2500 Years of Human History—in Five Books

The Harvest of Hellenism

by F.E. Peters
Simon & Schuster, 800 pp., $15.00

Constantine the Great

by J. Holland Smith
Scribner’s, 359 pp., $8.95

The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100-600 The Christian Tradition: Vol. One

by Jaroslav Pelikan
University of Chicago Press, 394 pp., $15.00

Judaism and the Early Christian Mind

by Robert L. Wilken
Yale, 257 pp., $8.75

Jesus and Israel

by Jules Isaac, translated by Sally Gran, edited and with a Foreword by Claire Hucket Bishop
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 405 pp., $12.50

In August, 338 B.C., the formidable national army of Philip of Macedon confronted the allied forces of Athens and Thebes on the plain of Chaeronea at the approaches of Thebes. The ensuing battle was short and sharp. By evening the allied forces had scattered and the victor had entered Thebes. In the following year an assembly of the Greek cities met at Corinth and accepted Philip as their commander in chief with the avowed object of leading a Panhellene army across the Hellespont to liberate the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Persia. The tightly knit Greek polis that had been the stage which Athens and Sparta had fought to dominate had dissolved. The Greeks had accepted the challenges of a new and wider future under Macedonian kings.

The next decade was momentous for humanity. Philip was assassinated before his expedition got under way, leaving his ambitions to his twenty-four-year-old son Alexander. In a series of astonishing campaigns Alexander conquered the whole Persian empire from the Aegean to Baluchistan. The Macedonian armies crossed the Hindu Kush and advanced to the Indus delta. Their explorers circled the coast of Arabia, and their traders reached the shores of Cornwall. Alexander’s campaigns set the Western world on a new and uncharted course, whose impetus was not spent until the Turks took Constantinople in 1453. The legacy of those campaigns survives today.

Each of the five books under review describes this history from one perspective or another. One of the main themes in Jaroslav Pelikan’s survey of the first centuries of Christianity is the continuance of Hellenism in the development of Christian doctrine. Isaac and Wilken view the same period as part of the history of Christianity’s conflict with Judaism. Holland Smith’s book takes as its subject Constantine and the conversion to Christianity of the Greco-Roman world. But only E. F. Peters provides the wider historical setting against which these different movements may be seen.

Peters’s work is a tour de force, the achievement of a dedicated scholar with a sense of mission. The debt that Western civilization owes to the world of Alexander and his successors, he believes, has never properly been recognized. Under the influence of generations of classical philologists and historians of the Hegelian school, writers have described the Hellenistic age as one of decline, with a debased art and a pointless political history. Yet it was this age of decadence that enabled the triumphant Greeks to spread their culture from the Himalayas to the cataracts of the Nile and to impose on that vast area a pattern of life and thought that radically altered the shape of Judaism and helped to mold Christianity and Islam.

The story of the 700 years separating the career of Alexander from that of his last great imitator, Julian the Apostate, is brilliantly told. Only a master could hold his readers’ attention through the arid quarrels of the Macedonian successor states, the intricacies of the new philosophical systems, the …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.