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Hellenization (or Hellenisation) is the historical spread of ancient Greek culture or Hellenistic civilization, and, to a lesser extent, language, over foreign peoples conquered by Greece or in its sphere of influence, particularly during the Hellenistic period following the campaigns of Alexander the Great of Macedon. The result of Hellenization was that elements of Greek origin combined in various forms and degrees with local elements. In modern times, Hellenization has been associated with the adoption of modern Greek culture and the ethnic and cultural homogenization of Greece.
The concept applies to a number of other ancient historical contexts, starting with the Hellenization of the earliest inhabitants of Greece such as the Pelasgians, the Leleges, the Lemnians, the Eteocypriots in Cyprus, Eteocretans and Minoans in Crete (prior to Classical antiquity), as well as the Sicels, Elymians, Sicani in Sicily and the Oenotrians, Brutii, Lucani, Messapii and many others in territories constituting Magna Graecia.
During the Hellenistic period, following the death of Alexander the Great, considerable numbers of Assyrians, Jews, Egyptians, Persians, Parthians, Armenians and a number of other ethnic groups along the Middle East and Central Asia were Hellenized. The Bactrians, an Iranian ethnic group who lived in Bactria (northern Afghanistan), were Hellenized during the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, and soon after various tribes in northwestern regions of the Indian subcontinent (modern Pakistan) during the Indo-Greek Kingdom. There also was Hellenization of Thracians, Dardanians, Paeonians, and Illyrians south of the Jireček Line and even Getae.
Hellenization during the Hellenistic period, however, had its limitations. Case in point, areas of southern Syria that were affected by Greek culture mostly entailed Seleucid urban centers where Greek was commonly spoken. The countryside, on the other hand, was largely unaffected since most of its inhabitants spoke Syriac and continued to maintain their native traditions. Moreover, Hellenization did not necessarily involve assimilation of non-Greek ethnic groups since Hellenistic Greeks in regions such as Asia Minor were conscious of their ancestral lineages.
Hellenization can also refer to the medieval Byzantine Empire and Constantine's founding of Constantinople (Eastern Roman Empire that was Hellenized). Moreover, it can refer to the primacy of Greek culture and the Greek language after the reign of Emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641) in the 7th century.
In 1909, a commission appointed by the Greek government reported that one third of the villages of Greece should have their names changed because of their non-Greek origin. The process of the change of toponyms in modern Greece has been described as a process of Hellenization. A modern use is in connection with policies pursuing "cultural harmonization and education of the linguistic minorities resident within the modern Greek state" (the Hellenic Republic), i.e. the Hellenization of minority groups in modern Greece. The word nowadays has a strong negative meaning in certain circles in Greece as it means (possibly illegally) giving citizenship to non-Greek immigrants.
"Hellenistic" is also, of course, still used to refer to the religion of the people who follow this religion today.
The twentieth century witnessed a lively debate over the extent of Hellenization in the Levant and particularly among the ancient Palestinian Jews that has continued until today. History of Religions interpretations of the rise of early Christianity (applied most famously by Rudolf Bultmann) were wont to see Palestinian Judaism as largely unaffected by Hellenism, while the Judaism of the diaspora was thought to have succumbed thoroughly to its influences. Bultmann thus argued that Christianity arose almost completely within those Hellenistic confines and should be read against that background as opposed to a more traditional (Palestinian) Jewish background. With the publication of Martin Hengel's two volume study Hellenism and Judaism (1974, German original 1972) and subsequent studies Jews, Greeks and Barbarians: Aspects of the Hellenization of Judaism in the pre-Christian Period (1980, German original 1976), and The 'Hellenization' of Judaea in the First Century after Christ (1989, German original 1989) the tide began to turn decisively. Hengel argued that virtually all of Judaism, whether Palestinian or otherwise, was highly Hellenized well before the beginning of the Christian era, and even the Greek language was well known throughout the cities and even smaller towns of Jewish Palestine. Scholars have continued to nuance Hengel's views, but very few continue to doubt the strong Hellenistic influences throughout the Levant, even among the conservative Jewish communities who were most nationalistic.