Warrior king of the post-classical age

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age
October 5, 2007

Almost 20 years ago, Peter Green gave us one of the largest single-volume histories of the Hellenistic world. Now he has come up with what must surely be one of the shortest. It is as if he wishes to have written both an Apollonian epic and a Callimachean miniature. Both volumes share the same characteristics: they are immensely learned, yet readable and accessible; they combine enthusiasm with constant insights; and they are structured as a narrative interspersed with digressions on social and cultural themes.

Green places considerable emphasis on the importance of narrative for understanding the period, and he laments the tendency to treat so dynamic an age in so static a way. For the most part the narrative works well, although too much in too little space can become dizzying for the reader, not least when faced with the murderous and incestuous struggles of the later Ptolemies (on a single page, we have Cleopatra the Wife, Cleopatra the Sister, Cleopatra Thea and Cleopatra Tryphaena).

Alexander the Great figures more prominently in the title than he does in the book, a consequence perhaps of marketing pressures and a sign that however much work has been done on the Hellenistic world over the past quarter century, the public remains largely unaware of it. Green presents an Alexander whose contribution to the Hellenistic age is by accident rather than design. He is a man whose idea of long-term planning is deciding who to conquer next. In attacking the Persian empire he was as much a Homeric pirate as the oft invoked Homeric hero, a man in search not only of glory but riches, too.

This is a stimulating introduction to the Hellenistic world, albeit one that sometimes makes too many assumptions about the general reader's knowledge. Green is conscious that his conception is at odds with the current scholarly consensus (if such exists). What he presents is rather more negative. His focus on power and the main players, a corollary of the narrative approach, means that, however active the polis (city-state) may have been, it was not what it once was. Where some might see a vibrant polis-culture, Green sees the external manifestations of the polis undercut by a lack of independence and nostalgia for past glories. Similarly, although art and literature may have been brilliant and experimental at times, they fell short of their classical predecessors.

Two themes emerge clearly: first a shift from the collectivism of the polis to the individual and the family; and second, a constant recourse to the past. Green sees these as pervasive, and they recur throughout his account, whether he is discussing art or literature, city or court. Thus elaborate private tombs take precedence over public shrines, honorific statues are set up, kings are deified, and literature becomes the product of royal patronage rather than the communal environment of the polis, all reflecting a new emphasis on the individual. The past is everywhere; kings look back to heroes, cities to mythical foundations, and writers and artists to their classical forebears (if only to break the rules in the pursuit of innovation), while critics canonise and preserve that classical literature.

It is rare to find a book on antiquity that is bold enough to depict such a broad panorama, and Green is at his best identifying trends and making connections. This was a world in which kings in their magnificent palaces became distant and charismatic figures. But Antigonus Gonatas remained impressively sanguine about any suggestion that he or his rivals were divine: in Green's vivid translation, he retorted: "My pisspot-holder knows better."

Andrew Erskine is professor of ancient history, Edinburgh University. His Companion to Ancient History will be published in 2008.

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age: A Short History

Author - Peter Green
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 2
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 9780297852940

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