ElAnt v4n2 - Reviews - Hellenistic History and Culture

Volume 4, Number 2
April 1998

Hellenistic History and Culture

P. Green (ed.)
University of California Press, 1993
294 pp., 39 illustrations

Reviewed by: D.H. Kelly ,
Department of Classics (R.I.P.)
Australian National University
ACT 2600
email: Douglas.Kelly@anu.edu.au

A Herodotean generation or so ago undergraduate courses on Hellenistic History were decidedly rare, at least in this part of the world. Ancient history courses in translation had steadily moved away from the older style of survey that swept over the great expanses from the palaeolithic to the end of the Roman empire in the west and moved towards a concentration on favoured periods. Yet even in these old survey-style courses the Hellenistic age was very much a poor relative, except as a backdrop for Roman imperialism in the eastern Mediterranean. Late Antiquity went through a remarkable growth that is still continuing, the favoured periods and favoured topics continued to be done to death and the Hellenistic period was left to turn into a new dark age. Besides conservatism and inertia, other, more respectable, reasons for this neglect included the inavailability of the necessary sources in translation and the scarcity of suitable choices of textbooks to guide students.

All this has changed. No longer is it necessary to refer intending students to the collection of lectures by J.B.Bury and others, The Hellenistic Age , published at Cambridge in 1923 or urge them to read W.W.Tarn's Hellenistic Civilisation , preferably in the third edition revised by G.T.. Griffith (1952). There are now first -rate collections of translated source-material, most notably M. M. Austin's The Hellenistic world from Alexander to the Roman conquest (1981) and useful textbooks such as F.W. Walbank's Hellenistic World , which reached a second edition in 1993. The present volume is part, in fact no. 9, of an important series that bears collectively the title Hellenistic Culture and Society . The thirteen volumes to date of this series represent a large part of current scholarly endeavour in this field and exemplify the liveliness of research in this field and the rich possibilities open to it. The book has the added interest of reproducing the papers given at a Symposium on Hellenistic History and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin in October, 1988, together with edited selections of the discussions that followed them. Since two members of the distinguished panel of general Editors of the Hellenistic Culture and Society series, E.S. Gruen and A.A. Long have papers from the symposium in this collection and are recorded as taking part in the discussion along with such well- known scholars as N.G.L.. Hammond, S. M. Burstein, M. Robertson, P.Levi, A.E. Samuel and K.D. White (to name only the paper-givers), the reader can be on the lookout for indications of how these leading practitioners speak from the inside their work on Hellenistic subjects. The particularly lively discussion that runs from pp. 204-210 on Ptolemaic kingship is as good a place as any to start to do this. Honourable mention must be made too of S. Shapiro, a U.T. student whose contribution to debate on ethics and morality in Hellenistic thought is recorded at p.167. Perhaps not many students were able to speak up when, to invoke a Cambodian proverb once much used by Prince Sihanouk, so many elephants were trampling the grass.

Edited conference proceedings are not always value for money in book form. Miscellaneous congeries of papers and the lack of underlying intellectual coherence can make such volumes dreary reading, to say nothing of the unripeness of too much of the content. It may also happen that the atmosphere of a conference, its informal give-and-take and the meeting of minds in welcome convergence or stimulating dissent all fail to leave any imprint on the printed record. The present book, however, not only contains a set of papers of a very high order: its skilfully edited format , giving a substantial response at the end of each and highlights (the Thucydidean xympasa gnome?) of the ensuing discussion, recaptures something of the intellectual excitement of the occasion , in so far as a reader of the printed page alone may judge. Here are areas of debate and investigation where new data and, more importantly, new ideas are in ferment.

The recent revival of interest in Hellenistic studies in the English -speaking world will have some effect on how the discipline of Classics is practised by professionals and seen by various interested publics. Making fifth-century BC Athens and Rome from the Gracchi or Sulla to Nero the first and the unavoidable parts of a course may have some pedagogic and even cultural justification (though in the way of the discipline they are seldom articulated), yet it has at least one major bad side-effect: it can inculcate a historical myopia and too much of an unquestioning acceptance of the values and assumptions of cultural orthodoxy amongst elites in both times past and times present. Serious work on the Hellenistic age can counteract this narrowing. It brings the student into a diversity of cultures and places, it calls for a width of vision and an interest in enduring conditions and in long-term change. I may also set the student off on the tracks of some of the pioneers who achieved so much earlier in the century in this Cinderella subject, such as E.R... Bevan, M.I. Rostovtzeff or W.W. Tarn (to name only writers in English). There is much to be learned about the historian's craft by seeing from the inside how much these early pioneers achieved and how much has been learned and unlearned since. The present volume is not of course a introduction to the large world of Hellenistic history and culture but should prove instructive reading for those who have gone only a little way into this field.

The book begins with an Introduction, subtitled 'New Approaches to the Hellenistic World', by Peter Green, himself the author of a panoramic Hellenistic history, From Alexander to Actium , the first volume in the series of which this book is part. Green is thus well placed to explore the reasons why Hellenistic history is attracting more attention and to place this shift in the wider context of preoccupations contemporary culture. I will forgive him his juxtaposition [of] the Khmer Rouge and the IRA amongst 'committed extremists' of the day (p.4), not only because their defeat by the Irish must rank the English most in the collapse of their empire but because Green has for a long time performed the valuable service of writing reflectively about Classics. It would be interesting to see how he might now redraw the map of Greek literary studies as a 'large, thriving, yet still half explored colony' that he drew so entertainingly in his Essays in Antiquity (1963), 13-14. Green also observes (p.7) that symposiasts referred to 'notable" anti- Roman prejudice amongst modern Hellenists. None of these remarks surface in the printed record of the symposium, except in S.M. Burstein's comments on the unwillingness of Hellenists to deal with evidence from the imperial Roman period on cultural interaction between Egypt and its southern neighbours. Such a matter perhaps deserves more comment, along with its counterpart, the indifference of some Romanists to Greek studies. When such prejudice is not merely a preference for one area of study over another but a calculated decision to remain ignorant of either, we have the necrosis of one of the ideals that has informed Classics as a discipline: the principle that a Classicist should be interested in both Greek and Roman studies.and should know both Greek and Latin. Like any other terminus in History, the battle of Actium does not create a chasm between what went before and what came after. Hellenistic and Roman imperial make up another of those seamless webs spoken of more than taken in hand by historians. Yet to go beyond the limitations of periodization boundaries will continue to require both languages.

The contents of the book proper will be referred to in what follows by the names of the paper-givers, for brevity's sake. N.G.L. Hammond deals with Macedonian political institutions, seeking to define the relations between monarch and city in the Macedonian homeland and to take this as a basic pattern for investigating the political structures of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Hammond gives a lucid summary of the point of view he has canvassed elsewhere, but a masterly response by E.N. Borza and the ensuing discussion show that less formalistic interpretations of the scant sources on Macedonian political institutions seem to fit better. This leaves open the question of how far, if at all, the early Hellenistic kingdoms had any useful political heritage from the homeland to draw upon. Colonial powers without a mother culture to cringe to make up an enticing subject, perhaps not only in the modern country that had a historian invent the term 'cultural cringe' to label the tangled relationship between Australia and Britain.

S.M. Burstein explores, or rather gives a rich and interesting report on, what for this writer at any rate was previously terra incognita, the kingdom of Meroe far south of Egypt. The interest of this chapter is not lessened by Burstein's conclusion that cultural interaction between Meroe and Egypt was limited and sporadic. Whether this was due more to the tyranny of distance (to use another topos of Australian historical writing) or to the strength and self-assurance of Meroite culture remains a moot point. This part of the book also shows how much the study of a culture can be deepened and enriched by attention to its permeating outside its own boundaries. What a culture can transmit to others can be revealing about itself. Burstein deserves particular gratitude for opening up a new territory in this way.

Of all the papers in the book, M.Robertson's on 'What is "Hellenistic" about Hellenistic Art?' seems to draw the most agreement on fundamental issues from his respondent, J.J. Pollitt. Perhaps this is because art historians have done better at building up a framework of concepts and terminology for this period. In any case, readers of this section may turn with new interest to thinking about why such an artistic koine is found across Hellenistic kingdoms and whether future research will focus more on regional or other differences. The following paper on Theocritus contains some alert and sensitive readings of the poet by Peter Levi but the discussion on how Theocritus's pastoral world might relate to the actual life of shepherds at the time seems to indicate that while we may have some confidence in aesthetic responses to poets like Theocritus there will need to be much further debate on whether we can succeed in drawing conclusions form pastoral poetry to shepherds or vice versa.

A.A. Long's 'Hellenistic Ethics and Philosophical Power' takes up the question of how the Socratic legacy of the primacy of ethics in philosophy was adapted and transformed in Hellenistic thought. In a highly enlightening discussion Long remarks at one point on how important paradox was in Greek thought, not without some reverberation for his own theme of the centrality of Socratic ideas and of Socrates as the ideal type of philosopher in the Hellenistic age. The freshness of this section helps explain why Hellenistic philosophy is attracting so much more attention these days and redirects attention to the relations of philosophy to political power.

In 'The Ptolemies and the Ideology of Kingship" A. E. Samuel argues that Rostovtzeff's concept of Ptolemaic Egypt as a rationally planned bureaucratic state effectually directed from the centre must give way to quite a different picture of an organically evolving state combining expropiation of, or perhaps simply acquiescence in, existing ways with all kinds of makeshifts and expedients. A searching and thoughtful reponse by Diana Delia pursues the issues further by raising the questions of how Egyptians and Greeks in Egypt reacted to each other's culture. As she insists (p. 202) cultural exchange cannot have been one-sided. As so often eleswhere in this book, such an observation shows how necessary it is to keep an open mind, above all on the familiar but insidious trap of assuming universal superiority for Greek culture.

A briefer paper than the others by K.D.White concentrates on the high points of Hellenistic science and technology, making a strong case, ably seconded by his respondent, John Scarborough, for a greater interest in experiment and application than conventional notions would allow. Easy generalizations are modified by close attention to particulars here. In the discussion Levi is the first to raise the old question of whether slavery inhibited technological change and Green, White himself and Burstein then offer some thoughts on this matter that all have the characteristic of insisting that the issues involved are complex and resist quick solutions (pp. 234-70): once again the record of the symposium serves to stimulate further thought if readers will go back to the papers with these points in mind.

The last paper by Erich S. Gruen deals with Antiochus IV's persecution of the Jews and as always in Gruen's work there is mastery of the subject matter and the construction of an explanatory hypothesis aimed at taking account of the situation in the widest possible terms. Gruen's thesis is pithy and cogent: humiliated by Roman intervention in Egypt, Antiochus tried to reassert himself by taking it out on the nearest victim to hand. Gruen puts the emphasis on the king's financial needs rather than his personality, at least for the beginnings of this incident, and perhaps his paper might have encountered less qualification if he had made Antiochus more of the schoolyard bully. However, the irrationality of some human behaviour, even by kings, is not the only problem here. For these events in Jerusalem in and after 167 BC we have the unwonted luxury of substantial sources from a non-Hellenic side. If this produces puzzlement amongst historians today, this may be due to the fact that in the conflict of 167 BC neither side understood the other. One may speculate on how different our views of the Hellenistic age would be if we had more voices from subject or minority peoples about the acts of the conquerors and rulers.

Such a survey as given here can only sketch the wealth of material that is in this book. By virtue of its manysidedness and of its numerous contributors on both the small scale and the large, it recruit new interest in the Hellenistic age and stimulate debate amongst the practitioners in a field where so much appealing work is being done and remains to do.

Douglas Kelly
email: Douglas.Kelly@anu.edu.au

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.
Electronic Antiquity Vol. 4 Issue 2 - April 1998 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington antiquity-editor@classics.Server.edu.au ISSN 1320-3606