Posted on 1 January 2020
Hellenism is the spread of Greek culture to the non-Greek lands conquered by Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC).
The period refers to the three Hellenistic kingdoms of Macedonia, Syria, and Egypt. When the last of the great philosophers Aristotle died in the year 322 BC, it was at a time when Athens had lost its dominant role in the world.
Alexander the Great
Athens lost its dominant role of power and influence due to the political upheavals resulting from the military victories of Alexander the Great, the King of Macedonia. Aristotle was also from Macedonia, and for a time he was even the young Alexander’s tutor.
It was Alexander who won the final, decisive victory over the Persians in 323 BC. And moreover with his many conquests he linked both Egypt and the Orient as far east as India to the Greek civilization.
This marked the beginning of a new epoch in the history of mankind. A civilization sprang up in which Greek culture and the Greek language played a leading role.
This period, Hellenism, lasted for about 300 years until around the year 50 BC when Rome secured the upper hand in military and political affairs.
Religion, Philosophy and Science
Hellenism was characterized by the fact that the borders between countries and cultures became erased. Previously the Greeks,the Romans, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Syrians and the Persians had worshiped their own gods within what can be generally called a ‘national religion.’
Now the different cultures merged into one great melting pot of religious, philosophical, and scientific ideas. You could perhaps say that the town square was replaced by the world arena. The old town square had also buzzed with voices, bringing now different wares to market – now different thoughts and ideas were on show.
The new aspect was that town squares were being filled with wares and ideas from all over the world. The voices were buzzing in many different languages. As time went on, Oriental gods were also worshipped in all the Mediterranean countries.
New religious formations arose that could draw on the gods and the beliefs of many of the old nations. This is called Syncretism or the fusion of creeds. Prior to this, people had felt a strong affinity with their own folk and their own city-state. But as the borders and boundaries became erased, many people began to experience doubt and uncertainty about their philosophy of life.
Late Antiquity was generally characterized by religious doubts, cultural dissolution, and pessimism. It was said that, ‘The world has grown old.’ A common feature of the new religious formations, during the Hellenistic period, was that they frequently contained teachings about how mankind could attain salvation from death.
These teachings were offer secret.
By accepting the teachings and performing certain rituals, a believer could hope for the immortality of the soul and eternal life. A certain insight into the true nature of the universe could be just as important for the salvation of the soul as religious rituals.
So much for the new religions. But philosophy was also moving increasingly in the direction of ‘salvation’ and serenity. Philosophic insight, it was now thought, did not only have its own reward; it should also free mankind from pessimism and the fear of death.
Thus the boundaries between religion and philosophy were gradually eliminated. In general, the philosophy of Hellenism was not startlingly original. No new Plato or Aristotle appeared on the scene. On the contrary, the three great Athenian philosophers were a source of inspiration to a number of philosophic trends during this time.
The Common Ground of Alexandria
The town of Alexandria played a key role here as a meeting place between East and West. With its extensive library, Alexandria became the center for philosophy. Hellenistic philosophy continued to work with the problems raised by the classical philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Common to all Hellenistic philosophy is the desire to discover how mankind should best live and die. The philosophy was concerned with ethics that put the individual at the centre. In the new civilization, this became the central philosophical project and can be split into five main groups.
The Rise of Rome
The new superpower of Rome gradually conquered all the Hellenistic kingdoms by 31 BC. From then on Roman culture and the Latin language were predominant from Spain in the west to far into Asia.
This was the beginning of the Roman period, which is often referred to as Late Antiquity. But remember one thing, before the Romans managed to conquer the Hellenistic world, Rome itself was a province of Greek culture.
Therefore there was a large overlap between the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The Roman period of the Ancient era of philosophy generally continues the classical Greek tradition and is usually considered to end with the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century.
So Greek culture and Greek philosophy came to play an important role long after the political influence of the Greeks was a thing of the past.
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