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Hellenistic era

Hellenistic period

This article focuses on the historical aspects of the Hellenistic age; for the cultural aspects see Hellenistic civilisation.

The Hellenistic period describes the era which followed the conquests of Alexander the Great. During this time, Greek cultural influence and power was at its zenith in Europe and Asia. It is often considered a period of transition, sometimes even of decline or decadence, between the brilliance of the Greek Classical Era and the emergence of the Roman Empire. Usually taken to begin with the death of Alexander in 323 BC, the Hellenistic period may either be seen to end with the final conquest of the Greek heartlands by Rome in 146 BC; or the final defeat of the last remaining successor-state to Alexander's empire, the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt in 31/30 BC .

The Macedonian Empire

Alexander's father, Phillip II of Macedon had conquered much of the Greek peninsula, and brought the city states of Boeotia, Attica and the Pelopennesus under his sway, when he was assassinated (probably at the instigation of Alexander himself ). Phillip had planned to attack the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, and his conquest of Greece made this feasible. Succeeding his father, Alexander took this task upon himself. During a decade of campaigning, Alexander conquered the whole Persian Empire, overthrowing the Persian King Darius III. The conquered lands included Asia Minor, Assyria, the Levant, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Media, Persia, and parts of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the steppes of central Asia. The years of constant campaigning had taken their toll however, and Alexander died in 323 BC.

After his death the huge territories Alexander had conquered became subject to a strong Greek influence (hellenization) for the next two or three centuries, until the rise of Rome in the west, and of Parthia in the east. As the Greek and eastern cultures mingled, the development of a hybrid hellenistic culture began, and persisted even when isolated from the main centres of Greek culture (for instance, in the Greco-Bactrian kingdom).

In addition much of the area conquered would continue to be ruled by the Diadochi, Alexander's generals and successors. Initially the whole empire was divided amongst them; however, some territories were lost relatively quickly, or only remained nominally under Macedonian rule. After 200 years, only much reduced and rather degenerate states remained, until the inevitable conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt by Rome.

The Diadochi

After Alexander's death, there were more-or-less forty years of constant war between his generals (the Diadochi) for the rule of his Empire. By about 281 BC the situation had stabilised, resulting in four major domains:

Macedon and Greece

The Ptolemaic Kingdom

The Seleucid Empire

Pergamon and the Attalids

Other Hellenistic Kingdoms

The Greco-Bactrian Kingdom

The Greek kingdom of Bactria (or Greco-Bactrian kingdom) began as an offshoot of the Seleucid empire. The sheer size of the eastern Seleucid domains must mean that the satraps governing the provinces had significant freedom from central control. In around 250 BC, the governor of Bactria, Sogdiana and Margiana, one Diodotus, took this process to its logical extreme and declared himself king. At around the same time, the re-emergence of a native Persian dynasty under the Parthian king Arsaces effectively cut the nascent Greco-Bactrian kingdom off from the rest of the Seleucid empire. This probably allowed it to maintain its independence in the medium term, but in the long-term may have contributed to its decline and fall; it could no longer receive manpower or aid from other Hellenistic regions at sufficient levels.

Diodotus II, son of Diodotus, was overthrown in about 230 BC by Euthydemus, possibly the satrap of Sogdiana, who then started his own dynasty. In approx 210 BC, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom was invaded by a resurgent Seleucid empire under Antiochus III. Whilst victorious in the field, it seems Antiochus came to realise that there were advantages in the status quo (perhaps sensing that Bactria could not be governed from Syria), and married one of his daughters to Euthydemus's son, thus legitimising Greco-Bactria. Soon afterwards the Greco-Bactrian kingdom seems to have expanded, possibly taking advantage of the defeat of the Parthian king Arsaces II by Antiochus.

Demetrius, son and successor of Euthydemus, invaded north-western India in 180 BC, after the destruction of the Mauryan empire there; the Mauryans were probably allies of the Bactrians (and Seleucids). The exact justification for the invasion remains unclear, but by about 175 BC, the Greeks ruled over parts of north-western India.

This period also marks the beginning of the obfuscation of Greco-Bactrian history. Demetrius possibly died about 180 BC; numismatic evidence suggest the existence of several other kings shortly thereafter. It is probable that as this point that the Greco-Bactrian kingdom split into several semi-independent regions for some years; Euthydemus II (son of Demetrius?) seems to have ruled in Bactria, with Agathocles, Antimachus I and Pantaleon ruling in India. In around 171 BC the usurper Eucratides I swept to power in Bactria, removing whichever king(s) were actually ruling at that point. Similarly, in India, the general Apollodotus I seems to have assumed more-or-less complete power by around 170 BC, thereby marking the true start of the Indo-Greek kingdom (see below).

Eucratides may have been a member of the Seleucid royal family, who set out to (re)claim the Bactrian lands. Eucratides certainly had a vast and prestigious coinage, suggesting he was a ruler of considerable importance. He appears to have re-invigorated the Bactrian kingdom, although territory was lost the Parthia in the west. He fought with the Indo-Greeks, and appears to have occupied India up to the river Indus for a while. However, his murder in 145 BC triggered a civil war which fatally weakened the kingdom as his sons Eucratides II and Heliocles I fought each other. Heliocles was the last Greek to clearly rule Bactria, his power collapsing in the face of tribal invasions of Bactria, by about 130 BC. However, Greek urban civilisation seems to have continued in Bactria after the fall of the kingdom, having a hellenising effect on the tribes which had displaced Greek-rule.

The Indo-Greek Kingdom

The separation of the Indo-Greek kingdom from the Greco-Bactrian kingdom resulted in an even more isolated position from the west, and thus the details of the Indo-Greek kingdom are even more obscure than for Bactria. Many supposed kings in India are known only because of coins bearing their name. The numismatic evidence together with archaeological finds and the scant historical records suggest that the fusion of eastern and western cultures reached its peak in the Indo-Greek kingdom.

As mentioned, Apollodotus made himself king of 'India' in around 170 BC. The exact fate of Apollodotus is unknown, but he seems to have extended the conquests east into Gandhara and western Punjab. In about 155 (or 165) BC he seems to have been succeeded by the most successful of the Indo-Greek kings, Menander I. Menander converted to Buddhism, and seems to have been a great patron of the religion; he is remembered in some Buddhist texts as 'Milinda'. He also expanded the kingdom further east into Punjab, though these conquests were rather ephemeral.

After the death of Menander (c. 130 BC), the Kingdom appears to have fragmented, with several 'kings' attested contemporaneously in different regions. This inevitably weakened the Greek position, and territory seems to have been lost progressively. Around 70 BC, the western regions of Arachosia and Parapamisadae were lost to tribal invasions, presumably by those tribes responsible for the end of the Bactrian kingdom. The resulting Indo-Scythian kingdom seems to have gradually pushed the remaining Indo-Greek kingdom towards the east; after 70 BC eastern Punjab shows renewed evidence of Greek rule and by about 55 BC Greek rule seems to have ended in western Punjab. The Indo-Greek kingdom appears to have lingered on in eastern Punjab until about 10 AD when finally ended by the Indo-Scythians.

The rise of Rome

Widespread Roman interference in the Greek World was probably inevitable given the general manner of the ascendancy of the Roman Republic. This Roman-Greek interaction began as a consequence of the Greek city-states located along the coast of southern Italy. Rome had come to dominate the Italian peninsula, and desired the submission of the Greek cities to its rule. Although they initially resisted, allying themselves with Pyrrhus of Epirus, and defeating the Romans at several battles, the Greek cities were unable to maintain this position and were absorbed by the Roman republic. Shortly afterwards, Rome became involved in Sicily, fighting against the Carthaginans in the First Punic War. The end result was the complete conquest of Sicily, including its previously powerful Greek cities, by the Romans.

The independent cities of Magna Graecia did not form part of the Hellenistic domains and had, by this time, been eclipsed in power by the Hellenistic kingdoms of the east. They also remained independent at a time when the Mediterranean was increasingly dominated by 'great powers'. This, and their proximity to Rome, had made them easy and obvious targets. Conversely, the major Hellenistic realms were not in the immediate Roman sphere of influence, and were powerful enough to deter Roman agression. The events which, in retrospect, marked the beginning of the end for the Hellenistic kingdoms could have been avoided; even if it seems likely that a collision between them and Rome would have ultimately occurred.

Roman entanglement in the Balkans began, as so often, with trade. Illyrian piratical raids on Roman merchants twice led to a Roman task force invading Illyria (the First and, Second Illyrian Wars). Tension between Macedon and Rome increased when the young king of Macedon, Philip V harboured one of the chief pirates, Demetrius of Pharos (a former client of Rome). As a result, in an attempt to reduce Roman influence in the Balkans, Philip allied himself with Carthage after Hannibal had dealt the Romans a massive defeat at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC) during the Second Punic War. Forcing the Romans to fight on another front when they were at a nadir of manpower gained Philip the lasting enmity of the Romans; the only real result from the somewhat insubstantial First Macedonian War (215-202 BC).

Once the Second Punic War had been resolved, and the Romans had begun to regather their strength, they looked to re-assert their influence in the Balkans, and to curb the expansion of Philip. A pretext for war was provided by Phillip's refusal to end his war with Attalid Pergamum, and Rhodes, both Roman allies . The Romans, also allied with the Aetolian League of Greek city-states (which resented Philip's power), thus declared war on Macedon in 200 BC, starting the Second Macedonian War. This ended with a decisive Roman victory at the Battle of Cynoscephalae (197 BC). Like most Roman peace treaties of the period the resultant 'Peace of Flaminius' was designed to utterly crush the power of the defeated party; a massive indemnity was levied, Philip's fleet was surrendered to Rome, and Macedon was effectively returned to its ancient boundaries, losing influence over the city-states of southern Greece, and land in Thrace and Asia Minor. The result was the end of Macedon as a major power in the Mediterranean.

As a result of the confusion in Greece at the end of the Second Macedonian War, the Seleucid Empire also became entangled with the Romans. The Seleucid Antiochus III had allied with Philip V of Macedon in 203 BC, agreeing that they should jointly conquer the lands of the boy-king of Egypt, Ptolemy V. After defeating Ptolemy in the Fifth Syrian War, Antiochus concentrated on occupying the Ptolemaic possessions in Asia Minor. However, this brought Antiochus into conflict with Rhodes and Pergamum, two important Roman allies, and began a 'cold-war' between Rome and Antiochus (not helped by the presence of Hannibal at the Seleucid court). Meanwhile, in mainland Greece, the Aetolian League, which had sided with Rome against Macedon, now grew to resent the Roman presence in Greece. This presented Antiochus III with a pretext to invade Greece and 'liberate' it from Roman influence, thus starting the Roman-Syrian War (192-188 BC). Another decisive Roman victory at the Battle of Magnesia (190 BC) saw the defeat of Antiochus. Another crippling treaty followed, with Seleucid possessions in Asia Minor removed and given to Rhodes and Pergamum, the size of the Seleucid navy reduced, and a massive war indemnity invoked.

Thus, in less than twenty years, Rome had destroyed the power of one of the successor states, crippled another, and firmly entrenched its influence over Greece. This was primarily a result of the over-ambition of the Macedonian kings, and their unintended provocation of Rome; though Rome was quick to exploit the situation. In another twenty years, the Macedonian kingdom was no more. Seeking to re-assert Macedonian power and Greek independence, Philip V's son Perseus incurred the wrath of the Romans, resulting in the Third Macedonian War (171-168 BC). Victorious, the Romans abolished the Macedonian kingdom, replacing it with four puppet republics; these lasted a further twenty years before Macedon was formally annexed as a Roman province (146 BC).

The Attalid dynasty of Pergamum lasted little longer; a Roman ally until the end, its final King Attalus III died in 133 BC without an heir, and taking the alliance to its natural conclusion, willed Pergamum to the Roman Republic.

Contrarily, having so firmly intricated themselves into Greek affairs, the Romans now completely ignored the rapidly disintegrating Seleucid empire (perhaps because it posed no threat); and left the Ptolemaic kingdom to decline quietly, whilst acting as a protector of sorts, in as much as to stop other powers taking Egypt over (including the famous line-in-the-sand incident when the Seleucid Antiochus IV Epiphanes tried to invade Egypt). Eventually, instability in the near east resulting from the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Seleucid empire caused the Roman pro-consul Pompey the Great to abolish the Seleucid rump state, absorbing much of Syria into the Roman republic. Famously, the end of Ptolemaic Egypt came as the final act in the republican civil war between the Roman triumvirs Mark Anthony and Augustus Caesar. After the defeat of Anthony and his lover, the last Ptolemaic monarch, Cleopatra VII at the Battle of Actium, Augustus invaded Egypt and took it as his own personal fiefdom. He thereby completed both the destruction of the Hellenistic kingdoms and the Roman republic, and ended (in hindsight) the Hellenistic era.

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