Investigative Question

How did Greek trade, travel, and colonies, followed by the conquests of Alexander the Great and the spread of Hellenistic culture, affect increasing connections among regions in Afroeurasia?

Next students investigate how Greek culture spread in the Hellenistic era, with the question: How did Greek trade, travel, and colonies, followed by the conquests of Alexander the Great and the spread of Hellenistic culture, affect increasing connections among regions in Afroeurasia? Philip II’s son Alexander of Macedonia (ruled 336 – 323) led a military campaign of unprecedented scope, conquering the Persian Empire, Egypt, Central Asia, and even to the Indus River valley. Following his death, his generals and their sons carved his short-lived empire into separate states. The following two centuries are known as the Hellenistic period. “Hellenistic” refers to the influence of Greek cultural forms in regions far beyond the Aegean, though in fact a lively interchange of products and ideas took place in the broad region from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent. Athenian democracy did not survive, but Greek ideas, such as language, sculpture, and city planning, mingled creatively with the cultural styles of Egypt, Persia, and India. For example, the Egyptian goddess Isis took on a Greek-like identity and came to be venerated widely in the Hellenistic lands. The era also brought innovations in science and mathematics, for example, the principles of geometry came from Euclid, who lived in the Hellenistic Egyptian city of Alexandria. During the Hellenistic period, exchanges of products, ideas, and technologies across Afroeurasia increased greatly and penetrated into many more regions, culminating with connections to China via the Silk Road. Cosmopolitan Hellenistic cities became sites of encounter for people of different cultures, religions, and regions. Eventually, the Hellenistic kingdoms west of Persia succumbed to the greater military power of Rome, which in turn absorbed many aspects of Greek culture.

Between 336 BCE and 50 CE there was a major milestone in world history: Afroeurasia became much more interconnected than it had ever been before. Trade routes for the first time connected most of Afroeurasia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so that products actually traveled from China to Spain. The Greeks played a major role in the early stages of building those connections. This set uses art objects as evidence of connections between cultures. Because of the many peoples and areas involved in this topic, it is complicated. Use maps to orient students. Trace every name and movement on a map. All the changes that the Greeks brought can be classified into two groups — more trade and Hellenistic culture. First the Greeks (and others) spread their culture around the Mediterranean, then Alexander and the Hellenistic kingdoms spread trade and culture eastward to India, north into Central Asia, and south into Africa. They established a firm connection of trade and exchange with India and central Asia that was never broken. (Later other exchanges — via the Silk Road — connected China, so that the entire middle of Afroeurasia was linked.) You might think of this lesson as building a chain, link by link.

The first link in the chain was the spread of trade and culture around the Mediterranean and southwestern Asia. From the eighth century BCE, Greeks and other people around the Mediterranean Sea connected their city-states together by sea travel and trade. Greeks formed hundreds of colonies around the coasts of the Mediterranean and Black seas, and they developed a new way of exchanging goods — using money in a public marketplace. In the Classical Age (the fifth and fourth centuries BCE), Greeks interacted with different cultures in northern and eastern Africa, southwest Asia, and Europe. The most powerful empire at that time was Persia, and in addition to waging wars, Greeks traded with the Persians, traveled to Persia, and were familiar with Persian culture (sources 1 and 2).

Alexander the Great constructed the second link. His father, Philip of Macedon (a state in northern Greece) had built a powerful military and used it to conquer the Greek city-states. In 336, his son Alexander led that army to conquer the Persian Empire and states as far east as the Indus River. Before he died at age 33, Alexander swept away empires, rulers, and states. He also put in place policies that united all these lands in trade networks and cultural exchange. As Source 3 relates, Alexander intended to create a new multicultural empire by intermarrying Macedonians with Bactrians and Persians, and by training children from the conquered peoples to use Macedonian weapons. He also made supportive laws and conditions for trade, created Greek-style towns, and introduced to the areas he conquered the set of Greek cultural traditions historians call “Hellenism”. Hellenism or Hellenistic culture included the use of the Greek language; education in the Greek style (for both mind and body) in gymnasiums; athletic games; discussions of politics and philosophy; theaters; and styles of art, architecture, dress, and entertainment.

Hellenism did not replace local cultures, but gave the wealthy elites a highly attractive alternative culture. Elites from Spain to India could participate in Hellenistic culture and become “cosmopolitan,” or a citizen not of a city, but of the world. Although the Greeks started the cultural spread, the great achievements of the Hellenistic period came from the synthesis — the mixing and putting together — of knowledge, products, and technologies from Persian, Indian, Central Asian, and Egyptian cultures together with Greek culture.

When Alexander died in 323, his generals divided his conquests into four large kingdoms. These successor kingdoms formed the third link. Ptolemy took over Egypt as the Ptolemaic Empire. Over the next 300 years, he and his successors represented themselves in both Greek and Egyptian styles, in writing and statues. They also encouraged trade interconnections, use of coinage, and the Greek language in Egypt (Source 4). The exchange was not only with Egyptians adopting Hellenism but also with Greeks and other Hellenistic people adopting Egyptian styles and ideas. Under the rule of the Ptolemies, merchants and sailors sailed down the east coast of Africa and around the Arabian Sea to trade with India (Source 5).

Alexander’s general Seleucus took over Syria and Persia in the Seleucid Empire. He also continued Alexander’s policies of supporting trade, cultural exchange, and Hellenism, but in 247 BCE the Parthians, people who lived in the borderland between Persia and Central Asia, began to take over parts of Persia. The Seleucids hung onto some territory until the mid-first century BCE, but the Parthians were the ultimate victors. Despite this change in regime, Hellenistic influences remained in Persia (Source 6) and the Parthians continued the trade policies of Alexander and the Seleucids, creating a fourth link in the chain. Another successor kingdom was Graeco-Bactria in Central Asia. Hellenistic rulers, trade, and cultural influences made that area a vital link between east and west on the Silk Road (the fifth link). There were also trade and contacts between the Hellenistic kingdoms and the Mauryan Empire in India. As the Maurya expanded their control into the northwest, they connected with the Hellenistic world through the Greek-style cities and Greek-speaking people who lived in that area (sources 7 and 8). This was the sixth link in the chain that connected Afroeurasia from the Atlantic to India and Central Asia

The Greek historian Arrian wrote this biography of Alexander of Macedon during the second century CE, 400 years after Alexander’s death. The translation presents difficult challenges to sixth graders, particularly if they are English learners or read below grade level. The sentences are long and complex; there are lots of names and places and unfamiliar words; and Arrian just narrates events and does not explain their implications. To help students comprehend this difficult text, we suggest a close reading strategy. This strategy will aid comprehension by breaking down the sentences into smaller components and clarifying the actors, actions, and references. Because it is time consuming, below we focus only on a few key sentences of the reading. More advanced readers should tackle the entire text. The directions that follow are for a teacher-directed close reading activity. The first reading is individual silent read, the second is whole class sentence deconstruction and references activity, the third reading is text annotation, and the fourth reading is to answer a text-dependent question.

Reading Question: How did Alexander try to mix Macedonian, Greek, Persian, and Bactrian people and cultures?


1. For English learners and those who read below grade level, prepare a shortened version of Source 3. This is the Student Handout. Give more advanced readers the entire excerpt. Both versions should include the vocabulary list.

2. Go over the vocabulary list with students. Then have them read the first paragraph to themselves.

3. Have students turn to a partner and discuss: What is this paragraph about? What was happening?

4. Tell students to highlight or draw a box around every name of a place or group of people (not the first names of people but the identifier, such as “of Bactria”). Oxyartes was the king of Bactria.

5. Then display or pass out a map of Alexander’s conquests. Have students locate all of the places on the map. For the Persians and Medians, students should locate the heart of the Persian Empire — the southern part of the modern country of Iran.

6. Tell students to underline all the subjects. Tell them that the sentences have lots of clauses, and each clause has a subject, so they need to look for lots of subjects (coming before verbs.)

7. Project the shorter passage on the overhead and review which subjects should be underlined. Then use arrows to identify all the referrers. Have students draw arrows on their papers.

8. Tell students to circle all the verb or verb phrases. Review on the overhead. Focus on the “were given” verb in the third line. Tell students that this is in the passive voice and ask them who gave (Alexander) and what was given (brides). This is an excellent time to discuss marriage practices among elites in the ancient world. These were arranged marriages for both the grooms and the brides.

9. Repeat the procedure of 3 – 8 for the second paragraph. The item to focus on in 4 is the phrase “the territories he had previously overrun.” Explain that this means all the places that Alexander had conquered. Have students look at the map and tell you what places would be included in that summary phrase (Persia, Arachosia, Mesopotamia, Bactria, etc.) So the boys would have been Persian, Arachosian, etc. The governors might have been Macedonian or local. In 8, focus on the verb phrase “it is said that their coming caused.” It is said probably means that Arrian read this in one of the earlier histories, but it might also mean that Arrian himself was skeptical about the information and didn’t want to present it as a fact. Make sure students understand what “their coming” refers to, and have them draw an arrow to the referrer.

10. Divide the students into pairs and tell them to annotate the text and write questions or notes in the margins. They should highlight evidence that will help them answer the reading question.

11.  Project several student annotations on the elmo (overhead projector.). Discuss with the whole class and answer their questions. If you want to work with students on citing evidence in writing, you could take this opportunity to show them how to shorten long sentences in quotations.

12. Have students answer the reading question, How did Alexander try to mix Macedonian, Greek, Persian, and Bactrian people and cultures? Review some of their answers with the class and connect the reading question to the larger question of this source set: How did Greek trade, travel, and colonies, followed by the conquests of Alexander the Great and the spread of Hellenistic culture, affect increasing connections among regions in Afroeurasia? Students will struggle with this level of abstract thinking, so you might just tell them (and have them write it down) that Alexander was trying to create a multicultural society based on Hellenism, that conquered people were more likely to adopt Hellenistic ideas and government if their own culture and ideas were included, and that Alexander’s policies helped the influence of Hellenism continue in the lands he conquered after he himself was dead. His actions helped interconnect all the regions he conquered.


6.4 The Spread of Hellenistic Culture Student Handout

6.4 The Spread of Hellenistic Culture Teacher Key

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.


  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.