Study Guide

Alexander to Actium

by Peter Green

Alexander to Actium Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age begins and ends with three unforgettable deaths. It starts in 323 B.C. with the death of Alexander III of Macedon, whose combined military genius and daring in a meteoric thirteen-year reign (336-323 B.C.) created an empire which stretched from Greece in the west to India in the east. It concludes after the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. with the suicides of the Roman Mark Antony and his Egyptian consort Cleopatra VII, who had ambitiously plotted together to defy Rome and reconstruct the empire of Alexander in the East.

This period between Alexander and Actium, an era historians call “Hellenistic” (from Hellenes, the Greek word for “Greeks”), has suffered in reputation from its historical position between Classical Greece and Imperial Rome. Before Alexander, in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., came the glory of Classical Greece, an essentially Athenian splendor embodied in the marble of the Parthenon, the plays of Sophocles, or the philosophical writings of Plato. After Actium came the brilliance of imperial Rome, shining especially in the Altar of Peace of the emperor Augustus (30 B.C.-A.D. 9) and in the writings of such first century B.C. authors as the poet Vergil and the Historian Livy.

In contrast with these glorious times, the period between Alexander and Actium was a brutally pedestrian era. Unlike Classical Athens the Hellenistic Age had no Salamis, the inspirational naval victory which the Athenians won unexpectedly over the Persians in 480 B.C. Hellenistic history describes only dynastic rivalries and autocratic monarchs. Lacking the patriotic celebrations of Greek freedom and democracy by fifth century authors Herodotus and Aeschylus, Hellenistic literature favors the dry, pedantic Alexandrian poetry of Lycophron or Callimachus, with his sycophantic praise of the family of Ptolemy II. Instead of the Pax Romana the Hellenistic Age witnessed only bloody battle after bloody battle, only the division of Alexander’s great empire into several unstable parts.

Yet the period between Alexander and Actium was more than an uninspiring transition between Classical Greece and Imperial Rome. It was an age which saw great advances in scholarship at the famous library in Alexandria, produced polished literature in Theocritus’ pastoral poetry and psychological realism in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius, and established Epicureanism and Stoicism as major philosophical movements.

In his study of the Hellenistic Age Peter Green offers a balanced voice, one which displays the age with all its virtues and flaws, its vigor and historical significance. In Alexander to Actium the Hellenistic Age emerges from the shadows of Classical Greece and Imperial Rome and takes on a vibrant life of its own. Beginning with the lingering political chaos which followed the sudden death of the thirty-three-year- old conqueror in Babylon, Green compares the prolonged and convoluted political maneuverings of the monarch’s generals to funeral games in memory of Alexander. The “players” in these brutal games included Antigonus Monopthalmos (”One-Eye”), Seleucus I Nicator (the “Conqueror”) and Ptolemy I Soter (the “Savior”). When the dust settled, almost fifty years later, the empire of Alexander had been carved into three major Hellenistic kingdoms: that of the Seleucids in Syria, the Antigonids in Greece and Turkey, and the Ptolemies in Egypt. The rest of the book is the history of these kingdoms and the cultural phenomena which they produced until their eclipse by Rome in the first century B.C.

Alexander to Actium is organized around four important principles of composition. First, it is consciously comprehensive. In each of the four parts of the book chapters on politics and literature are combined with discussions of a variety of other topics, including art, philosophy, science, economics, and religion. The text is generously supplemented by thirty maps and several hundred illustrations of coins, sculpture, architectural plans, site photographs, and other visual records of the Hellenistic world. The result is no mere political or literary history but a history of the period in its fullest expression.

Second, Green has avoided the traditional geographic divisions which treat the Ptolemies, Seleucids, and Antigonids separately and often reduce Hellenistic history to a jumble of confusing names and recurring dynastic warfare. For example, the Seleucids produced five monarchs named Seleucus and twelve named Antiochus while Egypt was ruled by a nearly unbroken succession of fourteen Ptolemies between 305 and 43 B.C. To make matters worse, among these Ptolemies,...

(The entire section is 1930 words.)