Klaus Meister’s Der Hellenismus: Kultur- und Geistesgeschichte provides a usable and succinct overview of Hellenistic literature in its historical and social milieux. The book falls into sixteen chapters, most of which explore particular areas such as Geography, Astronomy, Mathematics and Physics, and Poetry. The rest are dedicated to the historical development of the term “Hellenistic,” the historical context of the early Hellenistic period, the founding and topography of the city of Alexandria, the visual arts, and religion in the Hellenistic age.
As he notes in his introduction, Meister attempts to reach a wide-ranging readership and cover “all the essential topics” (1). Given his ambitious undertaking, Meister in general favors broad descriptions that focus on salient features over narrow details and controversies. Meister breaks up his discussion by presenting it across a number of slender chapters, themselves often divided into subsections. This results in a book that is, on the one hand, user friendly because the subsection headings display each topic, but, on the other hand, one that is rather stark, especially in its frequent use of bullet points.
The author’s preference for breadth over depth means the greatest beneficiaries will be students, whom Meister seems to have especially in mind. For example, passages from ancient texts are ample but appear in translation only without accompanying Greek text. Also, in lieu of a traditional bibliography, the relevant sources appear in the initial endnote of each chapter. Furthermore, the structure of the chapters based on literary or scientific genres tends toward biographical sketches and overviews of an author’s oeuvre. Nonetheless, these descriptions frequently include useful summaries of more notable works with some valuable discussion of their prominent themes or characteristics. This structure is well suited for students or anyone approaching the Hellenistic period as a novice.
As the title indicates, the book is a cultural and intellectual history, and it is in those chapters that treat historical developments, such as the third chapter on "Alexandria, die Kulturmetropole des Hellenismus," that the book truly shines. In that chapter, Meister provides a discussion of the founding of the city, brief biographies of the first three Ptolemies, a useful map of the city, and a description of the Museum and the Alexandrian library. The chapter is succinct and focused. Accordingly, the reader will come away with a good understanding of Alexandria’s historical context and the consensus view of the Museum’s design and function. Similarly admirable is chapter sixteen, “Die religiöse Entwicklung,” which considers a variety of religions (mystery cults, Judaism, etc.), but focuses most extensively on the development of ruler cults. Once again, the sources provided are ample and often helpfully presented as quotations rather than mere citations. Commendable too is Meister’s breadth; as he notes, ruler cults are best attested in the Ptolemaic empire (p. 237), yet the chapter gives equal attention to such cults among the Antigonids and Seleucids. This last point is particularly notable, since the wealth of evidence from Egypt could easily pull any discussion toward the Ptolemaic empire specifically rather than the broader Hellenistic world.
Most chapters (Chapters 4–14) are devoted to artistic or scientific disciplines, all of which provide valuable descriptions of subject’s major figures and the salient points of their contributions. Chapter 4, “Die Bildenden Künste” is particularly engaging. Following a summary of the characteristics of the plastic arts in the Hellenistic period, Meister delves into extensive discussions of some individual pieces, such as the Laocoön Group in the Vatican Museums and the Pergamon Altar. These discussions not only demonstrate the features of Hellenistic art; they also contextualize the pieces politically and socially.
Though generally quite successful, one drawback to the author’s largely diachronic approach is the separation of aspects of the Hellenistic world into discrete categories, which obscures to a degree the variety of external influences present and the intersections of social and political realities with the literature being produced. One might note that in his discussion of religion as a tool to legitimize monarchical rule (Chapter 16.1.2c) Meister makes no mention of literary texts. Since the book is specifically a cultural and intellectual history, it might have been helpful to connect the Ptolemaic ruler cult with the available literary context of, for example, Theocritus 17 or Callimachus’ Hymn to Delos. Similarly, poems like Theocritus’ second Idyll and Herodas’ first Mimiamb contain themes of mobility and immigration, concerns pertinent and influential in the Hellenistic period generally, though especially in Alexandria.1 Overall the book is exceptional in describing the various cultural and intellectual facets of the period, but with the notable exception of Chapter 4 it rarely brings them together into a cohesive context for the institutions and activities it describes. Meister largely avoids points of controversy. This suits his purpose well, allowing the text to flow without frequent digressions or qualifications. The tight focus of the chapters, however, at times gives way to a tendency to offer as historical certainties some points that are, at least for some scholars, unresolved questions. For example, on page 18 Meister cites the letter of Aristeas as his source for the history of the translation of the Septuagint. Yet given the nature of the letter of Aristeas, the authenticity and veracity of which has often been debated,2 and the mythical quality of its account, students might benefit from a note discussing this source. Similarly, the claim that Ptolemy Soter founded the Library (also p. 18) and the description of the Museum as similar in form and appearance to Aristotle’s Peripatos (p. 16) are plausible but have reasonably been called into question.3 One might note also the identification of Callimachus as the creator of a new ideal of “Leptotes” (p. 20) in poetry. This notion, I suspect, aims to clarify the novelty of Hellenistic poetry, but it is not well explained and, in my view, is problematic. The issue is further exacerbated when Meister later asserts that Theocritus, Apollonius, and Aratus were indebted to Callimachean artistic principles (p. 100). None of these assertions is indefensible, but they are not settled either. It may benefit the reader to know that much about Alexandria—politically, socially, and culturally—is hazy, and that Hellenistic poetry’s relation to past and present can be a messy affair.
In general I find much to value in Meister’s book. His introduction to a complicated period in literary history is clear and concise, his rich compilation of ancient sources extremely useful, and his reliance on primary texts commendable. Undergraduate and graduate students who can read German will greatly benefit from this volume, and those who seek a guide through the salient features of Alexandria and its literature will not be disappointed.
1. The most thorough consideration is Burton, Joan, Theocritus’s Urban Mimes: Mobility, Gender, and Patronage, (California, 1995).
2. A recent, thorough examination of the letter of Aristeas with insight into scholarly debates is in Honigman, Sylvie, The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria, (Routledge, 2003).
3. The arguments problematizing the sources for the Museum and Library are best presented in Bagnall, Roger, ‘Alexandria: Library of Dreams.’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 146 (2002) 348–62.