Alexander the Great conquered much of his known world in merely 10 years. After his sudden death, those who followed him founded a violent but creative new world based on Greek culture.
King Phillip II of Macedonia, a kingdom north of Greece, conquered all of the Greek city-states. When he was assassinated in 336 B.C., his 20-year-old son Alexander assumed the throne. Greek teachers, including the great philosopher Aristotle, had educated the young king. Already a seasoned warrior, he had accompanied his father on military campaigns as a cavalry commander.
King Alexander solidified his authority at home and violently crushed a revolt by the Greek city-state of Thebes. Then, he made plans to liberate the Greek cities in Asia Minor (now Turkey) from Persia and to punish the Persians for destroying Athens about 150 years earlier. The Persians were ruled by Darius III, known as the “Great King.”
In the spring of 334 B.C., Alexander led a Macedonian force of 35,000 men across the Hellespont, the narrow strait that separates Europe from Asia. When he reached the other side, he drove his javelin into the ground, symbolizing that his new empire would be “won by the spear.”
Alexander had little trouble defeating the Persians in Asia Minor, where Darius did not personally command his troops. But when Alexander and his army reached the city of Gordium, he confronted a confounding puzzle.
In Gordium, there was a chariot with a complicated knot tied by an ancient king. According to legend, the one who could untie this knot would rule the world. Many had tried, but all had failed to untie the Gordian Knot. Alexander solved the puzzle in his own direct way: He sliced the knot in two with his sword.
Alexander then led his army south through Jerusalem and into Egypt, which surrendered without a fight. There he consulted an Egyptian oracle (speaker for the gods) who, Alexander said, referred to him as the son of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods.
Before leaving Egypt, Alexander ordered the building of a new city named Alexandria. Later, it would become the center of a large Greek-based, or Hellenistic, civilization (Hellas = Greece).
Alexander’s Empire - Macedonia
In 331 B.C., Alexander invaded Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and decisively defeated Darius III, who fled the battlefield. The conquering king soon captured the Mesopotamian capital of Babylon and proclaimed himself “King of Babylon, King of Asia, King of the Four Quarters of the World.”
Alexander next entered the Persian homeland. He spared Susa, Persia’s capital, when it surrendered. He burned, however, the great palace city of Persepolis in revenge for the Persian destruction of Athens.
The threat from Darius had been removed. He was murdered by his own provincial governors (called satraps), hoping to gain favor with Alexander. In turn, Alexander married Roxane, the daughter of one of Darius’ satraps.
With no major army to oppose him, Alexander conquered lands near the Caspian Sea. Continuing his conquests, he drove eastward into what is now Afghanistan and finally across the Indus River into western India. Alexander wanted to go farther, but he stopped when his men complained they would never see home again.
Having conquered the known world in only 10 years, Alexander led his men back to Persia. At Susa, he organized a mass marriage ceremony between thousands of his men and Persian women. Although already married to Roxane, he married a daughter of Darius. The mixed marriages at Susa were part of Alexander’s idea to fuse the Macedonian, Greek, and Asian peoples into one “universal empire.”
Like the Greeks, Alexander considered the Asians to be “barbarians.” Even so, he attempted to adopt some of their customs to smooth the way for his new Hellenistic empire.
Alexander began to wear Persian clothing and required his men to do the same. He insisted that everyone follow the Persian practice of prostrating themselves (lying flat on the floor) when approaching him on the throne. He also appointed some of Darius’ satraps as provincial officials and even included some Persian soldiers in his Macedonian army.
In 323 B.C., Alexander returned to Babylon and declared himself an “invincible god.” He planned to conquer Arabia and North Africa, build great cities, and merge all his conquered peoples into a great “brotherhood of mankind.” His dreams ended, however, when he came down with a fever (probably malaria) and died suddenly at age 33.
Alexander did not have a plan for who would inherit his empire. His Persian wife, Roxane, gave birth to a son shortly after Alexander died. Alexander also had an illegitimate half-brother, but he was mentally incompetent. Alexander’s generals in Babylon, called his “Successors,” arrived at a compromise. They named Alexander’s newborn son and his half-brother “co-kings” with one of the Successors temporarily ruling in their names.
What followed was nearly a half century of violence. Civil war broke out. Alliances were formed and broken. Both co-kings were murdered. At one point, six Successors proclaimed themselves king. Finally, by about 280 B.C., three major Hellenistic kingdoms had formed—one in Egypt, one in Southwest Asia, and another in the Macedonian homeland.
The Ptolemies in Egypt
One of Alexander’s Successors, Ptolemy, carved out his kingdom in Egypt. Alone among the Successors, he did not attempt to regain control of Alexander’s entire empire. He did, however, proclaim himself divine with the title of “Savior.”
Ptolemy I established a centralized bureaucracy. It imposed burdensome taxes, set up state monopolies, and regulated the economy. He and the dynasty he founded needed lots of money to finance military adventures in the eastern Mediterranean and six wars with the neighboring Seleucid Kingdom.
Egypt’s capital, Alexandria, was the largest of the new Hellenistic cities. It had a double harbor, which soon made Alexandria the center of trade between the Mediterranean countries and Asia.
Alexandria was also a center for Hellenistic science. Astronomers, mathematicians, geographers, and other scientists made discoveries, using Aristotle’s “scientific method” of observation to learn the truth about the natural world. For example, Herophilus dissected bodies to gain knowledge about human anatomy.
The Library of Alexandria was the jewel of the city and the entire Hellenistic world. Over a half-million cataloged papyrus scrolls contained the writings of Greek and non-Greek philosophers, historians, playwrights, poets, scientists, and others. Athens sent Aristotle’s personal library there after he died. The great library also held translations of the first books of the Hebrew Bible.
The Seleucids in Southwest Asia
Another of Alexander’s Successors, Seleucus, formed a kingdom that included Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia in Southwest Asia. The largest part of Alexander’s conquered lands, it contained peoples with many different languages, religions, and traditions.
The Seleucid rulers, like the other Hellenistic kings, abandoned Alexander’s idea of including conquered peoples in helping govern the kingdom. Macedonians and Greeks made up the ruling class.
The Seleucid kings considered themselves absolute, even god-like, monarchs. Their primary goal was to hold on to power while defending and expanding the kingdom by constant warfare.
The Seleucids built many more cities than the other Hellenistic monarchs. Built on a grid, their cities brimmed with large buildings featuring the first widespread use of arch and vault architecture. Huge outdoor theaters, holding up to 20,000 people, were a trademark of Seleucid cities.
Immigrants from Macedonia and Greece colonized many of the new cities. Macedonian and Greek women often owned businesses and took on a more active role in public affairs than in their homeland. Ethnically diverse native peoples, including slaves, also populated these cities. While frequently proclaimed as “free” or even “democratic,” Seleucid cities remained under the tight control of the king.
Prosperity grew as new trade routes opened up from India and China. A standard weight for coins stimulated a money economy. Even so, as in all the Hellenistic monarchies, the land belonged to the king, who exploited the common people by forcing them to pay him high rents, taxes, and tribute.
The Antigonids in Macedonia and Greece
Back home in Macedonia, civil war continued until Antigonus seized the throne in 277 B.C. and established the Antigonid dynasty. The Antigonids were absolute rulers, but they never claimed divine status. Although Macedonian cities had democratic assemblies, final power rested with the king. Ironically, due to its geographic isolation, the Macedonian homeland suffered economically when trade routes shifted to the other Hellenistic kingdoms.
The Macedonian kings still controlled Greece. But most Greek city-states had long abandoned monarchies as barbaric, and they yearned to return to self-rule. They attempted to assert their independence by forming leagues, or confederacies, of city-states.
In 245 B.C., the Achaean League, consisting of 10 Greek city-states, revolted against Macedonia. King Antigonus crushed the uprising as he had done earlier when Athens and Sparta had rebelled. The Achaean League revolt was the last major effort by the Greeks to regain their freedom from Macedonia.
Spreading Hellenistic Culture
Although war often divided the Hellenistic world, the Greek language unified it. Greek became the universal language of government, commerce, education, science, literature, and even religion.
The gymnasium became the key institution for spreading Hellenistic culture. Centers for physical and military training, the gymnasiums also served as hubs for learning philosophy, music, poetry, and science. They evolved into a sort of high school for Macedonian and Greek boys and young men in all the Hellenistic kingdoms and beyond. In addition to training grounds, a gymnasium facility often included a swimming pool, a covered running track, a stadium for athletic games, a library, and lecture rooms.
Hellenistic culture also spread through art and literature. Painting, sculpture, and mosaics tended to portray ordinary life and decorated private homes as well as public buildings. Hellenistic art was not especially original, but it combined styles from different cultures. Psychological elements became a greater part of Greek drama and poetry. A form of the novel developed in Alexandria.
Greek philosophy flourished in all parts of the Hellenistic world, but the ancient religion of Greece did not. It was difficult to convert foreigners to the Greek religion with its emphasis on rituals and ceremonies rather than a set of beliefs to guide life. As a result, native religions like Judaism and Mithraism thrived.
The Coming of the Romans
After 200 B.C., the rise of a new power in the west, the Roman Republic, signaled the decline of the Hellenistic kingdoms. The Antigonid king unwisely sided with Carthage against Rome in the Second Punic War. Rome then went to war against Macedonia, making it a Roman province in 148 B.C. No longer controlled by Macedonia, the Greek city-states were absorbed into a Roman province.
Weakened by civil wars and assassinations, the Seleucids suffered defeats by the Roman legions in Asia Minor and Syria. Rome made this part of the Seleucid Kingdom a province in 64 B.C.
Only the Ptolemies in Egypt remained independent. In 47 B.C., however, Julius Caesar invaded Egypt. During the turmoil, fire destroyed the magnificent Library of Alexandria with its collection of knowledge from the ancient world.
Later, the Roman general Mark Anthony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra tried to break away from Roman control. In 31 B.C., Octavian (later called Caesar Augustus) defeated them in a naval battle. A year later, he occupied Egypt and made it his personal kingdom.
Caesar Augustus thus became the heir of the Hellenistic world and went on to found the Roman Empire. He and his successors fulfilled, for a time, Alexander’s dream of unifying the known world in one empire. Augustus was also the first to recognize Alexander’s legacy by calling him Alexander “the Great.”