Why Was Greek Cultural Influence So Important for the Ancient Mediterranean World?

The conquests of Alexander spread Hellenism throughout the Mediterranean basin.
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A seafaring people, the Greeks made their culture known beyond Greece through trade and colonization as early as the 9th century B.C. and had established settlements from one end of the Mediterranean to the other by the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. But Greek, or Hellenic, culture would not see its widest dissemination until the conquests of the Macedonian Alexander the Great. Although Alexander would die in 323 B.C. at the young age of 32, his rule spread Hellenism from Egypt to the Indus River Valley.

1 Seafaring Cultural Exchange

Hellenism -- the word “Hellenistic” means “to speak Greece or identify with the Greeks” – became the unifying culture of a Mediterranean connected by Alexander’s conquests and ruled by his successors. People across the Mediterranean could converse with each other in a language called Koine, a form of colloquial Greek; such a common usage made trading and sharing ideas easier. And commerce would flourish under Hellenistic rule. Because Alexander’s conquests spanned the known world, Ptolemaic Egypt, for instance, was able prosper, exporting millions of bushels of grain every year through new trade routes.

2 Conquests of Alexander

The learned and artistic of the Hellenistic world conversed in Greek. The grand library at Alexandria, Egypt – a city founded by Alexander himself and which contained his tomb -- was home to over 500,000 papyrus scrolls, preserving Greek literature and philosophical thought and teachings. To be educated, in the Hellenistic Mediterranean world, was to study Greek philosophers and the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” Hellenistic influences were not met without complaint -- many non-Greeks disparaged what they saw as Greek parochialism and arrogance -- but their influence was pervasive and shaped the Mediterranean world, even after the Romans conquered the Mediterranean basin beginning in the second century B.C.

3 Hellenism

The Romans, too, were profoundly influence by Hellenism. Greeks from territories the Romans conquered came to Rome as slaves, traders, hostages, and tutors spreading Hellenistic thought and philosophy. Romans imitated Greek ship designs and incorporated Greek styles in their architecture. As Rome conquered Greek-influenced lands and Greece itself, masterpieces of Greek art taken as booty had a great influence on the Romans, who were especially fond of copies of Greek statuary.

4 A Far-Reaching Influence

Schools of Hellenistic philosophical thought like Stoicism, Asceticism, Cynicism and Skepticism influenced millennial Jews and the first Christians. The books of the New Testament were originally written in Koine, and Greek continued to be a language of the educated for centuries to come. And the influence of Hellenism lasted long after the end of the Roman period. As historian Stanley M. Burstein writes in his paper “The Hellenistic Society Period in World History,” Hellenism “survived in the lands conquered by Alexander the Great to be encountered by the medieval civilizations of Byzantium and Islam.” And, ultimately, by modern humanity.

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.