Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1930
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, Seleucids, and Antigonids moved an incestuous web of ambitious consorts, each by the name of Arsinoe, Berenice, or Cleopatra. Green avoids disruptive fragmentation and confusion by dealing with all these ruling families not in geographic but in chronological units which illustrate the interactions between the various rulers. With the help of several genealogical charts and a chronological Summary, Alexander to Actium sorts through all these monarchs and presents a composite history of the age.
Green’s third goal was to produce a balanced panorama of the period, to avoid the scholar’s tendency to concentrate on well-documented but tangential topics. Thus, detailed information concerning the Ptolemaic bureaucracy, preserved in voluminous papyrus records, does not overwhelm the perspective of the rest of the work. Nor does Green overdo a scholar’s fondness for exegesis of obscure literature. Lycophron’s Alexandra, a tedious poem of fifteen hundred lines, receives only scant attention while the major trends exhibited in the poetry of Callimachus, Theocritus, and the history of Polybius are highlighted.
Finally, this book is chronological in its orientation. There is a refreshing emphasis in Alexander to Actium not upon broad social history but upon a linear perspective and a clear sense of development and change. Thus one can follow the evolution of realism in Greek art from its beginnings in the fourth century through its nostalgic reminiscences in the late first century B.C.
The Hellenistic Age marks the expansion of Greek culture beyond the boundaries of the Mediterranean world. Greek quickly became the lingua franca of the eastern half of the Mediterranean. No longer was the Greek world a chaotic jumble of warring city states on the Greek peninsula; that is, the oikoumene (a Greek word for “household,” related to “economics” and “ecology” in English) came to mean the whole “inhabited world.” Alexander’s successors ruled in Syria, Egypt, and even as far east as India, where Greeks maintained their authority until the first century B.C. Cities founded by Alexander and his successors, especially Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria, became political and cultural centers. As the site of the famous museum or shrine of the Muses founded by Ptolemy I, Alexandria claimed the most important library in antiquity and attracted a crowd of ancient scholars, including the poets Callimachus and Theocritus.
Nineteenth century historians, reared on concepts of European colonialism and its missionary attitudes, idealized the spread of Hellenistic culture as the conscious agenda of Greek emigrants throughout the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East. In effect, Greek settlers in Egypt and the Near East were compared to nineteenth century Europeans spreading Christianity and “civilization” in Africa and Asia. Green paints a different picture. He rejects this view of deliberate Greek propagation of culture and suggests that the spread of Hellenism was much less extensive than is generally believed and that, for the most part, much of the assimilation that took place was accidental. Emphasizing both the Greeks’ innate hostility to the foreign or exotic and their sense of cultural superiority over the barbaroi (a Greek word for “non- Greeks,” related to “barbarian” in English), Green describes the fortress mentality of most of their settlements, which effectively shut out the surrounding non-Greek cultures.
In reality the Greeks were less missionaries of Hellenism than entrepreneurs and exploiters of the resources of the territories they controlled. The rich East became a source of plunder and wealth for Alexander and his heirs who were concerned only with their own personal interests and gratification. Beginning with the campaign of Alexander, the East was exploited by one foreign, corrupt administration after another. Antigonid, Seleucid, Ptolemy, or Roman, all acted on the basis of self-interest. This attitude reached a peak in the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus, who, like the Ptolemies before him, regarded Egypt as his own personal domain.
Free enterprise went hand in hand with this individualism. The yen for personal profit encouraged a slave-based economy in which cheap human labor discouraged technological advances and allowed wealthy slaveholders to become more and more wealthy. Green’s extensive study of slavery in the Hellenistic world provides a realistic portrait of one of the seedier sides of ancient culture and offers a broader perspective for the history of slavery in later periods, especially in the United States.
The private citizen’s field of vision was constricted significantly in the Hellenistic Age. Gone was the civic patriotism of the fifth century and its affirmation of collective glory in monuments such as the Panathenaic frieze on the Parthenon or the prizes in the theater of Dionysus. In the subsequent, Hellenistic centuries, glory became more personalized. More and more monuments were erected to celebrate not society as a whole, but the achievements of individual sponsors. The most famous of these, perhaps, was the Great Altar of Pergamon, built to commemorate the personal glory of King Eumenes II (ruled 197-160/159 B.C.). The sense of collectivism celebrated in fifth century Greece yielded in the Hellenistic Age to an individualism rooted in court patronage, not patriotism.
Nowhere is this emphasis on the individual more evident than in the area of religion, where the old civic cults dedicated to Olympian deities such as Zeus and Apollo were supplemented by more personalized forms of worship. Ruler cults sprang up all over the Greek world, where it became common to address monarchs with such divine epithets as Soter (”Savior”), Epiphanes(”God With Us”) or simply Theos (”God”). New deities entered the Greek pantheon, including Tyche, the goddess of chance or luck, as well as the powerful foreign mother goddesses Isis and Cybele. Belief in superstition, magic, and astrology also increased. The individual could even find solace in one of several philosophical orientations: the Cynics, who rejected all social convention; the Epicureans, who argued that the goal of life was a pleasure achieved by ataraxia, an “inner peace” gained by complete withdrawal from public and political life; or the Stoics, who advocated an active life based upon virtue and directed by Fate.
The Hellenistic worldview which Green describes is similar in many ways to that of the twentieth century with its own sense of individualism, religious dissatisfaction, and political authoritarianism. Hellenistic fascination with artistic realism and the grotesque, evident in representations of drunken old women, deformed dancing dwarfs, flying bronze phalloi, and a portrait head of king Mithridates IV of Pontus (c. 170-150 B.C.) compared by Green to that “of a skid row alcoholic,” parallels a twentieth century fondness for violence, brutality, and pornography.
The Hellenistic Age also shares with the modern world a love of what Green calls “gigantism,” that is, of huge monuments. Thus the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor vies with the ancient Colossus of Rhodes and the Washington Monument with the Pharos, the famous lighthouse in ancient Alexandria. Despite this tendency towards gigantism, Callimachus, the great Alexandrian poet and scholar, warned that “a big book was like a big evil,” and preferred short pieces of literature tightly packed with literary allusions and sophisticated knowledge. In his portrayal of the Hellenistic world Green has proven Callimachus wrong. A big book is not always a big evil.
Sources for Further Study
Boston Globe. January 17, 1991, p.70.
The Times Literary Supplement. February 1, 1991, p.23.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support