Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.06.09

P. Green, Alexander to Actium. The Hellenistic Age. London: Thames and Hudson; Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1990 . Pp. 970, 30 maps & 217 illustrations. ISBN 0520056116.

Reviewed by David Potter, The University of Michigan.

There are two ways of looking at the history of the eastern Mediterranean between the accession of Alexander the Great and the battle of Actium. One is to see these centuries as characterized by almost unrelieved degeneration while the Greek world lost the moral force to withstand Rome. The other is to see them as a time of rapid change during which the balance of political power shifted from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean basin, while the civilizations of the Near East and the western Mediterranean were drawn together through the cultural idiom provided by Hellenic culture. The former view tends to be found in the work of historians whose view is built primarily upon literary texts, and certain art historians who deplore the "decline" of "pure" classical styles. The latter is generally found among historians steeped in the papyrological and epigraphic record. Peter Green's mammoth Alexander to Actium falls firmly into the "degenerate" camp.

The sheer amount of work that went into writing this book must command respect. There are 682 pages of text (long pages at that over 700 words per page when not interrupted by illustration), and the thirty-seven chapters not only offer a narrative of political events from 336-31 B.C., but also accounts of art, architecture, religion, philosophy, literature and government. This is to provide, as G. states in his preface, a synthetic description of the period for the "intelligent general reader" because the world needs such a book. The endeavor is noble; the result is not a success.

For a book like this to be useful it must be as accurate as possible, and it must show a clear understanding of contemporary scholarship. G. falls short of the most generous mark on both counts. There are numerous minor mistakes. Thus, for example, on p. 555 and 666, Brutus' loan to Salamis on Cyprus at 48% comes across as "financial dealings on Rhodes." On pp. xvi and 283, Ranke's "wie es eigentlich gewesen sei," is treated as if it meant "as it actually was," rather than "as it essentially was." This point has been discussed extensively of late: see P. Novik, That Noble Dream. The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, 1988), 28 (and p. 21-46 for a general discussion of the context). The statement that the Delphic maxims carved in the gymnasium at Aï Khanum were 'set up, and paid for by a globe trotting citizen' (p. 332) ignores Louis Robert's demonstration ("De Delphes à l'Oxus. Inscriptions grecques de la Bactriane," CRAI (1968), 416-57 = Opera Minora Selecta 5, 510-52) that the Klearchos who was responsible for this was none other than the peripatetic philosopher Klearchos of Soli. On p. 594 the Oracle of Astrampsychus, a third century A.D. oracular book is cited as if it provided the questions to be asked at an oracular shrine. The statement that "there is an odd facial resemblance between Perseus and his Roman nemesis, Flamininus" (p. 349) looks like simple confusion.

Mistakes of this sort are irritating; more serious are errors that arise from a failure to consult recent scholarship. Throughout the discussion of Roman activity in the east, there are references to the "financial" lobby at Rome that drove imperial expansion. What G. presumably means here are the equites, though it has long been recognized, thanks to the work of Claude Nicolet, Peter Brunt, and others, that while the Romans were aware of the profits to be made from conquest, there was no particular group in society that pushed for conquest. As Brunt has shown, there is no evidence that the desire to increase "business profits" was a motive for expansion, or that the "equites exercised pressure on the senate for that purpose."1 In G.'s account of the Mithridatic wars, there is no sign that he has consulted Brian McGing's The Foreign Policy of Mithridates VI Eupator King of Pontus (Leiden, 1986), which is now the fundamental account of that king's career and cultural background -- McGing also repeats his arguments, first advanced in Phoenix 24 (1984), showing that the third Mithridatic war began in 73, not 74, as had previously been believed, the old view still appears on G.'s p. 654. The discussion of the lex de provinciis praetoris of 101/100 is described as the lex de piratis of 100 (a view that was shown to be wrong in the mid-seventies), though this is less disturbing than n. 68 on p. 879, referring to this document -- which exists in two copies, one from Delphi and the other from Cnidus -- as "piracy laws from this period."2

Points like those mentioned in the last paragraph are annoying, but they are not nearly as serious as G.'s evident failure to grasp the thrust of research into classical cults and, particularly, ruler cult over the last thirty or more years. Throughout the book, G. presents the cult for Hellenistic kings as evidence for the decline of traditional civic cult and institutions, as well as for royal megalomania. "The most striking, and obvious, characteristic we find here, overall, is a clear disillusionment with the efficacy or validity of traditional religion" (p. 396). Scholars are entitled to their own opinions, but in a book like this, a statement that is so clearly at odds with contemporary scholarly trends should, at the very least, be accompanied by a footnote explaining why this opinion -- current up until the fifties -- is to be preferred to present approaches, approaches that are supported by the extensive study of inscriptions and papyri. The numerous articles of Louis Robert have shown not only how traditional cults continued to flourish throughout this period and into the "Christian" Roman empire where they exercised diverse influences upon the expression of Christian belief, but also how Hellenic cult provided a medium for the adaptation of non-Greek cults into the Greek milieu. These studies have been taken up to provide the basis for important studies of religion by historians of the Roman empire such as Ramsay MacMullen in Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven, 1981), Robin Lane Fox in Pagans and Christians (London, 1987), and Glen Bowersock in Hellenism in Late Antiquity (Ann Arbor, 1990). We are less well served for the Hellenistic world -- but this is no excuse for ignoring such work here.

In his discussion of ruler cult, G. asserts that "there was also the influential, and far from coincidental, theory of Euhemerus (which, as we have seen [p.189], developed and spread precisely when ruler cults were coming into vogue), maintaining that the gods themselves had originally been great monarchs honored for their achievements on earth. In that case, if the gods were no more than powerful kings enjoying apotheosis, then their number could be added to from among suitable modern candidates" (p. 398). He goes on to suggest that ruler cult was developed by intellectuals who were "most susceptible to antireligious rationalism" (p. 399). Although Christian Habicht's fundamental study of the rise of Greek ruler cult, Gottmenschentum und griechische Stadte (ed. 2, Munich, 1970), is mentioned from time to time, these statements and others make it clear that it has not been fully understood. Habicht has shown how divine honors arose out of the inflation of honors granted to individual benefactors, and that such honors were not limited to kings: a crucial point. Although people could, and did, sneer at the use of such honorific formulas, they remained useful as a way of commemorating benefactions that were greater than those that could be accommodated within a city's usual scale of honors.3 To be fair, G. does allow that civic ruler cult was a feature of civic life and diplomacy (p. 401-3), but it is the conclusion that he draws from this point -- that it means that civic cult had lost its importance -- that is objectionable. The existence of ruler and benefactor cult did not mean that traditional cult had lost its meaning. It was more than possible for people to believe in the Olympians (or local versions thereof) and to honor mortals with the same ceremonies that they used for the gods. The problem with G.'s analysis is that he frames questions so that the answers must be expressed in terms of stark oppositio: he appears only to be comfortable with answers that take the form of "either/or" and "yes/no" rather than "both/and." Scholarship deriving from evidence that does not allow for strict schematization does not seem to have a place in this book.

Nowhere is this more clear than in G.'s chapter on "The Spread of Hellenism," in which he expressly denies that there could have been any influence of indigenous practice upon Greek government or literature. For G., the Greek conquerors of the east were soldiers and businessmen who were "massively indifferent to the language and civilization of any country they happened to be occupying, an attitude that their victims, for the most part, reciprocated" (p. 313). Evidence to the contrary relating to Greek adaptation of Near Eastern/Egyptian customs is dismissed in the notes with no argument -- e.g., "a rather desperate attempt at barrel-scraping" (815 n. 32). Unfortunately, the evidence is anything but scanty: the Greeks' swinishness does not preclude the possibility that they could be influenced by the peoples they met (a process that had been going on for centuries before Alexander's conquest). It is well known, for example, that much of the Ptolemaic administrative system in Egypt was based upon Egyptian precedents, and that the same was true of Seleucid Mesopotamia.4 A text like the famous P. Teb. 703, which gives advice without mentioning any figures on how to oversee state monopolies, is not a document with obvious Greek predecessors -- even if it reflects a very different administrative ethos from that of the Pharaonic period; the closest parallels are provided by Egyptian wisdom literature.5 The decree of the villages of Neoteichos and Kiddios (near Denizli in modern Turkey), roughly carved on a marble stele in 267 that commemorates the services of Banabelos, steward of Achaios, and Lachares, son of Pappos, accountant to the estate of Achaios, for ransoming some of the natives from the Galatians shows how indigenous villagers had come to use the formulae of Greek poleis to thank their benefactors.6

Influences and ideas were clearly flowing both ways, and, though G. plays down the significance of the point (p. 405), this may appear most clearly in the borrowings of Ptolemaic royal cult from the worship of the Pharaohs. It is indicative of G.'s approach to the problem that he quotes P.M. Fraser's observation that the cult was "a Greek cult, with a Greek hierarchy, and with worshippers (if that is the correct word) drawn from the Greek-speaking population of the country," but not Fraser's fuller discussion of what may have led to the establishment of the cult in the form that it took.7 Four pages later, Fraser suggests three factors. The first is that "in the general climate of feeling...the practice was normal, and prestige alone demanded conformity, even where personal inclination may have been absent." The third may have been "the desire to retain and emphasize the direct link with Alexander." The second suggestion is that "in Egypt the pressure of native practice may have influenced the decision. Even though the dynastic cult, and all the subordinate private and public cults involving members of the royal family, were and remained essentially Greek ... the Pharaonic environment itself created a favorable situation for the development of the cult."8 We now have evidence that there was more native involvement in the cult than was previously believed, showing that Fraser may have been too cautious.9 The "either/or" approach does not work here.

It is inevitable that any book will be overtaken by new discoveries, a fate that has befallen this volume already in a number of significant areas: a few examples follow. G. gives a somewhat confused account of the formation of the province of Asia on pp. 529-31, and our knowledge of this process has now been significantly increased by the publication of two long decrees recording the services of two citizens of Claros to their city, establishing its rights under the new regime: J. and L. Robert, Claros I. Décrets hellénistiques fasc. 1 (Paris, 1989). These documents, thanks to the Roberts' discussion, have also yielded important information about the regime of Lysimachus in the 290s and the development of ruler cult. New information on Lysimachus' regime is also available thanks to M.B. Hatzopoulos, Une donation du roi Lysimaque (Athens & Paris, 1988), discussing Lysimachean land grants around Olynthus. Our knowledge of the development of Sardis in the third century BC, from a Lydian city to a Greek polis, is now augmented by Ph. Gauthier, Nouvelles Inscriptions de Sardes II (Geneva, 1989).

Thanks to Gauthier's careful examination of the evidence we can also follow the mission from Sardis to Delphi in 226/5 asking for oracular recognition of Sardis' new status as a polis (SIG3 548/549). When the ambassador Matrophanes approached the oracle, he "commemorated and renewed the goodwill of the Delphians towards the Sardians that had existed from ancient times." These times were those of Croesus, and here we have an example of the use of local history for diplomatic purposes that is evident in other hellenistic texts, most notably in Lysimachus' arbitration between Samos and Priene (OGIS 13), the Rhodian arbitration between the same parties (Insc. Priene 37) and the dossier recording the embassies sent by Magnesia on the Meander to upgrade the local festival of Artemis Leucophryene in 208/7 (see part. Insc. Mag. 16; 17; 20; 36; 46). The importance of such texts is that they show us that the literature retailing local legends that G. regards as mere scholastic exercises had a real place in the wider world of hellenistic politics: legends and literature provided a diplomatic vocabularly that enabled cities to deal with each other. This point also emerges from the extensive dossier recording the embassy in 206/5 to the Lycians from the people of Cytenium in Doris, asking for money to repair walls that had been destroyed by Antigonus Doson on the basis of the ancestral relations between the two peoples resulting from the birth of Artemis and Apollo in Lycia and the Lycian colonization of Greece.10 A. Chaniotis, Historie und Historiker in den griechischen Inschriften (Stuttgart, 1988) is helping us to see historians in their public role more clearly.

On p. 299 G. describes the treaty of 212/11 between Rome and Aetolia as "the first document illustrating Rome's relations with the Greek world" (by which I take it he means the eastern Greek world). In 1982 W.G. Forrest showed that the Chian text mentioning the erection of a picture of the birth of Romulus and Remus with an accompanying text describing the event should probably be dated to the third quarter of the third century B.C. (W.G. Forrest and P.S. Derow, "An Inscription from Chios," BSA 77 (1982), 79-92). In ZPE 88 (1991), Derow has now shown that a decree from Pharos, should probably be dated to the period after the Second Illyrian war ("Pharos and Rome," 261-70). He also shows that Rome might suddenly have become interested in Illyria in 229 because ships sailing up the Adriatic to Rome's new possessions in the Po valley would have been forced by the prevailing winds to sail up the east coast of the Adriatic.

Much work has been done elsewhere in recent years. Thus, for example, D. Potts, The Arabian Gulf in Antiquity II (Oxford, 1990), collects and discusses all the evidence for Greek presence in this area; Grainger, The Cities of Seleukid Syria (Oxford, 1990), (reviewed by N. Pollard in BMCR 1.2), provides new insight into the settlement of Syria and S. Bar-Kochva, Judas Maccabaeus: The Jewish Struggle Against the Seleucids (Cambridge, 1989), shows that "the accepted view of the war of the Jews against the Seleucids as a "war of the few against the many is an oversimplification as regards the relative strength of the forces on the battlefield" (p. 405). It is necessary to mention items of this sort because, to be a success, G.'s book will have to provide a framework into which new material can be integrated. The "degenerate" model cannot provide this.

G. is not a reliable guide to the Hellenistic age, and his approach does not open new avenues for research. Those looking for information in a brief compass will find that F.W. Walbank, The Hellenistic World (London, 1981), is a much more useful introduction. Those looking for more on the political side will still be better off consulting E. Will, Histoire politique du monde hellénistique (323-30 av. J.-C.)2, 2 vols. (Nancy, 1979; 1982) for his reliable discussions of the sources and scholarship as well as the narrative. Just about any book on Hellenistic literature would be more helpful than this one -- A.W. Bullock's chapter in the Cambridge History of Greek Literature certainly presents a far better brief introduction. A.A. Long's Hellenistic Philosophy, or the Long and Sedley collection of the fragments of Hellenistic philosophers are more useful for philosophy, and just about any book on Hellenistic art will do the job more successfully on that score.

An enormous amount of effort went into the writing and production of this book, and the production staff at Thames & Hudson should be particularly proud of the splendid work that they have produced. This makes it all the more unfortunate that I cannot end on a more positive note.


  • [1] The Fall of the Roman Republic (Oxford, 1988), 144; see further his discussion 179-191.

  • [2] A.W. Lintott, "Notes on the Roman Law Inscribed at Delphi and Cnidus", ZPE 20 (1976); J.-L. Ferrary, "Recherches sur la legislation de Saturninus et de Glaucia," MEFR 89 (1977) for discussion.

  • [3] See also Ph. Gauthier, Les cités grecques et leurs bienfaiteurs (Paris, 1985). The connection with civic honors that was challenged by Simon Price, who argued that the cult provided a framework for conceptualizing new forms of power in Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge, 1984), has recently received strong support in a Clarian inscription published by J. & L. Robert, Claros I. Décrets hellénistiques fasc. 1 (Paris, 1989), see Menippos col.1, 22-3, with pp. 77-85.

  • [4] E.G. Turner, "Ptolemaic Egypt," CAH2 VII.1, pp. 145-46; D. Crawford, Kerkeosiri: An Egyptian Village in the Ptolemaic Period (Cambridge, 1971), 6, summing up the evidence of important land survey, "the main Greek innovation would seem to have been the change in administrative language." For the case of Mesopotamia see S. Sherwin-White, "Seleucid Babylonia: a case study for the installation and development of Greek rule," A. Kuhrt & S. Sherwin-White, Hellenism in the East (Berkeley, 1987), p. 1-31. With reference to the disposition of land taken in the course of his campaigns Alexander had established the pattern for its disposition that conformed with earlier Macedonian custom as well, indeed, as Achaemenid practice; see Hammond & Griffith, History of Macedonia II, p. 366; for Achaemenid practice see N.S.R. Hornblower, Mausolus (Oxford, 1982), p. 140-170; and the several important discussions by P. Briant collected in Rois, tributs et paysans (Paris, 1982).

  • [5] For the connection between this text and Egyptian "instruction literature" see Burstein, review of The Cambridge Ancient History VIII.1, CPh 82 (1987), p. 167-168, also noting that it "reflects a very different administrative ethos from that implied in the Egyptian texts to which assimilated."

  • [6] M. Worrle, "Antiochus I., Achaios und die Galater. Eine neue Inschrift in Deni," Chiron 5 (1975), 59-87.

  • [7] Page 405 quoting Ptolemaic Alexandria (Oxford, 1972), 214.

  • [8] Ptolemaic Alexandria, p. 218.

  • [9] D.J. Thompson, Memphis under the Ptolemies (Princeton, 1988), 125-46; esp. her summary of the situation on p. 125, "Persian kings earlier had been depicted on the walls of Egyptian temples, but with the Ptolemies the more general recognition of the divine aspect of the new rulers, involving actual cult, testifies as much to the desires of their subjects as to the political acumen and religious awareness of the kings themselves, and of their advisors." Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to these developments is offered by the Conopus decree of 238, where Egyptian priests instruct Ptolemy II Euergetes I on cult procedure (OGIS 56).

  • [10] J. Bousquet, "La stele des Kyteniens au Leteon de Xanthos," REG 101 (1988); for the date see F.W. Walbank, "Antigonus Doson's Attack on Cytinium (REG 101 (1988), 12-53)," ZPE 76 (1989).