1. Political History


Barker, Ernest. From Alexander to Constantine. Oxford, 1956.

Peters, F. E. The Harvest of Hellenism: A History of the Near East from Alexander the Great to the Triumph of Christianity. London, 1972.

Boardman, John, ed. The Oxford History of the Classical World. Oxford, 1986.


The time span for the study of the Hellenistic-Roman backgrounds of early Christianity is broadly from 330 b.c. to a.d. 330, from Alexander to Constantine. The Greek element predominated in political influence from 330 to 30 b.c., from Alexander to Augustus; hence it is known as the Hellenistic Age. Rome ruled the Mediterranean world from 30 b.c. onward, the interest here being from Augustus to Constantine. Each of these two major periods can be subdivided culturally into two parts, with breaks, in a round date, at 200 b.c. and a.d. 200. For the first century and a half of the Greek period, the Greek culture was creative and expansive, penetrating the eastern Mediterranean as the dominant influence. After about 200 b.c. the native cultures of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Asia began to reassert themselves and the Greek element began to retreat. The Roman influence was expansive for the first two centuries of the Roman empire, preserving Hellenistic culture in the Near East. The climax of Roman administration came in the second century a.d. Thereafter the Roman world was plagued with internal economic problems and external pressure from barbarian peoples on the frontiers, bringing on a severe crisis in the third century. The empire was saved by the soldier emperors from Illyria and received a new lease on life after the reform under Diocletian and reconstruction under Constantine.

The sources we will draw from are not, however, limited to this time span. The starting points for Greek religion and philosophy fall earlier than 330 b.c. There is a cultural continuity within Greco-Roman times that justifies drawing upon information over so many centuries. Nevertheless, one must be careful about chronology and not assume, unless with good reasons, that an idea or practice only attested at a later date did exist at an earlier time. The focus of this book will be the first century b.c. and the first two centuries a.d. In order to achieve a proper focus on those centuries surrounding the beginning of the Christian era, we must consider a wider background, both before and after this period.

Near East before Alexander

Persian Empire

The connection between Old Testament history and Hellenistic history is provided by the Persian empire.

Cyrus (538-529) was king of Anshan and vassal of Media from about 550. After a successful rebellion he gained control of the Median empire and founded the Achaemenid dynasty. In 539 he took Babylon and from 538 dated his years as "king of Babylon and king of the countries." Reversing the policy of earlier conquerors in the Near East, the Persians permitted conquered peoples to maintain their cultures in their homelands. Accordingly, Cyrus allowed the Jews in Babylon to return to Judea and rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-4; 2 Chron. 36:22-23; see p. 400). The Persian empire was the first in the Near East with a great degree of tolerance and decentralization of government.

Cambyses (529-522) enlarged the empire in 525 by doing what few have accomplished, conquering Egypt.

Darius (522-486) was the real organizer and consolidator of the Achaemenid empire. He ruled long enough to give stability and a consistent administrative policy to the extensive domains that by the time of his successor stretched "from India to Ethiopia" (Esth. 1:1), the largest empire in the Middle East up to his time.

Xerxes (485-465) was the Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther. He had to subjugate Egypt again and invaded Greece in 480-479 (about which more below).

Artaxerxes (464-424) was the king under whom Nehemiah served as cupbearer. His long reign foreshadowed the future in being filled with struggles against Greeks, Syrians, and Egyptians.

The last five rulers saw a progressive disintegration of the Persian empire. We may recall one event of this last century of the Achaemenid empire—the expedition of the eleven thousand Greeks whose exploits in 401-399 were told by Xenophon in the Anabasis. The Greeks were hired as mercenaries by Cyrus the Younger to overthrow Artaxerxes II (404-358). Cyrus's army won the battle but lost its leader. With Cyrus dead the Greek mercenaries had no more reason to be in Persia and through many hardships marched back home. Xenophon, a journalist who was elected general by the troops, told their story in such a memorable way that the Greeks became aware of the internal weaknesses of the power they had feared for so long. Hopes began to be aroused that Persia could be conquered. That story, however, must follow a look at fifth-century Greece.


Although the Persian empire combined a minimum use of force with a maximum of respect for local customs, the universal law "thou shalt pay taxes" was still in force. The Greek cities of Ionia revolted against Persia, and Athens sent ships to help. The Greeks burned Sardis. Meanwhile the Persians under Darius took Thrace and undertook a punitive expedition to Marathon. The Athenian victory at Marathon under Miltiades in 490 b.c. led the Persians to plan a major expedition. The big Persian invasion under the great king Xerxes came in 480. Themistocles, with the help of his interpretation of the oracle from Delphi that "Zeus would give a wooden wall" for the protection of the Athenians, persuaded the Athenians to put their confidence in a navy. The Persian advance was slowed by the valiant Spartan resistance under their king Leonidas at the pass of Thermopylae, but the Persians swept on, confirming the views of those Greeks who had argued for accepting the inevitable and yielding to Persia. The Athenian Acropolis was burned, as most of the Greek troops waited on ships in the bay of Salamis. The Athenian navy won the decisive battle in the narrow straits between the island of Salamis and the mainland. The Persian defeat was made complete in the land battle at Plataea in 479. The victory was accomplished by the Greek alliance pulling together for one and one-half years—no mean accomplishment for any alliance among the independent-minded Greek city-states. Herodotus, "the father of history," tells the story; in general he is reliable except for his numbers.

The defeat of Persia had far-reaching implications. There was pious gratitude to the gods. There was a tremendous increase of energy and the opportunities to release it in the rebuilding that the destruction of the war necessitated. Greek monumental sculpture in the fifth century was dominated by the theme of the Persian wars, interpreted symbolically as the victory of civilization over barbarism.

Athens took the decisive lead among the Greek cities. Although Sparta was strong with a disciplined army, the need to keep watch on a large number of serfs (helots) limited her involvement in foreign affairs. Athens with her navy began the "liberation" of the Greek cities held by Persia. The Athenian alliance became in fact the Athenian empire, and great wealth and power came to Athens. The fifth century thus became a strange, new time. It is remembered as the classical period of the Athenian democracy. The middle of the century is sometimes called the Age of Pericles, because he was the leading political figure and the embodiment of the new activity. Seldom has so much genius in so many areas of human activity been concentrated in one place in such a short period of time. This period marked the beginning of the Greek culture capable both of becoming a vehicle of thought and of being exported to other peoples. Especially notable was the educational revolution, which took place unseen, and is associated with the rise of the Sophists (see pp. 326ff.).

A new view of humanity appeared among Greek thinkers of the fifth century—they became conscious of human beings as human. The Sophist Protagoras best expressed this thought as "The measure of all things is man." If we may generalize this statement outside its context, it expresses what we may regard as the distinguishing characteristic of Greek culture. In Homer human beings had appeared as individuals, as victims of fate and facing death. In classical thought human beings overcame fate. The heritage of Greece, therefore, was essentially secular. Yet it was a religious secularism, for one cannot draw a line between the sacred and profane in ancient Greece as sharply as moderns do. There were few public buildings and events in Athens that were not religious. Yet, in keeping with the emphasis on man, the ideals of life were health, beauty (the Greeks had an uncommonly high regard for the male physique), respectable wealth, and enjoyment of youth with friends.

Social organization in Greece was according to the family, tribe, and city. The polis (city) was an independent state comprising a town and its surrounding country. The individual took turns ruling and being ruled (if the government was an oligarchy, the turns were within a more limited number). By the fourth century the city-state was not working so well, but the Greeks did not want to be united, preferring to fight each other "every baseball season." They were especially fond of competition—in athletics, in literature and music, even among doctors in their diagnoses of patients.

The democrats looked to Athens for leadership, the oligarchs to Sparta. The Athenian alliance, however, amounted to an empire ruled by a city. Theoretically, a city could withdraw from the alliance, but attempts to do so were met with retaliation from Athens. A showdown between Athens and Sparta came in the ruthless civil wars known as the Peloponnesian wars. Sparta's defeat of Athens was sealed in 404. Democracy continued after 403, but there were no more allies to rob from, and Athens settled down to live in greater poverty and misery. Thucydides has left us the story of the Peloponnesian wars. He has less sense of the supernatural than most ancient writers, and his search for historical causation has made him a model historian.

By the time Alexander the Great appeared on the Greek scene in the fourth century two changes had taken place that were to make his conquests significant. One was the intellectual change. No longer were poetry, athletics, and cameolike beauty the leading ideals. Such would have had little appeal to Jews and Egyptians; but now as a result of the Sophists (teachers of public speaking—see pp. 326-27) there was a concern with natural law and the practical sciences of mathematics, medicine, and astronomy. Along with this went another change: an increase in individualism. Aeschylus' epitaph speaks of his part in the Persian wars: "Marathon may tell of his well-proved valor." If he had died one hundred years later, his dramas would have been mentioned, not his civic life.

These changes may be epitomized in Isocrates (436-338 b.c.), an overly clever and long-winded but perceptive Athenian orator. He was a genuine descendant of the Sophists. Being a publicist as well as a teacher, he used the speech form as the vehicle for communicating his ideas; after his time the public lecture had decisive importance in Hellenistic culture and thus in education. He taught a way of life—moral, good, and useful—a humanistic education as opposed to the abstract discipline of philosophy. His school taught not metaphysics but letters and history. The basis for Hellenism was laid in his dictum that education and not birth is what makes the true Greek:

And so far has our city [Athens] distanced the rest of mankind in thought and speech that her pupils have become the teachers of the rest of the world; and she has brought it about that the name "Hellenes" suggests no longer a race but an intelligence, and the title "Hellenes" is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood. (Panegyricus 50, trans. George Norlin in Loeb Classical Library)

Isocrates' own horizons may have been somewhat limited, but his words were an unconscious prophecy that was soon put into practice. In the Hellenistic age the citizen bodies of Greek cities of the Near East were more and more composed not so much of persons of Greek birth as persons of Greek culture (education, lifestyle, and often name). As a result, in Roman times the apostle Paul in writing to the church at Rome could consider the cultural division in humankind to be "Jews and Greeks" or, more comprehensively, Jews, Greeks, and barbarians (Rom. 1:16, 14; cf. Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11), and the Hellenized population of Phoenicia could be called "Greek" (Mark 7:26—culturally, not racially). This situation was the result of a broader diffusion of Greek culture, and before that occurred any religious or philosophical movement would have been regionally or racially limited.

Isocrates made several attempts to get the Greeks to fight Persia and not one another. His last appeal to Philip II of Macedon to unite the Greeks pointed the way by which his observation quoted above was to receive broader realization.


Frye, Richard N. The Heritage of Persia. New York, 1963.

Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. 2 vols. Winona Lake, Ind., 1998.

Fornara, C. W. Archaic Times to the End of the Peloponnesian War. Translated Documents of Greece and Rome, vol. 1. Baltimore, 1977.

Bengston, Hermann. The Greeks and the Persians from the Sixth to the Fourth Centuries. London, 1965.

Botsford, G. W., and C. A. Robinson. Hellenic History. 5th ed. Revised by Donald Kagan. New York, 1969.

Green, Peter. A Concise History of Ancient Greece. London, 1973.

Hammond, N. G. L. The Classical Age of Greece. London, 1975.

Green, Peter. The Greco-Persian Wars. Berkeley, 1996.