Greeks and Non-Greeks in the Hellenistic World

Any discussion of Hellenistic social history must begin with one fact. The lives of the vast majority of people--Greek and non-Greek alike--changed little, since the low productivity of the ancient economy as a whole meant that the bulk of the population continued to live in rural areas as subsistence farmers. Nevertheless, it is also clear that the conquests of Alexander brought expanded opportunities for many Greeks in Europe and Asia Minor. Economic opportunity and the variety of available social roles increased significantly, particularly in the colonial cities of Egypt and the Near East.

Not surprisingly, opportunities were greatest for the male members of the Greek elite. The wealth and influence exercised by the officials of the Macedonian kings and their supporters in the Greek cities are well documented in inscriptions and papyri. Less glamorous but equally real and more numerous were the opportunities created by the kings' incessant need for Greeks to serve in their armies and to fill the multitude of minor but potentially lucrative administrative jobs required to govern their kingdoms. Opportunities expanded for women also in the Hellenistic period.

As in the case of men, these opportunities were greatest for women of wealth. The great queens such as Arsinoe II and Cleopatra VII of Egypt are most prominent in the ancient sources, but even some Greek cities allowed women to hold minor public offices in return for their willingness to use their wealth for civic purposes. Education also created opportunities for some women, including both upper-class intellectuals such as the Cynic philosopher Hipparchia and women from more modest backgrounds such as the professional musician Polygnota of Thebes, whose career is documented in a series of inscriptions from Delphi.

Most historians believe, however, that the price paid for these new opportunities was high. In their view, that price included not only the loss of independence but also the death of the polis itself, that uniquely Greek form of city that had given birth to the great cultural achievements of the Classical period. Nor is this a modern opinion. Greeks of the Hellenistic and Roman periods never tired of looking back with nostalgia to the glories of Archaic and Classical Greece and urging their contemporaries to return to the ways of their glorious ancestors.

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