Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age
The Hellenistic Aesthetic
Hellenistic Poetry: An Anthology
Hellenism in Late Antiquity
When we think of Ancient Greece and Rome, cradle of our civilization and most accessible of ancient societies, what is it that comes to mind? Two periods dominate the idea of classical antiquity for moderns: on the one hand the democracy of Athens in the fifth century BC, innovative and dynamic, and on the other the grandiose and apparently unchanging empire of Rome in the early centuries of our era. Between those two periods lies a gap of four centuries, which may seem less attractive because of the enormous complexity of their political history, with wars, alliances, revolutions, conquests, and the rise and fall of nations. They also can look depressing because so much that happened seems not to lead anywhere, in the sense of forming part of the great historical movements which interest the selective eye of posterity.
Yet this was a crucial period. It was in those turbulent generations that the scale of Greek history was transformed, from an affair of city-states, mostly around the Aegean Sea, to one of great kingdoms, Egypt, Asia Minor, Syria. It was then, too, that the all-conquering city of Rome succeeded in mastering the Mediterranean world and the Near East, an empire both larger and also more enduring than any which had gone before; and in adopting and imposing on the world a culture which was in large part Greek, and which had the effect of ensuring that the achievements of classical Greece were kept alive, in an altered and selected form, instead of passing away with the destruction of Greek political power. It also was the period between the Old and New Testaments, in which for the first time the Jews and the Greeks confronted each other, and in which the world was brought into a state which made possible the spreading and the triumph of the Christian gospel.
A special word, “Hellenistic,” referring to the period from the career of Alexander the Great to the ascendancy of Rome, was not thought necessary by scholars before the German historian J.G. Droysen (1808–1884) used it in his history of the period (1836). The concept has proved useful but also slippery, with scholars disagreeing on the dates at which the period began and ended. Peter Green defines it as the years from 323 (death of Alexander) to 31 BC (defeat of Cleopatra); Barbara Hughes Fowler prefers 323 to AD 14 (death of the Emperor Augustus). Some writers have even included the Roman Empire. Fortunately we need not worry about the point. However defined at its extremities, this period is now receiving intense study by scholars who are helping to make the results accessible to readers who may be daunted by the newly appearing volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History (third edition).
Peter Green, Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has produced a book on the grand scale: 970 pages (large and on good paper), 30 maps, 217 illustrations, 5 genealogical charts of dynasties, a chronological table 45 pages long, 168…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.