Hellenistic Civilization and The Spread of Cities

Alexander’s most important legacy was clearly not po litical unity. Instead it was the spread of Greek ideas and traditions across a wide area, a process scholars later called Hellenization. To maintain contact with the Greek world as he moved farther eastward, he founded new cities and military colonies and expanded existing cities, settling Greek and Macedonian troops and veterans in them. It was a cultural center with theaters, temples, and libraries. It was a seat of learning, a home of poets, writers, teachers, and artists. City dwellers could find amusement through plays, musical performances, animal fights, and gambling. 

The Hellenistic city was also an economic center that provided a ready market for grain and produce raised in the surrounding countryside. In short, the Hellenistic city offered cultural and economic opportunities for rich and poor alike. To the Greeks, civilized life was unthinkable outside of a city, and Hellenistic kings often gave cities all the external trappings of a polis. Each had an assembly of citizens, a council to prepare legislation, and a board of magistrates to conduct political business. Yet, however similar to the Greek polis it appeared, such a city could not engage in diplomatic dealings, make treaties, pursue its own foreign policy, or wage its own wars. The city was required to follow royal orders, and the king often placed his own officials in it to see that his decrees were followed. A Hellenistic city differed from a Greek polis in other ways as well. The Greek polis had one body of law and one set of customs. In the Hellenistic city Greeks represented an elite class. Natives and non-Greek foreigners who lived in Hellenistic cities usually possessed lesser rights than Greeks and often had their own laws. 

In some instances this disparity spurred natives to assimilate Greek culture in order to rise politically and socially. The city of Pergamum in northwestern Anatolia is a good example of an older city that underwent changes in the Hellenistic period. Previously an important strategic site, Pergamum was transformed by its new Greek rulers into a magnificent city complete with all the typical buildings of the polis, including gymnasia, baths, and one of the finest libraries in the entire Hel- lenistic world. The new rulers erected temples to the traditional Greek deities, but they also built imposing temples to other gods. There was a Jewish population in the city, who may have established a synagogue. Especially in the agora, Greeks and indigenous people met to conduct business and exchange goods and ideas. Greeks felt as though they were at home, and the evolving culture mixed Greek and local elements. The Bactrian city of Ay Khanoum on the Oxus River, on the border of modern Afghanistan, is a good example of a brand-new city where cultures met. Bac- tria and Parthia had been part of the Seleucid kingdom, but in the third century b.c.e., their governors overthrew the Seleucids and established independent kingdoms in today’s Afghanistan and Turkmenistan (Map 4.2). Bactria became an outpost of Hellenism, from which the rulers of China and India learned of sophisticated societies other than their own. It had Greek temples and administration buildings. The ruling dynasties of the Hellenistic world were Macedonian, Hellenistic kings offered Greeks land and money as lures to further immigration.

The Hellenistic monarchy, unlike the Greek polis, did not depend solely on its citizens to fulfill its political needs but instead relied on professionals. Greeks also found ready employment in the armies and navies of the Hellenistic monarchies. Hellenistic kings were reluctant to arm the local populations or to allow them to serve in the army, fearing military rebellions among their conquered subjects. The result was the emergence of professional armies and navies consisting primarily of Greeks. Hellenistic kingdoms and cities recruited Greek writers and artists to create Greek literature, art, and culture. An enormous wave of construction took place during the Hellenistic period. Increased physical and social mobility benefited some women as well as men. Because of the opportunities the Hellenistic monar- chies offered, many people moved frequently.

As long as Greeks continued to migrate, the kingdoms remained stable and strong, but in time the huge surge of immigration slowed greatly. Across the Hellenistic world the prevailing institutions and laws became Greek. Everyone, Greek or non-Greek, who wanted to find an official position or compete in business had to learn Greek. Those who did gained an avenue of social mobility. Thus learning Greek was an avenue of geo- graphic mobility as well. Cities granted citizenship to Hellenized local people and sometimes to Greek-speaking migrants, although there were fewer political benefits of citizenship than there had been in the classical period, because real power was held by monarchs, not citizens. Being Greek became to some degree a matter of culture, not bloodlines. Cultural influences in the other direction occurred less frequently, because they brought fewer advantages. Few Greeks learned a non-Greek language, unless they were required to because of their official position.

Source Cited

  1. McKay, John P., et al. A History of Western Society. Bedford/St. Martins, Macmillan Learning, 2017.  
07 April 2022
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