20. That phase of the growth of western civilization which follows the conquests of Alexander is known as Hellenistic. To clarify definitions: Hellenic refers to the civilization of the Greeks from the Homeric Age of the twelfth pre-Christian century, to the great efflorescence of Greek culture which is usually associated with the City of Athens in the 5th century B.C.E. and is called the Classical Period or the Age of Pericles.
The decline of this period begins with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, that devastating civil conflict which caused great suffering and damage to the people of Greece. This is followed by the plans of Philip II, King of Macedonia, to conquer all the Greek states and to unify them under his control. His premature death brought his son Alexander III to the throne. This young King of Macedonia is the one who conquered all of western Asia and Egypt and created this vast empire of Egyptians, Persians, Babylonians, Syrians, Jews, Arabs, and others, bringing all of these nations under the rule of Greek military officers. He is known is history as Alexander the Great. In ancient Jewish literature he is referred to as Alexander the Macedonian.
The Hellenistic Age begins with the conquests of Alexander and is the period of the great cultural and ethnic amalgamation which brings non-Greeks into the cultural, social, and intellectual atmosphere of the Hellenic world. These non-Greek elements exerted sufficient influence to transform this civilization and to lay the foundations of what eventually evolved into western civilization.
Many of the most influential thinkers of the Hellenistic Age who expressed their ideas in the Greek language in this period were not Greeks, but Jews who wrote in Greek, and their thoughts and ideas shaped the course of subsequent historical events.
The Hellenistic Empires
21. Three major kingdoms emerged from Alexander’s empire. One was ruled by Seleucus, and came to be known as the Seleucid Empire. The second was the Ptolemaic empire, as its ruler was Ptolemaios. The third was taken by Antigonus, known originally as the Antigonid, later the Macedonian empire.
The Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires became very important factors in Jewish history. Their formation and their territorial distinction also created a situation which the Jews had never faced before. This was the first time in history that the Jewish People were under the control of two empires that were mutually antagonistic, in effect, dividing the Jews politically.
For over two centuries, from 539 to 311 B.C.E. the Jews had been the subjects of one emperor, of one political entity; first under the Achaemenian Persians and then under Alexander and his successors during the decade following his death. At first the generals maintained the unity of his empire under a truce to which they had agreed. But in the year 311 B.C.E., Seleucus declared the establishment of his empire and declared that year to be the Year One of his Era. Thus, the year 311 B.C.E. became the first year of the Seleucid Era, and was kept as the dating of that era for several centuries.
22. The Seleucid Empire. The Seleucid Empire incorporated Babylonia and Syria. Thus, this empire included within its borders the largest Jewish population; the Jewish communities of Babylonia and Syria, in addition to communities in neighboring territories where Jews had been settled for centuries. Seleucus, the founder of the dynasty that ruled this empire, instead of locating his capital in Babylon, the locus of the crossroads of western Asia, decided to build his capital in the city of Antioch-on-the-Orontes river in northern Syria. He preferred this location, because it placed him in closer proximity to Greece and the growing commerical activity which was beginning to expand in the eastern Mediterranean region.
23. The Ptolemaic Empire. Ptolemy’s empire was Egypt. For about a century he also controlled the land of Israel. But Ptolemy I Soter, the founder of the Hellenistic Dynasty that ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander, was not only intent on strengthening his political control over his kingdom and expanding its commercial activities. He also had other ambitions. His dream was to build the greatest cultural center of the Greek world in his capital city of Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria, capital of Egypt and of the Ptolemaic Empire enjoyed phenomenal expansion. Just seventy-five years after its foundation by Alexander the Great it had experienced explosive growth from a small fishing village to a metropolitan center of several hundred thousand inhabitants. In keeping with the plans of Ptolemy I and more so those of his son and successor Ptolemy II Philadelphus, it had become the greatest economic power in the eastern Mediterranean region and the leading cultural and scientific center of the Greek world.