A lecture on Alexander and Hellenism by Dr Robert Harding
Note: The below lecture was delivered as part of our Alexander the Great activities. The lecture was delivered to participants who stayed overnight at Fitzwilliam College on the second day of the Holiday History Camp. Dr Robert Harding is a Cambridge Affiliated Researcher and member of Civilisations in Contact.
The Greeks were not an island unto themselves. Already before Alexander Greek mythology, food and customs had been influenced by other Mediterranean peoples, including Egyptians and Hittites. But the creation of Alexander's empire created a cultural movement that spread Greek culture across vast regions of the world, from Egypt to Central Asia. This movement, called Hellenism, saw peoples take this culture as their own inheritance and use it in their own individual ways. To this day, people are doing the same thing with the legacy of the classical world.
An example of the multiculturalism of the Mediterranean is Siwa, an isolated oasis in the Egyptian desert. Siwa is still famous for its date palms, but over two thousand years ago the Greeks recognized it as one of the three great oracles of their supreme god Zeus. They identified Zeus with the Egyptian supreme god Ra-Amun; and it was as Zeus Ammon, with ram’s horns curling from his hair, that the Greeks knew him.
The event that gave the temple enduring fame was the visit in 331 B.C. of Alexander. Having taken Egypt from the Persians and settled its affairs, he marched to the oasis to imitate his heroic predecessors Heracles and Perseus, whom legend asserted had also been there. After a difficult march across the desert Alexander was immediately hailed as a son of the god upon arrival and allowed a private consultation. According to the sources, he wanted to know whether he had fully avenged his father Philip (and was told again he was Ammon's son, not Philip's): and whether he would conquer the world (he was told that he would). Ammon remained one of his favourite deities and depictions of him on Egyptian coinage show him with Ammon's horns.
Alexander would carry the prophecy of the oracle with him into Central Asia and modern Pakistan before his troops finally gave up and forced his return. While on his march eastwards garrison towns were founded; and the settlers would help sow the seeds of Hellenism. One such seed is Ai Khanum, a city on the northern border of Afghanistan. Excavated in the ‘60s and ‘70s it is a multicultural hybrid of local, Persian and Greek features. For instance, the Gymnasium, Theatre and Comedy mask fountain head are all Greek; but the palace, with its treasury and storerooms, is Persian in design. The city was sacked in c. 145 BC but Hellenistic artistic forms remained influential. By the 2nd century A.D., in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a style of art known as Gandharan combined Indian iconography and Buddhist theology with Hellenistic features such as naturalism and attention to the contours of body and clothing.
This process of using the past to create new artistic forms has continued into modern times and still takes place. Cambridge is an example of the way classical architecture was used to represent ideas – of knowledge, wisdom, culture and power. Sometimes classical architecture common to the whole Mediterranean was used – for instance, the types of pillar known as Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. But from the later 18th century and into the first half of the 19th architects became more aware of particularly Greek forms. The Fitzwilliam Museum is an example of what is called the “Greek Revival”; and architects used this style because they associated it with knowledge, purity and the beginnings of European civilization.
The Revival may have been based on ideas of a “pure” and “original” style. But the history of Greek art and its transmission to the present is also a history of how first the Greeks used other cultures creatively; and then, through Alexander’s conquests, Hellenism was used by other cultures to create their own artistic triumphs.