The colonial situation in which Greeks in the Macedonian kingdoms found themselves gave Greek culture in the Hellenistic East a different character and significance than it had in the poleis of old Greece, where Greek culture was the traditional heritage. No common bond of history united the heterogeneous citizens of Alexandria or the other cities and settlements of the East, or informed their culture with shared values and meaning. For them, Greek culture was a cherished badge of status, proof that one belonged to the privileged class, and as such it was eagerly sought by Greeks and ambitious non-Greeks alike.
From the Mediterranean to the borders of India, Greek culture was dominant and a traveler could expect to find in the new cities, just as in the old, many of the familiar institutions of Greek life. Not only was city life similar over this vast area but so also was much of cultural life. Everywhere Greek was the language of government and culture so that one could travel from Greece to India without fear of being misunderstood. Greek and Hellenized intellectuals shared a common reverence inculcated by their teachers for the works of the great authors of the Archaic and Classical periods whom they viewed as models of perfection that could never again be equaled, let alone surpassed. In their own works, Hellenistic intellectuals affirmed their status as Greeks and their role as upholders of the Greek tradition by studding their writings with learned allusions to the masterpieces of the past. The same purposefulness is evident in the use made of the Greek tradition in the visual arts. Thus, the reliefs of the great altar of Pergamum built by Eumenes II (197-160 B.C.) to commemorate his victories over the Galatians seem at first sight alien to the serenity of classical sculpture with their powerful straining and emotionally expressive figures. In actuality, the reliefs echo in their overall composition and detail the pedimental sculptures of that most classical of Greek monuments, the Parthenon, in the same way that Hellenistic poets alluded to their classical models. Through its stylistic and thematic links to one of the most hallowed monuments of the Greek past, the altar powerfully affirms both the Greekness of Eumenes and his dynasty.
Education helped to reinforce the diffusion and dominance of Greek culture in the Hellenistic world. As Greek culture became more closely associated with the written rather than the spoken word, instruction tended to focus on a few great books, most notably the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, and emphasized memorization and the imitation of stylistic models over independent creation. Artists and writers, who, like soldiers, tended more and more to be professionals, wandered far from their homes in search of patrons and commissions and carried their views with them, thereby imposing a superficial uniformity on the cultural life of the Greek and Hellenized elites of the Hellenistic world. In a similar way, the new cities, with their institutions modeled on those of cities of old Greece, helped to impart a Greek tone to the social and political life of the East.
However, intellectual life in the Hellenistic world was uniform only on the surface. Even cursory study reveals significant differences between the culture of Aegean Greece and that of the new kingdoms of Asia and Egypt. Many factors were responsible for these differences, but the most important was the fundamental difference in the history of the areas. Greek culture was at home in the cities of Europe and the Aegean basin. In these cities writers and artists had at their disposal the whole repertoire of themes and motifs provided by a tradition with centuries of historical development behind it. Writers and artists in Asia did not share this tradition. In old Greece, the local dialects and traditional cults and festivals flourished throughout the Hellenistic period and beyond. In addition, major new festivals were founded, such as that of Artemis Leucophryene at Magnesia on the Maeander in western Asia Minor. Elsewhere in Greece old festivals gained new splendor and prestige, such as that of the healing god Asclepius, whose temple at Epidaurus in the northeast Peloponnesus attracted sufferers in search of a miraculous cure from all over the Greek world. Most important of all, the intimate connection between the polis and culture that had characterized Archaic and Classical Greece remained intact throughout the Hellenistic period and is readily apparent in the works of the writers and thinkers of European Greece.