Conquering territories from his native Macedonia to the Indus River, Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.) enabled his successors, the three Hellenistic kingdoms, to spread Greek culture to an unprecedented extent. Vast regions formerly dominated by Egyptian or Persian traditions soon came to exhibit distinctively Greek characteristics in politics, language, athletics, art, literature and philosophy. Nonetheless, much of the world, including most people within the Hellenistic kingdoms, continued to live largely unaffected by Greek culture.
In Alexander’s day, humans were living not only in Africa, Europe and the Middle East but also in Central and East Asia, Australia, the Americas and on islands in the Pacific Ocean. Alexander’s conquests fell far short of encompassing all these regions. They did, however, embrace territories from Greece to the Indus River and from Anatolia to Memphis on the Nile.
Cities attracted the majority of Greeks who immigrated into the lands Alexander conquered. Whether long established or newly founded by the conquerors, these urban areas soon acquired traditional features of Greek city-states, such as councils, assemblies, theaters and gymnasiums as well as an agora that served as both market and political forum. The Greek tradition of the city-state’s wealthy elite contributing to the common good continued through interaction between Hellenistic kings and urban upper classes.
Greek Lauguage and Ideas
Non-Greeks wishing to pursue a government career had to learn koine, a standardized form of Greek based on the Athenian dialect. Consequently, koine spread across the Hellenistic world, becoming the lingua franca of commerce and culture. Alexander established a common market throughout the Hellenistic world, setting up mints and a common currency standard. While this may have reflected primarily a desire to divert wealth to himself and his Greek successors, it did facilitate commerce between Greeks and non-Greeks, helping spread Greek ideas. As far from their homeland as Bactria (in present-day Afghanistan), Greek settlers flourished through trade between India, China and the Mediterranean world, making Bactria a cultural intersection joining the traditions of Greece with those of Asia.
The Hellenistic kingdoms never included Gaul, Iberia or Britain, all of which would, within about three centuries of Alexander’s death, fall within the Roman Empire. Even inside the Hellenistic sphere, most people -- those dwelling in rural areas -- remained largely untouched by Greek culture, which flourished mainly in the cities. Hellenistic cities, moreover, fostered Macedonian conceptions of monarchy as opposed to Athenian-style democracy. In this sense, Alexander may have helped disseminate some aspects of Greek culture but only at the expense of others.
- TimeMaps: Map of the Ancient World
- The Oxford History of the Classical World; John Boardman, Jasper Griffin and Oswyn Murray, Eds.
- The Hellenistic Age: A Short History; Peter Green
- Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times; Thomas R. Martin
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images