Hellenistic period (3 B.C. - 1 A.D.)

The Hellenistic period began in 336 B.C. with the coronation of Alexander the Great as king of Macedonia and the consequent expansion of his kingdom. For 13 years he invaded Persia and built an empire that stretched from modern Greece to India. Troops invaded and conquered the Persian Empire and the Indus Valley using the excellent communication routes laid out by the Persians themselves. This short Alexandrian campaign changed the ancient world by extending Greek culture from the Mediterranean to Asia, ushering in the Hellenistic era that lasted until its conquest by Rome in 31 B.C.


The Hellenistic states were ruled by absolute kings who had a cosmopolitan vision of the world and dedicated themselves to trading intensely within the empire: from India ebony, ivory, pearls, cotton, spices and sugar; iron from the far East; wine from Syria; papyrus and glass from Alexandria.

These exchanges entrenched Hellenic culture throughout the empire. The linguafranca, the "koiné", colloquial Greek, also exerted a unifying force and extended Greek culture and vision throughout the territory. The Hellenistic era would be defined by the spread of Greek culture to the territories conquered by Alexander.

However, some Greek philosophers (in their purest tradition of Hellenic dissent) criticized this external territorial expansion. The Macedonian empire collided with the traditional Greek policy of organizing into autonomous city-states. Critics protested by directing their attention from the outside to the inside. Diogenes made his life a protest against commercialism and cosmopolitanism. Epicurus preached individual pleasure and happiness as ends in themselves. The Stoics spread the belief that we all have a divine spark that can be cultivated by living ethically: with nobility and goodness. The similarity between these thinkers and their contemporaries of the Axial Age in the East such as Buddha and Confucius, who also looked for solutions to life in their inner charism, is remarkable.

Alexander's conquest of Egypt (circa 332) was part of his war to dominate the Persian empire. After conquering the Persian naval bases on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean his army and fleet continued to the south. Alexander's fame preceded him and Egypt gave herself up without a fight.

It was on the Egyptian coast that the Greek warrior established in 334 B.C. another weapon of domination: information as power. The objective was to collect and store the world knowledge of the time and at the same time strengthen the Greek culture in the colony.

It was Ptolemy I who had the great palace of the Ptolemaic dynasty built in Alexandria. On the other side of the garden, a monument called the Museion was constructed, a museum dedicated to the Muses, the goddesses of memory, the arts and the sciences. The Library of Alexandria was born. (An obvious advantage of the city was the proximity of many aquatic herbs capable of being transformed into a writing medium: papyrus.)

The Ptolemies were of Macedonian origin and had inherited from the Greeks the taste and desire for knowledge. During the following centuries the dynasty supported and maintained the Library and dedicated its fortune to the acquisition of texts from Greece, Persia, India, Israel, Africa and other lands. It soon attracted intellectuals from across the empire and beyond.

Syncretism characterized Hellenistic culture and paralleled Greek domination. Philosophers of the empire naturally incorporated elements of Persian, Indian, Egyptian, Roman, and Syrian philosophy into their works, superimposing these ideas on the legacy of the Socratics and pre-Socratics. The extensive intercultural backgrounds of the Library and the mix of people and cultures in the city of Alexandria further promoted the exchange of ideas.

The classical traditions had lost their prestige due to their deviation towards more and more specialized interests, far from the daily life of the polis that had occupied Socrates and Plato. Knowledge through measurement was beginning to prevail over abstract speculation. In this regard, the number of mathematicians who went to the Library is notable:

Euclid was active in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I. His book "Elements", an organized compilation of the knowledge of the time on mathematics and geometry, was surely written using the Library's fund of knowledge.

Archimedes perfected his studies in the Alexandria of the Ptolemies as a disciple of the astronomer and mathematician Conon de Samos, royal astronomer at the court of Ptolemy III.

Thanks to the unification of Persia and Egypt under Alexander, the established commercial flow, and the excellent channels of communication left by the Persians, there was a great exchange of texts and ideas within the Hellenistic empire. The library of Pergamon in Anatolia, also part of the empire, competed with that of Alexandria. According to Pliny the Elder, the two establishments developed rival interests, such as Galen's medicine. (As a show of rivalry, the use of parchment is said to be Pergamon's response to the deliberate failure to supply papyrus from Alexandria.)

Eratosthenes was a chief librarian at the Museion and a mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer, and music theorist. He used his mathematical knowledge, no doubt acquired at the Library, to calculate the circumference of the earth.

Hipparchus of Nicea (near Pergamon) also worked on the Babylonian texts, but on the island of Rhodes. He was probably the most outstanding astronomer of Hellenism

Claudius Ptolemy, Greek mathematician, geographer, and astrologer was employed at the Library of Alexandria when already under Roman rule. He used the Babylonian library funds to learn by observation and to study the moon.

The world of the early Christians was Hellenistic and thus the evangelical tradition that tells us about Jesus of Nazareth is highly influenced by Greek philosophy. Palestine was an integral part of the empire and could not escape Greek influence. All the texts that we have of the New Testament are written in 'koiné', the linguafranca of the Hellenistic empire. This does not mean that the writers of these texts were determined in their thinking by Hellenism. However, their expectations, problems, and responses were shaped under Greek cultural influence. The mixture of Greek thought with Hebraic religiosity is evident in the Prologue to the Gospel of John with its abstract references to the Logos but its Hebrew religious spirit.

It is curious to reflect on the fact that the two pillars of Western culture, Judeo-Christianity and the Greek tradition, were already mixed in the New Testament, the Western reference book

Galen (129 - 216 AD) was born into a family of architects in Pergamon, Anatolia, under the Roman Empire. Instead of continuing his family studies, he decided to study medicine, possibly encouraged by the city's tradition of worshiping Asclepius, the god of healing. He continued his studies in Alexandria, the most renowned medical center in the ancient western world. He then moved to the center of the empire, Rome, and made a name for himself as a physician for his knowledge of anatomy, healing, and rhetorical prowess in public debate.

Galen's physiology was a mixture of ideas drawn from Plato and Aristotle, in addition to Hippocrates. Its physiological model was used for several centuries without changes.

Galen's writings, some 300, of which we know 150 complete or partial, demonstrate a universal interest. His investigations covered areas such as linguistics, scientific logic, and rhetoric, apart from medicine. In the 500s his works served as teaching texts in Alexandria. In the 9th century the Arabs collected and translated many Greek manuscripts, and around 850 an Arab physician at the court of Baghdad, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, prepared an annotated list of 129 works by Galen that he and his followers had translated from Greek to Arabic.

Renaissance medicine wanted to repeat his experiments and reconfirm its results. Ironically this interest dethroned Galen as an anatomist. In 1543 the Flemish physician Vesalius demonstrated that Galen's body anatomy was more animal than human in some respects. A century later the Englishman Harvey correctly explained blood circulation. The renewal of the body model of the Galen tradition during the Renaissance was, however, an important element in the rise of modern science.

Diophantus of Alexandria was a Greek mathematician born between A.D. 200 and 214. He was recognized as the father of algebra. His best known work is "Arithmetica", which consisted of thirteen books of which only six and a part of the seventh are preserved.

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