Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.04.11

F.W. Walbank, The Hellenistic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993. Revised edition. Pp. 288. $12.95. ISBN 0-674-38726-0 (pb).

Reviewed by Edmund F. Bloedow, University of Ottawa.

A concise but comprehensive and authoritative book in English on the Hellenistic world, the world set in motion by Alexander the Great, is indeed most welcome. Walbank was unquestionably well equipped to undertake such a project, and his contribution has been well appreciated in reviews following the publication of the first edition in 1981.

What does the revised edition have to offer? Much has been published in this field in the intervening years, not a little of which could significantly enhance a second edition. Unfortunately, however, the main text has remained completely unaltered. The only revision consists of twenty-seven entries under "Further Reading and Bibliography" at the end (266-277). Peter Green's statement in the blurb on the back cover, implying that the book is "commendably up-to-date" is therefore a trifle misleading.

It would be going too far afield to attempt here to integrate everything that has been published meanwhile on Alexander the Great and Hellenistic history and Hellenistic civilisation, or even the twenty-seven studies which have been added to the Bibliography. I shall therefore restrict my comments to a few aspects of the original edition, and also attempt to illustrate how the book could have profited by more thorough revision.

While Walbank did indeed provide a "lucid and authoritative" account in his first edition (Green), and while it may well be (partly by reason of being most up-to-date at the time) "the best book available in English" (Lane Fox), it is not the most readable. Welles' Alexander and the Ancient World (Toronto 1970), of comparable length, while now admittedly less up-to-date, was none the less more readable and scarcely less informative.1

Walbank's survey of "Alexander the Great" (29-45) is a matter-of-fact account, with little relief. That may, however, be overlooked since the book is primarily about the Hellenistic world. Much the same, however, applies to his account of "The Formation of the Kingdoms" (46-59). To take but one instance -- Eumenes, who occupied an almost unique position on Alexander's staff and had a significant career as one of the Successors. We are, however, simply given the bare facts about him: that he was one of those present at Babylon when Alexander died, where he is described as "Alexander's secretary and the only Greek among the leading Macedonians" (47); that he was involved in a battle against Craterus, in which the latter also died (49); that Antigonus organised a force against him (49, 50); his success against Ptolemy (101); a notice that he had meanwhile died (101). By contrast, Bengtson gives a much better idea of Eumenes, both in isolated references and especially in a brief paragraph devoted to him.2

It is also in connection with Eumenes that not insignificant revision could have been included in a new edition. For instance, in a thoughtful study Badian has demonstrated, on the basis of a papyrus fragment first published in 1951, that probably the most important problem with which Eumenes had to cope was that of language. Since Walbank not infrequently cites ancient sources (in translation), the quoting of this papyrus could be illuminating:

When Eumenes saw the close-locked formation of the Macedonian phalanx ... he sent Xennias once more, a man whose speech was Macedonian, bidding him declare that he would not fight them frontally but would follow them with his cavalry and units of light troops and bar them from provisions.
As Badian comments, "this clearly shows that the phalanx had to be addressed in Macedonian, if he wanted to be sure (as Eumenes certainly did) that they would understand ... the suggestion is surely that Macedonian was the language of the infantry and that Greek was a difficult, indeed a foreign, tongue to them ... we can now see that his disability was not only his Greek birth, as has always been realized, but the simple fact that he could not directly communicate with Macedonian soldiers. His alien culture and provenance were not only obvious in an accent: it was a matter of language. In the end, he therefore lost his bid for power and his life".3

Walbank duly notices that Clearchus of Soli, an Aristotelian philosopher, travelled the 5000 km from Delphi to Ai Khanum, on the northern frontier of present-day Afghanistan, and there became responsible for introducing the 140 philosophical maxims set up in Delphi, some of which French archaeologists found in 1966 inscribed on a pillar that had been erected in the middle of the city (60). And while he highlights some of the other significant information that turned up in the highly important excavations at this site, there is much more that could be added in a revised edition. Moreover, the following should be added in the Bibliography, i.e., over and above the two studies cited, one by Bernard and the other by Robert: P. Bernard, Fouilles d'Aï Khanoum I. Campagnes 1965, 1966, l967, 1968 (Memoires de la délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan 21) (Paris 1973) (cf. K. Fischer, Gnomon 58 [1976], 290-95; O. Gallium, Fouilles d'Aï Khanoum II. Les propylées de la rue principale (Mem. de la délég. arch. franç. en Afgh. 26) (Paris 1983); H.P. Francfort, Fouilles d'Aï Khanoum III. Le sanctuaire du temple à niches indentés 2: Les trouvailles (Mem. de la délég. arch. franç. en Afgh. 27) (Paris 1984); P. Bernard, Fouilles d'Aï Khanoum IV. Les magnus hors trésors. Questions d'histoire grèvo-bactrienne (Mem. de la délég. arch. franç. en Afgh. 28) (Paris 1985) (cf. S. Sherwin-White, JUS 107 [1987], 238-39); P. Leriche, Fouilles d'Aï Khanoum V. Les ramparts et les monuments associés (Mem. de la délég. arch. franç. en Afgh. 29) (Paris 1986) (cf. R.A. Tomlinson, JHS 107 [1987], 251-52). On special aspects: P. Bernard, "Alexandre de Aï Khanoum," Journal des Savants (1982), 125-38 (taking issue with A.B. Bosworth, JHS 101 [1981], 17-39, and idem, JHS 100 [1980], 1-21); P. Bernard and O. Gallium, "Magnus inédites à Aï Khanoum (Afghanistan)," RevNum 22 (1980), 9-32; S. Veuve, "Cadrans solaires greco-bactriens à Aï Khanoum (Afghanistan)", BCH 106 (1982), 23-51; C. Rapina, "Les textes letterers grecs de la Trésorerie d'Aï Khanoum," BCH 111 (1987), 225-66.

Although Aï Khanum is the most conspicuous example, there are other instances of a not dissimilar nature. The above observations are not made so much with reference to the original edition rather, are they meant to indicate how much better a new edition might have been, had the most recent finds and the latest research been reflected in the body of the text.

The chapter on "The Frontiers of the Hellenistic World" could have profited from a summary at the end. This in fact applies to all chapters.

In the chapter "Religious Developments," the Maccabaean revolt appears to be given an importance disproportionate to his historical importance (222-26). It would warrant this amount of space if it were true that, as Walbank maintains, "it helped to create the conditions in Palestine which made it fertile soil for the rise of Christianity two hundred years later" (222). Conditions in Palestine in the time of Jesus can scarcely be said to have emerged out of a Maccabaean-type revolt or out of a matrix of similar religious-nationalist motives. The "mixed Jewish and Hellenistic environment," within which Walbank rightly sees Christianity emerging and developing, was not a result of the Maccabaean uprising -- rather came about in spite of it. As Walbank notes, "the Jewish conflict continued" -- becoming "part of the Roman history of the near east" (226). It was precisely this narrow nationalist Jewish element which the early Christians had to combat with great vigour. What contributed much more to the rise and spread of Christianity was the overall religious situation among ordinary people throughout the Hellenistic world. It is this aspect which should have received much more attention, instead of approximately one page.4

The overall summary of the book (249-51) is welcome, but should be read alongside the masterful overview provided by Bengtson and now available in English.5

There are a few idiosyncracies in the book. I cite only the following. "In 283, on his death, Ptolemy II proclaimed his father a god..." (213). Sometimes it is good that the knowledge of history takes precedence over grammar. An error has crept in "Contents" (7) in connection with Chapter 11. It begins on p. 198, not 200.


  • [1] Walbank does not include it in his Bibliography.
  • [2] H. Bengtson, History of Greece (Ottawa 1988), 217, 225, 226, and especially 228. In fact, in an account of comparable length, Bengtson gives an equally authoritative but much fuller picture of "the foundation of the kingdoms" (ibid., 225-239).
  • [3] E. Badian, "Greeks and Macedonians," in B. Barr-Sharrar and E.N. Borza (eds.), Macedonia and Greece in Late Classical and Early Hellenistic Times (Studies in the History of Art 10) (Washington 1982), 41.
  • [4] Incidentally, the dating of the book of Daniel to just before 163 BC (222) does not seem to reflect the latest research on this subject.
  • [5] H. Bengtson, History of Greece (Ottawa 1988), 280-91.