BMCR 2004.03.19

The Hellenistic Period: Historical Sources in Translation. Blackwell Sourcebooks in Ancient History

, , The Hellenistic Period : Historical Sources in Translation.. Malden, MA and Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2007. 1 online resource (350 pages). ISBN 9781405143448 $32.95.

This book is a carefully revised edition of an older volume of primary sources collected by the same editors and formerly published as Greek Historical Documents: The Hellenistic Period (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981). The well-known expertise of Roger Bagnall in papyrology has eminently qualified him for selecting and commenting on the papyri included in this edition. Peter Derow’s attested skill in epigraphy provides a fitting complement that instills confidence in the treatment of the inscriptions included in the book. The introductions to each text, the brief commentaries on the texts, and bibliographical references have been updated. Sources not found in the first edition also have been added. In both the translations and interpretive material the authors display meticulous and impeccable scholarship. The new edition thus will continue to provide a highly serviceable textbook of English translations for students and a convenient tool for quick reference by historians.

The Preface delimits the collection and thereby preempts criticism for what the book does not contain (pp. xvii-xix). First, the book does not include any literary texts, a limitation for which the authors themselves express regret. Despite the disadvantages of such a limitation, it does allow a greater number of the less accessible documentary texts to appear within the confines of a book of this size. Second, while the book was partly intended to function independently, it was primarily designed to serve as a companion volume to standard textbooks surveying the history of the Hellenistic period. This explains the absence of maps and an introductory survey of the period, which might otherwise be expected in a book of this nature.

The book does include extremely useful aids for the student, however. The most important of these are the short introductions to each text, which are written in a clear English style and provide helpful orientation to the meaning and significance of each source. The publishers enhanced the functional clarity of these introductions for student use by wisely setting them apart in shaded boxes just before the printed translation of each primary source. The book also includes a short note on the standard sigla used to indicate lacunae and other features in the texts (pp. xxi). The authors further provide a helpful introduction to the problems and value of working with documentary sources (pp. xxiv-xxix). A well-written appendix on Ptolemaic administration illuminates the organizational framework in Egypt so that readers have a context for the many officials and activities referred to in the papyri (pp. 285-88). Tables and charts include a list of months in various calendars, a brief currency table, and chronologies of the Ptolemies, Seleucids, Antigonids, and Attalids (pp. 289-92). A glossary of technical terms and Greek and Latin words is also provided (pp. 293-300). For students, this glossary is in fact necessitated by the translators’ choice to leave many such words untranslated in the texts. Instructors will inevitably evaluate this choice differently depending on whether they are using the book as assigned reading in a highly specialized course in which knowledge of the technical terms is essential or a more general course in which basic familiarity with history and culture is the goal.

The sources themselves are sensibly organized into nine chapters, most of which conveniently arrange the texts in chronological order. Chapter one, “Political History,” is understandably the longest chapter (pp. 1-110). This chapter includes civic decrees and other sources that chronologically illustrate the chief political developments in the Hellenistic period. Chapter two, “The Foreign Possessions of the Ptolemies,” includes a brief selection of texts dealing with Ptolemaic trade and related issues (pp. 111-18). Chapter three, “Life in Greek Cities,” illuminates laws, trade relations, and various practices, primarily in the cities of Greece, Macedonia, the Aegean, and Asia Minor (pp. 119-43). Chapter 4, “The Bureaucracy of Ptolemaic Egypt,” includes texts dealing with taxation and other issues in the administration of Egypt (pp. 144-62). Chapter 5, “The Royal Economy of Egypt,” concentrates on issues such as irrigation, the grain supply, and the royal oil monopoly in Egypt (pp. 163-198). Chapter 6, “The Military and Police of Ptolemaic Egypt,” includes a brief selection of texts dealing with supplies for the navy, cleruchies, and related issues (pp. 199-205). Chapter 7, “The Ptolemaic Legal and Judicial System,” includes records of trials, judicial appeals, and other texts illustrating the legal history of Ptolemaic Egypt (pp. 206-228). Chapter 8, “Social Relations and Private Life,” includes papyri typical of daily life, such as a deed for the sale of a slave girl, a marriage contract, and private wills (pp. 229-46). Chapter 9, “Religion,” includes sources from various Greek sites and Egypt that attest to religious practices in the Hellenistic period (pp. 247-84). Epigraphic sources dominate the chapter on political history, the one on life in Greek cities, and the first major section of the chapter on religion. Papyrological sources are the rule in the texts from Egypt. The disproportionate attention that the book gives to papyri from the deserts of Egypt is, of course, dictated by the inherent disparity that climate and geography have created in the preservation of sources.

The book also supplies a list of abbreviations and concordances between the document numbers in the volume and numbers of papyri, inscriptions, and the earlier edition of the volume. It concludes with a useful index of persons, places, and subjects.

The major contribution of the book is its presentation of so many well-chosen primary sources in a readable format that can be easily adapted to classroom use. Most instructors will be pleased to find that this book includes their favorite paradigmatic texts and many of the “classic” texts that repeatedly enter into discussions of the Hellenistic period. A partial list of examples includes the Decree of Chremonides, SIG [3] 434-35 (no. 19); decrees of Smyrna and Magnesia at the end of the Third Syrian War, OGIS 229 et al. (no. 29); letters and decrees demonstrating the relations between Philip V and Thessalian Larisa, SIG [3] 543 (no. 32); the Ptolemaic amnesty decree, P. Tebt. 1.5 (no. 54); the gymnasiarchal law of Beroia, based on the edition of Gauthier and Hatzopoulos (no. 78); the Amphictyonic coinage decree, SIG [3] 729 (no. 82); the letter of Apollonios on Ptolemaic coinage, P. Cair. Zen. 1.59021 (no. 102); duties of the oikonomos, P. Tebt. 3.703 (no. 103); the revenue laws of Ptolemy Philadelphos, SB Bh. 1 ( P. Rev.; no. 114); the Canopus Decree (no. 164); and the Rosetta Stone (no. 165). Not surprisingly, it is in the papyri that one finds the major window into the life of individuals outside of the circles of elite political figures. Women of the lower classes, for example, appear in some of the texts, especially in the sections on social relations and religion (e.g., nos. 143, 166, 173).

The translations are consistently clear and reliable. The editors usually have chosen to include complete texts whenever possible, which is a refreshing alternative to the frustrating experience of using other sourcebooks that sometimes omit the key part of the text upon which one wanted to focus a classroom discussion. The great danger of using fragmentary documents, which is to include too many conjectures to fill out lacunae or to rely on outdated readings of the texts, is consistently avoided in the volume. Instructors also can be confident that the comments on the texts represent the current state of the question on most of the texts in the volume. Among the many examples of these methodological virtues is the cautious approach taken to P. Bingen 45, which recently attracted a flurry of popular media attention because of the possibility that it included the signature of the famous Cleopatra VII herself (no. 63).

As a sourcebook, it is quite simply difficult to find fault with this book because it so admirably achieves what should be accomplished in a book of this nature. Selecting sources is a daunting task because something always must be left out. Thus it is intrinsically impossible for a sourcebook to cover every instructor’s own unique tastes and special interests. For example, one limitation in the book’s concentration on sources in Greek is that some texts illustrating indigenous regional developments preserved in other languages do not appear in the volume. It would, however, require a broader array of specialists and a much larger volume to rectify this and other minor gaps in the sources included in this book. Many of the other limitations in the sources included in the book are unfortunately inherent in the preserved ancient texts themselves. Most readers will be pleased with the judicious and relatively comprehensive selection of texts. Instructors can be assured that these texts will provide more than adequate coverage for most courses in which this volume would be used.

One possible area in which this book might be improved in a future edition is admittedly tangential to its delimited goals and value as a collection of documentary texts. This is in the use of illustrations, which (like documentary texts) can often present data otherwise difficult of access that complements literary texts.1 The book does include ten plates, almost all of excellent quality. Also included are useful diagrams of a bakery and an agricultural parcel, although they are presented in a format that may be unintelligible to many English-speaking students (pp. 157, 170). All but one of these illustrations are from Egypt. Plates and site plans from archaeological sites in Greece and other regions outside of Egypt would enhance the usefulness of the book by better rounding out the sources it contains and partly compensating for the limited number of written sources preserved from these regions. It must be strongly reaffirmed, however, that the present edition of the book superbly fulfills the editors’ stated goals. The presence of any illustrations at all must be viewed as an added bonus to the documentary sources in the volume.

In general this book will serve its primary target audience of students exceptionally well. It deserves to function as a workhorse in all courses in which primary sources from the Hellenistic period are read. For any reader who would like direct exposure to the evidence used by historians of the Hellenistic period, this book will provide an illuminating, reliable, and accessible resource. Because it collects together so many texts that are scattered about in more obscure and more expensive publications, it should find a place on the shelf of every academic library’s collection of sources on antiquity. Its clarity of style, meticulous attention to detail, and sensitivity to current bibliography provide a model that should be emulated by other scholars contemplating the creation of their own sourcebooks.


1. E.g., Jane Rowlandson et al., ed., Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, Volume 2: A Sourcebook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).