BMCR 2006.11.08

The Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic World

, The Cambridge companion to the Hellenistic world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xxix, 371 pages, 14 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521828791. $29.99 (pb).

Table of Contents

The difficult question that faces the editor of any “companion text” such as this is, “Whose companion is the book intended to be?” Should the editor imagine an educated non-specialist who may be looking to the book for brief introductions to its topics? Or is it the specialist who may be interested in the state of the question in fields ancillary to her own interests? An undergraduate major in history? A graduate student preparing for his general examinations? Once that question is at least tentatively answered, the editor then faces an equally difficult problem of which topics to include. How broadly/narrowly can one cast the net without overwhelming the reader or constraining the contributors?

Glenn R. Bugh answers both questions in his introduction (1-8): he claims “…an audience that thirsts for more substance than a Hollywood movie on Alexander the Great” (6). The subject matter was determined by his desire to “…identify and explain what was new and different about the Hellenistic world and what was more properly a continuation of ideas, customs, institutions, and so forth, already evident in the Classical period.” In general, Bugh has succeeded: he and his contributors offer an introduction to a wide variety of topics, and, while many of the bibliographic notes that conclude each chapter speak to the specialist, the essays themselves are accessible to a generally educated reader. This would seem to me to distinguish Bugh’s Companion from the Blackwell Companion to the Hellenistic World edited by Andrew Erskine. The latter, in its greater length, number of topics and contributors, and bibliography, certainly appears to be the more specialized work; Erskine’s volume also appears somewhat more formulaic. By contrast, Bugh writes, “I challenged the contributors to ‘think outside of the box’ and…[t]his has led to some interesting approaches.” His assessment is fair: the contributions are diverse in approach and style; all are accessible and rewarding.

As far as I can determine, Cambridge University Press has not developed a template for its historical companions; this one may serve well. The book opens with brief vitae of the contributors, follows with a timeline, and provides three maps. The book concludes with a chart of five Hellenistic dynasties—Antigonid, Seleucid, Ptolemaic, Attalid and Greco-Bactrian, a 29-page bibliography to which all of the contributors refer in their essays and notes, and an 11-page index. The timeline seems rather heavily Roman, perhaps intentionally so; the maps (the inevitable route of Alexander, Hellenistic kingdoms, and Greece) are functional but certainly not remarkable. As for the bibliography, English language texts and articles predominate, but the contributors do not shy away from French, German or Italian listings.

Bugh opens the book with a short history of the term Hellenistic (the English translation of Droysen’s Hellenismus) and a chronological definition. He notes the absence of a contemporary, complete history for the period but points in particular to archaeology, papyrology, and numismatics (the last scarcely mentioned again by anyone) as major sources of new information. Then, after dealing with nuts-and-bolts issues of transliteration, general introductions to the period, and source/document collections, Bugh passes the baton to his contributors. Each of their essays fills about 20 pages of text on average (bibliographic comments and endnotes included).

A.B. Bosworth, who writes of “Alexander the Great and the Creation of the Hellenistic Age,” returns to Droysen. Whereas the latter had suggested that the Hellenistic world was born at Opis in 324, Bosworth argues that Alexander’s reign/campaign as well as the scramble that followed his death are the outgrowth of Philip’s vision, actions, and achievements. Bosworth suggests that the real birth of the new age occurs in 319, when Antipater “…in effect separated the Argead kingship from Alexander’s conquests in Asia” (23). In defense of his claim, Bosworth will roam further afield chronologically, but his primary foci are Alexander’s conquests and the inability of his immediate successors to amass and manage similar resources.

In “The Hellenistic Kingdoms,” Winthrop Lindsay Adams offers a brief account of the events between 323 and 319. The chaos of these years is reflected in the complexity of his narrative, and it bears careful reading. He then spends the bulk of his essay looking at the Ptolemaic, Seleucid and Antigonid kingdoms. Here the pace is slower and the view more panoramic. In his view, each of the three maintained the dream of Alexander even as they settled for a balance of power. Adams reviews the respective assets and defects of the kingdoms—the realities which produced the balance of power—and concludes with the observation that, when this balance began to break down, it was the smaller Hellenistic states who sought to preserve the status quo by appeals to Rome.

Graham Shipley and Mogens Hansen co-author the essay on “The Polis and Federalism.” They suggest that comparisons between old and new are rather more complex than they might appear at first glance. We must, in fact, juggle three balls when we look at the Hellenistic city: the classical “model,” its altered, Hellenistic successor, and the new foundations of the kings. Shipley and Hansen consider physical layout, civic institutions, society and external relations to establish their sense of continuity and change. Among other things they note that democratic states survive but with a debased definition. In order to substantiate their arguments, they offer case studies of Athens and Alexandria; having done so, they conclude that the general pattern is one of decreasing independence and increasing interdependence, less exclusivity but increasing elitism.

John K. Davies acknowledges from the outset the difficulty of writing about the “Hellenistic Economies.” Political or cultural history is not necessarily coterminous with economic history; moreover, the size and complexity of the Hellenistic world intimidate. Then there is the chronic problem of lack of evidence. But Davies is optimistic: He notes that there is much, significant work underway and predicts that much will change. (I believe that he is the only contributor to refer to the “effective lifetime of this book.”) His essay probably adheres most closely to the “continuity/change” theme proposed by Bugh. As evidence of stability he examines land and environment, resource use, communications, and land tenure. Monetization, kingdoms as economic agents, population transfers, slave trade, sea commerce, euergetism, and the increasing role of Rome are all inter alia markers of change. Davies expects that his enumeration of stabilities will provoke few arguments and that the list of changes might provoke more discussion; it is on the changes, therefore, that he concentrates. Of his conclusion he is quite confident: there is little doubt that there was greater integration in the economy of the Hellenistic world.

Dorothy J. Thompson opens her essay, “The Hellenistic Family,” with the translation of a marriage contract which she uses to raise questions about the changes to marriage and family life in the post-Alexander world. To answer, she looks at the new royal families, the traditional Greek family, Greek families abroad, and non-Greek families. Within the royal families she notes close ties but increasingly broad definitions of relations. In the traditional Greek world, marriage and family life were impacted by the rise of sympoliteia. Abroad Greeks lived in households with more non-kin dependants than did their native neighbors; moreover, the original, cleruch status of many of the Greeks abroad saw an increase in the number of households led by a Greek male and a native wife. By contrast, non-Greeks, at least Egyptians, seem to have maintained their own marriage and family cultures largely unchanged by Greek influence. Thompson believes that, though the world was more tolerant of difference and variation, “Greekness” did matter—especially as one neared the centers of power or the traditional world of the Greeks.

The title “History and Rhetoric” foreshadows Graham Oliver’s understanding and treatment of the disciplines, but, as he himself indicates, the real subject of his contribution is the twin strands of history writers and history makers. This leads him to discussions of Polybius and historiography; history, rhetoric and paideia; and the employment of rhetoric by history writers and history makers. Quite naturally Polybius looms large in all three sections of the chapter. Polybius’ regard for the actors within his own histories—his examples are Philopoimen and Scipio—is then ratified by Oliver in a brief study of the Kolophonian Menippus; all three of these figures were masters of action and rhetoric. Oliver shows us both within and outside the text of Polybius that this is a mark of the Hellenistic world.

Susan Rotroff’s piece on material culture opens with an ironic quotation: “It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.” The irony lies in the fact that the source provided is unidentifiable. That said, the chapter provides a good introduction to the whole concept of material culture: how one might distinguish it from archaeology, how it works, and what significance it has. As she reports, “Material culture…is not a very accurate indicator of the more momentous events of history; its strength lies in investigation of the more slowly evolving social and economic patterns of the Hellenistic world” (141). Sifting through the materials she has available, Rotroff then shows us how the study of amphorae or strigils or dinnerware might be used to address issues of trade, acculturation, gender and the like. The chapter offers a tray of hors d’oeuvres from which to sample the virtues of the study of material culture—just a taste of many applications. Noteworthy is the bibliographical note with which she concludes her essay; it strikes me as the most useful of all of them in the collection.

Andrew Stewart, who tackles the subject of “Hellenistic Art,” chooses a telling subtitle for his essay: “Two Dozen Innovations.” This is a retort to those who will argue that Hellenistic is “derivative and sterile.” He then proceeds to offer just what he has promised—a brief discussion of those developments which he believes to distinguish and define the art of the age. Many of his entries are significant but unsurprising: the arts of power, rococo, the tessellated mosaic. At other times one could argue that the two dozen might have been reduced by a few; I am not sure that polychrome jewelry, the cameo and open-hooped earrings might not equally well have been lumped under a broader rubric. The chapter, nonetheless, does make for an interesting romp through a wide variety of the arts, and, placed immediately after Rotroff’s article on material culture, perhaps it is quibbling to deny earrings their own note. Stewart’s approach is just what Bugh called for; it’s rather “outside the box.” As a final note, it is in service of this chapter that most of the twenty-five figures and illustrations of the text are collected.

My sympathy goes out to Nita Krevans and Alexander Sens who were faced with the daunting task of reviewing Hellenistic language and literature within the confines of a chapter; careful selection and laconic writing were the orders of the day. The chapter opens with a brief discussion of the rise of koine; the literature section then narrows its focus to “scholars and poets.” Thus the Museum of Alexandria and those who worked and wrote there assume pride of place. After an interesting discussion of the critical studies which provided the background and the framework for Alexandrian literature, the authors focus on Kallimachos, Apollonios, and Theokritos and conclude with a catch-all of varia. The elephant in the room at chapter’s end is Menander and all New Comedy; while recognizing that, in a handbook, the three poets could not be ignored, it would have been nice to see Menander get honorable mention.

In the shortest contribution to the Companion, Jon Mikalson notes that the changes or developments in Hellenistic times are generally the product of religious multiculturalism in the large urban centers, which in turn was born of increased movement and mixing of populations. Outside the poleis Greeks were looking for deities concerned for them rather their city or kingdom; non-Greeks too looked to their personal welfare. Mikalson notes as well the rise of personifications, chief among whom may have been Tyche, who was worshiped—somewhat counterintuitively—in order to influence her. Ruler worship, hero cults, and the increased role of the wealthy also receive attention, all of which lead Mikalson to challenge any assessment that suggests that Hellenistic religion is a debased form of a classical ideal. By the same token he is unwilling to see in the Hellenistic world the flower of these seeds of change; i.e., he cautions us not to confuse, in matters religious, the Hellenistic period with the Roman empire.

Robert Sharples headlines the ethical component of Hellenistic “Philosophy for Life;” thus we read the expected introduction to Epicureans and Stoics. Of equal importance in his mind are the contributions of the Cynics and Skeptics who get more than usual attention. In fact, the entire chapter is a skillful weaving of the four philosophic strands; at the end emerges a nuanced picture of the interrelationships among these different attitudes or philosophical doctrines. Virtue and virtuous behavior are the goal of Hellenistic philosophy, and Sharples thus leads us to that topic before circling back to the issue of certainty and/or skepticism. Of interest to students of Roman history is his discussion of the growing philosophical interchange between Greece and Rome in the second century; in the same section he also examines the epistemological shifts in the philosophical schools at Athens. He concludes his essay with a brief discussion of the absence of political theory or social critique in Hellenistic philosophy; intellectual conclusions did not necessarily bring about societal changes.

It likely says more about me than about the authors, but I found the next two contributions to the Companion to be the most interesting. The first is a chapter by Paul T. Keyser and Georgia Irby-Massie on “Science, Medicine and Technology.” Here I was the anticipated handbook user—coming to a subject with which I am less comfortable and looking for intelligible explanations of unfamiliar material. In the introduction they acknowledge the importance of the Museum of Alexandria; this leads in turn to comments on the library there, its rivals, and its history. The section on science deals with methodology and moves on to highlight the achievements in mathematics, geometry and geography, and astronomy; in other fields the Hellenistic scholars were more likely to be collectors than analysts except in the field of physiognomy. The discussion of medicine confirms our impressions that physicians were more adept at and comfortable with theory than diagnosis. Even when serious investigation occurred (Herophilus of Chalkedon, Erasistratos of Kos, and Asklepiades of Prusias are the chosen exemplars), traditional practices trumped innovation. The section on technology which concludes the chapter roams widely; engineering, food production, water works, military hardware, and transport are noted. Keyser and Irby-Massie conclude with a paean to the achievements of the Hellenistic world where, they argue, technological innovation was promoted and achieved.

In addition to his editorial responsibilities, Glenn Bugh contributes the longest chapter of the book with his essay on “Hellenistic Military Developments.” From the outset Bugh acknowledges that “…the most significant developments in Greek warfare took place in the course of the fourth century.” So what is to be said of Hellenistic warfare? Bugh argues that fourth-century developments were magnified; gigantism reigned! Moreover, professionalism and technology were the hallmarks of armies raised no longer by city-states but by kings. Bugh then launches into a swift primer on Hellenistic military history—looking at infantry, cavalry, “really, really big ships,” elephants and technology. Along the way he introduces and explains many of the technical terms that distinguish Hellenistic from classical warfare. He concludes with a brief bow to the flexibility of the Roman legion which, at Kynokephalae (will we ever reach some accord on transliteration?), demonstrated its superiority to the Macedonian phalanx, though he does wonder aloud how Alexander might have fared there.

Erich Gruen, who contributed a similar piece to the Blackwell Companion, addresses here the issue of “Greeks and Non-Greeks.” He notes the increasing difficulty with the classical dichotomy which lumped all the non-Greeks under the pejorative barbaroi, while acknowledging that Hellenistic Greeks never completely abandoned the term nor the mentality. The major portion of his contribution focuses on the inventive fictions by which Greeks and non-Greeks claimed links and/or precedence. Perseus in Libya, Evander in Italy, Dardanos in Troy, Herakles in Rome—all point to the Hellenic roots of the multi-cultured Mediterranean world. “A different permutation,” as he calls it, relates the Jews and the Greeks in a “double loop,” wherein Jews embrace Greek philosophy which itself is based on Jewish wisdom (302). Perhaps the most interesting of example of this cultural competition is drawn from the Alexander Romance and its account of the Egyptian Nectanebo, the reported father of Alexander. Gruen’s examination points out that the (chronologically impossible) tale produces a mixed message in which neither Egyptian nor Macedonian egos are stroked. More important, he notes that in this legend the Hellene/barbarian distinction has entirely disappeared; the Hellenistic storytellers find reason to associate and celebrate both peoples. In all this Gruen sees a blurring of boundaries.

The Companion concludes with a return appearance by D. Graham Shipley, who offers a brief look at “Recent Trends and New Directions.” Shipley acknowledges the revolution in the study of the Hellenistic world but on the very next page feels the need to descry the neglect from which the period has suffered. This, in turn, he explains by noting the absence of a universally celebrated author and the complexity of its history and culture. He next cites the 1973 effort of John Ferguson to demonstrate that the Hellenistic world has striking similarities to our world; while Shipley counters that we really don’t need to justify an interest in the period, he believes that this world “…had a legacy which must not be minimized” (318). Asking himself how we might approach this period, he responds with a suggestion of comparative studies between the Classical and Hellenistic world in areas like economy, citizenship, gender relations, and literature. He finishes by urging archaeologists to undertake “a synthetic survey of urban architecture” (322); to historians he assigns the task of looking at the impact of political changes on “Old Greece” (324).

In general the book is carefully edited, though I did note grammatical slips on pages 115, 121, and 275. The figures and illustrations are nicely produced in black and white; however, it would have been useful to add page references (to the list of illustrations) for the six figures not found with the others. The price makes the text accessible even for financially strapped students; may it ever be!