The Hellenistic Period: Definition & History

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies and 27 graduate credits in American history. She will start coursework on her doctoral degree in history this fall. She has taught heritage of the western world I and II and U.S. history I and II at a community college in southern New Jersey for the past two years.

The Hellenistic period was a time when Greek culture spread throughout and influenced Southwest Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean regions. In this lesson, you'll learn about the history of Hellenistic society and culture and learn what the term 'Hellenistic' actually means.

Defining the Hellenistic Period

The term Hellenistic literary means to 'imitate Greeks', and the Hellenistic period refers to a period of time dominated by a fusion of Greek language and customs with the culture of the Near East. The actual era of the Hellenistic societies began with the life and death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E. and ended with Rome's conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C.E., although some historians prefer to end the period when Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople in 330 C.E.

The Mourning Woman statue from the Hellenistic Period.
Hellenistic Sculpture

This process of spreading Greek culture is known as Hellenization. So, how did Alexander the Great start this process of cultural fusion? First, his army was an international force comprised of people from highly diversified backgrounds. While on military campaigns, Alexander encouraged his men to take wives from foreign lands and he himself married several women from the east. When he conquered the Persian Empire, he took up many of their customs. For instance, he wore the traditional clothing of a Persian king and used Persians as administrators. Rather than suppressing the cultures in the areas he conquered, Alexander adopted their customs for his own use and taught conquered peoples his own traditions, as well. This sharing of Greek and native customs became a part of life for both the Greeks and non-Greeks alike in the areas Alexander conquered. In this way, he began an era of cultural synthesis that would continue long after his death.

History & Culture of the Hellenistic Period

One of the most efficient ways to spread Greek culture turned out to be by moving parts of the Greek population to these new areas conquered by Alexander. As such, new military bases were built in many of the conquered areas, which were soon followed by cities formed around these bases. Basically, colonists would move in as they looked for new economic opportunities. Greek rulers after Alexander benefited from these colonies because they served as military recruitment stations.

However, the administration of these colonies was far from fair to all Hellenistic people. While Greeks had started to adopt the practices of different cultures, they still believed that Greek society was superior to all others. With this in mind, the new Hellenistic cities were often initially culturally identical to Greek cities on the mainland. For instance, the government was still modeled after the Greek polis, or city-state. This meant that the councils and assemblies were still based on Greek ideals of citizenship and political participation. As such, the Greeks dominated politics in these cities. Native people were often prevented from holding any public offices or civil servant positions. This created resentment among the local populations that were being treated as second-class citizens.

A coin with the bust of Heracles from the Hellenistic Period.
Heracles Coin

During this time, Greeks still practiced their traditional polytheistic religion, which was based on the belief of many gods and goddesses. However, new traditions emerged as the gods and goddesses of other regions influenced their beliefs and their society. The deities of the Egyptians and the Persians played particularly influential roles.

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