The political and cultural consequences of Alexander’s conquests
In the space of twelve years the Macedonian king Alexander the great carved out an empire stretching from Greece to modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan, conquering the Persian empire and several smaller kingdoms in the process. This essay will discuss the political and cultural consequences of his conquests, and what the enduring legacy for western civilisation is from Alexander’s era.
Prior to Alexander the Great his father, Philip II was the king of Macedon, a land considered backward and semi barbaric by the Greek city-states. The Greek cities were fiercely independent of one another, possessing different cultures and styles of government. Very few monarchies existed although some “Vestigial kings survived in some places, but they were almost always ceremonial figures without power”. Although there were calls for an alliance against Macedon, largely lead by the Athenian orator Demosthenes who “spent most of his career urging the Athenians to resist Philip’s encroachments” it was to no avail; by 338 BCE “although it maintained its form and way of life for some time, the polis had lost control of its own affairs and the special conditions that made it unique”. With all of Greece under the control of Philip II, he planned an invasion of the mighty Persian Empire and was about to begin his conquest when he was assassinated in 336 BCE.
The Persian Empire was vast, stretching from Egypt to the Indus River and from the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean. With excellent resources it was a formidable opponent to anyone willing to take it on. Nevertheless in 334 BCE Alexander crossed the Hellespont and attacked the Persians, decisively crushing the Persian king Darius III in 331 BCE. When Alexander burnt the Persian capitol Persepolis it symbolised the destruction of the Persian dynasty and put a vast sum of money into circulation, which affected the economy for centuries. Alexander pushed on into modern Pakistan until his army forced him to turn back. Before his death in 323 BCE, Alexander attempted
to merge elements of the Greek and Persian cultures together, “notably that of proskynesis, a symbolic kissing of the hand that Persians paid to their social superiors, but a practice of which the Greeks disapproved” In addition he recruited the local peoples into his army, something which created hostility from the Greek and Macedonian soldiers.
Upon Alexanders death his generals fought among themselves to control the territory conquered by Alexander, by 270BCE eventually consolidating into three Hellenistic monarchies, the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt, the Seleucid empire in modern day Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan and the Antigonid Empire, centered on Greece and Macedonia.
With the massive spread of Hellenistic civilization, Greek became the language of business, in the same way English is seen today, from the border of India to what is now the French port city of Marseille. Trade blossomed across the Hellenistic world with the capitol city of the Ptolemy’s Alexandria became a center of imports and manufacturing. The Egyptians and Phoenicians produced and traded cotton cloth, and the Egyptians produced silk, paper, glass, jewelery, cosmetics, salt, wine and beer. In western Asia the manufacture of woolens boomed, along with asphalt, petroleum, carpets, perfumes, bleach and pain relieving drugs. The influence on other cultures in the effected areas was profound. In the period after Alexander’s death Judea was annexed by the Ptolemy dynasty, as a result there were Greek government officials and merchants in every Judean village while the region was surrounded by Greek cities. This started to ‘Hellenize’ the Jews, although not to the degree of other peoples. In addition to the previous many Jews were ‘Dispersed’ as in the Hellenistic Kings moved Jewish families across their empires, sometimes by force. Syria had the largest Jewish population caused by emigrants fleeing the crisis-ridden region, with many also moving to the Tigris river cities, Egypt and into Asia Minor. Many eventually took up Greek clothing and learning to speak and write in Greek, even adopting a Greek name (Alexander being popular) in addition to their Hebrew name. This situation continued to the point that many Jews no longer spoke Hebrew, so the “Jews of Alexandria had begun the translate their own writings into Greek. Most important of all was the Greek translation of the Bible”. The Hellenistic world even had an influence on the spread of Christianity. Saint Paul (ACE 64) was a Jew from the Hellenized city of Tarsus who spoke and wrote in Greek, who upon his conversion to Christianity adopted some Hellenistic elements to the message, making it more palatable to the Greeks and other gentiles.
The Arts and literature did not suffer in the period. Classical Greek stories like the tale of the Trojan horse were told along the river Oxus and in the Punjab peoples, Homer was translated into an Indian dialect, and the love story of Cupid and Psyche was found carved on Ivory in India. Alexandria became a place of learning after the construction of the great library, once the largest in the world. The story goes that “by decree of Ptolemy III of Egypt, all visitors to the city were required to surrender all books and scrolls in their possession; these writings were then swiftly copied by official scribes. The originals were put into the Library, and the copies were delivered to the previous owners. This helped to create a reservoir of books in the relatively new city, which gave rise to the fields of history and chronology. Sculpture moved towards emotive modes in the Hellenistic period from the balanced tension and idealism of the 5th century BCE, with many works particularly Michelangelo’s David and others of the renaissance being of the emotional style. Improvements were made in almost every field. New cities were laid out in the grid plan introduced by Hippodamus of Miletus, which was later adopted by the Romans. Largely sparked off by Plato and Aristotle and Alexanders own interest in the sciences, Mathematics and Science made leaps forward particularly in geometry, which was not surpassed until the seventeenth century CE, although the life sciences suffered as they were overtaken by Astrology and Magic.
Our knowledge of the world was greatly influenced by this period. “Pytheas of Marseille voyaged up the coast of Britain to Norway or Jutland and became the first Greek to hear of what today is called the Arctic Sea”. Armed with this information the geographer Eratosthenes of Alexandria made a map of the known world, remarkably accurate for its tie, even including latitude and longitude. Eratosthenes of Cyrene calculated the circumference of the earth, and was only off by 200 miles.
It is difficult to determine any one thing, which has left an enduring legacy for western civilization. The artwork of the renaissance masters is similar to that of the Hellenistic era. Today we design our cities using the grid plan of Hippodamus of Miletus and geometry discovered by Archimedes is used in the architecture of buildings in our cities. Works of literature from the period are common knowledge; everyone has heard the tale of the Trojan horse. The fields History and Chronology were created in the Hellenistic period. Even the New Testament was originally written and spread by Greek Jews. Essentially the foundations of western civilization are the Hellenistic civilizations.
Alexander the Great (on Wikipedia)
Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment & Frank M. Turner – “The Western Heritage: Volume One“
Neil Morris Et. Al. – “The Illustrated History of the World“
Frank E. Smitha “Hellenistic Civilisation” (http://www.fsmitha.com/h1/ch12.htm)
Michael Grant – “from Alexander the Cleopatra: the Hellenistic World“
Robin Lane Fox – “Alexander the Great“
Library of Alexandria (on Wikipedia)