Term Paper for Global History to the 15th Century by Darci Clark
Alexander the Great’s conquests in the third century BC had a profound impact on eastern and western culture. With the expansion of his empire, Hellenism, or Greek-influenced, culture spread from the Mediterranean to Asia. The passage of his armies through the mountainous regions of modern-day Afghanistan and Tibet led to the expansion of trade routes between Europe and Asia. The opening of these routes not only increased trade but allowed unprecedented cultural and religious exchanges between the east and west.
One of the main components of Hellenistic culture was the expansion of Greek language. Greek quickly became the language of trade and commerce and people from all over the empire benefited from its common use. They could now understand each other easily whatever their personal culture and language. Use of a common language also led to widespread appreciation of Greek art, drama and philosophy. New schools of philosophical thought emerged which focused on the individual, such as Stoicism and Epicureanism. The new cosmopolitan world created by Alexander’s conquests eliminated the power of competing Greek city-states. This fostered a mentality more concerned with the individual than identification with the city-state, which had been an integral part of Greek culture.
Besides the diffusion of Hellenistic culture, Alexander’s empire created a stable environment for trade in cities to flourish without fear of attack. Governments under his rule now protected and promoted trade which lead to the emergence of primary routes like the Silk Road. Chinese silk was an important commodity and was in great demand in the Mediterranean. Increased trade also led to the development of caravan cities along the Silk Road, such as the Greek-influenced cities of Petra and Palmyra.
Caravan cities were not the only cities to thrive in Alexander’s new cosmopolitan world. The Egyptian city of Alexandria was a center of culture and commerce. Founded by Alexander himself, Alexandria became the capital of Egypt under the Ptolemaic dynasty. Located directly on the Mediterranean, Alexandria’s Great Harbor became an important hub for sea trade. Greek and Egyptian religion fused with the creation of the anthropomorphic god Serapis by Ptolemy I. Serapis combined aspects of the Egyptian god of the dead, Osiris, with the living Apis bull. This type of Greek-influenced religious transformation occurred throughout the Mediterranean.
One of the negative aspects of Alexander’s Mediterranean unification was the increase in the chattel slave trade. The increased wealth acquired from success in trade created a small group of elite citizens who instituted slave plantations. On these plantations, crops were only grown for profit and were worked exclusively by slaves, eliminating jobs for many free peasants. This increase in the exclusive use of slave labor led to slave uprisings in Italy, such as the one led by Spartacus, and immigration of free peasants to overcrowded cities in search of work.
In addition to creating a stable and prosperous environment for trade, Alexander laid the foundation for new political systems. His generals divided up his empire after his death and installed themselves as absolute rulers in the Mediterranean and Asia. They created three key territorial states: the Seleucid Empire, Macedonia, and the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. Greek culture passed to neighboring peoples as these kingdoms expanded. Alexander even stabilized the political landscape in the Indus River Valley. This led to the emergence of the Mauryan Empire, the first such empire in India.
This political change in India, coupled with the spread of Hellenism, led to an important shift in religious thought as well. Buddhism spread from the Mauryan Empire in India eastward into China and central Asia. Monks traveled along the Silk Road spreading Buddhist ideas and converting sacred texts into Chinese. They achieved less success traveling westward where the former religion of the Persian Empire, Zoroastrianism, was firmly established. Zoroastrian traders succeeded in slowing the westward spread of Buddhism by forming religious communities along the Silk Road.
Hellenistic and Roman art may have even had an effect on the portrayal of the Buddha. Initially the Buddha was only represented symbolically, not with a human image. A new Greek influenced anthropomorphic image of the Buddha may have been designed to reflect the human aspects of his life and teachings.
Even though Alexander’s rule was short-lived, his influence on eastern and western culture cannot be denied. His legacy was the spread of Greek-influenced culture to most of the known world which lasted for several centuries after his death. New empires emerged and fused Hellenism with their own culture to create some of the most powerful civilizations of the ancient world.
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