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Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age

Professor Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania

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Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age

Course No. 327
Professor Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
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54 Reviews
77% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 327
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Course Overview

This series of lectures examines a crucial period in the history of the ancient world, the age ushered in by the extraordinary conquests of Alexander the Great. In all the annals of the ancient world, few stories are more gripping than that of the Hellenistic Age. Between the conquests of Alexander the Great and the rise of Rome, Greek culture became the heart of a world-historical civilization whose intellectual, spiritual, and artistic influence endures to this day.

Caesar's Shame

Julius Caesar lamented when he was in his early 30s that by his age Alexander had conquered the world, "and I have done nothing."

In just 10 years, this young prince from the small, hill kingdom of Macedon subdued the largest tract of the earth's surface ever conquered by one individual. His vast empire—encompassing all or part of 23 present-day countries—stretched from Mount Olympus and the Sahara Desert to the frontiers of India and Central Asia.

In the opening lectures, we explore the enigma of Alexander, son of a brilliant father, yet always at odds with the man whom he succeeded. We trace his early campaigns against the Persians and follow him to Egypt, where he was acclaimed as the son of god.

We look at his career after this and find in him a blend of greatness and madness as he strove to replace the Persian empire of the Achaemenid dynasty with a new, mixed ruling class of Macedonians and Persians.

Alexander's death in 323 BC ushered in a period of catastrophic change as ambitious warlords carved up Alexander's realm into their own separate empires. It is said that as the 33-year-old Alexander lay dying in Babylon in 323 B.C., he was asked who would inherit his empire. "The strongest," he answered.

Their struggle created three kingdoms, ruled by a small group of Macedonian nobles, that spanned from the eastern Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush:

  • Ptolemaic Egypt (323-31 B.C.), whose last ruler was Cleopatra
  • Seleucid Syria (323-64 B.C.), whose attack on the Temple in Jerusalem in 166 B.C. led to the Maccabean revolt
  • The Attalid Empire in Asia Minor (281-133 B.C.), which, while smaller than the other two, produced a cultural flourishing in its capital Pergamum that rivaled Alexandria in Egypt.
North Africa. In the Nile valley, the Ptolemies played the role of pharaohs and were treated by their subjects as gods. At the same time, however, their capital, Alexandria, was cut off from Egypt and run by Greek bureaucrats. Greek culture thrived here in the museum and library, and the Ptolemies were great patrons of the arts. The library itself boasted half a million books.

The Middle East. In the Seleucid empire, the rulers also built Greek cities, such as Antioch, but in older regions, including Mesopotamia, they too were ready to be worshipped as living gods. On the edges of the Hellenistic world, in places as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan, Greek cities grew up around trading posts and military settlements. Here, philosophy and literature from old Greece went hand in hand with gymnasiums and theaters to plant Greek culture far from the Mediterranean. By military and cultural conquest, then, much of central Asia was incorporated into the Greek world.

Despite the geographic extent of this civilization, we see that the heartland remained the eastern Mediterranean. It was here, in such new cities as Alexandria and Pergamum and such old ones as Athens, that Greek culture developed its distinctive Hellenistic appearance.

Hellenistic Culture

Philosophy. Philosophy became more academic, as different schools of philosophy emerged. Stoicism, epicureanism, and skepticism all looked for ways to teach people to avoid the emotional upheavals of life in an age of anxiety.

Art and Architecture. At the same time, art rejoiced in exploring the very same turmoil of the age. Hellenistic sculptors looked at the old, the young, the ugly, and the tortured instead of merely fashioning images of the perfect athlete. Differing sharply from the Classical art that precedes it, Hellenistic art is gargantuan, often "excessive," and nakedly emotional. It explores aspects of human experience previously outside the concerns of the Greeks.

Literature. Novelists also played with themes of the reversal of fortune in the lives of their characters, because such tumult was part of the experiences of so many people. Piracy, brigandage, physical hardship, and the supreme power of great kings were all realities of the age and left their marks on ordinary people.

Religion and Magic. As we see, these conditions helped spawn a vital interest in magic, spells, and incantations and in religions that offered people the promise of redemption and salvation. The cults of Isis, Serapis, and Cybele all grew in popularity throughout the Hellenistic world. This was the climate of the world in which Christianity was born.

Captured Greece? Captured Rome?

Although the Hellenistic Age would result in some of the greatest accomplishments in Greek culture, especially in the poetry of Callimachus, Theocritus, and Apollonius, the political power of the age was overshadowed by the growth of Rome.

Hence, we conclude the lectures with a study of the growth of Roman power, its expansion into the eastern Mediterranean, and the inevitable clash of Greek and Roman civilizations. We see that Rome conquered, but Rome would be forever changed by the contact with Greek culture. In the words of the Roman poet Horace, "Captured Greece took captive her captor."

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Greeks and Macedonians
    By conquering Greece in 338 B.C., Philip II of Macedon set the stage for the rise of his son, Alexander the Great. When Alexander invaded the Persian territory of Asia Minor in 334 B.C. and drove his spear into its soil, he was embarking on the greatest career of conquest the world had ever seen. x
  • 2
    Alexander the Divine?
    Alexander's path was prepared by Philip, but few could predict how the son would eclipse the father. After only two battles, Alexander would command more land than any Greek before him and would order the Persian emperor to address him as an equal. At the height of his power he would visit Egypt, there to assume the title of pharaoh and be hailed as a deity. x
  • 3
    The Blazing Star
    Did his Egyptian sojourn convince Alexander that he was a god or just teach him the political value of blurring the lines between human and divine? As he left Egypt and resumed his drive eastward, how would he bring the Persian emperor to battle? x
  • 4
    Alexander—Myth and Reality
    Alexander had an astonishing effect on the political development of the eastern Mediterranean, yet opinions remain deeply divided about him. This was so in antiquity and remains so now. Can we discern the historical Alexander, or has the myth swallowed the man? x
  • 5
    The Formation of the Kingdoms
    A generation of warfare among Alexander's successors split his empire. After these "wars of the Diadochi," three major Hellenistic kingdoms would emerge under the control of Alexander's former officers. x
  • 6
    Egypt Under the Early Ptolemies
    Ptolemaic Egypt is probably the most familiar and best-documented Hellenistic kingdom. In Egypt, Ptolemy, one of Alexander's companions and bodyguards, transformed himself into a new pharaoh even as he remained separate from the conquered Egyptians. How did Ptolemy and his successors blend pharaonic and Macedonian practices to create a new kingdom? x
  • 7
    Alexandria and the Library
    Alexandria was the seat of Ptolemy's court. The city's library and museum were the premier cultural institutions of the Hellenistic world. Was Alexandria, with its library and museum, a blend of Greek and Egyptian elements, or did it represent the imposition of one culture over the other? x
  • 8
    The Seleucid Realm
    The second great Hellenistic kingdom was ruled by the Seleucid dynasty, which built cities from Syria to Iran. How did the Seleucids rule a kingdom that stretched across all of Central Asia? x
  • 9
    Pergamum
    The Attalids, the third of the great Hellenistic dynasties, ruled from Pergamum in Asia Minor. The city had begun as a simple garrison, but at the Attalid kings' peak, its library and cultural influence rivaled Alexandria's. x
  • 10
    Bactria, the Edge of the Hellenistic World
    Hellenism, the transplanted culture of the Greeks, flourished primarily along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. Yet Greeks did penetrate the hinterlands and left their imprint on areas far from the coast. One such region was Ai Khanum, far to the east, in what is now Afghanistan. x
  • 11
    Sculpture
    Differing sharply from the Classical art that precedes it, Hellenistic art is gargantuan, often "excessive," and nakedly emotional. It explores aspects of human experience previously outside the concerns of the Greeks. x
  • 12
    Poetry
    Hellenistic poetry reflects a complex world in which the Greek language is part of an international culture. Great poets such as Callimachus, Theocritus, and Apollonius powerfully combine anxiety, nostalgia, and refinement in works that highlight the concerns of the day and make Hellenistic verse something new in the story of literature. x
  • 13
    The Greek Novel
    The novel, which is still going strong as one of our most cherished and familiar literary forms, was a creation of late Hellenism. Full of adventures set in the contemporary world, prose narratives such as "Daphnis and Chloe" remain invaluable guides to the spirit of the Hellenistic Age and lasting contributions to the interpretation of the human condition. x
  • 14
    Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics
    Hellenistic philosophy embodies a very different response to the anxieties of the new age. We examine the major schools of thought and relate them to the social setting in which the work of philosophy went forward. x
  • 15
    Kingship and Legitimacy
    The far-flung Hellenistic monarchs were Greeks or Macedonians descended from Alexander's lieutenants. As such, they could not rest their rule on the usual grounds of tradition or inheritance. How did they meet the challenge of sustaining their authority in theory and asserting it in practice? x
  • 16
    Benefaction
    The Hellenistic Age would witness an increasing reliance on individual citizens, often of extraordinary wealth, to keep cities from starving or going bankrupt. Earlier city-state institutions provided a model for this, but in the Hellenistic Age euergetism (voluntary gift-giving) became critical to the survival of cities. x
  • 17
    The Maccabean Revolt, Part I
    The best-documented example of a rebellion against Hellenistic overlords by their non-Greek subjects is the Maccabean revolt, beginning in 166 B.C.E. The revolt came in response to the desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem by the soldiers of Antiochus IV. In two lectures we will examine these events, asking how and why this persecution of the Jews arose and what the revolt tells us about the relationship between Greeks and their non-Greek subjects. x
  • 18
    The Maccabean Revolt, Part II
    In December of 167 B.C.E., agents of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV systematically defiled the Temple in Jerusalem. We have seen that this persecution must be set against the collapse of Seleucid fortunes in the eastern Mediterranean between 190 and 167 B.C.E. Now we examine these events from the viewpoints of the outraged Jewish subjects. x
  • 19
    Rulers and Saviors
    The Hellenistic Age saw traditional Greek religion develop in new ways. An emphasis on personal faith and experience led to the flourishing of mystery cults. At the same time, religion became one of the principal means of recognizing the immense power of Hellenistic kings. The public face of religion changed as more and more rulers were hailed as saviors. x
  • 20
    Economic Growth and Social Unrest
    The Hellenistic world witnessed a rapid expansion of economic activity but also an increase in social distress and even resistance to the status quo. This lecture explores evidence for these developments and shows how similar the Hellenistic Age is to our own. x
  • 21
    The Mood of the Hellenistic Age
    The Hellenistic Age witnessed cultural contact on an unprecedented scale, as the Greeks took over areas once ruled by Egyptian pharaohs and Persian kings. The result was something radically different from the Classical Age of mainland Greece, and in this lecture we identify some of the most characteristic features of the Hellenistic world: internationalism, individualism, and a fascination with fate. x
  • 22
    Hellenism and the Western Mediterranean
    Following Alexander, the Macedonians marched all the way to the Hindu Kush. Yet the western Mediterranean, much nearer to Greece and Macedon, was never politically under the control of Alexander's successors. What prevented Hellenism from moving west? And what was the relationship between the Greeks and their western neighbors? x
  • 23
    The Freedom of the Greeks
    The political end of the Hellenistic world came at the hands of the expanding Roman Empire. How was Rome able to exert the kind of control that no single Hellenistic king had wielded since Alexander? Did Rome plan its march of conquest, or was the process more fortuitous? x
  • 24
    Pax Romana
    After the defeats of Macedon and the Seleucid dynasty, the Hellenistic east became the backdrop for the final conflict between Antony and Caesar's heir Octavian. Antony's alliance with Cleopatra raised the prospect of a joint Roman-Hellenistic hegemony of the eastern Mediterranean, but Octavian had other ideas. x

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Jeremy McInerney

About Your Professor

Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Jeremy McInerney is Davidson Kennedy Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. McInerney earned his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He was the Wheeler Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and has excavated in Israel, at Corinth, and on Crete. He serves on the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece....
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Reviews

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 54.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from From Alexander to the Rise of Rome Although Alexander the Great gets top billing in this course, his story only takes up 1/6 of the lectures. The remainder of the course explains what happened after Alexander’s conquests: how the Greeks interacted with their new subjects, the differences between the various Greek kingdoms, the development of Greek culture and philosophy, etc. The professor gives a clear picture of the social and religious life of Greece during this period, and concludes with the trends that led Greece to be subject to the growing influence of the Roman Empire. You will encounter many familiar names in this course, and if you are a student of Bible history, you’ll find many crossovers of places, ideas, and events. I took the audio version of the course and found it satisfactory. The professor has an upbeat lecture style and he includes appropriate readings from many period documents.
Date published: 2017-01-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Did Alexander the Great Actually Exist? It seems that he did. I was glad to see that the professor here was not lured in by wacky conspiracy theories. I listened to these lectures and reviewed the coursebook carefully, and the level of scholarship here is consistent with what I've come to expect from the Great Courses. In fact, I don't know why the Great Courses doesn't just call itself "The Greatest Courses". Maybe it's modesty? They should learn from Alexander the Greatest. This course had lots of important details about the world Alexander left behind. I knew very little about the Parthians and the Bactrians, for example. Now I feel a bit more informed. The professor balances politics, literature, philosophy and as far as I could tell doesn't give any topic anything less than it deserves in a 24 episode series. He also makes good use of primary sources when presenting evidence for his conclusions. He discussed archeology, too, so if you're into that sort of thing, you will probably like this course. After listening to the influence and importance of Alexander, I felt a bit bad about myself. Look what he accomplished! And then look at my record. If Alexander were around today, he'd probably conquer me unless I signed a treaty with him, which I'd do. I just hope he wouldn't take my lunch for today because I've been looking forward to it all morning. As for other elements of this course. The professor had a pleasant presentation. He always said "welcome back" at the beginning of each lecture, which I appreciated. I only had the audio version, but it seemed to be fine. Maybe the video has a few maps and pictures that would be neat to look at, though. I think I'll listen to this professor's series about Ancient Greece even though that would mean I'm listening out of chronological order. One other thing that Alexander did better than me: everything he did was chronological.
Date published: 2016-12-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable I enjoyed this course and will probably listen to parts of it again. I was really hoping there had been more information about Alexander, but I see there are other courses about him. I enjoyed learning about the areas that he had conquered and how these countries were put under control of different men after Alexander's death. The professor did a great job explaining the time periods and the men who ruled, but also the other people who were living during their rule. He did a good job explaining the time period and how it ties in to other historical times that I have learned about in the past.
Date published: 2016-11-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Transmission of Greek Culture to the Romans How did Greek culture and learning fare after the conquest of Greece by Alexander and how did it get taken up by the Romans with such profound consequences for Christianity and Western Civilisation? These questions motivated me to buy this course and I was highly gratified by it. The delivery and coverage were excellent. The audio download version was bought because I feared the illustrations/visuals would be meagre for a course recorded in 2000, but there were obvious references to maps and photographs of Hellenistic sculpture. The course book did not include these, though it did have a valuable time-line chart and ‘further reading’ lists. A good range of maps and photographs were readily found on the web (eg Wikipedia), however. It was also 'helpful to use the course book to follow along' as I was unfamiliar with many place and person names used.
Date published: 2016-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Excellent Course by Prof. McInerney I purchased this course (audio download) after listening to Prof. McInerney's course, Ancient Greek Civilization. They go together well, this one picking up where that one left off. Between the two of them, I feel I received a very detailed and comprehensive historical, cultural, linguistic & religious account of ancient Greek life. Time & money well spent.
Date published: 2016-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age There are a few teachers that I seem to enjoy more than others and this is one of them. I purchase all of his courses because he has such a great command of his subjects. It is evident he enjoys making these presentations and wants us to enjoy it right along with him.. This course starts with Alexander but goes far beyond from the Classical age to Hellenistic and I've listened to this one about 3 times so that I could master the subject matter. If you love history and want a great survey overview of a dynamic age you'll love this course.
Date published: 2016-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Alexander and Macedonian and Hellenistic ages I listened to "Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire" by Professor Harl and "Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age" by Professor McInerney back to back. I bought them at very separate times and when I noticed I had both of them, after having just finished "Ancient Empires Before Alexander" by Professor Dise, I decided it was time to get to know Alexander a little better -- like 60 lectures better. Since I would be constantly comparing the two courses I decided to write one review for both of them. There is a hint as to the coverage in these courses by the slight difference in the titles. The Macedonian Empire is mostly before and during Alexander's reign; the Hellenistic period is during and after Alexander. In my review of "Ancient Empires before ..." I noted that a lot of time was spent on wars. I was nervous that this would be the case with the two courses I am reviewing now. I was very pleased that this was not the case with either of these courses although I 'felt' the presence of battles more in "Hellenistic" than in "Macedonian." I truly appreciated Professor Harl's getting more into the person of Alexander, rather than just his conquests. He also spent a lot of time on his relationships with his generals which explains how the Empire was split up after Alexander's death. We get to Alexander's death in lecture 27 -- 27 of 36. in "Hellenistic" we hear very little of Alexander himself after lecture 4 -- 4 of 24. I was quite surprised at what topics were discussed in "Hellenistic." Although interesting I feel it was a stretch to include two lectures on the Jewish Maccabean Revolt and four lectures on sculpture, poetry, novels and philosophers in a course titled "Alexander and ..." Don't get me wrong -- I thoroughly enjoyed these lectures but saw little relationship to Alexander. I got the impression that Professor Harl knew so much more than he could squeeze into each half hour lecture, and his presentation was flawless, while I felt that Professor McInerney was reading as he frequently apologized and corrected himself. So, if you were to ask me which course to buy, I would have to say both; "Macedonian" to get to know what led up to Alexander and about the man and his era, and "Hellenistic" to see the effect he had on history. This is highlighted by the Timeline in each course book -- "Macedonian" is from 1250 to 272 BCE, while "Hellenistic" is from 359 to 31 BCE.
Date published: 2016-04-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview course The course presents an excellent overview of the Hellenistic period: beginning with the Macedonian political background, moving up to Alexander's campaigns, it leads the student throughout a whole series of different aspects of the greek legacy in Europe, Africa and Asia. Besides the vast range of subjects dealt with by the professor (including sculpture, literature and religion), his modern approach - challenging and changing old crystallized views about some aspects of this period - is quite exciting. I highly recommend this course to anyone willing to be introduced in this rather odd period in humankind's history: between the age of Classical Greece and Classical Rome, some sort of post-Greek-pre-Roman Classical period. But Classical still...
Date published: 2016-01-21
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