Theo Zagorakis, George Michael, Anna Vissi, Despina Vandi. These are all household names in the Greek world and a testament to Modern Greek popular culture. Seleucus Nicator, Attalus Philadelphus, Ptolemy Epiphanes, Demetrius Poliorcetes. These are certainly not household names in the Greek world. Yet they were once rulers of the various Hellenistic Kingdoms that emerged after the death of Alexander the Great in 323BC and in those days, these leaders were certainly known throughout the world.
I would like to present to you, the reader, an overview of the Greek kingdoms that flourished before the conquest of the Roman Empire. These were great kingdoms that were also indicative of the nature of Greeks. They were “great” in the sense that they continued the work of Alexander the Great in combining Greek culture with local customs across the Eastern world from, Libya through to India, and it was due to these kingdoms that the Greek language continued to be the lingua franca of the known world. The Greek culture and language continued past Roman occupation and into the Byzantine Empire (the medieval Greek Empire). Sadly, these kingdoms displayed the typical Greek trademark, civil war and external strife with, yes you guessed it, other Greek kingdoms, a constant theme throughout Greek history.
At the time of his death, Alexander the Great had created a vast empire across the eastern world. He established 33 Greek settlements and he was brilliant at fusing local culture with that of the Hellenes. However, only Alexander the Great would have been capable of maintaining such an empire and upon his death, his generals, the Diadochi, which meant successors in Greek, divided the empire between themselves. After a series of wars over the next few decades, the spoils went to the following victors: Ptolemy took Egypt founding the Ptolemaic dynasty ruling from Alexandria (305BC), Antigonus established the Antogonid dynasty in Greece from Macedonia (306BC), Seleucus established the Seleucid dynasty in Syria and Mesopotamia (305BC), Philetaerus established the Attalid dynasty in Pergamon, in Asia Minor (282BC).
Each of these Kingdoms perpetuated the Hellenistic culture and language of Greece. It is interesting to note, that whilst these territories were not all in Greece proper, Hellenic culture flourished, more so than in the “homeland.” Significantly, the rulers of these kingdoms were Greek and generally struggled to learn native languages. For example, the only ruler to fluently speak the native dialect of Egypt was Cleopatra, the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. Before the reader says, “wasn’t Cleopatra an Egyptian,” it is worth noting that that at no stage did the Ptolemies marry outside of their clan and all of them spoke Greek as their language.
The Ptolemies are arguably the most famous of all the Hellenistic dynasties. Ptolemy charged himself with the responsibility of looking after Alexander’s body as well as strengthening the newly established Greek cities of Egypt. Ptolemy ensured that the military only contained Greek troops and he increased his empire to include Palestine and Cyprus whilst his successors ventured into Asia Minor and also took control of the Greek cities of the Cyrene in Libya. The Ptolemies were patrons of the arts and sciences, which flourished throughout the empire. All the male rulers of the dynasty were named Ptolemy and the women were generally called Arsinoe, Berenice and Cleopatra. The seventh and last Cleopatra in the dynasty, which is a Greek Macedonian name, committed suicide resulting in the formal annexation of Egypt as a Roman province in 30BC. The language of the Greeks continued to be widely spoken and was greatly strengthened by the conquest of the Greeks of the Byzantine Empire in the 500’s until the late 600’s. Today, there are many Greeks who still live in Egypt, especially in Alexandria and an estimated 7% of the population is Coptic Orthodox, a result of the Byzantine Empire’s 150 year reign in the country.
Antigonus was another general and he initially obtained only a few regions in Asia Minor before being defeated in a battle for Alexander’s kingdoms by the other Diadochi in the Battle of Ipsus in 301BC. However, his successors eventually gained control of Greece and the dynasty would survive until 146BC. A number of wars with city-states such as Sparta and against Pyrhus of Epirus weakened the kingdom. Thus by the time the Roman Empire came into conflict with the Antigonid dynasty they were easily subdued and became the Roman province of Macedonia. The Roman Empire absorbed the Greek culture and unlike their other provinces, afforded Greece its due respect. Interestingly, Sparta was never officially occupied by the Romans.
The Attalid dynasty based in Pergamon in Asia Minor sprang to life after the death of the general Lysimachus in 281BC. Lysimachus held territory in that region after Alexander the Great’s death, but eventually met his death in a war with the Greeks of Seleucus. An interesting story emerged from his defeat, whereby the dog of Lysimachus watched over his master’s body for many days, not letting anyone claim it. Philetarus, an officer in Lysimachus’ military had earlier taken control of Pergamon in 282BC. The Attalids then expanded their empire in Asia Minor and claimed to be descendents of Telephos, the son of Herakles. Pergamon was a great city in its time and is worth a visit in today’s modern Turkey. The Kingdom was bequeathed to Rome in 133BC by Attalus.
The Seleucid Empire was certainly one of the greatest in history. At its peak the territory included Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Turkmenistan and the Indus Valley. The contribution of the Seleucids to history can not be underestimated for they truly implemented Alexander’s multi-cultural policy and encouraged trade from as far a field as India through to Greece. Seleucus and his successors established a number of Greek settlements in Asia with former Greek soldiers and traders, the greatest of these cities was Antioch. In fact, more settlements were established in the East than Alexander could ever have imagined and like the other Greek kingdoms, the Greek language was dominant, out lasting the Empire by hundreds of years. As to be expected by typical Greeks, the Seleucids were involved in many wars with fellow Greeks and by 60BC the Empire was finally defeated by the Romans. There are various places in former Seleucid territory where Greek speakers can still be found.
Other Hellenic Kingdoms that emerged well after the death of Alexander the Great, include the Pontians and the Greeks of India (yes, you heard me, the Greeks of INDIA). Pontian history is one of the great stories of Greek history. The richness and depth of their culture is still evident today and I always find it amazing that in Athens there as so many jokes about the Pontians, yet it was the brave Pontians who have maintained their culture and connection with ancient Greece much better that the Athenians could ever aspire to (this is a criticism and a story for another day). The Pontian Kingdom was founded in 301BC in Asia Minor on the Black Sea by Mithradates. Its greatest king was another Mithradates who ruled from 120BC expanding his territory across the Black Sea. After defeating the Greeks of Bithynia he fought a series of wars with the greatest of Roman generals, including Sulla, Marius and Pompey. Had he lived longer he would certainly have met Caesar in battle, alas he was defeated by Pompey in 63BC and his kingdom was absorbed by the Roman province of Cappodocia. The Pontians were later prominent in the Byzantine military and the last independent Greek Kingdom, the Empire of Trebizond which fell to the Ottomans in 1461 AD. Today, it is estimated that there are 1 million Pontians living in Black Sea countries and in Greece.
The Indo-Greek kingdom in the far east is arguably the most fascinating and interesting of all the Hellenistic Kingdoms. The kingdom emerged from the Greek Bactrian kingdom in Afghanistan. The Greeks of Bactria fought each other until the kingdom finally ceased to exist. However in India by about 100BC a Greek kingdom emerged whilst the most important Indo-Greek king was Menander, known as Milinda by the locals. He converted to Buddhism and encouraged the arts and sciences, resulting in a very unique style that is still evident in India today. The Indo-Greek kingdom survived until 20AD and there is a town of 4000 that believe themselves to be their descendents. This town has been the subject of documentaries and receives support from Athens. The Indo-Greek Kingdom was the last of the Hellenistic Kingdoms and a testament to Alexander the Great’s vision to bring the Greek culture to the world.