the Hellenistic age (Burns 81). Stoas were multi-purpose buildings that were used for everything from public dining to shopping, storage of goods, shelter for pilgrims, or rooms for philosophical conversations.
Another general aspect of Hellenistic architecture is the composition of ensembles which were visually unified, whether by the use of recurrent motifs, or by the setting of one building as a foil to another.
During the Hellenistic Period, the Corinthian style became more popular than any other architectural style. It especially grew in popularity during the second and third centuries, with the most distinct building being Antiochus IV’s revival of the Olympian Zeus temple in Athens (Boardman et al 250).
One interior decoration that played an important role during the Hellenistic period was floral decorations using naturalistic vegetal forms. One example of these decors is seen in the 300 BC temple of Apollo at Didyma. This type of floral decoration was carried on to Rome, and was popular during the late second century.
The religions of the Hellenic Greek period were integrated with aspects of the religions from people groups of Asia Minor and Egypt (Sailors 27). Since the Greeks and other peoples lived side by side during the Hellenistic period, all their religious traditions resulted in what was described by Koester (157) as religious syncretism. Other than living side by side, though, the deeper causes were rooted in the dominant position of the Greeks, and were spiritual and psychological. Because of the mobility of the population, many Greek gods were brought to the east, and Hellenistic kings encouraged this development. On the other hand, eastern deities and gods were brought to the west by slaves. Immigrants to Greece transplanted their ancient gods through the founding of religious associations. One major element in the syncretistic process of religion during the Hellenistic period is the explosion of a combination of deities of different origins. The process began with the adoption of a Greek name for the newly imported deity. For instance, merchants and ship owners in Phoenicia named their Phoenician sea god Poseidon. Another result is the identification of Roman gods that assumed Greek features and adopted Greek mythology, although they had originally been divinities of different characters (Koester 158).
One of the most significant syncretistic phenomenon was the creation of a new religion borne out of Greek and non-Greek elements, such as the case of the formation of the cult of Sarapis (Koester 158). The religion of Israel, Judaism was also drawn into this syncretistic process during the Hellenistic period. Christianity, the major world religion that was developed during the Hellenistic period, adapted itself to a variety of cultural and religious currents and appropriated numerous foreign elements (Koester 159).
During the Hellenistic period, the cult of the Egyptian gods also became a Hellenized eastern religion, particularly the cults of Isis and Sarapis. Sanctuaries of the religion have been found in many cities. The varieties are striking, ranging from small meeting houses to the largest temples ever built in the ancient world. The astral cultic religion originated by the Chaldeans spread rapidly during the Hellenistic period, which resulted in interest in astrology. At the root of every Hellenistic cult or religion offering initiation rites are fundamentally Greek practices, concepts, rituals, and stories. During the Hellenistic period, in addition to the usual public worship and sacrifices, mysteries are offered to individuals who desire to gain more spiritually. Thus, secret initiation rites in cults or religions became a phenomenon during this period.
One noteworthy event during the Hellenistic age is the dispersion of the Jews, where thousands of Jews migrated to certain parts of the Mediterranean, which was a direct result of the Palestinian conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 BC. Many of them lived in Egypt and Asia Minor, and because of Persian influence, Judaism took on a spiritual and messianic character. Many Hellenistic Jews later became converts of Christianity.
Hellenistic Greece’s Influences in Contemporary Culture
Hellenistic Greek culture heavily influenced the world, and these influences can still be seen today. The spread of the Greek language to the east created a cultural and religious exchange between the east and west. The conquests of Alexander the Great spread Greek ideas to the known world at the time.
Greek art masterpieces were made during the Hellenistic period, and these works of art have exercised considerable influence on the artists and art critics of recent centuries, especially the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Boardman et al 447).
One of the chief by-products of the Chaldean’s astral religion which became very popular during the Hellenistic period was astrology, which is still prevalent today. Every daily newspaper and websites have horoscopes, and people still ask each other what their astrological signs are.
The Hellenistic Greek culture was also very influential on the Jewish culture. This led to the translation of the Hebrew scriptures to its Greek version, known as the Septuagint. The New Testament were originally written in the Greek common tongue, Koine. This was the primary version used to translate the Holy Bible into different languages. Millions of Christian today currently use and read a version of the bible directly translated from Greek manuscripts.
The use of a common tongue, to unify people from various cultures, also came from this period. The common tongue used during that time was Koine, a form of Greek. This was a unifying force. Today, English is used as a common tongue around the world. In the vast land of China which has hundreds of dialects, Mandarin is used as a common tongue.
Corinthian-style architecture, which became very popular during the Hellenistic period, can still be seen in many buildings today, such as the exterior of the U.S. Capitol Building, with 16 Corinthian marble columns, and the Supreme Court Building.
In Alexandria, the first lighthouse and the first library in the world were built. Both these buildings and the idea behind them set the model for future libraries and lighthouses that we know today.
Great men of the Hellenistic period contributed to contemporary culture and our understanding of the world. Eratosthenes calculated the earth’s circumference, and Archimedes helped us understand levers and pulleys.
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Sailors, Cara Leigh. 2007. “The Function of Mythology and Religion in Ancient Greek Society.”
Electronic Theses and Dissertations, Digital Commons @ East Tennessee State University. August 2007. Retrieved from http://dc.etsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3471&context=etd
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