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After Alexander: The Temptations of Hellenism

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Thais, hetaira of Ptolemy I, painted by Joshua Reynolds, 1781

SEX and MONEY were top priorities in Hellenistic culture, with entertainment close  behind. While Queen Salome Alexandra and the Pharisees in Judea insisted on long-sleeved high-necked veiled modesty, fidelity was not a big deal in most of the Hellenistic world. In Ptolemaic Egypt, top courtesans, hetairai, were celebrities, like rock stars. While the lesser hetairai made appointments with their johns by writing with eyebrow pencil on tombstones outside the city, the top hetairai made appointments at society parties. Wives stayed home from these events.

Most of the Hellenistic world had a two-layer culture. A foreign elite of Macedonians, with their own moral standards, ruled Syria and Egypt.  After conquering the Mediterranean world from Greece and Egypt in the west to the Himalayas in the east, Alexander the Great had died in 323 BCE, before his 34th birthday. Three of his strongest generals divided the major part of his empire among themselves: Ptolemy in Egypt, Seleucus in Syria, and Antigonus One-Eye in Macedonia and Thrace. The Ptolemies and Selucids imported their own Greek-speaking elite, worshipped Greek gods (and themselves) and created a Hellenistic culture that never became part of the peoples they ruled. Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemy ruler, was the first to speak Egyptian.

Want to find out more about sex life in Hellenistic society? My source was John Marlowe, The Golden Age of Alexandria, 1971, available in university libraries. To find out more about MONEY and ENTERTAINMENT in Hellenistic society, check out my next two blogs.

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