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The Hellenistic Age

ISSUE:  Winter 1992
Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age. By Peter Green. California. $65.00.

The Hellenistic Age began in June, 323 B. C. , when Alexander the Great lay dying in Babylon, and on being asked to whom he left his conquests, replied, according to one story, “To the strongest.” It ended almost three centuries later, in 31 B.C., when the future emperor Augustus defeated the fleets of Antony and Cleopatra off Actium in northwest Greece, and Egypt, the last survivor of the Hellenistic kingdoms, went down before the advance of Rome. Two hundred and ninety-two years is a long interval in the history of mankind. In the modern period, the same time span takes us from the preindustrial to the high-tech world. By 20th-century standards, Hellenistic society was static. There were no great technological breakthroughs: a voyage from Alexandria to Rome took as long to make at the end of the age as at the beginning. The life of the peasant in Egypt or Syria changed only in that the bureaucrats who collected their taxes wrote their memoranda in Greek rather than Aramaic. Yet it was the Hellenistic Age which took the civilization that had developed in classical Greece, and transformed it into a universal culture that eventually stretched from Britain to Afghanistan, with admittedly some thin spots in between. The Roman Empire was the legatee of the Hellenistic Age, and modern Western civilization is in turn the legatee of Rome.

The boundaries of this 292-year span come from Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium, a large book, though not quite large enough for its subject. A Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World by the late Stirling Professor of Ancient History at Yale, Michael Rostovtzeff, took up three volumes, and he did not attempt more than a thumbnail sketch of the political history of the period. Alexander the Great’s generals fought over his conquests; most of them failed in the end, but three sired royal dynasties. In Macedonia, where the ancient royal house to which Alexander belonged died out with the murder of Alexander’s posthumous son, the descendants of Antigonos the One-eyed ruled until Rome overthrew them. In Syria there ruled the Seleucids, descendants of Seleucus “the Conqueror,” who had one appealing distinction: at the end of his life, Alexander had compelled 80 of his officers to marry Asian women, and after his death 79 repudiated them. Seleucus was the exception. In Egypt, another purely Macedonian family ruled: the progeny of Ptolemy “the Saviour” who outlasted all their rivals. The final member of the line, Cleopatra VII, came to the throne along with her 12-year-old brother in 51 B.C. at the age of 18 and committed suicide 21 years later rather than go as a prisoner to Rome. She was the only Ptolemaic ruler who took the trouble to learn the language of her native Egyptian subjects.

The culture of the age was Greek. In the classical period a century before Alexander the Great was born, the Macedonians had been on the fringes of Greek civilization, though the Macedonian kings had made a point of playing host to the leading lights of the Greek intellectual firmament. But the dynasties that succeeded Alexander in Asia and Africa were almost self-consciously Greek. Some of the indigenous populace assimilated, but one gets the impression that assimilation was rarely conscious policy in the Hellenistic kingdoms, and in Egypt, it was avoided as far as possible. Green points out that we know of something over 200 literary figures in Ptolemaic Egypt, including some of the foremost intellects of the ancient world. None of them was a native Egyptian. Alexandria, the Ptolemaic capital, was a cosmopolitan city, but the native Egyptians played no part in its demography.

Having established the boundaries of his period, Green proceeds sensibly from the beginning, goes to the end, and then stops. His first subdivision runs from Alexander the Great’s death to 276. Green titles it with sly wit, “Alexander’s Funeral Games,” for it was not until 276, when the grandson of Antigonos the One-eyed secured the throne of Macedon that the war games fought over Alexander’s spoils finally ended. In retrospect it was a remarkable era. Athens became the cradle of the philosophic schools. Theophrastus taught as Aristotle’s successor at the Lyceum; the founder of Stoicism, Zeno from Cyprus, whom Green calls with slight evidence a Phoenician, lectured in the Painted Colonnade, and Epicurus tended his garden. Philosophy, Green reminds us, was a pursuit of the leisure class, and though Epicurus suffered poverty in his youth, he seems to have found a way of making philosophy pay. The Cynics, who were the “hippies” of the age, were an apparent exception; their founder, Diogenes, lived in a great jar in the Athenian marketplace and made a point of despising wealth, but even the Cynics were apt to attract rich dilettanti.

In the theatre, the crowd-pleasers were situation comedies. Boy, usually a simple fellow, falls in love with girl; the norms of society block marriage; the problems are solved, sometimes with the help of a clever slave. Everyone leaves the stage happy. The best-known playwright was Menander, who was a great name only until this century, when papyrus finds in Egypt have yielded one complete play and the greater part of two others. The finds have not increased his reputation: Menander was not in a class with Neil Simon, though he may have been tickling the same funny bone. However, the amazing seating capacity of the ancient theatres is witness to the popularity of the stage. Professional sports might draw comparable crowds nowadays but hardly acting troupes.

Athens was the cultural heart of the Hellenistic Age, all the more so as her political importance declined. But the hothouse culture of Alexandria was more typical. Ptolemy I founded a museum and library there, which operated rather like an Institute of Advanced Study. Its greatest era belongs to the second subdivision of Green’s narrative, titled “The Zenith Century: 276—222 B.C.,” when it attracted a group of poets whose influence was to spark a minor revolution in Latin literature in the two decades before Actium.

Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great and the site of his tomb, was the showpiece of Ptolemaic Egypt. The modern city gives no idea of the impression it once made. But in the hinterland the peasants spoke their native language, worshipped their native gods, and harbored a smoldering resentment against the foreigners in Alexandria, which the Egyptians still called Rhakotis, the name of the fishing village on the site before Alexander founded his city. The first fracture in Ptolemaic rule came in 217 B.C. Egypt was faced with an attack by the Seleucid king, Antiochus III, whose military forces outclassed anything that the young Ptolemy IV could put in the field. Until then, the Ptolemaic kings had never used native Egyptians in their armies, but this was a desperate situation. Ptolemy IV’s ministers recruited natives and trained them to fight like Macedonians in a phalanx, and when the two kings met in battle at Raphia in modern Israel, it was the charge of the native phalanx that won the day.

But, writes Green with some understatement, “Raphia brought little good to the victors.” The native Egyptians became aware of their importance to the regime, and thereafter the Ptolemaic kings faced a series of revolts. Seventeen years after the victory at Raphia, Antiochus III tried again, and this time he took Judaea handily.

The Seleucid empire with its royal seat at Antioch was a sprawling, multicultural empire which at its height stretched from modern Turkey to Iran. But before Antiochus III died, the empire had been mauled by Rome and begun its long decline. One of the most fascinating chapters in Green’s book relates the story of how of an independent Jewish state arose in Judaea during this period of Seleucid decadence. The Jewish revolt resulted from a too-vigorous policy of assimilation by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, which was not unwelcome to those Jews in Jerusalem who were half-assimilated anyway, but encountered solid resistance in the country villages. Antiochus IV was an odd character whose policies were unusual for a Hellenistic king: his detractors altered his cognomen “Epiphanes” which means “God Manifest” to “Epimanes,” which means “somewhat mad.” The year before he died, he reversed his Jewish policy, but it was too late to stop the Jewish leader, Judas Maccabaeus. Judas’ troops marched into Jerusalem and purified the Temple in December, 164 B.C.: an event commemorated by the Jewish festival of Hannukhah. The next year, Antiochus IV was dead, and his successors were too distracted by internal quarrels and external enemies to do anything effective about the revolt. In the end, both the last Seleucid king and the Jewish kingdom that resulted from the Maccabaean revolt fell victim at the same time to the same conqueror, Rome.

Rome was the final inheritor of the Hellenistic world. But Hellenism, the label we apply to the culture which the dynasties purveyed, long outlived them. The Greeks may have made no great effort to assimilate native populations, but they succeeded better than they had a right to expect. The aftermath of Hellenism lies outside the scope of Green’s book, but it remained strong until the spread of Islam overtook it, and even then, the Arabs picked the bones of Greek culture and found some treasures. Green has given us a good, readable history of three centuries of Hellenistic empire and its accomplishments. It is a remarkable achievement, and we should be grateful for it.


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