Hellenistic Period: Art In The Onset Of Globalization (323-30 BC)

The Hellenistic period lasted three hundred years and is characterized by innovation, globalization and cultural connectivity through a common language and standardized education.

Jul 12, 2020By Maria Dragatakis, BA Classics, Classical Languages and Literature
battle of isaac alexander the great
Detail from the Battle of Issus mosaic of Alexander the Great and his horse Bucephalus, 100 BC, Archaeological Museum of Napoli


The Hellenistic Period started in 323 BC. after the sudden death of Alexander the Great at the age of 33. His thirteen-year rule was in its entirety a military campaign, one of the most successful and devastating military conquests in human history. He created an empire that stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Himalaya Mountains. His military genius, combined with adept diplomacy and his dream of spreading the Greek language, education, and values to the known world were the cornerstones of the Hellenistic Empire. 


Upon his death, the empire was divided into a number of kingdoms, ruled by descendants of his dynasty. It initially thrived on the foundations set by Alexander but eventually succumbed to the threat of the next super-power that emerged, the Roman Empire.  The Hellenistic Period ends in 30 BC., when the Romans conquered and took control of Egypt, the last descendant of Alexander the legendary Queen Cleopatra was the illustrious epilogue of this great saga.


The Hellenistic World – The Aftermath Of Alexander The Great

alexander statue
Statuette of Alexander the Great, 2nd century BC, copy of a from 320 BC by Lysippus, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Alexander the Great, son of Philip II and Olympias, was nurtured by Homer’s Iliad. He was brought up to believe that he was the descendant of Hercules and Achilles. Like these great heroes and warriors he was also destined for great deeds.  When he was 13-years old, the great philosopher Aristotle became his tutor and remained his mentor all through his short life. He was a unique amalgam of fierce and brutal warrior combined with a profound nature, a propagator of culture, art, education, and social values that characterized the Hellenistic Period.


 At the age of 20, Alexander embarked on his long military campaign with an entourage of scribes, artisans, language, and philosophy tutors commissioned to keep meticulous records of places, people, and culture and to establish arts and cultural centers in the conquered territories. For the next 13 years, he conquered Asia Minor, Egypt, the Middle East, devastated the Persian Empire, and reached the Himalayan peaks in India and modern Pakistan. 


alexander the great conquest
A map of the route that Alexander the Great took to conquer Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, and Bactria

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In the vast territories that he conquered, Alexander founded more than 20 cities that bore his name, most of them East of the Tigris River. The first, and greatest, was Alexandria in Egypt, which would become an important Mediterranean urban and cultural center. The cities’ locations reflected trade routes, as well as defensive positions, and formed an interlinked cultural network through shared traditions of Greek societies and the Greek language.


Hellenistic Architecture

pharos lighthouse alexandria
The Pharos (Lighthouse) of Alexandria, Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, San Jose


The Lighthouse of Alexandria, destroyed by an earthquake in 1300 AD., was one of the Seven Wonders of the World and the most famous lighthouse in antiquity. Built around 280 BC., by the descendants of Alexander, the Ptolemy Dynasty that ruled Egypt. It was a technological accomplishment and is the prototype of all lighthouses since. It stood on the island of Pharos in the harbor of Alexandria and it was more than 350 feet (110 meters) high.


For when he was master of Egypt, designing to settle a colony of Grecians

there, he resolved to build a large and populous city, and give it

his own name….

one night in his sleep to see a wonderful vision; a grey-headed old

man, of a venerable aspect, appeared to stand by him, and pronounce

these verses:-

“An island lies, where loud the billows roar,

Pharos they call it, on the Egyptian shore.”    

Alexander the Great, by Plutarch translated into English by John Dryden


Another example of fine architectural grandeur and indicative of affluence, both in wealth and culture, lies in the great Hellenistic city of Pergamon, in Asia Minor. The Great Temple of Zeus and Athena is a unique monument of ancient Greece, considered a masterpiece of Hellenistic Period sculpture. The Great Altar built in the 2nd century BC., as part of the royal residence. After its rediscovery in the late 19th century, selected architectural parts as well as the sculptural decorations of the altar were taken to Berlin, exhibited today as a monumental partial reconstruction in the Pergamon Museum of Berlin. 


pergamom altar berlin
Base Frieze of The Pergamon Altar, Pergamon Museum, Berlin


Hellenistic kingship prevailed as the dominant political system in the Greek East for nearly three centuries following the death of Alexander the Great. Simultaneously, increased commercial and cultural exchanges, and the greater mobility of educators, artisans, scientists, led to the establishment of a koine (common language).  It developed as the ‘lingua franca’ throughout the Hellenistic world and continued to be so all through the Roman Empire and until the emergence of the Byzantine Empire and Emperor Justinian in the mid-6th century AD.


Wealth And Collection In The Hellenistic World


During the Hellenistic Period, royal families lived in splendor and opulence.  Palaces with extravagant banquet halls, lavishly decorated rooms, and majestic gardens. Extravagant wealth surrounded the royal palaces and the courts of the elite, ruling class, and traders, who regularly held festivals and symposia to flaunt their riches.  An affluent society with prominent patrons of the arts, commissioning public works of architecture and sculpture, as well as private luxury items that asserted their wealth and social status. 


cleopatra banquet gerard hoet
The Banquet of Cleopatra by Gerard Hoet, 17th-18th century, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Hellenistic Period Jewelry 


Jewelry, for example, as a status symbol acquired elaborate forms and incorporated rare and unique stones. The open trade routes to eastern provinces supplied a wealth of materials, precious and semiprecious stones, and enhanced techniques.


karpenisi treasure
The Karpenisi Treasure from the Stathatos Collection, The National Archaeological Museum of Athens 


A perfect sample of goldsmith’s work is the “Karpenisi Treasure” named after the location of its excavation. Two display cases, in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, with artifacts associated with female adornment (perhaps three or four ensembles) dating from the late fourth to the early 2nd century BC. 


The most impressive displays are the three hairnets made of gold with repousse busts of Aphrodite and Artemis, the diadem with the Herculean knot in the center decorated with off-white glass paste and the superb gold belt with leaves, flowers, and fruits, insects and birds, embroidered with colored enamel, inlaid semi-precious stones, and glass. A small gold miniature temple, from the same group, depicting in relief a Satyr and Dionysus with a panther was possibly of funerary use. 


ganymede gold jewelry
The Ganymede Jewellery collection including a matched set of earrings, necklace, pins, bracelets, and a ring, 330-00 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Hellenistic period jewelry was of a great variety, produced to satisfy several needs of the wealthy customers and in great assortments —earrings, necklaces, pendants, pins, bracelets, armbands, thigh bands, finger rings, wreaths, diadems, and other elaborate hair ornaments. Matched sets were common and bracelets came in pairs worn according to the Persian fashion. Often ornate with pearls and stunning gems or semi-precious stones—emeralds, garnets, carnelians, banded agates, sardonyx, chalcedony, and rock crystal. Artists also incorporated colorful enamel inlays that dramatically contrasted with their intricate gold settings. Minute details were added of plants and animals, or mythological creatures were popular designs. 


hellenistic jewelry
Hellenistic gold, garnet, and agate necklace and earrings, 1st century BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art


In Hellenistic times, jewelry often passed from generation to generation as family heirlooms or was dedicated to sanctuaries as an offering to the gods. There are records of headdresses, necklaces, bracelets, rings, brooches, and pins in temple and treasury inventories, as, for example, at Delos. Hordes of Hellenistic Period jewelry that were buried for safekeeping in antiquity were unearthed in excavations. 


Some of the best-preserved examples, however, come from tombs where jewelry was usually placed on the body of the deceased. Some of these pieces were made specifically for interment; most, however, were worn during life. In the early Hellenistic Period, wealthy Macedonians buried their dead with elaborate gold jewelry. However, by the late Hellenistic Period, rich burial goods were less common. This modification most likely signals a decrease in disposable wealth and, perhaps, a change in burial customs


alexander the great stater coin
Alexander the Great Gold stater, 286-81 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Hellenistic Period Art And Sculpture 


Hellenistic Period art is unique due to its innovative approach to its classical prototype, quite diverse in subject matter and style. It bears a strong sense of history, though touched by its universal influences remained a strict acolyte of the Greek traditions.  Museums and libraries appear for the first time in the metropolitan centers, such as those at Alexandria and Pergamon. 


Hellenistic artists copied and adapted earlier styles, and made great innovations. Representations of Greek gods took on new forms, more liberal and secular, the old religion shocked by the popular image of a nude Aphrodite or of the young amorous child, her tender companion, Eros. Also prominent in Hellenistic art are representations of Dionysus, the god of wine and legendary conqueror of the East, as well as those of Hermes, the god of commerce. 

la victoire samothrace
The Winged Victory of Samothrace, 190 BC, The Louvre, Paris


The Winged Victory of Samothrace is unequivocally a masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture. The figure creates a spiraling effect in a composition that opens out in various directions. The slanted angles of the wings, the placement of the left leg, and the clothing blowing between the goddess’s legs renders the statue fluid and in motion.  The nude female body is revealed by the transparency of the wet fabric that scantily covers the body, much in the manner of classical works from the fifth century BC, while the style of her clothes is typical of the fourth century. In the treatment of the tunic-sometimes brushing against the body, sometimes billowing in the wind-the sculptor has been remarkably skillful in creating visual effects. The style is characteristic of the school of sculptors from the island of Rhodes, with a unique sense of volume, rich in decoration and expressive movement (180-160 BC).


The geographical expansion offered also a broader range of subject matter with no precedent in earlier Greek art. There are representations of unorthodox subjects, such as grotesques, children, and elderly people. New images appear with an ethnic diversity, mostly derived from Egypt with African influences. 


aphrodite satyr
Marble group statue of Aphrodite, Pan and Eros, from Delos, 100 BC, The National Archaeological Museum of Athens


This group statue, made of Parian marble, was found in the sacred island of Delos.  Traces of color are still faintly visible. It depicts a nude of goddess Aphrodite attempting to repel the erotic advances of the goat-footed god Pan. She holds her sandal threateningly in her right hand, while the winged god Eros comes to her rescue.


Art collection clearly dates back to the Hellenistic society; the rich elite became art collectors, who commissioned copies of original works of art and copies of earlier Greek statues. Private homes and gardens were exquisitely decorated with luxury goods, furniture lost its utilitarian function and became an art object, stone and bronze sculpture decorated gardens and interiors, and pottery was massively produced to meet the increased market demand.  The phenomenon of replicating and mass production of art objects had just begun.


head ptolemy iii
Head of Ptolemy the III, 246–222 BC, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


This Greek Ptolemaic Head portrays Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-221 B.C) beardless, short-haired, and with the head rotated to the side and a slightly raised chin. This is a style prototyped for Alexander the Great and continued by his descendants. A diadem (crown) adorned the head as the twelve holes around the hairline indicate.  


Roman Collectors


The most fervent collectors of Greek art were the Romans. In the 1st century BC, Rome became the center of Hellenistic art, with prolific production numbers, and a great number of Greek artists relocated to work there.  


greek hellenistic marble head
Greek Hellenistic Marble Head of Apollo, 2nd-1st century BC, Private Collection


The Romans decorated their townhouses and country villas with Greek sculptures in unprecedented abundance and a variety of styles.  The wall paintings (frescoes) from the villa at Boscoreale, a country estate north of Pompeii, is one of the most indicative examples of interior decoration. It reverberates visibly the Hellenistic Macedonian royal paintings, and the magnificent bronzes unearthed testify to the refined classical taste that the Roman aristocracy adopted in their homes.  


fresco villa boscoreale
Wall Panel from a Black Ground Frescoed Room in a villa from Boscoreale, Italy, 1-50 AD, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


The most sought after material for statues was the Parian marble, named after the Cycladic island of Paros that produced it in ancient times and still produces today. This type of marble is translucent, can capture the light, and is the perfect medium to express the exquisite beauty that classical and Hellenistic sculptures represent.


One of the most famous Hellenistic masterpieces in Parian Marble is the statue of Venus of Milos, currently in the Louvres Museum in Paris.


The French took the statue, discovered in 1820 by a Greek farmer on the island of Milos, and since 1821, it adorns the Louvre’s Museum in Paris. Venus (Aphrodite in Greek) the goddess of Love has been the subject of many works of art during the classical period, but this statue is dated circa 100 BC., with innovative Hellenistic features such as the spiral composition, the positioning in space, and the fall of the drapery over the hips.


venus di milo
Venus de Milo by Alexandros of Antioch, 100 BC, The Louvre, Paris


The goddess originally wore metal jewelry — bracelet, earrings, and headband — of which only the fixation holes remain. The marble was probably decorated in color and its arms are missing.  


It is also common for the period to produce statues representing groups, ensembles of figures. One of the most prominent ensembles is displayed at the Vatican Museum.  It illustrates the myth of Laocoön who was a Trojan warrior and a priest of Apollo and his two sons, while two serpents sent by Athena and Poseidon attack them. The wrath of the gods against Laocoön is because he warned the Trojans against taking in the wooden horse left by the Greeks outside the city gates.

laocoon and sons
The Laocoön Group by the sculptors of Rhodes, 40-30 BC, The Vatican Museum, Vatican City


Another medium widely used in sculpture was bronze with inlaid copper. The below statue of a naked youth, a victorious athlete of the Olympic Games wearing the symbolic olive wreath, his prize from the Games, found in the sea in international waters, part of a ship wreckage. It is one of the few life-size Greek bronzes to have survived, thus, it provides much information on the technology of ancient bronze casting

He stands with his weight on his right leg and the eyes of the statue were originally inlaid with colored stone or glass paste, and the nipples were inlaid with copper, creating naturalistic color contrasts.


statue victorious youth
Statue of a Victorious Youth, 300–100 BC, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Hellenistic Mosaics


We will conclude this expedition into the vast and rich era of Hellenistic Greece by visiting the renowned site of the House of Faun in Pompeii.  The mosaic, the largest in the house, made with the use of about one million tesserae, depicts the battle of Issus that marked the end of the Persian Empire, where Alexander the Great defeated Darius III in 333 BC. The mosaic is a copy of the 3rd-century work by Philoxenos of Eretria from the 4th century BC., or a copy of an anonymous Hellenistic painting was used as the model.


battle of issus alexander and darius iii
Battle of Issus between Alexander and Darius III, 100 BC, Archaeological Museum of Napoli


The mosaic, on the left side, shows Alexander who, astride his horse Bucephalus, leads his men against the fleeing Persians. Darius on his war chariot is retreating but his figure stands prominent opposite Alexander. Between the two is a Persian prince who displays his loyalty by using his body to shield his king, while a soldier offers him his own horse, thus condemning himself to certain death.

The use of very small tesserae (small pieces of stone, glass, or other material for mosaics), a technique known as opus vermiculatum, enabled the artisan to render all the effects of light, color hues, the details of the armor and the faces, and even the moods.


The End Of the Hellenistic Period

battle of actium
The Battle of Actium, 2 September 31 BC by Lorenzo A. Castro, 1672, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London


The Battle of Actium in 31 BC. signifies the end of the Hellenistic Period.  Ptolemaic rule of Egypt ended when Octavian, who later became the emperor Augustus, defeated Marc Antony’s fleet.  The Romans from thereon ruled Egypt and gradually annexed most of the Provinces of the old Empire.


The importance of Greek art and culture remained strong during the Roman Imperial period, the Greek language remained the language of academics and Roman youths were taught Greek as part of their refined education.  For centuries, Roman artists continued to make works of art in the Hellenistic tradition.


Alexander created and united a vast empire, he amalgamated non-Greek with Greek, not purely Hellenic, but Hellenistic.  His Aristotelian education instilled in him the great notion “that the whole world is a whole unit, and all things may be brought together”. (Alexander the Great, by Plutarch translated into English by John Dryden)


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By Maria DragatakisBA Classics, Classical Languages and LiteratureMaria Dragatakis lives and works in Athens, Greece as an International Productions Coordinator for a local theater company. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Classics and Classical Languages and Literatures from Ohio University. Art is her passion which she is been blessed to relish in her daily tasks, in the world of the theater, and the city she lives in with its rich cultural heritage. Her work has taken her around the world in a never-ending journey, always seeking the finer sentiment of euphoria that only art can produce.