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Definition: Hellenism from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1609) 1 : grecism 1 2 : devotion to or imitation of ancient Greek thought, customs, or styles 3 : Greek civilization esp. as modified in the Hellenistic period by influences from southwestern Asia 4 : a body of humanistic and classical ideals associated with ancient Greece and including reason, the pursuit of knowledge and the arts, moderation, civic responsibility, and bodily development

Summary Article: Hellenism
from The World of Ancient Rome: A Daily Life Encyclopedia

Hellenism, the ideas of Greek culture and society brought to non-Greeks after Alexander the Great, made inroads into Rome during the third century bce, which transformed Rome's society and culture from purely Italian to Greco-Mediterranean. While Greek influence that had already made inroads into Rome during the fifth and fourth centuries bce centered mainly on religion and art, it was not until the late third and early second centuries, especially after the war with Hannibal, that Greek culture or Hellenism took a firm hold. Rome received some of its early religious ideas, moving away from Italian numina or spirits to the anthropomorphic Greek gods/goddesses, mainly via the southern Greeks accompanied by their temple design. For example, the Romans imported the worship of Aesculapius (Greek Asklepios), the god of healing, in 293 bce during a pestilence. The Romans received Greek influence initially through trade, as witnessed from the great volume of Greek pottery and art discovered in Italy, through the southern Greek colonies in Sicily and southern Italy. Greek literature was also imported through the south.

The influx of Hellenism increased during the period after the First Punic War and especially during and after the war with Hannibal. During this time the Romans established festivals both to Dis and Proserpina in 249 and 207 bce, during the times of war. According to Polybius, it was after Rome had sacked and taken Syracuse (Sicily) in 212 bce and after Rome defeated Philip V of Macedon in the next few decades that Greek art became desired. Not only did Rome carry off pieces of art, especially sculpture and paintings, but they also brought back to Rome and Italy a large number of slaves and hostages (like Polybius). With its new-found wealth, coinage, slaves, and art, Roman elites began to compete with one another to show off their new luxury. Conquering generals used their booty and the slaves they brought back to build temples, public buildings, and other amenities for the capital and cities of Italy. Many of these structures were adorned with artwork taken from the conquered cities.

Statue of Laocoon and sons, Vatican, Rome, Italy, first century ce. The influence of Greece is often best seen in art, such as this statue, which is a Roman copy of a common Greek theme concerning Laocoon and his sons who were killed by a serpent when he warned the Trojans of the Greeks. The Romans during the Republic brought back Greek art, treasures, and literature.


The greatest influence of Hellenism occurred in the educational growth in Italy using the Greek model. Traditional Roman upper-class education originally developed around the father and his friends teaching their sons the mores and beliefs of the family and the state. This early education was followed by military service starting at the age of 17, when the sons not only understood their duty to the state but also learned the arts of war and politics. The Classical Greeks, however, had a different type of education, built around the study of the arts, first through literature, then rhetoric, and finally philosophy. Roman generals, the elites, wanted their sons to understand the world beyond them since they had now been thrust into its leadership position.

Aemilius Paullus who defeated Macedon and returned home in 167 bce with great wealth, especially slaves, provided his sons with Greek tutors and even the Macedonian Royal Library. One of their tutors was the hostage Polybius who wrote the history of Rome's war with Hannibal. It would take about a century for this educational system to take hold and yield the influence of studying rhetoric, where logic was used in the structure of arguments in Latin literature. This in turn influenced Roman authors giving them more logical and structured rhetoric to turn their poetry and prose into more than mere catalogues of information that had previously existed. Nevertheless, Hellenism became a driving force in the upper-class education in Rome.

Part of Hellenism was the experience of Romans traveling abroad. At first this came in the form of military service during which generals and soldiers conquered the east. More important was the later concept where Roman elites sent their sons to Athens and Rhodes in the second and first centuries to complete their education, undertaking the serious study of rhetoric and philosophy. Roman merchants also often sent their sons not only to Greece but also to Asia Minor and Alexandria, where they often studied in the state-run educational system. Roman elites seem to have viewed Alexandria with suspicion early on and it was only after Julius Caesar did Romans send elites to Alexandria for training. By the end of the first century bce Rome had now surpassed the Greek east as the capital of culture, although it was still fashionable for Roman aristocrats to send their sons to Athens to complete their education often like modern American families sending their children to other countries in study abroad programs.

While it may seem that Rome openly embraced Hellenism, this was not always the case. Early in the second century bce, Cato the Elder, an opponent of Scipio Africanus (conqueror of Hannibal) viewed men like Scipio as betraying their cultural heritage by adopting Greek manners and culture. Cato attempted to get Hellenism outlawed, and when that did not work, to heavily tax Greek products seen as luxurious and non-Roman. Cato argued, somewhat hypocritically, of the high price of Greek slaves, exotic foods, adorning ones house with statutes, and learning Greek philosophy and language. Cato, however, in his writings and his building program as censor often ignored his own ideas.

Hellenism was also occasionally seen as akin to Oriental ideology, one with fanaticism and magic. For example, Greek medicine was not readily accepted as some viewed it as magic. The rise of popular leaders such as Scipio, Paullus, Sulla, and Caesar also gave rise of criticism of their attempt to set up an eastern-style monarchy, similar to that of Seleucids of Syria and the Ptolemies of Egypt. The criticism attempted to link Greek culture with politics; it would take the astute Octavian (Augustus) to realize that highlighting Roman political culture was the most important fact and that Greek artistic culture was secondary.

The importance of Hellenism is that Greek culture was transmitted to the west through Rome. The Romans absorbed Greek culture and transformed it into their own ideas. While initially the Greek cultural artifacts of art, literature, and exotic lifestyle seemingly dominated, by the end of the first century bce, Roman culture had successfully transformed Hellenism into Romanism, a merger of traditional Roman ideas with Greek influence. This in turn allowed for the extension of Hellenism through Romanism into the west, where this fused Romano-Greek culture joined with local indigenous culture to create provincial Romanism.

See also Arts: Jewish Literature; Portraiture; Fashion and Appearance: Greek Dress; Hair Styles; Food and Drink: Banquets; Dinner Party; Trade Routes

Further Reading
  • Austin, Michel M. The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, 1981.
  • Walbank, F. W. The Hellenistic World. Harvard University Press Cambridge MA, 1993.
  • Waterloo Institute for Hellenistic Studies. Accessed March 5, 2014.
  • Copyright © 2015 James W. Ermatinger

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