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HELLENISM, term generally used by historians to refer to the period from the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.E.) to the death of Cleopatra and the incorporation of Egypt in the Roman Empire in 30 B.C.E. Egypt was the last important survivor of the political system which had developed as a consequence both of the victories of Alexander and of his premature death. The word Hellenism is also used to indicate more generically the cultural tradition of the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire between Augustus and Justinian and/or the influence of Greek civilization on Rome, Carthage, India, and other regions which were never part of the empire of Alexander. Finally, Hellenization is used with reference to Judea, Persia, etc. to indicate the penetration of elements of Greek civilization into territories which, though subject to Greco-Macedonian rule for a certain period of time, preserved their national culture with conspicuous success.

The words Hellenism and Hellenistic have a long history in which the text of the Acts of the Apostles 6:1 plays a central part because it opposes Hebraioi to Hellenistai. At least from the 16th century onward (J. Scaliger) this text was interpreted to imply a contrast between Jews who used Hebrew and Jews who used Greek in the synagogue service. D. Heinsius developed the notion that Jewish Hellenistai used a special Greek dialect (lingua hellenistica), which is reflected in the Septuagint translation of the Bible. C. Salmasius denied the existence of such a special dialect (1643), but the notion of a special lingua hellenistica to indicate the Greek of the Old and New Testaments remained in circulation until the middle of the 19th century. In the 18th century in Germany, J.G. Herder used Hellenismus to indicate the way of thinking of Jews and other Orientals who spoke Greek. In 1820 in France J. Matter specifically connected the word Hellénisme with the thought of the Greek-speaking Jews of Egypt. J.G. Droysen stretched the meaning of the word to signify the period of transition from the pagan to the Christian world which started with Alexander. In 1833 he published a volume on Alexander the Great; and in 1836 and 1843 he published two volumes of Geschichte des Hellenismus embracing the century 323–222 B.C.E. He intended to continue his work in further volumes, but never did so, and it is not quite clear from what he says whether his original intention was to reach the age of Muhammad or to stop with Augustus. In 1877–78 he published a second (considerably modified) edition of these three volumes under the title of Geschichte des Hellenismus (which now included the reign of Alexander). The second edition, both in the German text and in the French translation by A. Bouché-Leclercq, became authoritative, and consolidated the notion of Hellenism as a special period of the history of antiquity characterized by a mixture of Greek and Oriental elements. Since Droysen, many historians have reexamined the political and constitutional history of this period; they include B. Niese, K.J. Beloch, A. Bouché-Leclercq, J. Kaerst, W.W. Tarn, E. Bickerman, and E. Will. But research has been particularly intense and productive in the field of economic and social history (U. Wilcken, M. Rostovtzeff, W. Otto, C. Préaux, and C. Schneider) and in the field of the history of religions (F. Cumont, R. Reitzenstein, H. Usener, P. Wendland, W. Bousset, A.D. Nock, and M.P. Nilsson). Droysen's notion of Hellenism has also deeply influenced the work of literary historians such as U. Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, F. Susemihl, F. Leo, E. Norden, and R. Pfeiffer.

The study of Greek influence on Judaism has developed into a special branch of research on which E. Bickerman, H. Lewy, S. Lieberman, V. Tcherikover, and M. Hengel, among others, have written with distinction. Research on Hellenism has been helped by archaeological discoveries, new inscriptions, and the constitution of a new branch of research, papyrology, since the beginning of the 20th century. Papyrology is especially relevant to the study of the Hellenistic period because a considerable portion of the papyri discovered in Egypt belongs to the last three centuries B.C.E.

However, a knowledge of the political history of Hellenism is hampered by the fragmentary nature of the surviving sources. The works of the great historians of the Hellenistic age (Hieronymus of Cardia, Duris, Timaeus, Agatharchidas, Phylarchus, and Posidonius) are all lost, with the exception of Polybius, and only fragments of his work remain. The only continuous account of the Hellenistic age is found in the short summary of the Historiae Philippicae by *Pompeius Trogus (end of the first century B.C.E.) written by Justinus in the second century C.E. Plutarch's Lives of some Hellenistic kings and politicians are of the utmost importance. Books I, II, and III of Maccabees are invaluable for Jewish history and must be supplemented by the relevant sections of Josephus' Jewish Antiquities. Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Pausanias, Galen, Athenaeus, and Diogenes Laertius, though all writing in the Roman Empire, provide essential information on Hellenistic science, social life, and customs.

The empire of Alexander the Great was the result of the military and intellectual cooperation of Greeks and Macedonians, who constituted the ruling class in the states emerging from the struggles of Alexander's successors. This collaboration was precarious in Greece alone, where consequently there was no political stability. The rivalries between Greek cities and the interference of the great Hellenistic states in Greek affairs led to Roman intervention at the end of the third century and ultimately contributed to the transformation of Greece into a direct Roman dependency in 146 B.C.E. The great Hellenistic states – Macedonia, Syria, Egypt, Thrace (for the brief period until 281 B.C.E.), Pergamum (at least after 240 B.C.E.) – though much stronger, had other sources of difficulty: they were faced by dynastic struggles in their midst, by frequent wars with their neighbors, and above all they had large native populations to control. The third century was the period of the greatest power and prosperity of these kingdoms. Almost everywhere during the second century B.C.E. the increasing inability of the Greco-Macedonian ruling class to prevent internal dissolution is noticeable. The Romans took full advantage of the difficulties of the Hellenistic states, played on the fear of social revolution among the wealthy Greeks, and exploited rivalries and native rebellions, with the result that they defeated and ultimately absorbed all the Hellenistic states. Macedonia, first defeated in 197, was reduced to impotence in 168 and transformed into a province in 149. Syria (the Seleucid state) was first deprived of some of its best Oriental regions by native rebellions (such as those leading to the creation of the Parthian and Bactrian states about 250 B.C.E.). Later it was defeated and mutilated by the Romans (188). The Jewish rebellion of the Maccabees contributed to the further decline of the Seleucid state, which was transformed into a Roman province in 64 B.C.E. Pergamum became a Roman province (province of Asia) in 129 B.C.E., Bithynia in 74. Egypt (the kingdom of the Ptolemies), as already noted, was incorporated by the Romans in 30 B.C.E. The last strong resistance of the Macedonian-Greek elements against the Romans was provoked and supported by Mithridates VI Eupator about 80 B.C.E. and ended in violent repression by the Romans. The last act of resistance against the Romans during the Hellenistic period in the East was not Greek, but Jewish.

In all the Hellenistic states Greek was the language of the aristocracy and the administration. The foundation of new cities (especially in the Seleucid kingdom) and of new villages (particularly in Egypt) contributed to the spread of Greek, but the peasants and the native priests kept the indigenous languages alive. Except in Judea, which had an original literature in Hebrew and Aramaic even under Greek rule, the important developments in literature were all in Greek. Even natives of Egypt and Babylonia wrote their histories in Greek (Manetho, Berossus; cf. Fabius Pictor in Rome). The schools and the gymnasia were organized according to Greek tradition: Homer, the tragedians of the fifth century (especially Euripides), and the orators and historians of the fourth century were the models of the new classicism. Erudition developed for its own sake and, notably in Alexandria and Pergamum, was under royal protection. The libraries of Alexandria were centers of research, besides containing extraordinary collections of manuscripts (apparently not confined to texts in Greek). Classicism notwithstanding, literature and art developed new styles, characterized by realism of detail and a tendency toward the idyllic and the pathetic. Modern scholars have recognized local trends not only in literature but also in art. They are, however, not so important as the essential unity of Hellenistic culture. Philosophy remained centered in Athens, but the great philosophic schools of the academy (Platonists), Peripatos (Aristotelians), Stoa (disciples of Zeno), and Porch (Epicureans) spread everywhere. There was also a revival (perhaps a transformation) of Pythagorean groups, which began to look like a religious sect. Natural sciences made enormous progress, and so did mathematics. Euclid, Apollonius of Perge, and Archimedes represent the culmination of Greek research in geometry and mechanics. Eratosthenes applied mathematics to geography and Aristarchus developed the heliocentric theory, but Hipparchus (who made fundamental discoveries in astronomy) persuaded the succeeding generations with his new version of the geocentric system. Scientific medicine flourished in Alexandria and elsewhere: The advances in anatomy (Herophilus), physiology (Erasistratus), etc., remained unsurpassed until the Renaissance. Pytheas explored new regions in the north. The philosopher Posidonius explained the tides.

Everywhere the new literature and art interested large strata of the Greek-speaking public, which was predominantly middle-class. If some poets were obscure and full of subtle allusions to the literature of the past (Callimachus, Lycophron, Euphorion, and to a certain extent Theocritus), others were easily comprehensible (Menander, Herodas, and perhaps Apollonius Rhodius). New prose genres, such as the erotic novel, were meant to appeal to a large public. There are signs that much of the literature now lost was fairly popular in character. Figurative art certainly had a wide appeal, as can be deduced from the amount of cheap, but graceful, figurines of this period. Improved techniques of work affected the lives of the many, and town-planning together with the easier economic conditions of private persons produced better housing in many places. But neither philosophy nor science meant much even to the middle class in the Greek-speaking cities. In religion the stronger influences came from the native populations, not from the upper (Greek or Hellenized) stratum. There was no sign that the gods of the Greek Olympus were dying: they went on performing miracles and acquiring new festivals and new sanctuaries. However, a progressive transformation of the old city cults was noticeable, with a new emphasis on free associations of devotees of a specific god, on mysteries, on spiritual notions such as philanthropy and purification. Dionysus became distinctly popular. At the same time Oriental gods – either with their original names (Osiris, Isis) or by identification with Greek gods (Hermes – Thot; Jupiter – Dolichenus) – were widely worshiped outside their original countries, with appropriate modifications of their cults. A curious case of a new god with old Egyptian roots was Serapis. Babylonian astrology gained many believers, even among philosophically educated Greeks. The Greek idea of Fortune (Tyche) increased in importance and was worshiped as a goddess, partly owing to Oriental influences. No doubt there were educated people who cared little for gods, either Greek or Oriental. Epicurus preached the indifference of gods to human events and Euhemerus reduced the gods to ancient human benefactors; yet the climate of the age was religious.

With all its regional and chronological differences, Hellenism is a cultural unity which corresponds to the existence of a uniform upper stratum of society and is reflected in the remarkable uniformity of the Greek language (the so-called koiné) from India to Gaul, wherever there was a Greek settlement. International trade both favored, and was favored by, this uniform upper stratum; Greek-speaking traders moved round the world. They were joined by more or less Hellenized Orientals and later by Italians. The slaves, the native peasants, and the Greek proletariat neither contributed much to, nor enjoyed the advantages of, this civilization.

It is much more difficult to speak of Hellenism as a political and institutional phenomenon, because conditions varied so profoundly from region to region. Monarchy was the unifying institutional fact. The king was supposed to own his own state by right of conquest (patrimonial monarchy). He was surrounded by a hierarchy of officials with specific functions. Monarchy was connected with religion by a dynastic cult. The army in each country was modeled on the Macedonian prototype which had ensured Alexander's victories. New military features included the use of elephants, the improvement of siege-engines, and the construction of bigger ships. The fact remains, however, that the political organization of Egypt was different from that of Syria, and both Egypt and Syria were of course different from Pergamum (where the king was much more the head of a Greek community) and from Macedonia, not to speak of the Greek city-states and leagues (Aetolia, Achaea, etc). Economic production, taxation, relations between natives and Greeks, and religious institutions varied greatly from state to state. The Ptolemies organized a state-controlled economy in Egypt which had no parallel elsewhere and slowed down urbanization. The Seleucid state included territories which differed from each other economically and socially. They were kept together (when they were kept together) by the royal army and the militarized Greco-Macedonian colonies. The Seleucids never made any serious attempt at central control of the economic affairs of their state.

The great paradox of the Hellenistic age is that a Greek-speaking man could move easily from country to country with a reasonable expectation of finding work and being well received everywhere – and yet he would not find himself at home anywhere outside his native city. Furthermore, from the end of the third century onward any Greek would also increasingly feel the presence of a new intimidating power – Rome. The structure of Hellenistic civilization was not weak, for it survived the defeat of Hellenistic states, but daily life seemed dangerous; and indeed wars and rebellions were frequent and increasingly catastrophic. Philosophy and religion both provided escape from worldly commitments and consolation for disappointments.

Here the Jews presented a remarkable exception. Confronted with Greek ideas, some attempted to combine Greek intellectual values with Hebrew ones; such efforts were more successful in Egypt than in Judea. However, even in Judea the Hellenizing movement under Antiochus IV came near to prevailing. Ultimately the Jews organized their culture and their political life on their own terms, as witnessed by the rise of the Essenes and Pharisees. The independence of Jewish intellectual life in the Hellenistic age is partly explained by the fact that while Jews took a great interest in Greek ideas, the outside world took relatively little interest in Hebrew ideas. The translation of the Bible into Greek did not mean that the Greeks read the Bible. The isolation in which the Jews lived, especially in Judea, was conducive to the creation of a style of thought and life which can be (and was) considered competitive with Hellenistic civilization.


W.W. Tarn, Hellenistic Civilization (19523); M. Hadas, Hellenistic Culture (1959); V.A. Tcherikover, Die hellenistischen Staedtegruendungen von Alexander dem Grossen bis auf die Roemerzeit (1927); idem, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (1959); M. Hengel, Judentum und Hellenismus (1969); N. Bentwich, Hellenism (1919). HELLENISM AND THE JEWS: Schuerer, Gesch; Baron, Social2; Goodenough, Symbols; Tcherikover, Corpus; S. Lieberman, Greek in Jewish Palestine (1942); idem, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (19622); idem, in: Studies and Texts, 1 (1963), 123–41; CH Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (1954); J.N. Sevenster, Do You Know Greek? (1968); Y. Baer, Yisrael ba-Ammim (1955); E. Bickermann, Der Gott der Makkabaeer (1937); R. Marcus, in: PAAJR, 16 (1946–47), 97–181; CH Gordon, in: HUCA, 26 (1955), 43–108; M. Smith, in: BJRL, 40 (1958), 473–512; L.H. Feldman, in: JSOS, 22 (1960), 215–37; H.A. Fischel, in: American Oriental Society Middle West Branch Semi-Centennial Volume (1969), 59–88. SPIRITUAL RESISTANCE AGAINST GREEK AND ROMAN RULE: M. Radin, The Jews among the Greeks and Romans (1915); M. Braun, History and Romance in Graeco-oriental Literature (1938); H.L. Ginsberg, Studies in Daniel (1948); S.K. Eddy, The King Is Dead (1961); V.A. Tcherikover, Ha-Yehudim ba-Olam ha-Yevani ve-ha-Romi (1961); M. Avi-Yonah, Bi-Ymei Roma u-Bizantiyyon (19522); H. Fuchs, Geistige Widerstand gegen Rom… (1938); R. Mac Mullen, Enemies of the Roman Order (1966); E. Bickerman, Four Strange Books of the Bible (1967), sections Daniel and Esther. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: E. Bickermann, The Jews in the Greek Age (1988); J.J. Collins, Between Athens and Jerusalem (2002); L.L. Grabbe, Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian, 2 vols. (1992); M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism, 2 vols. (1974); L.I. Levine, Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity (1998); A. Momigliano, Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization (1975); E.S. Gruen, "Hellenistic Judaism," in: D. Biale (ed.), Cultures of the Jews (2002), idem, Diaspora: Jews amidst Greeks and Romans (2002).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.