Alexander of Macedon/Greek Society and Culture

The age of Alexander of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, is commonly called the Hellenistic Age. It was a time when Greek influence was spread throughout the Western world.

Macedonia, which borders northern Greece to the North, was a backward, disunited Kingdom during the golden age of the Greek poleis. It was united into a major power under King Philip II. (359 - 336 B.C.E.) Philip began building an empire in the northern Aegean, and ultimately defeated a combined Athenian/Theban army at the battle of Chaeronea. The age of Greek hegemony in the Mediterranean was over.

An elite group of 300 Theban soldiers, the Theban brotherhood, died fighting valiantly in the battle. Philip respected their sacrifice, commenting when he saw their bodies, "May those who suppose that these men did or suffered anything dishonorable perish wretchedly.

Philip organized the Greek states into a single league and planned to lead them against Persia, which he intended to be an act of great revenge for the Persian intrusions into Greece years before; however he was murdered by his valet with whom he had had a relationship. He was succeeded by his son, Alexander took up the cause.

Philip had taken special care to see that Alexander was prepared to reign. He had been tutored by Aristotle, who taught him to appreciate Greek culture and literature. Aristotle’s influence lasted for Alexander’s entire short life, although he never accepted Aristotle’s political theories. Alexander had ruled as Philip’s regent since age sixteen and fought at the battle of Chaeronea at age eighteen. This experience taught him a great deal about leadership and military tactics.

Alexander led an army into Asia Minor together with a large number of scientists and philosophers to study the area. He won major battles and ultimately reached Egypt within three years where he had himself proclaimed Pharaoh. While there, he visited the famous oracle of Zeus-Amon, and as a result of that visit, considered himself the son of Zeus, the King of the Greek Gods. He then invaded Persia and burned Persepolis, the city of Xerxes, as an act of retribution for the Persian Wars. He did not stop with Persia, however, but launched a campaign against the rest of Asia. He encountered bloody resistance, but pressed on. By 326 B.C.E. he had crossed the Indus River and entered India. His troops refused to go further, which enraged Alexander, as he believed he was near the end of the world; but the troops would not budge. He then turned to Arabia and waged a bloody (and perhaps unnecessary) war against the people there. Many in his army died when he crossed the Arabian Desert, but he ultimately reached Babylon where he died at age 33.

The cause of Alexander’s death is a matter of debate. The widely accepted theory is that he died from malaria. Another theory is that he had engaged in a heavy round of feasting and drinking. Another theory is that he died of a broken heart. His good friend and lifelong lover, Hephaestus, had died a few months before. It has been speculated that Alexander simply lost his will to live.

Although Alexander did not live long enough to build a genuine empire or develop an administration to govern, he did establish cities throughout the lands he conquered, naming seventy for himself, Alexandria. After his death, his three leading generals divided his empire among themselves:

Antigonus: took Greece and Macedon. He and his successors ruled the area until they were defeated by the Romans. The empire saw frequent conflict with the Greek City States who often bargained, offering to recognize their rule in exchange for tax relief and local control. Athens and Corinth continued to flourish during this time, primarily as a result of expanding trade.

Ptolemy: took Egypt. His successors comprised the Ptolemaic dynasty, of which Cleopatra was a member. They ruled until the Romans took control in 31 B.C.E. This was the wealthiest of the three empires, but remained content in Egypt. Royal monopolies were established over many industries which made the Ptolemy dynasty wealthy. The Rosetta stone comprises the remains of a monument to a Ptolemy ruler. The capital of Ptolemaic Egypt was Alexandria, which became an extremely wealthy cosmopolitan city with trade throughout the region. It was the home of several famous landmarks, including the famous lighthouse (which was destroyed by earthquakes in the 1300’s); the Alexandrian Museum where scholars studied and worked, and the Alexandrian Library, which at one point held over 700,000 works.

Seleucus: took the former Persian Empire. The resulting Seleucid Empire ruled until defeat by the Parthians, discussed under Persia. Although smaller than the others, the Seleucid Empire was largely responsible for the spread of Greek culture throughout the region. Even the Indian Emperor Ashoka had his edicts promulgated in Greek and Aramaic, the two most common languages of the Hellenistic region.

Greek Economy, Society, and Culture: The geography of the Greek peninsula does not lend itself to wholesale agriculture; little of the soil is suitable for grain production. Because of its rugged terrain and extended coastline, trade by sea is more easily accomplished than by land. The Greeks early on learned to trade olive oil and wine (which they could produce efficiently) for items from other areas. The result was an extensive trading empire, usually with the Greek colonies.

The trade links between various cities and colonies led to a sense of a larger Greek community. The people of all areas worshiped the same Gods and spoke the same dialects; they also maintained close commercial relationships. At times they gathered to celebrate in large festivals and contest in which participants sought to win glory for their polis. The most famous of these were the Olympic Games in which nude athletes performed in foot races, wrestling, javelin tossing, discus throwing, etc. Those who won were awarded a crown of laurel leaves and became heroes in their home polis. Kings and nobles often participated. The Olympics were so important that wars between city states were often suspended so that athletes from each side could compete.

Greek society, like other ancient cultures, was strictly patriarchal. Male heads of households ruled absolutely. They even had the authority to decide if their wives should keep babies newly born to them. They could not kill the child, but could legally abandon it in the mountains or countryside where it soon died unless it was rescued by someone else. Greek women were subject to the authority of their fathers, husbands, brothers, or even sons. Upper class women left home only in the company of servants or chaperones and wore veils so as not to attract attention to themselves. They could not own property, although some could own small shops, and the only public position open to them was that of priestess of a religious cult. The women of Sparta were more prominent, in that they were allowed to walk around alone, participate in public festivals, and even fight to defend the polis; however even they were subject to the men of the family.

In rural families, men worked outside the home while women performed domestic chores and wove cloth from wool. They normally had no formal education. Many upper class Greek women were literate. Rich families could afford formal education for girls. The most famous of educated Greek women was Sappho, a widow from an aristocratic family who invited younger women to her home for instruction in music and literature. Because much of her poetry suggests a physical attraction to young women, she was widely suspected of being a lesbian as a result of which much of her work was destroyed.

Male homosexuality was quickly accepted and in some instances, such as Sparta, was actually encouraged. Female homosexuality was considered disgraceful, and any woman suspected of being homosexual was subject to repression and censure.

Slavery was commonplace throughout Greece. Many slaves were reduced to that state by debt; others were prisoners of war. Others were purchased from Black Sea slave markets, quite often people captured in Russia, or Nubian (black) slaves captured in Africa. Slaves were the personal property of their owner and their duties depended upon the needs (and temperament) of their owner. Some worked at agricultural tasks while others were domestic servants or caretakers. Those who were educated or had special skills were allowed to open shops or engage in trade and keep a portion of their investments as incentive. Many became wealthy enough to purchase their freedom.

Cultural Life in Ancient Greece

Greek merchant ships traded throughout the Mediterranean for several hundred years before the collapse of the Greek city states. Their contacts with other cultures led to an expansion of knowledge in Greece. From the Babylonians, they learned astronomy, science, mathematics and medicine. From the Egyptians they learned geometry and medicine as well as some religious ideas. By 800 B.C.E. they had adopted the Phoenician alphabet and adapted it to their own language. They also added vowels to it which allowed for more flexibility in language and speech. By 400 B.C.E., the Greeks had combined that which they had learned from other cultures with their own intellectual systems. The result was a system of philosophy that was rooted in human reason. Their influence also extended to art, literature, and moral thoughts.

Greek Philosophy: The most famous of the early Greek philosophers was Socrates (470 – 399 B.C.E.) of Athens. He had studied science in his youth; but later became convinced that human affairs were more important than the natural world. Socrates taught his disciples by asking questions which encouraged one to reflect on human issues, primarily ethics and morality. He also suggested that honor was more important than wealth or fame, and that one should reflect on the purposes and goals of life. He once stated, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates expressed disdain for those who sacrificed their personal integrity for gain or public acclaim; he rather argued that one had an obligation to strive for personal integrity and should behave honorably towards his fellow man.

Socrates often irritated those whose lifestyles and teachings he questioned, as his techniques often stung. As a result, he often outraged the important people of Athens and was ultimately charged with immorality and corrupting the youth of Athens. He was condemned by an Athenian Jury during a trial in which he offered no defense. He was sentenced to death; but allowed to take his own life; a method considered honorable and noble. He did so by drinking a cup of tea made from hemlock, a deadly poison, and died surrounded by his followers.

Socrates never committed his thoughts in writing; however his disciple, Plato, preserved them in his Dialogues. Plato originally presented the views of Socrates in the Dialogues, in which Socrates was the primary speaker; but later developed his own philosophy of the world and humanity. His primary idea was the theory of Forms or Ideas. He was troubled that there appeared to be no absolute virtue; rather different situations called for different responses. From this, he developed the theory that the world was only a reflection of a world of Forms and Ideas in which ideal qualities were imperfectly reflected. One must enter the true world of Forms and Ideas if one were to understand the true nature of virtue. Aside from the Dialogues, Plato’s most famous work was The Republic, in which he described the ideal state, ruled by a philosopher-king; protected by warriors, and supported by a grateful public.

Plato’s chief disciple was Aristotle who ultimately departed from Plato’s ideas of Forms and Ideas as too abstract and unnecessary to understand the world. He differed from Plato primarily in his belief that philosophers could and should rely on their senses to understand the world, and could use reason to solve its mysteries. His arguments were developed using rigid logic. Aside from philosophy, Aristotle wrote on biology, physics, astronomy, psychology, politics, ethics, even medicine. He dissected human bodies and those of animals to determine how it worked.

Aristotle’s conclusions were erroneous in many respects; but given that he had only his observations to work from, his thoughts are intriguing. He believed the universe to be geocentric; that is, that the sun, moon, planets and stars revolved around the earth which was at its center. He spoke of four elements: earth, wind, fire and water. He also spoke of four "humors" of the body: blood; phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.

Greek philosophy, particularly the works of Aristotle, heavily influenced the development of Western thought. Christian and Islamic thought often reflected his ideas. Until the early 1600’s, Europeans considered Aristotle’s teachings to be in harmony with those of the Bible; hence was born a form of thought known as scholasticism. Those who disagreed were considered heretics, and ruthlessly suppressed.

An example of the purported "agreement" between Aristotle and the Bible was Aristotle’s statement that one element could be converted to any other element, a theory pursued by medieval alchemists who believed they could convert lead into gold. Church authorities used it as proof of the doctrine of transubstantiation; the theory that during the Eucharist; the sacred host was converted into the actual body and blood of Christ. This position was disputed by Martin Luther during the Reformation.

Greek Religion and Drama: Greek religion originated with the beliefs of the Indo-Europeans from whom they were descended. They had long believed that supernatural powers controlled the elements, such as sun, wind and rain, and later personified these elements by giving them godlike forms. Much of their mythology originated with the writings of Homer, particularly the Iliad and the Odyssey. These works took on Biblical importance to the Greeks. Although there is some doubt as to the existence of Homer himself; the Greeks took these mythological works and constructed an entire complex religious system.

To the Greeks, in the beginning there was chaos, a formless void. From it emerged the earth, the mother and creator of all things. The earth generated the sky and together they gave rise to night and day as well as the sun and moon. After a series of bitter celestial struggles, Zeus, grandson of earth and sky, became the primary ruler. He ruled from a court which contained a number of subordinate gods with various responsibilities. Among them:

Apollo, the God of the Sun, was responsible for wisdom and justice.

Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, was also the God of medicine.

Fortune was responsible for opportunities or difficulties which were often unexpected.

The Furies caused problems for those who broke divine law.

The Greeks used their religion to explain natural phenomena which they did not understand. From these ideas, a number of cult religions developed. Among them:

The Cult of Demeter: A fertility cult, only allowed women. They gathered on a hill for three days and offered sacrifices to Demeter, the goddess of grain and the harvest. Their ceremonies normally were held in October and November, before the planting of grain. It was believed to ensure a good harvest.

The Cult of Dionysius, (Also known as Bacchus) God of Wine: this group normally celebrated the harvest of grapes with a festival of song and dance dedicated to the God.

It was Dionysius who presumably gave Midas the gift of the Golden touch; a gift which ultimately proved to be a curse.

Numerology, based on the position of numbers.

The Cult of Fortuna.

From cult religions, particularly when the poleis dominated public life developed plays which examined relations between the gods and humans. Most Greek plays have been lost; but of those which survive, the most famous writers are Aeschylus; Sophocles, and Euripides.

Later in the Hellenistic Period (the era of Alexander the Great) Greek philosophy and religion became less civic in nature and concentrated more on individual needs. Among these Hellenistic philosophies:

The Epicureans: Who defined pleasure as the greatest good. Pleasure did not mean unbridled pursuit of one’s appetite; but rather a state of quiet satisfaction by which one would be shielded from the pressures of life.

Skeptics: they would not accept the idea of certain knowledge. They would not take strong stands on any debatable issues such as politics or social issues. They left it up to others to sort these things out.

The Stoics The most influential of the group, who said individuals were members of a larger human family and had an obligation to help others. One was also obligated to lead a virtuous life. Individuals could avoid anxiety by concentrating on the duties which nature demanded of them.

Religions of salvation also became important in Hellenistic Greece. Many were mystery religions which offered eternal bliss to those who followed certain rites and lived according to the doctrines of the religion. Among them was the cult of Osiris, which originated in Egypt. Many of them spoke of a savior whose death and resurrection would lead to salvation for all who believed. Later, many philosophers speculated that there was a single universal god who ruled the entire universe who had a plan for the salvation of mankind. All Greek religions addressed the needs of individuals seeking security in a complex and often tumultuous world.