According to Greek legend, Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, was the most beautiful woman in the world. As related by the poet Homer in the Iliad, the capture of Helen by Paris, the son of the king of Troy, led to the long Trojan War between the Greeks and the Trojans.

The daughter of the god Zeus and Leda, a human princess, Helen was worshiped in some places as a goddess of trees and birds, although Homer portrays her as human. She was believed to have been hatched from an egg after Zeus visited Leda in the form of a swan. One legend describes how the great leaders of Greece, who all wanted to marry Helen, agreed to protect the life and rights of whoever won her hand in marriage. The wealthy Menelaus won, perhaps helped by the fact that Helen’s sister Clytemnestra was already married to his brother Agamemnon.

Trouble arose a few years later when Paris, the eldest son of Priam, the king of Troy, visited Sparta. In exchange for naming her the most beautiful goddess, Aphrodite had promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife. Paris chose Helen and, with Aphrodite’s help, won her affection. When Menelaus was called away from Sparta, Paris and Helen sailed off to Troy, where they were married. Upon his return, Menelaus found Helen gone and rallied his brother Agamemnon and the other leaders of Greece to his cause—the return of Helen. When the Greeks failed to persuade the Trojans to return Helen, they assembled a great expedition and set sail for Troy. After a long siege*, the Greeks captured Troy. Helen returned to Greece and once again became the wife of Menelaus. (See also Wars and Warfare, Greek.)

* siege long and persistent effort to force a surrender by surrounding a fortress with armed troops, cutting it off from aid


Hellenistic culture refers to the Greek-influenced language, scholarship, and art of the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East in the three centuries after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. Following Alexander’s conquests, Greeks migrated to Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt,building cities and spreading their culture. The Greek language and system of education blended with native traditions to create a rich and lively culture.

The greatest of the new Hellenistic cities was Alexandria in Egypt. Named in honor of Alexander, who founded the city after he conquered Egypt in 332 B.C., Alexandria was within easy reach of Asia, Africa, and Europe. The city was the meeting place of the world in the 200s B.C. Its population of more than 500,000 included native Egyptians and Jews, and soldiers, traders, merchants, and governmental officials from Greece, Italy, Sicily, and western Asia.

Alexandria attracted scholars from all over the world. The Library of Alexandria, commissioned by the Egyptian king Ptolemy I, contained about 500,000 works of philosophy, science, literature, and religion. Adjoining the Library was the Museum, which took its name from the Muses, the Greek goddesses of the arts and sciences. The Museum was not a museum in the modern sense but rather an institute for advanced learning. Primarily for writing and research rather than for teaching, the Museum housed a select group of about 30 scholars who were paid by the Egyptian kings. These scholars discussed learned subjects in the Museum’s dining hall, gardens, and art galleries. Drinking parties for the scholars provided a more informal atmosphere for their talks. A jealous rival described the Museum’s scholars as “fatted fowls that quarrel without end in the hencoop of the Muses.”


The Mediterranean island of Rhodes, famous for its commercial trade, was a center of culture as well. Cicero, Julius Caesar, and many other Romans studied at its famous school of philosophy. More than 3,000 statues lined the city's streets and public buildings. A 100-fbot-tall bronze statue of the sun god Helios guarded the harbor. Called the Colossus of Rhodes, this giant statue was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The statue collapsed in 227 B.C. after an earthquake. Despite relief efforts from other cities, the people of Rhodes were unable to restore the famous statue.

The three most important Hellenistic philosophies*—Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism—attempted to develop practical solutions to the problems and anxieties of life. The Epicureans, the followers of the philosopher Epicurus, sought pleasure in moderation and avoided pain. The Stoics emphasized the control of thoughts and emotions. Although there were different versions of Skepticism, most Skeptics believed that nothing could be known for certain and reserved judgment on all issues.

The Hellenistic period produced some of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of the ancient world. Euclid, the father of geometry, taught mathematics at Alexandria in the early 200s B.C. The Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily produced the great scientist Archimedes, who discovered numerous physical and mathematical laws. Hellenistic astronomy was particularly advanced. Aristarchus of Samos—unlike other ancient philosophers—correctly believed that the earth revolved around the sun, and the mathematician and geographer Erastosthenes calculated the distance around the earth.

Painting and sculpture in the Hellenistic period was increasingly realistic and dramatic. The Venus de Milo and the Nike of Samothrace are two of the famous Hellenistic sculptures that still survive today. A small group of writers at Alexandria revolutionized poetry in the 200s B.C. Led by Callimachus, who also catalogued the library at Alexandria, these poets wrote epigrams*, epyllions*, hymns, and other forms of poetry that were imitated by later writers.

As the Roman Empire expanded eastward during the second and first centuries B.C., the Romans brought the eastern Mediterranean under their rule. They conquered Greece during a series of wars in the first half of the 100s B.C. In 31 B.C., the Romans defeated the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, which had reigned since the 300s B.C., marking the end of the Hellenistic period. (See also Greece, History of; Libraries; Philosophy, Greek and Hellenistic; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic; Rome, History of.)

* philosophy study of ideas, including science

* epigram short poem dealing pointedly, and sometimes satirically, with a single thought

* epyllion short epic that relates a single heroic deed or episode

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