The Nike of Samothrace is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Hellenistic art.

The Hellenistic period covers the period of Mediterranean history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the emergence of the Roman Empire, as signified by the Battle of Actium in 31 BC[1] and the conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt the following year.[2] The period of Greece prior to the Hellenistic era is known as Classical Greece, while the period afterwards is known as Roman Greece. The Ancient Greek word Hellas (Ἑλλάς, Ellás) was originally the widely recognized name of Greece, from which the word Hellenistic was derived.[3] "Hellenistic" is distinguished from "Hellenic" in that the first encompasses all territories under direct ancient Greek influence, while the latter refers to Greece itself.

During the Hellenistic period, Greek cultural influence and power reached the peak of its geographical expansion, being dominant in the Mediterranean world and most of West and Central Asia, even in parts of the Indian subcontinent, experiencing prosperity and progress in the arts, astrology, exploration, literature, theatre, architecture, music, mathematics, philosophy, and science. Despite this, it is often considered a period of transition, sometimes even of decadence or degeneration,[4] compared to the enlightenment of the Greek Classical era. The Hellenistic period saw the rise of New Comedy, Alexandrian poetry, the Septuagint, and the philosophies of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Pyrrhonism. Greek science was advanced by the works of the mathematician Euclid and the polymath Archimedes. The religious sphere expanded to include new gods such as the Greco-Egyptian Serapis, eastern deities such as Attis and Cybele, and a syncretism between Hellenistic culture and Buddhism in Bactria and Northwest India.

Hellenistic period. Dionysus sculpture from the Ancient Art Collection at Yale.

After Alexander the Great's invasion of the Achaemenid Empire in 330 BC and its disintegration shortly after, the Hellenistic kingdoms were established throughout south-west Asia (Seleucid Empire, Kingdom of Pergamon), north-east Africa (Ptolemaic Kingdom) and South Asia (Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, Indo-Greek Kingdom). The Hellenistic period was characterized by a new wave of Greek colonization[5] which established Greek cities and kingdoms in Asia and Africa.[6] This resulted in the export of Greek culture and language to these new realms, spanning as far as modern-day India. These new kingdoms were also influenced by the indigenous cultures, adopting local practices where beneficial, necessary, or convenient. Hellenistic culture thus represents a fusion of the ancient Greek world with that of Western Asian, Northeastern African, and Southwestern Asian.[7] This mixture gave rise to a common Attic-based Greek dialect, known as Koine Greek, which became the lingua franca throughout the Hellenistic world.

Scholars and historians are divided as to which event signals the end of the Hellenistic era. The Hellenistic period may be seen to end either with the final conquest of the Greek heartlands by Rome in 146 BC following the Achaean War, with the final defeat of the Ptolemaic Kingdom at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, or even the move by Roman emperor Constantine the Great of the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople in AD 330.[8][9] Angelos Chaniotis ends the Hellenistic period with the death of Hadrian in 138 AD, who integrated the Greeks fully into the Roman Empire;[10] and a range from c. 321 BC to 256 AD may also be given.[11]


The word originated from the German term hellenistisch, from ancient Greek Ἑλληνιστής (Hellēnistḗs, "one who uses the Greek language"), from Ἑλλάς (Hellás, "Greece"); as if "Hellenist" + "ic".[citation needed]

Left image: The Sampul tapestry, a woolen wall hanging from Lop County, Hotan Prefecture, Xinjiang, China, showing a possibly Greek soldier from the Greco-Bactrian kingdom (250–125 BC), with blue eyes, wielding a spear, and wearing what appears to be a diadem headband; depicted above him is a centaur, from Greek mythology, a common motif in Hellenistic art
Right image: painted clay and alabaster head of a Zoroastrian priest wearing a distinctive Bactrian-style headdress, Takhti-Sangin, Tajikistan, 3rd–2nd century BC

"Hellenistic" is a modern word and a 19th-century concept; the idea of a Hellenistic period did not exist in ancient Greece. Although words related in form or meaning, e.g. Hellenist (Ancient Greek: Ἑλληνιστής, Hellēnistēs), have been attested since ancient times,[12] it was Johann Gustav Droysen in the mid-19th century, who in his classic work Geschichte des Hellenismus (History of Hellenism), coined the term Hellenistic to refer to and define the period when Greek culture spread in the non-Greek world after Alexander's conquest.[13] Following Droysen, Hellenistic and related terms, e.g. Hellenism, have been widely used in various contexts; a notable such use is in Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold, where Hellenism is used in contrast with Hebraism.[14]

The major issue with the term Hellenistic lies in its convenience, as the spread of Greek culture was not the generalized phenomenon that the term implies. Some areas of the conquered world were more affected by Greek influences than others. The term Hellenistic also implies that the Greek populations were of majority in the areas in which they settled, but in many cases, the Greek settlers were actually the minority among the native populations. The Greek population and the native population did not always mix; the Greeks moved and brought their own culture, but interaction did not always occur.[citation needed]


While a few fragments exist, there are no complete surviving historical works that date to the hundred years following Alexander's death. The works of the major Hellenistic historians Hieronymus of Cardia (who worked under Alexander, Antigonus I and other successors), Duris of Samos and Phylarchus, which were used by surviving sources, are all lost.[15] The earliest and most credible surviving source for the Hellenistic period is Polybius of Megalopolis (c. 200–118), a statesman of the Achaean League until 168 BC when he was forced to go to Rome as a hostage.[15] His Histories eventually grew to a length of forty books, covering the years 220 to 167 BC.

The most important source after Polybius is Diodorus Siculus who wrote his Bibliotheca historica between 60 and 30 BC and reproduced some important earlier sources such as Hieronymus, but his account of the Hellenistic period breaks off after the battle of Ipsus (301 BC). Another important source, Plutarch's (c. AD 50 – c. 120) Parallel Lives although more preoccupied with issues of personal character and morality, outlines the history of important Hellenistic figures. Appian of Alexandria (late 1st century AD–before 165) wrote a history of the Roman empire that includes information of some Hellenistic kingdoms.[citation needed]

Other sources include Justin's (2nd century AD) epitome of Pompeius Trogus' Historiae Philipicae and a summary of Arrian's Events after Alexander, by Photios I of Constantinople. Lesser supplementary sources include Curtius Rufus, Pausanias, Pliny, and the Byzantine encyclopedia the Suda. In the field of philosophy, Diogenes Laërtius' Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers is the main source; works such as Cicero's De Natura Deorum also provide some further detail of philosophical schools in the Hellenistic period.[citation needed]


Ancient Greece had traditionally been a fractious collection of fiercely independent city-states. After the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), Greece had fallen under a Spartan hegemony, in which Sparta was pre-eminent but not all-powerful. Spartan hegemony was succeeded by a Theban hegemony after the Battle of Leuctra (371 BC), but after the Battle of Mantinea (362 BC), all of Greece was so weakened that no one state could claim pre-eminence. It was against this backdrop that the ascendancy of Macedon began, under king Philip II. Macedon was located at the periphery of the Greek world, and although its royal family claimed Greek descent, the Macedonians themselves were looked down upon as semi-barbaric by the rest of the Greeks. However, Macedon had a relatively strong and centralized government, and compared to most Greek states, directly controlled a large area.

Philip II was a strong and expansionist king and he took every opportunity to expand Macedonian territory. In 352 BC he annexed Thessaly and Magnesia. In 338 BC, Philip defeated a combined Theban and Athenian army at the Battle of Chaeronea after a decade of desultory conflict. In the aftermath, Philip formed the League of Corinth, effectively bringing the majority of Greece under his direct sway. He was elected Hegemon of the league, and a campaign against the Achaemenid Empire of Persia was planned. However, while this campaign was in its early stages, he was assassinated.[4]

Alexander's empire at the time of its maximum expansion.

Succeeding his father, Alexander took over the Persian war himself. During a decade of campaigning, Alexander conquered the whole Persian Empire, overthrowing the Persian king Darius III. The conquered lands included Asia Minor, Assyria, the Levant, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Media, Persia, and parts of modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the steppes of central Asia. The years of constant campaigning had taken their toll however, and Alexander died in 323 BC.

After his death, the huge territories Alexander had conquered became subject to a strong Greek influence (Hellenization) for the next two or three centuries, until the rise of Rome in the west, and of Parthia in the east. As the Greek and Levantine cultures mingled, the development of a hybrid Hellenistic culture began, and persisted even when isolated from the main centres of Greek culture (for instance, in the Greco-Bactrian kingdom).

It can be argued that some of the changes across the Macedonian Empire after Alexander's conquests and during the rule of the Diadochi would have occurred without the influence of Greek rule. As mentioned by Peter Green, numerous factors of conquest have been merged under the term Hellenistic period. Specific areas conquered by Alexander's invading army, including Egypt and areas of Asia Minor and Mesopotamia "fell" willingly to conquest and viewed Alexander as more of a liberator than a conqueror.[16]

In addition, much of the area conquered would continue to be ruled by the Diadochi, Alexander's generals and successors. Initially the whole empire was divided among them; however, some territories were lost relatively quickly, or only remained nominally under Macedonian rule. After 200 years, only much reduced and rather degenerate states remained,[9] until the conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt by Rome.

The Diadochi

The distribution of satrapies in the Macedonian Empire after the Settlement in Babylon (323 BC).

When Alexander the Great died (10 June 323 BC), he left behind a huge empire which was composed of many essentially autonomous territories called satraps. Without a chosen successor there were immediate disputes among his generals as to who should be king of Macedon. These generals became known as the Diadochi (Greek: Διάδοχοι, Diadokhoi, meaning "Successors").

Meleager and the infantry supported the candidacy of Alexander's half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, while Perdiccas, the leading cavalry commander, supported waiting until the birth of Alexander's child by Roxana. After the infantry stormed the palace of Babylon, a compromise was arranged – Arrhidaeus (as Philip III) should become king and should rule jointly with Roxana's child, assuming that it was a boy (as it was, becoming Alexander IV). Perdiccas himself would become regent (epimeletes) of the empire, and Meleager his lieutenant. Soon, however, Perdiccas had Meleager and the other infantry leaders murdered and assumed full control.[17] The generals who had supported Perdiccas were rewarded in the partition of Babylon by becoming satraps of the various parts of the empire, but Perdiccas' position was shaky, because, as Arrian writes, "everyone was suspicious of him, and he of them".[18]

The first of the Diadochi wars broke out when Perdiccas planned to marry Alexander's sister Cleopatra and began to question Antigonus I Monophthalmus' leadership in Asia Minor. Antigonus fled for Greece, and then, together with Antipater and Craterus (the satrap of Cilicia who had been in Greece fighting the Lamian war) invaded Anatolia. The rebels were supported by Lysimachus, the satrap of Thrace and Ptolemy, the satrap of Egypt. Although Eumenes, satrap of Cappadocia, defeated the rebels in Asia Minor, Perdiccas himself was murdered by his own generals Peithon, Seleucus, and Antigenes (possibly with Ptolemy's aid) during his invasion of Egypt (c. 21 May to 19 June, 320 BC).[19] Ptolemy came to terms with Perdiccas's murderers, making Peithon and Arrhidaeus regents in his place, but soon these came to a new agreement with Antipater at the Treaty of Triparadisus. Antipater was made regent of the Empire, and the two kings were moved to Macedon. Antigonus remained in charge of Asia Minor, Ptolemy retained Egypt, Lysimachus retained Thrace and Seleucus I controlled Babylon.

The Kingdoms of Antigonos and his rivals c. 303 BC.

The second Diadochi war began following the death of Antipater in 319 BC. Passing over his own son, Cassander, Antipater had declared Polyperchon his successor as Regent. Cassander rose in revolt against Polyperchon (who was joined by Eumenes) and was supported by Antigonus, Lysimachus and Ptolemy. In 317 BC, Cassander invaded Macedonia, attaining control of Macedon, sentencing Olympias to death and capturing the boy king Alexander IV, and his mother. In Asia, Eumenes was betrayed by his own men after years of campaign and was given up to Antigonus who had him executed.

The third war of the Diadochi broke out because of the growing power and ambition of Antigonus. He began removing and appointing satraps as if he were king and also raided the royal treasuries in Ecbatana, Persepolis and Susa, making off with 25,000 talents.[20] Seleucus was forced to flee to Egypt and Antigonus was soon at war with Ptolemy, Lysimachus, and Cassander. He then invaded Phoenicia, laid siege to Tyre, stormed Gaza and began building a fleet. Ptolemy invaded Syria and defeated Antigonus' son, Demetrius Poliorcetes, in the Battle of Gaza of 312 BC which allowed Seleucus to secure control of Babylonia, and the eastern satrapies. In 310 BC, Cassander had young King Alexander IV and his mother Roxana murdered, ending the Argead Dynasty which had ruled Macedon for several centuries.

Kingdoms of the Diadochi after the battle of Ipsus, c. 301 BC.
  Kingdom of Ptolemy I Soter
  Kingdom of Cassander
  Kingdom of Lysimachus
  Kingdom of Seleucus I Nicator
The major Hellenistic kingdoms in 240 BC, including territories controlled by the Seleucid dynasty, the Ptolemaic dynasty, the Attalid dynasty, the Antigonid dynasty, and independent poleis of Hellenistic Greece

Antigonus then sent his son Demetrius to regain control of Greece. In 307 BC he took Athens, expelling Demetrius of Phaleron, Cassander's governor, and proclaiming the city free again. Demetrius now turned his attention to Ptolemy, defeating his fleet at the Battle of Salamis and taking control of Cyprus. In the aftermath of this victory, Antigonus took the title of king (basileus) and bestowed it on his son Demetrius Poliorcetes, the rest of the Diadochi soon followed suit.[21] Demetrius continued his campaigns by laying siege to Rhodes and conquering most of Greece in 302 BC, creating a league against Cassander's Macedon.

The decisive engagement of the war came when Lysimachus invaded and overran much of western Anatolia, but was soon isolated by Antigonus and Demetrius near Ipsus in Phrygia. Seleucus arrived in time to save Lysimachus and utterly crushed Antigonus at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC. Seleucus' war elephants proved decisive, Antigonus was killed, and Demetrius fled back to Greece to attempt to preserve the remnants of his rule there by recapturing a rebellious Athens. Meanwhile, Lysimachus took over Ionia, Seleucus took Cilicia, and Ptolemy captured Cyprus.

After Cassander's death in c. 298 BC, however, Demetrius, who still maintained a sizable loyal army and fleet, invaded Macedon, seized the Macedonian throne (294 BC) and conquered Thessaly and most of central Greece (293–291 BC).[22] He was defeated in 288 BC when Lysimachus of Thrace and Pyrrhus of Epirus invaded Macedon on two fronts, and quickly carved up the kingdom for themselves. Demetrius fled to central Greece with his mercenaries and began to build support there and in the northern Peloponnese. He once again laid siege to Athens after they turned on him, but then struck a treaty with the Athenians and Ptolemy, which allowed him to cross over to Asia Minor and wage war on Lysimachus' holdings in Ionia, leaving his son Antigonus Gonatas in Greece. After initial successes, he was forced to surrender to Seleucus in 285 BC and later died in captivity.[23] Lysimachus, who had seized Macedon and Thessaly for himself, was forced into war when Seleucus invaded his territories in Asia Minor and was defeated and killed in 281 BC at the Battle of Corupedium, near Sardis. Seleucus then attempted to conquer Lysimachus' European territories in Thrace and Macedon, but he was assassinated by Ptolemy Ceraunus ("the thunderbolt"), who had taken refuge at the Seleucid court and then had himself acclaimed as king of Macedon. Ptolemy was killed when Macedon was invaded by Gauls in 279 BC—his head stuck on a spear—and the country fell into anarchy. Antigonus II Gonatas invaded Thrace in the summer of 277 and defeated a large force of 18,000 Gauls. He was quickly hailed as king of Macedon and went on to rule for 35 years.[24]

At this point the tripartite territorial division of the Hellenistic age was in place, with the main Hellenistic powers being Macedon under Demetrius's son Antigonus II Gonatas, the Ptolemaic kingdom under the aged Ptolemy I and the Seleucid empire under Seleucus' son Antiochus I Soter.

Southern Europe