The Greek king Alexander of Macedon (356 to 323 B.C.) is best known as Alexander the Great -- and with good reason. In little more than a decade, Alexander conquered provinces from Persia to Egypt and India, spreading Greek culture and influence to new parts of the world with every victory. Alexander’s death ushered in a new epoch for ancient Greece, marking the end of the Classical era and the beginning of what has been characterized by classicists since the 19th century as the Hellenistic period.

Deconstructing Hellenism

Alexander the Great had left in his wake numerous colonies and had brought Greeks in contact with a multitude of different cultures. During the Hellenistic period, Greek influence spread to regions such as the Levant and Asia Minor. Cultural influence did not flow in one direction. Greeks too were inspired by their contact with new cultural vistas. The cultural spread was mirrored by a linguistic one, as the Greek language spread to far-flung Alexandria and Antioch. As a result, a new form of Greek emerged known as "Koine." It would become the linguistic thread connecting diverse populations from Athens to Asia Minor. Hellenic Greek culture was distinct in fields as disparate as philosophy, religion and art.

Hellenism and the Emergence of New Philosophies

One of the great hallmarks of Classical Greek culture was its philosophical achievements. Socrates and Plato are nearly legendary even today. No less famous is Aristotle (who was Alexander’s tutor). While Classical philosophers had invested themselves in speculative inquiries about theories and ideals, Hellenistic philosophers were concerned with realities, about life. For instance, Cynicism, one of the early Hellenistic philosophies, insisted upon rejecting social conventions in favor of natural impulses. One especially well-known Hellenistic philosophy is Stoicism, which imagines that the cosmos is governed by unchangeable laws and consequently counsels individuals to submit to fate. Skeptics, meanwhile, adhered to the belief in the limits and imperfections of human reason.

Worshipping New Gods

One of the most prominent godesses of ancient Egypt, Isis means "throne" and is commonly represented with a throne headdress.
One of the most prominent godesses of ancient Egypt, Isis means "throne" and is commonly represented with a throne headdress.

Hellenism entailed cultural cross-pollination. This process was manifested with particular clarity in the changes to the Greek religious order -- Syrian gods like the storm-god Hadad, Egyptian gods such as fertility goddess Isis were welcomed into the Greek pantheon aside Zeus and Athena. There was a strong Hellenic presence in Egypt, and one result of that presence was the infusion of an Egyptian influence in Greek religion. For example, the Sarapis cult, a fusion of Greek and Egyptian deities, was established and enjoyed popularity. This cult allowed Greeks to participate in Egyptian culture and also made Greek culture accessible to Egyptians.

New Directions in the Visual Arts

The Venus de Milo is an archetypal example of Hellenistic sculpture.
The Venus de Milo is an archetypal example of Hellenistic sculpture.

The most visible and enduring hallmark of Hellenistic Greece can be found in the visual arts. Hellenistic art was conscious of history. This meant that artists often appropriated the forms of earlier periods in their work. Stylistically, Hellenistic sculptures were rendered with more emotion, figures assumed more dramatic poses and there was an especial attention to the quality of drapery in marble works. While Classical Greek art had focused on ideal bodies that expressed little emotion, Hellenistic artists depicted a variety of individuals in expressive poses. Though some believe the Hellenistic period marked a decline in Greek art, some of the most famous works were created during the period, including the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.