What is the Hellenistic Period?
The Hellenistic period, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the period of time between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE (pictured below) and the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. This is a complex and nuanced period of time, with a previously unseen exchange of ideas, peoples and goods between the kingdoms of the Mediterranean. Rather than write a grueling chapter, I will say a few things briefly for now, and jump into this period more as I go along.
Fundamental to understanding why there were kings, and other powerful men and women building monuments and civic buildings in Greece, specifically in Athens, is discussing how benefaction worked in the ancient world. Hellenistic kings sought to be perceived by their Greek subjects as benefactors of their cities, for which Greek citizens gave them honours. This reciprocal transaction of inscriptions and proclamations of honours for benefactions, or more symbolic rewards, established the legitimacy that the kings needed, and in turn continued the cultural autonomy of the Greek citizens.
In tangible terms, this could take the form of a king, say Eumenes II of Pergamon, building a massive stoa (covered walkway/shopping arcade) for the leisure and enjoyment of Athenians. Eumenes II, in return, is possibly given an inscription and official proclamation that his patronage of Athens is appreciated, and they acknowledge him as a powerful ally and friend of the Greeks. Seems like an uneven exchange, does it not?
A defining feature of the period was the ongoing warfare and rivalry between the Hellenistic kings. Their kingdoms were composed of the partitioning of Alexander the Great’s spear-won territories. The problem that these generals of Alexander faced was that they were not princes or kings in their own right. Sure, they could claim a connection to the famous world conqueror and construct their reputation and dynasties, but there was nothing inherent in being a descendant of a Macedonian general that would necessarily dissuade the Greeks to revolt against them.
In fact, quite the opposite. The Greeks had fought against the encroaching Macedonian power as it had grown following the end of the Peloponnesian wars in 430 BCE. Even Alexander and his father, Phillip II, had to walk a fine line on occasion when dealing with the Greeks. The relationship of benefaction, illustrated by the stoas, on the surface appears as other empires doing homage to Athens, forms part of an intersection between the idea of Greek independence and the reality of their domination by the Macedonians and later Romans. The careful negotiation of power between the new rulers and their subjects was facilitated by the perception of mutual benefit.
Stoa of Eumenes
Eumenes II (who ruled from 197 – 159 BCE.) had a contentious reign, with plots against his life (as was typical). At one point, a rumor spread about his untimely death, and his brother Attalos II, was hailed as king of Pergamon and married his brothers widow. Once the truth was revealed that Eumenes was still alive, rather than causing a civil war, Attalos abdicated and returned his new wife back to his borther. Amazingly, they carried on as before until Eumenes’ eventual death when his brother once more took the reigns of empire, married his brothers widow again, and held up his promise to pass on the kingdom to his brother’s son upon his death. This could be the least toxic Hellenistic dynasty in history.
Built on the south slope of the Acropolis, between the Theatre of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, this stoa was a decadent promenade and one of the most costly benefactions which the Athenians received from a king of Pergamon. It is likely this stoa was designed by the same architect as that of Attalos II.
As in all things, location is key. The stoa served the Athenians going to the theatre, as a respite from the sun.
Stoa of Attalos
Attalos II of Pergamon (rule from 159 – 138 BCE.), who commissioned its construction, was the inheritor to the Attalid dynasty. Remember all that preamble about the reciprocal behavior of Hellenistic kings? To understand why half of the buildings and statues that we see in Athens are even there, you have to understand why non-Greeks spent the money and time to put them there. The Atallids were building their empire from the collapse of the Lysimachian empire. Where Lysmachus’ empire had created legitimacy in the wake and division of Alexander the Greats’ conquered lands through aggressive military exploits, marrying royal heirs and alliances with the other successor kings, once his territories were conquered, what remained was divided.
The Attalid dynasts needed to create some quick and culturally relevant links to power to legitmise their rule. The centre of their power base was the great Turkish city of Pergamon.
Built between 159 – 138 BCE., the stoa of Attalos II was a high end shopping centre. The two-storied collonaded stoa has two architectural orders: the ‘Doric order’ was used for the exterior colonnade, and the ‘Ionic order’ was used for the interior colonnade. As with other Hellensitic building projects of the time, the stoa was a very large and elaborate – a statement piece.
Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus
Considered to be the first theatre in the world, it was used to honour the god of wine, revelry and theatre, Dionysus. Prior to anyone getting on with the show, a jaunty sacrifice of a bull was needed to kick off proceedings and purify the theatre. The festival of the Dionysia was celebrated here, with some of the biggest names in Classical literature of the age: Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Aeschylus.
That is incredible to me is that you can actually stand in the spot where some of the most famous plays in literature were performed, in the shadow of the Acropolis. Tradition has it that the first tragedy was performed at the Dionysia by actor-playwright Thespis (Thespis- thespian…see what they did there?) in the early 530s BCE.There were several phases of the Theatre of Dionysus, commencing with wooden seating in the 6th century BCE. The theatre is currently in pretty rough shape, though reconstruction work was completed between 2009 – 2015. The main problem, as with most buildings from antiquity, was that much of the stone was pilfered and used in other buildings nearby, or possibly carried off to be burned down in lime kilns.
The Theatre of Dionysus held significance for the Athenians’ sense of identity and history. The famous plays, still studied by students today, were a popular feature on this stage, even several hundred years after the initial opening night.
The presence of the past was notable, even during the Roman period of control over Athens, and this theatre is an interesting case study of a ‘classical nostalgia’ which everyone since the Romans has been guilty of when considering Athens. It has been suggested by scholars that the dearth of new material in the Hellenistic and Roman period in Athens, coupled with the frequent re-staging of the greats by Aechylus and Euripides, can be interpreted as savvy business decisions by elites to invest money in revivals of Athenian theatre for which benefactors could be certain of quality and popular acclaim. Rather than making the riskier financial decision to invest in the support of new plays, which perhaps cut too closely to home (really reflecting the loss of autonomy felt by Greeks), instead the attention was focused on a golden age where their independence was trumpeted and powerful.
The Monument of Lysikrates
Built around 333/334 BCE, this interesting dedicatory monument speaks to a time which is perhaps difficult for us in the modern era to imagine. A time when, wealthy patrons could put on an impressive show for the citizens of Athens, and through their sponsorship of plays, compete against other wealthy elites for honours. Awarded to the choregos, who was responsible for the training and sponsoring of the chorus in dramatic contests held in the Dinonysia, this is the only existing example of remaining in Athens today. Sculptures like this, would have been crowned with a bronze tripod which no longer survives. The limestone podium is topped with a cylindrical tholos of Pentelic marble, and six Corinthian columns which are topped by eight acanthus leaves.
Apparently, the Corinthian capital was used for the first time on the exterior of decorative structure or building. It would not be until three hundred years later until the Corinthian ‘order’ became a recurring order in Rome. This type of column capital would go on to become the preeminent Roman capital type. The change of the governance of the Mediterranean would shift, favouring the rising strength of Italy. The Roman period of Athens follows similar pathways towards controlling Greeks through benefactions
and building projects.
The perception and goodwill of the public would be an ongoing preoccupation of the elites and leaders in Greece and Italy moving forward.
2 thoughts on “8. Hellenistic Athens: A Period of Growth and Benefaction”
I would really love to visit this area someday…wow
It is really beautiful, and hard to do justice to the incredible history which informs the art and archaeology so much! I hope you do get the chance to visit!