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The transition period from classical to Hellenistic age is a time full of changes for Greek citizens. From being citizens of a relatively small community, in which they could participate and engage actively to a cosmopolitan environment, following the conquest of the Alexander the Great. How did the function of city-state change in the Hellenistic age? To what extent did they lose their political autonomy? All these questions are important to be tackled in order to understand the implications of the Hellenistic imperialism and its influence.
We must keep in mind that the monarchical empire was only a new phenomenon for the cities in the mainland Greece. When the Macedonians became the main political power in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, Greek city-states in Asia Minor had been accustomed to Persian dominance for years. The emergence of city-states in Classical Greece was aided by the geographical features of Greece. Therefore, they were not quite large, which meant they had social homogeneity and political autonomy.
The image of the Greek City is sometimes distorted in the Macedonian imperialism. For example the conception that civic autonomy is a Greek ideal. Self-rule is the natural state form for cities. Most cities are governed by domestic magistrates. Of course, democracy, such as it existed in Athens was exceptional in the context of fifth-century in Greece. But, it was preserved at some extent even during Hellenistic time. A steady supply of resources and manpower, as well as control of strategic roads was crucial prerequisite of ancient imperialism. Such “hegemonic empires”, as Hellenistic one, where local rulers recognize the establishment of the “great king”, through which the new empire takes control of ethnically different populations providing them the security that they need in order to produce the surplus the empire needs to support its army. Such empires neither had the will nor the power to govern subject cities directly. Rather than trying to install outsiders as governors against the city’s leaders’ wishes, kings supported local political factions or elite families against their rivals, trying to manipulate the composition of the ruling oligarchy[footnoteRef:1]. In fact the kings were as dependent on cities as cities on them. Cities administrated the infrastructure and collection of the surpluses, which was the essential for the exercise of the empire’s power. Besieging cities was costly and time-consuming decision. As Alexander learned at Tyre and Antigonus Gonatas at Athens. Therefore, rather than coerce cities into submission at any cost, rulers preferred to seek peaceful cooperation with urban oligarchies, whenever they could do that.
The golden age of Greek philosophy, which culminated with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle only lasted about hundreds of years. In the centuries that followed, changes in the political and cultural climate of the ancient world tended to discourage the previous philosophical thinking of that time. The general culture of the Hellenistic period remained Greek in spirit, political power was vested in highly centralized state. The Athenian democracy tradition of participatory government disappeared as individuals were excluded from significantly shaping the social structure of their lives.
Therefore, Hellenistic philosophers of this time, devoted less time to the issues that Plato and Aristotle dealt with, such as the construction of the ideal state that would facilitate the happy life. Instead the thinkers of this time were focused upon the life of the individual, describing in details the kinds of the character and action that might enable the person to live well despite the prevailing political realities of that time. We might say that philosophers tried to show how we should live when the circumstances beyond our control might influence what we want to accomplish. It is commonly said that the Hellenistic philosophy derived much of its character from the political and social crisis. Individuals, unsettled by turbulent change, are thought to have found the traditional institutions and values of the polis an inadequate context for defining their lives. Many Hellenistic philosophers offer ways that discount or eliminate fear and anxiety. The main obstacles of happiness, according to Epicurus are fear of divine control of the world and fear of death. But to understand the special focus of Hellenistic ethics we should recall Socrates’ contribution to philosophy. It was him who gave the notion of the “wise man”, whose life is an extraordinary challenge to conventional views on human needs and priorities and yet a paradigm of happiness. It is correct to see Hellenistic ethics as a development of Socratic tendencies, rather than a direct response to supposedly new problems and situations. Socrates founded no school, and he was too complex to be fully appropriated by any of his followers, but the challenge of Socrates persisted, transmitted to the Hellenistic world.
So, what is Socrates about Hellenistic ethics? Many argue that is a particular view of what ethics should be about: the questioning of convention, the removal of fears and desires that lack any rational foundation, a radical ordering of priorities around the notion of the soul’s health. The Stoics insist that pleasurable and painful sensations make no difference to genuine happiness. The Pyrrhonists center happiness exclusively in skepticism. Although the Hellenistic philosophers deal with the same issues such as: happiness, excellence and self-mastery, and agree on much that these require in the sphere of practical reason and desire. The new political climate of the period forced Hellenistic ethics to be detached from politics, and this meant two things: First, the theories of Hellenistic ethics were more abstract than those of their classical predecessors. Teachers of Hellenistic ethics did not much care whether their goals were practical in view of the conditions under which people lived. Concrete social and political issues did not interest them. In particular, they did not ask whether better politics would make the good life easier to live. Second, Hellenistic ethics put enormously increased emphasis on individual choice as opposed to public policy.
What is most distinctive about Hellenistic ethics, may not be its Socratic influence, instead it might be the amazingly academic character of different schools of thought. Hellenistic ethics may have been self-generating. It might have been grown out of a long technical debate among schools. As professional philosophers they were mainly concerned with fine points that could have made difference in ordinary life.
Hellenistic kings became prominent figures of the arts, commissioning public works of architecture and sculpture, as well as private luxury items that demonstrated their wealth and taste. Hellenistic art is quite diverse in subject matter and in stylistic development. It was created during an age characterized by a strong sense of history. For the first time, there were museums and great libraries, such as those at Alexandria and Pergamon. Hellenistic artists copied and adapted earlier styles, and also made great innovations. We can clearly see more human-like emotions and expressivity in their sculptures. The popular image of a nude Aphrodite, for example, reflects the increased secularization of traditional religion.
Regarding religion, we see a new trend of mystery cults emerging and gaining ground by taking advantage of peoples’ vulnerability of that time. The Greek gods continued to be worshiped as before, however the socio-political changes brought on by the conquest and the Greek emigration, in some cities such as the multi-ethnic Alexandria had varied group of gods and religious practices, including Egyptian, Greek and Jewish. For the majority of the intellectuals its place was taken by the philosophies of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism. Some who were less philosophically inclined turned to the worship of Fortune or became followers of dogmatic atheism. Among the masses a tendency to embrace the emotional religions of Oriental origin was even more clearly manifest. The Orphic and Eleusinian mystery cults attracted more followers than ever before. The worship of the Egyptian mother-goddess Isis threatened for a time to reach the proportions of a world religion. The idea of redemption and resurrection of men became the main themes of these cults, expanding the idea of salvation and afterlife, which paved the way later on for Christianity.
Classical and Hellenistic age established certain cultural characteristics for Western civilization. Greek political ideas were more enduring than the actual political constitutions of the city-states. Perhaps the most significant contributions were in art and philosophy. Even though Greek-Hellenistic civilization has often been considered an integral part of Western civilization, its influence has often been modified by time and by other cultures.
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