1.5: Hellenistic Culture

The period of Greek history spanning the end of the fourth century up to the Roman conquest of Greece is now called the Hellenistic Age. During this time, the Greeks’ fortunes went south—or, more precisely, north—as feverish in-fighting gripped their land. After Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War at the end of the Classical Age, only a few decades later the Thebans turned the tables on the Spartans at Leuctra and destroyed their leadership. Finally, when all three at last agreed to collaborate, they collectively fell to Philip II of Macedon at Chaeronea in 338 BCE. It was all very depressing, and it would have been more so, were it not for a booming economy.

While the Greeks of the Classical Age had steered the way into the modern age—they had, after all, introduced to the world an astonishing variety of advancements including, among other things, philosophy, drama and, above all, democratic government—their descendants in the post-Classical period gradually lost their forebears’ dominion over the arts and sciences and, worst of all, their freedom to outsiders. At the same time, however, these children of the Classical Age were in general living better, longer and, especially, richer lives, more so than any of their predecessors. Still, to judge from their art and literature, these latter-day Greeks weren’t on the whole a jolly lot, proving that money doesn’t make a person happy, not all on its own at least.

Architecture in the Hellenistic Period

Architecture during the Hellenistic period focused on theatricality and drama; the period also saw an increased popularity of the Corinthian order.

Architecture in the Greek world during the Hellenistic period developed theatrical tendencies, as had Hellenistic sculpture. The conquests of Alexander the Great caused power to shift from the city-states of Greece to the ruling dynasties. Dynastic families patronized large complexes and dramatic urban plans within their cities. These urban plans often focused on the natural setting, and were intended to enhance views and create dramatic civic, judicial, and market spaces that differed from the orthogonal plans of the houses that surrounded them.

Architecture in the Hellenistic period is most commonly associated with the growing popularity of the Corinthian order. However, the Doric and Ionic orders underwent notable changes. Examples include the slender and unfluted Doric columns and the four-fronted capitals on Ionic columns, the latter of which helped to solve design problems concerning symmetry on the temple porticos.

Pergamon was the capital city of the Kingdom of Pergamon, which was ruled by the Attalids in the centuries following the death of Alexander the Great.

This is a photo of a scale model of Pergamon as described in the caption.

Scale model of Pergamon as it might have looked in antiquity: Center left: Theatre of Pergamon. Center right: Altar of Zeus. Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

The Acropolis of Pergamon is famous for its monumental architecture. Most of the buildings command a great view of the surrounding countryside and together create a dramatic public space.

This is a photo of the ruins of the theater of Pergamon.

Theater of Pergamon: The theater at Pergamon could seat 10,000 people and was one of the steepest theaters in the ancient world.

The Altar of Zeus at Pergamon was a monumental u-shaped Ionic building that stood on a high platform and was accessed by a wide set of stairs. Besides its dramatic architecture, the altar is known for its Gigantomachy frieze and sculptures of defeated Gauls.

This is a photo of the Altar of Zeus. The structure is 35.64 metres wide and 33.4 metres deep; the front stairway alone is almost 20 metres wide. The base is decorated with a frieze in high relief showing the battle between the Giants and the Olympian gods known as the Gigantomachy.

Altar of Zeus: Originally from Bergama, Turkey, the altar is now in Berlin, Germany.

Sculpture in the Hellenistic Period

A key component of Hellenistic sculpture is the expression of a sculpture’s face and body to elicit an emotional response from the viewer.

Hellenistic sculpture continues the trend of increasing naturalism seen in the stylistic development of Greek art. During this time, the rules of Classical art were pushed and abandoned in favor of new themes, genres, drama, and pathos that were never explored by previous Greek artists.

Furthermore, the Greek artists added a new level of naturalism to their figures by adding an elasticity to their form and expressions, both facial and physical. These figures interact with their audience in a new theatrical manner by eliciting an emotional reaction from their view—this is known as pathos.

The Gigantomachy frieze represents the full blossoming of Hellenistic sculpture. The figures are dramatic, and the scenes are full of tension. They are carved in high relief with deep drilling that allows for a play of light and shadows that increases the naturalism of the figures.

This is a photo of the relief of Nereus, Doris, a Giant, and Oceanus, the ocean gods gathered together.

Nereus, Doris, a Giant, and Oceanus: Located on the north frieze of the Altar of Zeus, Bergama, Turkey, e. c. 175 BCE. The high relief and deep drilling of the figures also increases the liveliness and naturalism of the scene.

The statue group of the Dying Gauls depicts a defeated trumpeter and a Gallic chief killing himself and his wife. The figures, while enemies of Pergamon, are depicted with incredible pathos and heroics to demonstrate their worthiness as adversaries and empower the Attalid victors.

This is a photo of the Dying Gaul. The white marble statue depicts a wounded, slumping male figure. A bleeding sword puncture is visible in his lower right chest.

Dying Gaul: This is a Roman marble copy of the Greek bronze original by Epigonos, c. 230–220 BCE, in Pergamon, Turkey.


In literature, just as in the arts, one finds a combination of novelty and commonplace types and themes. In the New Comedy at Athens, of which Menander (c. 342–c. 292 BCE) was the leading exponent, the theme is no longer fantasy but real life. The plays are not uproarious, as those of Aristophanes can be, but they are filled with quiet good humour. Besides Menander, there was Herodas (3rd century BCE), who in his Mimiambi (Mimes) sketched episodes from life. The philosopher Theophrastus (c. 372–c. 287 BCE) produced a minor masterpiece, Characters, in which he depicted some 30 sketches of questionable character types such as the Stupid Man, who cannot remember where he lives, and the Tactless Man, who makes a misogynistic speech at a wedding.

Some writers took a deeper interest in psychology. The poet Apollonius of Rhodes (b. c. 296 BCE) wrote an epic on the Argonauts, in which he closely observed the psychology of Medea at her first experience of love; his sensitive and romantic rendition influenced the Roman poet Virgil in his portrayal of the ill-fated love between Dido and AeneasTheocritus (c. 300–c. 260 BCE), who came from Sicily but lived mostly in Cos and Alexandria, examined in his second idyll the love-hate relationship of a girl to her unfaithful lover. The world of Theocritus is a world of pastoral artifice having little to do with the real hardships of country life, but the details are exquisitely noticed.

Alexandria was noted for its learning. The poet Callimachus (c. 305–c. 240 BCE), who was attached to the city’s famous library, wrote poetry of polished craft and allusive scholarship. His great work Aetia (“Causes”) is a rare miscellany, a long poem made up of short sections. Callimachus, immensely influential, has quality.

The major contributions to prose literature fall in the Roman period, though the novel developed earlier in Alexandria. Ingenious and exciting plots are combined with stereotyped characters. Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe is perhaps the best of such works of prose fiction. Another important development was the rhetoric of the movement known as the Second Sophistic, which belongs mainly to the 2nd century CE. Its finest practitioner was Dio Chrysostom (c. 40–c. 110 CE). Herodes Atticus (c. 101–177 CE) and the flowery Marcus Antonius Polemon (c. 88–144 CE) had much influence; more survives from the dull, Athens-loving hypochondriac Publius Aelius Aristides (c. 117–after 181 CE) and the facile Maximus of Tyre (c. 125–185 CE). Greater than any of these is the Syrian Lucian (c. 120–after 180 CE), a satirist and brilliant entertainer, who spared neither gods nor humans.

Other writers, worthy enough, must receive passing mention: they are the geographers Strabo (c. 64 BCE–after 21 CE) and Ptolemy and Pausanias (both 2nd century CE), the historians Diodorus Siculus of Sicily (1st century BCE), Arrian (2nd century CE), Appian of Alexandria (2nd century CE) and Dio Cassius (2nd–3rd century CE), the voluminous Jewish writers Philo Judaeus and Flavius Josephus (c. 37–100 CE), the vastly miscellaneous Athenaeus (c. 200 CE), the historian and teacher of rhetoric Dionysius of Halicarnassus (fl. late 1st century BCE), and the unknown writer (conventionally known as Longinus) of a major work On the Sublime (1st century CE), with his acute observations about Homer and SapphoDemosthenes and Thucydides, and even about “the Jewish lawgiver” in Genesis, the first book of the Bible.


Hellenistic philosophy can be broken down into four movements:
  • Cynicism, which argues nature is the opposite of society’s conventions and norms. All that the ordinary social herd is interested in is getting on in this world….Social conventions, then, are nothing but bad habits, that damage the soul.
    • In contrast, the good life is lived according to nature, and it is a life of self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency can be realized through training (ascesis)…. This achievement is described as apatheia, ‘indifference to suffering.’ [….] Cynics were noted for their bold speech and ‘shameless’ behavior.
  • Skepticism, which asserted the likelihood of being able to achieve certain knowledge about any of the topics of philosophical concern listed previously was slim. Far better to own up to this, and seek ‘tranquillity and happiness through suspension of judgment’ (Sharples, 9).
    • Pyrrho of Elis (c. 365/360-275/270 BCE) was the first celebrated Skeptic. He was said to have accompanied Alexander to India. His philosophical position was that we can only know how things appear to us, and we can’t rightly resolve disagreements as to what appears. This is all very disturbing. Wouldn’t it be better just to suspend judgment and live according to probable opinion and custom?
  • Epicureanism, which sought to give ataraxia, or peace of mind. For Epicurus the aim of life was pleasure; the highest pleasure was absence of pain; pleasure of the mind was preferable to that of the body. The soul dies with the body, so we must not fear death or afterlife; the gods exist but do not concern themselves with humanity or natural phenomena (all of which can be explained scientifically); we should avoid public life and emotional commitments in order to escape the pains likely to be caused by them. The physical world was explained by the atomic theory adapted from Democritus.
  • Stoicism, which like Epicureanism srived to manifest ataraxia, forwarded that the world is entirely material and perfectly ordered [so] it is also thoroughly determined. Thus, it is also correct to name the divine as fortune. The earlier Stoics put a brave spin on this, and said that the plan evidenced divine providence, a reassuring God. Later Stoics, who must have been a bit discouraged by suicides, exiles and the like, thought that the plan was more like an impersonal, implacable fate. The

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(Important note: Hellenistic philosophy persisted into the era of the Roman Republic and, to a lesser extent, the Roman Empire, with Stoicism becoming the dominant of the four movements listed below. There is a discussion, video, and a link providing more information about Stoicism in ancient Rome on the next page.)