BMCR 2018.06.05

Great Power Diplomacy in the Hellenistic World

, Great Power Diplomacy in the Hellenistic World. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. 264. ISBN 9781472484291. $149.95.


Logos ’, asserts Eteokles in Euripides’ Phoinissai, overpowers ‘everything that the sword of enemies might accomplish’ (516-7). Plutarch recalls the line in his Life of Pyrrhus, applying it to the king’s most trusted envoy, Kineas, widely celebrated for his rhetorical prowess: more cities had been won by Kineas’s speeches, Pyrrhus himself allegedly said, than by his own arms. The function of logoi, of negotiations, treaties, and other such alternatives to warfare, lies at the heart of John D. Grainger’s comprehensive new study, Great Power Diplomacy in the Hellenistic World. The book is light on critical analysis and synthesis; many of the chapters read as a catalogue raisonné of diplomatic episodes rather than a systematic investigation of the structures and mechanisms of diplomacy in the Hellenistic period. Nevertheless, Grainger marshals his considerable knowledge of the Hellenistic world to make a good case for the unique character of international affairs in the two centuries after the death of Alexander, showing in the process what we can gain by explaining the interactions among the Antigonids, Seleucids, Ptolemies, and Romans in terms of their diplomacy, not simply of their wars.

In a brief Introduction, Grainger clarifies the bounds of his study. Acknowledging that the Greeks did not themselves recognize a distinct field of ‘diplomacy’,1 he nevertheless follows general precedent in using the term to refer more broadly to non-militant interstate relations, to a set of practices, including ‘alliances, royal marriages, treaties of peace, extended negotiations, … preparations for war, and spying and disruption’ (3), through which states sought to ‘control and manage disputes, avoid wars, but also to score points and “diplomatic triumphs”’(7).2 Grainger’s focus is on the years between 323 and about 100 BCE; and while he overstates previous neglect of Hellenistic diplomacy (6),3 his emphasis on what he calls the ‘Great Powers’, viz. the three major kingdoms and Rome, does distinguish his project from other studies of foreign relations in the Hellenistic period, which tend to prioritize the role of the poleis. This attention to king-initiated diplomacy, however, means short shrift for some important diplomatic tools and strategies employed by polities in the Hellenistic period, like proxeny, asylia, and what Christopher Jones and others have called ‘kinship diplomacy’.4

Grainger divides his study into thirteen chapters grouped into four parts. In Part One, ‘Techniques and Practices’, he argues that diplomacy in the Hellenistic period was qualitatively distinct from what came before and after. He begins (Chapter 1) by tracking the development of what he sees as a ‘generally accepted’ and functional system, which emerged from the interactions among Alexander’s generals at the end of the fourth century BCE. Most of these men, Grainger points out, were from the Macedonian elite, and the mutual trust and respect with which they conducted their negotiations, along with their reverence for the authority of the oath, resulted in unusually stable treaties, often lasting until the death of one of the treaty-making parties. This was the case even for successive generations, whose members lacked the camaraderie of the Diadochoi; in fact, as Grainger shows through a précis of the first several Syrian Wars (12-14), the durability of treaties among the Hellenistic kings soon became axiomatic (as did the corollary tendency for treaties to be dissolved immediately upon one party’s death).5 This is a significant observation, and one that helps to expose patterns of Hellenistic international relations. Future work might build on these findings through a more methodical classification and comparative analysis of the period’s numerous treaties.

In the remaining chapters of Part One, Grainger treats several other important features of Hellenistic diplomacy. In Chapter 2, he surveys the phenomenon of marriage alliances between the Hellenistic kings and the recurrence of sibling marriage in the houses of Ptolemy and Seleukos. His conclusion is largely negative: royal marriages, while occasionally symbolizing friendship between two Hellenistic kings, rarely had actual repercussions on the balance of power between the kingdoms; political implications tended to be internal only. Chapter 3 addresses the Macedonian kings’ modes of interaction with one another (in particular their preference for conducting negotiations through envoys rather than in face-to-face ‘summit meetings’), with other kingdoms, and with the Greek poleis. Here, Grainger acknowledges the kings’ occasional lip service to Greek political ideals, but he devotes little attention to euergetism or the conferral of divine honors, behavior that belongs in his view to the ‘internal mechanism of the kingdoms’ (5). Grainger succeeds in Part One in demonstrating that the kings behaved differently from Greek poleis and other republics (like Rome and Carthage), who felt less bound by oaths to uphold treaties and customarily negotiated with one another in the open and through groups of envoys (30). His insistence, however, that the kings’ distinctive brand of diplomacy derived solely from the conduct of Alexander’s generals, who were themselves following Macedonian precedent, perhaps discounts too much the influence of the kingdoms on which the Seleucids and Ptolemies imposed themselves.

Having explored the origins and characteristics of Hellenistic diplomacy in Part One, Grainger devotes the remaining three parts of the book to an examination of the system in action. Part Two (Chapters 3-6) focuses on the eastern Mediterranean; Part Three (Chapters 7-9) on the western Mediterranean and the emergence of Roman imperialism; and Part Four (Chapters 10-13) on Rome’s collision with the Macedonians, the increasing ruthlessness of Roman methods, and finally the dissolution of the Hellenistic system. Grainger’s breadth is impressive, and his interpretations of particular events can be insightful and persuasive. In his account of the arrangement between Philip V and Antiochos III in 203 to divide Ptolemaic lands, for example, he helpfully draws attention to the motivations of Ptolemy V himself (114-9); and his reanalysis of the murder in 162 of Cn. Octavius, who was in Syria trying to enforce the peace terms of Apamea, highlights the operational messiness of Hellenistic diplomacy and the occasional ambivalence of Roman policy (234-9). But aside from Chapter 11, ‘The diplomacy of peacemaking (222-188)’, a useful collation of the various peace treaties concluded in the generation between Sellasia and Apamea, and the lucid but brief Conclusion, Grainger generally arranges the narrative of each part chronologically; and the result can feel less like an evaluation of Hellenistic diplomacy than a history of the Hellenistic world with the wars taken out.6

There are some virtues to this approach. For one thing, the sheer accumulation of exempla does help Grainger sketch a ‘framework’ of standardized protocols within which the great powers sought ‘to resolve their disputes’ (6)—the Hellenistic period was not, that is to say, pure ‘anarchy’.7 The progressive narrative also allows Grainger to juxtapose the Macedonian kings, for whom diplomacy served primarily as a means to circumvent war, with Rome, for whom diplomacy was essentially ‘naked preparation for war’ (221) and thereby to explain the increasing irrelevance of the one under the weight of the other. But the reader must work hard not to lose sight of the forest for the trees, especially when these trees are themselves seldom distinct. For our sources’ general disinterest in matters of diplomacy means that Grainger must frequently resort to conjecture—note, for example, his hypothetical reconstructions of the negotiations that preceded the marriage alliance between Magas and Antiochos I (77-8) or the so-called ‘Ptolemaic partition agreement’. Even when our sources are better (so for the material treated in Chapter 5, ‘Aegean diplomacy: Ptolemy I to Aratos of Sikyon’), he seldom presses the epigraphical testimony or asks how Polybius, Livy, or Plutarch color our interpretations of e.g. Aratos’s diplomatic methods or Athenian neutrality in the shadow of Macedon. Grainger sees evidence of diplomacy everywhere, moreover, not only in negotiations, alliances, and treaties but also in ‘threats … spies, conspiracies, retributions, loyalties, disloyalties, lies, betrayals’ (213); even sieges he sometimes reads, as in the case of Antiochos III’s attack on Baktra at the end of the third century (111), not as acts of war but as part of the machinery of diplomacy. Such a wide ambit, while accentuating the variety and pervasiveness of diplomacy in these turbulent centuries, can also blur important distinctions of practice, particularly regarding the interface between diplomacy and empire, an important theme in Grainger’s analyses not only of Roman methods but also of Ptolemaic expansion in the mid third century (87-8).

Students of Hellenistic history who already have a good grasp on the major players, events, and territories will benefit from Grainger’s palpable erudition and range and may find fresh treatments of particular episodes. For the newcomer to the Hellenistic world, however, this will be a tough read. Grainger’s narrative is dense, in the first place, and he supplies no maps nor appendices, such as chronological tables, kings-lists, or genealogies to guide the uninitiated (the two annexes in Chapter 2 that tally royal intermarriages and sibling marriages are a notable exception, and these are very helpful). He assumes in his audience, moreover, a good deal of background knowledge not only about the many wars to which he alludes in passing but also about some of the important diplomatic crises on which his argument depends. While he offers an attractive analysis of the so-called ‘Day of Eleusis’ in 168 BCE, for example, he does not spell out the details of C. Popilius Laenas’s celebrated ultimatum to Antiochos IV Epiphanes, mentioning the ‘circle in the sand’ only to dismiss it as ‘pure theatricality’ (232).

Without a background in Hellenistic history, moreover, readers may be led astray by errors in the text, of which there are many. These are on the whole innocuous: infelicities of syntax, misplaced or doubled words, misspellings, erratic or incomplete references to secondary material in the notes, and inaccurate citations of ancient texts.8 On occasion, however, the mistakes are more serious. Battles are sometimes misdated (on p. 28, the Battle of Ipsos is inexplicably dated to 302; on p. 81 the Chremonidean War more worryingly to the 250s; and there seems to be a miscalculation of years of peace and war between 274 and 241 BCE on p. 82), and sources are occasionally misidentified or misconstrued.9 Greater editorial oversight in future editions could not only address these issues but also help make Grainger’s work more accessible to a broader audience. For the story he tells is ultimately an important one; no matter how stable and conventional their system of mediation, the kings’ attempts to avoid war were mostly fruitless. Polybius makes the point well in his discussion of the negotiations between Antiochos III and Ptolemy IV on the eve of the Fourth Syrian War (5.67.11), a passage that Grainger does consider in some detail (106-7): without a neutral and powerful authority that could prevent either side from transgressing the terms of their covenant, without, that is to say, a system of international law, even the most eloquent and powerful logoi eventually give way to swords.


1. There were among the ancient Greeks no professional diplomats, and representatives of one polity did not tend in an official capacity to reside permanently in another. Ambassadors’ speeches ( presbeutikoi), however, are attributed to Greeks as early as Ion of Chios, and by the time of Polybius (12.25a.3) they were recognized as a rhetorical genre in their own right (which Grainger does not consider).

2. See e.g. F.E. Adcock and D.J. Mosley’s Diplomacy in Ancient Greece (1975) and C. Eilers (ed.), Diplomats and Diplomacy in the Roman World (2009), reviewed in BMCR 2009.08.68.

3. Adcock and Mosley, it is true, gave little attention to the centuries between Alexander’s death and Actium, and the same can be said of V. Martin, La vie internationale dans la Grèce des cités (1940) and of P. Low, Interstate Relations in Classical Greece. Morality and Power (2007), reviewed in BMCR 2008.03.47. But other studies do explore foreign relations in the Hellenistic period: P. Klose, Die völkerrechtliche Ordnung der hellenistischen Staatenwelt in der Zeit von 280–168 v. Chr. (1972); S. Knippschild, “Drum bietet zum Bunde die Hände”. Rechtssymbolische Akte in zwischenstaatlichen Beziehungen im orientalischen und griechisch-römischen Altertum (2002), reviewed in BMCR 2003.06.20; and A. Giovannini, Les relations entre États dans la Grèce antique du temps d’Homère à l’intervention romaine (ca. 700-200 av. J.-C.) (2007), reviewed in BMCR 2008.10.20.

4. Kinship Diplomacy in the Ancient World (1999).

5. See J.D. Grainger, The Syrian Wars. Mnemosyne Suppl. 320 (2010), 89-90 for an earlier formulation of these findings; for a review see BMCR 2011.03.86.

6. Grainger has devoted ample attention to these wars elsewhere. Chapter 4, ‘The diplomacy of the earlier Syrian Wars (274-241)’, can be read alongside The Syrian Wars (2010), Chapters 6 and 10 on the diplomacy of Antiochos III alongside The Roman War of Antiochos the Great (2002), reviewed in BMCR 2004.03.52, and The Seleukid Empire of Antiochos III: 223-187 BC (2005). See also Grainger, Hellenistic and Roman Naval Wars 336-31 BC (2011) and The Wars of the Maccabees (2012).

7. Grainger suggests that if the Hellenistic world was anarchic, a position eloquently argued by Arthur M. Eckstein Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War and the Rise of Rome (2006) (a book reviewed in BMCR 2009.06.44), it was in the sphere of war only, not of diplomacy.

8. Citations: ‘Livy 36.16.1-2’ on p. 72 n. 54 should read Livy 31.18.1-5 (with Polyb. 16.27—Grainger correctly cites the reference at 192 n.4); the Memnon citation on p. 72 n.38 should read FGrH 434 F12.4-5, not F4-5; that on p. 82 n. 4, meanwhile, should read not FGrH 18 F11.11 but FGrH 434; nn. 2-4 on p. 101 have no page numbers; p.101 n. 13 should read IG I(2) 56 not 12.56; and p.159 n.8 should read Plutarch Pyrrhos 34 not 28. Syntax: p. 41 ‘almost as incestuous as that of the Ptolemy II’; p. 55 ‘Philip found only one to way cope with the problem’; p. 64 contains some odd sentence fragments ‘The meeting of Demetrios with Lysimachos and Pyrrhos . . . more urgent matters’; p.106 ‘Sosibios was by not confident of’; p. 159 ‘I am here concerned here’; and p. 193 n.33 ‘that it was connected with the Rome’s . . .’. Misspellings and typographical errors: in the Abbreviations list, ‘ Greichischen ’ ( FGrHist) should read Griechischen and the title of A. Rehm’s book should be italicized; ‘Monophthalomos’ on p. 2 should read Monophthalmos (Monophthalamos, meanwhile appears on p. 11 and passim); ‘Kremonidean’ in the section heading on p. 85, should read Khremonidean; and for consistency’s sake, we should read Kassandros for ‘Kassander’ on pps. 19, 38, 65, and 132, Polybios for ‘Polybius’ on pps. 107, 119 n.22, 161, 210 n.3, and 211 n.45, and Demetrios for ‘Demetrius’ on p. 21; p. 121 n.58 ‘Athenaeum’ needs italicization, so too n. 62 on the same page ‘Macedonian Wars’; p. 125 ‘Which will be dealt with in Chapters 7 and 8’ should read Chapters 8 and 9; and even though John Ma’s book on Antiochos III is listed in the Abbreviations section, it is nevertheless cited in full on p. 192 n.13 but wrongly ( Antiochos II should read Antiochos III).

9. It is not Livy, for example, who tells us that M. Aemilius Lepidus was sent to Egypt to tutor Ptolemy V (178) but Valerius Maximus (6.6.1), Justin (30.2.8-3.4, 31.1.1-2), and Tacitus ( Ann. 2.67.2)—that the anecdote is mentioned neither by Livy nor by Polybius, in fact, casts serious doubt on its authenticity. Nor is it Livy, as Grainger says on the same page, but Polybius (16.27.5) who claims that the original purpose of Lepidus’s embassy to Egypt in 200 BCE was to mediate between Antiochos and Ptolemy.