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Comparison of Hellenic and Hellenistic Greek Civilization

Comparison of Hellenic and Hellenistic Greek Civilization

The concept of 'Hellenization' is widely debated and controversial. The term represents the spread of Greek culture through the conquests of Alexander the Great, but historians speculate whether this was a deliberate policy or mere cultural dispersion. This Historyplex article states a comparison of Hellenic and Hellenistic Greek periods to understand the same.
Mary Anthony
The term "Hellenistic" comes from the root word 'Hellas', an ancient Greek word for Greece that was coined by German historian Johann Gustav Droysen to denote the spread of Greek culture and colonization over the non-Greek states that were captured by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE.

The Hellenic World of ancient Greece was the Golden Age of Greece and is also known as the 'Classic Greek period', this period produced the noblest of philosophers, artists, statesmen, and writers. The culture during this period remained untouched by other cultures around the world, and hence, is termed as pure. The amalgamation of other cultures into pure Greek culture took place with the conquests of Alexander the Great.

It is speculated by historians that Alexander deliberately initiated "Hellenization" policies in his quest to spread Greek culture. The first policy being re-establishing cities across the vast Greek empire in order to civilize the natives into Greek culture. The second policy was to unify the Greeks and Persians by dividing power among them through powerful positions and marriages, this was a bid to hybrid or propagate Greek culture. The third policy was to place Persian soldiers in the army in Macedonian ranks to unify the army position. His ambitious plan was to completely homogenize the populations of Europe and Asia by mass re-settlement. Alexander's policies no doubt resulted in the spread of Greek culture, but it also probably represented the pragmatic attitude of Alexander to command his wide new territories, in part by introducing himself as the successor to both Greek and Asian legacies, rather than a foreigner. Let us now take a comparative look at Classic Greek vs. the Hellenistic Greek Periods.
Hellenic Period Vs. Hellenistic Period
* Click on the names for more information.


➔ The Hellenic period is also known as the 'Age of Classical Greece' or the 'Golden Age of Greece', and it extended from the Greek mainland, Crete, the islands of the Greek archipelago, to the coast of Asia Minor primarily.

Major city-states and consecrated places of pilgrimage in the Hellenic period were Argos, Athens, Eleusis, Corinth, Delphi, Ithaca, Olympia, Sparta, Thebes, Thrace, and Mount Olympus. Among the famous battles of the Hellenic World that were fought by consulting the Gods were the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE), the Battles of Thermopylae, Salamis (480 BCE), Plataea (479 BCE,) and The Battle of Chaeronea (338 BCE) where the forces of the Macedonian King Philip II were commanded, in part, by his son Alexander, in which the Greek forces were defeated and unified under the Greek city-states. After King Philip's death, Alexander went on to conquer the world, thus becoming Alexander the Great. Through his campaigns and conquests, he spread Greek culture, language, and civilization to the world.

➔ The Hellenistic period began in 323 BCE, with the death of Alexander the Great. His vast empire split up between his leading generals, who established royal dynasties over the separate kingdoms. Through them, Greek civilization spread right across the Middle East and amalgamated with local cultures producing a hybrid civilization. This period lasted until 31 BCE, when the last Hellenistic kingdom of Egypt, ruled by Queen Cleopatra, fell to Rome. The Hellenistic Age transformed Greek society from localized city-states to an open, cosmopolitan, and luxuriant culture that imbued the entire eastern Mediterranean, and Southwest Asia.

Without a successor, Alexander's valiant generals fought rivals and against each other to establish power, giving way to three important kingdoms. Egypt and parts of the Middle East were ruled by Ptolemy, Seleucus controlled Syria and the remnants of the Persian Empire, while Macedonia, Thrace, and parts of northern Asia Minor came under the hegemony of Antigonus and his son Demetrius. Most of the classical Greek cities south of Thessaly and on the southern shores of the Black Sea remained independent.

City-states of classical Greece like Athens, Corinth, Thebes, Miletus, and Syracuse continued to flourish. Most influential was Alexandria of Egypt, it was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, and prominently became the center of commerce and culture under Ptolemy. It housed the tomb of Alexander the Great, the Pharos (lighthouse) of Alexandria, and the famed Library of Alexandria that aimed to serve as a melting pot of knowledge of the world.

Rome had risen to a formidable power, and by 200 BCE. The second Punic War (218 - 201 BCE) started a series of wars with Rome that led to the ultimate annexation of Greece by the Romans. By 31 BCE, Octavian or Augustus defeated the rulers of Egypt―Anthony and Cleopatra―in the Battle of Actium, thus bringing an end to the Hellenistic Era.

The Battle of Actium is regarded as the pivotal moment that determines the end of Ancient Greece. After the battle of Actium, the entire Hellenistic world became subjects of Rome.


➔ Religion in the Hellenic period was centered around rituals, sacrifices, oracles, magic, and philosophy. The Greeks believed in their twelve principal deities who had their own distinct personalities and origin, there were many famous mythological legends related with every deity. These twelve primary deities in the Greek pantheon were Zeus, the sky god and father of the gods, his sacred objects were the ox and the oak tree. His two brothers, Hades and Poseidon, who, respectively, reigned over the underworld and the sea. Hera, Zeus's sister and wife, was queen of the gods; who is predominantly portrayed wearing a grandiloquent crown. Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, is typically portrayed in full armor along with her auspices (a goat skin with a snaky fringe), helmet, and spear, she is also the patroness of weaving and carpentry. Apollo, who is represented with the kithara, is the god of music and prophecy. He is considered as an important god in Greek religion mainly because the ancient Greeks considered his sanctuary to be the center of the universe for the oracles of Delphi. Apollo's twin sister Artemis is the patroness of hunting, and is often portrayed with a bow and quiver. Hermes, with his winged sandals and elaborate herald's staff, the kerykeion, was the messenger god. Other significant deities were Aphrodite, the goddess of love; Dionysos, the god of wine and theater; Ares, the god of war; and the lame Hephaistos, the god of metalworking. The ancient Greeks considered Mount Olympus as the home of the gods. The relationship between human beings and deities was based on the concept of interchange. Philosophers greatly questioned the concepts of life, death, and afterlife. The Iliad, by Homer, is considered an important source and record of religious worship and mythological legends. Consecrated offerings were a physical expression of gratitude on the part of mortal worshipers.

Every deity had a particular cult worship and sacred place with a sacrificial alter. The key ritual in ancient Greece was animal sacrifice, especially of oxen, goats, and sheep. Sacrifices took place within the sanctuary, usually at an altar in front of the temple, with the worshipers consuming the innards and meat of the sacrificed object. Liquid offerings were also made. The four most illustrious festivals, each with its own procession, athletic contests, and sacrifices, were held every four years at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia. Many other festivals were observed locally, and in the case of mystery cults, such as Eleusis near Athens, only novices could participate.

➔ Religion in the Hellenistic period continued to worship the Parthenon gods and goddesses along with the prevalent rituals. Additional new religions merged into the practices, especially worship of the Egyptian gods and goddesses, which aided as a new way out for people looking for fulfillment in the present and afterlife. The Hellenistic rulers established themselves as god-kings. Zoroastrianism arose as one of the first documented monotheistic religions, with Ahura Mazda as the single god and the intercession of magi (priests) on Earth. Mithraism, another monotheistic religion, also arose around this time period, with God Mithra having been born on December 24 and holding Sunday as a sacred day.

Magic and astrology gained wide impetus during this period, with people consulting oracles, casting spells, and determining individual life path by seeking past, present, and future predictions with the aid of the planets, the Moon, and the Sun.


➔ Science in the Hellenic period produced many noble and well-known ancient scientists and theories. Astronomy witnessed Thales prediction on a solar eclipse. Math witnessed Pythagoras invent the famous 'Pythagoras Theorem'. Aristotle pursued metaphysics and syllogism theories. Hippocrates, who is regarded the "father" of modern medicine, contrived the application of hemorrhaging patients to discharge toxic substances from the human body.

➔ Science in the Hellenistic period is also termed as the 'First Great Age of Science'. The sciences of geometry and physiology, along with Archimedes' principle of specific gravity are a few of the achievements of the period. Euclid created a handbook on geometry, while Archimedes devised composite elevating machines. In astronomy, Aristarchus purported a heliocentric solar system. Hipparchus estimated the duration of the lunar month, Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth. In medicine, feats like identifying the brain, defining pulse and its meaning, and ascertaining that the arteries only consisted of blood were accomplished.


➔ Philosophy in the Hellenic period was remarkable as it gave us many philosophical thinkers. Each of these philosophers had a fan following that often bifurcated from the original train of thought. Plato's Republicis considered as the precursor of the systematic treatment of political philosophy. Works of Aristotle and Socrates are also regarded as significant benchmarks of philosophy from this golden period.

➔ Philosophy in the Hellenistic period riveted on reason rather than the pursuit for truth. Philosophers from this period proposed a fundamental resolution to solving problems, and they refused that there is a way for obtaining truth. The prominent philosophical radicals of this period are the Cynics, Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics. Stoicism was founded by Zeno (335 - 262 BCE), and it taught that the universe is governed by destiny, and man should have faith in his destiny. It taught patience, duty, self-discipline, and brotherhood of all humanity. Epicurianism was founded by Epicurus (341 - 270 BCE), and it dealt with the fear of death. It advocated in living a pleasurable life until death. Cynicism was founded by Antisthenes (c 444 - 366 BCE), who was a student of Socrates. It propagated pure naturalism.


➔ Literature in the Hellenic period witnessed the writing of Homer's epic mythological records, lyrical verses written in docile, and news article styled writing. Tragic dramas like Antigone and Oedipus became the zeniths of entertainment for the ancient Greek audience. Although comedy lacked the freshness and subtly of other genres most prominent were that of Aristophanes.

➔ Literature in the Hellenistic period revolutionized with comedy becoming more akin to drama, and this was evident through the works of Menander. Theocritus pastorals created fictitious worlds, prose became overshadowed by the works of historians, biographers, and authors. Greek language and literature started to influence the Persian Empire. There was a growth in the Alexander Romance style in the Greek theater, which dominated other story-telling scenes as well. The Library at Alexandria became a focal point of learning and preservation of ancient cultural records.

Greek language, to an extent, influenced the ancient Greek coinage, portraits on the coin became more realistic, while the reverse side of the coin were depicted with a propaganda image, immortalizing an event or exhibiting the icon of a privileged deity.


➔ Art in the Hellenic period was the embodiment of ebullience, upbeat sensuality, and rough-cut. Marble statues and sculptures depicted human illustriousness and sensuality. Architecture flourished, and mainly the Doric and Ionic columns were a popular depiction of this era.

➔ Art in the Hellenistic period was mainly used as ''commodity'', thus leading to the creation of ''cheap'' art. Sculptures depicted pomp and extravagance rather than idyllic beauty. Hellenistic art also included architectural accomplishments like the first lighthouse, the citadel of Alexandria, and the Corinthian column belong to this period.

The pure Greek culture, which was restricted to just the classic states, became diverse through the conquests of Alexander the Great and became the personification of a vibrant and thriving empire.
Mosaic Of Poseidon And Amphitrite
Retreat Of The Athenians From Syracuse
Photograph of the Library of Celsus at Ephesus
Buddha Statue