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Alexander the Great’s Ideal of World Unity

Alexander the Great
The ancient Greek ideal of World Unity appears in Alexander the Great’s conquests, who aimed to unite the world through Hellenization. Credit: Alexander Gale / Greek Reporter

The ancient Greek ideal of world unity is manifested in the conquests of Alexander the Great and the expansion of his great empire, aiming to Hellenize the world.

The notion that kings were divinely chosen was not limited to Greek mythology alone. Eastern kingdoms shared the same concept between ruler and divinity.

Historically, the polytheistic notion of the connection between the divine and the ruler of a land,  or a tribe, goes back three millennia BC. In ancient Greece, kings were sitting on the throne because they were presumed to have been appointed by the gods or at least had qualities that the gods were believed to favor. It was, more so, ancient people that placed their faith and devotion in their rulers for this reason.

When Alexander the Great entered Babylon after crushing the Persian army and putting an end to the Achaemenid Persian Empire built two centuries earlier by Cyrus the Great, the people of the city welcomed him as a liberator and as a god, not as the man who conquered the city and was about to subjugate them.

Once Alexander became the ruler of Babylon, reaching as far as no other conqueror had before him and establishing the first Hellenic (Greek) Empire, he continued his campaign to capture more land to further expand the empire. His ultimate aim was to unite the world under one emperor—himself.

In today’s terms, Alexander was one of the first imperialists much like Persian King Darius and his son, Xerxes, who unsuccessfully tried to conquer Greece about a hundred and fifty years after him.

The Hellenistic Empire and World Unity

What Alexander brought with him with the conquest of the Middle East and part of Asia was the Greek notions of philosophy, belonging, and unity. It was Panhellenism that brought these notions to the Middle East and Egypt, lands with very different cultures and social  structures.

However, Alexander was aware that he was taking the role of Darius III, the world ruler he had defeated. He was to become the new world ruler. To achieve that, he married a daughter of Darius and a daughter of Artaxerxes III so that his offspring would be the formal heirs of the title of Great King by descent through two branches of the Achaemenid dynasty. In doing so, he would be the first Hellenistic world ruler.

Under Alexander’s rule, the Middle Eastern royal ideology slowly vanished giving way to Greek forms of education, city rule, judicial systems, and the arts. Societies became better ordered and civilized, leaving behind tyrannical rules.

Greek ideals created cities like the ones in ancient Greece in places like Egypt and the Middle East. Hellenistic Universalism spread far and wide, preparing the ground for the East Roman Empire, or rather, the Byzantine Empire.

Seleucids and Ptolemies

Following Alexander’s rule, the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Empire, established by former generals of Alexander who then became world leaders, spread the idea of a limitless empire. Throughout time, Seleucid leaders assumed the eastern title of Great King, as had Alexander, and the Seleucids took over the Syrian Empire and reformed it.

At least from the time of Antiochus III, they used the Hellenistic translation of Great King, Megas Basileus. The empire stretched from Thrace in Europe to the border of India.

The dynasty controlled Anatolia and its Greek cities and exerted political, economic, and cultural power throughout the Middle East. They dominated commerce and trade in the region. Their settlements in Syria were regional centers by which the Seleucid Empire projected its military, economic, and cultural influence.

The Seleucid Empire served as a center of Hellenistic culture, promoting the Greek ideal in customs and manners over the different cultures of the Middle East.

Likewise, the Ptolemies, rivals of the Seleucids over the vast empire built by Alexander the Great, promoted Hellenism in Asia Minor, Ethiopia, Arabia, and mainly Egypt. Ptolemy II Philadelphus insisted upon receiving divine honors, becoming one of the most ardent promoters of the Hellenistic ruler cult and a universal king.

Under Ptolemy II, Alexandria also played a leading role in the arts and sciences. Throughout the whole of the Mediterranean world, the King acquired a reputation for being a generous patron of poets and scholars. During his reign, Hellenistic civilization was at its zenith.

Greek empire left beneficial imprint

The post-Alexander Hellenistic Empires lasted because they incorporated the various cultures of conquered lands into the empire’s political, economic, and ideological framework. With some exceptions, they taught instead of enforcing.

Unlike other empires that collapsed after the phase of conquest, the Hellenistic Empires were viewed in a positive way in the lands where they ruled, and they also left a lasting and beneficial imprint. They were also inclined to adapt themselves to local customs if the locals did not assimilate rather than impose an alien form of tyranny on their subjects.

The Ptolemies adapted and became Pharaohs in Egypt but not in Athens. They also favored Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris, the pendants of their principal royal gods Aphrodite and Dionysus.

The basic ideology of the conquering Greeks was to incorporate the subjects of the empire into the the Hellenic framework. To a great extent, the world unity ideal was achieved. Even when the Hellenistic Empire succumbed to the Romans, the new rulers incorporated the Hellenistic ideals into their own culture to the point of being excellent copyists in many areas.

Gradually, the great Roman Empire that followed split into the West and East Roman Empires, and the East Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire only a few centuries later.

What remained the same was that the later rulers of the Christian Romano-Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Arab empires cherished the ideal of a united world under one god and one ruler.

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