Work on the hellenistic era (323-30) is booming, especially as far as histories of that period go. In recent years we have had, for example, Michael Grant’s From Alexander to Cleopatra (London: 1982 and 1990), Frank Walbank’s The Hellenistic Age (London: 1992 rev.), and Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium (Berkeley and Los Angeles: 1990). All have strengths and weaknesses. Grant’s book is somewhat dismal, Walbank’s is short (just under 240 pages of text) and ends at 146 (although even then it has more to it than books two or three times its size), while Green’s mega biblion (970 pages) goes into great detail and has had no small impact. Is there a need, then, for a new book on the hellenistic world? The answer is of course yes, for in such a complex and long period spanning half the world there will always be room for new treatments. S.’s book is a welcome and important addition. Readers will no doubt make comparisons and contrasts with Green especially, which is a tour de force and more wide-ranging. However, S.’s book is more reader-friendly, thanks to its structure, and the narrative is less verbose and does not grind so many axes.
S. covers the period from Alexander’s death to Actium in ten broad chapters, interspersing political and military history with the social and intellectual background. The book is nicely illustrated for its scope, with maps, plates, and figures. There is also a chronological table (pp. xxv-xxxi), and a useful at-a-glance dynastic chronology of the Macedonian kings, the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, the Attalids, and the Bactrian rulers (Appendix I). Appendix II has the genealogical tables of the Antigonids, Ptolemies and Seleucids, although it is disappointing that S. goes down only to Ptolemy V and Seleucus III and Antiochus III. Yes, things get horrendous after that, but it would be nice to have all of it for the sake of completeness. Also of benefit is the suggested further reading (pp. 407-421), geared to the subject material of each of the chapters, and the bibliography (pp. 475-536) when linked with Green’s makes an indispensable research tool. Let me grind my usual axe over situating the notes to chapters at the rear of the book (the same criticism can be applied to Green’s book). This is not necessarily the publisher’s decision, for I have edited two books with Routledge, and managed to have the notes to each chapter printed at the end of their chapter — not as ideal as footnotes, but better than having to turn hundreds of pages from the text note indicator to the note itself.
The structure of the book is one of its great strengths. S. deals with dynasties, regions and topics within individual chapters (apart from chapters 2 and 4 in my opinion: see below). Thus, the reader does not need to keep jumping around from one chapter to another and getting miffed at having to do so as in the case of those books which take a thematic or chronological approach. Chapter 1 is a survey. The first five pages outline the problems associated with the term “hellenistic”, the sorts of trends that may be discerned in the hellenistic period, and how the views of modern scholars, whose works we use so frequently, have been influenced by their own backgrounds. The rest of the chapter (pp. 5-32) is a brisk and sensible treatment of the abundant source material for the period, which is divided into historical and non-historical writings, and its problems of interpretation. Since S. covers literature, philosophy and science, for example, later in the book, he reserves source-discussion in those fields for their own chapters. The same is true for his treatment of the papyrological evidence: he does not give any here, but holds off until chapter 6 (“Ptolemaic Egypt”). At first sight, this may appear surprising, but, as S. says (p. 20), there is real need to talk about the tens of thousands of papyri until we get to the Ptolemies. S.’s selectivity thus makes the first chapter easier to read rather than trying to knock off every source in one chapter.
Chapters 2 and 4 deal with Greece and Macedon. In 2, we move from conditions in fourth-century Greece and a brief treatment of Alexander’s conquests, through the wars of his Successors, to the establishment of the Antigonid dynasty thanks to Antigonus II Gonatas and his victories over the Gauls. The Successor wars set the scene for the formation of the new kingdoms and dynasties, which S. turns to in chapter 3. This “excursus” from the main historical narrative is a compelling account of how the world has changed, the nature of kingship and the relations of kings to their new, larger areas after the small and autonomous poleis (and of course the absence of kingship except in Sparta). How the kings projected themselves — their public image — is properly linked to their attempts to legitimize power and rule effectively. Chapter 4 picks up the narrative again. It takes us down to the end of the Antigonid rule and the effect of Macedonian rule on the Greeks. This also entails an evaluation of the Aetolian and Achaean Leagues, Sparta, and especially hellenistic Athens. The last is a useful stepping-stone (as is Green’s treatment of Athens) to more detailed studies such as Christian Habicht’s Athens from Alexander to Antony (transl. D.L. Schneider [Cambridge, Mass.: 1999]).
My criticism of this chapter is that it begins with a survey of the reigns of Philip II and Alexander and the Successor disputes again (as they affect Macedon), and I would have preferred this material (or at least the treatment of Philip and Alexander) in the second chapter. S. is trying to show how different Macedon was after Philip and Alexander than before them, especially under the Antigonids, but in structuring his second and fourth chapters in this way he causes the unnecessary turning of many pages and the book becomes disjointed. A brief recap of the earlier history from chapter 2 would equally suit the purpose of 4.
Chapter 5 is another breather from the historical narrative and focuses on religion and the social background of philosophy. Based on literary and epigraphic evidence, S. argues that while there were changes (widespread exploitation of ruler cult, for example) as a result of the different political and social considerations, there was more continuity in religion and philosophy than change.
Ptolemaic Egypt is dealt with in chapter 6. After a brief survey of Egypt before the Ptolemies and an account of the papyrological evidence, S. speeds through the individual Ptolemaic rulers down to Cleopatra VII, and then has informative sections on the impact of foreigners on Egyptian society and on economic administration. The chapter ends with a neat summary of the results of Ptolemaic rule (pp. 230-234).
Chapter 7 on Literature and Social Identity, as might be expected, discusses the social role of Greek literature set against the works of major literary writers (such as Theocritus, Callimachus, Lycophron, Herodas, and to an extent Menander) and historians (such as Duris, Timaeus, Philochorus, Phylarchus and Hieronymus), as well as the impact of royal patronage at Alexandria, Pergamum, and Pella. Greek texts were widely read throughout the hellenistic world, not only by the social elite, it would seem, but also by the masses, and this literature remained “Greek” too; it was only in Alexandria that Greek culture was influenced by the environment and adapted to meet new needs.
The Seleucids and Pergamum are the subjects of chapter 8. As part of his discussion of the landscape of the vast Seleucid empire, and how the Seleucid rulers exercised control over so many different peoples and cultures, S. questions the degree to which they exploited existing (Persian) systems or developed their own. The Seleucid empire was not a second Achaemenid empire, but the level of innovation may not have been as high as usually thought. Finally, S. puts the blame for the Seleucids’ demise squarely on the shoulders of the Romans and Parthians rather than on internal factors and ethnic problems.
Chapter 9 surveys Greek science after Aristotle and the major scientific and mathematical figures. Finally, chapter 10 brings the book and the hellenistic world to a close with the Roman annexation of Greece and the Mithradatic wars. The chapter ends with a conclusion on the effects of Roman rule (pp. 397-399).
In a book like this there is plenty with which to agree and disagree, as is only to be expected. S. argues that the control of Athens was as important to the Antigonids for strategic considerations as for cultural ones, but was every Antigonid king really so concerned with his cultural prestige? How much of a free agent was Poliorcetes down to 301 rather than living under the thumb of his father? Did the Ptolemies really not bleed Egypt dry? Was the problem of controlling provinces at a distance really such a cause of Seleucid weakness? The list goes on, and so it should, serving only to show that a book like this provokes reaction and thus how useful it is, as a teaching and research tool.
Readers who want the sort of detail that Green gives us will not find it in this book. S. covers a lot of ground at a fast pace — the reigns of Ptolemy I to Cleopatra VII take up less than thirteen pages including tables, illustrations and translated sources (pp. 201-213) and less than a page is devoted to Athens from 86 to Octavian’s creation of Achaea in 27 (p. 397)! Nevertheless, Shipley has done the study of the hellenistic world a service. His book is very well structured, his narrative is always lucid, objective, and thought-provoking, and his use of the source material is admirable. S.’s book will need to be read by any serious student and scholar of the hellenistic period.