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The Power of The Cities in The Hellenistic Period

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The Hellenistic period was influenced by the cities more so than the kings that ruled said cities. Early on, it was in the favour of the kings, however that changed as time continued. It is known from the public inscriptions that are present in city agora that transactions of a sort occurred between the two parties. The cities providing legitimacy and favour for the king, as well as troops and resources later in the patronage. In return the king would provide financial exemption and debt ownership. The Hellenistic cities also more prominently exerted their power during the waning period of the kingdoms as seen in Maccabees, wherein the Seleucids unable to retain power over Judaea were expelled. Related to such factor was the ability for cities to dictate who they would be a client to. It seems that the cities had the capacity to some extent to choose who best serves their interest between the Diadochi and Rome where one was chosen, or else Rome was called in to mediate. The use of ruler cults by the successor states was also a tool that defined the Hellenistic period. Again, as a source of legitimacy that the cities may endorse or as a means of determining allegiances to the differing factions. However, it was also used against the rulers as the Athenians demolished many the cult of the Antigonids when their favour was unbeneficial to the city. The cults also had the effect of writing down the expectations of the king’s duty to the city in their praise poems. Thus, one might say that the cities of the Hellenistic period were more influential to how events in the Hellenistic period were conducted most noticeably when the successor states began to wane in power.

The relation of the cities and the kings appear to work on a transaction like basis, wherein the city gains tribute exemption and debt payments from rival dynasties. In return the king gains the prestige of the ruler cult and consequently approval for their kingship. These inscriptions seem to demonstrate a short-term benefit for the cities as they gain the immediate cessation of taxations. However, they would later be required to provide resources to the king in the long term. Yet as shown in the inscription from Teos concerning Antiochus (Austin, 2006, p. 344) there is a sense of triumph in these transactions through the translated lines “thereby giving an example to all Greeks of how he treats those who are his benefactors…”. The line may be interpreted in two ways: in that of persuading other cities to accept the patronage of their benefactors as they will receive these exemptions. In which case the cities would be passively advertising the king and thus showing the influence that the cities had in defining the territories of the Hellenistic era. Similarly, it may be a display of the city’s own prestige in which the king had to provide such profits in order to be worthy of the city’s approval. Indeed, Tan (2019) believes these inscriptions were used as measure to a city’s worth that a king must pay for as poleis used such inscriptions to compare and bargain with the king. Thus, cities that are later assimilated into the Seleucid empire would measure the benefits that Teos gained and demand greater recompense to consider joining the kingdom. So, the inscriptions serve as evidence in favour of the cities in having greater power over the kings. Hence, from both perspectives, the cities do indeed wield power over the kings in defining how the Hellenistic era progressed.

The power of the cities is also worth mentioning. Later in the Hellenistic period when the strength of the successors were significantly weakened the cities were more likely to seek independence. It is noted that the rebellions were common during the Hellenistic period with some being more successful than others, such as the case of the Bactrian Kingdom. In the case of Jerusalem, the city bordered between Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucids. One of recounts in Maccabees speaks of Jerusalem mustering 6000 troops to fight the various Seleucid armies with a force of more than 20,000. The Seleucid army suffered overwhelming losses despite their numbers advantage and is forced to cede religious control back to the Jewish during the first conflict. Disregarding the veracity of the numbers, it demonstrates the power of the cities in their ability to exert dominance to their surrounding region and in negotiating with their patron kingdom. The Seleucids despite their numerically superior armies were unable to quell this rebellion and so first had to reduce their influence within the region and later become expelled from the city. This may be a seen as demonstration of the idea that cities have a greater influence on the course of how the Hellenistic progressed towards the end. Thus, the influence of kings deteriorated in favour of the cities as time elapsed.

Another factor towards the empowerment of the cities in the Hellenistic Age favour to the kings was the presence of the Romans. The Romans were a patron within the Mediterranean world but one most in favour of autonomy. Their presence allowed for the cities makes greater demands of the successor states in the negotiation like the Teos inscription. The Romans were supposedly not patrons, like the relation between the kings and cities were, but allies. This is seen in 1 Maccabees 8, wherein the Jewish offered the Romans a defence treaty. They accepted such terms and thus, the city was a “friend and ally” to Rome despite the power difference. Even cities who were unaffiliated to the Romans benefitted from their presence. Should a king displease them, the polis had the means of contacting the Romans to force the successors into a disadvantageous position. This demonstrates that the polis had means of applying pressure to their supposed patrons via the presence of a third party, the Romans. Thus, cities of the Hellenistic period had a greater influence in comparison to the kings due to the presence of the Romans supporting their interest.

The ruler cults and praise poems that would usually be defined as a successor king’s influence over the Hellenistic period and cities could be subverted by the poleis to further their agenda. The ruler cults were transient aspects of a city’s culture, they would continue to worship the king only as far as it was beneficial. Such a case occurred in Athens with the abolishment of Philip V’s ruler cult as well as that of his ancestors when his actions were not in Athens interest. This was around the Macedonian wars which saw Athens eventually supporting the Romans in fighting the Macedonians. Their removal of the cult was them abolishing their Antigonid allegiance. So, in that sense the ruler cults idolising the kings was controlled by the cities who chose whether they were worthy of worship or not. Hence, the cities were in control of the Hellenistic aspect of ruler cults as opposed to the rulers who theoretically own the cult.

Similarly praise poems were used by the citizens as means of controlling their patron rather than the opposite. The poems in venerating the kings as godly figures as laid out their expectation for the them. They were held to the standard of the gods and so are expected to bring prosperity and safety to the city. As shown in Demetrius Poliorketes’ praise poem the king was compared to a living god. His divinity as Chaniotis (2003, p. 344) states is linked to his protector status to Athens and they are explicit in the requirements. The Athenians state that they pray to him to fulfil the duties as he has the powers. It stands to reason, that he would not be worthy of praise or kingship if he did not have said power or did not use it to benefit the Athenians. Since the legitimacy of the kings was dependent on his prestige the kings had to fulfil the demands made of him to continue his reign. Thus, the praise poems although centred around a king were not arranged in his favours but that of his subject. So, the cities indeed had more influence over the Hellenistic period than the kings.

Hence, to conclude the polis were more influential in the Hellenistic period in comparison to the Diadochi. Outwardly the kings were in control of their own affairs. However, the inscriptions like those in Teos shows that the relationship was based upon a trade system of systems. The kings provide financial aid and exemption and the cities give prestige and resources later. These advertised their patron in addition to showing a bench mark for favours that the king is capable of. As Hellenistic period progressed, the kingdoms weakened, and the city states became more assertive in power. A small city would be capable of successfully rebelling if the king could not deal with the issue. The Romans also tilted the balance in the favour of the cities wherein they acted as an enforcer for the poleis’ interest even if they are not currently aligned. Lastly, praise poems and ruler cults, although signs of a king’s power, were easily undermined by the cities. They were used to make demands of the kings and show allegiances. These aspects were fleeting and showed that the cities dictated who was in command. Thus, the cities defined the Hellenistic period and its events more so than the kings particularly once Roman influences arrived.

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The Power Of The Cities In The Hellenistic Period. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 28, 2021, from
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