II. Ancient and Classical Periods, 3500 B.C.E.–500 C.E. > D. Classical Greece and the Hellenistic World > 5. The Hellenistic World, to 30 B.C.E.
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
5. The Hellenistic World, to 30 B.C.E.
a. Economy, Society, and Culture
The Hellenistic Age began with a century of large-scale Greco-Macedonian emigration into the territories conquered by Alexander. The consequent spread of Hellenic civilization brought about changes both in the expanded Greek world and among the native populations of Asia and Egypt. The economy of the Hellenistic world, however, continued to be overwhelmingly agricultural. Colonial settlement was urban in character in Seleucid Asia, but predominantly rural in Ptolemaic Egypt. Traditional patterns of land tenure predominated in Asia, where large tracts of royal land were worked by peasants tied to it. Much of this land was assigned to prominent individuals, to temple estates, or to cities. The economy of the numerous Seleucid cities, however, followed the Greek model, with land owned by citizens who worked it with the help of slave labor. In Egypt, urban settlements were rare. Outside of the three cities of Naucratis, Ptolemais, and Alexandria, all land was theoretically owned by the king, divided into districts (nomes), and administered by both traditional civic officials—nomarch, royal scribe, komarch—and by newly created financial officers—the dioiketes in the capital, and the oikonomos and his underlings in the nome. In addition, military officials—strategos, hipparchos, and hegemon—oversaw the nomes. Royal land was also assigned to individuals, to temple estates, and especially to small-holder soldiers (klerouchoi, later called katoikoi) who initially held the land in return for military service, but whose tenure eventually became permanent and hereditary. All land seems to have been worked by native peasants attached to it, chattel slavery being relatively rare in Ptolemaic Egypt. Ptolemaic policy was to increase agricultural production, and innovations in farming were largely the result of royal patronage. We are particularly well informed by the mid-third-century archive of Zenon about large-scale reclamation in the Fayyûm, where new crops and techniques were introduced. But most innovations, in both Egypt and Asia, were directed toward luxury items and, with the exception of new strains of wheat, had little effect on traditional agriculture. In Seleucid Asia the major challenge for agriculture was to feed the numerous new cities, in Egypt to feed the metropolis of Alexandria and to supply the grain used in Ptolemaic diplomacy. In the Greek homeland, established forms of agriculture continued. In most areas, free citizens farmed with the help of a slave or two, while other traditional forms of dependent labor also persisted—helots in Sparta, serfs in Crete. Changes did occur in the pattern of land tenure, with land being accumulated by the wealthy at the expense of marginal farmers.  1
Although most trade in the Hellenistic Age was local—between villages and nearby urban centers—Alexander's opening of Achaemenid stores of precious metals, together with the establishment of new cities, caused an increase in trade and an initial boom. The amount of coined money in circulation increased greatly, and a monetary economy spread to many cities of Asia. There was a marked increase in maritime trade, especially in grain and slaves, but chronic piracy was a hindrance. Cities favored by trade or royal munificence became rich and competed in the splendor of their festivals and public buildings. Industry flourished in some cities, but its organization continued on a small scale: a proprietor and a few slaves, with rare exceptions. The new prosperity did not, however, affect most cities of old Greece, where c. 250 a serious economic decline occurred, marked by inflation and debt. Extreme concentration of wealth at Sparta caused military decline, which led to the attempts of Kings Agis (242–241) and Cleomenes (227–222) to redistribute land and cancel debt.  2
Alexander's conquests had opened up vast areas to GREEK IMMIGRATION, which continued on a large scale until about 250. Kings encouraged potential administrators and especially soldiers to settle in new Seleucid cities and in the Egyptian countryside, where land was granted in exchange for service. The policy had mixed success for the Seleucids, who relied heavily on native forces. Ptolemaic military requirements were met primarily by soldier settlers until the late third century, after which native troops were recruited together with Jews, Galatians, and Mysians. Hellenistic royal armies were large, sometimes comprising 60,000 or even 100,000 men. In the colonial areas some intermarriage occurred between early settlers and native women, but the Greco-Macedonian colonists rigorously excluded natives from military and civic institutions and all positions of power and wealth. Although small numbers of native aristocrats became Hellenized, the social pattern for most was set by village life, where native languages, religions, and attitudes prevailed. In Asia the economic and political focus was provided by the estates of native aristocrats or temple priests, in Egypt by royal officials. The exclusionary policy changed in Egypt after the Battle of Raphia (217), where Ptolemy IV employed 20,000 Egyptians in his victory over Antiochus III. Economic and social pressures caused more power to be granted to Egyptian priesthoods, land to be assigned to native soldiers, and Egyptians to be admitted into the administration. In the second century Greeks married Egyptian women and took up native religious practices. The influence of non-Greeks on Greeks was carried out by the movements of peoples and ideas. There was a major diaspora of Jews, and Egyptian cults of Sarapis and Isis, as well as Babylonian astrology, gained great popularity among Greeks. Both non-Greek and Greek populations continued traditional religious practices. Among the latter, new developments included the elevation of Fortune (Tyche) to a major deity and practices associated with Hellenistic monarchs: patron deities, dynastic cults, and ruler cults in which sacrifice was made both for and to living rulers.  3
Colonization provided an outlet for overpopulation in the Greek homeland for about a century. The depopulation noted by literary sources reflects elite behavior and concerns. The average family was small—one or two children— and infanticide (especially of females) by exposure was common. Outside of the royal courts, the position of women remained largely unchanged, the ambiguous evidence of comedy, mimes, and sculpture notwithstanding. Women remained tied to the domestic sphere and lived under the control of father, husband, or male agnate. Unmarried free women were rare. In Egypt some women had greater freedom of movement, others the right to divorce without the permission of a male relative. A new form of marriage contract to which the wife was party (the traditional contract was between father and husband) also appeared.  4
Cities came to be dominated by the upper classes—small groups of families or enormously wealthy individuals on whom the cities became increasingly dependent. Monarchy became a dominant form of political organization, while the importance of the city-state declined. The military resources of the individual polis were dwarfed by those of the monarchies and of federal leagues, whose protection was sought. Citizenship was no longer as exclusive as it had been. Honorary privileges and even citizenship itself were frequently granted to individual benefactors as well as to entire communities. Municipal administration reached a high level. Public institutions, such as gymnasia, were endowed by wealthy benefactors, often royal, and supervised by public officials. By the late third century foundations were being established to subsidize elementary education for boys and sometimes for girls.  5
Cultural and intellectual life flourished in various cities. Writers of Middle Comedy—Eubulis (c. 405–335), Alexis (c. 375–275)—and New Comedy—Diphilus (c. 360–300), Philemon (c. 360–263), and Menander (c. 342–289)—kept the dramatic arts alive in Athens, while wide enthusiasm for Athenian-style plays helped make the theater a characteristically Hellenistic building type. Athens remained the center for philosophy. The Academy continued the Platonic tradition with increased emphasis on skepticism, and the Peripatetics concentrated on scientific and historical studies. The shift away from metaphysics to practical ethics was fostered by two new schools. Epicurus of Samos (342–270) founded Epicureanism around a closed community that included slaves and women. Members sought pleasure by attaining a state of imperturbability (ataraxia). Adopting Democritus's atomic theory, and subscribing to the indifference of the gods and the universe, Epicureans denied the afterlife and eschewed emotion and politics. Migrating from Cyprus, Zeno of Citium (336–264) founded STOICISM, teaching in the Painted Porch (stoa poikile). Stoics believed that the universe was governed by reason (logos—God, nature, providence) and that virtue consisted of understanding and being in harmony with it, everything else being at best indifferent. The capital cities became great centers of intellectual life, with royal patrons competing for the talents of scholars, poets, and scientists. The establishment of the Museum (a research institute) and the Library made Alexandria preeminent. Here scholars such as Zenodotus of Ephesus (c. 325–c. 260), Aristophanes of Byzantium (257–180), and Aristarchus of Samothrace (217–145) collected and edited the “classics” of earlier Greek literature. Here contemporary literature also thrived. “Alexandrianism”—short, highly refined, esoteric poetry—was fashioned by Callimachus (c. 360–240) and Theocritus (c. 300–260? from Syracuse), while Apollonius of Rhodes (c. 295–214) revived the epic.  6
Alexandria was also the home for scientific research. Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratos of Ceos (at Antioch?) made great advances in anatomy, physiology, and pathology. Astronomical measurements were made by Aristarchus of Samos; Eratosthenes of Cyrene (275–194) computed Earth's circumference; and Euclid (c. 300) systematized mathematics, while in Syracuse the wide-ranging Archimedes (287–212) made startling advances in mathematics and physics. With the exception of lifting devices, such as Archimedes' screw, technological discoveries in the Hellenistic Age were primarily curiosities. General lack of interest and support for the application of technology was overcome only in military science, where advances in siege-craft and fortification were made by Ctesipius of Alexandria (fl. c. 270) and Archimedes. Competitive and cosmopolitan patronage, both royal and private, also stimulated innovations in art and architecture. Hellenistic architecture is marked by the relaxing of classical canons and the introduction of new building types and construction techniques. Public building saw the proliferation of secular structures (stoas, theatres, council-halls, arsenals), as well as of religious sanctuaries. Wealthier citizens resided in more elaborate private houses built around a colonnaded court (peristyle). Innovations in construction included the vault and the use of architectural drawings. Hellenistic sculpture is distinguished from classical by a wider range and greater complexity of style and subjects. Genre types, royal portraiture, and a baroque style in historical and mythological group scenes were some of the innovations of the period.  7
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.