Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.34
James Allan Evans, Daily Life in the Hellenistic Age: from Alexander to Cleopatra (first published 2008). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. Pp. xlii, 196. ISBN 9780806142555. $19.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Rebecca Dodd, University of Glasgow (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[A Table of Contents is given below.]
With much scholarship on the Hellenistic world centred on political and military history, a survey focusing on daily life that places the subject in one compact volume has the potential to be a valuable source for any scholar or student in the field. One striking feature of this book is Evans’s overall writing style, which is vibrant, approachable and often entertaining; given the convoluted nature of many aspects of Hellenistic studies, the enthusiasm with which the author approaches the subject is certainly commendable. This style combined with the broad treatment of the subject suggests that this book is primarily aimed at students, a basic introduction rather than a scholarly work; still, the book omits many important elements that would make it a truly useful general survey.
The introduction consists of a succinct summary of the main historical events of the Hellenistic and pre-Hellenistic age; the reigns of Philip and Alexander are covered, as well as the structures and history of the Persian empire. This is followed by a convenient timetable of the main events of the Hellenistic era.1 Combined with the helpful glossary and index, these technical features make the book initially seem like an excellent introduction to the topic.
The individual chapters are thematic (listed below), covering various aspects of daily life. It is not unlikely that some material will be familiar to students of Classics, but the information does render the book self-contained. The first chapter covers the geography and natural resources of the various regions of the Hellenistic world. The chapter on religion begins with a basic description of the Olympian gods and their attributes. The book contains an attractive centrepiece with a variety of pictures of archaeological sites and monuments; unfortunately these are not referenced within the text, making any section that is dependent on visual materials unnecessarily difficult to follow. Moreover, there are no pictures to correspond to the chapter on clothing, which may render it almost impenetrable for anyone other than an expert on ancient dress. This is inconsistent with the student-friendly approaches in other chapters.
A further problem is that Evans does not provide even a brief overview of the Hellenistic sources for the time period, whether literary, historical, archaeological, epigraphic or numismatic. Discussion of modern scholarship is also omitted entirely, giving the reader no real way to make use of the bibliography. If space did not allow a source review, a short description of larger scholarly works that do contain analyses of the sources would have sufficed.
The lack of specific references affects virtually every chapter of the book. For example, Chapter 2 begins “There is a story that Deinocrates….”(p. 11) but there is no reference, whether within the text or in an endnote, as to where one might find this “story.” The book is replete with classical literary examples devoid of specific references such as Herodotus (p 14), Plato (p. 19), Vergil (p. 36) Xenophon (p. 95) and many others too numerous to mention. One could argue that this lack of referencing was designed to retain the flow of the narrative; however, most chapters contain endnotes where some references are given, and it is worth mentioning that biblical resources are consistently documented (endnotes p. 89). Readers unfamiliar with the exact passages to which Evans refers are left with no real way to consult the original sources, which is at odds with the monograph’s otherwise introductory approach.
Another overarching problem is that Evans works on the assumption that daily life did not change at all from the Classical Greek past (e.g. p. 177). For example, he argues that Euripides’ Medea would have been particularly appealing to “Hellenistic” women, who would have sympathised with Medea’s repudiation at the hands of Jason, especially considering that most of Alexander’s generals who were married at the wedding of Susa subsequently abandoned their non-Greek wives (p. 118). It is unclear what Evans means by “Hellenistic” women, since this could either cover Greek or non-Greek women, who may or may not have been conversant in Greek language and culture, and indeed who came from a multitude of different regions and societies.2
In short, this book contains many features, both structural and stylistic, that give the impression that it is intended for students and newcomers to the subject, while ultimately failing to deliver any real guidance to the topic under consideration.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Conquests of Alexander
Chronology: The March of History in the Hellenistic Age
Map of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, ca. 280 B. C. E.
1. The Landscape of the Hellenistic World: the Geographical Background
2. The Features of the Hellenistic City-State
3. Dwelling Houses
4. Clothing and Fashion
6. Social Life
7. City and Country Living
8. Hellenistic Women
9. Making a Living
10. Eating and Drinking
11. Sport and Spectacle
12. The Theatre
13. Hellenistic Kingdoms
15. Science, Technology and Medicine
16. The Persistence of Hellenistic Culture
Appendix: The Reigns of the Hellenistic Kings
1. For the sake of keeping all reference material in one place, it would have perhaps been better to place the list of kings (which appears at the end of the book) in the introductory section.
2. Evans also displays a tendency throughout the book towards making uncorroborated statements about the Hellenistic world, which may appear sensationalist to many readers. We are told that “Pigeons were kept to supply both food for eating and guano for the fields…” (p. 26), but we are not given any reference to a written or archaeological source for this. On a more morbid note, Evans claims that “...the sex trade in ancient Greece was supplied by foundling baby girls who were raised to be prostitutes” (p. 58); as before no evidence is given.