The Hellenistic Age

The Hellenistic Age

Mosaic of the Battle of Isus which depicts a dark-headed Alexander riding his brown horse Bucephalus, leading the charge against the retreating Persian king Darius.
Figure 4-16: Mosaic of the Battle of Isus  by Berthold Werner is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) carried on his father’s plans for a full-scale invasion of Persia in retaliation for their invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. As he had almost the whole of Greece under his command, a standing army of considerable size and strength, and a full treasury, Alexander did not need to bother with allies nor with consulting anyone regarding his plan for invasion and so led his army into Egypt, across Asia Minor, through Persia, and finally to India. Tutored in his youth by Plato’s great student Aristotle, Alexander would spread the ideals of Greek civilization through his conquests and, in so doing, transmitted Greek philosophy, culture, language, and art to every region he came in contact.

The result was a remarkable interweaving of Greek culture with that of non-Greek cultures, such as the world had never witnessed. (41)

Stone relief of the Buddha sitting in the lotus position with long flowing robes. Positioned to the Buddha's left is a strapping depiction of Hercules holding a mace in his right hand to signify his role as the Buddha's protector.
Figure 4-17: Buddha with Hercules Protector by World Imaging is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

In 323 BCE Alexander died and his vast empire was divided between four of his generals. This initiated what has come to be known to historians as the Hellenistic Age (323-31 BCE) during which Greek thought and culture became dominant in the various regions under these generals’ influence. (41)

Alexander’s empire opened the East to an enormous wave of immigration, and his successors continued his policy by inviting Greek colonists to settle in their realms. For seventy-five years after Alexander’s death, Greek immigrants poured into the East. At least 250 new Hellenistic colonies were set up. The Mediterranean world had seen no comparable movement of peoples since the days of Archilochus (680-645 BC) when wave after wave of Greeks had turned the Mediterranean basin into a Greek-speaking region.

In many respects the Hellenistic city resembled a modern city. It was a cultural center with theatres, temples, and libraries. It was a seat of learning, home of poets, writers, teachers, and artists. It was a place where people could find amusement. The Hellenistic city was also an economic center that provided a ready market for grain and produce raised in the surrounding countryside. The city was an emporium, scene of trade and manufacturing. In short, the Hellenistic city offered cultural and economic opportunities but did not foster a sense of united, integrated enterprise. (57)

Alexandria, the port city in Egypt founded by Alexander in 331 became, in many ways, the paradigmatic Hellenistic city. At its height, the city grew to become the largest in the known world at the time, attracting scholars, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, artists, and historians. The Library at Alexandria also became world-renowned, with scholars estimating that it likely held as many as 500,000 texts from around the world at one time. Outside of Alexandria, the newly discovered Hellenistic city of Ay Khanoum also stood a model Hellenistic city. Situated on the borders of Russia and Afghanistan and not far from China, the city was mostly Greek. It had the typical Greek trappings of a gymnasium, a choice of temples, and administration buildings. It was not, however, purely Greek. It also contained an oriental temple and artistic remains that showed that the Greeks and the natives had already embraced aspects of each other’s religions. (58)

Aristotilean Philosophy

Aristotle moved to Athens from his native Stageira in 367 BCE, and began to study philosophy, and perhaps even rhetoric, under Isocrates. He eventually enrolled at Plato’s Academy. He left Athens approximately twenty years later to study botany and zoology, became a tutor of Alexander the Great, and ultimately returned to Athens a decade later to establish his own school, the Lyceum. He is the founder of the Peripatetic School of philosophy, which aims to glean facts from experiences and explore the “why” in all things. In other words, he advocates learning by induction.

At least 29 of Aristotle’s treatises have survived, known as the corpus Aristotelicum , and address a variety of subjects including logic, physics, optics, metaphysics, ethics, rhetoric, politics, poetry, botany, and zoology. Aristotle is often portrayed as disagreeing with his teacher, Plato. He criticizes the regimes described in Plato’sRepublic and Laws , and refers to the theory of forms as “empty words and poetic metaphors.” He preferred utilizing empirical observation and practical concerns in his works. Aristotle did not consider virtue to be simple knowledge as Plato did, but founded in one’s nature, habit, and reason. Virtue was gained by acting in accordance with nature and moderation. (53)

Hellenistic Greek Sculpture

Just as the quest to represent the ideal physical form by Classical Age sculptors mirrored the philosophical quest for apprehending the Ideal heavenly Forms, so also does the art of the Hellenistic age reflect the Aristotelian concern for that which one can see with the naked eye. As such, a transition from Idealism to Realism takes place in the Hellenistic era, as artists strive to represent their subjects as they actually appear. Greek artists in this era added a new level of naturalism to their figures by adding an elasticity to their form and expressions, both facial and physical, to their figures. These figures interact with their audience in a new theatrical manner by eliciting an emotional reaction from their view. This is known as pathos. (59)

The Dying Gaul

Marble statue of the Dying Gaul.From this angle, the man sits with head tilted downward, hunched over in pain from a blade wound just below his breast.
Figure 4-18: Dying gaul by Antmoose and antmoose is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Dying Gaul — also called The Dying Galatian (in Italian: Galata Morente) or The Dying Gladiator — is an ancient Roman marble copy of a lost Hellenistic sculpture thought to have been unknown.

The statue serves both as a reminder of the Celts’ defeat, thus demonstrating the might of the people who defeated them, and a memorial to their bravery as worthy adversaries.

The white marble statue which may have originally been painted depicts a wounded, slumping Celt with remarkable realism and emotion, particularly as regards the face. A bleeding sword puncture is visible in his lower right chest. The figure is represented as a Celtic warrior with characteristic hairstyle and moustache and has a torc around his neck. He lies on his fallen shield while his sword, belt, and a curved trumpet lie beside him. (60)

The Boxer

Image of the Boxer statue. The bearded man sits on a stone, looking upwards while wearing the leather gloves still strapped around both hands.
Figure 4-19: So-called “Thermae boxer”: athlete resting after a boxing match by Folegandros from the Thermae of Constantine is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Another image of the old and weary is a bronze statue of a seated boxer. While the image of an athlete is a common theme in Greek art, this bronze presents a Hellenistic twist. He is old and tired, much like the Late Classical image of a Weary Herakles. However, unlike Herakles, the boxer is depicted beaten and exhausted from his pursuit. His face is swollen, lip spilt, and ears cauliflowered. This is not an image of a heroic, young athlete but rather an old, defeated man many years past his prime. (59)

Drunken Elderly Woman

Images of drunkenness were also created of women, which can be seen in a statue attributed to the Hellenistic artist Myron of a drunken beggar woman. This woman sits on the floor with her arms and legs wrapped around a large jug and a hand gripping the jug’s neck. Grape vines decorating the top of the jug make it clear that it holds wine. The woman’s face, instead of being expressionless, is turned upward and she appears to be calling out, possibly to passersby. Not only is she intoxicated, but she is old: deep wrinkles line her face, her eyes are sunken, and her bones stick out through her skin. (59)

Image of the marble Drunken Woman statue. The woman sits on the ground with feet crossed forward while grasping a large vessel of wine in her two arms.
Figure 4-20: Drunken old woman clutching a big lagynos (Hellenistic wine jug) decorated with reliefsby Tetraktys is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Closing of the Greek Era

The Roman Republic became increasingly involved in the affairs of Greece during this time and, in 168 BCE, defeated Macedon at the Battle of Pydna. After this date, Greece steadily came under the influence of Rome. In 146 BCE the region was designated a Protectorate of Rome and Romans began to emulate Greek fashion, philosophy and, to a certain extent, sensibilities. In 31 BCE Octavian Caesar annexed the country as a province of Rome following his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Octavian became Augustus Caesar and Greece a part of the Roman Empire. (41)