Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Intellectual Pursuits of the Hellenistic Age

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Throughout the Hellenistic period (323–31 B.C.), Athens remained the leading center for the study of philosophy, fostering several famous philosophical schools (1993.342). The first to be established in the first half of the fourth century B.C. were Plato's Academy, and Aristotle's Peripatos, a place for walking, built on the site of a grove sacred to Apollo Lykeios. In the second half of the fourth century B.C., Zeno of Citium (335–263 B.C.) established his Stoic school of philosophy, named for his teaching platform, the stoa, or arcade, in the Athenian Agora. Around the same time, Epikouros (341–270 B.C.) developed his philosophical school, the Kepos, named after the garden in Athens where he taught (11.90). The schools, as some of their names imply, were less buildings than collections of people sharing a similar philosophy of life (10.231.1). They were devoted to gaining and imparting knowledge. The Cynics were another philosophical group that had no meeting place. Rather, they roamed the streets and public places of Athens.


In addition to philosophy, students engaged in rhetoric (the art of public speaking), mathematics, physics, botany, zoology, religion, music, politics, economics, and psychology.

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The two schools of thought that dominated Hellenistic philosophy were Stoicism, as introduced by Zeno of Citium, and the writings of Epikouros. Stoicism, which was also greatly enriched and modified by Zeno's successors, notably Chrysippos (ca. 280–207 B.C.), divided philosophy into logic, physics, and ethics. Epikouros, on the other hand, placed great emphasis on the individual and the attainment of happiness. The Athenian schools of philosophy were truly cosmopolitan institutions. Teachers and students from all over Greece and Rome came to study. In addition to philosophy, students engaged in rhetoric (the art of public speaking), mathematics, physics, botany, zoology, religion, music, politics, economics, and psychology.

Elsewhere in the Hellenistic world, rulers of the Macedonian court at Pella and the Seleucid dynasty at Antioch supported the pursuit of knowledge as benefactors of intellectuals. In many ways, this kind of patronage developed first at Alexandria, Egypt, where Ptolemaic kings created a renowned intellectual center during the early Hellenistic period. Prominent philosophers, writers, and other scholars studied at the Alexandrian Library and Mouseion, an institute of learning that is the root of the modern word museum. Here, scholars copied and codified earlier works, such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (09.182.50). They wrote commentaries, compilations, and even encyclopedias. They also enjoyed access to one another and, most likely, were fed and housed at the king's expense. In the latter part of the third century B.C., the Attalid kings of Pergamon emulated the Ptolemaic dynasts by building their own library, which attracted artists and intellectuals away from Athens and Alexandria to their royal court.

The Hellenistic period was a golden age of Greek poetry, whose practitioners easily measured up to the great lyric poets of the Greek Archaic and Classical periods (09.221.4). Literature also flourished. One writer, Kallimachos of Cyrene, is credited with more than 800 books! Although relatively little Hellenistic literature survives, much can be gleaned from Roman literature, which was significantly influenced by the Greek writers. Generally speaking, drama was less popular in the Hellenistic period than in Classical times, although Menander (344–292 B.C.), a comic writer from Athens, was a prolific exception. His plays embodied new ways of presenting and discussing the life of the individual and the family.

In the Hellenistic period, tremendous strides were made in scientific understanding. Early on, Euclid (ca. 325–250 B.C.) wrote a book of elementary mathematics that was to become the standard textbook for more than 2,000 years. The mathematician Apollonios of Perge (ca. 262–190 B.C.) established the canonical terminology and methodology for conic sections. And Archimedes of Syracuse (ca. 287–211 B.C.), whom many consider the greatest mathematician of antiquity, made important contributions to engineering, including wondrous machines that were used against the Romans at the siege of Syracuse in 212 B.C. Another Hellenistic inventor, Ktesibios of Alexandria (ca. 296–228 B.C.), was the first to devise hydraulic machines, most famous of which are his water clocks.

In the second half of the second century B.C., the astronomer Hipparchus (ca. 190–120 B.C.) transformed Greek mathematical astronomy from a descriptive to a predictive science. His work provided the foundation for Ptolemy of Alexandria's thirteen-volume systematic treatise on astronomy, which was published in the middle of the second century A.D.

Colette Hemingway
Independent Scholar

Seán Hemingway
Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art