Excluding Athens from its position of domination, the center of civilization, and therefore also of literature, moves towards the regions of the East that Alexander the Great conquered and that his successors transformed into various dynastic empires. The capital of the Ptolemies, Alexandria of Egypt, stands out by far; but then the others also come into contention: Antioch, seat of the Seleucids in Syria; Pergamum, of the Attalides; Macedonia, of the Antigonids. Finally, it can be said that every part of the ecumene tends to collect and spread the benefits of Hellenism; which, although it had already expanded by means of the Athenian empire, had never reached such a universal aspect until then, nor had it ever occupied so much space beyond the borders of the motherland and the colonies directly connected with it.
In fact, the main features of the new civilization consist in its force of expansion, in its universality, in its leveling work of Hellenization: for which it is called not Hellenic, but Hellenistic. In it, the specific differences which hitherto interceded between different peoples and regions disappear or tend to disappear. Various contributions, traditions and customs from every part, Athenian and Asian, Eastern and Western, mix together and form a common fund of culture that is very laborious and complex. Naturally, the language also changes its aspect: a kind of universal Greek language arises (κοινὴ διάλεγτος), which alters the physiognomy of the attic by smoothing it and contaminating it with elements of different origins. This language is introduced almost everywhere, in every country and in every kind of script; And, while varying here and there in color and nuance, it is preserved through the centuries as a normal instrument of elevated conversation and prose. Only in poetry, out of respect for tradition and for the effect of the imitative tendency, which pushes to reproduce the ancient genres in their technical conformation, do we continue to use, more or less purely, in relation to the various genres, the ancient literary dialects, the Ionic, the Doric, the wind.
It is clear that such a cultural and linguistic expansion depends on the greater degree of political unity to which the Greek world, perennially divided into small communes, reached in this period: greater degree only, because, to tell the truth, the whole unity was not achieved even then, and above all it was paid for with the loss of civil liberty, which was among the highest prerogatives of the Hellenic spirit: hence the new structure will not be fruitful for a real development and will not be lasting. But in short, the circle of the city-state was usefully broken, barriers that divided peoples of the same lineage were demolished, the ancient dominating poleis were equated with the new lands of conquest. With this is connected another fact which is the foundation of Hellenistic literature: the disappearance of collectivism and the further development of individualism. Once the polis system has been demolished, the activity and interest in public affairs ceased, power passed into the hands of the monarchs, citizens find themselves only as individuals: therefore they learn to live their own private life, not simply that of their own. home and of one’s family (in which the new Comedy is centered), yes also that of one’s own conscience.
In relation to these needs, at the beginning of this age, new philosophical schools emerge and spread widely: alongside that, already mentioned at the end of the previous period, of the Epicureans, the Stoics (founder Zeno of Citium) and the skeptics (founder Pirrone); and notable changes and adaptations also undergo previous schools, especially those of the Academicians and Peripatetics. Although the systems differed from each other, nevertheless there was in general a common understanding: to provide, essentially, the moral side of life, to purify the passions, to appease the souls exiled by the loss of freedom and the renunciation of political customs., leading them towards the satisfaction of spiritual interests, of those interests that have their center in the consciousness of individual. A kind of medicine and refuge for souls were therefore also, alongside the true philosophy, the more abstract, scientific and erudite studies. Never before had knowledge been so vigorously and widely cultivated, in every branch. The main precursor was in this respect Aristotle, who gave an example of an intense specialization.
Therefore the Alexandrian age is characterized above all by the reflective spirit. It is the age of the exact sciences, mathematics, astronomy, natural history, etc. And it is also the age of literary erudition: philology, grammar, antiquarian research, commentaries, etc. Poetry is affected by these changed conditions. On the one hand, it is benefited by that psychological progress which induced us to look into the inner life of consciousness and to explore the humble and modest aspects of things. From there it derives an interiority which was seldom touched in the poets of previous periods: the tendency towards the idyllic, the elegiac, the humorous; the willingness to question the secrets of the heart, the aptitude to represent the most humble and delicate conditions. It loses in greatness, in fantastic power, in sublimity; acquires in grace, in gentleness, in human interest. On the other hand, it has suffered from the scientific intrusiveness and erudition, which usually clip its wings at the highest flights, and not only mortify it by charging it with heterogeneous elements, but push it onto the lazy ground of classical imitation.