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Economic Growth and Culture

From the far east to as far west as the small port that today is Marseille, Alexander's conquests had stimulated trade. Tradesmen were on their way to accepting Greek as a common language for business. Also a common currency was developing. There were new roads. Larger boats were being built using methods of construction first applied to warships. There was more mining and more handcraft manufacturing. On the continent of Asia, large workshops appeared alongside the small family stores that had been common, and there the manufacture of woolens would increase, along with asphalt, petroleum, carpets, perfumes, bleach and pain-relieving drugs. The Egyptians and Phoenicians would produce and trade cotton cloth, and the Egyptians would produce silk, paper, glass, jewelry, cosmetics, salt, wine and beer.

With the increase in circulation of money, credit would become more sophisticated. Money-changing would grow into banking. By the 100s BCE, thirty-five Hellenistic cities would include private banks.* Private banks would be making loans. The use of checks would appear, and people could deposit their savings for safekeeping and collect interest, which was around ten to twelve percent annually. Many aristocrats – traditionally landowners – would give up their contempt for trade and enterprise and enthusiastically join in the new-style accumulation of wealth.

With the rising economy in the 200s, well-to-do tradesmen, intellectuals and aristocrats in the Mid-East and North Africa developed an interest in Greek culture – to the annoyance of those who believed that the old ways were best. From Marseille to India, Greek was becoming the language of intellectuals. The centuries-old Greek gymnasium would become popular. It was a place for bathing and physical exercise – without clothes for the sake of freedom of movement in their exercises. The gymnasium would also be a place for training in grammar, rhetoric and poetry. Those who passed through training at the gymnasium acquired a status similar to a modern college degree.

Political power remained divided and authoritarian – maintained primarily through applications of military force. But these rulers didn't feel threatened by cultural diversity, and they ignored that diversity. Interest in science, art and literature increased. Some people read seriously. Many, including wives of the wealthy, read escapist works about life in the countryside with shepherds, shepherdesses, wooded valleys and true love. Libraries collected serious works and grew in number. The independent city of Pergamum (on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor) would have a great library. A library at Alexandria (Egypt) opened in the year 283 and became the most famous of libraries. It was to accumulate as many as 400,000 scrolls and several thousand original works and copies, and it would include a museum of science that attracted people from afar. The academy that Plato had founded in Athens in 387 would continue to flourish, and Athens would remain a famous center of philosophy, but Athens would become eclipsed as intellectual and commercial centers by Pergamum and Alexandria.

During the century that followed Alexander's death, societies around the Mediterranean provided education for the professions — mainly for sons of the wealthy. In some cities the children of common people were taught reading, writing, arithmetic and "civilized" behavior — with teachers using corporal punishment as their only recourse against the inadequacy of their pupils. Greek cities in Asia Minor would make elementary school education available also for girls. Girls ended school at a younger age than did boys, who continued their education if their fathers cared to pay for it. Greek tradition viewed women as the property of men. A woman's place was in the home rearing children. But some upper-class women did acquire higher education, and a few became philosophers. Women poets appeared. Around 218 BCE Aristodama of Smyrna was touring Greece, giving recitals and receiving honors. A woman named Hestiaea in Alexandria would acquire a reputation as a scholar, and women would be painting.

Britannica describes the Hellenistic age as between Alexander's death in 323 BCE and the conquest of Egypt by Rome in 30 BCE. Greek culture was at its peak in influence. There were big class and philosophy conflicts among the Hellenized, and there would be a great conflict involving Jews resisting Hellenization and adhering to their religious traditions.

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* Keith Roberts, The Origins of Business, Money, and Markets.


CONTINUE READING: The Cynics

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