The Hellenistic World: A Review

Jeremy J Baer

The survey begins with a discussion of the nature of the sources used in Hellenistic studies. Primary and secondary sources exist, especially for the life of Alexander, but sometimes there is a question of their objectivity and accuracy. The literary word must be checked against other sources. These material sources include inscriptions on stone and marble, papyri and coins. The sources are uneven, and new discoveries help rewrite the history of the era. Students of Ptolemaic Egypt are however relatively blessed given the surviving amount of papyri from that era and area.

The book then provides a useful overview of the political and military events that transpired from the rise of Alexander the Great to the war of his successors. Only the essential players and events in this otherwise long and confusing drama are elucidated. Alexander�s dream of a multi-racial and universalist empire are contrasted against the more exclusionist policies of his Macedonian lieutenants. Another dichotomy presented is that of Ptolemy, who sought only to defend his regional power base in Egypt, against the designs of the other successors to reclaim all of Alexander’s former domains.

Walbank then studies in turn each of the constituent parts of Alexander’s shattered realm: Macedonia and Greece, Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Seleucid East. These sections highlight the basics of government, economy and culture in these three regions. The available evidence indicates that in Egypt and the East, only five percent of posts in the higher administrative apparatus were handed over to non-Greeks, and most of those were local military commanders. The Hellenic cultures were run by, for and of the Greco-Macedonian ruling elite. Ptolemaic Egypt was in particular gifted for maximizing its economy; sadly, the populace never saw these monetary benefits, poured as they were into military spending and royal construction projects. The failure to truly integrate the native population with the new Hellenistic regimes helps explain in part the later weaknesses of these states, though Wallbank does not explore this topic as well as he could.

Then comes a sketch of various Hellenic city-states’ experiment with federalism and inter-polis government. In the face of superstates run by vast monarchies, some city-states saw fit to confederate together for military, economic and cultural ends. As Walbank notes, this was an interesting experiment in trying to transcend the limitations of a single city-state without imposing overarching monarchy. However, the experiment had little time to run its course before the dominion of Rome signaled its demise.

Walbank subsequently offers a look at social and economic trends throughout the Hellenistic world. Socially, the Hellenistic world was linked by the institution of the gymnasium. It was here that Greeks were educated in the arts and sciences as well as physical education. These were in large part what imparted Hellenism to Hellenes in occupied territories. Sometimes non-Greeks were permitted entry. Various social clubs and religious cults were also unifying factors, and gave a grounding to Hellenes in a world where the city-state was no longer the sole articulation of identity. Economically, the consolidation of large internal markets combined with an increase in coinage aided development, but there seems to have been a widening gap between rich and poor.

This is then followed by a study of Hellenistic philosophy, science and technology. Stoicism and Epicureanism as responses to an enlarged world are highlighted. Also of note are intellectual advances. The monarchies funded scientific and cultural advances if it served their ends. Ptolemy in particular intended Alexandria to become the intellectual Mecca of the Hellenistic world, and thus it became thanks to its library and museum (though later Ptolemies were not as keen patrons of the arts and sciences).

The extent of the Hellenistic world and explorations beyond them are then considered. This was, in my opinion, the one boring section in an otherwise interesting read. It seemed a trifle superfluous and a bit distracting.

Our next chapter deals with religious developments. Of particular interest are the ruler cults sanctioned by and for the monarchs in an effort to bolster their legitimacy. Also considered is Ptolemy’s special cult of Isis and Serapis that ironically did not fuse Greek and Egyptian as intended, but did spread to Greeks throughout the Hellenistic world and beyond. The cult was not tied to a particular polis and became truly universal in scope, and would give later Christianity some definite competition.

Walbank concludes with a politico-military narrative of the rise of Rome and its assimilation of the Hellenistic cultures. As the Hellenistic factions exhausted themselves through wars and internal strife, Rome used its diplomacy and its military might to slowly incorporate the Hellenistic world into its expanding Mediterranean empire. The Greek urban areas founded by Alexander and his successors were the nodal points by which Rome administered its eastern territories. The Greco-Oriental cultures the Romans absorbed slowly exerted an influence on Rome itself, and was most keenly felt in the religious sphere. Christianity as it developed was a product of this experience.

While even the revised edition is 15 years old, the scholarship contained therein is still relevant. Our professor emeritus from Liverpool University has documented the most relevant facts about this fascinating world and packed them into a readable and erudite study. At 250 pages it is a short read, and perhaps lacks for depth in places. Nonetheless its breadth compensates for this deficiency. This work can be recommended for a sound overview of the subject.

You can order this book online at Amazon



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