BMCR 2019.08.51

Age of Conquests: The Greek World from Alexander to Hadrian

Angelos Chaniotis, Age of Conquests: The Greek World from Alexander to Hadrian. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. xxxii, 446. ISBN 9780674659643 $31.50.


Angelos Chaniotis has written an engaging history of the Greeks in the period between Philip II and Hadrian. The choice of this broad chronological framework draws on recent trends in the study of the Eastern Mediterranean world: the ‘long Hellenistic Age’, as Chaniotis defines this period, has been increasingly identified as a suitable time framework to study long-term social and cultural developments which could not be properly framed by the military turning point of Actium.1 The book is meant for a general audience. The author identifies from the start (p. 5) the main historical trends of the period: the new importance of monarchic power, the imperialistic drive of Hellenistic kingdoms and of Rome, the augmented interdependence of political developments in the Mediterranean and beyond, the spread of urban life and mega-cities, and the more intense circulation of people, objects and ideas with its impact on cultural exchanges and transfers. Chaniotis’ narrative is meant to be read in a flow: footnotes are therefore replaced with a final overview of the mentioned ancient sources and modern references (p. 401-417).

The book opens and closes with two poems by the modern Greek poet Cavafy ( Anno 200, p. 29-30; Poseidonians, p. 400), respectively dealing with the Greek identity in the aftermath of Alexander’ conquest and under the Roman Empire. These poems evocatively pinpoint two fundamental moments in a history of the Greeks which Chaniotis (p. 4) summarizes as the movement between “two different versions of Greek unity—one addressed against a barbarian enemy”—Alexander’s Asia campaign—, “the other unifying the Greeks within the administrative framework of the Roman Empire”— i.e. Hadrian’s Panhellenion.

Chapters 1-4 sketch out the political and military history of the Eastern Mediterranean from the ascension of Macedon to the arrival of Rome. The deeds of Philip II and Alexander (Chapter 1) are followed by a summary of the period of turmoil accompanying the foundation of the Hellenistic kingdoms (Chapter 2). Chapter 3 deals with the political events of mainland Greece and Asia Minor. In Chapter 4, the history of the Ptolemaic kingdom between the reigns of Ptolemy II and Ptolemy IV is discussed as a case study of the development of early-Hellenistic monarchies in their golden age.

Chapters 5-6 interrupt the narrative of events with a broader analysis of the main political and social traits of the early Hellenistic period. Chapter 5 explores the organization of Hellenistic kingdoms, their impact on the life of Greek cities, and the representation of kingship. Particular attention is paid to the interactions between kings and collaborators, the military manifestations and the public spectacles of monarchic power, and the plurality of ethnic, institutional and legal frameworks that constitute the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms. Chapter 6 deals with the new challenges and adaptations of the Greek polis system in the broader and more interconnected Hellenistic world. The difficulties met by old cities is counterbalanced by a new dissemination of the polis model in the Hellenized regions of inner Asia Minor, Egypt, the Levant and Mesopotamia. The overwhelming power of kingdoms induced cities to experiment with federal organizations, whose geographical distribution and reasons of success are explored by Chaniotis before dealing with the most developed topic of the chapter: the sociopolitical life of Hellenistic cities and the progressive affirmation of a class of prominent families who proved able to control the internal and external politics of the city, also thanks to the growing support of Rome.

Chapters 7-10 deal with the events that transformed Rome from a prominent player in the Italian peninsula into the dominant power of the whole Mediterranean world. In Chapter 7, Chaniotis admirably traces the affirmation of Rome in the central Mediterranean between the Second Punic War and the peace of Apamea in 188 BC. Polybius’ (1.3.1-4) observation that in this period, political events from across the world became for the first time entangled ( symplokē) into an organic whole provides the model for an engaging narrative, through which Chaniotis offers a convincing analysis of the development and changes of Roman imperialism. Chapter 8 explores the steps leading to the provincialisation of Greece and Asia Minor with particular attention to the interaction between the macro-scenario of the Roman conquest and the internal struggles between civic elites and the impoverished masses in Greece and Asia Minor. An overview of the decline of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms in the 2 nd cent. (Chapter 9) prepares the field for the discussion of the entanglement between the Mithridatic Wars, the Roman Civil Wars and the extinction of the last Hellenistic dynasties (Chapter 10). The epoch-making fall of Alexandria to Octavian in 30 BC is given the right pathos thanks to the citation of Cavafy’s beautiful poem ‘The God Abandons Antony’.

Chapters 11-14 provide an overview of the impact of the new political framework of the Mediterranean Empire on the social, political and economic life of Greek communities. Here the ability of Chaniotis to condense a variety of complex topics into a clear but nuanced summary is at its best. Chapter 11 focuses on the mechanisms of the new administrative framework and on the main events of the period between the end of the Civil Wars and the 130s AD. Chapter 12 deals with the representation of imperial power, the development of imperial worship, the provincial administration, and the life of cities—a mixture of old Greek poleis and new Roman colonies. Chapter 13 investigates the major trends of socio-economic life in the late-Hellenistic and Imperial periods in the Eastern Mediterranean: the link between the fiscal and economic exploitation of the land and the rise of social and political tensions, the reasons for migration, the mechanisms of social prestige and the processes leading to the affirmation of the civic elites in the so-called late-Hellenistic Period (from the 2 nd cent. BC onwards).2 The broad chronological framework of the ‘long Hellenistic Age’ proves here to be a particularly fruitful approach to study social developments in a perspective of longue durée. Chapter 14 expands on some prominent aspects of the sociocultural life in Hellenistic cities, such as the link between euergetism and the elites’ strategies of self- affirmation; the role of voluntary professional and religious associations in constructing a protected interface between the individuals and the ‘globalized’ world; the rise of the gymnasium as a paramount place of sociability in the late Hellenistic and Imperial polis.

Finally, Chapters 15-16 reflect on the unprecedented degree of connectivity in the Mediterranean world and beyond, established first by Alexander’s conquests, and later by the long-lasting institution of the Empire . Chapter 15 identifies the main Hellenistic developments in religious life in the proliferation of festivals and in the augmentation of their spectacular grandeur—a royal innovation soon copied by Greek cities –, the spread of new cults, both compatible with, or alternative to, Greek and Roman polytheisms (Sarapis, Isis, Mithras vs. Jewish and Christian monotheisms), and more generally the growing interest of cult agents in establishing direct contacts with the divine via miracles, oracles, confessions, ‘holy men’, alternative imageries of the afterlife, and mystery cults. Chapter 16 lists various factors enhancing connectivity in this ‘globalized’ world—conquests and trade, geographical explorations, migrations, cohabitation of ethnically different groups—arguing that in antiquity as nowadays (cf. p. 7-8), the multiplication of middle grounds and milieus fostering cultural transfers not only contributed to the creation of a cosmopolitan world, but also fostered self-reflexive reactions of local communities and the development of multiple layers of identity-making bonds helping people to find their place in a big world.

Overall, Chaniotis’s narrative manages to provide a fresh and convincing portrait of a long and complex period and of the wide range of themes that compose this picture. The author has accepted the challenge of making the content of his book accessible to non-specialists by employing modern terms (e.g. imperialism, globalisation) and comparisons (i.e. the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory and modern social networks) that resonate with the experience of contemporary readers, even though, admittedly, some categories (see for instance the “populist methods” of Agathokles in Syracuse, p. 49) might raise more problems than they solve. On the other hand, if we shift the focus on the current trends in Hellenistic history, one may argue that Chaniotis has designed a relatively traditionalist ‘Greek history’, with the laudable exception of his convincing analysis of Roman imperialism. The concern here is not with the position of Greek communities within the Roman empire, in relation to which the authors states (p. 5) “we have every justification to study a distinct Greek history within the empire, exactly as we can study the history of the Jews, the Germans, the Iberians, the Britons or any other subject group”, even though “this ‘Greek’ identity was flexible and adaptable”. The question is whether we can project the Greeks’ reflection upon their own identity as it emerged under the centralized power of the Empire, and in the framework of the classicistic trends of the Second Sophistic, back onto the multi-focal and centrifugal developments of the Eastern Mediterranean world before Augustus. A growing number of studies have brought to the foreground of Hellenistic history the role of Egyptian, Phoenician, Carthaginian, Babylonian, Iranian elites with their agendas and their active discussion and appropriation of Greek culture and institutions.3 While I do not mean that we should simply dismiss the category of ‘Greek history’ in relation to the Hellenistic age, I would like to argue that by conceiving a Hellenistic history of “a separate Greek identity that distinguished the Hellenes from the others” (p. 4-5) for the whole period between Alexander and Hadrian, we might partly reduce the innovative potential of the ‘long Hellenistic Age’ approach, at least in two respects: by marginalizing the social, political and cultural experiments that occurred between the Mediterranean and the Indus during the three centuries after Alexander, and by underrating the novelty of the relaunch of the idea of a Hellenic unity in the early centuries of the Empire.

These personal reservations only marginally affect my admiration for the intelligence and clarity of Chaniotis’ book. Its powerful narrative and the rich corpus of sources discussed will undoubtedly prove useful to students and teachers and will provide an inspiring model for scholars who wish to take up the challenge of writing an accessible historical narrative without giving up the depth and detail of interpretation. Moreover, the book contains only a few minor flaws4 and is very well edited, enriched by useful maps and photos, and provided with a comprehensive multilingual bibliography, a useful chronological table and a detailed index. ​


1. See for instance B. Chrubasik & D. King (eds), Hellenism and the Local Communities of the Eastern Mediterranean. 400 BCE—250 CE, Oxford-London 2017.

2. For a recent overview of the intense scholarly debate on this topic, see F.R. Förster, Die Polis im Wandel. Ehrendekreten für eigene Bürger im Kontext der hellenistischen Polisgesellschaft, Berlin 2018.

3. See among others Ph. Clancier, “La Babylonie hellénistique. Aperçu d’histoire politique et culturelle”, Topoi 15.1 (2007), 21-74; J.G. Manning, The Last Pharaohs: Egypt under the Ptolemies, 305-30 BC, Princeton 2010; I.S. Moyer, Egypt and the Limits of Hellenism, Cambridge 2011; J.R.W. Prag & J. Crawley Quinn (eds), The Hellenistic West: Rethinking the Ancient Mediterranean, Cambridge 2013; C. Bonnet, Les enfants de Cadmos. Le paysage religieux de la Phénicie hellénistique, Paris, 2015; R. Mairs, The Hellenistic Far East: Archaeology, Language, and Identity in Greek Central Asia, Oakland 2016; R. Strootman & M.-J. Versluys (eds), Persianism in Antiquity, Stuttgart, 2017; D. Engels, Benefactors, Kings, Rulers: Studies on the Seleukid Empire betwen East and West, Leuven-Paris 2017.

4. Some minor inaccuracies can only draw the attention of the specialist. For example, the Alexandrian Ptolemaia were equated to Olympic games ( SIG 3 390; CID IV 40), not to the Pythian games of Delphi (p. 74); Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II were venerated as the Theoi Adelphoi, not Philadelphoi (p. 114, 203). ​