BMCR 2007.06.32

The Hellenistic Age. A Short History

, The Hellenistic age : a short history. Modern Library chronicles book ; 27. New York: Modern Library, 2007. xxxiii, 199 pages : maps ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780679642794 $21.95.

In The Hellenistic Age: A Short History, Peter Green (hereafter G.) offers the nonspecialist reader a concise, well-written introduction to three centuries of political, economic and social history. The book has its flaws, but is nevertheless a welcome addition to the ever-expanding corpus of works on the Hellenistic Age.

As G. makes plain in the Preface and Acknowledgements (ix-xi), his views on the Hellenistic Age have not changed all that much since Alexander to Actium (1990), his widely praised (and much longer) history of the period. G. has drawn on new works and modified his outlook somewhat since Alexander, but major departures from the earlier work are few in The Hellenistic Age. Here, G. proposes to write a continuous, diachronic and brief survey of the epoch. He acknowledges the pitfalls inherent in this approach—the necessity of juggling many sources and themes at the same time, the need to digress repeatedly and at length—but defends his choice as the most even-handed, historiographically speaking (ix-x). The decision has its merits, though as will become clear in what follows, not everything works perfectly.

The lengthy Introduction (xv-xxxiii) is divided into two parts: “Background” (xv-xx) and “Sources” (xx-xxxiii). In “Background,” G. defines his chronological bounds for the Hellenistic Age: Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire (334-323 B.C.) and Octavian’s defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium (31 B.C.) (xv). He deals in quick succession with the origin of the term “Hellenistic” (xv-xvi), the history of scholarship on the Hellenistic Age (xvi-xvii), the position of the Greek poleis under the Hellenistic monarchies (xvii-xviii) and the overall lack of change in the everyday lives of most who lived during the period (xviii-xix), and concludes with a brief discussion of some of the geographic and political transformations that occurred throughout these three hundred-odd years (xix-xx). In “Sources,” G. gives a very detailed survey of the source material for the Hellenistic Age. Given his intended (broad) readership, G. cites mostly sources that are in-print and in English, and largely ignores scholarly journals. In the section on Alexander (xxi-xxvi), G. has as his overwhelming focus the five major literary accounts of Alexander’s campaigns—Diodorus, Curtius, Justin, Plutarch and Arrian—but also cites the numismatic evidence and the influence of the so-called Alexander Romance. In G.’s account of the source material for the three hundred years after Alexander’s death (xxvi-xxxiii), he showcases not only the historical works that survive, both major (Trogus, Polybius) and fragmentary (Hieronymus, Duris, Timaeus, Phylarchus, Aratus, Philochorus, Posidonius), but also a number of philosophical (Aristotle, Theophrastus), geographical (Strabo, Pausanias) and miscellaneous (Athenaeus) works (xxvi-xxix) and the abundant epigraphic, papyrological, numismatic and archaeological evidence (xxix-xxxiii).

In chapter one, “Alexander and His Legacy (336-323)” (1-18), G. begins his narrative with Philip II’s assassination in 336 B.C. and, in its aftermath, Alexander’s immediate response to problems at home and abroad (4-9). He singles out for special mention the destruction of Thebes and the consequences of that destruction: all of Greece was immediately cowed, but in the long run became very hostile towards Alexander (7-9). After a brief discussion of the pressing (that is, financial) need for the Macedonian invasion of Persia (10-11) and a quick glance at the perceived weaknesses of the Persian empire and the heavily discounted real strengths of the Achaemenids in the 330’s B.C. (11-14), G. turns to an evaluation of Alexander’s legacy (14-18), skipping over his many military conquests. In G.’s view, Alexander’s campaign against the Persian empire, though promoted as a panhellenic crusade, was in reality little more than an expedition of conquest and plunder carried out primarily by Macedonians with little support from the Greek mainland. Alexander had no master pan for his expedition, which “began with an urgent need for booty and ended in megalomania” (16) and was ultimately more disruptive than constructive. Yet for his generals, several of whom would become kings in a short time, Alexander served as the model for a new kind of monarchy, one in which the head of state maintained absolute control, but did not impose overly restrictive cultural mandates upon his subjects, instead adopting aspects of the native culture to suit his own ends.

In the second chapter, “Hawks and Hyenas: The Struggle for Empire (323-276)” (19-41), G. examines the roughly fifty-year period after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. He traces the debate over the succession and the settlements made by Alexander’s successors (23-25), as well as the Greek revolt that broke out in the immediate aftermath of his death (25-26), but devotes most of this chapter to a condensed survey of the myriad battles, alliances and betrayals of 323-276 B.C. (26-41). This last task is a daunting one, and perhaps inevitably doomed to a certain degree of failure in a short history like G.’s. There are dozens of players in the drama and precious few pages in which to tell their stories or familiarize the reader with their personalities or ambitions; and since G. omits an account of Alexander’s campaigns, the general reader comes in with little to no background on his generals and followers. Once the king is dead and the infighting begins, it is easy to get lost. Nevertheless, the general picture is clear: the period 323-276 B.C. was one of constant warfare and ever-changing political geography. G. writes with concision, confidence and wit, even when the names, dates and battles are piling up in quick succession. He makes it quite clear to his reader that the dream of maintaining Alexander’s empire took a long time to die. Yet by 276 B.C., with independent kingdoms firmly established in Macedonia, Asia Minor and Egypt, it was effectively dead.

In chapter three, “Kings, Cities, and Culture: The Mythic Past as the Future” (43-63), G. steps aside from the historical narrative to describe a number of the social, political and economic developments of the early Hellenistic Age: the final elimination of the Barbarian Other (46-47); the proliferation of cities throughout the Greek world (47-50); the increasingly common practice among rulers and even private individuals of taking on divine titles and attributes (50-51); the huge influx of Persian wealth into the eastern Mediterranean following Alexander’s invasions and its economic impact (51-55); the virtually non-stop warfare throughout the period (55-56); the emergence of new sources of inspiration for Hellenistic literature and the development of library culture and systems of classification (56-60); the emergence of the wealthy patron state, exemplified by Ptolemaic Egypt (60-62); and finally, the explosion in geographical knowledge made possible by Alexander’s campaigns (62-63). G. portrays Greek culture in the Hellenistic Age as variegated and complex, a product of many influences from both within the Greek world and without. His apposite statement about Hellenistic literature applies to Hellenistic culture in general: “[t]radition and innovation, past and future, were to fuse in a precarious, but at times brilliant, tension of opposites” (57).

In chapter four, “Eastern Horizons and the Cloud in the West (276-196)” (65-85), G. begins (67-71) with an examination of the newly-established successor kingdoms via the major campaigns launched and the alliances forged between them, and follows this (71-75) with an account of the struggle between Antigonus Doson and Ptolemy III (won by Antigonus in 222 B.C.) and conflicts in mainland Greece. From here, G. considers some of the results of the political and military turbulence of the times (75-78): increased hiring of mercenaries, property destruction, commandeering of livestock, compulsory billeting and use of slave labor; growing fear among the elite of slave revolt and a preoccupation with keeping slaves busy; and an intensification in the activity of pirates—whom G. likens to oil cartels (77)—as suppliers for the slave trade. In a short and somewhat out-of-place section on erotica (78-79), G. suggests that a decrease in civic engagement during the Hellenistic Age was in large part responsible for the gradual abandonment of formal pederasty and the increasing promotion of heterosexual, familial bonds (especially marriage), and highlights the growing fascination with feminized sculpture and depictions of hermaphrodites. G. closes the chapter (79-85) with a discussion of developments in Italy and the beginning of Roman involvement in the Greek world, specifically the struggle with Macedon, the first act of which ended with Rome’s victory over Philip V at Cynoscephalae (197 B.C.).

In chapter five, “Dynastic Troubles, Artistic and Scientific Achievements (196-116)” (87-107), G. assesses some of the results of Roman penetration into the eastern Mediterranean. He sketches the tensions between Rome and Antiochus III and the virtual elimination of Antiochus as a major power by 188 B.C. (89-91); the deteriorating relationship between Rome and Macedon, culminating in the Roman victory at Pydna in 168 B.C. which ended Macedonian independence once and for all (91-94); and the conflict between Antiochus IV and Ptolemy VI, which eventually prompted Roman intervention and a forced guarantee of peace from Antiochus on the so-called Day of Eleusis in 168 B.C. (94-95). Increased Roman involvement in the eastern Mediterranean had a number of unanticipated cultural side effects: for instance, widespread Roman looting of Greek artwork and a boom in production of Greek sculpture for Roman patrons (95-96). As time wore on, size and ostentation became more and more important in the production of visual art, alongside a new experimentalism in subject matter (96-98). Near the end of the chapter (98-100), G. examines some of the scientific achievements of the period, devoting special attention to astrology and astronomy. Finally, G. treats the Roman conquest of Attalid Pergamon in 130 B.C. and the defeat of the Achaean League at Corinth in 146 B.C. (100-101), and follows this with a survey of developments—and decline—in the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires (101-107).

In the final chapter, “Sword over Pen: Rome’s Final Solution (116-30)” (109-130), G. draws things to a close. He begins with a brief overview of internal troubles in the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties (111-113) and the threat to Rome posed by Mithridates VI (114-117), and digresses on the development of ethical philosophy, especially Stoicism and Epicureanism (117-120). The second half of the chapter (120-130) is devoted to the last fifty years of the Hellenistic Age. The end of the first century B.C. saw the end not only of the Hellenistic successor kingdoms, but also of the Roman Republic. The latter was replaced by the empire of Augustus, which G. calls a “larger, better-run, and ultimately less exploitative Hellenistic-style kingdom” (121). This final period saw a resurgence in piracy and Pompey’s virtual elimination of it in 67 B.C. (122-123), as well as Pompey’s settlement of the East, which spelled the end for the Seleucid (123-124) and (eventually) Ptolemaic dynasties (124-129). G. concludes the chapter (129-130) with a very brief summary of what he considers a few of the most important characteristics of the Hellenistic Age: the constant competition between monarchs, the emergence of the Roman legion as the most effective massed fighting formation, the futile attempts of the Hellenistic kings to restore peace and prosperity in the eastern Mediterranean (something only accomplished by Augustus); and finally—and with special emphasis—the very limited amount of change that took place in the everyday lives of average people. This conclusion is abrupt and too brief (two paragraphs) and forms an unsatisfying end to a book that presents the Hellenistic Age as a period not only of fighting, stagnation and decline, but also of advances and innovation, however limited.

To complement the book, G. provides three appendices: a “Selective Chronological Table” (131-146), a selection of “Maps and Genealogies” (147-159) and a “Guide to Further Reading” (161-165). These are all very well done, though one might quibble that most of the cities on the map labeled “Alexander’s Journey” (148-149) do not have dots marking their locations and that the map entitled “Mainland Greece and the Aegean Basin” (153) is a bit cramped (though when such a map is confined to one page, this is perhaps inevitable). The “Guide” deserves extra credit for its clarity and directness, as well as for pointing the reader to a number of websites and online discussion groups for more information. The Bibliography (167-178) is brief and, as promised, heavy on English works. The book ends with a list of Abbreviations (179-180), the Notes (181-185) and the Index (187-199).

G.’s book is part of the Modern Library’s Chronicles series, described in the publisher’s own words as “a series of small-format hardcover originals, featuring the world’s great historians on the world’s great subjects. These authoritative, lively, brief (most under 150 pages), and accessible books … bring history within the reach of the nonspecialist, the general reader.” G.’s book fulfills these aims very well, though there are a few problems. Chief among these is the fact that the work veers at times outside the grasp of the nonspecialist, mainly because G.’s topic is so wide-ranging and his space so limited. Readers without a background in the history of the last three centuries B.C. will inevitably find themselves lost from time to time, especially in those parts of the book where several different men with names like Ptolemy, Seleucus and Antiochus (and women with names like Cleopatra) appear on the same page. In addition, the digressions on culture and society, though illuminating and crucial to a full portrait of the period, do not always fit perfectly into the overarching chronological framework. As a result, it is not always clear what the relationship of a given digression is (if any) to the chronological limits of the chapter in which it appears. For example, the discussion of scientific achievements is placed in chapter five, which covers the years 196-116 B.C.; consequently, should the reader assume that there were few or no scientific achievements before or after these years? Finally, G.’s prose, though of the highest quality and uniformly lively, witty and smart, is perhaps sometimes too heavy on less-than-mainstream vocabulary and foreign phrases (e.g.: summum bonum [xvi]; meliorist [xvii]; farrago [xxiii]; mouvementé [xix]; de haut en bas [xx]; Machtpolitik [24]; faute de mieux [57]). This degree of refinement is fine for the educated specialist, but the “general reader” targeted by G.’s publisher may find it a bit frustrating.

On the whole, however, these are minor complaints. As G. makes clear at the beginning (x), his book is intended as a starting point for further reading and research, not a comprehensive history of the Hellenistic period. As a starting point, The Hellenistic Age is just about as well-researched, well-reasoned and well-written as it gets.