The Hellenistic era witnessed the overlap of antiquity's two great Western civilizations, the Greek and the Roman. This was the epoch of Alexander's vast expansion of the Greco-Macedonian world, the rise and fall of his successors' major dynasties in Egypt and Asia, and, ultimately, the establishment of Rome as the first Mediterranean superpower.
The Hellenistic Age chronicles the years 336 to 30 BCE, from the days of Philip and Alexander of Macedon to the death of Cleopatra and the final triumph of Caesar's heir, the young Augustus. Peter Green's remarkably far-ranging study covers the prevalent themes and events of those centuries: the Hellenization of an immense swath of the known world-from Egypt to India-by Alexander's conquests; the lengthy and chaotic partition of this empire by rival Macedonian marshals after Alexander's death; the decline of the polis (city state) as the predominant political institution; and, finally, Rome's moment of transition from republican to imperial rule.
Predictably, this is a story of war and power-politics, and of the developing fortunes of art, science, and statecraft in the areas where Alexander's coming disseminated Hellenic culture. It is a rich narrative tapestry of warlords, libertines, philosophers, courtesans and courtiers, dramatists, historians, scientists, merchants, mercenaries, and provocateurs of every stripe, spun by an accomplished classicist with an uncanny knack for infusing life into the distant past, and applying fresh insights that make ancient history seem alarmingly relevant to our own times.
To consider the three centuries prior to the dawn of the common era in a single short volume demands a scholar with a great command of both subject and narrative line. The Hellenistic Age is that rare book that manages to coalesce a broad spectrum of events, persons, and themes into one brief, indispensable, and amazingly accessible survey.
Although the Hellenistic Age flourished for barely 300 years, its contributions to world history are countless. Eminent historian Green--whose classic Alexander to Actium remains the most expansive and thorough introduction to the period--offers a marvelous survey of the key people, places and events of the years from 337 B.C., when Alexander came to power, to the death of Cleopatra in 30 B.C. Nimbly weaving history and cultural insights, Green chronicles how Alexander led Macedonia through heroism and canny political alliances. After Alexander's death, power was divided between the Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt, and the Seleucids, who ruled Greece, marking the beginning of the end of the Greek city-states that had been the hallmark of the classical Greek age. The civic masculine bonding so pervasive in Alexander's day was replaced by the familial bonding of husband and wife. Science replaced poetry and comedy replaced tragedy as the cultural hallmarks of society. Yet much remained the same: aristocratic rulers still used slaves to do their fighting for them, and monarchs still defied attempts to bring democracy into government. Green's splendid little study (a new entry in Modern Library's Chronicles series) provides a brilliant introduction to this crucial transitional period. (Apr. 10)
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May 12, 2008
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Excerpt from The Hellenistic Age by Peter Green
(336 -- 323)
In October 336 BCE, a much-publicized royal wedding took place in the ancient Macedonian city of Aegae (modern Vergina): King Philip II's daughter Cleopatra was marrying Alexander, king of the neighboring state of Epirus. The occasion was peculiar and ended tragically. The bridegroom, to begin with, was the bride's uncle--in fact, the brother of Philip's powerful but repudiated wife, Olympias, till recently an exile in Epirus, plotting revengeful mischief, but now back in Aegae as mother of the bride. Being on the eve of launching a major invasion of Asia Minor, then a Persian satrapy, Philip characteristically figured that an incestuous dynastic alliance would be a cheaper and easier way of protecting his rear than a time- consuming campaign. Hence the wedding. During the ceremony, the images of the twelve Olympian gods were accompanied, in procession, by one of Philip himself. Thus when, on the second day of the festivities, Philip was assassinated by a member of his own bodyguard as he entered the theater prior to the games, many regarded this as divine punishment for unseemly royal hubris.
For others, clearly, it was an opportunity not to be missed. The assassin, Pausanias, was pursued and killed--thus precluding any interrogation of him--by friends of Philip's son and (recently dispossessed) heir, the better-known, but not yet Great, Alexander. One of Philip's most trusted senior nobles, Antipater, took immediate charge, quelled the chaos, presented young Alexander to the Macedonian army assembly, and had him confirmed as successor to the throne before his father's body was cold. From being, at unlikely best, regent in Macedonia while Philip was winning glory on campaign, Alexander now found himself, at one stroke, both king and prospective leader of the long-planned Persian invasion. Regicide, as Elizabeth Carney reminds us, "was something of a Macedonian tradition."
Until the late fall of 338, the year of Philip's great victory over the Greek states at Chaeronea, Alexander remained, as he had been since adolescence, Philip's crown prince and designated successor. In 340, when only sixteen, he had acted as regent while his father was campaigning. He led the successful cavalry charge at Chaeronea, a feat that won him a public acclamation by the army. He and his mother, Olympias, were both included among the family images--of gold and ivory, hitherto reserved for divine portraiture--in the curious circular edifice that Philip dedicated at Olympia to celebrate his victory. Alexander was also one of the delegates to escort the ashes of the Athenian dead back to Athens (the only time, surprisingly, that he ever went there).
This was the last official duty he carried out during Philip's lifetime. In the late fall of 338, Philip abruptly repudiated Olympias, cast doubts on Alexander's legitimacy, and announced his intention of marrying a young Macedonian, Cleopatra. Not only was Cleopatra impeccably blue-blooded and ethnic--in contrast with Olympias the Epirot--but her uncle Attalus, a successful and popular soldier, was married to the daughter of Parmenio, Philip's most trusted general. With Parmenio, he was to command the force securing an advance bridgehead in Asia Minor. Philip's formation of a safe power bloc united by marriage surely bore some relation to the coming campaign. Yet to disinherit, and mortally alienate, the successor he had groomed for almost twenty years--and to do so almost immediately before his planned crossing into Asia--was the kind of gaffe that Philip, always a canny diplomat, would in the normal course of events never commit. These events, clearly, were anything but normal.