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Hellenistic culture

Common and special in the Hellenistic culture of different regions

The most important heritage of the Hellenistic world was the culture that was widely spread on the periphery of the Hellenistic world and had a huge impact on the development of Roman culture (especially the eastern Roman provinces), as well as on the culture of other peoples of antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Aphrodite, Eros, and Pan. Sculpture group from Delos Island. Marble. Around 100 BC.

Aphrodite, Eros, and Pan. Sculpture group from Delos Island. Marble. Around 100 BC.

Hellenistic culture was not uniform; in each region it was formed as a result of the interaction of local stable traditional elements of culture with the culture brought by the conquerors and settlers, the Greeks and non-Greeks. The combination of these elements and the forms of synthesis were determined by the influence of many circumstances: the numerical ratio of different ethnic groups (local and foreign), their level of culture, social organization, economic conditions, political situation, and so on — specific to a given area. Even when comparing the large Hellenistic cities-Alexandria, Antioch on the Orontes, Pergamum, Pella, etc., where the Greek-Macedonian population played a leading role, the special features of cultural life for each city are clearly visible; the more clearly they appear in the inner regions of the Hellenistic states.

However, Hellenistic culture can be considered as a whole phenomenon: all its local variants have some common features, due, on the one hand, to the obligatory participation in the synthesis of elements of Greek culture, on the other — to similar trends in the socio-economic and political development of society throughout the Hellenistic world. The development of cities, commodity-money relations, and trade relations in the Mediterranean and Near Asia largely determined the formation of material and spiritual culture during the Hellenistic period. The formation of Hellenistic monarchies in combination with the polis structure contributed to the emergence of new legal relations, a new socio-psychological image of a person, a new content of his ideology. In Hellenistic culture, the differences in the content and nature of the culture of the Hellenized upper strata of society and the urban and rural poor, among whom local cultural traditions were more consistently preserved, are more prominent than in classical Greek culture.

Factors of the spread of Hellenistic culture

Education system

One of the incentives for the formation of Hellenistic culture was the spread of the Hellenic way of life and the Hellenic educational system. In the polis and in the eastern cities that received the status of a polis, gymnasiums with palaestras, theaters, stadiums and hippodromes appeared; even in small settlements that did not have the status of a polis, but were inhabited by clerks, artisans and other immigrants from the Balkan Peninsula and the coast of Asia Minor, Greek teachers and gymnasiums appeared.

A bronze vessel in the shape of a negro's head. 100 BC Hellenism

A bronze vessel in the shape of a negro’s head. 100 BC Hellenism

Much attention was paid to the education of young people, and therefore to the preservation of the foundations of Hellenic culture, in the original Greek cities. The system of education, as it is characterized by the authors of the Hellenistic period, consisted of two or three stages, depending on the economic and cultural potential of the polis.

  • Boys from the age of 7 were taught by private teachers or in public schools to read, write, count, draw, gymnastics, introduced them to the myths, poems of Homer and Hesiod: listening to and memorizing these works, the children learned the basics of the polis ethical and religious worldview. Further education of young people took place in gymnasiums;
  • From the age of 12, teenagers were required to attend the palaestra (physical training school) to master the art of pentathlon (pentathlon, which included running, jumping, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing), and at the same time a grammar school, where they studied the works of poets, historians and logographers, geometry, the beginnings of astronomy, and learned to play musical instruments;
  • 15-17-year-old boys attended lectures on rhetoric, ethics, logic, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, geography, were trained in horse riding, fist fighting, and the basics of military affairs;

In the gymnasium, the Ephebes, young men who had reached the age of majority and were subject to conscription, continued their education and physical training.
Probably, the same amount of knowledge, with various local variations, was received by boys and boys in the polis of the Eastern Hellenistic powers. The work of the schools, the selection of teachers, the behavior and success of the students were strictly monitored by the gymnasiarch and elected persons from the citizens of the polis; the expenses for the maintenance of the gymnasium and teachers were made from the polis treasury, sometimes donations were received for this purpose from lavergets (benefactors) — citizens and kings.

Gymnasiums were not only institutions for the education of young people, but also a place for competitions in the pentathlon and the center of everyday cultural life. Each gymnasium was a complex of rooms that included a palaestra, i.e. an open area for training and competitions with adjacent rooms for rubbing oil and washing after exercise (warm and cold baths), porticos and exedra for classes, conversations, lectures, where local and visiting philosophers, scientists and poets spoke.

Holidays and celebrations

The upper part of the statuette of an actor in a tragic mask. Terracotta. II-early I century BC.

The upper part of the statuette of an actor in a tragic mask. Terracotta. II-early I century BC.

An important factor in the spread of Hellenistic culture was the numerous festivals — traditional and re — emerging-in the old religious centers of Greece and in the new polis and capitals of the Hellenistic kingdoms. So, on Delos, in addition to the traditional Apollonius and Dionysius, special events were held in honor of the” benefactors ” — the Antigonids, Ptolemies, and Aetolians. Festivals became famous in Thespia (Boeotia) and Delphi, on the island of Kos, in Miletus and Magnesia (Asia Minor). The Ptolemaic Festivals celebrated in Alexandria were on the same scale as the Olympic Ones.

In addition to religious rites and sacrifices, solemn processions, games and competitions, theatrical performances and treats were indispensable elements of these festivals. Sources have preserved the description of a grandiose festival organized in 165 BC by Antiochus IV in Daphne (near Antioch), where the sacred grove of Apollo and Artemis was located: in the solemn procession that opened the festival, there were foot and horse soldiers (about 50 thousand), chariots and elephants, 800 young men in golden wreaths and 580 women sitting in a stretcher decorated with gold and silver; countless richly decorated statues of gods and heroes were carried; many hundreds of slaves carried gold and silver objects, and ivory. The description mentions 300 sacrificial tables and a thousand fattened oxen. The celebrations lasted for 30 days, during which there were gymnastic games, martial arts, theatrical performances, hunts and feasts for one thousand and one and a half thousand people. Participants from all over the Hellenistic world flocked to such festivals.

Not only the way of life, but also the whole appearance of Hellenistic cities contributed to the spread and further development of a new type of culture, enriched by local elements and reflecting the development trends of modern society. The architecture of the Hellenistic polis continued the Greek traditions, but along with the construction of temples, much attention was paid to the civil construction of theaters, gymnasiums, bulevteria, palaces. The interior and exterior design of the buildings became richer and more diverse, porticos and columns were widely used, the colonnade framed individual buildings, the agora, and sometimes the main streets (the porticos of Antigonus Gonata, Attalus on Delos, on the main streets of Alexandria). The kings built and restored many temples to Greek and local deities. Due to the large volume of work and lack of funds, the construction was stretched for tens and hundreds of years.

Hellenistic elements in different cultures

A statuette of Aphrodite from the island of Rhodes. Marble. II century BC.

A statuette of Aphrodite from the island of Rhodes. Marble. II century BC.


The most grandiose and beautiful were considered

Sarapeum in Alexandria, built by Parmeniscus in the third century BC,

  • the temple of Apollo in Didymus, near Miletus, the construction of which began in 300 BC, lasted about 200 years and was not finished,
  • the temple of Zeus in Athens (started in 170 BC, finished in the beginning of the second century AD),
  • the temple of Artemis in Magnesia on the Meander of the architect Hermogenes (started at the turn of the third and second centuries BC, finished in 129 BC).

At the same time, the temples of local deities were built and restored just as slowly —

  • Temple of Horus in Edfu,
  • Goddess Hathor in Dendera,
  • Khnuma in Esna,
  • Isis on the island of Philae,
  • Esagil in Babylon, the
  • temples of the god Nabu, son of Marduk, in Borsippos and Uruk.

The temples of the Greek gods were built according to the classical canons, with slight deviations. In the architecture of the temples of the eastern gods, the traditions of ancient Egyptian and Babylonian architects are observed, Hellenistic influences can be traced in individual details and in the inscriptions on the walls of the temples.

The specifics of the Hellenistic period can be considered the appearance of a new type of public buildings-the library (in Alexandria, Pergamum, Antioch, etc.), the Museum (in Alexandria, Antioch) and specific structures — the Pharos Lighthouse and the Tower of the Winds in Athens with a weather vane on the roof, a sundial on the walls and a water clock inside it. Excavations in Pergamum allowed us to reproduce the structure of the library building. It was located in the center of the Acropolis, in the square near the temple of Athena. The facade of the building was a two-story portico with a double row of columns, the lower portico rested against the support wall, which adjoined the steep slope of the hill, and on the second floor behind the portico, which was used as a kind of reading room, there were four closed rooms that served as a storage for books, i.e. papyrus and parchment scrolls, on which artistic and scientific works were recorded in ancient times.

The largest library in ancient times was considered to be the library of Alexandria, where outstanding scientists and poets worked — Euclid, Eratosthenes, Theocritus, etc., books from all countries of the ancient world were brought here, and in the first century BC, according to legend, it numbered about 700 thousand scrolls. Descriptions of the building of the Library of Alexandria have not been preserved, apparently, it was part of the complex of the Museum. The museum was part of the palace buildings, in addition to the temple itself, it owned a large house, where there was a dining room for scientists who were attached to the Museum, an exedra-a covered gallery with seats for classes-and a place for walking. The construction of public buildings that served as centers for scientific work or the application of scientific knowledge can be seen as a recognition of the increased role of science in the practical and spiritual life of Hellenistic society.

Scientific knowledge

The comparison of the scientific knowledge accumulated in the Greek and Eastern worlds created the need for their classification and gave impetus to the further progress of science. Mathematics, astronomy, botany, geography, and medicine are particularly developed. The synthesis of mathematical knowledge of the ancient world can be considered the work of Euclid “Elements”(or “Principles”). Euclid’s postulates and axioms and the deductive method of proof have served for centuries as the basis for geometry textbooks. The work of Apollonius of Perga on conic sections marked the beginning of trigonometry. The name of Archimedes of Syracuse is associated with the discovery of one of the basic laws of hydrostatics, important provisions of mechanics and many technical inventions.

Part of the frieze of the altar of Zeus in Pergamum. Around 180 BC.

Part of the frieze of the altar of Zeus in Pergamum. Around 180 BC.

The observations of astronomical phenomena that existed before the Greeks in Babylonia at the temples and the works of Babylonian scientists of the V-IV centuries BC. e. Kiden( Kidinnu), Naburian (Naburimannu), Sudin influenced the development of astronomy in the Hellenistic period. Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC) hypothesized that the Earth and the planets revolve around the Sun in circular orbits. Seleucus of Chaldea tried to justify this position. Hipparchus of Nicaea (146-126) B.C.) discovered (or repeated for Kidinnu?) the phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes, established the length of the lunar month, compiled a catalog of 805 fixed stars with the determination of their coordinates and divided them into three classes by brightness. But he rejected the hypothesis of Aristarchus, referring to the fact that the circular orbits do not correspond to the observed motion of the planets, and his authority contributed to the establishment of the geocentric system in ancient science.

The campaigns of Alexander the Great greatly expanded the geographical representations of the Greeks. Using the accumulated information, Dikearchus (about 300 BC) made a map of the world and calculated the height of many mountains in Greece. Erastophenes of Cyrene (275-200 BC), based on the idea of the spherical shape of the Earth, calculated its circumference in 252 thousand stages (about 39,700 km), which is very close to the actual (40,075.7 km). He also claimed that all the seas make up a single ocean and that you can get to India by sailing around Africa or west of Spain. His hypothesis was supported by Posidonius of Apamea (136-51 AD). B.C.), who studied the tides of the Atlantic Ocean, volcanic and meteorological phenomena, and put forward the concept of the five climatic zones of the Earth. In the second century BC, Hippalus discovered the monsoons, the practical significance of which was shown by Eudoxus of Cyzicus, sailing to India through the open sea. Numerous extant works of geographers served as the source for Strabo’s consolidated work “Geography in 17 Books”, completed by him around 7 AD and containing a description of the entire world known at that time-from Britain to India.

Death of Laocoon and his sons. Sculptors Agesander, Polydorus, Athenodorus. Marble. I century BC.

Death of Laocoon and his sons. Sculptors Agesander, Polydorus, Athenodorus. Marble. I century BC.

Theophrastus, a student and successor of Aristotle in the school of peripatetics, modeled on Aristotle’s ” History of Animals “and created a” History of Plants”, in which he systematized the knowledge accumulated by the beginning of the third century BC in the field of botany. Subsequent works of ancient botanists made significant additions only to the study of medicinal plants, which was associated with the development of medicine. In the field of medical knowledge in the Hellenistic era, there were two directions:

  • “dogmatic” (or” bookish”), which put forward the task of speculative knowledge of human nature and the diseases hidden in it,
  • empirical, aimed at the study and treatment of a particular disease.

In the study of human anatomy, a great contribution was made by Herophilus of Chalcedon (III century BC), who worked in Alexandria. He wrote about the presence of nerves and established their connection with the brain, hypothesized that the human thinking abilities are also connected with the brain; he also believed that blood circulates through the vessels, and not air, i.e. he actually came to the idea of blood circulation. Obviously, his conclusions were based on the practice of dissecting corpses and the experience of Egyptian doctors and mummifiers. No less famous was Erasistratus from the island of Keos (III century BC). He distinguished between motor and sensory nerves, and studied the anatomy of the heart. Both of them were able to do complex operations and had their own schools of students. Heraclides of Tarentum and other empirical physicians paid great attention to the study of medicines.

Even a short list of scientific achievements suggests that science is becoming very important in Hellenistic society. This is also evident in the fact that museums and libraries are created at the courts of the Hellenistic kings (to increase their prestige), and conditions for creative work are provided to scientists, writers and poets. But the material and moral dependence on the royal court left its mark on the form and content of their works. It is no accident that the skeptic Timon called the scholars and poets of the Alexandrian Museum “fattened chickens in a chicken coop.”

Statuette of Aphrodite Anadyomene from Cyrene. II-I centuries BC.

Statuette of Aphrodite Anadyomene from Cyrene. II-I centuries BC.


The scientific and artistic literature of the Hellenistic era was extensive (but relatively few works have survived). Traditional genres continued to be developed — epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, rhetorical and historical prose, but new ones also appeared — philological studies (for example, Zenodotus of Ephesus on the original text of the poems of Homer, etc.), dictionaries (the first Greek lexicon was compiled by Philetus of Kos around 300 BC), biographies, translations in verse of scientific treatises, epistolography, etc. At the courts of the Hellenistic kings, refined poetry flourished, but devoid of connection with everyday life, examples of which were the idylls and hymns of Callimachus of Cyrene (310-245 BC), Aratus of Sol (III century BC), the epic poem “Argonautica” by Apollonius of Rhodes (III century BC), etc.

Epigrams had a more vital character, they gave an assessment of the works of poets, artists, architects, characteristics of individuals, descriptions of everyday and erotic scenes. The epigram reflected the feelings, moods and reflections of the poet, only in the Roman era it becomes mainly satirical. The epigrams of Asclepiades, Posidippus, and Leonidas of Tarentum were most famous in the late fourth and early third centuries BC, and in the second and first centuries BC, the epigrams of Antipater of Sidon, Meleager, and Philodemus of Gadara.

The greatest lyric poet was Theocritus of Syracuse (born in 300 BC), the author of bucolic (pastoral) idylls. This genre originated in Sicily from the competition of shepherds (bucols) in the performance of songs or quatrains. In his bucolics, Theocritus created realistic descriptions of nature, living images of shepherds, in his other idylls, sketches of scenes of urban life are given, close to mimes, but with a lyrical coloring.

While epics, hymns, idylls, and even epigrams satisfied the tastes of the privileged strata of Hellenistic society, the interests and tastes of the general population were reflected in such genres as comedy and mime. Of the authors of the “new comedy”, or “comedy of manners”, which appeared in Greece at the end of the IV century BC, the plot of which was the private life of citizens, the most popular was Menander (342-291 BC). His work falls on the period of the struggle of the Diadochi. Political instability, frequent changes of oligarchic and democratic regimes, disasters caused by military operations on the territory of Hellas, the ruin of some and the enrichment of others-all this brought confusion to the moral and ethical ideas of citizens, undermined the foundations of the polis ideology. Growing uncertainty about the future, faith in fate. These sentiments are reflected in the “new comedy”. The popularity of Menander in the Hellenistic and later in the Roman era is indicated by the fact that many of his works — “Arbitration Court”, “Samian Woman”, “Shorn”, “Hateful” , etc. – preserved in papyri of the II-IV centuries AD, found in the peripheral cities and comas of Egypt. The” vitality ” of Menander’s works is due to the fact that he not only brought out characters typical of his time in his comedies, but also emphasized their best features, asserted a humanistic attitude to every person, regardless of his position in society, to women, strangers, and slaves.

Gaul who kills himself and his wife. Marble. A Roman copy from the Pergamon bronze original of the late third century BC.

Gaul who kills himself and his wife. Marble. A Roman copy from the Pergamon bronze original of the late third century BC.

Mime has long existed in Greece along with comedy. Often it was an improvisation that was performed on the square or in a private house during a feast by an actor (or actress) without a mask, portraying facial expressions, gestures and voices of different actors. In the Hellenistic era, this genre became especially popular. However, texts other than those belonging to Herod have not come down to us, and the memes of Herod preserved in the papyri (III century BC), written in the Aeolian dialect, which was outdated by that time, were not intended for the general public. Nevertheless, they give an idea of the style and content of such works. The scenes written by Herod depict a procuress, a brothel keeper, a shoemaker, a jealous mistress who tortured her slave lover, and other characters.

A colorful scene at school: a poor woman complaining about how difficult it is for her to pay for her son’s education, asks the teacher to flog her idle son, who is engaged in a game of dice instead of studying, which the teacher is very willing to do with the help of students.

In contrast to the Greek literature of the V-IV centuries BC, the fiction of the Hellenistic period does not deal with the broad socio-political problems of its time, its subjects are limited to the interests, morals and life of a narrow social group. Therefore, many works quickly lost their social and artistic significance and were forgotten, only some of them left a mark on the history of culture.

Visual art

The images, themes, and moods of fiction find parallels in the visual arts. The monumental sculpture intended for squares, temples, and public buildings continues to develop. It is characterized by mythological plots, grandiosity, and complexity of composition. Thus, the Colossus of Rhodes-a bronze statue of Helios, created by Jerez of Lind (III century BC) – reached a height of 35 m and was considered a miracle of art and technology. The image of the battle of the gods and giants on the famous (more than 120 m long) frieze of the altar of Zeus in Pergamum (II c. B.C.), consisting of many figures, is characterized by dynamism, expressiveness and drama. In early Christian literature, the Pergamon altar was referred to as the”temple of Satan”. The Rhodes, Pergamon, and Alexandrian schools of sculptors were formed, continuing the traditions of Lysippus, Scopas, and Praxiteles. Masterpieces of Hellenistic monumental sculpture are considered to be

  • statue of the goddess Tyche (Fate), patroness of the city of Antioch,
  • sculpted by Alexander “Aphrodite of the island of Melos” (“Venus of Milo”).»),
  • “Nike of the island of Samothrace” and “Aphrodite Anadyomene” from Cyrene by unknown authors.

The accentuated drama of the sculptural images, characteristic of the Pergamon school, is inherent in such sculptural groups as” Laocoon”,” Farnese bull “(or” Dirk”),” Dying Gaul”,”Gaul killing his wife”. Portrait sculpture (exemplified by Polyeuctus ‘ Demosthenes, circa 280 BC) and portrait painting, which can be judged by the portraits from Fayum, have achieved high mastery. Although the Fayum portraits that have come down to us date back to Roman times, they undoubtedly go back to the Hellenistic artistic traditions and give an idea of the skill of the artists and the real appearance of the inhabitants of Egypt depicted on them.

Dying Gaul (Galat). A Roman copy from the Hellenistic original of the third century BC.

Dying Gaul (Galat). A Roman copy from the Hellenistic original of the third century BC.

Obviously, the same moods and tastes that gave rise to the bucolic idyll of Theocritus, epigrams, “new comedy” and mimes are reflected in the creation of realistic sculptural images of old fishermen, shepherds, terracotta figurines of women, peasants, slaves, in the depiction of comedic characters, domestic scenes, rural landscapes, in mosaics and wall paintings. The influence of Hellenistic fine art can be traced in traditional Egyptian sculpture (in tomb reliefs, Ptolemaic statues), and later in Parthian and Kushan art.

Historical writings

In the historical and philosophical writings of the Hellenistic era, the attitude of a person to society, political and social problems of his time is revealed. The subjects of historical works often served as events of the recent past; in their form, the works of many historians stood on the verge of fiction: the presentation was skillfully dramatized, rhetorical techniques were used, designed for emotional impact in a certain way. In this style, they wrote –

  • the story of Alexander the great’s Callisthenes (end of IV C. BC) and Clicar of Alexandria (mid-third century BC)
  • history of the Greeks in the Western Mediterranean, the Timaeus of Tauramena (mid-third century BC)
  • the history of Greece from 280 in 219 BC, Filer, a supporter of the reforms Clemena (late III century BC).

Other historians adhered to a more strict and dry presentation of the facts — in this style, the history of Alexander’s campaigns, written by Ptolemy I (after 301 BC), the history of the period of the struggle of the diadochs of Hieronymus of Cardia (mid-III century BC), etc., are preserved in fragments. The historiography of the II-I centuries BC is characterized by an interest in general history, works of this genre belonged to

  • Polybius,
  • Posidonia of Apamea,
  • Nicholas of Damascus,
  • Agatarchides of Cnidus.

But the history of individual states continued to be developed, the chronicles and decrees of the Greek polis were studied, and interest in the history of the eastern countries increased. Already at the beginning of the third century BC, the history of the Pharaonic Egypt of Manetho and the history of Babylonia of Berosus appeared written in Greek by local priests-scientists, and later Apollodorus of Artemis wrote the history of the Parthians. Historical works also appeared in local languages, such as the Books of the Maccabees on the revolt of Judea against the Seleucids.

Portrait of a man with a beard. Wood, encaustic, and tempera. Fayum. Mid-II century BC.

Portrait of a man with a beard. Wood, encaustic, and tempera. Fayum. Mid-II century BC.


The choice of the topic and the coverage of events by the authors were undoubtedly influenced by the political and philosophical theories of the contemporary era, but it is difficult to identify this: most of the historical works have come down to posterity in fragments or retellings by later authors.

Only the surviving books from Polybius ‘ “Universal History in 40 Books” give an idea of the methods of historical research and the historical and philosophical concepts characteristic of that time. Polybius aims to explain why and how the entire known world came to be under the rule of the Romans. According to Polybius, fate plays a decisive role in history: it is fate that has forcibly merged the history of individual countries into world history, and granted the Romans world dominion. Its power is manifested in the causal connection of all events. At the same time, Polybius assigns a large role to a person, to outstanding personalities. He seeks to prove that the Romans created a powerful state through the perfection of their state, which combined elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and through the wisdom and moral superiority of their politicians. Idealizing the Roman state system, Polybius seeks to reconcile his fellow citizens with the inevitability of submission to Rome and the loss of political independence of the Greek polis. The emergence of such concepts suggests that the political views of Hellenistic society have moved far away from the polis ideology.

Portrait of a man. Linen, tempera. Fayum. I century AD.

Portrait of a man. Linen, tempera. Fayum. I century AD.


This is even more evident in the philosophical teachings. The schools of Plato and Aristotle, which reflected the worldview of the civil collective of the classical city-state, are losing their former role. At the same time, the influence of the Cynics and skeptics who already existed in the IV century BC, generated by the crisis of polis ideology, is increasing.

Stoicism and Epicureanism

However, the predominant success in the Hellenistic world was enjoyed by the teachings of the Stoics and Epicurus, which emerged at the turn of the IV and III centuries BC, and incorporated the main features of the worldview of the new era. The school of the Stoics, founded in 302 BC in Athens by Zeno of Cyprus (about 336-264 BC), included many major philosophers and scientists of the Hellenistic period, such as Chrysippus of Sol (III century BC), Panetius of Rhodes (II century BC), Posidonius of Apamea (I century BC), and others. Among them were people of different political orientations-from the advisers of the kings (Zeno) to the inspirers of social transformations (He was the mentor of Cleomenes in Sparta, Blossius-Aristonica in Pergamum). The main focus of the Stoics is on the person as a person and ethical problems, questions about the essence of being are in their second place.

The Stoics opposed the idea of man’s dependence on the supreme good power (logos, nature, God), which governs all that exists, to the sense of instability of the human status in the conditions of continuous military and social conflicts and the weakening of ties with the collective of citizens of the polis. In their view, man is no longer a citizen of the polis, but a citizen of the cosmos; in order to achieve happiness, he must learn the regularity of phenomena predetermined by a higher power (fate), and live in harmony with nature. The eclecticism and ambiguity of the basic tenets of the Stoics ensured their popularity in different strata of Hellenistic society and allowed for the convergence of the doctrines of Stoicism with mystical beliefs and astrology.

Portrait of two brothers. Wood, encaustic. Fayum. I century AD.

Portrait of two brothers. Wood, encaustic. Fayum. I century AD.

The philosophy of Epicurus, in its treatment of the problems of being, continued the development of Democritus ‘ materialism, but man also occupied a central place in it. Epicurus saw his task in freeing people from the fear of death and fate: he argued that the gods do not affect the life of nature and man, and proved the materiality of the soul. He saw the happiness of man in the attainment of calmness, equanimity (ataraxia), which can only be achieved through knowledge and self-improvement, avoiding passions and suffering and refraining from active activity.

The skeptics, who had become close to the followers of the Platonic Academy, directed their criticism mainly against the epistemology of Epicurus and the Stoics. They also identified happiness with the concept of “ataraxia”, but interpreted it as an awareness of the impossibility of knowing the world (Timon the Skeptic, III century BC), which meant a refusal to recognize reality, from social activity.

Poseidon from the island of Melos. Marble. End of the second century BC.

Poseidon from the island of Melos. Marble. End of the second century BC.


The teachings of the Stoics, Epicurus, and sceptics, although they reflected some common features of the worldview of their era, were designed for the most cultured and privileged circles. In contrast, the Cynics spoke to the crowd in the streets, squares, and ports, proving the unreasonableness of the existing order and preaching poverty not only in words, but also in their way of life. The most famous of the Cynics of Hellenistic times were Kratetos of Thebes (about 365-285 BC) and Bion Borysthenes (III century BC).

Kratetos, who came from a rich family, became interested in Cynism, released his slaves, distributed his property, and, like Diogenes, began to lead the life of a philosopher-beggar. Sharply opposed to his philosophical opponents, Cratet preached moderate cynism and was known for his philanthropy. He had a large number of students and followers, among them for some time was Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school. Bion was born in the Northern Black Sea region in the family of a freedman and a hetaera, in his youth he was sold into slavery; after receiving freedom and inheritance after the death of his master, he came to Athens and joined the school of the Cynics.

The name of Bion is associated with the appearance of diatribes-speeches-conversations filled with the preaching of Cynic philosophy, polemics with opponents and criticism of generally accepted views. However, the critics of the rich and rulers of Cynica did not go further, they saw the achievement of happiness in the rejection of needs and desires, in the “beggar’s bag” and contrasted the philosopher-beggar not only with the kings, but also with the “unreasonable crowd”.

The head of an unknown man. Bronze. Early Hellenism.

The head of an unknown man. Bronze. Early Hellenism.

Social utopia

The element of social protest, which was heard in the philosophy of the Cynics, found its expression in the social utopia: Euhemerus (late IV — early III century BC) in the fantastic story about the island of Panchea and Yambul (III century BC) in the description of the trip to the islands of the Sun created the ideal of a society free from slavery, social vices and conflicts. Unfortunately, their works have survived only in the retelling of the historian Diodorus Siculus. According to Yambul, in the islands of the Sun, people of high spiritual culture live among the exotic nature, they have no kings, no priests, no family, no property, no division into professions. Happy, they all work together, taking turns doing community service. Euhemerus, in the Sacred Record, also describes a happy life on an island lost in the Indian Ocean, where there is no private ownership of land, but people are divided by occupation into priests and people of intellectual labor, farmers, shepherds and warriors. On the island there is a “Sacred record” on a golden column about the deeds of Uranus, Kronos and Zeus, the organizers of the life of the islanders. In presenting its contents, Euhemerus gives his explanation of the origin of religion: the gods are once outstanding people, organizers of public life, who declared themselves gods and established their own cult.


If Hellenistic philosophy was the result of the creation of privileged Hellenized strata of society and it is difficult to trace Eastern influences, then Hellenistic religion was created by a wide range of people, and its most characteristic feature is syncretism, in which the Eastern heritage plays a huge role.

Satyr's head. A Roman copy from the Hellenistic original. Marble. II century BC.

Satyr’s head. A Roman copy from the Hellenistic original. Marble. II century BC.

The gods of the Greek pantheon were identified with the ancient Eastern deities, acquired new features, and changed the forms of their worship. Some Eastern cults (Isis, Cybele, etc.) were perceived by the Greeks in an almost unchanged form. The importance of the goddess of fate, Tihe, has grown to the level of the main deities. A specific product of the Hellenistic era was the cult of Sarapis, a deity who owed his appearance to the religious policy of the Ptolemies. Apparently, the very life of Alexandria, with its multilingualism, with its different customs, beliefs and traditions of the population, suggested the idea of creating a new religious cult that could unite this motley foreign society with the indigenous Egyptian one. The atmosphere of the spiritual life of that time demanded a mystical formalization of such an act. Sources tell us about the appearance of an unknown deity to Ptolemy in a dream, about the interpretation of this dream by the priests, about the transfer from Sinope to Alexandria of a statue of the deity in the form of a bearded youth, and about his proclamation as Sarapis — a god who combined the features of the Memphis Osiris-Apis and the Greek gods Zeus, Hades and Asclepius. The main assistants of Ptolemy I in the formation of the cult of Sarapis were the Athenian Timothy, a priest from Eleusis, and the Egyptian Manetho, a priest from Heliopolis. Obviously, they managed to give the new cult a form and content that met the needs of their time, since the worship of Sarapis quickly spread in Egypt, and then Sarapis, along with Isis, became the most popular Hellenistic deities, whose cult lasted until the victory of Christianity.

Bust of Sarapis. A Roman copy from the Hellenistic original of the fourth century BC.

Bust of Sarapis. A Roman copy from the Hellenistic original of the fourth century BC.

While maintaining local differences in the pantheon and forms of worship in different regions, some universal deities are widely spread, combining the functions of the most revered deities of different peoples. One of the main cults is the cult of Zeus Hypsistus (the Highest), identified with the Phoenician Baal, Egyptian Amon, Babylonian Bel, Jewish Yahweh and other major deities of a particular area. His epithets — Pantokrator (the Almighty), Soter (the Savior), Helios (the Sun), etc. — indicate the expansion of his functions. Another rival in popularity to Zeus was the cult of Dionysus with its mysteries, which brought it closer to the cult of the Egyptian Osiris, the Asia Minor Sabasias and Adonis. Of the female deities, the Egyptian Isis, who embodied many Greek and Asian goddesses, and the Mother of the Gods of Asia Minor, became especially revered. Syncretic cults formed in the East penetrated into the polis of Asia Minor, Greece and Macedonia, and then into the Western Mediterranean.

Hellenistic kings, using ancient Eastern traditions, planted a royal cult. This phenomenon was caused by the political needs of the emerging States. The royal cult was a form of Hellenistic ideology, which merged Ancient Eastern ideas about the divinity of the royal power, the Greek cult of heroes and Oikists (founders of cities) and philosophical theories of the IV-III centuries BC.e. about the essence of state power; it embodied the idea of the unity of the new, Hellenistic state, raised the authority of the power of the king by religious rites. The royal cult, like many other political institutions of the Hellenistic world, was further developed in the Roman Empire.

The decline of the Hellenistic states and changes in culture

With the decline of the Hellenistic states, there are noticeable changes in Hellenistic culture. The rationalistic features of the worldview are increasingly retreating before religion and mysticism, mysteries, magic, and astrology are widely spread, and at the same time elements of social protest are growing — social utopias and prophecies are gaining new popularity.

A red-figure pixid depicting the mysteries. Sicily. 330-320 BC

A red-figure pixid depicting the mysteries. Sicily. 330-320 BC

In the era of Hellenism, works in local languages continued to be created, preserving traditional forms (religious hymns, funeral and magical texts, teachings, prophecies, chronicles, fairy tales), but reflecting to some extent the features of the Hellenistic worldview. Since the end of the third century BC, their importance in Hellenistic culture has increased.

The papyri preserved magical formulas with which people hoped to force the gods or demons to change their fate, cure them of diseases, destroy the enemy, etc. Initiation into the mysteries was seen as direct communion with God and liberation from the power of fate. In the Egyptian tales of the sage Khaemuset, it is about his search for the magic book of the god Thoth, which makes its owner beyond the control of the gods, about the incarnation of an ancient powerful magician in the son of Khaemuset, and about the wonderful deeds of the boy magician. Khaemuset travels to the afterlife, where a boy magician shows him the ordeal of a rich man and the blissful life of the righteous poor next to the gods.

Deep pessimism is imbued with one of the biblical books — “Ecclesiastes”, created at the end of the third century BC. e.: wealth, wisdom, work — all “vanity of vanities”, says the author.

Dionysus with the panther and the satyr. Thessaly. Gold. Late Hellenistic time.

Dionysus with the panther and the satyr. Thessaly. Gold. Late Hellenistic time.


The social utopia is embodied in the activities of the Essene sects in Palestine and the Therapeutics in Egypt, which emerged in the II-I centuries BC, in which religious opposition to the Jewish priesthood was combined with the assertion of other forms of socio-economic existence. According to the descriptions of ancient authors-Pliny the Elder, Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, the Essenes lived in communities, collectively owned property and worked together, producing only what was necessary for their consumption. Entry into the community was voluntary, internal life, the administration of the community and religious rites were strictly regulated, subordination of the younger to the older was observed according to the age and time of entry into the community, some communities prescribed abstinence from marriage. The Essenes rejected slavery, and their moral-ethical and religious views were characterized by Messianic-eschatological ideas, and the opposition of the members of the community to the surrounding “world of evil”.

The therapists can be seen as an Egyptian version of Essenism. They were also characterized by the common ownership of property, the denial of wealth and slavery, the restriction of vital needs, and asceticism. There was much in common in the rites and organization of the community.

The discovery of Qumran texts and archaeological research have provided indisputable evidence of the existence of religious communities in the Judean Desert that are close to the Essenes in their religious, moral, ethical and social principles of organization. The Qumran community existed from the middle of the second century BC to 65 AD. Along with the biblical texts, a number of apocryphal works and, most importantly, texts created within the community — statutes, hymns, commentaries on Biblical texts, texts of apocalyptic and Messianic content, giving ideas about the ideology of the Qumran community and its internal organization-were found in its “library”. Having much in common with the Essenes, the Qumran community more sharply contrasted itself with the surrounding world, which was reflected in the teaching about the opposition of the “kingdom of light” and the “kingdom of darkness”, about the struggle of the” sons of light “with the” sons of darkness”, in the preaching of the” New Union “or” New Testament “and in the great role of the” Teacher of Righteousness”, the founder and mentor of the community.

However, the significance of the Qumran manuscripts is not limited to the evidence of Essenes as a socio-religious movement in Palestine in the second century BC. Comparing them with early Christian and apocryphal writings allows us to trace the similarity in ideological ideas and in the principles of organization of the Qumran and Early Christian communities. But at the same time there was a significant difference between them:

  • the first was a closed organization that kept its teachings secret in anticipation of the coming of the messiah,
  • The Christian communities, who considered themselves followers of the Messiah-Christ, were open to all and widely preached their teachings.

The Essenes and Qumranites were only the forerunners of a new ideological trend — Christianity, which had already emerged within the framework of the Roman Empire.

Portrait of a young man in a golden wreath. Wood, encaustic, tempera. Fayum. Beginning of the second century AD.

Portrait of a young man in a golden wreath. Wood, encaustic, tempera. Fayum. Beginning of the second century AD.

The penetration of Hellenistic culture into ancient Rome
The process of Rome’s subjugation of the Hellenistic states, accompanied by the spread of Roman forms of political and socio-economic relations to the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, also had the opposite side — the penetration of Hellenistic culture, ideology and elements of the socio-political structure into Rome. The export of art objects, libraries (for example, the library of King Perseus, taken by Aemilius Paulus), educated slaves and hostages as war booty had a huge impact on the development of Roman literature, art, and philosophy. The reworking by Plautus and Terentius of the plots of Menander and other authors of the New Comedy, the flourishing on Roman soil of the teachings of the Stoics, Epicureans and other philosophical schools, the penetration of Eastern cults into Rome are only some of the most obvious traces of the influence of Hellenistic culture. Many other features of the Hellenistic world and its culture were also inherited by the Roman Empire.

Significance of the Hellenistic Era

Portrait of a young man in a golden wreath. Wood, encaustic, tempera. Fayum. Beginning of the second century AD.

Portrait of a young man in a golden wreath. Wood, encaustic, tempera. Fayum. Beginning of the second century AD.

This does not exhaust the significance of the Hellenistic epoch in the history of world civilization. It was at this time that, for the first time in the history of mankind, contacts between Afro-Asian and European peoples acquired not an episodic and temporary, but a permanent and stable character, not only in the form of military expeditions or trade relations, but also, above all, in the form of cultural cooperation, in creating new aspects of social life within the Hellenistic states. This process of interaction in the field of material production in an indirect form was also reflected in the spiritual culture of the Hellenistic era. It would be a simplification to see it only as a further development of Greek culture.

It is no accident, for example, that the most important discoveries in the Hellenistic period were made in those branches of science where the mutual influence of previously accumulated knowledge in Ancient Eastern and Greek science (astronomy, mathematics, medicine) can be traced. The joint creativity of the Afro-Asian and European peoples was most clearly manifested in the field of the religious ideology of Hellenism. And ultimately, on the same basis, the political-philosophical idea of the universe, the universality of the world, emerged, which found expression in the works of historians about the Oikumene, in the creation of “Universal Histories” (Polybius, etc.), in the Stoic teaching about the cosmos and the citizen of the cosmos, etc.

The spread and influence of the syncretic Hellenistic culture was unusually wide — Western and Eastern Europe, Western and Central Asia, and North Africa. Elements of Hellenism can be traced not only in the Roman culture, but also in the Parthian and Greco-Bactrian, in the Kushan and Coptic, in the early medieval culture of Armenia and Iberia. Many achievements of Hellenistic science and culture were inherited by the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs, and were included in the golden fund of universal culture.

A boy on a horse. Bronze statuette from Artemisium. Mid-II century BC.

A boy on a horse. Bronze statuette from Artemisium. Mid-II century BC.

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