Episode 23: Alexander’s Conquests and Hellensim
The Big History of Civilizations (2016)
Dr Craig G Benjamin
In this lecture, Benjamin explores how Alexander’s father, Phillip II transformed Macedonia from a rustic outpost to a cosmopolitan kingdom that captured military control of the entire Greek peninsula.
At 21, Alexander assumed the throne following his father’s assassination. A brilliant military strategist, in 334 BC Alexander marched east to conquer Persia and south to conquer Egypt (332 BC). After receiving a rapturous reception for ending Persian occupation, he appointed his boyhood friend Ptolemy to the Egyptian throne and marched into Mesopotamia, the economic heart of the Persian empire.
After conquering Samarkand (modern day Afghanistan) in 329 BC, he crossed the Hindu Kush mountains via the Kyber Pass into the Indus Valley. Although his troops rebelled against a further military push into India (327 BC), the limited excursion successfully opened India to Greek cultural and economic influence.
He withdrew from India to take up residence in Nebuchadnessar II’s palace in Babylon. He died at age 33 from excessive feasting and drinking.
Over the next 50 years, his generals divided up the massive Hellenistic empire he had created. Benjamin believes most modern day Greek influence stems from the half dozen or so Greek cities Alexander established and the generals who succeeded him. Alexandria in Egypt is an excellent example, with its large ethnically diverse population, its major sea trade and its stellar intelligentsia centered around the Alexandrian library.*
Major inventions stemming from this period include gears, screws, rotary mills, the water clock, the water organ, the torsion catapult, a chart to find prime numbers and pneumatics (the use of steam to operate machines and toys). The latter technology would vanish from human culture for 2,000 years until 1763 when James Watts invented the modern steam engine.
Benjamin identifies three major Greek philosophies arising during this period: epicureanism, stoicism and skepticism. The epicureans believed the greatest good was to seek modest, sustainable pleasure by understanding how the world works and limiting desires. The stoics believed that because so aspects of life are beyond human control, happiness is best achieved by aiming for moderation in all things. The skeptics taught that absolute knowledge is impossible.
Over time most Greek-controlled regions gained independence, including Bactria (Afghanistan), Persia and Egypt. Around 250 BC, the Greek city-states regained independence briefly prior to Roman conquest 100 years later. In Egypt, the Ptolemy dynasty ruled until 33 BC, when Egypt fell to Roman rule following Cleopatra’s suicide.
*The Alexandrian library was destroyed by fire either by Julius Caesar (accidentally) in 48 BC, by the Roman emperor Aurelian in 275 AD, or the emperor Theodosius in 391 AD during his campaign to destroy all the empire’s pagan sites.
The film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.