BMCR 2003.02.16

Hellenistic Civlization. First published as La civilisation hellénistique (Paris: Arthaud, 1981). Translated by Michel Roussel

, Hellenistic civilization. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. xii, 452 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 0631222413 $34.95 (pb).

Considering the amount of scholarship on the hellenistic world that has been published over the last two decades, one might question the need to produce an English translation of a survey of the hellenistic world that was published originally in French twenty-two years ago. There is much, however, in Chamoux’s Hellenistic Civilization that still makes reading it worthwhile. C. presents an attractive picture of the hellenistic world: one that is diverse and complex and deserves to be considered according to its own merits. His hellenistic world is one of significant continuity from the classical period, while at the same time displaying considerable innovation and vitality. It was definitely “not an age of decadence” (p. 393).

The book is designed as a general survey of both the history and culture of the hellenistic world from Alexander the Great’s ascension to the Macedonian throne to the death of Mark Antony and Cleopatra after the battle of Actium (336-30 B.C). Chapters 1-5 treat the history of the period chronologically as opposed to geographically, while chapters 6-10 deal with conceptual and cultural aspects of the hellenistic world such as monarchy, the city, literature, philosophy, science, and art. Necessarily there is considerable repetition between these two sections, but C. has provided cross-references. The text lacks notes, with the exception of a few random parenthetical citations to primary sources. While it is clearly designed as a survey for an undergraduate course, several problems with this English edition (discussed below) detract from its overall value, leaving any other recent survey of the hellenistic world a preferable option.

There are some differences between the present English edition and its French predecessor. C. has updated the bibliography and added a lexicon of terms as well as a chronological table. Deleted from the French edition are a number of maps, plans, and plates (16 in the English edition as opposed to 243 black and white and 15 color plates in the French). What remains attractive about this survey, however, is that C. has devoted considerable attention to areas of the hellenistic world that normally do not receive as much attention as they do here. Most noteworthy is the detailed treatment of Cyrene and its position within the hellenistic world generally and its relations with Ptolemaic Egypt specifically. The Introduction begins (p. 1), for example, with Eupolemus’ inscribed epigram in praise of King Magas of Cyrene, and C. frequently returns to it (pp. 217-219 and 226). In fact, the attention devoted to Cyrene throughout the book may be its most important contribution. C. cites Ovid ( Tristia 2.367) on p. 365: “‘the glory of Battus’ descendant’ (Battus was the reputed founder of Cyrene) ‘will always be sung all over the world.'” C.’s Hellenistic Civilization is certainly an attempt to fulfill Ovid’s prophecy.

Chapters 1 and 2 treat both Alexander the Great and the wars of the Successors ending with Antigonus Gonatas’ victory over the Gauls in 277 B.C. C. provides a justification for beginning this survey with Alexander’s succession (pp. 5-6 of the introduction) as opposed to an earlier or later start. Following this explanation, C. presents a clear and lucid narrative both of Alexander’s campaigns as well as the complex events surrounding the Successors’ struggles to recreate his empire.

Chapter 3, “The Hellenistic Monarchies: Their Years of Glory,” deals with the kingdoms during their “Golden Age” (ca. 280-220 B.C.), examining each in a counter-clockwise order, beginning with the Ptolemaic kingdom and concluding with the Antigonid. For C., the Ptolemaic dynasty was “the ultimate model for a Hellenistic monarchy” (p. 74).

Chapters 4 and 5 deal with the period of hellenistic history in which Rome became increasingly involved with Greek affairs. Polybius began his History with the ascension of new monarchs to the Antigonid, Ptolemaic and Seleucid thrones and C. begins Chapter 4 “The East Torn Apart, then Conquered” at the same time. Chapter 4 covers the period to approximately 115 B.C., slightly later than Polybius’ work.

In Chapter 5 “The Agony of the Hellenistic World,” C. continues to trace Rome’s increased involvement in the eastern Mediterranean and the eventual collapse of the last dynasty in Egypt. Rome’s wars with Mithridates are treated in a detailed manner, yet most of C.’s discussion focuses on the later years of the Ptolemaic dynasty and its place in the civil war between Mark Antony and Octavian. C. also has much to say about Cleopatra VII, but perhaps nothing is more curious than his claim that the veiled head in the Cherchel Museum is “the only authenticated effigy of [Cleopatra]” (p. (164). The attribution of this bust still remains questionable and the head is certainly not the only one of Cleopatra.1

The conceptual analysis begins with Chapter 6, “The Survival of the City,” in which C. discusses the relatively vibrant life of the hellenistic Greek city. C. traces its survival from the archaic and classical periods, paying particular attention to the Aetolian and Achaean Leagues. Other cities’ survival is traced, especially through the ubiquitous honorific decrees that cities granted for euergetai.

C. discusses the role of monarchy in the hellenistic world in Chapter 7. Here C. claims that it was not an innovation, as the phenomenon can be traced back far into Greek history. C. sees victory in battle as the foundation of the hellenistic monarchy. The “Right of the Spear” as C. calls it (p. 250), can be traced from Alexander’s symbolic spear cast when he reached Asia for the first time. For the “definition of monarchy” C. returns again to the epigram Eupolemus composed in honor of King Magas of Cyrene (pp. 217-218). The connections with Ares and Victory in the epigram demonstrate that the hellenistic monarch’s primary function was “to protect and extend his states” (p. 241).

Chapter 8 “The Hellenistic Lifestyle: Its Environment” is an “essay on mores” (p. 256) as found in the complex hellenistic world. The chapter begins with an analysis of the physical layout of many cities as well as their salient features. Here, C. also discusses the royal palaces, the role of sanctuaries, the theater, the gymnasium, athletic competitions and fortifications.

C. takes up the subject of religion in Chapter 9 “The Needs of the Soul.” C. struggles to associate literature with the innovations in religion, claiming that Callimachus’ Hymns were not literary excercises but documents that played central roles in the religious festivals of the Hellenistic world (p. 327). C. also stresses (p. 330) that Callimachus’ Hymn VI was not composed for the festival of Demeter at Alexandria, but for the Thesmophoria at Cyrene. C.’s general interpretation of hellenistic religion is that there was much continuity from the archaic and classical periods, while innovations paved the way for “monotheistic religions like Christianity” (p. 352). This conclusion might be difficult to support, yet his discussion adequately represents the vitality of Hellenistic religion while giving appropriate space to its predecessors.

Science, literature and art are treated in Chapter 10 “The Life of the Spirit and the Flowering of Art.” Here too C.’s interest in Cyrene is discernible as he concentrates on Theodorus, Callimachus, Aristippus and Eratosthenes (all of Cyrene). For example, in his discussion of hellenistic poetry C. allots more than three pages (365-368) to Callimachus, while Apollonius of Rhodes receives less than half of a page (364). When C. comes to art, the reader is treated to an enlightening discussion (pp. 387-392) on the Aldobrandini Nuptials, which C. believes to be a Roman reproduction of a hellenistic masterpiece. For C. the Nuptials represent the culmination of hellenistic painting, if not art in all of its forms. Unfortunately for the reader of the English edition, only half of the painting is reproduced (Plate 16) and the image has been reversed. C.’s entire discussion of the painting is, therefore, virtually unintelligible to the reader. The entire painting, oriented correctly, it must be noted, appears in the French edition (plate 241).

This egregious error is unfortunately not the only negative aspect of the English edition, for a number of errors not found in the French edition appear here. To cite a few examples, we are told (p. 92) that Antigonus Doson recaptured Corinth and installed a Macedonian garrison there in 241. The correct date, as it appears in the French edition (p. 128) is 224 B.C. On p. 208, the text reads “One of the benefits of membership of the Achaean League was asylia” where the Aetolian League is meant, as C. has it in the French edition (p. 259). The Laocoon sculpture group in the Vatican is dated (p. 379) to “the Flavian period, c. 80-70 BC.” Surely this cannot be correct and is a mistake in translation, for in the original edition C. dates the group “à l’époque des Flaviens vers 70-80 ap. J.-C.” (p. 478).

Some awkward translations into English also detract from the book and might confuse any student accustomed to hearing terms more familiarly used in English. These include the “Edict on the Return of the Banished” (p. 31) for Alexander’s “Exiles’ Decree” and the “Alexandrian entitlements” (p. 162) for the “Donations of Alexandria.” Also awkward is the use of portico for stoa. For example within the discussion of the Athenian Agora the “Middle Portico” the “Southern Portico” and the “Portico of Attalus” (pp. 271-273) are all mentioned. None of these corresponds to the standard usage employed by the American excavators of the Agora (“Stoa of Attalus” is used, however, on p. 5). Finally the French rais-de-coeur is translated as “hearts-and-darts” (pp. 38, 270, and 286) and not the more familiar English term “egg-and-dart.”

C. claims (p. xii) that revisions have been made from the 1981 French addition. Despite this assertion, some errors still remain. I shall cite two here. On p. 72 C. states that Arsinoe I died in 271. It has been demonstrated that this date is incorrect and her death can now be dated accurately to 1 or 2 July 268 B.C.2 In his discussion of the federal states, C. claims that the Achaean federal sanctuary at Aigion was sacred to “Zeus Homagyrios” (p. 205), while in fact the correct appellation of Zeus was Homarius (see Polybius 2.39.6).

Also irritating is the inconsistency with which C. provides citations for the primary sources he discusses. For example, C. spends a considerable amount of time (pp. 133-134 and 231-232) on an inscription from Cyrene that records Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II’s bequest of Cyprus to Rome should he die without an heir. C. even quotes the document in full (p. 231) without citing it. The student who might want to pursue further research on this or any other document within the text that is not cited will be at a loss. The inscription C. discusses is SEG IX.7 or no. 104 in S. Burstein’s The Hellenistic Age from the Battle of Ipsos to the Death of Kleopatra VII (Cambridge 1985). This example and others like it are especially curious and perplexing when the reader finds a passage cited fully from Jean Racine’s Mithridate on p. 152.

Overall, C.’s Hellenistic Civlization is a sound treatment of this complex period; the English edition, however, contains too many errors to make it a valuable addition to the ever-increasing body of scholarship currently available on the hellenistic world for students at British or North American universities.


1. See S. Walker and R. Higgs (eds). Cleopatra of Egypt. From History to Myth (London 2001), pp. 160-165 for other sculptures of Cleopatra and pp. 207-208 on the Cherchel head.

2. See E. Grzybek Du calendrier macédonien au calendrier ptolémaïque (Basle 1990), pp. 103-112 and C. Habicht Athens from Alexander to Antony (Cambridge, MA 1997), pp. 143.