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The Hellenistic Age: A Short History by Peter Green

George Stow
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Provides an interesting and well-written overview of a historical period that Green aptly describes as covering "some of the most crucial and transformational history of the ancient world."

The Hellenistic Age: A Short History

Publisher: Modern Library
ISBN: 067964279X
Author: Peter Green
Price: $21.95
Length: 240
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-04

Until the appearance of Johann Gustav Droysen's "Geschichte des Hellenismus" (1878), the 300-year period of ancient history from the death of Alexander (323 B.C.) to Octavian's emergence as the sole ruler of the Roman world at the battle of Actium (31 B.C.) was considered of little interest or importance. So much so, in fact, that comprehensive and readable -- yet substantive -- histories of this period of ancient history are almost as rare as hens' teeth. Not anymore. Indeed, the Hellenistic era is now recognized as a brilliant age of cultural and artistic creativity, particularly in philosophy and the sciences.

Peter Green's The Hellenistic Age: A Short History fits the bill. Green, the author of several works on the ancient world (including "Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age") observes that most attempts to embrace the sweeping panorama of the transformational Hellenistic era result in what he calls "kaleidoscopic disjunctiveness" and present "more or less static theme-park essays."

As a corrective, Green intends to offer a "continuous ongoing diachronic narrative embracing the entire scene" in order to avoid the prevailing trend "to view those three kaleidoscopic centuries as a monolithic cultural block."

Put in other terms, The Hellenistic Age traces the unfolding of Hellenistic civilization in a linear fashion, while at the same time drawing connections between successive alterations in the political, economic and social landscape of the Hellenistic East and the appearance of new cultural and intellectual perspectives.

For instance, after describing Alexander's expedition as "fundamentally disruptive rather than constructive in any unifying sense," Green lays out the struggles among the Diadochoi (Alexander's "successors"). By the middle of the third century B.C., the Hellenistic world was dominated by three large kingdoms (Antigonid, Ptolemaic, and Seleucid), in which monarchy was the rule and in which the polis was replaced by empire and cosmopolis.

In the process, new social and economic trends emerged, denoted by "a neo-con trend that had success through self-enrichment as its prime goal, shunned radicalism of any sort, and regarded democracy as a privilege best restricted to the upper classes."

In the case of Ptolemaic Egypt, for example, we learn that the end result was the emergence of a powerful and wealthy court culture that funded not only the magnificent museum and library at Alexandria, but also significant researches in the arts and sciences. Alexandria "became a magnet for poets and intellectuals from all over the Mediterranean."

Although certainly laudable in its intention, Green's schema is not entirely successful in its execution. For it to succeed, clear correlations must be established between the appearance of new political, social, and economic patterns in select historical periods and resultant alterations in intellectual and cultural trends.

Green at times falls short of this ideal. Take, for example, Green's penultimate chapter, "Dynastic Troubles, Artistic and Scientific Achievements."

Ostensibly, the intention of this chapter is to demonstrate altered perspectives and accomplishment in the arts and sciences as a result of the Roman takeover of the eastern Mediterranean after its defeat of Carthage in the West.

Strangely, however, those Hellenistic scientists who are mentioned (and then in the barest of fashion) -- Euclid, Archimedes, Herophilus and Erasistratus -- flourished and made significant contributions in the third, not the second, century B.C. And what of truly innovative and significant innovations in astronomy and military technology? Are these not deserving of more sustained discussion?

To cite another example, we may turn to the final chapter, "Sword over Pen: Rome's Final Solution." Again, it seems rather curious to encounter here the only sustained discussion of the new philosophies of Epicureanism and Stoicism, each of which originated around 300 B.C. in response to the quest for individual fulfillment in the face of new uncertainties in the early years of the Hellenistic age.

These quibbles notwithstanding, The Hellenistic Age provides an interesting and well-written overview of a historical period that Green aptly describes as covering "some of the most crucial and transformational history of the ancient world. ... The changes are lasting and fundamental." If only for this, students of world history are in Green's debt.

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