From Alexander to Cleopatra: A Review

Jeremy J Baer

Michael Grant, one of the seminal giants of classical studies, provides a thorough examination of the Hellenistic world in From Alexander to Cleopatra. While 25 years old since its original printing, the tome still serves as a comprehensive and readable survey. It is similar to Walbank’s The Hellenistic World, only larger and more detailed. Indeed, having reviewed Walbank above, I would find myself repeating much of the basic information for this review if I stuck to the standard format. Fortunately, Grant does offer at times a distinct focus from Walbank, one that I found particularly insightful: the limits of Hellenization. For those that think Alexander initiated an age where everyone in the ancient world became students of Homer and Plato, Grant offers intriguing evidence that the depth of Hellenization in the Hellenistic world falls far short of universal reach.

I will first summarize the lay of Grant’s book before launching into some of its more thought provoking scholarship. A sweeping but informative introduction serves as a historical overview of the period, which does, in fact, take the reader from the rise of Alexander to the fall of Cleopatra. Part one then surveys the principle actors of the Hellenistic world and their monarchies: Macedonia and Greece, Ptolemy’s Egypt, and the Seleucid East. This is similar to Walbank’s survey, but Grant does thoughtfully add some of the minor and often overlooked states in the Hellenistic world, as well as some of the exotic Eastern border states. Part two surveys city-states in the Hellenistic era, and the attempt by some of them to forge a nascent federalism in the face of devouring monarchies. Parts three and four combine to form the cultural half of the survey, which document the Hellenistic world’s new emphasis on the individual and reality (so-conceived). The attempt of the individual to reconcile himself to a newly defined reality changed the scope of science, art, religion and philosophy. There is also a small but definite rise in the status of women in the Hellenistic era, particularly in the ruling class, which Grant sees as foreshadowing some of the powerful empresses of Rome.

Read from cover to cover, the reader would garner an intimate association with the achievements of the Hellenistic era. While many see the age as an appendix to the glories of classical Greece, the Hellenistic epoch was a time of experimentation and variety that achieved some notable successes in the arts and sciences. Grant, like Walbank, also takes pain to demonstrate how the Hellenistic era would in large measure influence the political, religious and artistic venues of the Roman Empire. Captured Greece influenced its captor, to repeat a now well-worn cliche.

Yet, Greece did not capture the entire ancient world and remold it in its image, as is sometimes opined by rabid Hellenophiles. The limits of Hellenization are on display, and this above all forms the most interesting aspect of Grant’s work.

Contrary to some cherished assumptions, Alexander was not in fact an apostle of Hellenism who conquered the East in the name of Greek culture. He was rather a self-serving military autocrat seeking to establish a power base. As Grant notes, the cities he founded in the East served as strategic nodal points to oversee the military and commercial infrastructure of his vast empire. Those cities were in turn settled mostly by ex-soldiers and mercenaries; a reserve garrison force, as it were, and not cultural artisans. While the Greek and Macedonian settlers did obviously bring their culture with them, they were not there to share with the natives. In fact, Grant goes so far to say that in most places the Greeks practiced cultural and linguistic apartheid against the indigenous population.

Consider Ptolemaic Egypt. Lower class Greeks and Egyptians did sometimes intermarry, and sometimes upper class Egyptians could become culturally “Greek” through education. However, in the sum of things the two races lived separate lives. The Greeks in theory respected Egypt as an ancient repository of esoteric wisdom, but in practice they derided Egyptians as untrustworthy and alien. The Egyptians for their part had a millennias old native culture they were not willing to discard for that of their occupiers. Furthermore, the Egyptians found themselves worked to exhaustion in a vast economic machine whose proceeds went to fund interests that were not their own. Many Egyptians simply left their jobs in protest. The failure of the Ptolemaic dynasty to truly integrate the natives into their culture contributed to an increasingly weakened State.

The Seleucid East was even worse, as it turns out. Aside from the Babylonian (or, to be more precise, Chaldean) interest in astronomy and astrology, the Greeks saw little of value in the native culture. The Babylonians and the various tribes of Iran reciprocated their apathy many times over. Their culture was as old or older than Egypt’s and equally impressive. The hostility between the two races climaxed when the semi-nomadic tribes in Iran simply broke away from the Seleucid state, taking Babylon with them. So began the Parthian state. The breakup of Seleucia cannot be understood apart from the failure of the Hellenes to incorporate these ancient peoples into a unified culture.

As a final note, there was one people above all who resisted wholesale Hellenization: the Jews. We are not speaking of the Jewish Diaspora scattered throughout the world, who did famously have their Bible translated into Greek at Alexandria, and who otherwise could participate to some degree in Hellenization. Rather, we are talking of those that survived Babylonian conquest and exile to populate their religious state of Judea. These people, the first in history to adopt Monotheism as part and parcel of their culture, were centered around the Temple of Yahweh. It was not only their Monotheism, but such practices as circumcision, abstention from pork, and the observation of a Sabbath that forged for them a distinct identity in the ancient world.

Judea was first captured by Ptolemaic Egypt, but then later passed into the hands of Seleucia. When the Seleucids attempted to Hellenize Judea by turning the Temple of Yahweh into a temple to Zeus, the Maccabeans priests rose in revolt. Judea split from Seleucia and remained independent until the time of Pompei. Temple worship would remain the focus of a separate Jewish life until its destruction by Flavian Rome. While Judea was in political and economic terms a very minor country, its decision to resist Hellenization would have far reaching consequences in the religious thought of the world.

Hellenization was therefore a mixed bag. It was most successful along the Mediterranean. However, in the deep reaches of the Nile, in the heartland of the old Persian Empire, and in the tiny state of Judea, it failed to articulate an embracing vision. It was left for the Romans, or at least the educated among them, who had no ancient and magnificent culture of their own to adopt certain strains of the Hellenistic world for posterity.

Grant’s “From Alexander to Cleopatra” is an intriguing book, easily enjoyed by the general reader.

You can order this book online at Amazon



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