Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age

Course No. 327
Professor Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
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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
 |  Average 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
    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
    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
    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
    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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Your professor

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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Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 58.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My favorite TTC history course If you're like me and love ancient history you'll have studied the golden age of Greece up until the conquests of Alexander. Then there will be a gap in your historical knowledge until you pick back up around the time of Christ when the region was in Roman hands. This course filled in those gaps by answering a number of questions for me like: the story of the very important revolt of the Maccabees, what happened to Greece after Alexander, and to what extent this whole area adapted the Greek way of life and what that really meant. If you have the time I would suggest McInerney's course on Ancient Greece followed by this course. That would take you from Minoan civilization to Roman times, well worth the investment of time and money. After that you would be able to read Roman history at the time of the late Republic/early Empire and have all this essential background information in your mind. I took this course in audio format and it worked very well.
Date published: 2009-01-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course on an Eye-Opening Subject McInerney is an outstanding lecturer with a breadth of experience in his field that is very impressive. The Hellenistic period is pivotal for almost all aspects of Western civilization. Without knowing this period, much of what we read about classic Greece and Rome lacks connection. When we start looking into early Christianity and the texts of the New Testament, as well as the history of Judaism, knowledge of this period really helps tremendously. Taking McInerney's course on Hellenism has filled in many gaps in my other studies in the history of the late classical world through the Islamic conquests and the Crusades. His course on Ancient Greece is next on my list!
Date published: 2008-12-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is a thoroughly entertaining and interesting course on Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic age. Professor McInerney expalins well, ties together military conquests, political maneuvering, philosophy, art and literature in a way that leaves the listener with a good understanding of this critical historical period.
Date published: 2008-12-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is my third course by Prof. McInerney. He is an excellent lecturer. I've gained a much better understanding & appreciation of the signifigance of the influence of the Greeks on the Romans and later Western Civ. Please get Prof McInerney to teach more
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Course booklets are a little skimpy in terms of additional information.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Having myself taught for 32 years, I can assure you that Prof. McInerny is at the top of his game!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The course should have been longer to allow for a more detailed account of Alexander;s life and military conquests.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Sometimes course booklet mentioned things which were not in the lectures. Overall very good.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another outstanding lecture. Great value. Exceptional experience.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof. McInerny is a superb lecturer: articulate, fully in command of his material, with his appraisals of events as well as facts - an enriching & unusual dimension often absent in texts.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I regularly find your courses well conceived and produced and look forward to each lecture.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Prof is one of the most engaging lecturers I've ever heard.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from McInerney is outstanding, interesting, and makes you feel like you are there.
Date published: 2008-10-17
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