The Hellenistic period is usually said to be the three hundred years between the reign of Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C., and of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, who ruled from 31 B.C. until .A.D. 14. As soon as the news of Alexander’s death became known, his generals began a fierce scramble for portions of his empire. The generals combined against each other in various shifting alliances and arranged many intermarriages and murders in a confusing period of political and military change. By c. 280-279 B.C. three dynasties had emerged as supreme, each descended from one of Alexander’s generals, each in a different portion of the empire: the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucids in Syria and Mesopotamia, and the Antigonids in Macedon and Asia Minor.
In Egypt the Ptolemies followed the ancient pattern of government, turning themselves into successors of the pharaohs. They claimed title to all land, some of which was farmed by peasants directly for their own benefit and some let out to temples or to military settlers and officials. The Ptolemies’ own land gave them all its produce,
except what was needed to feed the farm workers; land let to others paid the Ptolemies a percentage in wheat. Oil, flax, and papyrus were royal monopolies. The Ptolemies governed largely through Greek officials, who poured into Egypt for several generations after Alexander’s death. Even the armies of the first three Ptolemies were wholly Greek.
Alexandria, the capital, was the largest city of the ancient world, until Rome eventually overtook it. The city had harbors both on the Mediterranean and on a great lake, which was connected by canals to the Nile, and by the Nile to the Red Sea. Its towering white stone
lighthouse, four hundred feet high, was one of the wonders of the ancient world. The city had broad streets, luxurious palaces, and a famous library of approximately a million volumes. In its “museum,” scholars, freed from all duties by state subsidies, conducted their researches. At Alexandria also were the Ptolemies’ warehouses in which all the royal grain was stored after it had come down the Nile.
The Egyptian population lived under its own law and was judged in its own courts. Those who were discontented with the system that exploited them so thoroughly had no escape except to take sanctuary in a temple. For a long time the Greek population-with its own language, law courts, culture, and customs-did not mingle with the Egyptians. But by the early second century, Greek immigration had tapered off, Greek-Egyptian intermarriages had begun, and the army became more Egyptian. Rome began to intervene, disorganization set in, and by 118 B.C. Ptolemy VII had to issue a series of decrees calling for reform to reunite his empire and restore public order.
Seleucus I was also one of Alexander’s generals. He began as governor of Babylon and eventually won control over all of Alexander’s Asian lands except northern and western Asia Minor and the Indian regions in the east, which had to be given up by 303 B.C. Seleucid territorial holdings fluctuated a good deal, however. The Seleucids’ Ionian territories centered on the former Lydian capital of Sardis, their Syrian territories on the new city of Antioch-on-Orontes in northern Syria, and their Mesopotamian territories on the new city of Seleucia not far from Babylon. As the heirs of the ancient Near Eastern empires, the Seleucids used the former Assyrian and Persian administrative forms and revived Babylonian religion and literature, which was still written in cuneiform.
The Seleucids could not count on deification, like the Ptolemies, nor could they create in Asia anything like the extremely centralized Ptolemaic system of exploitation. Unlike Egypt, the Asian territories were too vast to be governed. Instead, the Seleucids founded Greek cities and sponsored their development. To do this they gave up large areas that were their own royal land, and they also transferred the land of powerful landowners to the cities. The lot of the peasants improved, as they ceased to be private property and gained their freedom.
These Greek cities were military colonies, given both money and land by the king. Their settlement, housing, financial, and other questions were delegated to a military governor. The settlers were required to serve in the army in exchange for the land they received. This founding of Greek cities, however, failed to solve the problem of military security, partly because there were not enough Greeks available to populate the cities and man the armies, and partly because the Seleucids did not learn how to command the loyalty of the Persian population.
In Macedon and Greece, the Antigonids, descendants of Alexander’s governor of the western Anatolian province of Phrygia, had won in the struggle for succession. Even so, it was not until almost half a century after Alexander’s death that Antigonus Gonatas, son of the first Antigonus, was accepted as king of Macedon. In 277 B.C. he successfully protected Greece from the raids of the Gauls, who had spread from the region north of the Alps into what is now France and Spain, and across to Britain. Now they were moving eastward along the Danube, raiding southward into Italy and Greece. Antigonus shunted them on to Asia Minor, where they were given a kingdom of their own, called Galatia.
Though the Greek cities were now grouped together into two leagues, the Aetolian and the Achaean, they fought against each other and against the Antigonid kings of Macedon with customary Greek vigor. By the 220s the Greeks were largely independent of Macedon once again. Sparta tried to take over the Achaean League; it would have succeeded had not the Macedonians been brought back into Greece in 222, to defeat the Spartans finally. By the 220s, however, Rome had begun to intervene in the Greek world.
Alexander’s heirs had begun their rule in prosperity and unity; they ended it in division, defeat, and economic decline. At first commerce had grown throughout the Hellenized world, for Greek products were widely sought. But as prosperity increased, the division between the well-to-do and the peasants grew; the cities came to be identified with wealth, the rural areas with poverty. Wars, rising inflation, and Persian gold threw the economies into disarray. Both urban laborers and peasants discovered the power they could exert over the middle class if they refused to work. Frequent debates over redistribution of land, demands for the abolition of debt, and civil wars further weakened Alexander’s inheritance, so that the Hellenized states were ripe for conquest.