Athens in the Hellenistic World

By Ian Worthington

First published in the World History Encyclopedia 11 November 2020 (with different illustrations)

Athens After Empire: A History from Alexander the Great to the Emperor Hadrian (OUP 2021) By Ian Worthington

When we think about ancient Athens it is almost always about the Classical city. We think of such things as its numerous monuments (the Parthenon on the Acropolis for example), beautifying everywhere, the Agora swarming with people doing business, discussing current affairs, and chit-chatting, and its flourishing intellectual, artistic, and literary life, including great philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, orators like Pericles and Demosthenes, and festivals that both honored the gods and provided a focal point for people. Daily life was anchored in the ideals of freedom and democracy, and in the fifth century Athens was an imperial power second to none in the Mediterranean.

But in 338 that life forever changed for all mainland Greeks when Philip II of Macedonia (r. 359-336) defeated a Greek army at Chaeronea (in Boeotia) and imposed his hegemony over Greece. Apart from some futile attempts to recapture their freedom, for well over a century the Greeks remained under Macedonian rule until the new power of the Mediterranean world, Rome, absorbed Macedonia and Greece into its empire.

Philip II was assassinated in 336 and was succeeded by his son Alexander III (“the Great”). He died in Babylon in 323, having toppled the Persian Empire and marched as far east as India. The three centuries from Alexander’s death to the final conquest of the east by Rome with the capture of Egypt in 30 are commonly called the “Hellenistic” period. It was the era of the kingdoms of Seleucid Syria, Ptolemaic Egypt, Antigonid Greece, and Attalid Pergamum; the age when the opening of East to West by Alexander’s conquests came to fruition, with the Greeks realizing their world was far bigger than the Mediterranean; the time when Greek language and culture spread in the east; and Alexandria’s great Museum and Library made it the intellectual and scientific epicenter of the world.

What was Athens’ place in this Hellenistic world? How different was it militarily, politically, economically, and culturally from its Classical predecessor? What were the people like and how did they react to their Macedonian and Roman masters? These questions are what my book is about, and some refreshing new answers come to light.

Athens had been an imperial power in the fifth and fourth centuries, but in the Hellenistic period it seemed only a second-rate city, its politicians bowing to foreign orders, its democracy robbed, its economy in shambles, and even its civic and religious institutions curtailed. Under Macedonian rule, it had even suffered garrisons in the port of Piraeus and in the city itself, within eyesight of the Acropolis, home to the patron goddess Athena.

View of Acropolis from likely site of Macedonian garrison on Museum Hill. Photo Ian Worthington

Once Rome brought down Macedonia in the second century, Athens was subject to Rome’s will. In particular, Roman building activity in Athens, especially under Augustus and in the first century AD Hadrian, was steering Athens further away from what Pericles had proudly proclaimed “the school of Hellas” in his funeral oration of 430 (so Thucydides 2.41.1). The Athenians witnessed the Romans’ appropriation of much of their culture for their own needs and were victims to widespread looting of artworks throughout Greece, which were taken to Rome for public and private display.

Yet this dreary picture of decline and fall belies reality. It is the result of the hostility of ancient sources, and especially, as I show, the flawed tendency to compare Hellenistic to Classical Athens in every area. After Chaeronea Athens was still a force with which to be reckoned: its people were resilient; they fought their Macedonian masters when they could, and later, they sided with foreign rulers against Rome to regain their freedom.

If anything, given the city’s diminished land forces and lack of its once powerful navy, the people’s courageous defiance of oppression against terrible odds was a defining feature of their history. Thus in 268 the Athenians idealistically joined forces with Egypt and Sparta to defy Antigonus II of Macedonia, being totally defeated seven years later. In 229 they actually did regain independence, but warfare against Philip V of Macedonia after 200 led to an appeal to Rome for help. From then on, the Athenians’ future was linked to that city.

In 146 Rome annexed Greece, yet when the opportunity to regain freedom came in the 80s the Athenians sided with Mithridates VI of Pontus (Black Sea) against the Roman People. That decision would lead to their darkest hour, for in 86 the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla besieged and sacked the city, with a terrible loss of life and destruction to buildings.

Agora of Caesar and Augustus, Athens. Photo by Ian Worthington.

But the people recovered, only to find themselves part of the downfall of the Roman Republic. Having welcomed Pompey, then Caesar, they gave refuge to Brutus after Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March in 44, and to Mark Antony after he had defeated Brutus and Cassius at the battles of Philippi in 42. After Actium Athens had to live under Octavian (Augustus) as ruler, yet the people refused to be cowed. When Augustus visited the city in 21, he was angered that dissidents had daubed the statue of Athena on the Acropolis with blood and turned it westward, as though the goddess were contemptuously spitting on Rome.

Then a century later, under Hadrian, the city was catapulted again to prominence in the Greek world when that emperor chose it as the center of a newly created league of cities in the east called the Panhellenion. Athens thus enjoyed a renaissance.

Hellenistic Athens was far from being a postscript to its Classical self; its rich and varied history continued, and its status as a cultural and intellectual juggernaut, especially in philosophy and rhetoric, enticed Romans to the city in increasing numbers, some to visit (like Cicero), others to study there. Athens should no longer live unfairly in the shadow of its more famous forerunner.

My book does not end with the commonly accepted terminal date of the Hellenistic period in 30, but controversially in AD 132 with Hadrian. Periodization (dividing up a historical time frame into periods and giving a name to each one) is a double-edged sword: it’s convenient, but it does not follow that the beginning and end points reflect things starting and ending but merely continuing with changes. “Hellenistic” was coined in 1836 by the German historian Johann Gustav Droysen because he believed those three centuries were defined by the spread of Hellenism (Greek language and culture), and the term stuck. But we should not forget that the Greeks did not have this concept of time, and when we look at what Actium and the Roman annexation of Egypt meant for Athens – and Greece – a different picture emerges.

Yes, 31 and 30 were significant years for Rome, but by 31 the Greeks had been part of the Roman Empire for over a century; Octavian was merely another in a line of Roman rulers, and nothing ended in Athens. Octavian had forgiven the people for their support of Antony and given them much needed grain, just as Caesar and Antony had forgiven them for supporting their rivals and had bestowed gifts on the city. It is hard to imagine, then, that the Athenians (or the Greeks) would have felt that Actium, and a year later Egypt’s fall to Rome, was the end of a period for them.

To me, the inscription on Hadrian’s Arch speaks volumes: “This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus.” There was of course a continuum of Roman rule after Hadrian, but it is not just the imposition of foreign rule that drives the history of “Hellenistic” Athens but the changes to the physical city. Hellenistic rulers had funded buildings in Athens (the Stoa of Attalus of Pergamum in the Agora – now reconstructed – is perhaps the most famous), both to beautify the city and earn them honours as benefactors. These rulers did not take over the city, but the Romans did. Their constructions, especially Hadrian’s grandiose building program (including the completion of the temple to Olympian Zeus, whose huge size takes your breath away today), impacted the city even more.

Columns from Library of Hadrian, Athens. Photo Ian Worthington.
Arch of Hadrian, Athens. Photo Ian Worthington.

What Hadrian had built, where, and why, were his choices. Athens, then, had become as close to a provincial city as one could get, before settling into life in the later Roman Empire. Hadrian’s Arch is a fitting climax to a period in Athenian history that should be viewed, I argue, as one block from Philip II of Macedonia to Hadrian, when the city was no longer just that “of Theseus.” Athens certainly had its share of ups and down, but it remained a vibrant city, its people always resilient, its culture captivating the Romans, and commanding respect in the Greek world and in Rome. Hellenistic Athens therefore still shines, just not in the same way as the Classical city.

Professor Ian Worthington | MQ Research Profile