BMCR 2020.11.38

The Hellenistic court: monarchic power and elite society from Alexander to Cleopatra

, , , The Hellenistic court: monarchic power and elite society from Alexander to Cleopatra. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2017. Pp. 473. ISBN 9781910589625. £60.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The volume is the outcome of a conference on the Hellenistic Court held at the University of Edinburgh in 2011. While several papers from the conference are not included, and some chapters were commissioned subsequently, the volume preserves the original inspiration and vision of the conference.

As the editors note, “there was a time when all ‘proper’ historians turned their critical and quizzical eyes to kings and courts” (p. xv). The Hellenistic Court rigorously challenges this view. After a survey of pivotal studies on the function and structure of court systems in Tudor England, Bourbon France, and the Persian Empire, they define the Hellenistic court as ” a circle of elite people and attendants in orbit around the monarch as well as being a larger environment of political, military, economic and cultural structures which converged within the monarch’s household” (p.xxi). It was a movable space where the central and the local Empire encountered each other. The chapters engage with this theme while expanding on the Hellenistic world’s vastness and diversity. The eighteen papers offer a broad, diverse and yet consistent overview. They address a selection of critical overarching aspects, i.e., origin and development of the court, its functioning, courtiers’ loyalty to the king and the dangers of the court life, the wedding symbols and ceremony, the court interactions with the institutions beyond the Palace, and those with non-Greek cultures. Moreover, through a comparatist approach, the volume highlights differences and commonalities among Hellenistic courts from royal Egypt, Syria, and Iran, to Sicily and the Balkans.

The origin and early development of the Hellenistic court are challenging to investigate, as shown by the first section of the volume. Shane Wallace’s opening chapter considers the Successors’ experiences as a shared phenomenon. He demonstrates that the courts were a part of the Successor’s construction of leadership, which predated the royal claim. Successors’ courts were parallel with the Argead one, for they attempted to emulate Alexander and adapted his royal style. The example of the Seleucid court shows the influence of Alexander’s experience on the Hellenistic court in general. David Engels explores the merging of the Argead court style and structure with the Achaemenid precedent. Engels highlights that the Seleucids attempted in many ways to connect to the multicultural nature of their empire. The court had more non-Greek members than the ancient Greek and Roman sources lead us to think. At least partially and occasionally, the Near and Middle Eastern cultural instances influenced Seleucid regal behaviour. In this respect, their use of the Babylonian and Achaemenid palaces and the incorporation of Achaemenid architectural elements in new buildings come as no surprise. Although Janett Morgan considers the term “palace” unsuitable for Hellenistic royal buildings, she also explores the court’s space, claiming that the court was not only a social and political theatre where the king created his power but also the physical world where this took place (p.31). The chapter offers an overview of the court life’s physical space in Vergina, Persepolis, Pergamon and Alexandria.

The second part focuses on “Life at Court” and is composed of three chapters. Ivana Savalli-Lestrade focuses on the courtiers’ life, taking into account their role in royal education and training, as fellows and tutors, and the relevance for their careers of their relationship with the king. The lifestyle of the courtiers was pompous, for it imitated the king’s conduct, and, as Savalli-Lestrade stresses, this was not easy to reconcile with the more egalitarian political systems of the Greek cities from which they might have come or where they wished to return. Rolf Strootman stresses the influence that favourites acquired in the later third-century because of their friendship with the king. The increasingly personal and arbitrary nature of the king’s selection of courtiers chosen from a civic environment might have been a reaction to the established aristocratic court elite’s power. The third chapter by Ivana Petrovic moves from the general to the particular, namely Ptolemaic court etiquette. In his Hymns, Callimachus evokes parallels between the Olympian divine gatherings and the Ptolemaic court. Although the kings are never equated to the gods, Callimachus and Theocritus’s Alexandrian poetry refers to elements of the Hellenistic court. Petrovic thoroughly illustrates her argument addressing the allusions to the royal epiphany, the courtiers, philoi, basilikoi paides, somatophylakes, and to the etiquette of the symposia.

The next section encompasses two innovative chapters by Sheila Ager and Alex McAuley on marriage. Nuptials were a crucial occasion of court display. Although sources on wedding ceremonies and symbols are scattered, it is still possible to produce a coherent picture of the Hellenistic wedding. Ager shows that nuptials reflected the political meaning of the marriage: their place and circumstances, the sacrifices, the dowry, and the symbols displayed conveyed the discourse of power broadcast by the royals. The political meaning of Hellenistic marriage is seen in the consequences of the marriage of princesses into local dynasties. McAuley turns to Seleucid royal ‘secondary’ women and considers the nuptial courts of Apama of Cyrene, Stratonike of Cappadocia, Antiochis of Cappadocia and Antiochis of Armenia. He singles out the active and passive diplomatic character of the marriages and careers of the women, who fostered the Hellenistic web of dynastic interrelations. The ideological prominence and active agency granted to these women arguably were more likely the outcome of a Seleucid innovation than an inherited practice.

“Beyond the Palace.” by Kostas Buraselis, Paola Ceccarelli, Dorothy J. Thompson, and Craig Hardiman explores kings’ and courtiers’ networks. The first chapter collects the chief evidence on the hetairai from the years before Alexander to those of the early Hellenistic Age, including evidence from New Comedy. It convincingly argues that hetairai from the poleis also increasingly influenced the royal court and should be considered members of the royal entourage. Paola Ceccarelli studies the Seleucid kingdom’s communication system and its historical implications to shed light on the diversity of practice and power ideology between the royal letters and civic documents. Shifting perspective, Thompson draws attention to the Ptolemaic court and network away from Alexandria, where it was usually centred. The aspects considered are several: the function and management of the court, its origin, and its ethnic composition. Among the many valuable findings, the work shows that Egyptian priests emphatically displayed their claim to royal access (to the king or courtiers) as an act of self-promotion, providing us with the image of a court of mixed ethnicity. Hardiman also explores court display and takes into account the Attalid experience. Hellenistic court residences were paradigms on which other wealthy individuals modeled their own homes. Interior decoration can be an effective way to study the influence of the Palace on private housing, argues Hardiman, who takes us through a journey between private and royal Hellenistic art and history and social history.

The first paper of the “Crossing Cultures” section is by Erich S. Gruen. The court was also a place for the patronage of many intellectuals and artists. Among them, some engaged in spreading knowledge of non-Greek people and lands. Gruen’s daring and stimulating paper investigates the fragmentary evidence for this productivity. The life and works of Greek and non-Greek writers such as Hektaion of Abdera, Megasthenes, Berossos, Manetho, and Demodamas of Miletos are indicative of a much larger phenomenon. They provide a vivid portrayal of the cultural milieu of the Hellenistic age.

Oleg Gabelko’s chapter turns to the employment of Greco-Macedonian elements at non-Greek courts. In particular, the Bithynian and Cappadocian ones have generally been under-considered but can offer compelling study cases. Building on his prior work, Gabelko analyses the means of legitimation employed by the two dynasties. He also stresses the role and influence of the nobility upon the state of affairs and the social and ethnic structure of the two kingdoms. The Bythinian and Cappadocian royal courts do not show significant differences with each other or with other Hellenistic kingdoms, but they also strikingly reveal distinctiveness rooted in the pre-Hellenistic past and the involvement of social forces in the ruling society. Livia Capponi’s expertise in Egypt is at the base of her chapter on the Jews at the Ptolemaic court. While we rarely hear native voices on the Hellenistic court, Jewish sources are comparatively abundant, supporting study of the best-known influential Jewish court members such as the high priest Ezekias, the soldier Mosollamos, the royal secretary Dositheos, and the generals Onias and Dositheos. The Jewish community’s involvement in royal affairs goes back to the time of Ptolemy I but grew under Ptolemy VI Philometor, who entrusted to Jews many military garrisons, Capponi convincingly claims.

The last section turns to “deadly” themes such as punishments for violations of norma. Peter Franz Mittag draws attention to the evidence on the negative relationship between the Seleucid king and the court members. The main ‘incorrect behaviours’ mentioned in the sources were bribery, desertion, defection, conspiracy and assassination. Moving from the beginning to the end of the Seleucid era, Mittag attempts to ‘make sense of misconduct’ to enrich our understanding of the court interactions. The following chapter shows that knowledge about poisons has been often associated with royal power and, says Stephanie J. Winder, functioned as a political resource in Hellenistic courts. Expertise in toxicology was part of a broader Hellenistic interest in medical knowledge. However, Winder argues that while actual poisoning appears to have been minimally employed in conspiracies and court assassinations, knowledge about poisons was associated with the performance of royal power. Olga Palagia offers an intriguing study of the Argead funerary architecture in Vergina and Agios Athanasios. Macedonian tombs can provide information on the practices of the royal court. The elite’s tombs could be as sumptuous as the royal ones, and thus support the condition of first among equals of the Macedonian king. This chapter offers a coherent and well-supported account of the Hellenistic court environment.

The Hellenistic age encompasses several centuries, multiple civilizations and dynasties, and three continents.  Thus it is audacious, even unattainable, to publish an exhaustive book on Hellenistic courts without setting some geographical or chronological limits. Nevertheless, this collection of outstanding papers is a solid and crucial contribution to the field, and should not be missing from any Classics library.

Authors and titles

Part I Development
1. Court, Kingship, and Royal Style in the Early Hellenistic Period, Shane Wallace
2. At Home with Royalty: Re-viewing the Hellenistic Palace, Janett Morgan
3. The Seleucid and Achaemenid Court: Continuity or Change? David Engels
Part II Life at Court
4. Bios aulikos: The Multiple Ways of Life of Courtiers in the Hellenistic Age, Ivana Savalli-Lestrade
5. Eunuchs, Renegades and Concubines: The ‘Paradox of Power’ and the Promotion of Favourites in the Hellenistic Empires, Rolf Strootman
6. Callimachus, Theocritus and Ptolemaic Court Etiquette, Ivana Petrovic
Part III Marriage
7. Symbol and Ceremony: Royal Weddings in the Hellenistic Age, Sheila Ager
8. Once a Seleucid, Always a Seleucid: Seleucid Princesses and and their Nuptial Courts, Alex McAuley
Part IV Beyond the Palace
9. In the Mirror of Hetairai. Tracing Aspects of the Interaction Between Polis Life and Court Life in the Early Hellenistic Age, Kostas Buraselis
10. Image and Communication in the Seleucid Kingdom: the King, the Court and the Cities, Paola Ceccarelli
11. Outside the Capital: the Ptolemaic Court and its Courtiers, Dorothy J. Thompson
12. Courting the Public: the Attalid Court and Domestic Display, Craig Hardiman
Part V Crossing Cultures
13. Hellenistic Court Patronage and the non-Greek World, Erich Gruen
14. Bithynia and Cappadocia: Royal Courts and Ruling Society in the Minor Hellenistic Monarchies, Oleg Gabelko
15. Deserving the Court’s Trust: Jews in Ptolemaic Egypt, Livia Capponi
Part VI Disloyalty and Death
16. Misconduct and Disloyalty in the Seleucid Court, Peter Franz Mittag
17. The Hands of Gods? Poison and Power in the Hellenistic Court, Stephanie Winder
18. The Royal Court in Ancient Macedonia: the Evidence for Royal Tombs, Olga Palagia