Hellenistic Politics

A History of Ancient Greece

Hellenistic Politics
Greece And The Hellenistic World
Author: R.A. Guisepi
Date: 1992

The collapse of Athens opened the way for Spartan domination of the Greek
mainland. During the war, Sparta had accepted Persian help, particularly on
the seas, and in return it handed over control of the Greek states in Asia. In
Greece, the Spartans installed tight controls supported by a local military
garrison, while requiring almost as much tribute as Athens had once collected
from its dependencies in the Delian league. These policies plus Sparta's
unyielding hostility to any democratic forms soon caused resentments, which
among other things gave Athens a chance to regain some independence.

Periodic wars against the Persians and among key Greek states dominated
the first half of the 4th century. An alliance between Athens and the
city-state of Thebes successfully attacked the Spartans, briefly setting up a
Theban Empire in northern Greece. Athens formed a new league of its own, but
soon began to abuse its allies through tribute demands and interference.
Having defeated Thebes, Athens's federation collapsed amid revolt. By 355 B.C.
Greece had returned to a setting of independent, disorganized city-states,
many of them exhausted by decades of war and civil strife.

The Peloponnesian War destroyed the basis for informal Greek unity, while
weakening both the major combatants. It took only a few decades to realize
that Greek politics had lost its luster. The larger Greek empire began to
break up as colonies were pulled away, while a dangerous vacuum of power
opened in the mainland itself.

A New Empire Replaces Classical Greece

Into this vacuum came a new force from the kingdom of Macedon on the
borders of Greece. Macedonian conquests in turn opened a period of three
centuries in which Greek culture spread widely in Egypt and far into western
Asia. Greek city-states persisted in this new Hellenistic world, but they were
no longer the dominant forms. Greek culture also mixed with new elements from
the Middle East and India, though on the whole Hellenistic culture built more
clearly on Greek themes than Hellenistic politics did. In geography, politics,
and to an extent culture, a new era opened in the 4th century, just as Greek
institutions lost their vitality. The roots of the new order lay in the rise
of a Macedonian dynasty that conquered first Greece and then the Persian
Empire within two generations.

Macedon, a kingdom to the north of Greece, was semi-barbaric by Greek
standards and loosely organized under a king. Its residents spoke Greek, and
Macedonian kings had long been interested in Greek culture. When King Philip
II (359-336 B.C.) seized power, he strengthened the monarchy within Macedon
and then turned his attention to the chaos of Greece. Skilled both as a
general and diplomat, Philip soon developed a strong army that had more
flexible tactics than the standard citizen force of the poleis. By seizing
some northern Greek territory, he gained the resources to pay mercenary troops
and peasant soldiers. Then he turned to the divided city-states of central

Despite warnings by insightful leaders, states such as Athens were no
longer willing to make major sacrifices for self-defense. Philip also found
allies in Greek statesmen who wanted a new unity, even if imposed from the
outside. Finally, in 338 B.C., Philip won a decisive battle, aided by a
cavalry charge led by his 18-year-old son Alexander. Macedon now ruled the
bulk of Greece, and while the city-states retained their governments with
rights of internal administration, Macedonian garrisons assured tax tributes
and loyalty to the new kingdom.

Alexander The Great

Philip's death left the next stage of Macedonian expansion to Alexander,
who gained power at the age of 20. Alexander, eager to continue his father's
thrust for conquest, logically turned to the target of the Persian Empire,
still vast but now weakly ruled. In 334 B.C., Alexander moved into Asia with
about 35,000 troops. Daring triumphs brought him control of the Persian side
of the Mediterranean coast. Then, in 333 B.C., Alexander defeated the main
Persian army led by its emperor in Syria.

Persian efforts to sue for peace were ignored: Alexander wanted the whole
empire and more, if possible. He moved into Egypt, now a weakened regional
state, where he was greeted as pharaoh and son of a god. By 331 B.C., he
entered Babylon and then seized the vast Persian treasury, as the Greeks and
Macedonians gained revenge for the many Persian threats to their homeland.
Alexander pressed into India, but he finally had to stop because his men
refused to go farther.

Alexander planned a dazzling future for his new empire, hoping to merge
Greek and Asian institutions and values and add further conquests. He founded
many cities bearing his name, the most famous one in Egypt. He spread
Macedonian and Greek officials through his vast new Middle Eastern holdings.
Alexander also encouraged intermarriage with Persian and other local women, a
practice in which he himself set an example. Eager to promote a Hellenistic
culture, evidenced by his founding centers of scholarship in Greek learning,
Alexander also recognized the need to accommodate various traditions in a
multinational empire. Whether he could have succeeded in consolidating his
unprecedented holdings, given his vision and organizational skills, cannot be
known for he died of a fever in Babylon at the age of 33.

Later Hellenistic States

Alexander's unexpected death quickly brought disunity to the new empire,
though not an end to the Hellenistic enterprise. Quarrels among his successors
allowed key generals to seize the major provinces as kings. Three major
regional dynasties resulted - one in Egypt (the Ptolemies) that ended with the
suicide of the famous queen, Cleopatra, in 31 B.C.; one in Mesopotamia (the
Seleucids); and one in Macedonia, Greece, and the northern Middle East (the

The three major successor states enjoyed about 75 years of vigor and
prosperity. Trade in Greek goods continued to flourish, and all the new kings
encouraged commerce. Many Greeks moved toward the government jobs and merchant
positions available in the Middle East. Wealth centered, however, on the city
dwellers and the Hellenized upper classes (whether of Greek origin or not),
while native peasants suffered from high taxes and the lack of adequate land.
Internal divisions caused a decline in pro- duction and combined with warfare
among the kingdoms to weaken the successor states and open them to outside
attack. By the 2d century B.C. - just as Rome was beginning to expand - all
the Hellenistic kingdoms except the one in Egypt had vanished.

The two centuries of Hellenism marked the end of the characteristically
Greek political style. City-states continued officially to exist, and they
would maintain some functions even later under Roman control. But they no
longer served as intense focal points because of the control exercised by
foreign monarchs. Hellenistic politics centered on military empires. While few
dramatic or enduring political principles emerged from this approach,
Alexander and his successors provided vital service in preserving large
segments of Greek culture after city-state quarrels had exhausted earlier
government systems. They also creatively extended this culture well beyond
Greece and its earlier colonies to a larger Mediterranean and Middle Eastern
zone, as well as to India. Hellenistic kingdoms also developed trade and
artistic contacts with the African kingdom of Kush, bringing new impulses to
this civilization.

Hellenism did not bring cultural unity or political cohesion to the
Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. There was new interchange, however, and
some common interests in Greek science and philosophy that would outlast the
Hellenistic period, continuing into the Roman era and beyond. Hellenist
leaders also generated innovations, particularly in science. The spread of a
Greek-derived culture, then, set a new framework for intellectual life in a
large and diverse portion of the civilized world. This heritage would have
pleased the Hellenistic conquerors, who saw cultural expansion as part of
their mission.

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