BMCR 2003.12.04

A Companion to the Hellenistic World

, A companion to the Hellenistic world. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Ancient history. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Lt, 2003. xxviii, 588 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0631225374. £85.00.

Blackwell’s Companion to the Hellenistic World is the first published of a proposed series of Companions intended to reflect ‘the diverse, vibrant scholarship on antiquity’, and to ‘present accessible, authoritative overviews by experts on all aspects of the ancient world’. Each book is expected to contain thirty to forty essays written specifically for the series, which is aimed at an audience of students and general readers.

The Hellenistic World’s Companion itself comprises an introductory chapter, followed by twenty-eight chapters divided into seven sections. It avoids the tendency, apparent in some recent surveys, to divide its subjects equally between chronological history and cultural themes and instead allocates only the first section to narrative. The subsequent sections cover socio-political and cultural themes as follows: protagonists; change and continuity; Greeks and others; society and economy; gods and men; and finally (as usual), arts and sciences. As promised, the contributors are experts in their fields, and their overviews are authoritative and, generally, accessible. In terms of audience, however, the series sells itself short, for there is much here that will appeal not only to students and general readers, but also to scholars, who should appreciate this book and its fund of primary source material and secondary references for the invaluable reference resource that it seems set to become. There are, in fact, a few occasions when the collection seems to lose sight of its principal target audience and assumes a level of background knowledge that is not really commensurate with that of a general readership, or students. In this respect, the limitation of narrative history to one section, although commendable in allowing far greater scope for discussion of thematic issues, necessarily requires such a broad brush that at times the general reader, or student, might be left confused or ignorant, rather than informed. The suggestions for further reading provided at the end of each chapter do, however, direct readers towards general surveys and specialized treatments to flesh out the picture. There are also times when it might have been useful to be provided with specific cross references between separate chapters treating the same, or similar, topics from different perspectives: not everyone will read the book from cover to cover. Similarly, the constraints upon authors to remain within the boundaries of their chapter and section themes occasionally result in areas being ignored, or largely so. In view of what the book actually does offer, however, it would be churlish to select specific examples here, though it would have been nice to see something (more) of Hellenistic diplomacy, oratory, and court culture.

In his introductory chapter, Approaching the Hellenistic World, the editor, Andrew Erskine, surveys the evidence available for the narrative reconstructions and thematic discussions that follow. He puts the period in context with the story of Augustus placing a gold crown on Alexander’s body but refusing the offer to view the tombs of the Ptolemies because ‘he wanted to see a king, not some corpses’: this sums up, for Erskine, the dismissive way in which the Hellenistic period is often viewed. He therefore justifies the book’s raison d’etre, and reviews the literary, epigraphical, and papyrological evidence, devoting a section to Other Voices, the ‘large number of different cultures and peoples under Greco-Macedonian rule’. As with the other chapters, this one concludes with pointers to further reading, both general surveys and works that specifically address the diffuse types of evidence with which Hellenistic historians deal.

Section One provides a narrative of the Hellenistic period from the death of Alexander to the death of Augustus. David Braund traces the emergence of the Hellenistic World from 323 to 281 BC, detailing the confused and proto-dynastic jostling for power between the leading protagonists, and the establishment of the successor kingdoms. In surveying the emergence of the kings themselves, Braund also analyses perceptively the political considerations that impinged upon the assumption of kingship: there were, as he notes, no rules to go by, and delaying a claim to the title of king could be politically advantageous. Sheila Ager starts with the ‘chaos’ of 281 to 276, following the death of Seleukos, and the ascent, and fall, of Ptolemy Keraunos, and ends with the aftermath of the battle of Raphia. Again, narrative is interspersed with analysis, and Ager offers a measured and scholarly treatment of the Syrian and Chremonidean wars, relatively ill-documented even by the standards of Hellenistic history, and of Arsinoe II. Again primary source references are abundant, especially to epigraphical material which is astutely and sensitively assessed. From the mid-third century crises afflicting the Ptolemies, Seleucids and Antigonids to the problems faced by the three young kings (Ptolemy IV, Antiochus III, and Philip V) in the late 220s, Ager provides not only a vivid picture of a world in flux but also a history wrapped in mystery and controversy, encapsulated by her discussion of ‘the elusive and ever-challenging “Ptolemy the Son”‘.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 shift the focus to the entry of the Romans into the Hellenistic arena. Peter Derow takes his cue from Polybius, though admitting that the story might begin in many places, and follows Rome’s involvement with the Hellenistic World from the First Illyrian War to the fall of Macedon. Brian McGing takes up the baton and follows the story through to the death of Mithradates, and Claude Eilers concludes the narrative with Pompey’s settlement, the triumvirate, and the principate and death of Augustus. This summary and cursory treatment of these final three chapters from section 1 should not be taken to imply that they are any less vibrant or scholarly than Braund’s and Ager’s contributions, and the whole section sets the broad scene for the thematic discussions to follow.

Section Two foregrounds the four main kingdoms of the Hellenistic World. Dorothy Thompson investigates the Ptolemies and Egypt; Michel Austin, the Seleucids and Asia; Joseph Scholten, Macedon and the Mainland; and Elizabeth Kosmetatou, the Attalids of Pergamon. Thompson begins with a geographical description of Egypt, and an assessment of its natural wealth. Ptolemy is presented as an individual keenly aware of the resources, and the dynasty, to which he was laying claim, though the stability that at first seemed characteristic of the dynasty would later be threatened, especially in the second and first centuries, when sibling rivalries threatened central control. Thompson’s treatment is wide-ranging and considers Egypt and Egyptians in a series of broad contexts, including land holdings, wealth, settlements, the army, administration, temples, and of course, eventually Rome. Austin introduces his chapter with a quotation from Bickerman: “the Seleucids … left people as dirty and blissful as they had been before the Macedonian conquest”. In an exemplary illustration of how to use a range of primary source material, notoriously problematic for the Seleucids, Austin reconstructs the regime after its recovery of Babylon and investigates its empire, the military nature of its monarchic system, and the interrelationship between the Seleucid rulers and their subjects. Austin concludes by engaging with the long-standing debate about whether the Seleucid empire was strong or weak and argues for the terms of the dispute to be adapted to accommodate both perspectives: both may be appropriate, depending on the context and the point of view. The Seleucid dynasty was, moreover, remarkable for its longevity: despite the limitations that routinely afflict monarchical empires, its own decline has often been dated too early.

Scholten, like Thompson and Austin, takes a thematically broad brush to Macedon and the mainland. He considers the political topography of the third-century southern Balkans, the incursion of the Gauls, and the ethnic populations of Macedon, which he argues formed the most powerfully and institutionally stable Hellenic regional state of its time, grounded in Philip II’s transformation of Pella into the focal point of a monarchic kingdom capable of crushing its antagonists by means of its abundant resources. Kosmetatou, finally, investigates the Attalids, which she portrays as a remarkable family of low origins experiencing a rags to riches success. In the first half of her chapter, she traces the fortunes of the dynasty, sandwiched between the Seleucid and Roman spheres of influence, through to the unfortunate Attalos III, the childless ruler who, as the dynastic vultures gathered, bequeathed his kingdom to Rome. Kosmetatou then moves on to consider the public and political image of the Attalids and their astute and extremely subtle manipulation of imagery and political controversy. In both ancient and modern sources, she argues, they appear successful because their propaganda was based on simple, timeless rules: the reality, however, was perhaps less glamorous than the image.

The general model for the focus of many recent treatments of the Hellenistic World, namely change and continuity, is confined to Section Three, where it is applied to kings, cities, myth and local tradition, and space and geography. In one of the most thought-provoking chapters of the book, John Ma investigates kingship, and surveys and challenges not only the ‘change and continuity’ paradigm, but also Briant’s model of diversity and unity. In particular, Ma notes that the assumption of an ideal, or typical, form, of Hellenistic kingship is simply that, an assumption, an abstract analysis that belies the very real diversity of situations that the Hellenistic kings confronted. He suggests that recent interest in Macedonian kingship might modify the picture and could offer some tantalizing, if confusing, glimpses of the Hellenistic kingdoms’ similarities to and differences from the socio-political structures of Macedonia. He ends with references to topics that his chapter has been unable to broach, and, throughout, entices the reader to think ‘outside the box’, something that Ma himself does impeccably. Richard Billows looks at the Hellenistic city from the perspective that, by this period, ‘a broad consensus had emerged on what it meant to be a Greek city’. Billows argues that this consensus was formed and maintained by both individual and public ‘inter-city contacts and relations of every sort’, and he considers the geographic extent and size of Hellenistic Greek cities, their planning and infrastructure, and the nature of civic life and urban culture. Particular attention is paid to Hippodamian urban planning, and Priene, Ephesus and Pergamum are discussed as examples of how the grid plan was adapted and moulded to accommodate local topography.

Tanja Scheer’s chapter is entitled ‘The Past in a Hellenistic Present: Myth and Local Tradition’. In it, she outlines the connections between Greek mythic traditions and the ways in which Greeks in the Hellenistic period, as before, defined themselves and their heredity. She then turns her attention to look at how such cultural constructs were transformed by Greeks abroad and uses Pergamon as an exemplar of the interplay of Greek myth and local tradition in the Hellenistic period. She concludes by analysing the reasons for the large number of Hellenistic cities that not only sought to emphasize their previously unknown Greek past with mythical founders but chose to do so particularly by stressing their relationship to Argos. Argos’ positive response, she suggests, reveals much about the way in which the focus of the old Greek world had shifted east, and about how myth itself allowed mainland Greek poleis to realign themselves in the new world order. In the final chapter of this section, Klaus Geus explains how the oikoumene was viewed before and after Alexander’s eastern campaigns. He discusses the Aristotelian generation’s belief that the earth was spherical, and the implications that this had for longstanding theories about the distribution of land and sea, based on a flat disc understanding of the world. Geus illustrates how existing conceptions placed the Greeks at the centre of the oikoumene, and argues that, despite Aristotle’s influence, such views had considerable influence on the first Greeks to visit far-off lands. He suggests, however, that Aristotle’s influence on Alexander is still clear, not only in terms of campaign planning, but also in respect to the methods and arguments by which Alexander assessed and explained new discoveries; these new ideas caused a surge of interest in geography, as well as fuelling the burgeoning genre of utopian literature. The consequent scepticism, Geus argues, fuelled more properly scientific investigations by the likes of Eratosthenes, Hipparchus and Ptolemy, individuals who were not fettered by an association with any particular philosophical school. Geus might have considered the political background to, and motivations for, some of the writers he discusses, particularly Hekataios of Abdera and Megasthenes, but his brief clearly required him to focus on spatial and geographical themes.

Section Four provides a valuable and well-situated consideration of Greeks and others, not in the now somewhat hackneyed sense of Greeks versus barbarians, but in terms of other Hellenistic cultures with which the expanded Greek world intermingled. Jane Rowlandson looks at “Town and Country in Ptolemaic Egypt”, and pays particular attention to the settlement of Greeks in mixed rural communities and the effect this had on native populations until, in the late Ptolemaic Chora, communities were effectively bi-cultural despite retaining Greek and Egyptian cultural distinctions. Philadelphia is offered as a particular example of such interaction, and of the way in which Greeks were prepared to abdicate self-government for an increase in wealth and social standing. None the less, as Rowlandson notes, Philadelphia still possessed the two key Greek cultural institutions: the gymnasium and the theatre. This chapter nicely complements Billows’ discussion of the Hellenistic city and is one example of how internal cross-referencing could have been helpful. Erich Gruen discusses the interplay of Jews and Greeks, and the cultural revolution caused by the Jews’ encounter with Hellenism. Challenging the traditional view of outright Jewish resistance to Hellenization, Gruen argues that adaptation did not necessarily equate with compromise for Judaism, either in or beyond the homeland, and that splits and rivalries, within both the Hellenistic kingdoms and Judaism itself, create a complex and multi-faceted picture far different to the simple paradigm of self and other that is generally invoked.

Stephen Mitchell attempts to rehabilitate the Galatians by considering the ways in which their representation differs from reality. He argues that although the Galatians have been considered to be of only marginal interest in many recent surveys, they are, in fact, victims of second-century royal propaganda and were far from the cruel and savage barbarians depicted in the ancient sources: this, he argues, is amply demonstrated by archaeology’s reconstruction of the characteristic patterns of Galatian settlements and society. Emma Dench, fittingly, concludes Section Four with “Beyond Greeks and Barbarians: Italy and Sicily in the Hellenistic Age”. She pushes the boundaries of the term Hellenistic itself and argues that early local Italian histories must be seen in both a Hellenistic and a Roman context. For Dench, ‘the past [became] an increasingly complex amalgam of archaic, classical, Hellenistic and more recent motifs’ … its cultural and geographical emphases shifting in different contexts’. This entire section provides some refreshingly different perspectives from earlier surveys, and incorporates a range of evidence, with a fully indexed set of abbreviations, with which the general reader or student would otherwise remain unfamiliar.

In Section Five, Riet van Bremen discusses the new family structures of the Hellenistic period and suggests that there is little real evidence to support the general perception that there was a weakening of family ties. She argues that, in fact, the reverse appears true, and that there was a continuation, if not a reinforcement, of the dynamics not only of the family itself but also of its place within society. For van Bremen, however, there is a perceptible dilution in family structures at the civic level despite this continuity, and she considers whether this was more the result of the emergence of a civic elite, or of increased individual mobility and new settlement patterns. Van Bremen’s arguments will not persuade everyone, but she offers a thought-provokingly different perspective on the family and its place in Hellenistic culture. Gary Reger surveys the last century’s trends in work on the Hellenistic economy. He traces the ‘primitivist-modernist’ dichotomy, mainly associated with Finley and Rostovtzeff respectively, and the ‘formalist-substantivist’ approach, which viewed the economy less as a question of autarky versus capitalism and more in terms of whether it was socially embedded and politically determined or not. Taking as a launching pad more recent work, which rejects such definitive oppositions, Reger investigates the physical preconditions, human resources, forms and movement, and institutions of ancient economies. He concludes by asking about how monetarized the economy was, or could be, in the Hellenistic period and whether states had economic policies that would be recognizable as such today. The next chapter is jointly written by Susan Alcock, Jennifer Gates and Jane Rempel, who not only provide three case studies in the relationships between Greek and non-Greek peoples but also three examples of the possibilities of survey (landscape) archaeology. Rempel investigates social change and rural settlement in the Bosporan kingdom; Gates looks at landscape and commerce in the Egyptian Eastern Desert; and Alcock considers the divided landscape of Crete. The authors argue that this trio of case studies demonstrates a high degree of regional variation, which survey archaeology can illuminate and help to bridge: they suggest, indeed, that the evidence brought to light by the technique will radically change, and improve, present understandings of the Hellenistic oikoumene.

The final two chapters in this section examine warfare and piracy. Patrick Baker views the continuity of the preoccupation with the defence of the polis and its territory as a fundamental constant in the Hellenistic period. He questions whether Hellenistic warfare changed with the advent of the successor kingdoms and suggests that, although the monarchies profoundly affected the political landscape of the wider Hellenistic world, the more traditional world of the polis remained largely unaffected. The main impact of the monarchies at polis level, therefore, is likely to have been in improved finances and the concomitant technical and tactical developments. In the final chapter, Vincent Gabrielsen explains how piracy and slave trading are intricately linked and argues that the existence of both, and the ability to claim to represent freedom and security from both, was frequently of use to hegemonic powers. But Gabrielsen goes further and calls into question precisely who the pirates were. In the process he demonstrates that legitimacy and power are themselves constructs through which ethnicity and civilization are used to categorize and disempower. It seems particularly relevant today that Hellenistic naval protectors, having constructed and formulated their own legitimacy by defining difference as illegitimacy, routinely used the word ‘war’ to describe their campaigns of ‘protection’, which were themselves, Gabrielsen notes, ‘a more direct source of profit’. I do not wish to put words into Gabrielsen’s mouth here, but my own reading of this, which should be self-evident, suggests that, if any chapter in this book demonstrates Classics’ relevance to modernity, then this one does.

Section Six has only two chapters: David Potter on Hellenistic Religion, and Angelos Chaniotis on the Divinity of Hellenistic Rulers. Potter explicitly eschews the concept of syncretism, arguing that the forms of interaction between Greek and non-Greek religious traditions are so varied that the term is, effectively, meaningless. Instead, he investigates the way in which the adjective ‘Hellenistic’ is now seen as problematic when associated with religion and explains how recent scholarship perceives a great deal of continuity from the classical period, which makes it difficult to distinguish anything particularly new, or Hellenistic, about religion in this period. None the less, Potter argues, various questions can be asked which demonstrate that the situation is not so simple, and a redefinition, or expansion, of ideas as to what exactly constitutes religion is perhaps required. He identifies the interaction between points of continuity and areas where new religious practices evolved as one of the most significant features of the period and suggests that an ancient equivalent of Rip Van Winkle would not have noticed particularly great changes in religious practice at a structural level; he might, for example, notice some new gods, but would be familiar with the concept of the polis, incorporating new cults. He would, however, Potter proposes, be on unfamiliar terrain in later Seleucid or Ptolemaic imperial territory, because the contact between Greek and Eastern religious thought created a great range of newly-evolved and interwoven traditions.

Potter’s chapter, particularly his examination of the differences between cults for human heroism and those for euergetism, leads neatly to Chaniotis’ investigation of Hellenistic ruler cult. Taking as his starting point the paradoxical concept of mortal divinity, he considers the variety of ways in which Alexander was worshipped and how this was translated into cult by the successor kingdoms. Chaniotis warns that a distinction must be made between a ruler cult introduced by a polis and that established by the rulers themselves; this latter type must itself be divided between a cult of a deceased royal family member and (much later) the introduction by a ruler of a cult of himself. As Chaniotis notes, the success of Hellenistic ruler cults is signified by their place in the ideology of the principate, with Ptolemaic Egypt playing an important role in their transmission to Rome: Augustus’ cult was itself Hellenistic in some respects, and no less conceptually paradoxical.

In the final section, Rebecca Flemming looks at “Empires of Knowledge: Medicine and Health in the Hellenistic World”; Phillip Mitsis, at “The Institutions of Hellenistic Philosophy”; Richard Hunter, at “Literature and its Contexts; and Andrew Stewart, at Hellenistic Art, AD 1500-2000”. Although art and science often seem to be deemed fit only to mop up after the big guns have finished firing, on this occasion they could be argued to be among the best, deliberately saved for last. Flemming discusses Hellenistic medical knowledge and practice as part of an imperialist discourse and suggests that although scholarship has tended to avoid concepts of colonialism, such an approach adds another layer of understanding, particularly of the relationships between knowledge and imperialism. Flemming is at pains to stress that she is not simply making a moral point: there are issues of understanding at stake. Insights gained from the connections between knowledge and empire from other periods can illuminate Hellenistic medicine, whether the dissections, and even vivisections, carried out by Herophilos and Erasistratos in early Ptolemaic Alexandria, or the reasons that their researches seem largely incidental to their wider medical practices. Mitsis deconstructs the very idea of the philosophical ‘school’, and argues that the familiar labels of Epicurean, Stoic, Academic, and Peripatetic, might actually serve to obscure the way in which Hellenistic philosophy did not form a stable and institutionally-structured system but rather comprised a series of individuals who espoused ‘schools’ of thought, with consequent shifts of focus and ideas forming in each new generation.

Hunter surveys the highly-fragmented picture of Hellenistic literature formed from the scattered surviving texts and investigates how display and self-representation function in a literature that is itself representative of a formative period for reception theory. Ranging through Hellenistic comedy, Theocritean Idylls and Callimachean Hymns, Hunter traces the dissolution of Classical song culture into Hellenistic book culture, and its place in elite Alexandrian society, and suggests that the proliferation of female personae implies a ‘heightened sense of female identity’. As he concludes, we might remain unaware of what Nausikaa feels, but we have no doubts about Medea. In the final enthralling chapter, Stewart provides a multiplicity of Laokoons to trace the history of scholarship in Hellenistic art, while discussing and analyzing issues and theories that make the Laokoon, and Hellenistic art itself, shift and metamorphose before one’s very eyes. In this book it is difficult to single out any one chapter that simply has to be read; none the less, I have already drawn particular attention to Gabrielsen, and would also highlight Flemming, and Ma. Stewart’s contribution, however, should be compulsory reading not only for students and general readers, but also for scholars: the best really has been saved for last.

I am sure that some of the authors will feel that I have not done justice to their contributions, or that I have myself been guilty of applying the broad brush that I accused them of sometimes using. I have been concerned, however, to cover as briefly as possible the main issues and themes with which the collection deals, and to offer an idea of the wealth of material it contains. Even so, this review is far longer than I intended, and I hope that the contributors, and others, will take this as an indication of how much I enjoyed, and gained from, this Companion, which I recommend without reservation. It is extremely well edited and referenced, with comprehensive lists of abbreviations of both ancient authors and reference works, and a good bibliography and index. The choice of cover illustration (a basalt Egyptian-style statue of Ptolemy I) is inspired, illustrating pictorially what the book conveys in erudite scholarship: a fusion of themes and cultures in a politically- and socially-diverse but unified world, which provided continuity for its distinct heritages whilst evolving an individuality of its own.