Under the hegemony of King Philip II of Macedonia and, later, his son Alexander III (the Great), the Greek city-states bound themselves to a military alliance (the League of Corinth) for the purpose of invading the Achaemenid Empire. This Pan-Hellenic crusade was meant to rescue the Aegean world from a long history of Persian influence and to avenge the fifth-century BCE invasion by Xerxes, which had destroyed much of Athens. In 336, Philip II was assassinated on the eve of the Greek advance, but his young son Alexander (356–323) took up the cause after securing his position on the Macedonian throne.

In 334 BCE the new Macedonian king led nearly 40,000 troops across the Hellespont into Achaemenid Anatolia. He quickly defeated a satrapal (Persian provincial) army at the battle of the Granicus River and then systematically captured the coastal strongholds of the Persian fleet from the Hellespont to Cilicia. The Achaemenid king, Darius III (r. 336–330), personally commanded his troops in a move to halt the Greek advance into Syria. At the battle of Issus (late 333), Alexander defeated, but did not capture, the king of Persia. While Darius regrouped in Mesopotamia, Alexander continued his coastal campaign down the eastern Mediterranean. The offshore fortress of Tyre resisted for seven months but fell in a brutal assault when Alexander's forces completed a 1,600-meter siege mole out to the island. After besieging the city of Gaza in late 332, the Greeks marched unopposed into Egypt.

Alexander was seen by the Egyptians as a liberator who respected their ancestral customs and religion. He undertook an arduous journey to consult the oracle of Zeus-Ammon at Siwah in the Libyan Desert, where he was supposedly assured of world conquest. Alexander's most enduring achievement in Egypt was the construction of a city, bearing his name (Alexandria) and destined to become an unrivaled intellectual and commercial success under the patronage of his successors.

In early summer 331, Alexander's forces marched back to Phoenicia and then east toward Mesopotamia for a showdown with Darius. The Persian king had not been idle. His forces numbered over 100,000, and he had carefully prepared a battlefield near Arbela. On 1 October 331 Alexander's army routed the Persians at the battle of Gaugamela. Again Darius escaped eastward, hoping to rally a defense of Bactria (Afghanistan), but he had lost the heart of his empire. The major cities of Mesopotamia lay open to Alexander, who marched triumphantly into Babylon, Susa, and finally Persepolis In January 330. The vast Achaemenid treasures were seized and the palace destroyed. The Greeks were avenged for the sack of Athens a century and a half before. [See Persians; Babylon; Susa; Persepolis.]

Alexander soon resumed his pursuit of Darius. Near Hecatompylos (modern Shahr-i Qumis), however, a desperate group of Iranian nobles led by Bessus, satrap of Bactria, assassinated Darius. As successor to the Achaemenid throne, Alexander gave Darius a royal burial, but Bessus tried to undermine Alexander's legitimacy by declaring himself the rightful Persian king. Thus, Alexander was compelled to continue his advance eastward against this new adversary. These next campaigns carried Alexander's army beyond the Near East into Central Asia (329–327) and the Indus Valley (326–325). On their return, a fleet commanded by Nearchus explored the coastline from Pattala to the Persian Gulf while Alexander led the land forces on a disastrous desert march through Gedrosia back to Babylon.

Alexander encountered many military hardships during these years in the distant east, and he faced a growing tide of related problems: opposition of his high command to acts of reconciliation with the defeated Iranian nobility, sagging morale of his troops because of physical and emotional strain, limited resources to occupy and administer the eastern empire, and misconduct among the senior officials in charge of the Near Eastern satrapies during Alexander's absence in India.

When Alexander returned to Mesopotamia In 324, he began to address the emerging crisis in his newly won empire. He punished some officials and pardoned others, paid his army handsomely from the revenues earlier stockpiled after the plunder of Susa and Persepolis. He arranged a massive wedding ceremony at Susa in which senior officers took noble Persian brides, and 10,000 Macedonian soldiers formalized their liaisons with native women. When Alexander then organized a force of indigenous soldiers to help meet his military needs, he had to face down at Opis In 324 the mutinous insubordination of his Macedonian veterans who opposed an ethnically mixed military system.

In the midst of plans for future conquests, including an expedition to Arabia, Alexander fell ill and died at Babylon in early June 323. The army and its officers soon quarreled over the issue of succession. A compromise provided for a dual monarchy shared by two nonentities: Philip III Arrhidaeus, Alexander's infirm half brother, and Alexander IV, Alexander's posthumous son. In truth, the empire was governed by ambitious generals down to 306/05. First, Perdiccas asserted authority as regent for the kings but was assassinated In 320. In Macedonia, the aging general Antipater served as the next regent until his death a year later.

The fragile unity of the empire endured as the diadochoi (‘successors’) competed for the regency, often in shifting coalitions sealed by marriage alliances and satrapal appointments. Until his defeat at the battle of Ipsus In 301, the lead in this struggle was taken by Antigonus the One-Eyed, along with his son Demetrius the City-Sacker. Those not aiming for supreme power staked out smaller domains for that day when the empire would splinter beyond a single man's grasp. As expected, the assassination of the two kings, Philip III (317/16) and Alexander IV (311/10), exhausted the bloodline of Alexander the Great and opened the way for the formation of new royal dynasties in the Near East headed by Ptolemy (Egypt), and Seleucus (Syria).

Alexandrian Empire

Alexandrian Empire

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The political unity of the Alexandrian Empire had not long survived the fall of the Achaemenids, as the competition for greatness inspired by Alexander led to an unprecedented period of kingmaking among the Macedonians and, later, the local nobility of the Near East as well. Generally known as the Hellenistic Age, the three centuries following Alexander's death (323–30) witnessed the reigns of fourteen Ptolemies in Egypt, capped by the remarkable career of Queen Cleopatra VII (r. 51–30). In addition to the Nile Valley, the Ptolemies controlled a few Aegean ports, Cyprus, and Cyrene; they fought five major Syrian wars against the Seleucids for dominion over Coele-Syria (Palestine) down to 200. [See Ptolemies; Cyrene; Coele-Syria.]

The Seleucid dynasty produced over two dozen kings and numerous usurpers. In addition, the slow dissolution of this vast state, which under Seleucus I (312–281) had stretched from Anatolia to Afghanistan, allowed the rise of many local dynasties in areas such as Bactria, Parthia, Commagene, Pergamon, Judea, Iturea, Nabatea, and Characene; smaller principalities and numerous cities also gained their independence, most notably in Phoenicia. By the time that Rome annexed the remains of the Seleucid Empire In 63, only the region around Antioch was left in Macedonian hands. [See Seleucids; Pergamon; Antioch.]

This Near Eastern world gradually absorbed into the Roman Empire was very different from the Achaemenid world rapidly absorbed into the Alexandrian Empire some three centuries earlier. These differences give measure to the impact of Alexander the Great upon this region. We may here summarize that legacy in its archaeological context.

First, the rise of an Alexandrian Empire introduced a strong and lasting Hellenic influence into the rich cultural milieu of the Near East. This is not to say that Greek culture wholly dominated the area during the Hellenistic Age nor that some Greek influence had not already been felt in the Near East long before Alexander's invasion. Greek mercenaries had been recruited earlier into the armies of the Achaemenid kings, and Greek merchants had long plied their trade in the ports of the eastern Mediterranean. A Greek trading colony had existed at Naukratis (Egypt) since the seventh century. [See Naukratis.] The degree of Hellenic influence clearly intensified, however, no longer incrementally, but exponentially, in the wake of Alexander's wars. Rather than a few thousand Greek mercenaries, the Near East witnessed a wave of Greek military colonists (klēroukoi) that crested in the hundreds of thousands. Wherever there were permanent camps of Greek soldier-settlers, there were now islands of Hellenism in the Semitic Near East. Of course, non Greeks inhabited these “islands” as well, some as soldiers or support personnel, others as wives or workers. Recent excavations on Ikaros (modern Failaka) reveal a Seleucid military settlement where traditional Mesopotamian artifacts and non Greek graffiti exist side by side with dedications to Greek gods made by the garrison commander and his troops. [See Failaka.] From Anatolia as far east as Ai Khanum (Afghanistan), evidence of this type demonstrates how immigrant Greek soldiers introduced a new but not overwhelming cultural element in terms of their language, religion, art, and architecture. In Egypt, where papyrus documents tell the story more fully, we can follow the family histories of some of these settlers. In some cases, the colonists held doggedly to their Hellenic background and insulated themselves as far as possible from native influences; others married Egyptian wives, worshiped local deities, and raised bilingual children. Whatever the degree of cultural “fusion” in a given klērouchia, the rather sudden and sustained presence of Greek soldiers occupying the Near East contributed greatly to the changes wrought by Alexander the Great.

Second, the number of Hellenistic urban centers grew. The one Greek entrepôt at Naukratis was quickly supplanted by dozens of full-fledged cities founded throughout the Near East by Alexander and his successors. Alexandria in Egypt blossomed under the Ptolemies into a major Mediterranean city that attracted Greek artists, intellectuals, administrators, merchants, and many others into its population. Although non-Greeks certainly played a vital role in the city's history, the Hellenic element under Ptolemaic patronage enjoyed a privileged position both politically and culturally. [See Alexandria.] The same occurred at Antioch, one of the capitals of the Seleucid Empire, and many other places. The administration of these Hellenistic cities was generally Greek, though we can trace in the documentary sources the appointment of some officials bearing non-Greek names and titles; some city business was conducted in native languages and according to local customs. Babylon provides a well-known example of how traditional Mesopotamian temple and civic practices survived the intrusion of the Greeks. In the main, however, the Greek language and Hellenic political institutions took root in these new foundations. Care was often taken by the Macedonian dynasts to give these cities a Greek appearance to go along with their Greek names (usually dynastic, but occasionally transplanted place-names from Greece) and institutions (e.g., boule [council] and agora [assembly]). Though often adapted to local building methods and materials (e.g., mud brick), Hellenic structures such as gymnasia and theaters rose on Near Eastern soil. Greek terra cottas, column drums and capitals, propylaea [entrance structures], and Macedonian palaces could be seen in many of these cities, along with Greek pottery and other Greek domestic items in private houses built of Greek design. Even burial practices and tomb construction were influenced by Hellenic models, as at Jerusalem, Marisa (Mareshah), Deir ed-Derb in Samaria, Suweida in Syria, Hermel and Kalat Fakra in Lebanon, and of course Petra in the Negev. Clearly, places such as Babylon and Jerusalem did not become thoroughly hellenized, but a substantial Greek presence could easily be seen there by any visitor, and some cultural interaction and blending was inevitable over the course of three centuries. [See Jerusalem; Mareshah; Suweida; Petra.]

Through military occupation and city founding, then, Greek culture made a lasting impact upon the Near East. The Greek language, in the Koine (common Greek) dialect of the Hellenistic world, became the lingua franca of the Near East, a role previously played by Aramaic under the Achaemenids. Yet, when the Romans arrived on the scene in the first century BCE, they could still hear spoken a variety of Semitic languages and local dialects. They could see in the Seleucid archives recent cuneiform texts, or in Egypt the ongoing use of hieroglyphs and demotic script on monuments and inscriptions such as the famous Rosetta Stone from the reign of Ptolemy V (205–180). But the language of the Hellenistic rulers was Greek (only the last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII (51–30), learned the Egyptian language), and court life required Koine for business and pleasure. The educated elite seldom strayed into the languages or literatures of the Near Eastern peoples. Native works of note had to be translated into Greek for further study, as in the case of the Septuagint, the Egyptian history preserved by Manetho, or the Babylonian lore translated by Berossos. When Alexander invaded the Near East, interpreters were required to make it possible for Greeks and non-Greeks to communicate. When the Romans arrived, Greek was a second language throughout the region, at least among the privileged classes. That did not change, even through centuries of Roman rule. The New Testament took form in Koine, Roman coinage in the Near East employed Greek inscriptions, and Byzantium inherited from the Alexandrian Empire an administrative system based on Greek rather than Latin. [See Greek.]

Alexandrian Empire

ALEXANDRIAN EMPIRE. Figure I. Macedonian tetradrachm. Figure of Alexander III is seated on right. Dated to 320 BCE. (Courtesy American Numismatic Society)

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Third, the Alexandrian Empire increased the production of coins, which made trade easier. Greeks, especially merchants and mercenaries, were long accustomed to the convenience of coinage. The Achaemenids had established mints, therefore, in those regions where Greeks were normally recruited and stationed, but had not pressed to have a monetized economy replace traditional barter in other areas of their empire. Trading centers, such as Phoenicia and Egypt, had been compelled to import Greek coinage or to mint locally. Alexander and his successors changed this situation very rapidly, not so much as part of a grand economic scheme to stimulate the “stagnant” Near East (an old view that still holds too much influence), but rather to meet the immediate needs of a massive invasion and occupation. To pay his troops, Alexander operated nearly two dozen royal mints in Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. These mints produced a homogeneous, “imperial” coinage on the Attic Greek standard (see figure 1). Massive supplies of bullion came to hand when Alexander captured the treasuries of the Achaemenid palaces; Persepolis alone yielded some 120,000 talents' worth (more than 3 million kg or 6.8 million lbs.) of silver. Most, but not all, of this plunder was converted into coins to meet the military expenses of Alexander and the diadochoi. Over time, a monetary economy replaced barter in most parts of the Near East, particularly the urbanized areas. This is especially evident in the increased production of bronze fiduciary currencies, and the striking of Greek-style coinage in areas beyond the control of the Ptolemies and Seleucids. All of the native dynasties that broke free of the Seleucids minted Hellenistic coinage. Widespread monetary production facilitated trade. Archaeology confirms this development through coin finds, the diffusion of Mediterranean amphorae, and the luxury goods that flowed in and out of the Near East. From the death of Alexander down to 167 BCE, when punished by Rome with crippling economic sanctions, Rhodes served as the wealthy center of East Mediterranean maritime trade; its amphorae have been found from the British Isles to India. [See Coins.]

In spite of economic growth in the Hellenistic Age, war still provided the usual means of expanding royal wealth. Taxes, tolls, and tribute seldom met the exorbitant needs of the kings, for whom conspicuous consumption on a grand scale was a hallmark of Hellenistic monarchy. If not by trade, then by conquest, these kings sought luxury goods to put on parade. On one famous occasion, Ptolemy II (285/82–246) marched through Alexandria an astounding display of prestige items, including exotic animals from India, Ethiopia, and Arabia. There was also competition among the kings either to develop the largest warships or to field the largest elephant corps. Everywhere in the Near East, the Macedonian military system took hold. Beginning with Alexander, levies of local troops were armed and trained in the Macedonian manner, a practice expanded by the successors from the late third century BCE onward. Advanced siege engines and artillery, not to mention the counterforce of intensive fortification, became standard features of Near Eastern warfare. Hellenistic armies were naturally the heirs of the Alexandrian Empire rather than of the Achaemenid. In fact, all processes of hellenization were essentially military in origin, from colonization to monetization. The legacy of the Alexandrian Empire remained imperialist and colonial in nature.

When looking so deliberately for Alexander's impact on the Near East, we must not leave the false impression that earlier patterns of social, cultural, political, religious, military, and economic life were totally swept away. In many ways, the Hellenic customs of the conquerors were held at bay by the resilient and often better-suited traditions of the indigenous peoples. Recall that local languages were not effaced by Greek and that many Greeks adopted Near Eastern religious practices or, at the very least, adapted them to their own use through syncretism. Even in warfare, the Greeks grew fond of the elephants and scythed chariots employed by the Achaemenids. In fact, Seleucus I traded India to Chandragupta Maurya for five hundred elephants, which proved a good investment at the battle of Ipsus In 301.

No reign or region of the Hellenistic Near East was thoroughly Greek. The important political institutions of the Greeks, most notably those of the polis (city), functioned within an administrative system that was largely Achaemenid. Alexander had retained the successful bureaucratic structure of the Near East, with its diverse collection of “temple-states”, semi-independent cities and tribes, tributary kings, and satraps. Before becoming kings, all of the eastern diadochoi had first been satraps. When, for example, the Seleucids later established their royal dynasty, they appointed satraps of their own, some of whom in turn became independent kings who straightaway divided their former satrapies into smaller satrapies. Clearly, the Greeks could find nothing better than the old Achaemenid structure within which to build their new Hellenistic states.

The hellenization of the Semitic East was, therefore, a long, complex process that did not touch all areas nor all classes with the same effect. The aggressive measures to compel cultural change in Judea under Antiochus IV (175–164), for example, sparked intensive resistance that, itself, divided many non-Greeks over the issue of hellenization. Everywhere in the Near East, Alexander's legacy was a patchwork of languages and cultures that included for the first time a substantial Greek element that clearly inspired some and incensed others.


  • Austin, M. M., ed. The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation. Cambridge, 1981. Convenient collection of 279 items, including literary sources as well as documentary evidence.
  • Bosworth, A. B. Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great. Cambridge, 1988. The best recent biography, meticulously researched with excellent chapters on administration and the army.
  • Burstein, Stanley B., ed. and trans. The Hellenistic Age from the Battle of Ipsos to the Death of Kleopatra VII. Translated Documents of Greece and Rome, vol. 3. Cambridge, 1985. Well-chosen selection of 112 documents, with first-rate commentary and bibliographical references.
  • Downey, Susan B. Mesopotamian Religious Architecture: Alexander through the Parthians. Princeton, 1988. Close scholarly examination of how Near Eastern traditions endured under foreign occupation.
  • Eddy, Samuel K. The King Is Dead: Studies in Near-East Resistance to Hellenism, 334–31 B.C. Lincoln, Neb., 1961. Classic attempt to see the Near Eastern side of the Hellenistic world.
  • Fedak, Janos. Monumental Tombs of the Hellenistic Age: A Study of Selected Tombs from the Pre-Classical to the Early Imperial Era. Toronto, 1990. The best work of its kind, covering tomb architecture from pre-Classical to Roman periods.
  • Grainger, John D. The Cities of Seleukid Syria. Oxford, 1990. Useful case study of Hellenistic city-founding in the heart of the Seleucid Empire, with summaries of excavations and surveys.
  • Green, Peter. Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age. Berkeley, 1990. Opinionated but expert essay of nearly a thousand pages that minimizes the geniune interaction of Greek and non-Greek cultures.
  • Green, Peter, ed. Hellenistic History and Culture. Berkeley, 1993. Eight articles on important aspects of Hellenistic studies, with an excellent balance of critical responses and discussion.
  • Hengel, Martin. Jews, Greeks, and Barbarians: Aspects of the Hellenization of Judaism in the Pre-Christian Period. London, 1980.
  • Kuhrt, Amélie, and Susan Sherwin-White, eds. Hellenism in the East: The Interaction of Greek and Non-Greek Civilizations from Syria to Central Asia after Alexander. Berkeley, 1987. Six studies giving much needed attention to the non-Greek side of Hellenistic history and making effective use of new archaeological evidence.
  • Lewis, Naphtali. Greeks in Ptolemaic Egypt: Case Studies in the Social History of the Hellenistic World. Oxford, 1986. Uses papyrological evidence to explore cultural interaction on the personal level.
  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization. Cambridge, 1975. Based on a series of lectures at Cambridge, this work examines the intellectual meeting ground of Greeks, Romans, Persians, Jews, and Celtic tribes.
  • Rostovtzeff, Michael. The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World. 3 vols. 2d ed. Oxford, 1953. Venerable and still valuable treatment of the scattered evidence; nothing is likely to replace its scope.
  • Samuel, Alan E. From Athens to Alexandria: Hellenism and Social Goals in Ptolemaic Egypt. Series Studia Hellenistica, vol. 26. Louvain, 1983. Careful analysis of all phases of contact and conflict between Greek and Egyptian cultures in the Hellenistic Age.
  • Samuel, Alan E. The Shifting Sands of History: Interpretations of Ptolemaic Egypt. Publications of the Association of Ancient Historians, vol. 2. Lanham, Md., 1989. Rich historiographical survey for the educated nonspecialist.
  • Sherwin-White, Susan, and Amélie Kuhrt. From Samarkhand to Sardis: A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire. Berkeley, 1993. The best single volume now available on the Seleucids, with detailed regional surveys and up-to-date archaeological evidence.
  • Thompson, Dorothy. Memphis under the Ptolemies. Princeton, 1988. Very detailed but readable account of a key Egyptian city, fully documented and illustrated.
  • Walbank, F. W., and A. E. Astin, et al. The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 7.1, The Hellenistic World. 2d ed. Cambridge, 1984. The best starting point for all aspects of Hellenistic history. Note also the article on later Seleucid history by Christian Habicht, “The Seleucids and Their Rivals,” in The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 8, Rome and the Mediterranean to 133 B.C., edited by A. E. Astin et al., pp. 324–387 (Cambridge, 1989).

Frank L. Holt