Published: June 14, 2018 By


The three centuries of Greek history between the death of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E. and the rise of Augustus in Rome in 31 B.C.E. are collectively known as the Hellenistic period (1). When he died, Alexander the Great left his extensive conquered territory without a clear line of succession and his strongest generals divided it up into several vast kingdoms. The new independent governments, along with the spread of Greek culture as far away as India, paved the way for dramatic changes to the ways that Greeks viewed themselves and the world around them. 

Society, Thought & Religion

Greek art and life had always been influenced by other cultures, but the expansion in territory during Alexander the Great's conquests brought greater possibilities for mutual cultural exchanges. These exchanges led to a new cosmopolitanism in the Greek world and influenced the desire to understand, appreciate, and represent the diversity of individual peoples. Greater mobility made possible by territorial expansion also encouraged people to seek a sense of purpose and belonging. Philosophy and other intellectual pursuits, which developed in great strides during the Hellenistic period, provided a means of exploring one's emotions and seeing the world and it was during this time that philosophers such as Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.) and Diogenes of Sinope (c. 404-323 B.C.E.) found their followings and influenced the succeeding generations.

Social and cultural changes also brought about changes in Greek religious practices. Individualistic feelings contributed to a new fascination with mystery cults, which often promised reward in the form of a better afterlife (2). New deities were introduced to Greece from areas such as Egypt and Syria, a result of cosmopolitanism and cultural exchange. Ruler-cults became common as Hellenistic kings and queens began to be worshipped alongside gods. In some parts of the Hellenistic world, such as Egypt, which was ruled in the Hellenistic period by a family called the Ptolemies, a long tradition of ruler worship had already existed, but in other areas, which had no such tradition, ruler worship did not catch on as quickly or strongly (3). 

The Arts

The arts flourished in the Hellenistic period as artists explored new ways of representing emotional effects, individual experiences, and ornate details. Architecture became a means of expressing an interest in the dramatic (4) through enormous buildings, as well as surprising vistas, as at the sanctuary of Athena on the island of Lindos, and innovative design, as at the Sanctuary of Apollo at Didyma. Religious buildings were often designed to give visitors a physical and emotional experience that matched their religious experience; they were meant to evoke feelings of awe, revelation, and delight (5). 

Hellenistic sculpture reflected a new awareness of personality and introspection by showing realism and human emotion, rather than the detached idealism evident in the art of the Classical period (5th and 4th centuries B.C.E.). Sculptors also explored swirling drapery, as exempflied in the famous Nike of Samothrace, and the female nude, as in the Aphrodite of Knidos. What is more, sculpture became more engaged with the space around it: rather than appearing as static figures meant to be viewed only from the front, Hellenistic sculpture developed into something more dynamic, reaching out into the viewer's space and inviting views from all sides (6). The Ludovisi Gaul, for example, exhibits the high drama that characterizes the Hellenistic period while encouraging, even forcing the viewer to circumnavigate it to take it all in.

Even in the minor arts, such as pottery, in the Hellenistic period showed a change in artistic sensibilities and tastes. Some types of Hellenistic Greek pottery became more ornate and colorful, paralleling developments in sculpture in architecture. Other styles of pottery imitated in clay the luxurious bronze, silver, and gold tablewares used by imperial families and other elite members of society (7). 

Conquered Greece

Despite the flowering of cultural exchange and artistic innovation, the Hellenistic period is the last era of independent Greek civilization, reaching to the end of its dominance as a new power emerged in the west. Rome had already conquered the Greek cities and towns in southern Italy and Sicily, including Paestum and Syracuse, and was eager to add mainland Greece and the rest of the Hellenistic kingdoms to its expanding empire. In 146 B.C.E., the Romans sacked Corinth and in 86 B.C.E., Athens fell to a siege by Roman troops.  Although Greece was a captured territory, however, Romans respected and indeed emulated many aspects of Greek culture. Art was moved in great quanitites from Greece to Rome and was widely copied by Roman artists in sculpture, painting, and architecture (8). In fact, when discussing the capture of Greece, the Roman poet Horace (Epistles 2.1.156-157) wrote (8):

Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artis intulit agresti Latio

Captive Greece captured its uncivilized conquerer and brought the arts to rustic Latium

As Horace makes clear, despite the passing of leadership in the region from Greece to Rome, the arts of ancient Greece continued to influence artistic expression from the Roman period to more modern times.


  1. On Hellenistic history, culture, art, and more, see Andrew Erskine, ed., A Companion to the Hellenistic World ( Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2003).
  2. On the Hellenistic senses of cosmopolitanism and individualism, see , J.J. Pollitt, Art in the Hellenistic Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986): 256; John G. Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993): 7-13. On Hellenistic religion, see David Potter, "Hellenistic Religion" in ed. Erskine, A Companion to the Hellenistic World: 407-30.
  3. On Hellenistic religion see Graham Shipley, The Greek World after Alexander: 323-30 BC (New York: Routledge, 2000): 153-76; Erskine, ed., A Companion to the Hellenistic World: 405-445.
  4. On the Hellenistic interest in the theatre, see Pollitt, Art in the Hellenistic Age: 4-7.
  5. For further reading on art in the Hellenistic period, see John Onians, Art and Thought in the Hellenistic Age: The Greek World View 350-50 BCE (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979); on architecture, see Pollitt, Art in the Hellenistic Age: 230-49.
  6. On Hellenistic sculpture, see R.R.R. Smith, Hellenistic Sculpture: A Handbook (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991); Pollitt, Art in the Hellenistic Age.
  7. For Hellenistic pottery, see J.W. Hayes, "Fine Wares in the Hellenistic World." in eds. Tom Rasmussen and Nigel Spivey, Looking at Greek Vases (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991): 183-202.
  8. On Roman Greece, see Susan E. Alcock, Graecia Capta: The Landscapes of Roman Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). On Roman Athens, see John M. Camp, The Archaeology of Athens (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001): 183-222.