Lesson 20. The Hellenistic World (323 – 146 BC)

In our last two lessons, we have studied the history of Greek civilization and the life of its champion: Alexander. We learned that the “Golden Age” of Greece developed after the Greeks emerged from the Persian Wars victorious and free. We learned that they enjoyed a time of peace and wealth–all of which centered in Athens–and that these conditions led to a time of great artistic achievement. We learned, however, that the Greeks were never able to unite and that ultimately that led to their fall. Greece was conquered by Philip of Macedonia in 338 BC, whose son went on to conquer the world until his early death in 323 BC.

In this lesson, we will study the world that Alexander left behind.

The Successors
Obviously, Alexander was not planning to die as soon as he did. As he died, his massive kingdom–which extended from the western borders of Greece, to India in the east and from Macedonia in the north to the Sahara Desert in the south–was left up for grabs among the diadochi, or successors.

It is said that as Alexander died, he was asked who should be his successor. His answer was “the strongest” and the events that followed suggest that this was indeed true. At first, two possible successors were suggested. The first was Alexander IV, Alexander’s only son, who was born shortly after his father’s death. The second was Philip III, Alexander’s half-brother. Most of Alexander’s generals supported the succession of his son and they appointed themselves his guardians. This sounded great, except for the fact that one of his generals, Meleager, was left out of the plan. He, supported by the soldiers, supported Philip III. Eventually, it was agreed that the kingdom of Alexander, like Sparta, be ruled by two kings.

Remember that there was one thing that the Greeks could never establish, and that was unity. In the end, Alexander’s generals and their supporters went to war with one another, fighting for control of a part, or all, of the kingdom for 40 years. When the dust of war settled, Alexander’s kingdom was divided into four kingdoms as the map shows below.


The Hellenistic Kingdom
To go beyond a general description of these kingdoms would be a waste of time in this course because these kingdoms were constantly fighting and their borders were constantly changing. These are Greeks, after all, and ultimately, there’s no use getting too familiar with them because they’re about to be steam-rolled by the growing Romans in the west. Our goal is to understand what happened in a general way so that we can use this knowledge when we read the New Testament and we study how Rome grew so quickly in upcoming lessons.

A. The Antigonids

Antigonus was one of Alexander’s generals and his descendants became the rulers of one of the great Hellenistic kingdoms, which contained all of Macedonia and central Greece. The Antigonids took control of this region in 294 BC, after the original Macedonian rulers proved incapable of maintaining their power.

Being closest of all of the Hellenistic kingdoms to the Roman, we should expect that this was the first kingdom to fall and it was. The ruler of the Antigionids foolishly angered the Romans and, after a brief war, handed his kingdom to them in 168 BC.

B. The Attalids

Lysimachus was one the Greek generals appointed to govern a territory at the death of Alexander. The kingdom appointed to Lysimachus was that of Pergamon, which extended from the famous city in western Asia Minor. Its western border was just east of Macedonia and it continued east half-way through Asia Minor.

After his death, one of the officers of Lysimachus–Philetaerus–took power of Pergamon. His father’s name was Attalus, and so his descendants were named the Attalids, or “sons of Attalus”. The Attalids ruled the region until 133 BC, when the leader handed power over to the Romans.

C. The Seleucids

Alexander’s highest general was Perdiccas, in whose hands Alexander left his kingdom. After dividing the lands to be ruled by Alexander’s generals, Perdiccas himself took control of the east. Under Perdiccas was one Seleucus, who conspired with Ptolemy to assassinate him. Seleucus thus rose to rule the kingdom which would later bear his name. Ruling from Babylon, Seleucus controlled the entire eastern half of Alexander’s kingdom–into India.

In 301 BC, Antigonus made an attempt to extend his rule into the east, but was stopped by Lysimachus and Seleucus. As a result, Seleucus gained the eastern half of Asia Minor and moved the capital of his kingdom from Babylon to Antioch. Twenty years later, Seleucus defeated Lysimachus and took control of the rest of Asia Minor. Thus, in 280, the kingdom of Seleucus stretched from the Aegean Sea all the way to India!

Not content, however, with his ownership of half of the known world, Seleucus pressed into Thrace to take all of Macedonia but was assassinated. Following the example of Alexander, he conquered much but enjoyed nothing. It is obvious that Seleucus did not value his lands in the east because they were being lost to Indian rulers while he sought more lands in the west.

The Seleucids are the most important rulers because of their presence in Israel and therefore in the Bible. The Seleucids were not able to maintain their father’s success in conquest and expansion and the dynasty slowly lost control of lands until Antiochus the Great took power and led the Seleucids to a number of great victories.

However, like the Antigonids, Antiochus chose to play with fire and engaged with the Romans, who by this time had become very powerful in battle. The Romans had been waging a famous war against the Carthaginians and maintained a well-organized army. Antiochus died shortly thereafter.

Nearly ten years later, in 175 BC, Antiochus IV, called Epiphanes took power. (Epiphanes means ‘God revealed’!) Antiochus was also held in check by the Romans, but decided to provoke another dangerous enemy–one far more dangerous than Rome. Antiochus sought to press Hellenistic practices upon the people of Israel and provoked the Jews to war.

In the last lesson, we studied the prophecies of Daniel, which foretold the coming of Alexander the Great many years before he was even born. Those same prophecies also warned of the coming of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Daniel said:

“The fourth beast shall be a fourth kingdom on earth, different from all the others; It shall devour the whole earth, beat it down, and crush it. The ten horns shall be ten kings rising out of that kingdom; another shall rise up after them, Different from those before him, who shall lay low three kings. He shall speak against the Most High and oppress the holy ones of the Most High, thinking to change the feast days and the law. They shall be handed over to him for a year, two years, and a half-year.”

Thus, it was foretold that near the end of Alexander’s reign a great persecution would rise up from among the kings that would follow Alexander–“trying to change the feast days and the laws”. This is precisely what Antiochus did as he tried to Hellenize the Jews. God reveals, however, through Daniel, that this arrogant king is not to be feared, for the Lord Himself will war against him:

“But when the court is convened, and his power is taken away by final and absolute destruction, then the kingship and dominion and majesty of all the kingdoms under the heavens shall be given to the holy people of the Most High, Whose kingdom shall be everlasting: all dominions shall serve and obey him.”

In history, led by the famous Maccabees, the Jews withstood this foreign pressure and saw Antiochus lose power and ultimately lose his life. In 143 BC, the Jews had not only defended their religious traditions from Hellenistic influence–they also gained full independence. The word of the Lord spoken by Daniel was fulfilled.

NOTE: In your assigned reading below, you will read 1 and 2 Maccabees, which detail the events as Hellenistic rulers tried to press Greek ways upon God’s people.

D. The Ptolemies

The head of the Ptolemies was Ptolemy, who served as one of Alexander the Great’s bodyguards. Ptolemy was appointed to govern the land of Egypt after the death of Alexander, but in 305 BC, named himself King Ptolemy I–“the Savior”. The Ptolemies were worshipped by the Egyptian people as the successors to the ancient pharaohs.

Studying the kingdom of the Ptolemies can become confusing because all of the kings were…Ptolemies. Every king was named Ptolemy, so the only way to know which Ptolemy did what is by knowing their chronology. Worse, many of the Ptolemies married their own sisters and their names were almost always Berenice, Arsinoe or Cleopatra. Thus, we have a whole mess of people named Ptolemy, Berenice, Arsinoe and Cleopatra in Hellenistic history–and they are not necessarily the same people!

The Ptolemies ruled the famous city of Alexandria, which became the center of Hellenistic culture in the period. Philosophers and scholars from all around the world came to live and work at Alexandria because of the famous library there.

The most famous member of the Ptolemy family was Cleopatra VII–but her fame is of the wrong kind. If you have ever heard the name Cleopatra, it was probably because you’ve learned something about her life. We’ll learn about her in one of our future lessons in Chronology and how she brought her family’s power in Egypt to an end.

What is most important to understand in studying this period of history is the cultural effects that it had on the areas conquered by Alexander. While Alexander began to adopt the practices of Persian kings, the successors were Greeks and they would have none of that. They established their kingdoms as Greek cultural centers and made it possible for Greek culture to spread rapidly throughout the world. However, over time, the Greeks did take on much of the culture of the lands in which they lived and the culture that developed was a mixture of Greek and…lots of other stuff. Greek religious ideas mixed with Egyptian, Indian, Jewish and Persian ideas to create many new religious groups and movements. This culture that developed is called Hellenistic, or “Greek-ish” Civilization. This is not a single culture that spread through the world but a wave of Greek ideas and practices mixing with the existing culture in each different place.

The wisdom in this was that it allowed the Greek rulers to win the respect of the native peoples and govern them in peace. In Egypt, the Hellenistic rulers–the Ptolemies–took on the image of the ancient pharaohs. In India, the Hellenistic rulers–the Seleucids–embraced many Buddhist ideas. In Israel, however, the Hellenistic rulers were not so well received. After all, the Jews did not see their religious doctrine as something they had cleverly designed themselves. The Jews believed their Scriptures and way of life was the will of God–and that it was not to be mixed with the ideas and ways of the Goyim (foreign nations).

The Rise of Rome
In Lesson 18 we learned about the Roman Republic. If you don’t remember the lesson clearly, you may wish to go back and review it here. The Republic was established in 509 BC and it grew silently in the west as Greek history ran its course.

The Greeks had everything, but as Jesus taught, “A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.” Rather than taking advantage of the opportunities they were given, the Greeks fought amongst themselves. Constantly beating one another down, they squandered whatever strength they might have had and allowed the Romans the chance to take advantage of the situation. In our next lesson, we will study the Punic Wars, during which the Romans became a great military power and ultimately prepared themselves for war with the Greeks.

History provides us with many examples of wasted opportunities, but the Greeks rank among the greatest failures in world history. Not only did they throw away an opportunity to enjoy great peace and prosperity after the Persian Wars, but after getting a second chance with Alexander and conquering the entire world–they did the same thing!

The history of the Greeks gives us an excellent lesson on the foolishness of the human heart. We often complain about not having this or that and imagine that if we did have them, then we would be happy. History proves that this is not true. Wise Solomon said, “The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor is the ear filled with hearing.”, and we know that when we get what we want, we usually want more.

Contentment and brotherly love would have given the Greeks one of the most prosperous civilizations in all of world history. While they trained great warriors, won mighty battles and spread their borders through all the earth, they were ultimately defeated by their own sins. Let us learn this important lesson and seek the life Our Lord showed us.