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Hellenic vs Hellenistic civilization

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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There were essential differences between the Hellenic (Classical) and the Hellenistic ages.

How did these differences affect the every-day lives of the people? How were the differences reflected in the art, literature, and philosophy of the two periods?

The shift from Hellenic to Hellenistic represents the shift from a culture dominated by ethnic Greeks, however scattered geographically, to a culture dominated by Greek-speakers of whatever ethnicity, and from the political dominance of the city-state to that of larger monarchies.

Hellenic (Greek) refers to the people who lived in classical Greece before Alexander the Great's death. Greeks (Hellenic) were isolated and their civilization was termed classic because it was not heavily influenced by outside forces. Hellenistic (Greek-like) refers to Greeks and others who lived during the period after Alexander's conquests. They differ from Hellenic in territory (geographic influences), culture (philosophy and religion), and political systems (changed from a democracy to many small monarchies and ultimately to be controlled by Rome).

After the collapse of Mycenae around 1100 B.C. and Dorian invasions, the Greek Dark Ages ensued and the Archaic period began around 800BC. By 600BC the Archaic Period was in full swing, and this paved the way for hoplites (8 or more rows of soldiers carrying shields to keep the entire unit well protected) in 650BC. This rapid military development was due to a common Hellenic theme: constant warfare.

Initially, around 750-500BC, during the archaic period, the predominant sculpture was the kuoros. It depicted a nude male with simplified anatomy and a monumental attitude, baring an archain (slight) smile, almond-shaped eyes, and detailed hair. Based on formulaic Egyptian statues, kuoros (and their female counterparts, kore, which were always clothed) eventually became more flexible. This resulted in the classical period where anatomy became more detailed. The artist overcame limitations of his medium by making cold hard marble look soft supple and warm. The period from 500-323 B.C. is the Classical or Hellenic age of Greek civilization.

From the past came a profound religious belief in the just action of the gods and the attainment of virtue in the polis; this belief helped develop a specific Greek mind which focused on the importance of the individual and a rationalistic spirit.

The Classical Greek world was, in essence, a skillful combination of these qualities. The Greeks also created the concept (if not quite the reality) of political freedom. The state was conceived as a community of free citizens who made laws in their own interest. As a direct democracy, for example, the Athenian citizen discussed, debated and voted on issues that affected him directly. The Greek discovery that man (the citizen) is capable of governing himself was a profound one. Underlying the Greek achievement was humanism. The Greeks expressed a belief in the worth, significance, and dignity of the individual. Man should develop his personality fully in the city-state, a development which would, in turn, create a sound city-state as well. The pursuit of excellence ' arete ' was paramount. Such an aspiration required effort, discipline and intelligence. Man was master of himself.


The Athenian polis sponsored the production of dramas and required that wealthy citizens pay the expenses of production.

At the beginning of every year, dramatists submitted their plays to the archon, or chief magistrate. Each comedian presented one play for review; those who wrote tragedy had to submit a set of three plays, plus an afterpiece called a satyr play. It was the archon who chose those dramas he considered best. The archon allotted to each tragedian his actors, paid at state expense, and a producer (choregus). On the appointed day the Athenian public would gather at the theatre of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis, paid their admission of two obols, and witnessed a series of plays. Judges drawn by lot awarded prizes to the poet (crown of ivy), the actor (an inscription on a state list in the agora) and to the choregus (a triumphal tablet). The Athenian dramatists were the first artists in Western society to examine such basic questions as the rights of the individual, the demands of society upon the individual and the nature of good and evil. Conflict, the basic stuff of life, is the constant element in Athenian drama.

  • AESCHYLUS (525-456 B.C.), the first of the great Athenian dramatists, was also the first to express the agony of the individual caught in conflict.

  • SOPHOCLES (496-406 B.C.), the premier playwright of the second generation, also dealt with personal and political matters.

  • However, whereas Aeschylus concentrated on religious matters, Sophocles dealt with the perennial problem of well-meaning men struggling, unwisely and vainly, against their own fate. The characters in the tragedies of Sophocles resist all warnings and inescapably meet with disaster. EURIPIDES (c.480-406 B.C.), the last of the three great Greek tragic dramatists, also explored the theme of personal conflict within the polis and the depths of the individual. With Euripides drama enters a new, more personal phase -- the gods were far less important than human beings. Euripides viewed the human soul as a place where opposing forces struggle, where strong passions such as hatred and jealousy conflict with reason. The essence of Euripides' tragedy is the flawed character -- men and women who bring disaster on themselves and their loved ones because their passions overwhelm their reason. It is the rationalist spirit of 5th century Greek philosophic thought that permeates the tragedies of Euripides. He subjected the problems of human life to critical analysis and challenged Athenian conventions.

The Greeks of the classical age not only perfected the art of drama, but of comedy as well.

ARISTOPHANES (c.448-c.380 B.C.) was an ardent lover of the city and a ruthless critic of cranks and quacks. He lampooned eminent generals, at times depicting them as little more than morons. He commented snidely on Pericles, and poked fun at Socrates and Euripides. Even at the height of the Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes proclaimed that peace was preferable to war. Like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, Aristophanes used his art to dramatize his ideas on the right conduct of the citizen and the value of the polis.

The main differences between Hellenistic and Hellenic are far-reaching.

Hellenistic Greece was a predominately urban culture. The cities founded by Alexander were centers of government and trade as well as culture. These were large cities by ancient standards. For instance, Alexandria in Egypt contained perhaps 500,000 people. The Greeks brought their temples, their theatres, and their schools to other cities, thus exporting their culture and Greek culture became a way of life. The upper classes began to copy the Greek spirit. They sent their children to Greek schools and the Greek language (Koiné) became a common, almost international language, in the same way that Latin was for Europe for fifteen centuries, or French in the 19th century.

Hellenistic cities were extremely large by Hellenic standards, but they contained the same public features (temples, gyms, etc) as the polis.

The economy yielded large operations and more modern financial systems. New crops and agricultural techniques were introduced into the conquered areas. However, these revolutions increased the disparity between rich and poor and caused social conflict. Koiné became an international language. Hellenistic cities were cosmopolitan. The lifestyle became private, in contrast to the public lifestyle of the polis. Literature changed, too: Pastoral poetry, which recalled the lost joys of rural life, was most popular; Menander wrote masterpieces of New Comedy; The novel, a new Hellenistic literary form, centered on the family and everyday life.


Science flourished, and the library at Alexandria contained over 1 million books, as well as scientific research facilities.

Euclid compiled a handbook on geometry. Archimedes built complex lifting machines. In Astronomy, Aristarchus proposed a heliocentric solar system. Hipparchus calculated the length of the lunar month. Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth. Philosophy was very different as well. While classical philosophy was concerned with the individual's relationship to the polis, that relationship changed drastically with the institution of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Hellenistic philosophy attempted to deal with this new reality:



Zeno (335 - 262 BC) taught that the universe is governed by a single divine plan. To find happiness the individual must act in harmony with that plan. Stoicism taught patience, duty, and self-discipline. Stoics believed in the brotherhood of all humanity.


Epicurus (341 - 270 BC) addressed the fear of death. Death can only be perceived by the mind while it is living; after a mind ceases to live, it can perceive nothing, neither life nor death, neither pain nor pleasure. Happiness, therefore, consists of living a pleasurable life.


Founded by Antisthenes (c 444 - 366 BC), a student of Socrates. Diogenes (c 404 - 323 BC), its most famous propagator, believed in pure naturalism. Happiness is attained by satisfying one's natural needs in the cheapest and easiest way possible. Hellenistic Age was one of idealism and whatnot. More like the modern world. Tried for realism and tried to depict life as it really is and not as we want it to be.


The breakdown of Alexander's empire Hellenized the Mediterranean world.

Cultures once foreign to the Hellenic world now became more Greek-like -- they were Hellenized. One of the most important developments in association with this process of Hellenization was the shift from the world of the polis to the new world of the cosmopolis.

Such a shift was decisive in creating the Hellenistic world as a world of conflicting identities, and when identities are challenged or changed, intense internal conflicts are the result.

We can identify this sense of conflict in the transition from Classical to Hellenistic philosophy. Classical Greek philosophy, the philosophy of the Sophists and of Socrates in the 5th century, was concerned with the citizen's intimate relationship with the polis or city-state. You can see this clearly in the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Big questions such as what is the good life, what is the best form of government and what is virtue loomed large in their thinking. When we enter the world of the Hellenistic philosopher we encounter something very different. The world of the polis had clearly given way to the world of the cosmopolis. And with that change from the smallness of the city-state to the immensity of the world-city, there were corresponding changes in the worldview. The city-state was no longer run by citizens, citizens whose private and public duties were identical. In the world-state, bureaucrats and officials took over the duties formerly given over to citizens. Citizens lost their sense of importance as they became subjects under the control of vast bureaucratic kingdoms. From the face-to-face contact of the Athenian public Assembly, the people now became little more than numbers. As a result, they lost their identity.

Hellenistic Philosophy: This tendency was reflected in philosophy, which turned to concern itself with the possibilities of survival in a world that had become much larger, less personal, and more complex. Philosophy then, became less the love of wisdom, than it did a therapy used to cope with a strange, fragmented world of disorder and isolation. And as a result of this, there were two schools of thought -- two therapies -- which made their appearance during the Hellenistic Age. Both were therapies addressing themselves to an individualistic age. People seemed less concerned about the nature of politics and their role in it. They became more concerned about their own lives and were searching for some kind of personal guidance. And all this was reflected in Hellenistic thought as THERAPY.

Both Epicureanism and Stoicism are therapies which reflected the change in man's social and political life during the Hellenistic Age. On the one hand, both therapies suggest a disenchantment with the overtly political world of a Pericles or Thucydides, Athenian or Spartan. So, they can be seen as direct reactions to the philosophy of both Plato and Aristotle. On the other hand, the Stoics and Epicureans also reflect profound social changes within Greece itself. Greek society had become more complex and more urban as a result of Alexander's conquests. Politics fell into the hands of the wealthy few and the citizens were left with nothing. And Hellenistic politics became little more than an affair of aristocrats and their bureaucratic lackeys and experts.

Given this, Hellenistic Greeks turned to personal philosophies -- therapies -- for comfort and, if you will, salvation. What do we turn to? Do we turn inward? No! the majority of us find ourselves reflected in things external to us. We become members of the club, losing our own identity in collective identities. We are asked to say, "don't worry, be happy." In the Hellenistic world, Stoicism became the point of view and therapy of choice for individuals who were still trying to bring order out of the chaos of Hellenistic life. The Epicureans appealed to those people who had resigned themselves to all the chaos and instead turned to the quest for pleasure and the avoidance of pain.

Whereas the Epicureans withdrew from the evils of the world, and the Stoics sought happiness by working in harmony with the Logos, the Skeptics held that one could achieve some kind of spiritual equilibrium only by accepting that none of the beliefs by which people lived were true or could bring happiness. Speculative thought did not bring happiness either. For the most part, the Skeptics were suspicious of ideas and maintained no great love for intellectuals.

The Cynics rejected all material possessions and luxuries and lived simple lives totally divorced from the hustle and bustle of the Hellenistic world-city. The most famous of the Cynics was Diogenes the Dog (412-323 B.C.). Diogenes lived in a bathtub. He carried a lantern in daylight, proclaiming to all that he was looking for a "virtuous man." It is said that one day Alexander the Great approached Diogenes, who was near death, and asked if there was anything that he could do for him. Diogenes is said to have replied, "would you mind moving -- you are blocking the sun." Plato described Diogenes as "Socrates gone mad.â" He called himself a "citizen of the world" and when asked what the finest thing in the world might be, replied "freedom of speech." Diogenes was a serious teacher who, disillusioned with a corrupt society and hostile world, protested by advocating happiness as self-mastery of an inner spiritual freedom from all wants except the barest minimum. In his crusade against the corrupting influence of money, power, fame, pleasure, and luxury, Diogenes extolled the painful effort involved in the mental and physical training required for self-sufficiency.

From Epicurean to Stoic and from Skeptic and Cynic to Neo-Platonist, none of these therapies provided any sort of relief for the ordinary man and woman. After all, these therapies were specifically "upper class" philosophies, intended for citizens feeling the burdens of the cosmopolis upon their social, political and economic life. In other words, one studied with Zeno or Diogenes or they read the books of Epicurus or the Neo-Platonists. The common person required something more concrete, more practical and less demanding as well as more helpful than the philosophic therapists could offer. They found what they wanted in the mystery cults, cults which could explain their suffering in less complex and more down-to-earth terms.

On a spiritual level, the 4th century witnessed a permanent change in the attitudes of all Greeks. What resulted was a new attitude toward life and its expectations -- a new worldview. In the classical world of the polis, public and private lives were fused. Duty to the city-state was in itself virtuous. But in the Hellenistic world, public and private lives were made separate, and the individual's only duty was to himself. In art, sculpture, architecture, or philosophy or wherever we choose to look, we see more attention paid to individualism and introspection. Universal principles of truth -- Plato's Ideas and Forms -- were rejected in favor of individual traits. By the 4th century, Greek citizens became more interested in their private affairs rather than in the affairs of the polis. For example, in the 5th century, we will find comedies in which the polis is criticized, parodied and lampooned. But in the 4th century, the subject matter has changed and has turned to private and domestic life. In other words, whereas 5th century comedies focused on the relationship between the citizen and city-state, 4th century comedies made jokes about cooks, the price of fish, and incompetent doctors.