What Brought About the End of the Hellenistic Period? | History Hit

What Brought About the End of the Hellenistic Period?

Alexander fighting the Persian king Darius III. From the Alexander Mosaic, Naples National Archaeological Museum.
Image Credit: Public Domain

The Hellenistic period was the era of ancient Greek civilisation that followed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. It saw Greek culture transform and spread across the Mediterranean and into western and central Asia. The end of the Hellenistic period is variously attributed to the Roman conquest of the Greek peninsula in 146 BC and Octavian’s defeat of Ptolemaic Egypt in 31-30 BC.

When Alexander’s empire broke up, the multiple realms that arose in its place, including the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic, supported the continued expression of Greek culture and its mixture with local culture.

While there is no universally accepted end date to the Hellenistic period, its denouement has been located at different points between the 2nd century BC and the 4th century AD. Here’s an overview of its gradual demise.

The Roman conquest of the Greek peninsula (146 BC)

The Hellenistic period was defined by the widespread influence of Greek language and culture that followed the military campaigns of Alexander the Great. The word ‘Hellenistic’, in fact, is derived from a name for Greece: Hellas. Yet by the 2nd century AD, the burgeoning Roman Republic had become a challenger for political and cultural dominance.

Having already defeated Greek forces in the Second Macedonian War (200-197 BC) and Third Macedonian War (171-168 BC), Rome augmented its success in the Punic Wars against the North African state of Carthage (264-146 BC) by finally annexing Macedon in 146 BC. Where Rome had previously been reluctant to execute its authority over Greece, it sacked Corinth, dissolved the Greeks’ political leagues and enforced peace between Greek cities.

Alexander the Great’s empire at the time of its greatest extent.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Roman domination

Roman power in Greece provoked opposition, such as Mithradates VI Eupator of Pontus’ repeated military incursions, but it proved lasting. The Hellenistic world became progressively dominated by Rome.

In another step that signals the waning of the Hellenistic period, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106-48 BC), otherwise known as Pompey the Great, drove Mithradates from his domains in the Aegean and Anatolia.

Roman troops had first entered Asia during the Roman–Seleucid War (192-188 BC), where they defeated the Seleucid force of Antiochus at the Battle of Magnesia (190-189 BC). In the 1st century BC, Pompey embodied Roman ambitions to dominate Asia Minor. He ended a pirate threat to trade in the Mediterranean and proceeded to annex Syria and settle Judaea.

Pompey the Great

The Battle of Actium (31 BC)

Ptolemaic Egypt under Cleopatra VII (69–30 BC) was the last kingdom of Alexander’s successors to fall to Rome. Cleopatra was aiming for world rule and sought to secure this through a partnership with Mark Anthony.

Octavian decisively defeated their Ptolemaic force at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC, establishing the future emperor Augustus as the most powerful man in the Mediterranean.

The defeat of Ptolemaic Egypt (30 BC)

In 30 BC, Octavian succeeded in conquering the last great centre of Hellenistic Greece in Alexandria, Egypt. The defeat of Ptolemaic Egypt was the final stage in the Hellenistic world’s submission to the Romans. With the defeat of powerful dynasties in Greece, Egypt and Syria, these territories were no longer subject to the same level of Greek influence.

The Library at Alexandria as imagined in a 19th-century engraving.

Greek culture was not extinguished under the Roman empire. Hybrid cultures had formed in the Hellenised lands, with historian Robin Lane Fox writing in Alexander the Great (2006) that hundreds of years after Alexander’s death, “the embers of Hellenism were still seen to glow in the brighter fire of Sassanid Persia.”

The Romans themselves emulated many aspects of Greek culture. Greek art was widely replicated in Rome, prompting the Roman poet Horace to write, “captive Greece captured its uncivilised conqueror and brought the arts to rustic Latium”.

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The end of the Hellenistic period

Roman civil wars brought further instability to Greece before it was directly annexed as a Roman province in 27 BC. It served as an epilogue to Octavian’s domination of the last of the successor kingdoms to Alexander’s empire.

It is generally agreed that Rome ended the Hellenistic era around 31 BC through its conquests, although the term ‘Hellenistic period’ is a retrospective term first deployed by 19th-century historian Johann Gustav Droysen.

There are some dissenting opinions, however. The historian Angelos Chaniotis extends the period to the 1st century AD reign of emperor Hadrian, who was a great admirer of Greece, while others suggest it culminated with Constantine’s moving of the Roman capital to Constantinople in 330 AD.

Kyle Hoekstra