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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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 61.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific Course This course far exceeded my expectations. Professor McInerney's lectures made the period come alive for me. He has a very dynamic, vivid presentation style and it's clear he is enthusiastic about his topic. To my surprise, what I learned most about was the impact of the Hellenistic age on early Christianity. Highly recommended and fun to listen to!
Date published: 2020-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from McInerney Delivers One of my favorite Great Courses Lecturers does not disappoint. The lecture series was developed 20 years ago and is thus of an era of the Great Courses short on imagery and characterized by simplistic graphics . But Prof McInerney's delivery renders that irrelevant.
Date published: 2020-07-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting This course serves as a bridge between The Great Courses (TGC) offerings on classical Greece and the TGC courses on Rome. It spans the period starting with the fall of classical Greece, proceeding through Philip and Alexander the Great of Macedon, and concluding with the fall of the Hellenistic world to Rome. The lectures fall into three main sections. Lectures 1-10 address the political and military history from Philip of Macedon, through Alexander the Great, and on to the subsequent Hellenistic kingdoms including Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid empire of the East. Lectures 11-21 address cultural topics such as arts, philosophy, and the economy. Finally, Lectures 22-24 describe how Rome subsumed most of the Hellenistic world but also how Hellenistic culture subsumed Roman culture. An interesting theme was fusion of cultures including expansion of Greek culture into Hellenistic culture, the clash of Hellenistic and Persian cultures, the clash of Hellenistic and Egyptian cultures, and ultimately the adoption of Hellenistic culture by Rome. In some cases, the fusion succeeded and in other cases, it failed. Lectures 17 and 18 on the Maccabean Revolt will be of particular interest to Jewish and to many Christian students. Dr. McInerney is an articulate speaker, holding the student’s attention. He clearly knows his subject and he presents it clearly. I used the audio version. I don’t think the video would have added much.
Date published: 2020-06-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from On the Road from Greece to Rome This is the third course I have taken from Professor McInerney. I gave high marks to both of the other two and this one is no exception. I was less familiar with the subject matter of this course than the other two (“Ancient Greek Civilization” and “Age of Pericles”) and therefore learned quite a bit more. As to be expected from the title, the course does not so much focus on Alexander as it does on the period after his death. After all, the era formally begins upon his death, so in this course, Alexander the person and Alexander the conqueror take up just the first few lectures. The last lecture is devoted to the end of the Hellenistic age and the beginning of what has become known as the “Pax Romana”. The bulk of the course is devoted to what comes in-between: Egypt and the Ptolemines, the Seleucids, Pergamun and more. While I found the course organization to be reasonable, some reviewers take exception, perhaps rightly as the lectures do not necessarily follow a chronological (or sometimes even a logical) sequence. For example, the beginning and end of the course are chronological, while the middle has some lectures devoted to a particular part of the Hellenistic world (e.g. Pergamum or Alexandria), while others focus on subjects as diverse as “The Greek Novel” (who knew?) or the library at Alexandria. While this may seem disjointed, for me it worked well. My favorite lectures were on what might seem to be a topic out of context, were the two devoted to the Maccabean Revolt. Dr. McInerney uses them as an example of a rebellion against the imposition of Hellenism and also of the difficulties of the Seleucids in managing their empire. I thought that Professor McInerney was a sound lecturer, usually displaying his love and knowledge of the topic, although sometimes coming across as a bit dry. He often included readings from texts of the time, using these as examples of the points he was making. Some reviewers did not care for this approach, but for me it worked well. This is a fine course for those with a reasonable background on classical Greece and/or the campaigns of Alexander. It is handicapped (at least in the audio version) by a lack of maps, something that is not a problem for those who know the geography. Professor McInerney’s course on ancient Greece will provide a fine background for those who don’t know much about the period prior to the beginnings of this course. Professor Harl’s excellent 36-lecture course on Alexander and his campaigns, “Alexander and the Macedonian Empire" will satisfy those who wish to learn more about the man and his generalship.
Date published: 2019-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and Easy to Undersgtand I haven't had a chance to hear all the lectures yet, but I like what I've heard so far. The lecturer is clear and sets out to prove a theses he has about the particular subject he is talking about it. I bought it specifically because I wanted to understand better the historical circumstances under which the events of the holiday of Chanukah took place. I was not disappointed.
Date published: 2018-12-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Background on the Hellenistic Kingdoms This was a better course than I anticipated. I had taken Professor McInerney's "Ancient Greek Civilization" course and was left unimpressed so I shied away from this one for way too long. The allure of learning more about the Hellenistic kingdoms was too strong so I caved in and purchased this course and I'm glad I did. Most of his lectures were much more engaging than his other course. He did a good job of covering all aspects of this age. Admittedly the lectures on social life (poetry, sculpture, religion, etc.) didn't get me jazzed up but that isn't a fault of the professor: I've always been more interested in political histories. And he delivers in that arena: lectures 5-10 and 22-24 are tops. The last three lectures focused on the Hellenistic kingdoms' interactions with Rome and were riveting. The first four lectures focus on Alexander the Great and the Professor does a good job of getting us thinking: what if Alexander hadn't run out of time and died young? In fact he has a good knack of concluding lectures on a contemplative note (lecture 7 ends on the invention of the discipline of literature criticism in Ptolemaic Egypt and got me thinking: do we have the definitive versions of Shakespeare because the interest in such an activity started in this period?). My only real negative feedback is the lack of info on the Macedonian empire post Alexander. Its battles with Rome are covered at the course's conclusion but not much else on it for about 200 years. If you're interested more in Alexander I'd recommend Professor Harl's "Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire" course since it delves much deeper into his years but Professor McInerney's course is your choice if you're interest lies with the Hellenistic kingdoms that followed Alexander. Well done.
Date published: 2018-11-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Jeremy McInerney does it again! I am in the middle of listening to these lectures and am fascinated once again by McInerney’s knowledge and delivery. The subject matter is very well chosen and ranges over the Hellenistic Age giving an excellent view of this time.
Date published: 2017-11-27
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
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